Red in tooth and claw … black in eye
I am now, officially, a big game hunter. A warrior poet. A Pluff Mud Ernest Hemingway. My prowess at walking and scouting and walking is fast becoming a thing of legend throughout the Montana territory. Word may be trickling down to Wyoming as well.
It began a year ago when I applied for a tag with the Montana Department of Natural Resources. My name was drawn and I received a permit to hunt — not an elk, but a mule deer.
Okay, I’m a kinda-sorta-big game hunter.
Sure, I’ve taken my share of white-tailed deer here in South Carolina, but this was Montana! The Great Plains! Lewis and Clark! Sleeping under buffalo hides and smoking a peace pipe with the locals!
My Montana buddy, James Raymond, would serve as the guide — no professional involvement. It would be just us, his two sons and maybe a wigwam. When we spoke before my flight, he said, “If it’s above zero, we hunt.” As a result, Delta Airlines stock went up three points when they weighed my bag at the airport.
I flew into Missoula, where we spent the night before heading through the Continental Divide to the Great Plains. James’ sons, Jake and Spencer, met us in the morning, driving a truck with a pop-up behind it. James told me to load my gear and when I headed for the truck he said, “Not there. There.”
“There” was an RV.
“I thought you roughed it on these trips,” I said. “Like with a teepee and cooking on a spit over an open fire.”
“Normally, we do,” said James. “My wife made me rent it because you were coming.”
We drove through the most beautiful scenery in the world to the Great Plains, which is mostly … great but plain. We camped beside a reservoir and James spent 20 minutes carefully arranging the vehicles to put the campfire on the leeward side. As any visitor soon discovers, the importance of the words “leeward side” cannot be overemphasized when camping in the open in Montana.
When I went to turn in around 8 p.m., James asked why I was headed to bed so early. I explained I was a man needing great quantities of beauty rest and since we’d be up before sunrise I felt it to be the prudent thing to do. Everyone knows deer move in the early morning.
“Dude, you aren’t in the pines and hardwoods of the East Coast — you’re on the plains,” James explained. “Look around. You can see deer three miles away. We aren’t waiting for one to peek his head out of the deep forest at first light. We’ll get up at nine … scout around in the truck until we see some … then we’ll park the truck and run them down on foot.”
The words “nine a.m.” were music. The words “run them down,” not so much.
When we arose in the morning, it was well above zero degrees. In fact, 72 degrees above zero. I couldn’t stop smiling as I dressed in jeans and a khaki hunting shirt. I tried to wear my coonskin hat, but it made me too hot and I had to take it off.
After breakfast, James broke out the map to show me where we’d be scouting. I recognized the map style from my Marine days, broken into grid squares. On the military maps I used, each grid square represented 250 meters by 250 meters. This map contained about a trillion grid squares.
Note: Montana is big.
“Each of these grid squares,” James said, “is a mile by a mile.”
Note: Montana is too big.
We commenced to ride around, looking for my elusive mulie. After a couple hours, I spotted something in the distance and we stopped and glassed the area.
“Good eye,” said James. “Probably a mile or so as the crow flies. You wanna chase him?”
I surveyed the terrain between that deer and me and figured the hills and valleys added up to 40 miles as the hunter walks. “Looks kinda small to me,” said I. “Let’s scout some more.”
We rode around in the truck for another six-ish hours, when Jake said, “I’m workin’ up a powerful thirst.” I too was working up a powerful thirst. As fate would have it, James and Spencer also claimed a powerful thirst. We arrived at group consensus dehydration is a state to be avoided, so we returned to camp and quenched our thirst until supper.
The next day we got up earlier and James dropped me at a spot — I’m not sure where. Perhaps the moon (?). Per his directions, I walked down into a ravine, overlooking a small stream. James explained, again, that Montana hunting is different than back in the South. Here we hunt deer based on where they go to feed; in Montana it’s all about water. Thus, I was overlooking a perfect watering hole.
To my surprise, a very nice mulie and two does sauntered over a ridge a “fair piece” away.
Unfortunately, a Southerner has no concept of distance out in the Big Sky country, because it’s … so …well, big. As way of an example, we were 100 miles from the Rockies and could see them easily. It’s like standing on the Ravenel Bridge and seeing something in Columbia.
The mulie wandered towards me, browsing without a care in the world. He did not know he was moving towards “Papa” Alexander, already a legend in the region, spoken of in hushed tones around the campfires of mountain men and Indian braves alike. I peered at him through my scope.
I finally surmised his distance to be between 300 and 20,000 yards. Then, I remembered! When you’re shooting downhill, you must shoot … Low? High? My mind was a blank. Sweat began to trickle down my brow, as I envisioned a 350-lb mule deer on my wall. Decision time — shoot high, or low.
I decided to split the difference and shoot badly. I’m not sure if my bullet even landed in the correct grid square, but I’m fairly certain I saw the S.O.B. laugh and high-paw a doe before trotting away into the distance.
Not all was lost, however. I underwent a righteous and violent scope kiss and blood was running down my face. I took a really cool selfie and posted it to Facebook … neglecting to remark on the miss.
We stayed on the Plains for three more days, but I never had another shot. I don’t know if it was because the weather was so delightfully perfect that I began hunting in my kilt … or because of the powerful thirst that overwhelmed us every afternoon and took us out of the field before dusk… but the fact is that nary a mulie presented himself.
This did not diminish the joy of the hunt in any way.
I got an email from James a week after I arrived home, informing me a hunter was mauled by a grizzly in the footprint of where we were hunting. I was pleased to hear the hunter survived, but also pleased to reconnect to the truth we live in a world where not everything is paved and tame.
Where wild animals still stalk us in places where there are no safe spaces.
Where sometimes we are not at the top of the food chain, but instead encounter the bloody-red tooth and claw of nature.
Remembering that is good for every hunter’s heart.
Prioleau Alexander, a regular contributor to the Charleston Mercury and the Carolina Compass, is the author of the book “You Want Fries With That? A White-Collar Burnout Experiences Life at Minimum Wage.”