Snow, ice, cold — you can't scare Montana hunters.
Well, not all of them.
Last Saturday I was one of the hardy — or is that foolhardy? — hunters who ventured out to hunt during a snowstorm, while temperatures shivered in the low teens and ice-clad highways were sending folks crashing left, right and upside down. (Imagine geese landing on a frozen lake.)
One thing I found out braving such miserable weather is that there's little competition from other hunters. Most probably decided to stay home and watch the Cat-Griz football game in front of the fireplace, a hot toddy in hand. Some may have been snowed in, unable to uncover their vehicles from the blowing snow and ice of the driveways.
For those who didn't go, here's what you missed.
Amazingly, I saw a deer almost as soon as I stepped out of my truck. I had a whitetail doe tag to fill, in addition to my elk tag. Through the steady snowfall, though, I couldn't tell if the whitetail had antlers or not. The deer didn't hang around long enough for me to find out, quickly high-tailing it into some thick dog-hair pine.
I had a fresh set of tracks to follow, so I decided to give trailing the deer a try. If the deer was a buck, I reasoned, it would be looking for does. If it was a doe, maybe I'd see her again.
Walking through a thick forest after a heavy snowfall is a surefire way to either fall and pack your rifle with snow, or get a load of snow dumped down the back of your neck. I managed to keep from falling by grabbing on to the tightly bunched trees to brace myself. This would jar the tree, making the snow fall on top of me in a loud “whump!” I kept the snow out of my coat by putting my hood up, but it still managed to fill my rifle scope and coat my clothing, making me look like a big frosted flake.
Figuring that fighting my way through the forest was no way to hunt, I opted to exit the pine thicket and walk the edge of a logging clearcut. This brought up another problem: the snow was about knee-deep out in the open. Because it was so deep, the snow covered all of the downed trees, limbs, stumps and holes I'd usually avoid. So, like a child playing in the dark, I had to feel my way along using my frozen toes to carefully test each foot placement.
As if this wouldn't slow my progress enough, I also had to fight through the 18 inches of snow. It's amazing how tiring plowing through deep snow can be, even when the snow is relatively dry.
In no time I was working up a good sweat. Sweat and cold don't mix — they make ice. So I pulled up under the nearest trees with a good overhanging branch for shelter and peeled off the vest and fleece jacket I thought I'd need to keep warm. Of course, as soon as you stop moving and peel a few layers, you're cold.
I hiked on, fighting uphill and through another dense stand of young pine before finally hitting a road that ATVers were using. Trying to walk the two-track trail, I found my footing was very unsteady. The airbob soles on my boots had become tightly packed with snow. My sole, instead of being flat, was as humped as a Bactrian camel's back.
Finding another overhanging branch to hide from the snowfall, I sat and tried to clear my boot treads. A stick wasn't sharp and stiff enough, so I dug out my game saw and tried to use that. If I'd had the time and finger dexterity, I would have sawn off some of those lugs so the boots wouldn't plug up again. As it was, they quickly filled after I started walking again.
By this time, I figured it must be getting close to noon and the start of the Cat-Griz game. My stomach was gurgling, saying “Feed me!” I'd been up since 4:30 a.m. and my dose of caffeine had worn off. Checking my watch, though, I found it was only 9:30, and already my thighs were throbbing from plowing snow.
Digging deep, almost literally, I made another looping arc through the forest, hoping to bump an animal as stupid to be up and moving in the snow as me. Another whitetail crossed my path, but again I couldn't get a good look at it through the thick forest and snowfall.
Weary of the steady snowstorm and with my fleece jacket and mittens getting soaked, I decided to break trail back to my truck, get warm, eat and listen to a bit of the football game before striking out again for an evening hunt. Once back at the truck, the thought of actually watching the game on high-definition TV propelled me down the road to a nearby restaurant. It was closed, a worker told me, because none of the workers could make it there.
So I returned to the woods, parked, ate and listened to the game. Just when I was about ready to pack up for my evening walk, a doe trotted up next to the truck.