The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Deer Hunting in Montana

Taking a Meal Out of the Montana Range With Begara’s Latest Creation

We dove down the gully at the dirt road’s edge and launched ourselves without grace through the barbed wire cattle fence. As luck would have it, some unseen bull had been kind enough to break the bottom strand of wire so that we didn’t become hopelessly tangled in the barbs. The khaki-colored native grasses were tall enough to conceal most of our movement as we high-crawled toward the cottonwood-choked creek bottom where the buck was tending his small harem.

At just over 100 yards, we’d come far enough — any closer and we’d chance spooking him or his paranoid lady friends. Our plan assumed he’d vacate his current hide within our field of view, offering us a shot. We just didn’t know whether that opportunity would come in the next few seconds or before darkness fell. I cycled the bolt to put a .308 round in the chamber, wrapped my left arm into a hasty sling, settled into my best sitting position, and studied the tangled tree line in my scope. If he emerged at anything but a dead sprint, I’d be ready.

Shooting prone is a great ego boost on the range but is rarely practical in the hunting world. The author used a hasty sling and a seated position to shoot over the high grass, a position that he’s found useful for the vast majority of hunting situations.

Shooting prone is a great ego boost on the range but is rarely practical in the hunting world. The author used a hasty sling and a seated position to shoot over the high grass, a position that he’s found useful for the vast majority of hunting situations.

Ordinarily, preparation for a hunt like this would involve agonizing over load development, confirming the rifle’s DOPE at real-world distances, and an obscene amount of dry- and live-fire practice. This hunt was different, since the purpose of the trip was to test out the prototype HMR (Hunting and Match Rifle) from Bergara Rifles. I never so much as laid eyes on the rifle until after I stepped off the plane. You may not be familiar with the Bergara name, but you’ve probably used one or more of their OEM barrels, which are used by a significant segment of the industry.

Bergara is a gunmaking town in Spain’s Basque country, an area with one of the proudest firearm traditions in the world. Many of Bergara’s products are still produced in the area, though their custom rifle shop is outside of Atlanta and staffed by former military armorers, including the retired production chief of the famed Marine Corps Precision Weapons Section at Quantico.

The HMR is half hunting rifle, half long-range precision rig with a hybrid stock design, center-feed detachable box magazine, and a threaded barrel ready for a suppressor. Ours, the first one to leave the factory, was chambered in .308 Winchester, though, the 6.5 Creedmoor offering may turn out to be a bigger hit with the shooting and hunting public. At just over 9 pounds, this rifle is light enough to hump in steep terrain (under protest), but heavy enough to provide a solid shooting platform when the shots get tricky.

Great Falls of Fire
Great Falls, Montana, is so-named because of the five massive waterfalls that cascaded eastward on the path of the Missouri River for millennia. Though these falls required the Lewis and Clark Expedition to portage their canoes over rocky ground to avoid the punishing rapids, they’ve since been tamed in the name of hydroelectric power. Nearby Belt, Montana, is a town of far less than 1,000 residents, sitting in the shadow of the Rockies to the west and the Little Belt Mountains to the south. The terrain is mostly rolling open country, broken by the occasional rise that, in most other states, would be called a mountain. The seemingly endless seas of grass and grain, broken by steep coulees and canyons providing a break from the howling winds, are home to the only tree life within miles.

Get on your knees: staying low means staying out of sight of game. The author used the terrain and vegetation to crawl within 100 yards of a buck and his doe.

Get on your knees: staying low means staying out of sight of game. The author used the terrain and vegetation to crawl within 100 yards of a buck and his doe.

This is primarily cattle ranching country; the black dots scattering the endless horizon in every direction are angus cows grazing on both private and public lands. To the untrained eye, this is purely domestic ground — settled, fenced, and devoid of wildlife. To the hunter, though, this is an outdoor paradise, home to elk, both mule and whitetail deer, and pronghorn antelope.

Ducks congregate anyplace wet enough to land, and pheasants and Hungarian Partridge flush from the grasses and planted fields. The wildlife couldn’t care less about the cows, fences, or ranchers, and the agriculture provides more than ample supplemental feed during the crucial months. Edge, the habitat between cultivated crops and true wilderness, is a boon for fauna.

A mule deer duck chases a group of does through one of the area’s many draws. These areas provide cover from central Montana’s harsh elements and are often crowded with deer.

A mule deer duck chases a group of does through one of the area’s many draws. These areas provide cover from central Montana’s harsh elements and are often crowded with deer.

A Montana general deer tag is good for either species: whitetail or mule deer, so long as it’s a buck. As a guy surrounded by whitetail deer at home, I was far more interested in hunting mule deer. Mule deer are, on average, larger in both body and antler, with the reputation of being less skittish than whitetails. While this may be true in general terms, big old deer of either species don’t get to be that way because of carelessness. Our hunt fell right smack dab in the middle of the rut, the breeding season that falls in mid-November in this particular area. Like humans, otherwise smart and reclusive male deer lose IQ points when they have mating on the brain, making them easier to both spot and kill.

Frontier homesteads like this one can be found throughout the area, often located in the same areas where deer congregate for protection from the harsh winds. It took some hard people to endure the brutal winters; their descendants aren’t much softer.

Frontier homesteads like this one can be found throughout the area, often located in the same areas where deer congregate for protection from the harsh winds. It took some hard people to endure the brutal winters; their descendants aren’t much softer.

Though bucks get a bit stupid during the rut, they also become unpredictable. During earlier months, bucks maintain a fairly small range unless they’re pressured. You hunt early season bucks by studying their behavior and movement patterns and setting up an ambush at their most vulnerable moments. During the rut, it’s impossible to pattern a buck, especially a mule deer.

Ninety percent of whitetail deer only breed one or two bucks per season, making them pretty monogamous. Once a whitetail is locked-down with a doe, he may stay put for a while. A mule deer, on the other hand, runs from one group of does to another, frantically searching for a mate like a frat boy at last call. A mule deer buck spotted in a valley at dawn may be miles away chasing tail by noon.

Central Montana is big country, and to find the right deer, you have to look at a ton of bucks. Due to the population density, in order to see a lot of deer one needs to cover a lot of ground, especially during the rut. For the hunter, this means lots of time in a vehicle, traveling from one vantage point to another.

As our hunt began, wind gusts topped 30 mph and presented a real challenge. Mule deer stay alive due to their fantastic hearing and sense of smell, and strong winds deprive them of those key senses. The high winds had the mulies spooked, and what deer we saw were huddled together in canyons and other breaks in the rolling terrain. Many of these areas were sites of crumbling frontier homesteads, the deer seeking the same protection from the winds that kept the settlers alive during the brutal Montana winters.

As far as sheer numbers of animals observed, this area rivals anywhere I’ve ever seen with the exception of Africa. We looked over hundreds of mule deer with a scattering of whitetails, antelope, and a handful of elk for good measure. This area has been described in a historical context as America’s Serengeti and, at least as far as the abundance of game, the name still fits.

Patience is Key
Still, after glassing herd after herd of mule deer, we hadn’t seen anything that got our hearts racing. My focus on mulies led me to pass on the biggest whitetail I’d ever seen on the hoof, late on the second morning of the hunt. I’m in it for the hunt, not for the record book, and jumping out of the truck to shoot a monster buck just wasn’t what I was here for. Yes, I have trophies on my walls, but they’re to remind me of a difficult physical challenge or a memorable stalk. This would have been neither.

As the hours began to close on day three, the temptation of a bird in the hand became too strong. We spied a mature whitetail buck in a thick creek bottom with a pair of does that were ready and willing to accept his biological advances. The chance to put a sneak on a deer in his own territory was too much to pass on, mule deer be damned. We crawled into position and waited, me on the gun and Bergara’s Chad Schearer glassing the thick cover with his binos. Chad is one of those guys who knows what the deer will do before they do, and he called this one exactly the way it went down. After 10 tense minutes of staring intently through the scope, I spotted movement as the buck’s high rack emerged from the thicket.

I was determined to take the shot before he moved fully from his cover, afraid that once he did he’d break into a trot, if not a dead run. As soon as his front shoulder cleared the thickest of the branches, I began pressing the trigger. The 165-grain bonded Federal Fusion bullet found his heart, and he died where he stood; I saw him drop as the reticle recovered from the rifle’s mild recoil. Long-range accuracy, drop charts, and ballistic turrets are great tools, but there’s no substitute for stalking close enough for none of those to be necessary.

Within minutes, the buck was field dressed and loaded for travel. The family came out to see him in the barn, as Montana families do, and one of Chad’s sons went to work with a skinning knife to remove the hide. Within days, the enzymatic process of aging in the cool air would tenderize him — butchering right away is what gives many the impression that venison is tough or gamey. How you handle meat depends on climate and logistics, but five to seven days in a cold barn, refrigerator, or on ice in a well-drained cooler makes for a good start.

The author field-dresses the deer by headlamp, removing the guts and organs to allow the meat to cool quickly.

The author field-dresses the deer by headlamp, removing the guts and organs to allow the meat to cool quickly.

Complex Flavors
The backstraps and the loins that flank a deer’s spine are considered the finest meat on the animal, they’re usually gone first. They’re removed by cutting along the spine across the tops of the ribs. Acid is a natural tenderizer, while salt flavors meat and helps moisturize down to a cellular level. A daylong soak in a brine of apple cider vinegar and salt is a good post-aging step for our straps, particularly for a rutting buck.
Grilling is among the simplest and fastest methods of cooking backstrap, especially since we’ll cook it hot. A Mediterranean garlic herb paste of pureed fresh herbs (rosemary, basil, whatever’s in season), garlic, red pepper flakes, peppercorns, salt, and olive oil is hard to beat. The meat marinates, refrigerated in this paste for up to 24 hours, then the entire loin goes on the grill on high heat.

Venison is very lean and is best cooked rare or medium-rare. If you cook it any longer than 10 minutes, you’ve probably ruined it. Let it rest for a few minutes and slice it into ½-inch medallions. Serve it with your favorite full-bodied red or porter alongside simple grilled or roasted vegetables basted in olive oil, salt, and pepper. If you’re expecting the homogenized taste of domestic meat, you’re in for a pleasant surprise of complex flavors.

Gluten-free and direct from God’s country. Simple, delicious, nutritious.

Gluten-free and direct from God’s country. Simple, delicious, nutritious.

I grew up in the suburbs eating trash disguised as food, totally disconnected from what was on my plate, but for the rare meal that came out of the nearby Atlantic — I want better for my kids. It doesn’t take a nutritionist to know that eating lean free-range game meat is better for you than a steady diet of corn-fed animals that lived and died in the confines of a feed lot somewhere. I’ll gladly debate the ethics of it, but unless you’re a vegan who steps over ants on the sidewalk, spare me your opinion. If eating a piece of meat you stalked, killed, cleaned, and cooked yourself doesn’t throw a switch somewhere in the back of your brain, what can we say — maybe you’re a gatherer?

Make:
Bergara
Model:
HMR (Hunting Match Rifle)
Caliber:
.308 Winchester (6.5 Creedmoor also available)
Barrel length:
20 inches (22 inches on the 6.5)
Overall length:
39.5 inches
Twist:
1:10 (1:8 on the 6.5)
Weight:
9.25 pounds
Magazine:
Magpul PMAG ACIS
Scope:
Konuspro M-30 4.5-16x40mm
MSRP:
$1,150
URL:
BergaraUSA.com

bergara-hmr-rifle

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