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March 2023
Story by Joseph Houle
State: Montana
Species: Deer - Mule

The outdoors has always been more than just a hobby to me. The area I grew up in was more rural than suburban, so outdoor activities was what I did with friends. We would go hunting after school, plan fishing trips, exchange stories from the weekend, and make cherished memories chasing all kinds of critters.

These days, it has become more of a challenge. This isn’t just because of grownup responsibilities, there are added geographical constraints. My good friends and hunting companions now live in other states. This year, my friend, Dave (now an Idaho resident), and I (still living in Minnesota) both pulled 2022 Montana general deer tags. This provided a rare chance for us to get back out for a hunting adventure. The dates of the hunt were something I looked forward to all year.

With similar commute times, we met to hunt Central Montana. The fresh air and big country were great, but the conditions were difficult. The weather was cold and windy. The ground under the snow was not frozen, which made traction an issue. The deer must have updated their onXmaps because they seemed very aware of where the private land was. As the days of the hunt ticked on, we saw deer but nothing that excited us to put a tag on. There seemed to be high hunting pressure in the area, and it felt more and more like tag soup was on the menu.

Coming up on the last day or two, we woke up to -8 degree air temps, which changed our ability to stay out in the elements as long as we would like to. We drove to some new areas to explore and warm up in the comfort of the truck heater. This proved to be a blessing as we came across deer concentrated in some coolies. They were down low getting out of the wind. We made a stalk as the end of day approached. More deer kept appearing, but one giant body stood out. As we slowly shifted around the rim of the coolie, he became visible on a sidehill close to a doe that was likely in estrus. Dave readied himself for the shot at just over 400 yards. I hurried him by saying, “If you don’t shoot that thing, I am going to!” After our struggles to find a good buck throughout the week, this was a fact, not a threat. His suppressed .300 PRC cracked, and the buck folded and disappeared down the hill. We were thrilled by the change in fortune.

After a few pictures with the deer, Dave encouraged me to hunt the remaining daylight. He is proficient at breaking down the animal quickly alone, and this was likely my last chance to fill my tag with our departure for home likely being the next day. I hiked over a few ridges and caught a fleeting glimpse of a spike buck. Hoping there were other deer with him, I dropped down elevation and planned to summit a peak overlooking the basin I suspected he was headed toward. As I crested the ridge, I saw the spike and a larger buck walking up the opposite ridge. I ranged the larger deer at 350 yards as he continued walking away from me. I must have made some commotion getting on my gun because the deer stopped and looked my direction. I took the opportunity to steady my crosshairs. I squeezed the trigger and immediately knew the shot had hit its mark by the sound. The deer collapsed and slid down the hill in the fresh snow. As I walked back to Dave to inform him we had a late night of packing ahead of us, I couldn’t believe how our fortunes had changed so quickly. We had been hiking for days with more frostbite than deer to show for our efforts, and now we had tagged out with more work than daylight.

When I reached Dave with the news, he was more than happy to stop cutting and go recover my quarry with me. I was hoping to see the buck for a picture before the sun set. I told him I wasn’t certain how big it was. I saw it had a good frame and wasn’t in a position to waste precious seconds counting points. I told him I had trouble making out the rack against the snow because the antlers appeared to be polished up and a light color. This proved to be a fortuitous statement.

As we approached the deer, something didn’t seem to be right. The body seemed small in comparison to Dave’s buck we had just left. I grew concerned that I had shot the wrong deer in my haste. I was nearly on top of the animal before I put my concern to rest spotting a lengthy tine. Dave looked at me and said, “He is in velvet.” I quickly dismissed this comment, stating, “Nah, it is just snow on the antler.”

Upon reaching the deer, I quickly realized Dave was right. I was puzzled how this was possible. He just smiled and said, “You shot a stag. It’s a Cryptorchid buck.” My face must have made it clear I had never heard of such a thing, so he continued his explanation. “I bet he doesn’t have balls.” I lifted a leg to confirm he was correct. I stood in amazement at the unique animal and my Cliff Clavin-like hunting partner who was regurgitating all kinds of facts about the condition.

Apparently, this is a disorder or condition where the testicles never dropped and remain in the animal. It affects hormones and leads to what I had harvested. It was a male deer with a majestic rack, a small doe-like neck, and velvet that never got the cue to shed. It was a beautiful animal. I consider myself blessed to have harvested him and bank more memories with a dear friend in God’s great creation.