Indefinitely Wild

An Epic Montana Hunt Anyone Can Pull Off

Bow-hunting anterless whitetail deer on the Yellowstone River—on a budget

Raft and truck rental in one, from Hatch Adventures, makes this trip super easy. (Hatch Adventures)

Is your Instagram feed frustratingly full of other people’s envy-inducing hunting photos right now? Well, here’s a chance to roll your own incredible hunt in Montana, fill your freezer with delicious meat, and do it all on a budget. 

Why Montana?

Well, it’s incredible here. We’ve got wolves, grizzly bears, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, two kinds of deer, and all the wild it takes to support that many animals. We’re also the third least-populated state (by density), but unlike Alaska, it’s cheap and quick to fly here. 

There’s just one big caveat: Out-of-state tags here can be really expensive and very restrictive on which areas you can hunt. Worse, the drawings for all the good stuff take place in the spring, so if you’re just now planning something, the state can seem virtually off-limits for visiting hunters. That’s the trouble I’m facing too; Montana imposes a 180-day waiting period before recent transplants can buy in-state tags, so I’m stuck chasing bargains and leftovers until next year. 

Hunting Here, Affordably

My solution to the out-of-state tag problem? I’m hunting does all fall and making that a challenge by using my bow. By hunting anterless deer, you can harvest a good amount of meat, without the expense or tag hassle. In Montana, an out-of-state regional anterless whitetail tag will only set you back $75 and is available over-the-counter. If that’s your first hunt here this year, then you’ll also need to buy a $15 base hunting license. Like anywhere else, you’ll need to show proof of completing a Hunter’s Education course, and if you want an archery license, a previous-year bowhunting license from any other state. 

I bought a Region 3 anterless whitetail tag, which enabled me to hunt across southwest Montana. That season is also exceptionally long if you’re using a bow, running from September 1 through November 25. Using a bow also gives you access to areas where you can’t use a firearm, which is where I’m going next. 

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Being able to combine a day of fly fishing, with a day of bowhunting, is really unique. An out-of-state two-day fishing license is $50. (Hatch Adventures)

Hunting on the Water

One of the reasons to hunt with a bow is that, because arrows don’t travel nearly as far as bullets, you can access slices of public land that are off-limits to firearms. And those slices are often some of the most fertile ground, particularly for animals like deer that thrive on the outskirts of human civilization. 

Here in Montana, that means public river islands can be hunted with archery equipment. And that creates a really neat hunt. 

Last Saturday morning, another couple, my fiancee, and I threw a couple of bow cases and some fishing rods in a raft, and slid it into the Yellowstone River, then spent a lazy day floating, trying to catch fish, and exploring the small islands. On one of them, ample tracks in the muddy banks indicated the presence of deer, so I un-cased my bow, and started fitting broadheads to a couple of my arrows while one of the women went into the bushes for a bathroom break. Almost immediately, she bumped a big doe out of the brush, so I stalked it down through the cottonwoods. I put an arrow through both of its lungs, it ran 30 yards, and collapsed. Forty-five minutes later, its heart and liver were on ice in my Yeti Hopper and the gutted deer was wrapped in a tarp in the bow of the raft. 

It was a unique hunt, not only because we got to look for deer while fishing, but because we also got to spend the whole day with new friends—hunting is more typically a solo affair. A couple days later, we enjoyed the doe’s backstrap for dinner. 

Do It Yourself

Fall is the cheapest time to fly into Bozeman. I see plenty of roundtrip weekend tickets from LAX, for example, for about $280 right now. 

Skip the hotel, and head straight for camp by renting a Toyota Tacoma fitted with a Go Fast Camper from Hatch Adventures ($225 per day). That same company will put a trailer with a four-person raft on it behind the truck for another $165 per day, and can help arrange shuttles from a take-out, back to your put-in, or advise on conditions and suggest good spots. Invite friends, split the cost four ways, and even with hunting licenses, this is a cheap destination hunting adventure. 

Pack your bow, your rods, and some warm layers. Camo is not necessary, but could help you stalk a little closer on the small islands. Make sure you have OnX Hunt installed on your smartphone, and have downloaded the maps for Montana. Refer to it island-by-island, to make sure you’re both allowed to hunt, and allowed to camp. Bring some lightweight, packable camping gear, and plan to spend a night one of the islands. There’s no grizzlies there, but there are black bears. If you bring a big Yeti or similar to carry home your meat, that can double as your bear canister. Dry ice is available at Albertson’s in Bozeman. 

You can do the float as a one-nighter, flying in and out on consecutive days. Or, add a night, enjoy another night in camp, and give yourself more time to process the meat, catch fish, and just enjoy the area. 

The best part of all this is that you don’t need a guide, it's affordable, and there’s still plenty of time to fly up here and do this hunt this season. You’ll be doing that in one of the most picturesque parts of the country, so it’ll be your Instagram feed that’s making everyone jealous for a change. 

Eat the Heart

It might surprise you to learn that the heart is one of the tastiest parts of the animal. But, like other organs, it needs to be served fresh, so I like to make a meal of it immediately following one of my kills. As a bonus, it’s easy and simple to prep and cook, so you can totally just sear thin slices of it on the coals of a campfire, and serve unadorned on the end of a stick. Or, you can do what I do, and make a little more of it. 

First, clean the heart thoroughly, running water through all of the chambers to rinse any remaining blood out. Then, start slicing the heart into quarter-inch-thick strips. Starting at the top, you’ll initially be removing a bunch of connective tissue, but will quickly get to portions that just contain tender meat. Feed the stuff that doesn’t turn out well to your dog, while cleaning up the remainder for good presentation. 

Marinate the good slices in a bowl with mustard, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and some herbs. When you’re ready, get a cast iron as hot as you can, and sear the slices for 30 to 60 seconds a side, just until they brown. You don’t want to cook heart past rare. Throw slices of bell pepper into the pan to sear once you pull the heart out. 

Serve the seared heart strips on slices of toasted baguette, spread with goat cheese. Garnish with sautéed shallots, a slice of seared pepper, a little arugula, and drizzle some balsamic vinegar on top. 

Everyone who’s ever tried my heart bruschetta has come into it skeptical. Everyone who’s ever tried it, without exception, has also asked for thirds.

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Easily the most relaxing day of hunting I've ever done. (Hatch Adventures)

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