July 26, 2022
The Lay of the Land
The eastern half of Montana is characterized by dry plains, rolling hills and cattle ranches measured in square miles, rather than acres. The region features some of the widest weather extremes of anywhere in the U.S., with 100 degrees common in summer and well-below-zero lows during winter. Oh, and wind: ever-present wind. The joke is that if it ever stopped suddenly, all the cows would tip over.
Western Montana is mountainous and in many areas heavily forested, with a lot of waterways. But eastern Montana is dry country. Thus, if you find the water, you'll also find whitetails. This barren land is intersected by several rivers large and small, and it's along those drainages that you'll find the highest concentrations of game.
The Missouri and Yellowstone are the largest and most well-known rivers in the eastern half of Montana. At least, they're the most well-known outside the whitetail-hunting world. It's very possible that the Milk River, a tributary of the Missouri, is the most famous among whitetail enthusiasts. You can thank outdoor television for that.
In addition to the Milk River, eastern Montana has several other tributaries to the Missouri and Yellowstone that don't get the publicity, but still have the goods. The Powder, Musselshell, Tongue and Bighorn are good examples. And each of these has tributaries of its own. Again, if there's year-round water, there will be whitetails.
Interestingly, the key to making this all work to your advantage as a hunter is the cows. They must eat, and alfalfa is mostly what they eat. Water from these streams is pumped onto the flat lands bordering these waterways. The result is millions of irrigated acres of lush, green hay fields. And whitetails are secondary beneficiaries.
The sheer numbers of deer is mind boggling. You'll hear stories of sitting on a hill overlooking a river bottom and counting upwards of 200 deer in simultaneous view from that vantage point. It's a whitetail hunter's dream.
Unfortunately, it's also fertile ground for disease to get some traction and ravage the entire herd. And that's exactly what happened in northeastern Montana around 2010. Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) took a huge toll on the Milk River herd, and populations dropped to a fraction of what they were in their peak of the 1990s and 2000s. While southeast Montana wasn't hit nearly as hard, it also had spotty die-offs.
But the deer are slowly coming back, and the hunting opportunities now are excellent. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks statistics, the whitetail population in Region 6 (northeast Montana) is up about 20 percent over the 10-year average from 2006-'15. Region 7 (southeast Montana) has done even better, with the population showing estimated to be 25 percent larger than average. You might not see the incredible numbers of deer the area was known for a decade or two ago, but you'll still see plenty. It's a good time to hunt Big Sky Country.
In addition to holding a lot of whitetails, there are other appealing characteristics to this region. First and foremost is the ease of accessing property to hunt. A lot of outfitters have the best land leased up, but there are plenty of places to wedge yourself in and have a great place to hunt. Whitetails are eating a lot of the farmers' profits, and these landowners are normally quite receptive to the deer hunter who works to find a place to hunt.
Another draw is the early archery opening. Whitetail season opens the first Saturday in September, when many bucks are still in velvet. The opportunity to kill a buck in full velvet appeals to many hunters.
The hunts consist of figuring out where the bucks are bedding, which is much easier here than anywhere else I've hunted. Once you figure that out, just pick a spot to intercept bucks feeding in the green fields in the evenings.
Piece of cake, right? Well, not so fast. First of all, these bucks are often bedding in river bottom cover or brushy hillsides, and they often make long walks crossing open areas to get to the food. This can make it difficult to for a hunter to get into position without being seen.
Another struggle is finding a tree anywhere close to the trails the deer are using. There just aren't that many trees to choose from in most areas. Then add in the fact most of the trees are giant cottonwoods that were saplings when Lewis and Clark explored the area over 200 years ago. Many have the diameter of a Volkswagen Beetle. Just try to get a trail camera strap around that. You'll want to bring ladder stands and extra-long ratchet straps to get elevated. Popup-style ground blinds also are golden in this region.
Big Tines Under Big Skies
Montana produces few Boone & Crockett quality bucks compared to the farm country of the Midwest, but the sheer numbers of bucks scoring 130-150 inches will keep you coming back. If you like clean 8- and 10-pointers, this part of the whitetail world is well known for them.
Nonresident deer permits are easy to obtain but quite spendy. Licenses and tags can be purchased over the counter in some areas but take applying in others. They'll set you back nearly $500 for a deer tag. In most draw areas you'll draw every other year and often every year.To be guaranteed a tag, you can buy the elk-deer-bear-fishing combo license, which will torch your wallet for nearly a grand. The deadline for early applications has historically been March 15. Refer to the agency's website for details: fwp.mt.gov.
All in all, Eastern Montana offers a unique hunting experience every whitetail enthusiast should try at least once. Even for the diehard DIY hunter, it's not a bad idea to shorten your learning curve by hunting with an outfitter at least once before setting off on your own. Doing so will take some time off your learning curve.