Len’s 690 Yard Montana Muley
By Len Backus
Reprinted from the LRH forum from 2001
On the 13 hour drive to Wibaux, Montana the gusty wind was commanding legions of tumbleweed out onto the road in front of me as I approached the eastern Montana state line. When I stopped at a rest area the reading on my Kestrel handheld wind meter indicated 22 miles per hour. The tumbleweed soldiers would easily win their skirmish under these conditions. Not the kind of wind a long range hunter dreams of. I was optimistic, though, because the “windcast” on Intellicast.com last night told me this strong wind would be diminishing near Wibaux by the time I took the field tomorrow morning.
I soon arrived at outfitter Tracy Weyer’s Hidden Valley Ranch and checked my rifle at a 100 yard target. Shooting off a makeshift bench, the wind was so strong and buffeting that I had to really concentrate to not allow it to rock me as I pulled the trigger 3 times. I was close enough at 100 yards that I made no changes. However, I waited 2 more hours hoping the wind would diminish some before I had Tracy help me find a place to set up a target at 500 yards. When using my Lasertech brand 2000-yard rangefinder to position the target, I had to lean against his truck to steady myself enough to get an accurate reading in the continuing 20 mile per hour winds.
When I laid down in the prone-bipod position the swirling wind near the ground flung grass bits into my eyes. I was positioned to shoot almost exactly with the prevailing wind direction at the distant target. I fired twice and more grass flew into my eyes from the muzzle blast of the brake. The wind was buffeting my long Swarovski spotting scope so badly that we drove back out to the target to find the first 2 bullet holes. They were high but only 4 inches horizontal and 1 inch vertical in group size. I clicked downward on the target turret and placed my next 2 shots right into the 5-inch square bull, 3 inches wide by 1 inch vertical. Pretty good for the 20 mile per hour wind conditions. “Tracy, be sure you bring Bud Meadows up here next week when he arrives for his hunt to show him my 500 yard group,” I said as we headed back to the ranch house.
Tracy’s ranch house operates its security program with 5 sentinels posted on duty at the front door. Their leader is a 6 year old German shepherd and the other 4 are barn cats -- one of them with no tail. As I approached the door for the evening meal I patted the dog, “Trapper,” and shooed the cats away. Entering the house I said hello to Harriet. Harriet is Tracy’s mom and she cooks during the hunting season. Great job! Seated around the supper table were Tracy; his 2 other guides, brother Terry and Donny, and another hunter named George, from Iowa.
Also present was Joe White, from Tennessee. Joe is a cameraman with “Mossy Oak, Hunting The Country”, the cable TV program. He was going to film for 3 days. I had learned this a couple weeks before I arrived. Knowing there were only 2 of us hunters this week I assumed he might be filming me. That would be quite interesting but it sure would ratchet up the pressure to perform without error.
Joe has an affable personality and a pleasant southern drawl. We traded stories around the table but we all were most interested in his tales. When he was hired by Mossy Oak he was told he might as well sell all his rifles and archery equipment because from now on he would be hunting only with a camera.
Earlier this year, Joe spent two weeks filming the Remington Arms group on safari in Tanzania. I happened to watch one of the two segments a couple of months ago. I felt at home discussing this adventure with him since I had done my own photo safari in Tanzania and Kenya this past June. We traded lists of game bagged -- mine with just a 35 mm camera and his group’s with a video camera -- and the latest Remington rifles. They shot 31 animals. I shot 5,783 animals. Many of mine would qualify for entry into the Roland and Ward trophy book. Joe didn’t know how many of Remington’s would.
Joe and I were each quite successful with leopards. His hunter shot one at a bait stationed in a tree on their first night attempted. He described lying on his back on the ground in a blind with his camera waiting for night to fall, looking up at the silhouetted branches of an African acacia tree. My leopard was shot in an acacia tree, too -- with camera only. My driver got me close enough to shoot a picture that filled the frame with just the leopard’s head through my 600 mm lens.
As the evening around the table wound down, Tracy and Joe discussed plans for the next morning’s hunt. It was now obvious they planned to film George hunting with Tracy as his guide. I was actually relieved. I would feel enough pressure on my own tomorrow. I headed to the bunkhouse and did a final check on my equipment before hitting the sack.
My rifle on this trip was built on a 10 year old Tikka action. Now it has a 30 inch stainless, select match-grade Hart barrel with a 7 twist. It is chambered in 7 mm Dakota by John Geiges and sports a Nightforce NXS, 5.5 to 22 power scope. Attached to the scope is an anti-cant level and an “ Angle Cosine Indicator” to measure the shooting angle up or down hills. It has been averaging about 1/2 moa in still wind conditions. Attached to it is a Harris bipod and I carry a Stoney Point shooting stick in case I needed more height for a seated, downhill position.
Seventy-seven grains of RL-25 powder in this rifle pushes a Hornady A-max, 162-grain bullet at 3,200 fps. This bullet was selected for its accuracy and its high ballistic coefficient of .625, essential in taming the winds of Montana. In a 10 mph sideways wind at an elevation of 2,800 feet, this bullet will drift only 22 inches over 700 yards. I will plan to shoot this far only if the sideways component of the wind is in the range of 3 to 5 mph. My hand-held windmeter is a Kestrel. I use a Lasertech brand rangefinder that works even in bright sun out past 1,500 yards. My spotting scope is a Swarovski HD model with 20 to 60 power.
The next morning as I walked from the bunkhouse to the breakfast table in the ranch house at 4 am, I noticed a million bright stars and felt a very light wind on my face. This would be a good day.
My guide would be Donny Mawyer, aged 44, with tons of experience. After breakfast we drove together through the dark to one of Tracy’s 4 leased ranches. Last year my son, Andy, shot a nice buck on this same property. We had first seen it at 700 yards, bedded in the early snow, watching us. Andy stalked to within 260 yards and shot it. Our hunting partner, Jack, also started his successful stalk last year 700 yards from a buck that saw us but which had felt safe at that distance. Jack shot him at 82 yards, complaining facetiously that the guide had been unable to get him to 50 yards as Jack had requested.
As I dreamed of this year’s hunt I pictured a buck at 700 yards. Last year, lightly falling snow on our first hunt day had limited my rangefinder’s function and I had first passed up a buck at somewhere around 600 yards, unsure of the distance. Minutes later I took him with a hurried but successful shot from a seated, bipod position at 400 yards. As part of my long-term, long range hunting training program I hoped for a longer shot in good conditions this year.
Donny and I arrived at our destination, parked the truck and headed out in the pre-dawn light towards our spot. Tracy had decided to experiment by putting us in a Double-Bull brand tent blind for the first day. We would be perched on the very tip of a high ridge overlooking a network of draws. He knew I wanted a long shot and felt this setup would work well for me. I wasn’t crazy about sitting in a blind since this was too much like hunting whitetails at home in Wisconsin. But…I decided to cooperate in trying it for a while.
The wind was still light, the sky clear and as dawn broke we peered through openings in the blind at the beautiful vista in front of us. This is truly spectacular country. Donny explained that the deer would be moving from grassy fields to the east, down into the fingers and draws below us to spend the day bedded down in the trees and brush just south of us.
Within an hour several does moved behind and past our blind. While we watched for bucks I ranged various points out on the ridges ahead and to the sides. This gave me an idea of shot feasibility should a buck present itself there. Then 2 bucks appeared to my left along the side of one of the ridges. They were unaware of us as they moved slowly, dallying on their way to bed. My rangefinder said 643 yards and the wind was still below 5 mph. The larger of the bucks was only a 3 by 3 and the smaller was a fork-horn. I passed on them. But it was encouraging.
An hour later Donny spotted 2 bucks way out on the edge of a farm field, working their way into our network of ridges. We decided to leave the blind for the morning and head out in the direction that the bucks seemed to be heading when we had lost sight of them. Donny had been able to see antlers on one of them at over 2 miles with just 8 power binoculars and this made him think it may be a shooter. We spent an hour or so working our way closer but decided to quit for fear of disturbing the area too much for our evening hunt.
Back at the truck we ate lunch and I took an hour nap, awaking refreshed and ready to head back with Donny to the ridge. The wind had been picking up since around 10 am and by now, 2:30 pm, it was up to 10 or 12. I was disappointed. Sitting in the blind, the wind shook the tent and made it hard for us to hold our binoculars steady through the viewing ports. We decided to leave the blind and sit among some evergreen trees and shrubs just off to our left.
From here we had much more viewing area and could move around the top of the ridge, carefully screened by brush and trees. We were usually separated from each other by 10 yards or so, looking in slightly different directions. Over the next hour or so the wind diminished somewhat. Things were looking better. At 10 to 12 mph I hadn’t expected to take a shot even if a buck appeared. But now it could work.
It had turned slightly overcast earlier in the afternoon. The sun, in its lowered position just above the horizon, now started to peak out from under clouds in the west. Just then 2 bucks appeared off to my left. They were standing on top of a part of a ridge on what I would describe as the smooth top of a loaf of home-baked bread. The texture and color of this bit of turf contrasted strongly with that around it. Bathed now in the last rays of a golden sun, the composition containing the two smoothly sculpted bucks was quite a beautiful sight.
I assumed they were the first 2 we had seen that morning. I was seated and decided I didn’t want the bigger one but I would practice my sitting, Stoney Point shooting sticks, firing position without taking a shot. Just then I saw Donny returning behind me with an anxious look on his face. He wanted to tell me he saw the bucks but the bucks were now looking right at me and I motioned for Donny to get down quickly, and I indicated that I had already seen the bucks.
Donny quickly looked through the spotting scope that had been sitting on its tripod behind me this whole time. “They are not the same bucks as before, the bigger one is a 4 by 4”, he said. With that encouragement, I decided to shoot. I quickly ranged the bigger buck and got a reading of 688, no, 690 yards. Too far for a seated shot, I moved back a few feet to a level spot and assumed the prone, Harris bipod position.
Targets and wind flags out to 900 yards
at my former Wisconsin hunting land
I looked at the drop table on the side of my stock, set my scope to 10.5 minutes and figured the wind for about 3 mph, sideways. The bucks were still standing still, broadside, unconcerned but looking right at us. I held about 6 inches of right windage and fired.
Donny was spotting for me through the scope and he called it as a good hit. I recovered from the recoil and looked through my rifle scope to see the buck hunched up and standing almost still. The smaller buck didn’t move. The bigger buck turned quartering away. Then after a total of about 50 seconds he laid down, head erect, now facing us again, as though bedded. After another 20 seconds his head dropped, he kicked twice and was still. The younger buck was unconcerned the whole time, at one point even put his muzzle down to the ground where I think blood had landed. When the bigger buck kicked, the smaller one finally spooked and ran off. It’s been my repeated experience that when a deer is hit at long range they simply don’t get very excited about the experience. Had this buck been shot at, say 100 yards, he would have bolted and run for sure.
We worked our way along a series of ridges and down to the fallen buck. The texture of the ground around and under the buck looked as though popcorn made of gray clay had been loosely glued to the top of a loaf of bread. It made slightly crunching sounds as we crossed it. The 2 year-old buck looked as if he had fallen asleep in his bed, head nodding off to one side on the ground.
The first shot had been a double-lung shot, broadside. The bullet was found just under the hide on the far side. The jacket was wrapped around a small bit of remaining lead. Probably less than 50% weight retention. I haven’t weighed it yet. The bullet did its job. It is not intended for deep penetrating, quartering shots.
Now comes the mental error analysis. Afterwards I realized I should have more accurately interpolated the drop table results to be ¼ minute more at that range. That would have meant a 2 inch higher point of impact. At the same time I made an error in the other direction that resulted from forgetting to use my wonderful new “Cosine Indicator” to account for the downward shooting angle. Again, afterwards, I realized there was about a 15 degree shooting angle. At 690 yards this would have called for a .4 moa adjustment downward. The two errors effectively cancelled each other out. Lucky.
The third error was in my follow-up shots. Donny had immediately indicated the deer was a goner and I shouldn’t bother firing again but I guess I was now a little pumped up. So…I took two more shots, somewhat hurriedly, at the by-now quartering away deer. One hit the buck on the rear legs and I think the other entered his ham and struck the guts. I say “I think” because we didn’t really look for this bullet hole very well. But I remember Donny commenting on the smell of the stomach contents when he dressed the deer. That was definitely not from the double-lung shot. So…today I am thinking that was a second decent hit.
Anyway---we never bothered to put a tape to the rack. This buck wasn’t a big one to be measured in inches but rather in yards---690 yards.