Hughey Houle, our guide, was yelling “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! He’s got the bell on him!” I was shooting and Buddy Bucknell, who was about 40 yards away from us, was doing the same. None of us realized that this was one of those bucks that chose to run an extra 100 yards with his lights out. What was even more unusual was the fact that as this deer ran, a large cowbell attached to its neck by a 1-inch leather strap was clanging with every leap. This was not the norm for the Bob Marshall Wilderness of western Montana, nor for Kehoe Wayman of Big Salmon Outfitters.
This was our second trip in the “Bob” with Kehoe. We were part of a group of eight “Adirondakers,” all whose love of the outdoors kept drawing us back to the beautiful Bob Marshall Wilderness for the thrill of the hunt.
Like every other morning, this one started before dawn in a warm and dimly lit cook tent where Jim, the cook, had biscuits, sausage, gravy and plenty of hot coffee waiting for us. Amidst good food, good conversation, great friends, the anticipation of the coming hunt and, of course, the outfitter’s standing offer of “Anyone who shoots the mule deer with the cowbell gets a free hunt,” we all decided that it couldn’t get any better than this. For the past three seasons, the mule deer had been seen and heard from time to time, but any hunters who chanced upon him were so taken aback that they never succeeded in bringing it down.
The legend of the deer began in the summer of 1993, or so I was told, at the western tip of Big Salmon Lake. It seems that a yearling 3-point buck was snooping around an old fisherman’s camp and somehow ended up with a 4-inch cowbell dangling from its neck. The deer spent the next few years wandering the wild high peaks of the “Bob”, clanging all the way. He developed into a respectable 5x5 buck with his own harem to boot. He also developed into a minor legend for Big Salmon Outfitters, thus the offer of a free hunt. No one ever expected it to happen, but one of the characteristics that draw us all to big game hunting is the fact that the unexpected always seems to happen.
After breakfast we traveled by horse for a few hours and then climbed for another two on foot. We were in the snow at about 8,000 feet trying to figure out how I had just missed an easy 150-yard shot when our guide, Hughey, whispered, “Muley buck, 200 yards, under those fir trees.” I couldn’t see anything. Fortunately, Buddy could and took a slow, carefully aimed shot to the heart. The deer bolted and ran directly toward us, at which time—thinking he had missed—we all began to yell and shoot as this respectable, 5x5 muley ran and clanged across the high peaks. Bizarre is the only word I could think of at the time. It was 30 seconds of the most intense and exciting hunting I have ever experienced. We decided to tell no one what happened until everyone was sitting down for dinner.
We were late getting back. It was dark and the air was cool and crisp, but the cook tent was warm, the food great and spirits high. Hughey had the bell hidden in his shirt and midway through the meal he made a short, funny comment about the day’s hunt and whipped it out. Complete pandemonium broke out. Kehoe was the most surprised individual I have ever seen. It was one of those special hunting moments one is lucky to experience, but can never describe with justice. It just doesn’t get any better. And we still had a bear and a 5x5 bull elk to experience.