Column: Montana's Milk River is a hunter's dreamMay 15, 2018
By Brandon Butler
A buddy of mine and I were talking the other day about what a shame it is we can’t be retired during our thirties and forties in exchange for working later in life. I know by the time we reach our seventies, we won’t want to work either but having time to roam while our bodies can still take more abuse would be a best use of life in my book.
As it is, for most of us in mid-life, adventures must be squeezed into an allocation of vacation days. When you have a young family, most of those vacation days are going to be spent with them which leaves maybe a week per year if you’re lucky to pursue a sporting quest. So when I suggest such an adventure to you, I do so personally understanding the immense value of the time I am suggesting you appropriate to such a trip.
Hunting whitetails along Montana’s Milk River is one such trip I suggest. The Milk River is in the northeast portion of the state. It’s a remote region that in some ways, time left behind. Bars still have bullet holes from the cowboy days. The badland topography looks like the setting of a Louis L’Amour novel — except for much of the land following the river. Most of it has been planted in alfalfa. In September, these lush fields are as green as spring in Ireland and deer flock to them.
Once you commit to tackling the travel issue, and it is a long drive, hunting the Milk River becomes a viable, affordable option. You don’t need a guide. You don’t need an outfitter. You just need to understand Montana’s Block Management Program (BMP).
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) website explains Block Management as, “a cooperative program between private landowners and FWP, Block Management helps landowners manage hunting activities and provides the public with free hunting access to private land, and sometimes to adjacent or isolated public lands.”
Block Management Areas (BMA) vary in size and regulation. Some parcels are as small as 50 acres while others are larger than 100,000 acres. Landowners retain certain rights concerning how their land is managed. For instance, how hunters access the land and how hunters obtain permission. Some areas are walk-in only, while others are accessible by vehicle. Some require a face-to-face interaction before hunting permission is granted, while others are posted with sign-in boxes where hunters simply fill out a slip before hunting. Individual landowners make their own rules.
Learning how to obtain permission for each specific piece of property is easily accomplished by reading posted signs or consulting a regional Hunter Access Guide, which lists the block management opportunities available for the current season. These are published on or before August 15, annually, and are available in hard copy and online. Montana is divided into seven regions. The Milk River is located in Region 6.
The first time I visited the Milk River was over a decade ago. I spent an entire day exploring the river bottoms from Glasgow to Malta. Although I had watched hunting shows featuring the Milk River for years, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. The number of deer is unimaginable. I believe I saw more bucks that first evening along the Milk River, than I had in any single year prior. I must have seen 1,000 whitetails that day. Honestly, it was more than that, but I’m afraid you’ll think I’m embellishing.
The first year I hunted the Milk River, I killed a great buck on a BMA. The field I hunted is on a bend in the river. Between the river bank and the field is a strip of timber, fluctuating in size from roughly 50 to 100 yards wide. The first night I hunted it, I watched somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 deer make their way from that woodlot into the alfalfa. As darkness fell, they were still filtering in.
A lot of people only hunt evenings along the Milk River. I think this is a mistake, especially when you have a limited number of days to hunt. The reasoning behind evening-only hunting is the thought if you let the deer reach their beds undisturbed in the morning, you can catch them returning to alfalfa fields at night. My belief is, hunt as much as you can, but hunt smart. Don’t go blowing through bedding areas or hunting a spot that could potentially block deer from returning to the timber they inhabit during daylight. But hunt them on their way there in the morning, or be on the fringe of where you know they are going.
Montana’s Block Management Program makes finding a place to hunt much easier than one might expect. Even in the Milk River region, hunters can obtain access to quality ground. You can hunt the Milk River. All you have to do is research BMAs, and suffer a long drive, but if you love whitetails this trip is worth every mile.
See you down the trail…
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