October 28, 2010
By Eddie Claypool
By Eddie Claypool
Montana is a big place and there's a good reason why it's called "big sky" country. From plains to rugged mountains and everything in-between, there's an endless array of places for an elk archery hunter to lay down stakes. The Missouri River Breaks are renowned for their elk--lot's of'em, and big'uns too. The western mountains are a "no-brainer" for good elk action, with plenty of country there for the toughest mountain rats in the bowhunting community. Between these two extremes of elk habitat, lays countless rolling mountain ranges, which offer bowhunting opportunities unlimited. It would be here, in one of Montana's west-central mountain ranges, that I would spend my '07 archery hunt.
Archery hunters that underestimate the importance of getting into top physical condition for an elk hunt are in trouble. Rough country and high elevations demand a serious amount of dedication.
A New Experience
"Like a kid in a candy store" would be a good way to describe me as I rolled through central Montana last September. It seemed that everywhere I looked, there was beautiful country jumping out at me in every direction. I could tell that I was going to have a tough time settling into one area when there was so much to choose from. With gorgeous country everywhere, I'd have to discipline myself hard or I'd be jumping all over the place every few days, never getting anything serious accomplished. So many places to hunt, not nearly enough time to do it all!
Stopping at a Game & Fish office in Bozeman, I picked up some literature on their "Block Management" program, an excellent service in which hunters can gain hunting access to private property. Making a couple of phone calls, I was soon in touch with a ranch manager in the area. During a short conversation, the ranch foreman gave me specific instructions concerning visitor etiquette and then informed me that I could start hunting the following morning. I was assigned a specific area of the ranch that harbored a good population of elk, and told that I would be able to hunt for four consecutive days.
Not really liking the four-day deadline, I was, however, in no position to argue the point. Accepting my position, I politely thanked the manager for allowing me to hunt on the property. This was going to be a whole new ball game for me because I had not hunted private property on any of my previous elk hunts. Inside, I felt a little uncomfortable with the idea. Oh well, I'd soon find out how this experiment would turn out.
Leaving town, I drove northwest to the area where the ranch was located, then carefully picked my way down back-roads until coming to the property. Pleasantly surprised at the quality, remoteness and size of the habitat, I began to look forward to my upcoming hunt. Passing the ranch headquarters, I followed the road a few miles until it began to deteriorate into a primitive dirt two-track road.
Entering into national forest property, I found a nice camping spot beside a stream, and set about making a base camp. Beside the fire that evening, I was thrilled to watch a large Shiras bull moose making his way down the willow-choked streambed beside camp. I took this as a good sign that I was in a game-rich area. Right before I turned in for the night, a distant bull elk could be heard whistling in the darkness. Yes, this area might work just fine!
Arising well before daylight the next morning, I jumped in my truck and drove down to the area of the ranch that I had been assigned. Parking along the road, I began hiking across the foothills toward the distant mountains. Hiking across a cut hayfield, I began to realize how "foreign" this hunt seemed. After all, elk hunting had always been a get-back-in-the-middle-of-nowhere experience for me, and this was far from that.
Don't overlook the final part of a successful hunt--meat retrieval. Make provisions for this because it is often the toughest part of the outing. Not only is it unethical to waste or lose any of the meat, it is illegal.
Starting to second-guess my decision to hunt here, I was quickly shocked back into reality by the piercing bugle of a nearby bull elk. Dropping to the ground in the darkness, I knew that I'd probably already made a big mistake. Waiting for first light, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I'd not spooked the bull and he continued to sound off every few minutes in the distance. As the eastern sky began to lighten, I began to hear a couple of other bulls bugling in different directions. Things were looking up fast!
Finding a nearby irrigation ditch, I hurriedly made my way toward the black-timbered mountain about a half-mile away. Soon into cover, I began to make my way toward the nearest bugling bull. Climbing over deadfalls, and clawing my way through thick brush, I understood why all the "hayfield" elk were quickly making their way into the cover of the mountain foothills. This stuff was so thick that they would be virtually unapproachable here. I knew it was going to be an interesting morning.
As I approached the bugling of a nearby bull, I slowed to a crawl, entering into the "hunt mode." In a short while, I began to catch short glimpses of elk through the dog-hair timber. It appeared that I was dealing with an entire herd of elk, apparently headed-up by a herd bull. I liked this idea because it usually meant that the bull would be a mature animal that should be packing "good bone." To me, it might not be a question of getting within good bow range of the bull; the problem was going to be getting an arrow through the extremely thick vegetation that blanketed the area. Slipping carefully forward, I was certainly going to find out how things would work out.
Catching a flash of antlers ahead, I scanned the area carefully. A large-antlered bull was chasing a cow about 40 yards from my location. At first glance, I knew that the bull was a real brute. Whipping an arrow onto my bowstring, I slipped to my right, hoping to find an opening to the bull's vitals. Stopping for a moment, the bull offered a quick opportunity for a shot. By the time my sight pin started to settle onto the big bull's ribcage however, he was off to the races again.
For the next few minutes, action was fast and furious. The bull bugled a few times and truly beat the brush down as he chased random cows through the thick cover. Coming to full draw on two different occasions, the opening into the ribcage that I so desperately sought was not to be found. During these few minutes, the ivory-tipped antlers of my Montana trophy flashed constantly through the dark evergreen cover between us. At one time, a couple of the young cows of the herd stood less than 10 yards
away, totally unaware. This was hot-to-trot elk action at it's finest, and I was less than one hour into my first morning of hunting!
Route finding skills are critical to success on backcountry elk hunts. Make sure you have maps, a compass and a GPS unit and make sure you know how to use them all.
Shortly, the action moved just far enough away from me that I was able to get my wits about me for a second. As my mind cleared, I realized that my heart was beating out my ears, and my breath was coming in short spurts. Engaging my brain, I began to slip forward, now even more determined than before to make something good happen from this encounter. Short minutes later, a lagging cow that had eluded my attention spooked at my approach. Alerting the rest of the herd to danger, within minutes the show was over.
As I listened to the bugle of the herd bull fade into the distance, both disappointment and euphoria flooded over me. Heading around the mountain, I quickly began to search for one of the other bulls that I had heard earlier in the morning. No such luck. My morning hunt had come and gone very quickly. It stung deeply to know that I'd been in good bow range of a whopper bull for more than five minutes and I'd not loosed an arrow!
Sweet And Sour
For the next few days, I fell into a steady routine of bowhunting for my "hayfield" elk. In the evening, I'd wait for the bulls to start bugling as they began their trek down the mountains toward the valley floor. As the evening thermals would come down the hill, I'd quickly try to intercept one of the herds before they made it to the hayfield at dark. Every morning would find me following the herds through the dog-hair timber as they made their way toward the benches where they were bedding, high up on the sides of the surrounding mountains.
During all these hunts, I was very close to many different bulls. There were even a few of times that I passed up certain kill shots on different satellite bulls that were dogging the herds. On two separate occasions, I once again got very close to herd bulls, one of which was a 350-class monster. Not once however, was I ever able to get a clear shot at one of the big boys. Frustrated to the edge of sanity, my time on the ranch came to a close. Due to the fact that other hunters had previously reserved my area for their hunt, I was unable to stay in the location and continue hunting. I drove away from the ranch in a zombie-like trance--so close, yet so far.
As I left the area of the ranch, I knew that I'd not taken advantage of a tremendous bowhunting opportunity. Deep inside, I knew that the resource had been more than sufficient, yet I'd simply not got the job done. The pain of failure burned hot inside my gut. I forced myself to re-think my definition of success, and I slowly began to salvage my outlook. There were archery hunters out there that never would get to experience the intense, in-your-face kind of rutting elk action that I'd just enjoyed--I need to be thankful for my blessings. And yes... I still had seven days left to hunt rutting bulls. It was time to suck it up and get tough!
Hunting hard in the "dog-hair" timber resulted in the author harvesting a nice Montana bull. Any elk taken on a solo hunt in the mountains is definitely a trophy regardless of antler size.
It's All About How You Finish
Heading to the nearby national forest, I knew that I still had time to get the job done. Loading my mule, Guy, with enough food for a week, I headed into new country. Many miles later, foot weary, famished and dirty, Guy and I topped a high, remote ridge. Below us on two sides lay massive dark-timbered drainage's that were rimmed with timberline, snow-capped peaks. I knew that before me lay another no-brainer--no doubt, there had to be plenty of elk here.
Throwing up a quick base camp, I put Guy out to graze for the night, grabbed my backpack and bow, then headed down a long ridgeline that headed toward an alpine basin a couple of miles away. Soon after leaving base camp, I began to bugle occasionally into the valleys on both sides. It didn't take long for a piercing whistle to reach my ears. Falling off the ridgeline, I began to make a long, looping approach to the bull, all the while slowly working the wind into my favor. Trekking along, I wondered if I should hold out for a trophy for a few more days, or simply try to fill my tag. Never making a rock-solid decision, little did I know, but the decision was already settled in my subconscious mind and the results would soon be apparent.
Approaching the bugling bull from down slope, I soon found myself coming into a small meadow. Slowing to a crawl, I made my way slowly around the edge of the opening. Soon, my attention became focused on the shaking of an evergreen tree ahead. Almost immediately, the form of a bull elk materialized in the picture. Giving the tree fits, the bull became a very enticing target. Quickly hurrying forward, within seconds I found myself ranging the rear-end of the bull at 33 yards. Slipping an arrow onto my bow, I gave the bull one last look, how good were his antlers? Did I really care? One thing I knew for sure, I was starting to feel an old, familiar desire rise up inside me. Drawing my bow, my top sight pin settled just above center, slightly behind the back rib.
As the bull blasted out of the area, I knew that I was not looking at the kind of antlers that most would consider a trophy. But then again, a trophy was in the eyes of the beholder, and to me right then and there, I was more than happy to be in the position I was in. I'd come to a new area, had an awesome hunt, and took a nice bull deep in the wilderness. The way I saw it, things couldn't get much more satisfying than that.