The sun was dropping below the canyon rim when a shrill whistle broke from the shadows that were beginning to fall across the bottom of the coulee. Lying beside me on a grass covered ridge, Dick continued to stare through his binoculars scanning the patch of pines three hundred yards below us. “Was that an elk?” he whispered.
“Yes”, I replied without lifting my eyes from my binoculars.
“Was it the big one?”
I slowly scanned the edge of the trees below me. “No. That was probably one of the young bulls we saw this morning”. As if on cue, a series of deep grunts and chuckles drifted up from the pines.
I looked over at Dick and smiled. “That”, I said, “was the big one !”
It was in June, 2011 when the phone rang and my brother Dan gave me the news that the elk special permit drawing results had been posted on Montana’s Fish Wildlife and Parks website. Anxiously, I clicked on the link in my favorites, typed in my ALS number and smiled when the page showed I was “Successful” in drawing an elk special permit. I had drawn an either sex tag in the southeastern corner of the Missouri Breaks, east of the Musselshell River. Although it wasn’t one of the coveted and hard to draw Missouri Breaks units known for great odds on huge elk, the unit still had the potential to produce a good bull. I just had to find one. The biologist I spoke with estimated the herd in the unit at only 2000 head, and the unit covered thousands of square miles. Hunting could be tough on public land and the elk stayed far from the heavily hunted roads. Over the last three years I had spent several weeks in the area hunting mule deer and had come to love the country. The Breaks are a broken tangle of canyons, coulees and rock hoodoos. During the late Cretaceous Period, the Bearpaw inland sea covered most of the area. As it drained it formed the Missouri River channel, cutting deep gorges in the seabed and exposing sandstone and clay deposits representing millions of years of geological formations. Even in Montana, a state known for solitude, the Breaks are extremely remote. I was excited at the prospect of hunting elk in an area where I could get far away from roads and other hunters. I had seen a couple of good bulls in the unit while hunting mule deer and knew if I invested the time and did the work, harvesting a really good bull was a possibility.
The 2011 elk archery season in Montana opened on the first weekend in September. Dan and I hunted the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman opening weekend but the hot weather slowed the elk activity. My brother had the next week off so we packed the horses up and headed high into the Beaverhead National Forest. After four slow days, the hot weather finally broke and bugles began ringing out from the forested draws next to camp. Two days later Dan connected on a nice bull that came in to my cow call. We headed out, leaving the bulls on fire. I was tempted to head back in the next week alone, but I knew I needed to do some scouting in my special draw unit. I loaded my gear in the truck and headed to the Missouri Breaks. A game biologist who had drawn the unit the year before had given me some ideas on areas to hunt. One in particular intrigued me. It was a “designated wilderness” area with little access. “You’ll find elk in there”, he told me, “and you probably won’t see another hunter, but its tough going”. I figured it was a good place to start.
Four days later I was sitting on a barstool in Winnet, MT, population 185, trying to dull the pain from humping a pack in some of the toughest country I had ever chased an elk in. The land lay broken by one canyon or ravine after another. Heavy spring rains had gouged huge mudslides from the steep walls and where they dammed the ravines, ponds had formed preventing passage through the bottoms. I spent as much time backtracking as I did moving forward. The weather was hot and dry and the bulls weren’t making any noise. I had hiked in over six miles from the nearest navigable two track and was discouraged by the lack of elk sign I had found. Perhaps that was just as well. If I killed a bull in here it would have to be carried out in pieces. There was no way a horse or mule could traverse that ground. I decided a hot shower, glass of whiskey and a good night’s sleep would help recharge my batteries. Tomorrow I would head into a different area. As I mulled over my options the door to the Winnet Bar creaked open and a dust covered rancher strode in, spurs jangling across the old plank floor. His well worn hat, boots and chaps told me this was no dude. He took the stool next to mine, even though the rest of the bar sat vacant. Without a word spoken the gal behind the bar poured him a drink. Staring straight ahead he drained the Jack and Coke. “Well”, he said turning to look at me, “Who the hell are you?”
I told him my name and he asked me where was I hunting? When I mentioned the drainage I had just been in, he raised his eyebrows. “I know it well. My family homesteaded near there in the late 1800s. I spent a lot of time back in there as a boy.” He looked at me thoughtfully. “Well, you got your work cut out for you if you kill an elk in there. That country will set a man on his heels.”
We talked a bit and he entertained me with hunting and ranching stories from the early days in eastern Montana. I finished my drink, thanked him for the conversation and slipped out into the night and back to my motel room., one of only four motel rooms to be found in Winnet.
I spent the next two days scouting a different area in the unit with the same results; lots of old elk tracks but nothing fresh. I had to get back to Bozeman but first I stopped in the Kozy Korner Café in town. Rural Montanans are friendly folks and once they get to know you, will often give you more valuable information than a week’s scouting will provide. Over a cup of coffee I got a clue from the local livestock veterinarian. A large herd of elk was being seen feeding in the alfalfa fields on private land not far from where I had been scouting. “Just wait till the shooting starts”, she encouraged me. “Those elk will move back into that rough country pretty quick.”
The elk rut was winding down so when antelope season opened I hung up my bow and took a break. I spent a week camping out on the eastern prairie and took a decent goat. Then it was back to planning for the opening day of gun season. I called my friend Dick Adams in Idaho. Dick is retired and loves a good adventure. He and I had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro that spring and I hoped he was up for another workout. “Sounds fun” he replied when I asked if he would he come over and help me find a bull. Its tough country I warned him, and too rough for horses. If we get a bull down we will be carrying it out in pieces. “When do you want me there?” was his reply.
Montana closes the elk archery season a week before opening its firearms season. I planned on using that time to scout some new areas in the unit, find the elk and hopefully be on them opening day. After Dick arrived we loaded the truck with gear and headed north. There was another big drainage a few miles from the area I had scouted in September which had a reputation of being easier to get around in, more open country that was less broken up by canyons and coulees. We would start there.
After two days of scouting and almost thirty miles on foot and we had not found a single fresh elk track. Apparently other hunters thought it was a good area though and camps began springing up along the forest service road that skirted the drainage. As we relaxed in the tent that evening, trucks, campers and horse trailers rumbled by, each one adding to my mounting concern over my selection of hunting area. Lots of hunters in the area might get the elk moving but that’s not the kind of hunt I was looking for. After dinner we poured drinks and mulled it over. I suggested we pull camp in the morning and head over to the area I scouted during bow season. It was rough country, too rough even for horses, but that’s why we needed to go back in there. I had a feeling we wouldn’t be seeing any other hunters and that’s where the elk would go once the shooting started.
It took the entire morning to pull camp and move. Tomorrow was opening day and I wanted to get a look before heading in the next morning. So we hurried to set up our new camp then grabbed day packs and headed back towards a deep canyon I had found on my scouting trip in September. Several miles later the sun was setting as we clambered on a rise perched on the canyon rim.
Almost immediately we spotted a young bull walking along the canyon floor below us. He wasn’t a bull I was interested in taking, but it’s always thrilling to watch an undisturbed elk. I looked around. A half mile away a conical hilltop stood out above the surrounding terrain. From it we could see in all directions, including the big canyon where the bull was now feeding. I planned on being up on that hilltop at first light tomorrow.
I didn’t sleep well that night. Dick needed to be back in Idaho in a few days and I was still second guessing my choice of hunting area. In three days we had only seen one elk, although the fresh sign we saw that evening suggested that elk had moved back into the area. I got up at 4 AM before the alarm went off, started the wood stove and began making coffee and breakfast. We headed out into the morning darkness with miles ahead of us and a small hilltop waiting.
At first light I spotted a small herd of elk moving along the canyon floor. They were heading for a patch of pine trees at the head of the canyon that covered a few acres. A five by five bull accompanied three cows. I continued to watch them until they drifted out of sight. It was good to finally be seeing elk. As the sun rose and illuminated the canyons surrounding us, another single bull, smaller than the first, followed the herd into the trees. As I was watching the bull disappear, Dick was glassing another canyon behind usl. “There’s a mule deer buck!” he whispered. It was well below us, over 800 yards, but even at that range I could make out his rack and it looked pretty good. I let my binoculars drop to my chest and settled in behind my rifle to look through the fourteen power scope. Maybe really good.
I wanted a closer look at the buck so I asked Dick to keep his eyes on the canyon where we had seen elk and grabbed my rifle and pack. I dropped off the back of the hilltop and worked my way down toward an outcropping that would put me within three hundred yards of the mulie. It took me thirty minutes to cover the distance and when I finally crawled out on the outcrop the big buck had bedded down in the thick scrub on the canyon floor below me. Keeping out of sight so as not to spook the deer, I made my way back to the hilltop. I had just settled in when Dick spotted several elk dropping off the far canyon rim. I looked just in time to catch the orange hind end of the last elk as it passed out of sight into the trees. From the size and coloration, it looked like a mature bull. Dick confirmed my thoughts. “The last one was a bull,” he said, “but they are so far away, I couldn’t really tell how big he was.”
I looked at my watch. It was almost eleven. We had two choices. We could go back down to the rocky outcrop and wait for the big mulie to get up from his bed. Or, we could head down the canyon rim for a half mile or so, climb down, cross it and climb up the other side. That would keep us out of sight of the elk and put the wind in our favor. We would be in a good position when the elk started moving that afternoon. I ran the options by Dick. “I thought we were here to hunt elk?” he replied.
Two hours later I was still questioning our decision to leave the big mulie behind as we climbed over the top of the far canyon wall. This was more like rock climbing than elk hunting. We ate the sandwiches in our packs and grabbed a quick nap before heading back along the canyon rim towards the patch of trees. It was now almost three o’clock. We slowly crept along the rim, glassing as we went. Then it happened. After hours of glassing you look one more time and suddenly there is an elk. The bull was bedded at the edge of the trees on the top of a small bluff that rose from the creek bed on the canyon’s floor. He was over 1000 yards from me but even at that range I could make out the white tips of his antlers through my binoculars. “How big is he?” asked Dick. It was hard to tell at this distance. Although his rack didn’t look very wide, the spread of the white tips gave me the impression that he had good length to his tines. He was definitely worth a closer look. The problem was getting down to him. The canyon was almost 500 feet deep at this point and the walls were sheer. If we could get to bottom without being seen there was a small ridge running along the canyon floor between us and the elk that would hide our approach . I estimated it was only 200 yards to the bull from the ridge top. If the bull would just stay bedded until we made it down, it would be relatively easy to get to where I could make the shot. We just had to find a way down. While I kept my eyes on the bull, Dick took off. In fifteen minutes he came back and told me he had found a possible route but he could only see about half way down it. It might become too sheer to descend but with the time we had it was our only choice. We clambered down the narrow rock chute that descended the canyon wall, lowering ourselves over ledges and dropping down cracks in the cliff face. The route was passable but it took us almost an hour to make it to the canyon floor. When we finally crawled over the top of the grassy ridge, the bull was gone. I was disappointed but I didn’t think we had spooked him. The wind was in our face and the chute had hidden us from the bull. It was almost five o’clock and the bull had probably got up and was getting ready to feed. Now there was nothing to do but wait. We settled in and began glassing the trees and valley floor.
“I see two cows!” Dick had spotted two elk feeding across the canyon in an old burn. Through the clutter of dead pines, I made out a third cow bedded on the hillside. Now if the bull would just follow them out. That’s when we heard the small bull whistle and the big bull’s grunting reply. I knew these elk were relaxed and would be moving out of the trees to feed. We were in a perfect position. Ten minutes later he stepped into sight. The bull was moving towards the cows through the burn and he was definitely a shooter. “He’s at 330 yards” Dick said as he checked the distance with the rangefinder. I was settled in behind the rifle watching the elk but unable to get a clear shot. My Nosler rifle in 300 WSM was sighted in at three hundred yards and I had been practicing out to 500 yards. I asked Dick to let me know if the range changed. For twenty minutes we watched the bull move among the cows and grab mouthfuls of grass but never giving me an opening for a shot. The bull moved into a ravine and dropped out of sight. I could see the top of his antlers moving and could tell he was feeding but it was now 5:45 and it would be past legal shooting time soon. Finally he began to move. He was heading toward an opening in the trees and I would have a clear shot if he turned broadside. If he kept moving toward the cows, I would see nothing but elk rear end until he was back in the safety of the dead pines. I watched as the bull entered the clearing and moved toward a smaller bull feeding to his right. “I’m going to shoot.” I warned Dick and as the bull turned broadside I squeezed the trigger and sent the 180 grain Accubond on its way. The bull stopped and dropped his head. Without taking my eyes off the elk I chambered a second round, high centered on his shoulder and fired again. The bull dropped in his tracks as the sound of the second bullet’s impact drifted back to our ears. Later, I found both bullet holes in his shoulder less than 4 inches apart.
After the some whooping and hugging we grabbed our packs and headed for the downed bull. As I got closer, the elk kept getting bigger. He was a beautiful 6×7 with the seventh tine coming out at the base of the fifth tine. He was an old bull with heavy mass and long tines. His bases would measure just less than 10” in diameter. When I showed his skull to a biologist in Bozeman she estimated he was at least 10 or 11 years old and possible much older.
It was 9 PM before we had the bull quartered. We put the blackstraps in game bags and hung them to cool on a dead pine. He was a huge bull and it took both Dick and I to lift the rear quarters and set them on crossed logs to cool. By the light of our headlamps we started up the canyon face. It took us three attempts in the dark to find a route up the canyon wall and it was midnight when we walked into camp happy but exhausted.
Then next morning we tried unsuccessfully to find an easier route in at the canyon’s head. We finally gave up and clinbed down the wall directly above the bull. While I was caping the head and boning out the quarters, Dick scouted further down the canyon and found an easier route out. Our first load that day was the rear quarters which must have weighed over 80 lbs each boned out. We stumbled into camp that night sore and tired. Tomorrow, we would take two more trips to take out the remaing meat, cape and skull.