I was two weeks into the Montana archery season and hadn’t taken a shot at an elk yet. We were riding back to the trailhead to load up and drive back to town to pick up a friend arriving at Bozeman’s airport later that night. I was tired, hot and thirsty and only the promise of a steak dinner and whiskey at Sir Scott’s Oasis made the four hour ride bearable.
The season had opened on Labor Day weekend and that Sunday afternoon I watched as my brother rode off ponying my saddle horse after leaving me alone in camp twelve miles back in the Madison Range. I would spend the next six days in high meadows at almost 10,000 feet trying to find a bull willing to come into a cow call. Instead of sweet mountain air, smoke from the Hyalite Canyon fire to the east covered the mountains in a gray haze that left my throat aching and eyes burning. Apparently the elk didn’t care for it much either. In a week I only saw two young bulls sparing in a meadow and a couple of cows. The bulls weren’t bugling yet and I was covering miles setting up and cow calling to disinterested suitors.
Late one night as I lay in my tent, I thought I heard a faint bugle in the distance. But it wasn’t a bugle and moments later a pack of wolves started howling a reply less than 10o yards from me. At least three separate wolves were letting loose and their howls reverberated off the rock face of the mountain above me. I rolled out of my bag, put on my headlamp, and grabbing my pistol stepped out into the dark. I strained to hear any noise of their passing, goosebumps standing up on my bare legs. I turned on the light and scanned the darkness for illuminated eyes. The wolves were gone. The next day I found their tracks in the trail where they crossed the creek below my camp.
I left the mountain on Thursday, hiking out in the afternoon after a fruitless day of hunting. That morning a cow moose had stood motionless in the timber not more than ten yards from the trail. She froze as I padded along quietly toward her in the dark before coming unglued as I passed. Her uncontrolled, chaotic flight through the brush almost sent me into full cardiac arrest. I couldn’t tell if the thing in the trees was running at me or away from me. I spent the rest of the morning’s hunt in an anxious state, my hand often resting on the top of the bear spray on my belt. The twelve miles out was almost all flat or downhill and I made it back to the trailhead in just under four hours. An outfitter was packing up several mules for a pack trip with a couple of bow hunters from Wisconsin. I dropped the tailgate and spun around to rest the bottom of the heavy pack on the truck before slipping out of the shoulder straps. Liberated, I walked over to the Forest Service well pump for a long, cold drink and then soaked my head under the icy water until it ached. When I got back to my rig, the two hunters walked over, full of questions. I was too tired to give them much attention. The outfitter walked over, handed me a cold beer and asked his hunters to go back and check their gear. I thanked him and wished him luck before getting on my way.
After a couple of days of rest, Dan and I packed and saddled the horses and headed back into the Madison range to a different area further north. We had hunted the area the year before and found much less grizzly sign and a decent number of elk. It was a long ride in, almost four hours, but we didn’t see another soul in over a week. We did see a couple of nice 6×6 bulls before Dan connected on a mature 5×5 that left his wallow to investigate my cow call. So we were heading back in this year with high expectations. But seasons change and so had the elk. 2011 had been a wet year and the flies and gnats were insidious, giving the horses and us fits the entire ride in. This season opened following a summer drought and we rode in unmolested. The bugs were noticeably absent and unfortunately, so were the elk. Last year they had gone as high as possible to seek refuge, finding wind to keep off the bugs and plenty of feed up around 9500 feet. This year dry remnants of grass crunched under our boots as we wasted three days looking for elk where they had been and now weren’t. The elk were 1500-2000 feet lower in elevation and feeding in the creek bottoms and basins where the grass was still green.
A lesson learned. Elk aren’t always where they were the year before. Changing conditions like weather, hunting pressure and even bugs can move elk. Although we had ridden into the camp in August to do a little housekeeping, we hadn’t done much scouting and now were burning valuable hunting days trying to figure out where the elk had gone.
With a couple of days left to hunt we finally found the elk deep in a nasty hole almost 2000 feet below camp. Bulls were screaming below us so we dropped down until we were just above the bugling bulls. The hillside was tore up by the passing of feeding elk. The smell of elk permeated the air and the trail was worn deep into the dirt with fresh tracks. I stayed back as Dan moved down the trail and set up just above it. When I cow called, the forest erupted in bugles. A bull headed our direction but instead of coming up the trail, he circled above us. Dan only got a glimpse of the bull’s tall rack before he winded us and busted back through his herd. Another bull was still screaming further below us, so we headed down the trail toward him before realizing that he was headed up the trail toward us! Before we could get set up he sensed or saw us and quietly retreated with the rest of the herd. It was long after dark before we made it back out of that hole. We were exhausted but happy to have finally gotten into some elk.
That would be the closest we would come to a bull that week. It was a hard lesson learned, but we now knew a little more about elk behavior, had scouted some new country, and found a few more elk and lots of sign by the end of the week. We saddled up, leaving camp intact and started the long ride out on a dusty trail. There is a reason cowboys wore those scarves ! My friend Tom Brooks was arriving from Indiana that night and we would pick him up and make the turn back to camp on Sunday morning. Dan would pack us back in then leave us alone to hunt until the following Saturday. As we rode along, I thought about the steep descent from camp to where the elk were and hoped that Tom had been training hard for his week in the mountains.