I left camp long before first light and began the long pull up the mountain through eight inches of snow grown crusty after days of wind and sun. Far above me, at 9600 feet were a series of flat benches that traversed the mountain just below the summit. Stands of ancient, gnarled bristlecone pines dotted the benches. The southern slopes of the draws were covered with tufts of elk sedge now exposed by the scouring winds. It was the perfect spot to find a mature bull.
Even though it was near zero, my jacket was stuffed in my pack and I climbed slowly in a futile hope of staying dry. This was not a time or place to be careless. Letting your clothes get soaked with sweat was dangerous. When alone and seven miles from the trailhead you need to be thinking and doing everything right.
I grabbed a small pine to help pull myself over the lip of a steep grade and stepped out onto the first flat spot I had found in an hour of climbing. Pausing to catch my breath, I let the fading beam of my headlamp sweep across the terrain. Ahead, the crust of the snow was punctuated by the footprints of another hunter. The light followed the tracks as they crossed the bench and then climbed in the direction I had planned to go. Soft snow, kicked up from below the crust, still blew in wisps from the tracks. They were fresh, no more than a couple of hours old. Could another hunter already be ahead of me? That was impossible, I thought. Not this far in and this early. I moved closer out of curiosity as if a boot track might speak of its owner’s intentions. Instead, in the light of my headlamp the boot prints morphed into the tracks of a grizzly bear, the claws cutting vivid, deep groves through the crust. Instinctively I quickly scanned the slope around me but my dying light would not penetrate far into the night. Only a small circle of light separated me from the infinite expanse of darkness around me that was tightening my chest and making my heart race. I could imagine, as if looking down from far above, a single, tiny spot of light amidst a vast black abyss. I turned off the headlamp and waited until my eyes adjusted to the ambient light. Trees and rocks began to appear as the world around me slowly took shape. I told myself to relax. The bear was likely long gone. Leaving the headlamp off, I changed my course slightly to avoid following the grizzly and climbed higher. I reached the benches as the first glow of dawn illuminated the skyline above me. I took off my pack, put on my jacket and sat on a fallen log to wait until shooting light.
While I waited I recollected my first elk rifle hunt many years before. My brother Dan had sent me to a well known trailhead in the Madison Range that was as good as any other place for a greenhorn elk hunter to go look for an elk and not get into too much trouble. As I hiked away from the parking lot, a line of headlights shown on the road below the trailhead. I wouldn’t be hunting alone. I had made it a mile or so up the trail when I was passed by the first hunters on horseback. Soon, two more groups of hunters rode by, each wishing me luck but condemning me to hunting in their wake. I imagined every elk along the trail ahead of me would already be shot or gone long before I arrived. So I stopped. On both sides of the drainage, the mountains rose forested and steep above the trail. I thought of the hunting stories I had read over the years by writers like Jim Zumbo, jack O’Conner and Jim Carmichael which advised that a good elk hunter will be high on the mountain, above the other hunters and the elk at first light. So otherwise ignorant and lacking any other plan I turned off the trail in the dark and started climbing. Two hours later I took my first bull as I worked across a timbered bench 2000 feet above the trail below me. My education in elk hunting had begun and the first and best lesson was learned that day. To find bulls during rifle season it helps to be as high as possible and far away from the beaten trails frequented by other hunters. It was a lesson that I would apply many times in the following years.
When it became light enough to see, I shouldered my pack and began moving slowly into the wind, glassing the open pockets on the slopes ahead of me. There was no point in trying to be quiet. Each step on the frozen snow sounded like I was stepping on a pile of broken glass. To avoid the measured pace of a human, I took staccato steps, a few at a time, pointing my toes down to do my best to sound like an elk. I paused a minute or two between steps to glass before moving on. I had hoped to catch an elk moving up the mountain to bed but as the sun began to climb higher in the sky I focused more on glassing the knobs and clumps of trees for a bedded bull. Elk tracks littered the slope, some fresh and I was confident that I was where I needed to be. I had paused to take it all in when a bull came crashing out of the trees above me. As he trotted across an open snow field, I dropped prone behind my rifle into the snow and cow called. The bull turned broadside and stopped, looking in my direction, the sun shining on his dark brown mane and tan hide. A nice five by five but not the bull I was looking for. He stood motionless as I admired him through my rifle scope. Grow another couple of years, I thought.
I am always mesmerized by such moments and so was startled back to reality when I heard something moving above me in the trees. I followed the young bull’s gaze as a second bull stepped into sight. This one was older, his body heavier, a six point bull. He stared calmly at the first elk then slowly turned his head to look toward me. His rack was wide and when he turned away to look at the other bull I carefully lifted my rifle. At the shot he crumpled and slid kicking down the mountain in a cloud of powdered snow, finally coming to a rest between us. The sound of the shot echoed off the mountain and then was gone. The young elk stood staring at the downed bull, seemingly oblivious to the drama that had just played out. Only when I finally stood did he begin walking slowly across the slope and into the trees.
Each year during archery season in southwest Montana, I receive almost daily emails and text messages with pictures of elk that we all dream of; heavy horned, mature bulls that could grace the cover of Sports Afield, Field & Stream or Eastman’s Journal. Cell phones with pictures of hunters and their bulls are passed around with admiration and envy in brew pubs, coffee shops and sporting goods stores. Each year some of these go viral, the elk becoming the stuff of legend. Eventually, details of the hunt, the bull, the location, or speculation of it, begin to come to light. “I know that guy; he killed that bull up Hellroaring”; or Black Butte, or Cache Creek. Then rifle season comes and the pictures stop and the stories end.
So where do all of the big bulls go once the shooting starts? Sure you hear of a few. Most are taken on private ranches or one of Montana’s limited draw units such as the Elkhorn Mountains, the Buffer Zone or Missouri Breaks. But big bulls with regular, over the counter tags on public land? Not very many.
After the rut ends, drainages that rang with the bugles of rutting bulls in September may only hold cows accompanied by immature bulls. The older bulls will have left the herds and become reclusive. A six or seven year old elk on public land has survived a lot of hunting pressure and has become an expert at avoiding human contact. Where I hunt, it means heading high, even above tree line. What these places have in common is an adequate supply of food, security for the elk and difficult access for the hunters who pursue them.
In Montana, depending on the unit, 15-20% of license holders will harvest an elk. That includes cows and calves. Between two and four percent will kill a 6×6 bull or larger. That’s two to four hunters out of every hundred. Factor into these statistics the elk killed by those who have permission to hunt on private land, with outfitters, or in special draw units and you begin to see the odds of taking a mature bull on public land. One study by MT Fish and Game found that less than 1% of the elk population will be seven year or older bulls.
While those odds may sound daunting, they can be beat. I don’t consider myself to be a great hunter by any means. But I do work hard at it and I am willing to put in the effort to hunt the kind of places that most hunters won’t go. In the last eight years I have harvested nine elk. Seven bulls and two cows. Eight were taken on DIY hunts and on public land and six were six by six or better bulls. I have also seen a number of trophy class elk that I did not tag. So I speak with confidence when I say that you can improve your odds to consistently see, and with some luck harvest, mature bulls during rifle season if you will subscribe to a few basic rules.
- Prepare yourself physically and mentally for the game ahead – This is the foundation on which everything else you do depends. The best rifle and scope in the world cannot overcome poor physical conditioning. You simply can’t reach the areas these bulls inhabit for the number of days required to get it done unless you’re in decent shape. Mental preparation is even more important. You are dealing with tough country, predatory animals, cold, hunger, exhaustion, and days slugging it out without seeing a single elk. A positive attitude and the ability to just keep going are critical to your success. How do you prepare? While the gym is great, nothing beats spending time hitting the trails and backcountry peaks with a pack on your back during the summer. Plus you can get in some scouting and familiarize yourself with the area your hunting while doing it. To be mentally prepared, have your hunt plan and routine down long before the season starts. If you’re going solo into the backcountry, make sure you have already spent nights in there alone. Know your gear. Become familiar with that GPS before the season starts. Be comfortable going off trail. Shoot your rifle. Know the area you are hunting. Remove the stress associated with lack of preparation and the unknown. And most of all believe and have confidence in your hunt plan.
- Select the right unit. Improve your odds by hunting in an area known for holding a solid elk population and more importantly, mature bulls. Pick areas that have remote country closed to motorized vehicle travel while providing good access by trail into the more secluded regions of the unit. Big bulls seek seclusion and if there are areas far from roads and trails, that is where they will be. Numerous studies have shown that elk, especially mature bulls, are extremely intolerant of human activity, especially seasonal motorized vehicle traffic. Some hunting units are characterized by numerous forest service roads. Good elk habitat may still guarantee a viable elk population in those areas and reasonable hunter success rates. However hunting pressure and a high harvest rate of immature bulls will minimize your opportunities to take a mature animal. Avoid those units that may be attractive due to easy access but will likely not hold the type of bull you are seeking.
- Scout pre-season. You can’t count on elk being where you found them during archery season or during last year’s rifle season. Elk move around. Wolves will push elk from a drainage. Differences in moisture and quality of feed can make last year’s high mountain basin a bust. Early heavy snows or lack of them can change elk patterns. Many hunters wait until the rifle season begins to start actually looking for elk sign. You can waste a lot of valuable hunting time looking for elk where elk aren’t. If you do, you lose your advantage over bulls on the most important day of the season; opening day. More elk will typically be harvested during opening weekend than over the entire remaining season. On opening weekend you may still find a mature bull with his cows, especially in remote country that sees little pressure. After opening weekend on public land, the game gets even tougher. Look at pre-season scouting as an investment in both getting in shape and developing your hunt plan.
- Elevate your game. – Being as high as possible at first light gives you a number of advantages over elk. First, elk typically feed low and bed high. Second, spooked elk head higher to escape the hunting pressure from below. Third, being elevated allows you to glass more country and spot feeding and moving elk. Fourth, mature solitary bulls and groups of bachelor bulls will seek the seclusion of higher elevations after the rut, only coming down when the snow depth becomes intolerable. When developing your hunt plan remember that quality hunting time is more important than the quantity of hunting time. If you can handle a bivy camp on a mountainside for two nights in prime bull habitat it’s worth more than a week of cruising forest service roads on an ATV. Leaving the trailhead at 3AM to be six miles deep high on a mountain ridge by first light may mean you give up evening hunts to get that done. If so, then so be it. At least you have skin in the game at the right place at the right time.
- Have an extraction plan. You have seven hundred pounds of bull down and your 6 miles and 3000 feet in elevation from the truck. You better have a plan. A mature bull, boned out, will produce 200-250 pounds of meat. The head and cape can easily weigh another fifty to sixty pounds. And you have your rifle and gear to get out. I can only safely carry about seventy pounds for any distance in rough country. That’s at least four trips, maybe five. If you get a bull down, don’t call me, But here are some other ideas to consider;
- Have good friends lined up. With strong backs. Even better, good friends with horses. Note that I am in neither of those categories.
- Rent a pack horse from an outfitter like Jake’s Horses in Bozeman. It’s relatively inexpensive. He offers trailers and pack saddles. It’s a good idea to do a summer pack trip in to familiarize yourself with the process before you tackle a bull. You can walk in a single horse with a saddle and panniers and retrieve your bull. Just don’t let go of the lead rope. Ever.
- Hire an outfitter or packer to retrieve your elk. Some outfitters offer retrieval services. Call around and have one lined up BEFORE you shoot an elk. GPS the elk’s location, give him the coordinates and buy him a beer later when he meets you at the bar. This is my favorite option.
- Use a sled. A simple kid’s plastic toboggan is a great way to get meat out of the mountains when there is snow. As long as its downhill.
All kidding aside. Packing out an elk from the steep and deep is no easy task. Having a plan in advance allows you to hunt without concern for the outcome if you shoot a bull. And if you follow the rules above you will eventually harvest a trophy elk. So you need to be prepared.
On a bitterly cold but sunny day on a Thanksgiving weekend my brother and I climbed up to the south rim of a high mountain basin blanketed by a couple feet of snow. Even though it was the last weekend of elk season, we had seen no other hunter’s tracks since leaving the trail far below. As we glassed the high country around us I spotted two bulls bedded on a rise far across the basin. The largest was one of the biggest elk I had ever seen during rifle season. He was bedded in the open, enjoying the sun and apparently fast asleep. He lay in the snow with his head tilted, one side of his heavy rack resting against the ground. I imagined him snoring. We just smiled and admired the old bull for a while. He was in no danger. The deep, forested basin between us was just too much to try to navigate with this much snow. Although he was less than a half mile away, he might as well have been on the moon. We shouldered our packs and headed higher on the ridge. Like him, we were escape artists too.