Montana DIY Elk Hunting – 2014 – Bulls & Grizzlies – Part 2

I was still quartering my elk when the sun finally slipped below the Gravelly Mountains to the west. Its amazing how much more difficult a job it is when your alone and looking over your shoulder every few minutes. All around me, elk were moving through the trees, barking, mewing and bugling. It was amazing to hear but a little nerve racking. At one point an elk, or something big,  came running toward me in the dark. I didn’t know what it was and drew my pepper spray in expectation of something hairy and toothy. Fortunately the elk, or whatever it was turned away and busted down the mountain through the timber.

We had been seeing a lot of grizzly sign so I was relieved when I finally rolled the carcass down the mountain away from the elk quarters and began the long climb back to the horses. I was back at camp at 11 PM and back to retrieve the elk by 8 the next morning. It was too steep to ride so I walked Bailey and Decker down the mountain and tied them up a good hundred yards above the kill just in case there was a bear already on my elk. I didn’t want to be on a bucking horse if the bear charged. Bear spray in hand, I headed down the slope and into the trees like a Marine on patrol in Fallujah. But the slope was quiet and my elk undisturbed. An hour later I had the quarters and rack loaded on the horses and began walking them up the mountain. Seven hours and fourteen miles later I hit the trailhead, footsore and tired of the horses and their antics. As my brother says, “bagged, tagged and dragged.” I think it was me that was dragging, not the elk.

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I spent the next day processing my bull  and getting it ready to be ground into tasty burger by Yellowstone Meat Processing. I enjoy this part of the hunt, trimming the meat free of all fat and sinew until I have a huge pile of pure red meat. I take a break late morning and toss some cubes of backstrap in seasoned flour and fry them until brown on the outside and pink in the middle. This bull would eat well.

Dan and I headed back in on Thursday. I was mellow and still sated by my solo hunt and just enjoying the ride in. Its nice to shed the pressure and responsibility of having to make the shot. I thought about the country ahead of us and the fun of just calling in bulls at the peak of the rut.

I wasn’t disappointed. The next two days were full of elk encounters. Bulls sparing. A nice non-typical that came in and busted my brother at 20 yards. We named the bull “Crown Royal” after his distinctive rack and hoped we would have another shot at him. We were in bulls every day and I knew it was just a matter of time before we put it all together.  We wrapped up our Saturday morning hunt not far from where I had killed the elk the previous weekend. My bull had broken off a piece of horn when he hit a tree and I had left it by the gut  pile. I wanted to find it so we headed through the trees toward the carcass. I was moving across the slope when my brother put his arm out and told me to stop. “Bear”, he said and pointed through the pines ahead of us. There, about 100 yards ahead of us, sat a huge black headed grizzly boar surrounded by a flock of ravens. We both pulled our binoculars. The bear’s hump was clearly visible rising above his head. His front legs were huge and bowed in. He kept his head low, not moving, and stared at us. “That’s a grizzly”, my brother said, still looking through his binos. “Nah..” I said, “That’s a Pope and Young black bear. I think you should go over there and shoot it.”

” No, I see a hump”, Dan replied. “That’s a grizzly.”

“Nope”, I replied, “That’s a really big black bear…you need to shoot it”.

“Well, then you go shoot it”.

“Nope, you saw it first, I wouldn’t rob you of that opportunity”

I was stoked at seeing a grizzly that close and hoping he would move a little bit so we could see it better and from a different angle. But he just glared at us why the ravens hopped around him.  “I want you to go down there and throw a rock at it and get it to move”, I said, smiling.

We both knew how fast the bear could cover that distance so reluctantly we turned and made our way back up the slope. Scratch one elk honey hole off the list for tomorrow’s hunt !

We had one morning to get it done before pulling camp. We decided to drop down into a drainage where we usually had some luck finding elk. I called in a raggy horn which kept circling me, then a nice 5×5 but Dan was holding out for something bigger. Down far below us an elk bugled and you could tell it was a bigger bull.

For the next 45 minutes we tailed the bull along the slopes above him as he pushed his cows toward a bedding area. Getting him to come in seemed futile so I decided to pull out all the stops and try the “stolen cow” routine.  I cow called feverishly then ran 50 yards up the  mountain and let loose a shrill small bull bugle. I ran in circles on the hillside breaking branches and kicking rocks loose. I grabbed a stick and raked a tree trunk, then bugled again following it up with a hysterical cow mew.

300 yards below me the forest erupted with a rage filled bugle and I knew the bull was coming in. Dan dropped below me to the edge of a bench as I ran  back up the hillside breaking dead staubs off pine trees and trying to sound like elk chasing each other.

The bull bugled again, closer now just below the bench.

Dan watched as the huge 6×6 pushed a cow ahead of him up  the mountain. I saw him draw and release and five minutes later we heard the death bellow of the heart shot bull. The elk scored 334 gross, Dan’s best archery bull.

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By six PM we were out of the woods and  headed for a whisky and coke at Miss Carmine’s Norris Bar. Two 6×6 bulls in less than a week. Bagged , tagged, and dragged.

 

 

 

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The Escape Artists – Montana Public Land Elk Hunting

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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.

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

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Wyoming DIY Antelope Hunting- Part 6 – a DIY Alternative

A lot of folks email me and ask about DIY antelope hunting in Wyoming. (or any other state for that matter). They want to know if its possible to be successful without experience hunting antelope. They want to know where they can stay while hunting. And what equipment they will need. Most of all, they are looking for a DIY experience and the satisfaction of harvesting an antelope without the expense or oversight of an outfitted hunt.

One of my greatest joys is setting up a prairie camp while hunting antelope. Temperatures are usually nice and its a wonderful experience to sit in a camp chair watching the sun set across the prairie while coyotes bark off in the distance. Especially with an adult beverage in hand. Ice cubes tinkling. That warm feeling that whiskey gives you after a long arduous day afield. Ok, ok.. back to the topic at hand.

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So I found an outfitter that does a complete camp set up. Everything you need except for food. And its very reasonable at $800 per person for six days.  Tent, cots, sleeping bags and pads, cooking gear.. etc.  You will spend more staying at a motel and eating out. The outfitter is Thunder Ridge Outfitters. Their website is at www.thunderridgeoutfitter.com

They set their DIY camps up in good areas and you will have no problem harvesting animals if you possess basic hunting skills.

They also offer a two day economy antelope hunt with the hunter taking the first 12″ buck or better seen. Its only $1200. In most cases, two days is plenty to take a representative buck in a decent area.

I spoke with Ron, one of the owners. In most cases you will need at least a couple of preference points to hunt the units they outfit including the DIY unguided camps. He is working on a ranch deal that may give them access to decent antelope in a unit with no points required but there will be only a few openings. .

I am sure that there are other outfitters offering similar packages, I just haven’t had the time to look at everyone out there. After talking with Ron, I came away impressed with their operation. They try to find an antelope hunt that fits every budget and every hunter’s objective in terms of buck quality. Click on the link above and give them a shout.

 

 

 

 

 

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DIY Wyoming Antelope – Part 5 – 2015 Update & Draw Odds by Unit

 

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Tami’s 2013 Montana Antelope

A lot has changed in Wyoming since I wrote my series on DIY Antelope hunting in that state. Montana and Wyoming experienced a terrible winter in 2010-2011 that resulted in losses of antelope and mule deer that ranged from 60-80% in some units. Officials called it the worst die off in 30 years. In eastern Montana, antelope tags were reduced from around 22,000 to about 3,500. It was a necessary reduction to restore the herds but we haven’t hunted antelope for two years now and we are hoping to draw tags in 2016.

Wyoming’s antelope quotas have also been cut drastically.

Year Total Hunters NR Hunters % NR
2010      75,837      58,863 78%
2012      67,911      40,678 60%
2013      58,904      33,878 58%
2014      48,853      24,069 49%

As you can see, Non Resident tags dropped from 58 thousand to 24 thousand. The percentage of tags issued to Non Resident hunters also dropped from 78% of the total to 49%. As a result of these declines it has become increasingly difficult to draw an antelope tag in Wyoming.

Each year I receive numerous emails asking for recommendations for the best antelope units in Wyoming. Often the prospective hunters have no preference points established for antelope in that state. Unfortunately, until antelope numbers improve, the units with decent public access need at least one preference point to draw and most units are requiring two to three.

If you read my earlier posts you understand that Wyoming has many units with limited public access. Wyoming’s Game and Fish highlights these units in the regulations and discourages hunters from applying for these tags UNLESS they already have hunting access. These units are generally in the eastern third of the state and run from Gillette down to Cheyenne. There are lots of antelope and lots of tags but most of the land is private. It is  tempting to try one of these units  because draw odds are 100% and you can generally buy over the counter left over tags. However be forewarned that gaining access is not easy and you can expect to hear a lot of rejections if you show up during hunting season and start asking for permission to hunt. Many of the ranches are leased to outfitters. Some of the landowners allow hunting with the payment of a trespass fee. These range from $250 to $1500. I have found that many of these properties have repeat hunters coming back and no room for new hunters.  Wyoming Game and Fish maintains a list of landowners that allow access, most for a fee. I found when I called these that most were already booked up with hunters from prior years.

In a nutshell, here is the problem for non resident hunters attempting to gain access in one of these units; You have a week’s vacation to hunt so you arrive in WY during the season and start driving around looking for a place to hunt. Once you have boots on the ground and maps in hand you discover that the public BLM land on your maps is not accessible because its landlocked behind private property. The accessible public land you do find is crawling with trucks and ATVs driving every two track and the few antelope that don’t get shot opening day are running scared.  I have spoken with a number of out of state hunters who have tried it and their experiences are uniformly bad. If you have the time to visit the state prior to the hunting season and knock on doors and talk with landowners when they don’t have a sea of orange clad folks asking to hunt, you may get lucky and find access in one of these units, otherwise, I don’t recommend applying in those area unless you are willing to do a lot of research and spend time getting permission.

So what options are left? If you recall from my articles, 75% of the tags in a unit go to the applicants with the most preference points while 25% of the licenses for any unit are set aside for a “random draw”. So you always have a chance to get drawn for a unit even if you don’t have enough points to guarantee it. Random draw odds average about 4% in the accessible units but many are 7-8%. You can increase these odds dramatically by buying the more expensive “special license”. Random draw odds with the special tags increase to about a 15% average with many units over 20%. Each year you don’t get drawn you receive a preference point and build points that will eventually allow you to draw a unit of choice.

To help with this I pulled all of the draw statistics for 2015 for Non residents for both Regular and Special Licenses. The table below shows the Unit, the preference points required to guarantee a draw, and the random draw odds for each license type. The units with an asterisk are those not recommended by WY Game and Fish unless you have access.

So lets run through some numbers. Look at Unit 27. It is noted as an accessible unit. For 2015 if you had 3 preference points you had a 70% chance of drawing on a Regular License, so 4 points was 100%. If you applied for that unit and had too few points, you went into the random draw and had a 2% chance of being drawn. With a Special License, you only needed 2 points to draw and random odds increased to 12%.

UNT No Pref Points required to Draw Random Draw Odds Spcl Lic. Points Req to Draw Random Odds – Special License
1* 0 100% 0 100%
2* 0 100% 0 100%
3* 0 100% 0 100%
4* 0 100% 0 100%
5* 2 6% 0 100%
6* 1 53% 0 100%
7* 1 12% 0 100%
8* 0 100% 0 100%
9* 1 37% 0 100%
10* 0 100% 0 100%
11* 1 8% 0 (81%) 100%
15* 0 100% 0 100%
16* 0 100% 0 100%
17* 0 100% 0 100%
18* 1 14% 0 100%
19* 0 100% 0 100%
20* 0 100% 0 100%
21* 0 (73%) 94% 0 100%
22* 0 100% 0 100%
23* 0 100% 0 100%
24* 0 100% 0 100%
25* 0 100% 0 100%
26* 0 (71%) 91% 0 100%
27 3 (70%) 2% 2 12%
29* 2 2% 0 (83%) 100%
29* 0 100% 0 100%
30* 0 (77%) 132% 0 100%
31* 1 8% 0 100%
32 4 3% 2 20%
34* 1 19% 0 100%
37* 1 19% 0 100%
38* 1 11% 0 100%
41*
42* 1 (91%) 7% 0 (50%) 70%
43* 1 21% 0 100%
44* 1 6% 0 (75%) 100%
45* 1 7% 0 100%
46 2 2% 0 17%
46 2 7% 0 100%
47 5 3% 3 14%
47 5 4% 3 7%
48 5 2% 2 10%
48 5 5% 2 14%
50* 1 0 100%
50* 2 (78%) 5% 2 13%
51* 1 5% 3 7%
52 5 (83%) 1% 4 2%
52 3 4% 2 7%
53 8 1% 6 (60%) 4%
55 7 5% 1 25%
56* 6 5% 0 (67%) 100%
57 9 2% 9 4%
58 9 (75%) 0% 8 (50%) 0%
59 6 5% 2 29%
60 9 (15%) 0% 9 (75%) 0%
61 9 (81%) 1% 9 (67%) 2%
62 9 0% 3 (50%) 0%
62 9 7% 4 18%
63 6 3% 13%
63 6 12% 2 (75%) 16%
64 9 2% 7 6%
65 6 1% 3 (67%) 4%
66 6 4% 3 (67%) 4%
67 7 3% 5 7%
68 6 4% 5 4%
69 3 8% 2 (67%) 13%
70 2 2% 0 (50%) 100%
71 2 5% 0 (50%) 25%
72 4 3% 2 22%
73 4 4% 3 15%
74 4 (93%) 8% 2 19%
75 5 4% 3 14%
76 4 6% 2 14%
76 0 (44%) 25% 0 100%
77 5 6% 1 (67%) 6%
77 1 0% 0 (67%) 0%
78 4 5% 3 (89%) 22%
79 1 0% 0 100%
79 1 0% 1 100%
80 6 1% 3 14%
81 3 4% 1 20%
82 3 (50%) 4% 1 12%
83 5 3% 3 3%
84 2 (75%) 7% 0 100%
85 3 0% 1 0%
86 3 3% 0 33%
87 3 6% 1 (72%) 9%
87 3 (66%) 8% 1 (70%) 17%
88* 3 (87%) 8% 1 (80%) 13%
89 5 (69%) 3% 4 5%
89 5 3% 1 12%
90 4 (75%) 3% 4 9%
90 6 (70%) 4% 4 9%
91 5 4% 4 10%
92 8 (78%) 1% 6 3%
93 6 3% 4 (93%) 7%
94 5 (61%) 3% 3 (65%) 12%
95 6 (67%) 2% 4 (47%) 7%
96 8 0% 5 (50%) 0%
97 2 10% 1 (89%) 17%
97 2 6% 0 100%
98 4 (55%) 5% 3 6%
99 0 100%
99 4 3% 2 (56%) 8%
100 5 (62%) 2% 4 8%
102* 0 100% 0 100%
103* 1 11% 1 46%
106 6 1% 4 (75%) 5%
107 5 100% 2 (67%) 100%
107 5 2% 2 25%
108 2 (67%) 6% 0 100%
109* 0 100% 0 100%
110 3 3% 1 (67%) 10%
111* 0 (65%) 57% 0 100%
112 7 (63%) 2% 4 8%
113* 0 (48%) 32% 0 100%
113* 0 0% 0 100%
114 8 1% 9 5%
114 3 0% 1 0%
115 5 3% 3 (86%) 12%

So there it is. It only takes a few minutes to see that the “accessible units” are requiring preference points to guarantee a hunt, in most cases several preference points. If you are willing to pay for a Special license (which I think is a better alternative than paying a trespass fee) you can find a few units which can be drawn with no preference points.

I have a full spreadsheet with detailed draw and harvest stats as well as % public land for every unit. Email me at n4thehunt@gmail.com and I will send it to you interested.

There is some good news out there regarding antelope hunting in the west. Montana biologists reported antelope numbers increased by 30% in the last year due to lower winter kill and great fawn recruitment. I spoke with WY Game and Fish in November 2015 and they were also seeing numbers rebound. Both states expect to INCREASE antelope tags moving forward. With a strong El Nino we are anticipating another fairly mild winter in 15-16, so antelope and deer numbers should continue to rebound strongly. I expect to see a reduction in the number of points required to draw these units in the years to come. Good news for those of us who love to hunt the prairie speed goat !

Posted in Hunt Planning | 2 Comments

Building an AR Varmint Rifle

Going to Pick up a Montana Black Gold Upper and Lower tomorrow from Clay Ellig. Decided on the .204 Ruger. I am going to document the process of selecting components. A lot to choose from.  Here we go.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Montana 2014 DIY Elk – Bulls and Grizzlies – Part 1

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We headed into camp this year with a lot of anticipation. Montana had good precipitation all spring and summer and cooler temperatures and we hoped that would keep the elk high and near our 9000′ camp. The last two years had been hot and dry and tough hunting. A pack of wolves in the area kept the bulls quiet last year and Dan’s elk had came in to a cow call without making a peep. So we were excited when we rode into camp and found the grass taller and greener than normal. We had already had a snow storm and remnants still clung to the shady spots and north facing timber. For three days we hunted without seeing an elk and hearing only one bugle down in a distant basin. As we sat around the fire Saturday night we discussed the possibility of throwing in the towel at this camp and moving on to new country the following year. We hunted again the following morning, hearing nary a peep from a bull and a few hours later I watched as Dan rode out of camp with two of our four horses.

The elk were obviously not high and I had the feeling I needed to drop lower in elevation to find them. Maybe the snow had pushed them down. Or foraging wolves. So early that afternoon I rode out of camp and headed west.  An hour later I loosened the reins and  let Bailey walk to a clump of bristlecone pines where we always tied up, just where the mountain broke towards the  valley floor 4000 feet below.

I dropped off the face and put a half mile between me and the horses.   There was a rock outcrop  along a ridge that split two basins so I took a seat and began taking in the scenery below me. I wasn’t really thinking about killing an elk. I was still trying to get my shit together. It feels different, being alone, this far in. A lot of it is the bears. We had been seeing a lot of grizzly sign. You can’t shake that feeling of being watched; staying on high alert, constantly looking over your shoulder. I have hunted  where there are no grizzlies and you move through the woods differently, with a lightness I don’t have here. But that initial feeling of anxiety eventually subsides as the reality of your situation sets in and you focus on the business of hunting elk. Just go through the motions; grab your gear, saddle the horses, look for elk sign. But at that moment on the ridge, with Dan only two hours gone, I was still shaking it. I settled in and watched and waited to see what might come about. It was only 3 PM and warm but experience told me that anything can happen in mid September when the elk move into full rut.

Thirty minutes later a throaty bugle rose from the basin below and shook any remaining funk out of me. Game on. I moved down the mountain and twenty minutes later I spotted cows moving in the trees two hundred yards below. The bull bugled again but was hidden from view. I pulled out the Montana Decoy cow elk we affectionately call “Dolly” and set her up. She may be a flat picture on fabric but sometimes she is enough to distract a bull. When hunting alone, it helps to have a good wing man. I began slowly moving closer to the herd, using the decoy to shield me in case wandering eyes looked my way.  I wanted to be less than 100 yards from the bull before I tried calling him in. When I made it to a point where I could move no closer without spooking the cows, I planted Dolly out in the open and moved 5o yards below her to a tight clump of pines. At the sound of my cow call  the mountain erupted with bugles. Four different bulls called from below me, including the herd bull and another from my right. The herd bull stepped into view  and started raking a small pine. He was a stud of a bull. But two of the other bulls were obviously coming in, and fast, and the big boy wasn’t sticking around. He turned and started pushing his cows away just as a 310 class 6×6 came barreling through the trees on my right. I turned and drew as he slowed to a walk but when he stopped at 40 yards only his head and neck were visible. He was looking for the cow but couldn’t see the decoy from his angle and I couldn’t cow call with him so close so we stood in a stand-off for a couple of minutes. When he turned to walk away, I let the bow down and cow called. Another bull screamed in response below me as the bull I was watching turned around and headed back my way. Again, I drew and again he stopped, without offering me a shot, looking for a cow that wasn’t there. Below me the other bull bugled again and while still holding at full draw I peeked over my shoulder to see him raking a pine just 75 yards below me.  These are the predicaments we bow hunters dream of.

My arms began to shake from holding the drawn bow when the elk across from me had finally  had enough and turned and left the way he had came. I let off again and turned slowly to face the bull that was now walking up the slope towards me. At 60 yards he stopped to bugle and then at 40, and then 20. Slobbering and urinating as he came, he was so close I could smell him and watch his nostrils flare as he bugled. He was coming at my 10:00 and would pass behind a large pine that stood less than ten yards from me. “Come on”.. I told him, “keep coming.”.  And he did and it was perfect. As his head passed behind the tree I drew and then watched in horror as my arrow came off the string, flipped backwards off the rest and fell,  landing facing backwards on my left boot. When I had let down on the last bull it must have popped the nock loose on the string.Of course the elk stepped from behind the tree just as the arrow clinked off the rest and fell and now he stood frozen at 10 yards staring straight at me with a most curious look. I stood motionless at full draw looking through the now pointless bow sight at the bull .  We stood like that for what seemed like several minutes.  I started thinking to myself, “Ok, so IF you had an arrow in this bow right now then where would you shoot him?” The elk on the other hand seemed indifferent. He just looked at me as if he was trying to figure out what I was and finally he grew impatient and turned and walked back the way he had came.

As he passed behind the tree I let down and grabbed my arrow and had just stood up when he came from behind the tree, turned to the right and started walking directly in front of me. Elk gods apparently  do exist and I might just have another chance. I knocked the arrow and lifted my bow slowly and smoothly but the elk was only 15 yards away and the motion stopped him in his tracks. Broadside. A chip shot if there was such a thing when elk hunting. But I had to draw my bow without spooking him. I had always wondered, in such situations when you are pinned by a bull and cannot draw without him seeing it if you would be better off cow calling first and THEN drawing. Just help with his confusion a bit. Give him a girl to think about. So I did. I tried my most passionate cow in heat call and as the bull looked directly at me, I drew. And it worked perfectly. Except the string from my rest to the bow string was wrapped around the knob on the rest base and I couldn’t come to full draw. It took me a second to figure out what was going on and I wanted to laugh. Two chances at a bull and both foiled by equipment failure. I just smiled as I had to let the bow down.

The bull had finally had enough of me and started at a quick walk down the hill. I popped the string loose from around the rest and cow called again. I was startled by another bugle just below me and looked  to see two young bulls walking up the hill directly toward Miss Dolly. Their presence caused the big bull to stop. He was in some thick pines and I could only see his rack swiveling as he watched the two elk come up the hill. If he stayed on his course he would pass into an open spot between two trees and give me a shot. I dug my rangefinder out just as the 5×5 bull walked by me almost close enough to stab him with my arrow. He, and the raggy horn behind him were transfixed on the decoy and paying no attention to me. The gap in the trees was 54 yards away and as I stuffed the rangefinder back in my pocket the big bull began walking toward it. I drew and as he stepped in the lane I cow called as loudly as I could. He paused and when the 5o yard pin found the spot I wanted behind his shoulder and just below his spine I triggered the release. The arrow seemed to fly forever, the orange knock glowing in the evening light. Rising, then falling and disappearing into the shadows surrounding the bull. He spun and the orange fletching sticking out low and just behind his shoulder told me he was done. A noisy flight through the trees and seconds later a tremendous crash. The mountain was quite and suddenly all of the elk were just gone.

I knew he was probably already dead but I still sat and waited for almost an hour before heading down the slope. It is one of the best hours you will ever spend.  I try to take these moments in. Smell the air, feel the dirt and stone beneath me.

I found leaves and dirt kicked up where he ran, then the broken arrow, covered in blood. I followed the divots on the slope and found him piled him up against a tree only 70 yards from where I hit him. I sat down for a few minutes, admiring him where he fell. But the sun was beginning to sit low and I had a lot of work ahead of me. I pulled off my pack and rolled up my sleeves.

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Stone Glacier Solo Pack Review

Stone Glacier Pack – Solo

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Elk Hunting in Idaho’s St Joe National Forest. Believe it or not, in Idaho you don’t have to wear orange !

I had been keeping my eye on Stone Glacier since the gear guys at Pro-Lite Gear in Bozeman had raved about the strength to weight ratio of Kurt Racicot’s design.  I had been hunting out of a Mystery Ranch Crew Cab pack since 2008 and while it is built like a tank, it weighs around 8 lbs. empty. I was looking for a lighter pack option.

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Using Solo as a Day Pack – check out that rub !

Intrigued, I called Kurt in the fall 2012 and asked about the pack and its features. Kurt was great and the story was compelling, but I decided to stick with the Crew Cab for the 2012 hunting season. Sometime in late 2012 or early 2013 Schnees Sporting Goods in Bozeman became the exclusive retailer for Stone Glacier Packs.Seeing is believing and when I stopped by Schnees the next summer to talk to Pete Muennich about the mountain goat tag I drew, I was excited to see the display of Stone Glacier packs. Pete loaded a Solo up with a 50 lb bag of salt and some stuffing to balance out the load. One trip around the store carrying the load in the 3 lb pack had me convinced. My Crew Cab went on Craigslist and I picked up my Solo the next week. 

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My 2013 mulie with a bow. 72 pounds of cape, head and boned out meat and almost 12 miles from the trailhead.

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Scouting for Mountain Goats in July with my new Solo.

 

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Humping out Pat’s goat. Head, hide and feet plus gear. The Stone Glacier Solo carried the weight well. It was a long way out of there.

You will find a more technical review of this pack elsewhere on the internet. I am not a gear nut so I will not delve into the details of the construction of this pack. I love to hunt and I find the best gear to get me in and out of the steep stuff in Montana. If you are wondering how this pack holds up for the long haul and carries weight, then keep reading.

Before I purchased the Solo I read the few reviews I could find on the internet regarding Kurt’s relatively new design. There was criticism regarding the durability of the fabric, especially on the bottom of the pack. Concern that it would abrade after being set down repeatedly on rough surfaces. There was some skepticism about the belt system and its comfort when hauling heavy weight. Lack of pockets. Solid gray color and no camo option. And while there were a lot of positive comments, most were by readers intrigued with the weight and overall look but few comments yet by actual users of the system. Stone Glacier’s packs do not have the benefit yet of years of experience in the broader market to give potential buyers a lot of comfort in the pack’s ability to perform.  This is after all not a cheap pack and the price will give many buyers pause before committing to a new design.

So how did it do ? Between July and December 2013 I carried the pack for 58 days backpacking,  scouting or hunting.

In addition to hauling gear in and out of the backcountry the pack hauled out two mountain goats, a mule deer buck, and two antelope. The two goats were multi hour hauls weighing around 65 and 100 lbs. Both antelope were shot 4 miles from camp on the same day; sixteen miles total.  One load included an entire buck antelope, spotting scope and rifle for around 80 lbs. The second load was just the antelope. Finally, the trek out with the mule deer started at 11:00 AM and ended at almost 6 PM. Back home we weighed the pack at 72 lbs and I figured I had humped that load out for almost 12 miles.

What impressed me was that the pack’s webbing and stitching held up with no issue even as I slung the pack around by its straps under weight while taking it on and off my back, putting in on horses and throwing it into the back of my truck.

Regarding the durability of the pack bag itself, the Solo was set down literally hundreds of times while packed with weight, bounced around in the back of my truck on rutted roads, caught on pine stobs, and rolled down scree slopes. Other than some light chafing on the top side edge where my rifle rests when slung, the Solo shows no wear at all to the Cordura bag.

The Solo does not come with a lot of pockets or compartments. I purchased the separate accessory pocket for the back of the bag that I used all season. That and the inside map pocket were adequate for small items. I also used ultralight stuff stacks to help with separation of gear inside the bag. There were times when I was digging around for stuff but that was usually due to me being lazy and tossing things into the main bag compartment and not putting them in their proper place. All in all, the lack of compartments and pockets was not an issue for me and well worth the light weight of the pack.

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Trying to find my nephew a good mulie in the Breaks. Conner passed up several young bucks but we never had a chance at a big one.

The pack utilizes a load shelf for carrying large loads between the pack frame and the bag. It works extremely well. The only issue I had was when carrying out several game bags full of boned out mule deer meat. The individual bags had a tendency to settle to the bottom of the load shelf and squeeze out between the straps that cinch the pack bag down to the frame. I had a lot of random gear in the bag itself and the mulie head and cape strapped on the outside. Packed that way I couldn’t get the side straps cinched down as tight as required.  So I stopped at camp on the way out and repacked the meat into a single heavier game bag.  The rest of the way out I had no more problems with the meat squeezing out. Later I would find that packing entire quarters was not an issue either.  The load shelf and bag work great together. You just need to know how to use the system. The Stone Glacier Solo pack met or exceeded all of my expectations in comfort, durability and design. I highly recommend it.

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Good day in Idaho. Day packing with the Solo.

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Where are all of the antelope? Hunting Wyoming with Solo loaded with spotting scope and gear.

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6 PM, getting dark and miles from the horses. One of those kind of days. The Stone Glacier Solo carried the entire goat; head, hide and boned out meat. The pack carried the weight better than I carried the pack ! I was wiped out after a couple of hours and Dan had to take over.

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Schnees’ Granite Mountain Boot – Rockin the high country

Schnee’s Granite Mountain Boot

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This is a review of a remarkable pair of mountain boots. But indulge me for a moment because this story starts back in 2006 with a phone call to the then fledgling hunting apparel company Sitka Gear. I had just finished putting a pair of Sitkas’ first generation mountain pants through a tough season. I loved the product but was wondering about the lack of waterproof apparel in Sitka’s lineup. One of Sitka’s founders, Jason Hairston (now of KUIU) took my call and listened patiently while I questioned their lack of a waterproof, insulated jacket. “It’s because it’s all about breathability”, Jason explained. “And there is no such thing as a truly breathable fabric that is also waterproof”.

An awkward moment of silence followed while my brain tried to cope with what Jason had just said. I just had to ask the inevitable question. “What about Gore-Tex?” I blurted out while cringing at the anticipated response that must follow such an obvious observation.

But Jason was great and took the time to explain that Gore-Tex, while a significant improvement over the plastic coated waterproof fabrics of the past, was not really all that breathable when it came to venting off the humidity you generate when under a lot of exertion. ‘Go with the most breathable fabrics possible and carry light rain gear in your pack for when you need it. Don’t try and make one outer layer do it all.” That was Jason’s parting advice and by the time I had finished the next hunting season decked out in Sitka gear, I was a believer. I stayed drier and warmer than I had ever been when hunting the mountains of southwest Montana.

This story jumps ahead to 2011 when I was in the planning stages for a trip to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro. In the five days en route to the summit you experience multiple micro-climates. Monkeys dart in the jungle treetops in hot, humid +80 degree weather when you begin your climb. A few days later you are experiencing sub-zero temps on the summit. While not a technical mountain, it is one of the world’s toughest treks. On the final push you gain 4400 feet in elevation in only 4 miles while climbing from 15,000 to 19,400 feet.  After reaching the summit you descend 9000 feet over 14.5 miles to reach the next camp. It’s a long day. To handle it, the gear gurus at Pro-Lite Gear in Bozeman recommended a jacket shell made out of eVent fabric. I had never heard of eVent but a demonstration of eVent’s breathability at the shop made me curious. (See the Pro-Lite guys demonstrate this same test at the following link: http://wn.com/event_vs_gore-tex ). Doing some more research on the web I found that eVent was developed by GE and had been tested by the military. The US Army reported that eVent fabric proved to be the most breathable of all materials tested, averaging twice the breathability of its closest competitor. What differentiates eVent fabric technology from EPTFE-based waterproof-breathable laminates used in other waterproof garments?

Open-pored Expanded Polytetrafluoroethylene membranes (EPTFE) have been used in waterproof apparel applications for over 30 years. But they have been used in a “bi-component” fashion that covered the open pores with a layer of polyurethane (PU). This PU layer reduces inherent breathability by inhibiting the free escape of perspiration vapor. The eVent fabric approach is different and avoids the use of that polyurethane layer. Rather than take an open-pore membrane and turn it into a closed-pore laminate, eVent’s patented process retains the natural venting ability of all those microscopic pores.”

It all sounded good. So I bought a Westcomb jacket made of eVent. On summit day we left sub-zero temperatures on top and were soon descending fourteen miles in a downpour. The mercury soared and by the time we hit the next camp the temperature was over seventy degrees. I pulled off my eVent jacket to find my base layers dry. Another climber in our group was sporting an REI Shuksan Jacket in eVent. He was dry too. The climbers who were wearing other products? Not so much.

So what does this have to do with a pair of boots and why have I wasted your time reading about jackets when all you want to know is if these darn boots are any good?  It’s simple. Schnee’s Granite Mountain Boot uses an eVent waterproof membrane. And that makes a huge difference.

As the summer of 2013 rolled around I was still a dyed in the wool Lowa fan and the proud owner of three pairs of Gore-Tex clad Lowa boots. These included an aging pair of Schnee’s branded Lowa Sheephunters that were my go to elk clogs and a pair of Lowa Tibet GTX that had seen me to the top of several mountains. Unfortunately, my Sheephunters would never actually get to hunt a sheep because several seasons of humping the high country had broken them in like a 25 year old pack horse. You can trust them with your life but they were getting a little tired. So I was happy when Jon Edwards and Pete Muennich picked a bull of mine to be recognized during Schnee’s annual Boone and Crockett scoring event in downtown Bozeman. It was the first time an elk won me anything but a tired back. But I left Schnee’s that evening with a new pair of Granite Mountain Boots.

I outfitted my new boots with a pair of green Superfeet premium insoles and took them for a spin up the M Trail the next day.  They were super comfortable right out of the box.  Great arch and ankle support and amazingly solid feeling for such a light weight high top boot. I decided to sell the old Sheephunters on Craigslist and soon anointed the Granites as my new go to late fall and winter boot.

I am tough on my footwear. In 2012 I logged 348 GPS tracked foot miles while hunting in Montana, Idaho and Colorado.  Your boots are one of the single best investments you will make in your gear package and not a place to cut corners. In 2013, now Lowa-less,  I wore the new Granites while hunting in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming including nine days chasing mountain goats. The boots carried in a lot of weight and carried out a few critters as well.

The Granites proved to be every bit as comfortable and durable as my old boots. But what I really noticed was how much drier, and warmer, my feet stayed. At the end of the day, my normally damp socks and wilted feet were noticeably drier. Drier socks made for drier boots. And drier boots equate to warmer and more comfortable feet.  So let’s go back to where I started with my Sitka Gear and Kilimanjaro stories. It really IS all about breathability when you are pushing the limits and want to stay dry, comfortable and warm. Let’s face it, there are a lot of good boot manufacturers out there today that you can choose from. What is it that sets one boot apart from all of the others? In my opinion, three things; 1) Comfort out of the box and ease of break in 2) Breathability 3) Customer Support. Schnee’s and their Granite boots excel in all three.

Schnee’s Sheephunters paved the way for the current family of extreme mountain hunting boots we have today. It was not that long ago when they were the only choice in a serious mountain/backcountry hunting boot. Fortunately, Schnee’s has re-invented the Sheephunter in the Granite Mountain boot and the new reincarnation lost nothing in the transition.  If you interested in owning the finest pair of high country mountain boots available, call the folks at Schnee’s at 1-800-922-1562 or visit their website at  www.schnees.com. The people that work at Schnees are avid hunters and outdoors enthusiasts and they stand by their 100% satisfaction guarantee.

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Here, There be Dragons – 2013 Montana DIY Mountain Goat Hunt

     It was the end of September and a winter storm was moving toward southwest Montana when Dick and I  left our base camp on Moose Creek at 5AM in a light rain and headed toward the top of the Gallatin Divide. Our packs were stocked with only bivy sacks, sleeping bags, a tarp and enough food to last five nights. A last minute decision to bushwhack off trail and try to find a more direct route to the top of the divide proved disastrous and by ten that morning Dick and I were clambering out of the drainage and onto the same logging road we had driven in on the night before. We were no closer to our destination, three miles from our camp,  soaked, and five hours behind schedule. Hiking along with few words said, we made it back down the road to camp. There we changed clothes and then followed our original plan to take the Forest Service trail up to the aptly named Windy Pass. Above the tree line, we intersected the divide trail that runs the crest of the Gallatin Range and took it north.

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For another five miles we skirted the summits of the peaks jutting from the divide to a series of basins where I had found mountain goats while scouting in August.

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It was late afternoon before we had the tarp stretched between a clump of bristlecone pines along the ridge top and our Spartan camp set up underneath. I secured my gear against the howling wind, grabbed my binoculars and started glassing the mountain faces around me. Across the basin over a mile away, several white spots were visible on a promontory below a cliff face.  “Goats” I said out loud to Dick who was trying to tighten the lines of the tarp as it snapped in protest to the wind. In a few moments he was at my side staring across the void of the basin. “So,  you up for this?” I asked. We had been going hard for ten hours and probably should have called it a day, but I was eager to get a closer look at the goats. “Sure” Dick replied.

We grabbed our packs, now much lighter and trudged down the ridge into a whipping wind laced with sleet. Two hours later we had worked ourselves around the basin rim, crossed a steep face and climbed to the top of a knife ridge above the goats. Peering over the top, I spotted several animals scattered among the rocks several hundred yards below us. Dick handed the spotting scope up to where I was perched and I balanced it on the rocks to take a closer look at the goats.

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 They were all nannies and kids. But below them further down on the face a small patch of white revealed another goat in the rocks. From my angle I couldn’t see its head. It was bedded on a small outcrop and it would take at least thirty minutes to get to a position where I could get a better view. I looked at my watch. It would be dark in an hour and the wind was not letting up. The goat would have to wait until morning. We lowered ourselves back down from the crest of the ridge and picked our way through rock scree and patches of ice finally reaching the divide trail just as it was getting dark. Back at camp we found the tarp hanging by a single piece of twine, like a tattered flag whipping in the wind from the mast of a sinking ship. My bivy sack had blown into the trees and my gear lay scattered on the ground.  We managed to gather our gear and retie the tarp before crawling into our bags and preparing freeze dried dinners. I tucked the hot package of beef stroganoff into my sleeping bag and basked in the heat until my hunger finally won out. After setting the alarm clock on my GPS, I zipped the bivy sack up around me like a body bag and tried to fall asleep while the tarp above us cracked like a whip in the wind.

There is only one thing that you can be sure of when it comes to DIY mountain goat hunting. You can count on getting your ass kicked.

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You will find very little information available on the habits of mountain goats or methods used to hunt them. Unlike deer and elk, there aren’t  books dedicated to goat hunting. As a species they don’t share the glamour or the enthusiasm the hunting community bestows upon wild sheep. Unlike moose feeding among willows, goats live up high in a no-man’s land, white spots against gray buttresses of rock, only seen from far below. Other than hunters, only the most adventurous souls will ever reach the places where mountain goats dwell. Still there are those of us that dutifully apply for the few mountain goat tags given out each year. After twelve years of trying I was fortunate to drawn one.

But where do you begin? My friend Jesse Nelson warned me that your mountain goat hunt needs to start the day you draw your tag. So I talked to biologists, fish and game officers, and hunters who had drawn the tag in previous years.  I learned that on average only 50% of the tag holders are successful in taking a goat. Apparently some hunters don’t understand just how remote and steep the country is and quit, intimidated by the elevation and hostility of the terrain. Others who drew the tag just wait too long and are snowed out of the mountains.

So I needed to not only decide where to hunt in the unit I drew but when. The season runs from September 15th until December 1st.   Each time I looked at a calendar I couldn’t help but worry about the snow.  In mid September when the season opens the goats are scruffy and haven’t donned their winter coats. But wait too long and you run the risk of heavy snow making access into the high country impossible. I had a few days to hunt at the end of September and then wouldn’t have a chance to try for goats again until October 27th.  I didn’t want to waste this once in a lifetime opportunity so I decided to start my hunt on September 25th. So “when” was decided, now “where”. I spent summer weekends scouting the basins and peaks of the units. I saw several groups of nannies and kids and a handful of solo billies.

The highest country of the unit was along the Gallatin Divide, a singular ridge that separates the Paradise Valley and Gallatin Canyon in Southwestern Montana. The entire divide is remote and touches 10,000 feet along most of its length, but there is one stretch that is particularly inaccessible. Eighteen miles separate the Forest Service trailheads at each end of the span. In between, the divide lays protected behind miles of rugged wilderness. It was here that I had found the greatest concentration of goats during an August scouting trip. But it was a long way in. I decided to stay high and stay mobile. We would go in with only bivy sacks, sleeping bags and a tarp, camp at the top of the divide, and move daily as needed to find goats.

I was both excited by the challenge and a little apprehensive about my lack of experience hunting mountain goats in the high country. One night, as I sat in the kitchen studying a topographic map of the unit, I thought of the ancient mapmakers who, knowing not what lay beyond explored territory, simply wrote upon their maps “Here, there be dragons”.

The next morning we stayed in our bivy sacks until it became light enough to see. I figured the goats weren’t going too far from where we had spotted them.  I knocked the snow off my bag, crawled out and began scrounging for wood to build a fire. The wind had died during the early morning hours and we enjoyed the respite while warming up and making coffee in the Jet Boil. Vivid spots of blue peeked out of the gray mass of clouds above us. They lulled us into believing that the weather forecast might be wrong. Maybe the weather was breaking and the storm had missed us. Sucker Holes, my brother calls them. I hoped that this time he was wrong.

I set up the spotting scope on a knob just east of camp and soon found the goats. Below them, on a small ledge the single goat lay alone, but it was too far to determine if it was a billy or nanny. We hurried down the divide trail, skirted the top of the cirque and were back at the rock wall and ridge where we had quit the night before.

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We worked along the backside to avoid being seen by the goats on our left until the ridge abutted the face of the mountain in front of us. As we crept along, Dick spotted some goats on our right climbing out of the sparse timber of the basin below us. A look through our binoculars revealed kids and nannies and we quickly turned our attention back to the goats on our left. When the ridge ended abruptly against the mountain face, we quietly climbed over the top and dropped to the south side.

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Hugging the mountain we inched around the rock wall grimacing as loose scree tumbled down the steep slope toward the goats bedded a few hundred yards below. Amazingly, they ignored the noise and never looked up. After an hour of slipping and sliding we made it around the mountain to the stone abutment that jutted out above the ledge where the single goat had been bedded. I was certain the goat would be there and that it would be a billy. Finally on some level ground we padded silently down a goat trail on the rock toward our quarry. A screen of trees rose from a ravine on our right and through the limbs we spotted a group of goats bedded on a grassy slope less than 200 yards above us. If they had seen us they didn’t act concerned so we stopped to set up the spotting scope and take a closer look. It was the group of nannies and kids we had been seeing for the last two days. Sixteen goats were casually napping or browsing just above us. Two of them were huge nannies, bedded alone without kids and sporting long horns. If it came to it, I thought, I would be happy with either one of those goats.  Compared to a mature billy, the bases of their horns were thinner and they carried less mass along the length. They also lacked the telltale curve of a billy’s horns. Both were old nannies, well over nine inches with one looking close to ten. But the season was still young and I had a billy just over the edge of the mountain. I knew the group of nannies and kids would stay put.

Dick stayed back as I inched out on rock above the ledge. Crevasses ran down both sides with pockets along the face. I couldn’t see the goat anywhere. I moved along the ledges, peering down into the cracks and holes of the mountain but the goat was gone.

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Maybe it had been a nanny and was now with the group above us on the slope. I looked for another twenty minutes and then climbed back up the mountain to rejoin Dick who was now looking through his binoculars across the drainage further to the south. “I see a single goat bedded out on that rock outcrop way over there” he said without taking his eyes from the binoculars. “I wasn’t sure if I should tell you though because I know you’re going to want to go after it.” He was smiling at me when he lowered his glasses but behind the sarcasm I had detected a hint of real concern.

I looked through my binoculars and found the tiny white speck he had spotted. It must have been two miles away and on the far side of the drainage. I dug the spotting scope out of my pack and even at sixty times magnification it still looked like just a white spot on the rocks. But it was at least in the shape of a bedded goat. “Gotta be a goat” I said. “Gotta be” replied Dick. “Probably a billy” I said hopefully.

The problem was, we had two choices in getting to that goat before dark and neither was going to be any fun. We could climb back around the mountain face on the scree slope, navigate the rock ridge, climb back up to the divide trail and take it around the drainage to a point above the goat and then descend back down 1500 feet. Or, we could just bail off the face we were on, drop to the bottom of the drainage, beeline across and climb back up above the goat. Going back the way we had come was not something I wanted to do but at least all of the variables were known. Looking down into the drainage below us with its forested ridges and basins made me apprehensive. It looked straightforward. Drop down to the gentler terrain below tree line, skirt around the drainage bowl and climb back up to the ridge above the goat. But I have fought my way through enough lodgepole, downed timber, and north facing jungles to know that it wouldn’t be as easy as it looked. It was almost 1 PM and it would be getting dark by 5. The patches of blue were covered in a darkening mass of gray and the wind was starting to howl again.  I made a decision. We bailed off the rock ledge and dropped into the abyss.

It was fairly open all the way to the bottom. We found good water coming from the rocks and quenched our thirst and re-filled the water bottles. We made it around the south face of the drainage and began traversing the side of the basin through the north facing timber. At first elk trails made the going manageable, but soon the hillside grew impassably steep and covered with blown down beetle killed pines. “We have to climb out of this” I told Dick and we began pulling ourselves up the mountain using every bush and tree trunk as a handhold. It was almost two hours later when we came out on a bench above the outcrop where Dick had spotted the goat. We moved slowly along the bench, glassing the rocks and ledges below us. The goat was gone. I pointed down the mountain to the gray stone buttress protruding from the mountain slope. “That’s it, right? That’s the outcrop where we saw the goat?” I asked Dick.

“I’m almost positive it is”, he replied. “Well, then he’s gotta be there somewhere” I said. “Let’s get down there”.

We descended five hundred feet down a rocky, ice covered slope to a bench which jutted out from the mountain for fifty yards to form the outcropping where the goat had once bedded. Twenty feet above us we spotted a cave entrance in the cliff wall. The wind was now buffeting us and it had begun to sleet. We decided to climb up to the cave to  rest our legs and take a break from the wind The cave was really a deep hole under a ledge, carved out by millions of years of wind and water. Generations of goats had used this as a place of shelter and white goat hairs littered the dry dirt of the floor. I dug out a Clif Bar and stretched out to take as much load off my tired legs as I could. I contemplated the situation. The wind had just started to come up when we first spotted the goat. Now it whipped around the drainage, forty mile per hour gusts stinging our faces with pellets of sleet. I looked down at the outcropping and thought that no goat in his right mind would remain bedded and exposed to that wind out on the rock. No, he would  seek shelter just as we had. We finished our break and dropped out of the cave to the bench below. Moving along the mountain slope toward the outcropping, we passed above a ravine that ran down the length of the outcrop towards the basin below. Pine trees grew in clumps from the bottom of the ravine. With each step, I glassed every inch that I could see. My binoculars passed over a small patch of white visible through the branches. At first it I thought it was snow but it seemed out of place and there were no other snow patches visible in the ravine. I moved slightly to my right and the patch grew larger and had a definite yellowish hue. “I think I found him” I whispered to Dick.

The pines closed around the goat as we moved closer to the outcrop and the white patch was lost from view. It was the most of the goat we were able to see but I was sure it was our billy. I climbed out on the outcrop above where I thought the goat was bedded against the east wall of the buttress where it met the edge of the ravine. Mindful of the gusting wind, I leaned over the edge as far as I dared. There straight down and fifty feet below me was the billy nestled tight against the wall. I could have dropped a rock on him but there was no way to get far enough out over the edge to get make an ethical shot. I looked back at Dick and pointed down toward the goat, mouthing “He’s right there!”

We both looked around for a solution to our conundrum. We were standing fifty feet from a big billy and could not get a shot at it. It was obvious that the only course of action was to climb back up the mountain and drop down on the other side of the ravine. From there we could work our way through the trees across from the goat and hopefully make a relatively easy shot. I crossed my fingers that the goat would stay put until we got there. Thirty minutes later, I was sliding across the slope on my butt six inches at a time. I could see the billy more clearly through the trees but couldn’t get a clear shot. Dick held back as I made the final stalk on my rear end. I had the bi-pod extended for a sitting position shot if luck would stay with me. After all of the hours and miles and hard work, it was coming down to a few feet and minutes. I kept telling myself to be patient but I was growing increasingly worried that the goat would get up and move and leave me without a clear shot. I crawled carefully across a downed log and resumed my seated position on the steep slope. I could now see the entire goat through the trees only 150 yards below me. He was bedded and looking away from me, having no idea what lurked on the slope above him. Through my scope I stared at his heavy black horns which swept back past his ears. He was heavily furred and the width of his head indicated maturity. This was the billy I had been looking for.

I settled comfortably behind the little Kimber rifle. The certainty of the outcome erased all of my jitters. Patience returned. The billy was as good as dead already. I just wanted to wait for a better angle for the shot.

Minutes passed like hours and finally the billy stood, perhaps to walk off, perhaps to just move to a more comfortable position and turned sideways. I focused on his shoulder moving the crosshairs to the lower third. The rifle would shoot a couple of inches high. I exhaled and started to squeeze. The bark of the rifle caught me off guard shattering the mountain air as the billy collapsed, kicking and sliding down the slope into a clump of trees. Then there was nothing but the ringing in my ears.

I looked back at Dick, grinning and gave him the thumbs up. We had done it!  We had killed a mature billy on a DIY hunt in tough conditions.

I heard movement in the trees and shot an inquiring glance at Dick who had heard it too. “He’s up and moving!” Dick said and then there was a crash and Dick, looking into the trees saw the goat fall. From where I sat I couldn’t see the billy but I could tell it was no longer moving. Dick walked over and we exchanged  congratulations and he graciously offered to climb back up to the bench to recover the packs. I was more than happy to let him. Suddenly I felt physically and mentally drained as the adrenaline in my veins waned. I was still on an emotional rush though and I wanted to savor the moment. I drew in a deep breath of the mountain air. I drank in my surroundings. I stared at my bruised and bloody knuckles. “Remember this moment” I told myself. Then I waited for my friend to return with the packs and climb down with me to see our goat.

Dick was back in twenty minutes and as he made his way towards me I asked him to take a few pictures. I threw my camera to him where he stood thirty yards to my right. He snapped a couple of pictures of the ravine and a couple of me still planted on my butt where I made the shot. But as he started walking toward me, I heard movement again in the trees below. “He’s moving again!” Dick shouted and before I could get to a place where I could see the goat clearly Dick had watched him slowly walk down the edge of the ravine around the end of the outcrop and out of sight.

There are those moments and decisions which we want so desperately to have back. I could have made my way down to the goat immediately after the shot and this story would most likely have a different ending. But it was a steep descent down to where he lay in the trees two hundred yards below us. I wanted Dick to be there when I approached the fallen goat. He hadn’t pulled the trigger but other than making the shot he had earned this goat as much as I had and I was grateful for his help and companionship on this hunt beyond my ability to convey in words. So I decided to wait until he retrieved the packs before climbing down to the goat.

But now the goat was gone. We would look for sign for the next hour as the light began to dim in the canyons of the drainage. We found footprints in the snow where the goat walked along the ravine but no blood and when the goat turned into the rocks we lost those too. The wind was gusting, the temperature dropping and it was beginning to snow. It is in that moment when the decision is made to abort the search that you feel the despair begin rising in your throat on wings of guilt while your confidence falls into a pit of disgust and self pity. These are the moments when I question my desire to do this. Wounding an animal, causing it to suffer as a result of my actions, is an excruciatingly emotional experience for me. While I remind myself that animals endure a hard life where death and injury are constant companions it is an excuse thinly veiled. But right then I had a bigger issue to confront. We were a long way from camp, far down on a dangerous mountain face, worn out and it was getting dark.

Exhausted, Dick and I make the mistake of getting separated as we climbed the mountain. As I moved around the edge of the rock face he was suddenly not there. Tired, I had lagged behind and lost him. I spotted what appeared to be a climbable chute in the rock wall and started up. The wind was so strong it caused me to flatten against the rock as gusts tore at me, threatening to blow me off the wall. After fifteen minutes I could go no further, it is too steep and I lack the confidence and strength to make the pull up the final thirty feet. Going down is always harder and by the time I pick my way down the chute I am sure Dick must be halfway back to camp. I find another route and make it to the top of the wall in time to see Dick come around the face down below me. He has obviously come back looking for me. He follows my first route up the chute and makes the final thirty feet look easy. We give each other shit for getting separated then relieved, start the climb up the ridge. Two hours later we stagger into camp, crawl into our bags and hunker down until morning. I toss and turn all night thinking about the goat, the shot.

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The next morning when we woke the wind was still blowing and it was snowing hard. The clouds  settled onto the mountains, obscuring visibility past 100 yards. Our water was gone. After we managed to start a fire, I grabbed all of the empty water bottles and dropped off the backside of the ridge into the basin below camp. I knew there would be a stream somewhere below at the head of the cirque that forms the basin. I descended down through the fog keeping my eyes open for bears and finally found water about a mile below camp. Climbing back up I felt every step of the last three days in my aching legs. It was snowing so hard that I had to follow my fast disappearing tracks to find the clump of trees where we made camp. After eating I made the decision to break camp and get out of the mountains. Conditions were deteriorating rapidly and we were both exhausted. Returning to the site of the shot last night was now out of the question. The day before Dick had told me he was as tired and worn out as he had ever been in his life. This was a serious admission coming from a guy who is one of the toughest people I know.

During the night I had also come to the conclusion that I must have not fatally hit the goat. I had pulled the shot, aimed too high, hit an unseen branch. Something must have happened and surely the goat was still alive and would recover fully.  It was probably wishful thinking but I needed to feel better and get out of the funk I was in.

I told Dick my plan. We would pull camp and head back south to Windy Pass. If it was still socked in when we got there we would call it a day. If the clouds lifted we would continue south three more miles to Eaglehead Mountain where I had seen a billy in early September. If we hadn’t spotted him by 3 PM we would head home.

At the Pass the clouds were giving the appearance of lifting so we took shelter in some trees, built a fire and ate some lunch hoping the weather might break but it never did. Neither of us really cared. We made it down to the truck by two in the afternoon and by the time we got within cell phone service I already had several text and voicemail messages from my brother and friends warning me about the winter storm that was beginning to dump on southwestern Montana. “If you get this message”, they all said, “you need to get the hell out of the mountains… now”. At first I chuckled at the futility of it. If I was still up there I wouldn’t have heard there warnings anyway. Then I realized that they really had no responsible choice except to try. It’s always comforting knowing there are people out there who have your back.  Dick and I got to the house, showered and headed for the Oasis to lick our wounds.

By Thursday it was pretty much all over. Almost a foot of new snow carpeted the highest elevations of the Gallatin Range. It was less than was forecasted but still a pretty good dump for September. Dick and I were leaving for Wyoming to hunt antelope on Saturday but I wanted to take one more shot at a goat before I left so Friday we got up early, climbed back to the divide through the snow and made our way south along the divide trail to Eagleh??????????????????????ead Mountain.

It was still windy and now bitterly cold. Dick spotted a decent 4×4 mulie buck bedded in the snow with two does as we plowed along the trail. He was only 100 yards or so away but he didn’t even bother to get up. Fortunately for him my 2013 deer tag was already punched. When we finally stood in the shadow of the mountain, Dick got a fire going back in the trees as I glassed the mountain’s face.  I quickly discovered how much more difficult it is to spot a white animal once there is so much snow. Wisps of clouds moved across the mountain further obscuring the view. Dick and I took turns glassing and manning the fire before calling it a day and heading back down the mountain.

The next day, we picked up my friend Tom Brooks in Gillette, WY and made camp thirty miles north of town on the Thunderbasin National Grasslands. Dick took a nice antelope buck the second day of the season and Tom missed a dandy. Then the weather started to turn. Winter Storm Atlas was moving across the western plains and headed right for northern Wyoming. We hunted hard right into the mouth of the storm trying to get Tom a buck only to wake Friday morning to almost a foot of snow. Tom and I would have to eat our Wyoming antelope tags. We pulled camp and made it into town in a driving blizzard only to find the interstate closed from Gillette to Billings. Dick and I dropped Tom off at a hotel and scooted out of town on a snow drifted two lane highway that ran north to Ashland, Montana.

Eight hours later we limped home with a truck load of snow and wet gear.  It had been too dark to see the mountains surrounding the Gallatin Valley as we drove by Bozeman but they were on my mind. The weather forecast was warning of multiple feet of snow in the higher elevations before it was over. I wondered if the storm had driven the goats lower or would they still be clinging to the highest peaks now made even more inaccessible by deep snow. It was only the first week of October. I remembered the two reasons I was told that on average only 50% of the mountain goat tag holders would be successful in my unit; either a hunter was too intimidated by the terrain or they waited too long and were snowed out of the mountains. I told myself I still had plenty of time but this storm was increasing my anxiety about getting my tag filled.

By Saturday morning the storm had passed and the snowfall wasn’t as severe as predicted. Most of the snow had missed the Gallatin, leaving only a foot in the highest elevations. Dick took off early that morning for Idaho to get ready for our elk hunt in the St Joe. I would leave Bozeman on Tuesday to give us time to set up camp on Wednesday before the season opened on Thursday. I spent the morning getting the mess that had been our antelope camp sorted out. I hung the wet tent in the barn and laid the sleeping bags and pads out in the basement to dry. My head was still in a bad place over the goat I had shot. I was struggling with the idea that I might have killed him and he was now likely under a foot or two of snow up in the basin. There was a part of me thinking I should hang it up and try to find his remains in the summer when the snow had pulled back from the highest elevations in July. Arguing against that plan was the nagging doubt that maybe I had only slightly wounded the goat and he would survive. This was my once in a lifetime chance at a Montana mountain goat and I needed to grab this opportunity, quit wallowing in self pity and get my ass in gear. I headed into town and found myself walking into Schnee’s Powderhorn sporting goods in downtown Bozeman to get my head set straight. Pete Muennich heads up marketing at Schnees and took a nice billy in the same unit in 2012. Jon Edwards is Schnees general manager. Both are accomplished hunters. These guys  also understand that it’s the overall experience of the hunt, not the killing of a trophy animal that matters. Pete was off that day but Jon listened patiently as I told him about the goat I had shot and shared my conflicted emotions about continuing the hunt.  Jon on gave me the pep talk I needed and talked me off the ledge. So when my brother Dan called that afternoon and asked if I wanted to hunt on Sunday and see if we could find a billy, I was all in.

I was up at 3:30 AM to put the horses on feed, fix sandwiches for lunch and make coffee for the drive up Hyalite Canyon.  By 6:30 we were in the saddle and riding through fresh snow towards the top of the drainage where I had spotted goats in the summer. The snow was over the horses’ knees by the time we hit the base of the steep slope that climbed to the rim of the cirque. The switchback trail to the top was obscured by snow that had blown off the rim and settled in deep drifts across the face. There would be no riding to the top. The horses were tied up in a clump of trees and we pulled our packs out of the panniers and started slogging up through the thigh deep snow. I had brought my Stone Glacier pack but Dan had only brought a small Sitka day pack. To balance the pack saddle we had pulled the food and water bottles out of my pack and they were still sitting in the bottom of the pannier when we began our climb up the face.  It was a mistake that would come to haunt us later.

The southern rim of the cirque was a thin saddle connecting Elephant and Blackmore Mountains. The backside of the rim dropped precipitously down into another deep basin surrounded by vertical cliffs on three sides. While scouting I had seen a good billy on the face across the basin but today there were no mountain goats clinging to the icy ledges, so we turned east and started climbing the rocky ridge that ascended to the summit of Elephant Mountain. After making the top we traversed a knife ridge to the south and settled in to glass.

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To the east, bedded on a small outcrop was a small goat. Thankfully it wasn’t a mature billy as getting within shooting distance, let alone getting to the goat would be impossible. Looking back across the basin on the east face of Blackmore I spotted a nanny and kid climbing up through the rocks. Eventually they crested a ridge and dropped out of site. At least we were seeing some goats. We dropped off the ridge and traversed an almost vertical face, the fresh deep snow giving us purchase but the pucker factor was still there.

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We made the saddle, climbed halfway up the southern face of Blackmore and began circling to the west, glassing the steep cliffs below us. Finally the mountain became too steep to continue and we circled back around the mountain to a ridge on the north side. This time Dan was the first to spot the goats.  Over a mile away, below the ridge running from the west face were five goats. I set up the spotting scope to take a closer look. They all appeared to be billies but only one stood out. His horns curled well past his ears and even at this distance I could see his heavy bases. “Take a look”, I told Dan, “the one on the right is a really good goat”.

 

Dan looked at his watch. He had to be at work at 8:00 the next morning. It was 2:45 PM and it would be dark by six. To get to the goats we would have to drop over a thousand feet off the ridge, traverse the basin below us, climb back up to the top of the ridge and travel a mile along its rocky spine. And we hadn’t had a drink or any food since 4 AM. “I can come back tomorrow”, I offered. “I’ll go up the Fox Creek trail and then south to the ridge.”.  I knew if we went after the goat it would be a long night. I also knew I would probably never make it back in alone the next day. But I needed to give Dan an out. It was a lot to ask. We were already fried. We had been up since 3:00 AM, had ridden almost three hours, and had climbed two 10,000 foot peaks to be standing where we were.

“Well, we came here to hunt mountain goats”, Dan said. “I’ll give you till 5 PM to shoot him and then we have to head back to the horses”.

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We bailed off the ridge, dropping into the basin in an avalanche of thigh deep powder. I tried not to think of the climb back out. We made the bottom and climbed to the ridge, still almost a mile from where we had spotted the goat below a rocky pinnacle. It would be our guide to where the goat was last seen on the southern slope. The ridge top was a knifelike edge of rocks and boulders only one to four feet wide. In places we were forced to drop off the top and work around steep cliffs. It took longer than I expected to get to the rock pinnacle. I paused to look back at the path we had taken, imagining the return trip encumbered by 100 lbs of goat hide and meat.

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We had last seen the billy feeding on the slope about 200 yards below the rock pinnacle. We decided to first move slowly around the bottom of the rock buttress to make sure we couldn’t see the billy from the south side of the rock. If not, we would climb to the top and hope to see him before he spotted us. Thick bristlecone pines flanked the southern face below the rock pinnacle and I had little hope of spotting the billy from our position. My rifle was still slung on my shoulder as I moved around the rock.

A flash of white startled me as the billy leapt from his bed and scrambled around the rock face to my right. I tried to un-sling my rifle but it caught on my backpack strap. I wrestled it free but the billy was gone. He had to be close. I waved to Dan to move up and help me find the goat. Where was he? The ledge he was on dropped into a deep ravine. Then I spotted him 175 yards away climbing the far side of the ravine toward a saddle in the rocks. In seconds I flipped the bi-pod open, dropped prone and found the billy in the scope as he reached the gap. Just before he dropped over the back side, he paused and turned to look back. The crosshairs nestled low behind his shoulder and the Kimber Mountain Ascent barked.

My brother had heard all of the stories about how tough goats were. He didn’t want me to lose this one. “Hit him again! “ Dan yelled as the goat dropped. The billy rolled, belly toward me and I sent another round into his brisket. “Hit him again!’ Dan was still yelling, but the last round had pushed the goat over the edge and out of sight. I had a clear picture of both shots. I knew the goat was dead. Dan wasn’t so sure and was urging me to get to the other side of the ridge where the billy had dropped.

We circled around the head of the ravine and climbed to the top of the rock pinnacle. Down below the billy lay on the slope on his back, quite still. Which was fortunate because it lay at the to of a steep slope and it would not have taken much to send him hurtling down the ravine. The goat is visible in the picture below.

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I looked through my binoculars but most of his head was buried in the snow. It had all happened so fast. He had looked like a good goat but I never got a good look at his horns as he plowed up the side of the ravine. There had been five billies and only one had stood out. We slowly made our way down the rock face to the where the billy lay. I took off my pack and laid down my rifle and then ran my hand down the silky hair of his belly. Just to touch such a mythical beast. This was not like any animal I had ever hunted before.

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I reverently lifted his head from the snow, the long heavy curved horns were the last to appear. He was a mature goat and all that I had hoped to harvest when I drew the tag. I cared not if he made the record book. He was perfect and the hunt had been perfect and for that moment all was right in my world.

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We took some pictures and then began the work of skinning the goat. I marveled at the size of his hooves. Almost as big as an elk bull’s. Under the long guard hairs of his coat he wore a two inch thick felt wool mat. It was difficult to cut through even with a sharp knife. The slope he lay on dropped into another deep ravine. Several times he started to slide down the mountain and we wrestled him back into place. An hour later it was done and the entire goat hide, head and boned out meat was tucked into the Stone Glacier Pack. And that was the problem. The pack probably weighed well over 100 pounds. And we were a long way and a long climb out of the basin from the horses.

It was after six when we started out and the sun was setting. The temperature began to drop and the fatigue began to set in. I made it most of the way back along the ridge before finally giving out.

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Dan shouldered the pack as we dropped off the ridge down into the basin. Step by excruciating step we began the long climb back up through thigh deep snow to the ridgeline that separated us from the horses. Coming down the steep slope had been relatively easy in the deep, soft snow. Now Dan struggled under the weight of the pack, every step a challenge as the snow broke loose under his weight and dropped him to his knees. Hours passed and the stars came out, the wind came up and it  became very cold. Dan’s leather gloves had become wet after stumbling into the snow and Dan had taken them off. He was grasping an impromptu walking stick to help him balance and I noticed in the glare of my headlamp that the top of the stick and his hand had become a solid mass of snow and ice. “My hands are frozen” he said and so I peeled my off my gloves and forced them down over his red and numb hands. The pain was immediate as his hands began to burn from the frostbite. It was at that point, he told me later, that he was really beginning to doubt if we could make it out with the goat that night. That we might have had to abandon it to save ourselves. Then his headlamp failed. It just quit working and mine was already dim and almost out. Fortunately I had grabbed a second headlamp and thrown it in my pack that morning. I fished it out as Dan’s hands thawed and we started slogging, a slow step at a time using the one good headlamp, to the top of the ridge. When we crested the ridge after 9 PM we knew the worst was over. But we had had nothing to eat or drink for fifteen hours and we were still an hour from the horses. As we began our descent into the basin my hamstring cramped into a knot the size of a baseball. I dropped writhing in pain in the snow. When I tried to get up it cramped again.  Dan came back up the hill to help me to my feet and I wondered what else could go wrong at this point. My hands and fingers were cramped into arthritic claws and I only made it a few hundred yards before the cramp in my leg sent me sprawling into the snow again. We were both terribly dehydrated and Dan was beginning to cramp up too. We were still a long way from the horses when he hit the ground with his own knotted hamstring. I offered to take the pack but he brushed me off and ignoring the pain, disappeared into the dark too worried about the horses to slow down. They had now been tied up since 8 AM. If they had gotten loose we were in big trouble. I limped along, watching his headlamp grow dimmer down the mountain. Fortunately the horses were fine. It was after 10 PM when we finally staggered into the clump of trees where they were tied. Dan dropped and lay motionless in the snow as I dug the water and food from the pannier. It had been that kind of day and that kind of night and we were still a two hour ride from the trailhead. By the time we loaded the packs in the panniers and started down the trail I was too numb from cold and exhaustion to care about anything but getting the hell out of the mountains and into a warm bed. The horses had the same idea and we didn’t have to coax them to make good time on the way back to the truck.

I woke the next morning still tired, but with that satisfied feeling that only comes after surviving such a physical excursion into the wild. I made coffee and fed the horses before opening the tack room door where my pack lay.  I pulled the goat’s hide out and lay it on the floor then carried the meat into the house to process and vacuum pack it for the freezer.

I didn’t want to care about how long or heavy the goat was but after dropping the meat in the freezer I couldn’t resist grabbing the tape and measuring his horns. He had 9 5/8” length on the long side and 6” diameter bases. When I checked him in later at the Fish and Game office the biologist told me it was the largest billy to come out of the unit in some time.

My 12 year quest for a mountain goat had ended.

So I am more than happy to share some of the things I have learned after my first and likely last season of mountain goat hunting. I learned that mountain goats do look up; that almost all of the goats that you see will be a long way off; that just because you spot a goat does not necessarily mean you can get to it, before you start your stalk on a goat you will need to take into consideration where it might fall after you shoot it; that unlike elk and deer, mountain goats stay high in the mountains all winter, and that a single, white goat is not easy to spot after it snows.

I suppose there are some goats that come easy. During my late summer scouting trips I spotted groups of nannies, kids and younger Billies feeding and bedding on grassy slopes far below the summit peaks. In Montana, nannies are legal. Most people can’t tell a nanny from a billy anyway. This is especially true when only the front half of the goat is sticking out of your den wall, eliminating proof of the most telling difference. So if a hunter isn’t too particular about the sex of the goat they harvest, they can possibly avoid a lot of discomfort by settling for a barren nanny.

This is because older, mature Billies are a different creature. Like grouchy old men, solitary and intolerant, they live far from the herds of nannies and well traveled Forest Service trails. They cling to the most vertical, unforgiving and sometimes unreachable real estate in the mountains. Which is why we love to hunt them.

Now, some months later, I look back on the fall of 2013 with the greatest admiration for mountain goats and the country they live in. I recall Dick saying to me one day as we padded along down a trail that the thing that kept him going was his knowing that I couldn’t even apply again for seven years. We both laughed at his joke but I think he was being kind of serious ! Anyway, given the draw odds, I will be about 72 before I draw another tag. It doesn’t keep me from thinking about hunting them again though.  Maybe British Columbia or Alaska?

To pursue them is to venture into the wildest, most amazing places. The most incredible country one can imagine. It will challenge you physically and mentally like no other hunt. And somewhere, high on a mountain, deep in the wilderness, when you are cold and tired and reaching deep for that last bit of energy you possess to keep going, you will be reminded once again that we humans can suffer for a long time before we die.

 

 

 

 

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2012 Elk Hunting – Week 7 – Back to Montana

I left southern Colorado on a Thursday in early November in a blizzard that started just south of Denver and stayed with me all the way north of Cheyenne. I was tired of driving in it and found a cheap motel and an expensive steak dinner in a little Wyoming cow town between Cheyenne and Sheridan. The name of it eludes me now. All I remember is the steak wasn’t worth the price but the bartender was a good pour.

After doing a lot of elk hunting with friends I was ready to put a bull on the ground. I was looking for a day or two of rest but when I called Dan on Friday morning as I passed  Sheridan he was itching to head back into the mountains. That night.

I pulled into Bozeman around 2 PM and by 5 we were at the trailhead unloading horses and riding by 5:30. It was bitterly cold that night and we rode in the dark almost four hours before making camp at 9000 feet. It was around 0 degrees and the ground was covered in a foot of snow. Shivering from sitting so long in the saddle, I got a fire going as Dan began unsaddling horses. It was after 11 when we finally had the horses fed, tied on the high line, the tent up and our food hung behind camp. I had been up since five that morning and my head wasn’t even down before I was asleep.

Saturday broke clear and cold as we moved across a familiar saddle glassing parks and ridges for elk. We were rewarded about 9:00 when we spotted a herd of cows and a decent bull on a lower ridge across a drainage but far out of shooting range.

We decided to pull camp and move to a lower elevation where the snow was not so deep and the air not so brisk and try to get on that herd the next morning.  I wanted to hunt a flat where we had gotten into bulls during archery season so Dan graciously offered to drop me off along the trail so I could hunt while he set up camp in a meadow a couple of miles down the mountain. I found a lot of tracks but no bulls. Just before dark I came out of the trees to a welcoming campfire only to find the bottle of whiskey almost empty and Dan in a very good mood.  But the fire felt good and the remnants of whiskey did their part.

The next morning we rode a long circular route to get to the ridge where we had spotted the elk. I stayed glued to a high spot where I could see down into the drainage while Dan headed further down the ridge. We agreed to meet back at 10 AM along the ridge trail. Ten o’clock  came and went so I hiked to the horses to make sure I hadn’t missed something, and then headed back to the ridge top. Finally I saw him coming down the trail an hour later. He had gotten above a herd of cows and a good bull, likely the one we saw the day before.  The cows moved up and all around him as he waited for a shot. Finally the bull came into view, head down only 80 yards away. But all Dan had was a head or neck shot and the bull was heading his way so he waited. Then a cow spooked and the bull turned, followed her and was gone. We made it back to the trailhead around 5pm and didn’t stop until we hit the bar at Norris.

I spent Monday catching up with Tami, recharging my batteries and packing my gear for a solo hunt into the Taylor Hillgard range north of Hebgen Lake and just west of Yellowstone Park. I was hiking in about seven miles to a basin surrounded by the kind of high ridges that hold bulls far into winter. They survive by pawing the snow down to feed on the remnants of grass on south facing slopes. The first four miles of trail was steep and a combination of mud, ice, snow, horse piss and manure churned into a slick mess after opening week of rifle season. By the fifth mile the trail lay unmolested under a foot of snow. It took me almost four hours to make my way up the slick trail and steep switchbacks to the basin. I hunted my way to where I made camp without seeing an elk. The next morning I arose to a still and moonless night. Climbing slowly up toward the backbone of the ridge in the dark, I needed my headlamp to see in the inky blackness. I wanted to be high by first light, allowing me to see down the slopes into the parks and coulees below that fed up toward the patches of bristlecone pines that dotted the slope of the ridge. Ahead of me in the dim glow of the headlamp I could make out a set of large tracks punctuating the drifted snow. Another hunter,  I wondered ? Up here ? But as the footprints became clearer I saw the unmistakable claw marks of a grizzly adorning each track. I paused and stared at the deep tracks, longer than my size 12 boot. They were no more than a few hours old, the claw marks and prints still  sharp and free of blown snow and heading in the same direction I was.

I made it to a bench just below the ridge top at about 9500 feet just as daylight was breaking only to find the mountain encased in dense fog. Visibility was less than 300 yards and the top layer of the snow on the ridge had crusted after being warmed by the previous day’s sun. Each footfall seemed to break the stillness of the morning like a baseball thrown through a plate glass window. I winced at each crunchy step. I tried sitting for a while but grew frustrated at the ineffectiveness of watching a single little draw. I couldn’t even make out pine trees just a few hundred yards away. While moving seemed just as ineffective it kept me occupied and I climbed slowly higher on the ridge until I hit the scree slope that told me I was just below the ridge line. I had humped all the way in here and climbed to almost 10,000 feet to be defeated by fog and crunchy snow. I say down on a rock and contemplated what to do next. There was a flat of timber a couple miles away where I had almost walked into a huge bull during a snowstorm a year earlier. Perhaps I could drop down into that bedding area and cut some fresh tracks. Back in the timber the snow was still powdery and quiet. I hated to give up the elevation though, and couldn’t will myself to get up. Minutes passed and suddenly the trees around me illuminated a bit. I looked up to see a spot of blue sky pass in the fog. It was only gone a moment when another appeared and soon the deep blue sky of a Montana morning was spreading through the clouds as the sun and wind burned the fog off the mountain. A vast vista spread before me as the snow covered parks and clumps of pines in the basin below me emerged from the clouds and broke into view. I grew excited again. The slope was pocketed with small stands of pine and I knew the bulls bedded in those knots of timber. I would move through them with quick, staccato steps, trying to sound like an elk, not the slow, methodical two step cadence of a human. I pointed my toes and drove my foot down through the crust, taking two to five quick steps at a time and then pausing. It sure sounded more like an elk. It was only twenty minutes later as I paused for the tenth time or so when I heard the snow crunchy just above me and a bull stepped out from the trees and began moving away from me. I flipped my bi-pod out and flopped down in the snow and got into position. But the bull was still moving away and a tree between us blocked my view. I cow called as I lifted my rifle and pushed off with my up hill boot, sliding down the steep slope on my belly. I came to a stop in about ten feet, cow called again and planted my bi-pod just as the bull strode into view, looking down the mountain toward me and the cow he thought was there. He stood broadside at 100 yards, illuminated by the morning sun rising behind me. Through the fourteen power scope it looked as if I could touch him. Now mid-November, he had on his thick winter coat which danced in the breeze. I could see every hair moving. He and I were frozen in a moment of time. His rack was narrow but heavy and I could see from the back of his main beam that he sported five tines on each side. He was a good five point but not what I had came this far for. I still had some elk in the freezer and if I ended the season empty handed I would remember this moment and this bull and let the season pass without a regret for having not shot him.  For now, I just wanted to enjoy this moment. He turned his head suddenly and looked up the hill. Branches snapped in the pines above me and the snow crunched. I could see another bull moving through the trees above me. I lifted the rifle, swung it uphill and replanted the bipod as the bull’s head came into view only 125 yards above me. The elk first stared at the five point bull in front of me then swung his head downhill to see what was holding his attention. It gave me a better look at his rack. Oh man, he was wide. This was a much bigger bull but all I could see was his head and neck. I kept the crosshair pinned to where I thought his shoulder was and waited. He turned and looked back at the smaller bull who had not taken a step in several minutes, then looked back at me and took a step forward. The crosshairs found his  shoulder and at the shot the bull buckled and began kicking and sliding down the slope toward me. He came to a stop just fifty yards away. Through it all the first bull hadn’t moved. I watched him for a bit more, not in a hurry to lose this moment and then slowly stood up. He looked at me a second longer before turning, throwing his head back and high stepping across the open slope and into the trees.

I made my way over to the bull and found a place to sit next to him.  A light wind whipped down the slope stirring the snow and the long hair on the bull’s neck. Its soft whistle as it passed over the rocks was the only sound to break the mountain’s deep silence in winter.

It was my 38th day spent in the pursuit of elk and I had ended my season like I started it,  alone on a mountain deep in Montana’s wilderness. In between it had been an amazing year spent with people also impassioned about elk, elk country and elk hunting. But there would have to be time to reflect on that later. Right now I had a lot of work ahead of me and a grizzly bear somewhere nearby.

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2012 Elk Season – Week 4 – Sometimes we leave our heart on the mountain

After three weeks of bow hunting in Montana’s Madison Range I needed a little break from chasing elk. When Tom left on Monday morning, I threw the wall tent and my gear into the back of the truck and headed for the Missouri Breaks to do a little scouting for mule deer.  That was my excuse anyway. I love “the Breaks” and make the drive up there whenever I need some solitude. Nothing like setting up the big tent out on the prairie at the edge of the badlands. Unfortunately, the winter of 2010/2011 had a devastating impact on the mule deer population and I wasn’t optimistic that I was going to see many bucks. After three days of hoofing around prime mule deer habitat it was apparent that the heavy snow and long winter had taken their toll. I had spotted only one small 4×4 for my efforts. I packed up the tent and headed back to Bozeman, itching to get back to the mountains.

A couple of days later I was packing into the Madison range from the Gallatin Canyon side. I made it in several miles before setting up my two man tent on a ridge at 8500 feet. It overlooked a good drainage that I knew would be holding elk even as the rut was winding down. As I hurried to get my scatter together for an evening hunt, I spied a hunter cresting the ridge on the trail that ran past my camp. Other than an orange vest, he wore the garb of a rancher; faded wool lined canvas coat, stained cowboy hat curled at the edges, and jeans. A handlebar mustache complemented his look. He hailed from a small town in eastern Montana and had drawn a moose tag for this unit after years of trying. I had seen his horse trailer parked back at the trailhead. The moose were eluding him but he told me about a bull elk he had been hearing every day down in the bottom of the drainage. We wished each other luck and I headed down the trail as it dropped off the ridge toward where he had been pointing. A mile in I paused to glass the basin below me then smiled as a bull’s chuckle rose from timber near the bottom. The cowboy had been right ! I bailed off the trail and headed on a line toward the bull. I figured he was still a half mile off and there were only a couple hours of daylight left so I needed to close the gap quickly. I hustled down the slope, deeper into the valley, only slowing when I knew I was getting close. It was hard to ignore the many piles of grizzly poop scattered about as I moved through the trees. This drainage was full of whitebark pine trees and the bears were obviously here enjoying a bumper crop of cones. Looking at the huge piles, I couldn’t help but think that crapping pine cones wouldn’t help anyone’s mood. I was imagining a drainage full of irritated bears.

I didn’t want to call until I was sure I was fairly close, within 100 yards. The bull wasn’t being very vocal so I sat on a log to catch my breath, let my heart settle down and wait for his next bugle.  Looking around I noticed two small piles of fresh grizzly scat and one very large one. A momma and her cubs.  I had never seen so much fresh bear sign in one area before.

The bull’s chuckle rose from the meadows below me, no more than 250 yards away. I moved closer looking for a place to set up. I found it in a horseshoe of small pines on a bench just above the bull. The bench fell away on a steep slope with a lane through the trees down to the meadows. Although I couldn’t see or hear the bull I knew he was just below me. Behind the horseshoe of pines, a tree had blown down, blocking passage up the slope behind me. A gentle breeze was blowing up the slope in my favor as I mouthed two cow mews down toward the bull. The quiet evening air erupted with the bull’s response. His bellows grew closer until I saw the first ivory tips come into sight, swaying in the air as if disembodied from the elk below them. I didn’t need to see the entire rack to know this was a mature bull. Snorting and grunting he came into sight and strutted stiff-legged just behind the screen of pines until stopped by the blown down tree. Without hesitating the bull turned, took a few steps back up the hill and rammed his head through the side of my hiding place. His head was less than three feet from me, huffing and whining, eyes rolling, trying to find the cow he expected to see. I had raised my bow but not drawn it and stood behind it facing the lovesick elk, my eyes as wide as his. His massive rack kept him from pushing through the trees to move forward. It lasted only seconds until the bull jerked his head back through the pines sending branches and needles flying into the air. My legs were shaking as the bull started around my hide toward the opening in the horseshoe. I drew as he came around only fifteen feet from me walking fast. “Don’t gut shoot him,” I was thinking and stupidly, didn’t stop him with a mew. I led his heart slightly and then buried the G5 deep in his shoulder four inches forward of where I wanted to shoot him.

The shaft penetrated six inches of muscle and through the rib cage. When the bull jumped forward the shaft torqued and then snapped. The sunlight filtering through the trees illuminated a pulsing geyser of blood which shot out three feet from the elk. The bull was walking away with a profound limp as I nocked another arrow. He started to climb a small knob, stumbled and turned and walked around it and out of sight. I knew he was hurt badly and based on his response I was confident I would recover him, but I felt an icy feeling spreading over me. I should have stopped him before I shot. I shouldn’t have led him at all ..he was so close. What was I thinking? I waited five minutes then stepped forward to pick up the broken shaft.

A lot of arrow was in the elk and the ground was covered with bright red blood. I had an hour till dark and decided to give the elk all of it. It was too hot to leave him until morning. If he was dead he would spoil in a few hours. And the grizzlies. One would likely be on him by daylight. I would give him an hour and then start down the blood trail.

Splotches of blood marked the trail every few feet as I moved quietly in the direction he had gone. The wind, once in my favor, now blew from me to the elk and I hoped he was too dead by now to smell me. His trail moved up a brushy slope then veered back into a dense thicket of blown down trees. At the top of the slope I stopped to put on a headlamp before it became too dark to see. Then ahead of me a drawn out moan and the crack of antler on a tree or rock. He was dying. What to do? I decided to wait another 20 minutes and hope that he expired. The gray light was rapidly fading and it was almost dark when I heard a swishing in the brush on the slope below me. It was one of those surreal moments as I watched a huge dark form moving almost silently through the brush only thirty yards below me. It was a bear and I was sure a grizzly as I pulled the pepper spray from its holster, thumbed back the safety and got ready to dance with the ugliest girl in the drainage. The bear stepped into full view now just fifteen yards below me. A black bear, and a huge one. We stared at each other, both sizing up the situation. He been  following the blood trail too and was probably trying to figure out if I was the bleeding party. I was noting how huge he was and wondering if it was a good time to fill my bear tag. He stood still, staring, his belly dragging the ground. Heavy. At least 450 lbs. I pushed that thought aside. I had a dead elk laying on the ground nearby and was two miles from camp and miles from there to the trailhead. The elk deserved my attention so it was this bear’s lucky day. So I say. Actually, I was really wondering how I could even set the bear spray down to draw my bow without the possibility of the bear charging me first. After all, sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you. I waved my arms back and forth and gently told the bear to move on his way. He didn’t. I tightened my finger on the trigger, hoped the damn thing would actually spray, and took a step toward the bear. The bruin looked right at me, turned his head slowly and ambled down the slope with no apparent urgency.

Breathing a sigh of relief I turned back to the task at hand. Ahead, in a grassy patch at the base of a slope was a matted down area covered in blood but no elk. I marked the spot in my GPS and began searching for his trail. I circled wider and wider, a feeling of panic growing in me. How could he have left without making a sound and without a blood trail? I started a systematic search, leaving my GPS on to mark my search path around the last blood. I gave up at 11:00 that night. The temperature had dropped and I was shivering. I kept hearing moans down in the drainage below me. Could that be the bull? They rose eerily from the darkness. I had headed toward them at first before the exhaustion and the fear of spending the entire night alone in a bear infested drainage finally overtook my desire to find the bull. I headed back to the tent.

I didn’t eat that night. Exhausted, I crawled into my bag after midnight and spent the next five hours tossing and turning. I had worked hard to put myself in a great spot and had been given a shot on a bull that most hunters will never experience and I had blown it. I kept telling myself that I would find the bull in the morning and finally got a little sleep.

Hunger got me out of the sack long before daylight and I was boiling water to make a freeze dried dinner when I heard someone on the trail. It was the moose hunter. I told him I would be in the drainage looking for my elk and that I didn’t want to ruin his hunt. He said it was no problem but warned me that he had spotted the grizzly sow and two cubs on a hillside just above where I told him I shot the elk. “Be careful” he warned. He had seen four different adult grizzlies that week in the drainage. I thanked him and began eating beef stroganoff for breakfast. I was in no hurry now to start looking for the bull before it was good and light out.

Everything looked different in the daylight. I hiked to the spot where I marked the last blood on the GPS. Still bright and crimson, the blood covered a six foot circle of matted grass. I started over, circling from the point where he had stood or lain, looking for where he had gone. I found it two hours later. The bull had backtracked and stepped off the trail where a spring created a marshy bog. Only flecks of blood on the tall weeds marked his passage. I figured that the bull had clotted up between his shoulder and rib cage and it had slowed the bleeding to a trickle. It took me another hour to follow his trail 100 yards. And then another hour to find a pencil eraser drip 75 yards further into the trees. I marked the spot and began circling down toward the moans I had heard during the night. I wasted another hour before realizing that the moans weren’t from my bull, they were from a cow moose in heat. Her tracks stood out deep in the mud of the creek bottom near where I had heard her calling.

I looked that day until six o’clock that evening before throwing in the towel. I never found another spot of blood. The bull just quit bleeding. The long trail out seemed even colder that night and I when I finally got home several hours later I was questioning my desire to continue bowhunting. It wasn’t my first time to lose an elk with a less than perfect shot. The thought of an animal suffering at my hand gnaws at me and re-invites reflection on why I do this. You try to find comfort through the understanding that animals all inevitably die. They lead hard lives. The seldom die without some suffering. You are not the only predator that wounds and inflicts pain. But it doesn’t stop the self doubt.

I returned twice during the summer of 2013, making the long trip in to search the area for the elk. I am certain he died from the wound. For two days I climbed in every direction from the GPS point that marked the last blood drop. At a certain distance it becomes a needle in a haystack.

Before I left for the last time I sat on the rim overlooking the drainage, meadows now bright green under the mountains still capped with snow and I made a vow never to do this again. To be more careful. To be more sure of my shot. I was trying to make myself feel better but it was a meaningless vow. For in spite of every promise, every attempt at caution, when that moment comes and a bull loosens his primordial scream and comes crashing toward you through the trees you have only seconds to make decisions. With knees shaking and mouth dry you can only hope you make the right ones.

 

 

 

 

 

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Barnes Vor-Tx .308 150 Gn TTSX – Kimber’s Mountain Ascent eats em up

I was in my favorite gun shop in Montana, Shedhorn Sports in Ennis a few weeks ago checking out the racks of guns. Unlike most places that carry guns anymore, Shedhorn has over 1200 guns in stock, including a huge selection of used modern and collector guns. You never know what may be on the rack there and I try to stop in every now and then to take a look. One of my shooting gurus, Tony, works behind the gun counter and when it comes to anything to do with firearms or shooting, Tony can fill you in from both the practical and technical sides of the discussion. I had ordered my .308 Kimber Mountain Ascent from Shedhorn and Tony asked me how it was shooting. He had been curious about the little gun’s accuracy potential from the moment we opened the box. “She’s shooting ok”,  I told him, “but I’m not satisfied with it yet”. Tony walked over to the ammo shelves and came back with a box of Barnes Vor-Tx TTSX in 150 grain. I was a little less than excited because the advertised muzzle velocity with the 150s was 2820 FPS and Hornady and Federal had 165 grain loads advertised at 2860 and 2880 FPS. I had been working with the Hornady Superformance loads and still had a full box left, so initially I passed. That night I did a little research on the Barnes ammo on the web and was impressed with the penetration tests and weight retention of the solid coppers. In all cases, the Barnes 150 grain TTSX penetrated substantially deeper than any other bullets, including Nosler Partitions.  I figured they might be perfect for anchoring  tough mountain goats, so I called Tony back and asked him to tuck the two remaining boxes away.

You can read about the other shooting sessions with the Mountain Ascent and the Nosler, Hornady and Barnes ammo in my other articles under the “Shooting” category. To summarize, the Barnes loads are tack drivers. Consistent and unflappable. They just kept punching neat 1″ or less 5 shot groups.  I was happy with the accuracy but had not verified the velocity.

Tonight I ran three rounds through my chronograph. Barnes  advertises the muzzle velocity (MV) of the loads at 2820 FPS with a 24″ barrel. So I was surprised  when the loads came in at 2847, 2827 and 2836, an average of 2836 FPS with the Kimber’s 22″ barrel. That’s an Extreme Spread (ES) of only 20 FPS, less than 1% dispersion. Any ES of less than 30 FPS is considered excellent.

It was 69 degrees when I was shooting and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the FPS drop a bit at lower temperatures. I may try shooting three rounds out of the fridge to see how the MV changes before sending Leupold my load data for the custom CDS dial.

UPDATE : I put three shells in the freezer and cooled them to what I estimated was 10-20 degrees.  As expected the velocity dropped, with the three rounds at 2804, 2777, and 2796, an average of 2792 FPS. ES was 27 FPS, still very acceptable, but the overall average dropped 44 FPS due to the lower temp shells. So I checked the ballistics calculator and the difference in drop at 400 yards between the two velocities is less than 1″; 21.75″ at 2836 FPS and 22.53 ” at  2792.  Close enough. I am going to have the scope dialed in for 2805 FPS .

Anyway, I am getting close to wrapping up the pre-season work on the Kimber. Its shooting well and its time to get serious about practicing with the bow. I re-fletched all of my arrows that were missing vanes last week and am ready to start popping the Block.  Check out the last 3 shot group from the Kimber.. 3/4″ center to center , in the pic below.

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Stone Glacier Pack System – Solo

It was the summer of 2008 when I dropped into Mystery Ranch in Bozeman to look at a pack system that would meet my needs for  hauling a lot of weight out of the backcountry. Mark Seacat and Andrew Crow were both working for MR at the time and sold me on the Crew Cab on the NICE frame. The pack served me well for five years, hauling a number of elk quarters and mule deer out of some way back in places. As a plug for MR, after a lot of miles and a lot of weight, the pack still looks almost new. My only complaint has been the weight. The Crew Cab with a couple of accessory belt pouches weighs in at 8 lbs.

Last fall I dropped in to Prolite Gear here in Bozeman to chat with my two gear gurus Brad and Shane. If you ever need to know what the best new gear is on the planet in any genre, just ask these guys: http://www.prolitegear.com  With so many packs out there catering to the backcountry go-light guys, I wanted their professional opinion. They didn’t hesitate to tell me that a pack from Stone Glacier was what I needed. I hadn’t even heard of Stone Glacier at the time and was a little dubious. “Trust us”, they said and sent me off with Kurt Racicot’s phone number.  I called that day and left Kurt a message. He spends a lot of his time in Alaska so it was a few days later when we had a chance to connect. We chatted a bit about what I was looking for and I listened to Kurt talk about his hunting experiences and his desire to create a pack that was lighter but could handle the weight of an elk quarter. It all sounded good and I hung up planning to commit to a new pack system.  But as the winter months passed I began re-thinking whether I needed to spend another $600 on a pack when the Crew Cab could get it done.

I was walking down Main Street in Bozeman in May and decided to check on an old LC Smith 12 gauge that had been lingering on the shelf at Schnees for a couple of years. I kept hoping the consigner would lower the price. He hadn’t, but I was surprised to see a new addition to the gun room; a display of Stone Glacier packs and accessories. I found out that  Kurt has selected Schnees as the sole distributor for Stone Glacier packs.  I tried the Solo, loading it with about 40 lbs of weight. It fit and felt great. Although ultra light at 3.6 lbs, I could see that the pack was well constructed. Being able to see and try the pack made the decision to purchase a lot easier.

With the hunting season fast approaching, I was convinced that this was the pack system I wanted to hunt out of in 2013. I made plans to meet with Schnee’s marketing director and Stone Glacier pack expert Pete Muennich. Pete is an avid hunter and took a mountain goat in 2011 in the same unit that I am drawn for in 2013. Pete spent an hour showing me how the pack system works and fitting the frame to my 5 10″ height.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday I loaded the pack with 15 lbs of gear and water and did a nine mile round trip hike up to 10,000 feet to scout a likely area for goats. The waist belt was very comfortable and rode perfectly above my hips. The pack is so light it will serve as both your load pack and day pack. I hardly noticed it on my back. It was over 80 degrees when I started up the trail and I found that my back didn’t seem to sweat as much under the pack frame as usual.

That said, its only been one day and a little too soon to tell how this pack will hold up under a lot of use. Between now and December 1st I will use it for over 75 days in the  backcountry of Montana, Idaho and Utah. I will be writing an update on the pack in December.

Meanwhile, here is a review of Kurt and the pack’s development that you might want to read: http://www.captivatemoutdoors.com/

You can find out more about the entire Stone Glacier line at www.stoneglacier.com. Here is a description of the Solo;

An ultralight backpack using no ultralight materials…at 3.63 pounds, it is capable of 130 pound plus loads and expandable to 5000 plus cubic inches. Inspired by solo sheep hunts in Alaska, the Stone Glacier Solo makes an ideal minimalist backcountry multi-day backpack.   A 3300 cubic inch bag fits all your ultralight 4-season gear and week of food.  For longer trips expand the bag from the frame and add 2100+ cubic inches of storage for your food in the load shelf.  After you notch your tag, use the load shelf and the 2100+ cubic inch load cell that is sized to carry an entire boned sheep or mule deer.  In elk country the load shelf is sized perfect for elk quarters.  An ultralight pack made with the toughest technical materials, the Solo is a versatile pack built for North America backpack hunts from the Beartooths to the Brooks.  Made in USA.

 

If you are interested in a Stone Glacier Pack I highly recommend talking with Peter Muennich at Schnees. He is an expert on the pack line and can help you get set up with the right Stone Glacier pack for your needs.

http://www.schnees.com/product/STONE-GLACIER-Solo-3300-Pack/Backpacking

SPECS –  SOLO

Weight 3.63 Lbs (complete with frame)

-130+ pound load rating (check Design page for load rating info)

-3334 cubic inch main bag

-2100+ cubic inch   plus expandable load shelf

-Hydration   compatible

-Full zip for gear   access

-Ice axe and gear   loops

-Belt   attachments

-Heavy duty YKK #10   zipper

-Cordura 500 and Xpac fabric

-Heavy duty, 1″ Duraflex military approved buckles and webbing

-Double layer re-enforced bottom

-1 exterior pocket, 1 interior pocket

-Made in USA

Posted in Gear Reviews | 4 Comments

Kimber Mountain Ascent – All Dialed In with Barnes Vortex TTSX

Thought I would write a quick post on the progress I am making on finding the best overall round for the Kimber Mountain Ascent rifle I picked up last fall in .308 Winchester.

I have now tried three different rounds; the Nosler Custom in 165 grain Accubond, the Hornady Superformance in 165 grain Interbond, and the Barnes Vortex in 150 grain TTSX. I plan on using this rifle for an occasional elk hunt, but I bought it primarily as a light gun to carry when I am out helping someone else find their elk or deer, but want to have a rifle “just in case”. Well that all changed when I drew a Montana goat tag fro 2013. I plan on using the little Kimber to harvest a goat if I don’t take one with a bow by mid October.

I wrote about the results with the Nosler loads in a previous article, but to recap, I was getting great accuracy but the rounds averaged only 2680 through my chronograph, a full 140 FPS slower than advertised. Since the Kimber is a 22″ barrel, I expected some loss in velocity but that was excessive.

I next tried the Hornady Superformance and was happy to see them chronograph at an average of 2840 FPS, just below the 2860 advertised. Dispersion in FPS was excellent with all ten shots ranging between 2832 and 2846.

Unfortunately the little Kimber just didn’t like the Superformance ammo.  While I have had excellent results in the past with other rifles with Hornady’s Light Mag and now Superformance lines, this gun just couldn’t digest them. I would get a decent group and then the next would be 2.5″. Very inconsistent.

My first test session with the Hornady ammo had been at 35 degrees. When I shot them again on an 80 degree day, the ten shots averaged 2892 FPS ! 52 FPS higher. And the dispersion became terrible with some rounds clocking 2870 and one at over 3000.  I called Hornady and spoke with Mike, their tech advisor (who was great by the way) and he explained that those kind of velocity spreads were not out of spec with those loads.  Hmmm. They advertise temperature insensitivity. Guess not so much.  But I wasn’t planning on doing too much hunting at 80 degrees, the real reason I decided to set the Hornady load aside was the accuracy.

I have been told, and retold, just how tough goats are. So I decided to try the Barnes Vortex line in their Tipped Triple Shock (TTSX) bullet. The 150 grain leaves the barrel at an advertised 2820 FPS.  I haven’t ran these through my chrono yet but from what I have read, Barnes’  advertised ballistics are usually spot on. I expect these loads to run about 2790 out of the 22″ barrel. I shot three five shot groups. Recoil was very mild. Below is the best at 7/8″ center to center. The worst group was 1 1/4″.  I was shooting prone using a bi-pod and out of fifteen rounds there were no flyers. They just kept punching holes in the same spot.  I believe the gun and the Barnes TTSX is capable of 3/4″ MOA groups or better if shot from a more stable rest  from a bench.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI recovered three of the bullets from the backstop and weighed them. One weighed 148.5 grains, one 148.2, and one at 147.8. Incredible weight retention.  The recovered bullets looked like something out of a Barnes promotional ad with perfect mushrooming. I think I have found my goat round!

 

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Kimber has done a great job with a mass produced rifle weighing 4 lbs 13 ounces that can shoot sub moa groups with factory ammo.

Now to chronograph these rounds and send in the ballistics to Leupold so they can create a custom CDS dial for the VX-3 scope. Can’t wait to try these at 500 yards ! Till then, good shooting !

 

Posted in Shooting | 4 Comments

The Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance

Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance_Harvest in Hyalite_Tony Bynum

When he’s not working as the marketing director for Schnee’s Shoes, Boots & Hunting Gear in Bozeman, Montana, Peter Muennich can usually be found on a mountain or a river somewhere in Montana following his passion for the outdoors. Two years ago Pete drew a coveted Montana goat tag and after hunting all season, notched his goat tag at the last minute on November 28th, two days before the season ended! That’s doing it the hard way Pete !  You can read Pete’s full story of his goat hunt on Schnee’s blog at : http://blog.schnees.com/author/peter/page/2/

Pete has started an organization called the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance to assist in the management of Mountain goats, both population and range. Their website is www.goatalliance.com.  I picked up one of their T-shirts last week and I think they hit a homerun with the design. Check it out !!

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If you want one of these shirts or are interested in supporting the RMGA, you can fill out the “Contact” information on the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance website or call Pete Muennich at Schnee’s main store at 35 E Main St, Bozeman MT, (406) 587-0981

 

 

Posted in My Opinion and Oher Important Stuff | 6 Comments

2012 Elk Season – Week 3 – Two Shot Tom & the T-Rex

It was a hot, dusty and generally miserable ride out of the mountains. Dan and I  took turns pulling the rear, riding into an inescapable cloud of dust. It was hot even after the sun dropped behind the Tobacco Roots. By the time we rode down to the trailhead almost four hours after leaving camp, all I could think about was jumping in the creek. We had left a six pack of beer on ice in the horse trailer in my new Engel cooler and covered it with horse blankets and saddle pads. In this heat I didn’t give the Engel much in the way of odds of keeping that beer cold for six days. But one could hope. We resisted popping the lid till we had the horses unsaddled and loaded. We weren’t surprised to find the ice melted but the beer was still pretty cold. Another day and it would have been warm, but right now that didn’t matter one bit. It was one of those moments that makes you realize just how good a cold beer can taste.

Tom Brooks was waiting at the house when we pulled up. Tom introduced me to archery and taught me how to shoot a bow. We were still  teenagers in the 1980s when we started shooting compound bows instinctively, i.e.; without sights. I still remember when Tom put the first sight on his bow. We all thought he was cheating ! But a round of 3-d targets proved their worth and soon all of our bows wore sights with pins. Back then, whitetail deer were still scarce and we counted ourselves lucky just to see one during a  day of hunting. There were a lot of days when we didn’t. We learned a lot though and some of my fondest memories  were those early days with Tom  as we learned how to hunt deer.

My career took me away from the Hoosier state in 1987 and I hadn’t seen much of my good friend over the years. I was excited when we put together a plan to hunt elk together.

After unloading the horses. throwing some hay and a quick shower, we headed into Manhattan for a steak at Sir Scott’s  Oasis. Soon we were re-telling old stories and knocking back a few drinks.  The whisky chased the dust out of my throat and the tired out of my bones. We were joined by my friends Mike Morrow and Todd Galloway who were in town to hunt elk in the Bridger Mountains with my friend and sometimes elk guide, Dan Reddick. A lot bull got thrown down that night.

On Saturday we ran around town picking up a few supplies. Then it was time to make sure Tom was dialed in. I looked with suspicion at the single pin on Tom’s bow sight. What’s up with that? Tom hunts whitetails and usually won’t shoot at one past 25 yards or so. A single 20 yard pin works fine. Tom has some dandy bucks on the wall, but I reminded him that these are elk and are much bigger than a deer. Being able to hit one at 40 yards helps odds immensely. When I moved the Block target to forty yards Tom drew and planted an arrow in the sod a few inches below it.

By Sunday morning we were riding back in on the same dusty, miserable trail. Almost four hours later, Tom and I  watched my brother and his wife ride off with our saddle horses in tow. After dumping Tom’s gear in the tent and checking camp out we headed up the trail, bows in hand. It was late in the afternoon as we padded quietly along an old fire line cut many years earlier. Above us on a hillside I heard something moving and motioned for Tom to freeze. I left him standing in the lane and moved into the trees on the other side and cow called. Instantly the bull was heading our way down the hillside. It happened fast. I looked up to see the bull come out of the trees just 15 yards above Tom but out of his view. The bull was behind some small pines and from where I stood I could see he was a  nice 5×5. Unable to find the cow he had heard, he lost interest and  moved back up the hillside. I ripped my pack off and pulled out the Montana cow elk decoy. Holding it in front of me I backed further away from Tom and started calling passionately at the departing bull. He whirled around and came back down at us but again stopped before crossing the fire line. Moments passed, I heard his cows mewing above us, saw some movement and then the bull was gone.  An hour into the hunt and Tom was already into elk.

We climbed to an open top and crossed a meadow to set up on an edge where the park merged into the forest in a clearing studded with young pines. I soon had a  herd bull bugling sporadically to my cow calls but he wouldn’t come in. Then out of nowhere a young bull appeared silently at the edge of the park and began circling toward Tom. He was a young bull and I hoped Tom wouldn’t put an arrow in him. When he moved out of sight, I dropped back further in the trees and sent a shrill bugle towards the herd bull. I was hoping to get him fired up. Maybe he would see or hear the small bull and come in to the bugle. It didn’t happen and as darkness fell, I headed over to where Tom was hidden in a clump of pines. He was excited. Two small bulls had come in but had stayed out of range. Then Tom heard my bugle and thought it was still another bull. I was happy with the activity we had seen in one evening. The rut was heating up.

That night we sat by the fire and caught up on family, friends, jobs and such. We hit the sack with anticipation of the morning to come.

It was still dark when we loped out of camp and dropped down about a mile to where a meadow loomed out of the gray light. We stood for a while watching and listening before crossing the meadow and dropping off to a hillside strewn with fresh elk sign. A bull bugled further down the mountain and we watched as his herd of cows fed among the trees on the hillside across the drainage from us. Finally the bull, a decent six, came into view. I didn’t have any hope of bringing him this far but cow called anyway and when he answered, two bulls on our side of the big ditch let loose. I hadn’t made another call when one of the bulls bugled again, this time closer. He was coming in. I told Tom to set up on the trail just over a rise and I backed up about thirty yards further. I hoped to pull the bull past Tom and wanted to be at least sixty yards away. Tom disappeared and I waited a few minutes before calling.  I cow called and heard a mew above me. A little brushy bull came out of the trees and moved toward me until he stood on the hillside five feet above me. I didn’t want to spook him in fear he would run down the trail toward the bull moving our way. The little bull walked by me and when he was a way down the trail I turned toward the incoming bull and cow called. The bull answered, much closer now. Almost on top of Tom. Then I heard the mew again and the little bull was back and standing next to me. less than three feet away. He put his head down and took a bite from a clump of grass just 10 inches from my boot. He was placidly chewing when a breeze hit me in the neck. The bull went wide eyed, looking right through me and turned and ran down the hill in that awkward side to side gait that young bulls have.

I turned my attention back to the bull just in time to hear an elk crashing through trees and brush. Good job Tom, I was thinking as I grabbed gear and bow and headed down the trail. As soon as I saw him I knew that elk steak was not on the menu tonight. Tom had set up upwind of the trail and the bull had winded him just as Tom came to full draw. But the bull stopped behind a dead pine and Tom could only hold until the bull turned tail and busted off through the trees. Lesson 1 – always, always stay downwind of the path the elk will most likely take.  Tom told me the bull was a 6×6..probably a 260-280 class bull from his description. Coming in like a train on a greased rail. We were licking our wounds and pulling our pride back out when the other bull on our side let loose again.

We moved quietly back up the mountain towards the bugle. The bull had heard me cow calling and hadn’t come in so I wanted to get close before calling again. Less than 100 yards. We came to a bench with a rise above it and I knew we were getting close. I wanted to hear him before we moved again and he obliged us with a scream from less than 8o yards away. “I see him moving in the trees” Tom said, and we ducked back over the rise. The thermals were still coming down the mountain in our favor.  I pointed to a blow down about twenty yards away. Tom nodded and moved slowly, watching for the bull and set up in front of the downed tree. He executed the move perfectly, the bull grunting and bugling from just above him. I waited until Tom nocked an arrow and then dropped further back over the rise. This bull was hot and I was sure he would come in but if he didn’t see a cow he might hang up before coming past Tom. I had to work a bit to get enough saliva in my mouth to work the call. When I finally did, the hill erupted with screams, the bull crashing down the mountain on a direct path past Tom. I could see his heavy rack and long white tipped tines from where I crouched and when the bull suddenly lurched away from Tom and smashed across the hill into some small trees I shook my head at Tom’s luck. That bull is a 330-340 class elk and Tom just smoked him!

Excitedly I grabbed my pack and headed over the rise. One look at Tom and I knew that once again, we wouldn’t be eating back strap. The bull had come in like a freight train on a track. Tom was perfect, drawing when the bull passed behind a tree. 20 yards, then 15. Two more feet and Tom had a broadside shot at less than 15 yards. Then a slight breeze swirled and the freight train jumped the track. Another two feet and Tom would have had an easy shot at a monster bull.  Tom was disappointed but stoked at being that close to a cover shot bull. Tom had drawn on two 6×6 bulls in less than an hour. Can’t ask for more than that.

Then next day I drug Tom down into a deep basin about two miles from camp. We had some excitement that day with several bulls screaming and almost coming in. The climb out of the hole and the hike back to camp that night was torture though. Tom was doing a great job but the steep country we had been hunting combined with high elevation had taken its toll. Tomorrow we would drop below camp to a flat I had wanted to explore and make it an easier day.

The next morning we left in the dark and descended out of camp towards a big timbered flat interspersed with small parks and creeks that originated in the high basin above us. I found a spot I liked where a trail came through a natural funnel with a rocky ridge on one side and a dense stand of young pines on the other. I sent Tom to the stand of pines and I crouched behind a huge rock about 70 yards down the trail and started calling.

I called a few times and then waited several minutes before calling again. Since I was calling blind, we would need to be patient and give it time to bring a bull in. Sometimes when you start calling blind a bull responds but even more often they sneak in without making a peep. Straining to listen, I thought I heard sporadic sounds of footsteps. The sound was coming from my front and left and the boulder obscured my view in that direction. The sound was  growing louder now and unmistakable. Something large was slowly moving towards me. I remained kneeling and drew my bow when the noise seemed right on top of me. Horns appeared above the boulder and a 5×5 bull stepped out into view less than ten yards away. He was a good bull but not one that I would take so when he turned his head and looked away I let the bow down. I watched his rump disappear down the trail right toward Tom. I heard the soft thump of Tom’s bow and then the bull was running into a clump of trees above us. I  cow called loudly and he stopped . All was quiet for a few moments and then the wild crashing of a dying elk as he took off on his last run. Everything went silent. Elk steak tonight I was thinking as I grabbed gear and started down the trail. I was within thirty yards of Tom who was looking towards where the bull had run. He turned and looked at me then gestured up the trail. “What ?” I mouthed to him. “Big bull”, he seemed to be saying and when I pointed to where the smaller bull had been he sheepishly smiled and whispered “I missed”. That became a non-issue very quickly when a deep roar let loose down the trail. This was no 5×5. This was a pig of a bull, an elkasaurus, a T-Rex. I crouched and headed down the trail as quickly as I could, the bull now screaming behind me. The trees around me seemed to bend with the force of his guttural bellows.  Now I knew why the smaller bull had crashed away. He had seen the big boy coming in and wanted no part of a fight with this monster. I was 70 yards away when I turned, spit the cotton out of my mouth and mewed at the beast. He roared again. We traded mews and roars for several minutes and it was evident that he was hanging  up just before the funnel. I decided to try Dan Reddick’s “stolen cow” trick. I grabbed my bugle tube  and ran down the trail another sixty yards and let loose a bugle. Picking up a stick and raked it up and down a dead pine. I ran back towards the bull and started cow calling frantically, then turned away again and ran down the trail snapping branches of trees as I went and generally making a commotion. When I got back to where I had first bugled, I screamed back at the bull and followed that with another set of cow bawling.

The T-rex bawled angrily in response. His roars intensified as he headed toward the elk he thought was stealing a potential addition to his herd. I could hear sticks breaking and caught the top of his heavy rack moving through the trees. Crap! He was coming above the trail next to the rocky ridge. If  Tom was going to shoot this bull and I needed to change what was going down here and fast or I would spook the bull. I crouched as low and I could,  moved away and went silent. Maybe the bull figured that the cow was long gone or maybe he lost his interest in a fight. Either way, he turned and walked back up the trail, this time heading right past where Tom waited. Once again Tom’s bow sent an arrow on its way, and once again an elk went tearing off through the trees. This time, I decided to postponed my celebration and dreams of elk tenderloin until I saw an elk on the ground.

I walked over to Tom who was looking for his arrow or sign the bull was hit. There was no arrow to be found and no blood either. I found where the elk had churned the ground up and left divots in the dirt as he fled. I followed it for a couple hundred yards until it became evident that the bull wasn’t hit. Both bulls had been broadside at forty yards and it appeared Tom had shot under both of  them. Well, catch and release elk hunting is actually a lot of fun; all of the excitement and a lot less work. Before we left, I turned on my GPS and entered a waypoint for the spot. I named it “Two Shot Tom”

We would spend the next day pushing further into the flat and had two more close encounters with bulls that didn’t work out. One circled around us and crossed over our trail and busted and another bull was coming in and winded us. But it was a lot of fun. That night as we say by the fire a young elk started mewing from the darkness just outside of our field of vision. It was walking around us in circles, calling out every few minutes. I jumped up and got my cow call and started answering what I assumed was a calf. Tom looked at me and said “Would you stop that !”.  “Why?”,  I asked. I wanted to see whatever elk that was making that noise. “Are you scared of a calf elk?”.  Tom just looked at me. “No, stupid. I am scared of whatever may be out there chasing that elk. And you are going to bring it right into camp.” I laughed. We had seen quite a bit of bear sign and Tom had been a little nervous all week. That night after he fell asleep, I ripped off three loud cow calls inside the tent.  Revenge is a dish best served cold.

The final morning we hunted down the mountain where we had seen the bulls the first day. Several bulls were bugling but we couldn’t get any to come in. It was a nice serenade for Tom though and a fitting end to a great hunt.

Tom and I talked this winter and he is ready to try it again. This year wouldn’t work but we will set something up for 2014. For sure  we will be visiting “Two Shot Tom” again and this time I am betting Tom will have a 40 yard pin !

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Stories Of The Hunt | 2 Comments

Drawn for Montana Mountain Goat !

Last week when I checked the Montana FWP site for draw results for Bighorn Sheep, Moose and Mountain Goat, I expected to see the usual “not successful”. It has been 12 years after all and the odds are pretty slim for any of those tags. So I had to look twice and then look again when I saw “Mountain Goat” listed under “Successful”. It’s probably a once in a lifetime opportunity for me . I turn 53 this year, so I won’t be able to enter the draw again for seven years when I’m sixty. Do the math.. Another 12 years to draw and I will be 72 ! I can only hope I will still be in shape for the steep and deep by then.

I drew in unit 314 which starts just south of Bozeman and runs all the way down the east side of the Gallatin Canyon to just north of the boundary of Yellowstone Park. The unit runs all the way east to the Paradise Valley. A lot of country.

My friend Dan Reddick used to outfit that country and took a goat off Ramshorn Peak a few years ago. I have two other contacts with guys that drew the tag last year and took two good 9″ + billies.  I plan on buying them a couple of beers and setting down with a map or two !

Maybe the Kimber Mountain Ascent was a lucky purchase after all.

 

 

 

 

 

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2012 elk – Weeks 1 & 2 – “High & Dry”

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. Continue reading

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2013 Montana Spring Bear Hunts

Spring bear season is in full swing here in Montana.  The weather is warmer than normal and the snow has pulled back from the hillsides on all but the highest elevations. Continue reading

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Wyoming DIY Antelope Hunting: Part 4 Let’s Go Hunting!

 

So you’ve been drawn for a Wyoming antelope tag ! If you’ve hunted antelope before, this final part of the series may not be for you. For first time hunters, here are the topics we will cover to help prepare you for your hunt:

  • What to shoot
  • Preparing for the hunt
  • How to find and take an antelope buck
  • Caring for your antelope Continue reading
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Dan’s Argentina Red Stag Hunt

April 12, 2013

Dan and Kristen picked Argentina as their honeymoon destination, albeit almost a year after the wedding ! Kristen had always wanted to see Buenos Aires and Dan was hoping to hunt Argentina’s red stags during the rut, which the locals call “the roar”. This due to the sound they make when chasing the female “hinds” around. I’ve heard it described as more of a lion’s roar or as Dan said, a “pissed off beef bull”. Cool thing is their fall is going on down there during our spring. Bow hunting for red stags is on my bucket list so I am super excited to hear more about the trip when Dan gets back.

Now, I’ll let Dan tell the story in his own words….. Continue reading

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2012 Elk – Week 5 – Cosmic Dick and the Black Hole Elk

When it comes to elk hunting, the ultimate hunting partner is a mule. They don’t need to be shod, will carry a lot of weight without complaining, won’t drink your whiskey, and hate grizzly bears. After a mule though, the next best elk hunting partner is a guy like Dick Adams. Even if he does drink all of your whiskey.

Posted in Stories Of The Hunt | 2 Comments

Applying for the Kentucky Elk Lottery

Kentucky now has the 10th largest elk herd in America ! In 1996 the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation pledged over $1.4 million to the state of Kentucky’s elk restoration project. On December 18, 1997, seven elk that had been captured in Western Kansas were released at the Cyprus Amax Wildlife Management Area in Eastern Kentucky. This was the first of a series of releases that continued thru the winter of 2002. Continue reading

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Dialing in the Nosler 48

I have been working up a load for the Nosler Custom 48 in 300 WSM. I got back into reloading last year to allow me to practice more at distance. Factory ammo was producing sub MOA groups, but I was burning through at least $300 in ammo each year. Continue reading

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Shooting Kimber’s Mountain Ascent Rifle in .308 Win

Last weekend I stopped by Shedhorn Sports in Ennis, Montana to see if they had received any H4350 powder. It seems like every sporting goods store in Montana has been stripped of reloading supplies and ammo so I was suprised to find not only the powder, but some Nosler Trophy Grade ammo in .308 loaded in Nosler’s 165 Accubond bullet. Continue reading

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Finally got it ! Reviewing the Kimber Mountain Ascent Rifle – .308 Winchester

Back in the spring of 2012 I read a review of Kimber’s newest rifle in the 84M line, the “Mountain Ascent”.  Kimber revealed the new rifle at the 2012 SHOT show to rave reviews. I was intrigued with the idea of an ultra-light production rifle. My brother owns a Kimber Montana in 300 WSM which shoots sub-MOA groups and weighs  6 lbs 3 ounces without a scope. The Mountain Ascent scales this back to 4 lbs 13 oz.  At around $1750 the rifle isn’t cheap, but still considerably less than a custom rifle of comparable weight.   mountain-ascent   Continue reading

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Turning an Elk into the Best Elk Burger in the World !

imagesI started hunting whitetails in Indiana back in the 1980’s. While those corn and soybean fed deer made pretty tasty fare, they don’t compare to the savory goodness of a well cooked elk burger. I always end up with more elk burger than I can eat so I  love giving it away to friends who appreciate it as much as I do. Several have told me my elk burger tastes better than any beef burger they have eaten. Continue reading

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Wyoming DIY Antelope Hunt – Part 3 – Hunt Areas and Public Access

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My 2010 Montana Pronghorn

In Part 2 of this series we discussed three key differences in Wyoming antelope hunt areas:

  • Trophy Potential
  • Hunt Seasons
  • Public Access

Part 2 focused on Trophy potential. If you’ve read that post, you now understand the reality of what it takes to draw one of the coveted tags in one of Wyoming’s storied trophy antelope hunt areas. Fortunately, there are lots of other options for hunting antelope in WY. Continue reading

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Wyoming DIY Antelope Hunting: Part 2 – Planning Your Hunt for Trophy Potential

pronghorn2

In Part 1 we reviewed Wyoming’s Preference Point and Application Process. Here are  some key points to remember as you plan your hunt: Continue reading

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Wyoming DIY Antelope Hunting: Part 1 – Drawing a License

While I love elk hunting in the mountainous backcountry of the west, I can see the light pronghorns_671_600x450at the end of that tunnel. Fortunately, its still a small light, but DIY elk hunting on public land is tough physically and there will be a day when my body just doesn’t want to do it anymore. Thankfully, there are pronghorn antelope. Hunting antelope on the prairie on public land is probably my favorite October past time.  Continue reading

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Wyoming elk application due January 31st !

Wyoming’s application periond for elk tags expires on January 31st. Continue reading

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“Those are the Breaks!” 2011 Elk Hunt

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. Continue reading

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