So I have decided that I’m the world’s worst “trophy” hunter. Every time I pull the trigger on an elk that is smaller than the one I intended to shoot, I always have the same train of thought... “Man, he’s smaller than I was hoping for and I know there are bigger bulls around, but think of the story with this one! What this bull lacks in size, he makes up in the adventure.” BLAM.
So here we are, opening day up in the mountains of Montana. We have between 18”-24” of snow on average in the mountain range I’m hunting. It’s not too cold - temps were in the single digits most of the day, but that wind!!! In all the spots we glassed from, there was over 20 knots of winds and blowing snow.
The MVP of this hunt has been Jeff’s Ford Raptor, nicknamed the Honey Raptor, because Honey Raptor just don’t care. Amazingly we never got stuck and never had to winch out, but we really used every ounce of performance and driving skill to get around the mountain to glass for elk. The stupidity and stubbornness paid off. While everyone was hanging at elk camp and staying warm, Jeff and I saw elk consistently in the morning. We found a number of average bulls and I thought I saw a nice one through the blowing snow, but he moved into the timber before the weather cleared and we lost him. With the poor visibility, howling winds, and nothing huge spotted we decided to hold off for the afternoon when conditions were supposed to improve.
Around noon, we had stopped seeing elk and we needed a break, so we went back to camp to get the snow out of our gear and warm up. We recharged until around 2:30, then headed back out. We made a beeline straight for a spot where we hadn’t seen elk, but we could see a lot of fresh tracks and we were really confident there was a herd of elk bedded in the strip of timber. It’s wasn’t 2 minutes after we arrived that I found two groups of elk, totaling maybe 50 elk. There were a lot of smaller and average bulls (an average bull being a 5 point). They were over 1000 yards away and we watched them for an hour to find the largest bull in the upper group, which was a nice 5x5. I thought I had glimpsed a large bull somewhere on the hillside through the trees, but it was a fleeting glimpse and I never got a second look. To get there, we had to plow Honey Raptor through a drifted road, then side hill a little over a mile to the top of a ridge, hike the ridge for a bit, then pop over the top through the upper end of the timber and get on the elk. With the howling wind, this plan was promising despite the fact that we would be really tight on the elk once we popped over the ridge.
I won’t bore you with the hike, but it sucked. The wind was absolutely ripping and I lost all feeling in my hands and parts of my face - except my eyes. I didn’t know my eyes could hurt so bad in the cold. It was 3 degrees when we left the truck, so I have no idea what the wind chill would have been, but it was bad.
After a slow hike, trying not to sweat in all our layers or slip down the mountain, we finally popped over the top of the ridge and made our way to the timber. Once we got to the timber, we skirted the very upper edge in silence as the trees provided a wind break. We found the elk bedded in the same spot, and we were within 100 yards. The cover was sparser that we had hoped and there were gaps in the trees where we would be exposed on the stalk while trying to get in a position to see the bull. With two feet of snow drifted up, we sucked it up and low crawled through the snow, basically sinking our bodies into the dry powder and scooting along, holding my rifle up as much as possible. We managed to get snow in every crack and crevice of our gear and a fair amount got under our outer layer. At the time I was surprised that the elk didn’t spot us, but after seeing Jeff’s video of the the stalk, we were submerged in the powder and moving slowly, so maybe it isn’t that surprising. We slowly crawled along the edge of the tree line, looking for the bulls. All I could see were cows and spikes, and a small rag horn. The bull we had been looking for was nowhere to be seen, and it was likely he had moved down the ridge a few yards. Jeff and I discussed the next course of action. We could 1. Bust the herd and hope that the bigger bull provided a shot before they all ran off the mountain. 2. Leave. 3. Find the best bull in this upper group (an average 5x5). We had to either shoot or bust the herd - there was no getting closer at this point and spotting the bigger bull wasn’t going to happen before we died of exposure.
And we have come full circle back to me being a really bad trophy hunter. Option 1 was terrible. I would rather pick option 2 and maybe come back in the morning or wait for a better opportunity, assuming we could extricate ourselves without being seen. Option 2 was enticing, but I started to glass the 5x5 and slowly convince myself that this stalk had been an adventure. I was hunting in terrible conditions, the hunt had been (and was going to be) memorable, and Jeff and I had slipped to within 70 yards of 50 bedded elk and I had a bedded bull with a slam dunk shot.
We looked at each other and I told him to put in his ear pro, that I was going to stand up, use a limb as a rest, and shoot the bull in his bed. What’s great about 20 knots of wind is that you can still whisper when you’re right on top of critters. I shook all the snow out of my rifle and scope, got everything set up and I crept to the tree branch. I could only see the top third of the bull’s back, as he lay sleeping in the snow. My plan was to actually put the bullet about an inch below the snow line, knowing how powdery it was and that it wouldn’t affect the bullet in the last 2 feet of bullet flight. I steadied as best I could, started to squeeze and backed off because even at 80 yards, the wind was so bad that I couldn’t hold on him. I waited for a break in the wind and shot. I didn’t see or hear the impact, and I was close enough that I immediately looked over the scope to see the cows already up on their feet. I started cycling the bolt while looking for the bull, he was rising more slowly as the cows started to run. He got up and took a few wobbly steps to follow the cows, and I had a brief opportunity and took a second shot. He stumbled and fell over into the snow. It was over in the span of 3 seconds.
We built a fire (survival fires seem to happen whenever Jeff and I hunt together). I spent the next couple of hours in a routine: breakdown the bull - go get wood - feed the fire - warm my hands - repeat. Jeff shuttled meat to the road while I worked, on the last load coming out of the woods around 8pm, at which point temps were in the negatives and we were covered in bloody snow and trying to feel our appendages and faces. Besides my hands, I was warmer than I anticipated, probably due to the constant work.
I get to go out in the morning and try to help a friend of a friend try to fill his bull tag and hopefully turn up the big bull that I know is hiding in that drainage. Maybe he will be a more successful trophy hunter than I am!
It’s been a few days and I’m in town for a recharge...
Before we left camp, we guided a friend of a friend on his first elk hunt and he got a nice 5x5.
We came down the mountain on Monday and drove to a friend’s house to start hunting mule deer and antelope. I had private access lined up for antelope, but that fell through, so it’s almost a guarantee that I’ll eat that tag. We repacked and hopped in the truck for a day hunt into a frequented road hunting area popular with the locals. We hiked a mile or so off the road and saw a herd of elk, countless does, and three bucks - a very small 3x3 and forkie, and a nice 4x2 that we debated shooting for over an hour. It was my call and I chose to pass, as we had only been hunting for a few hours and I felt the results were promising for a better deer if we went deeper.
We hiked about 3 miles into a backcountry spot that we knew held deer and was a good area in mid-November. We were expecting that the early snow might have pushed the deer out of the high country early. The area is frequented by horse packers, but there was only one truck at the trailhead and those tracks went into a different drainage, so we had the area to ourselves. Well, besides sharing it with a grizzly.
We glassed for several hours and turned up some elk and does. Then we hiked up the biggest peak in the area for the evening glassing session. On the way we kicked up a small forkie and some does.
During the evening sit, we glassed up 20+ does and no bucks.
We ended up using his steripen, which needed a charge pretty much every time we used it due to cold weather. My Sawyer didn’t function at all. Not cool.
Drying out our gear, after snow got slushy when it warmed up a bit today.
No dice. Not a single buck, which was surprising given how much country we could glass. There were countless does and the entire place was hammered with fresh tracks.
Yesterday, we hunted the AM and came up empty again, glassing nothing but does. We decided to quit while we were behind and we hiked out, passing a couple of hunters on the way in. “Abandon hope all he who enter here...”.
Our lack of success had lowered our standards sufficiently, and we decided to go back to the first drainage where we had seen the 4x2, who was in mortal danger if we saw him again.
We decided to do a classic “pincher” attack on the drainage, each of us taking a ridge so we could glass across and cover both sides. We hiked into the drainage and I spotted bedded deer immediately. I didn’t see the buck, so I slowly worked down the drainage, maintaining visual contact with Jeff and using hand signals through the binos to communicate. Jeff entered the drainage several hundred feet lower than I expected and I signaled for him to move up since he was likely to spook the bedded deer. In short order, the deer popped up out of their beds and started to move down the drainage. He could see them and was signaling to get me in position, but I couldn’t see them from my angle and they were rapidly moving to a private boundary.
Jeff did the right thing and waited as long as he could before he dropped the buck, probably 150 yards from the private boundary. In case you’re wondering, this is what a 338 Lapua does to a deer. It looked like a horror movie scene in the snow.
Upon further review, he is a wide 4x3 with decent mass and crabby forks. I totally should have shot him and not passed the first night. I would have been perfectly happy to have that buck as my first muley, but I got greedy and I’m kicking myself for passing. I’m glad Jeff got him, and I was happy to finally get to be a meat Sherpa for him!
I consoled my aching body with a Motrin horse pill and a margarita.
Tomorrow we are going to knock on doors for antelope and hopefully do some deer hunting this evening. I have to hit the road Friday morning, so this is the last day.
Well, that’s a wrap on Montana. We spent all day bouncing public parcels and got access to a ranch and still couldn’t turn up any antelope. We turned up a bunch of mule deer does and tiny spikes and forkies. I shot a small whitetail buck as the sun set on our Montana Hunt. A consolation buck to be sure, after not being able to get a nice mule deer buck.
Well, I’m back in Arizona with my entire family. We are spending the week visiting with friends, then we are headed up the mountain on Thanksgiving for the kids hunts. We have two rifle bull elk tags in eastern Arizona, one each for my 12 year old son and 10 year old daughter. I scouted the unit a bit during archery season and I’ve done a bunch of e-scouting as well, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got some good areas for the kids. Unfortunately, in keeping with the theme of the season, the hunt isn’t going to go as smoothly as I had hoped. I had a few buddies lined up to come help mentor the kids, glass, and pack out elk and they have all bailed at the last minute except my best friend and hunting partner. It will be very challenging with just the two of us and two youth hunters, but that’s the situation we are in and we will beat the odds. I’m very thankful for Andy, he’s the only one I can count on to show up. My son is super excited, my daughter is really nervous, and I’m really excited and anxious about my daughter’s shooting and her perseverance on what will be a cold and tiring adventure, the likes of which she hasn’t experienced before. I took them to the range a lot this year and we shot hundreds of dry fire and live fire rounds. It isn’t finding bulls that I’m worried about, but rather both of them making a good shot, and recovering and packing out two bulls. We will have our hands full!