Article courtesy of Wild Deer and Hunting Adventures Magazine. Please click on the Wild Deer and Hunting Adventures Magazine to view the website.
Author: Barry Seabrook, Gunsmoke Adventures
Almost 40 hours after I left home I finally touched down at a small domestic airport in Butte, Montana and was picked up by my hunting buddy Rick. The flights to a hunting destination always seem to drag but once you get your feet on the ground you soon forget about the long hours of travel. We were to spend the next two weeks hunting elk together using general tags on public land.
General tags in Montana are tags that can be used in many locations (classed as general areas) throughout the state and they offer a great range of options for the keen self guided big game hunter. Whilst Montana does have limited entry draw tags with unit specific boundaries, the general season tags let you hunt many mountain ranges throughout the lengthy season and you can easily switch areas if you are finding too many hunters, not enough game or the weather dictates you need to shift location. The downside to general season tags is that because they are easily obtainable a lot of the more accessible areas get intense pressure at the start of the season and over busy periods such as weekends.
Rick had flown in earlier in the day and had managed to get out and glass the local hills before coming to pick me up. With a grin, he was quick to tell me he had already managed to find some elk and that we had a plan to find them again in the morning. The use of optics in a lot of this big country in the Rocky Mountains is invaluable and an asset that must be utilized in order to create opportunities.
We were up well before dawn and made our way down the road to Ricks glassing spot, pouring hot coffee to combat the minus 10 degree temperature as best we could as we set up the spotting scopes before the glow of the morning sun.
After passing vehicle after vehicle doing the same thing I began to realize the pressure on the local elk herds was intense. Rick was confident that we would get a bull elk in the time we had available but with every local wanting to fill their tag, (and their freezer) he advised me to take the first “raghorn” legal bull that gave me an opportunity.
The minimum legal requirement for taking a bull was that the animal had to have a brow tine that was at least four inches in length. In the areas close to larger towns, cities and roads the local elk on the general tag zones have a hard time reaching maturity due to all the pressure. I was assured that finding anything with six points on each antler was highly unlikely. Against all advice I quickly made it known that I wanted a bull with six points per side and would not be prepared to settle for a “raghorn”.
We were fortunate enough to glass elk from a distance every day for the next week but it was obvious that there was nothing big enough to meet the standard I had set and we continued to pass up opportunities. With the aid of excellent long range optics a group of ten elk could be made out on a distant high face. The big issue was these animals were over on the next mountain range. The distinctive yellow colour identified them as a group of bulls but at a distance of over ten miles they were just too far to make any call on antler size.
Discussing the high elevation and remoteness of this bachelor group in our camp that night we decided that this might be our best opportunity to harvest a decent bull and put together a plan to get up to them by time they ventured out the following evening.
The nearest trailhead was found on a map and next morning saw us saddling up the horses well before daylight and heading out past the stream of eager foot hunters. Just half an hour up the trail a raghorn bull bounded into view like a gift from above.
Rick was stunned as I turned it down letting it continue on and pass 30 feet from my horse. We soon heard shots from the foot hunters below us a few minutes later as it ran on into them and became the prize of another hunter.
The horses were fresh and we made good time following the steep trail up and down over several valleys. Three hours later we were part way up the base of the mountain we needed to climb and edged the horses off the trail. It was time to tie them up as the gradient was about to increase dramatically and would be too steep to ride.
I soon buckled my pack, zippered up my Lamellar Altitude series gear and checked my GPS. Over the last year I had been trying the new technical range from Lamellar and it had certainly proven itself in the many locations I had hunted in. During this late fall hunt in the Rockies I could not have asked for better gear to protect me from the elements. We were now at 5000 feet above sea level and I was feeling the adjustment I had to make since leaving Australia. I looked up the steep slope and snow covered mountain wondering at my decision not to take the “easy” bull that had walked right past me a few hours earlier.
An hour up the slope and the grassy face turned to a steep and slippery mix of loose rock and melting snow as we slowly climbed. Passing my comfort zone I managed to make it to the first craggy peak and observed a group of bighorn sheep moving off. We had disturbed them from their beds and it was amazing to see these animals in their natural habitat contouring around steep faces like we walk on flat ground. Of course I did not have a tag for sheep and the odds of drawing are very slim for those who enter into the draw each year.
With no possibility of climbing further on this side, we edge our way around, sidling to the shaded side of the mountain. Covered in deep snow we began ploughing our way through it onwards and upwards towards the top. Finally we reached our destination and finding an elevated position that provided a view to the open but snow covered face we expected the elk to feed out onto come evening. The climb had taken the best part of the day and I again checked the GPS to find we were now at a little over 10,000 feet.
Surveying the area that the elk would feed in, I checked the rangefinder and calculated that my shot would need to be between 500 and 600 metres, depending on where the elk emerged from at dusk. I had practised at this distance and was confident in making a good shot. To walk closer would lead me downhill, into the open and also obscure my view of the slope that they would feed on so I made the decision to stay put. With only two hours before dark a suitable gap in the trees was found, snow levelled out to make a platform to lay on, bipod deployed and a rear bag set up under the stock to keep everything steady.
To our benefit, the elk having been undisturbed in this remote location began wandering out very soon after I had finished setting up the rifle (and well before last light). One by one out they came until there was ten bull elk out on the slope meandering and feeding. It was with some disappointment after the long hike that the best head amongst the ten bulls was a five by six. Other than one bull with a broken antler, all the rest were young raghorn animals.
We had only counted ten in total the night before when we had glassed them from a distant mountain range and so with no others appearing in the previous half hour I made the decision to take the five by six before they moved any further away. Rick called out the distance from the rangefinder, I dialled the scope in and placed the crosshairs on the bulls shoulder. With my finger on the trigger and my breathing under control, I was ready to fire. I was just about to let one go when I caught the slightest movement in the corner of the scope and hastily pulled out of the shot. Another elk had just walked into view and had quickly caught up with the group who were now making their way across the slope in front of us.
I heard Rick say “that’s your bull” as he counted the points through his binoculars and hastily turned the rifle towards the new target. 525 metres came the call and I dialled in the scope once again only to find that a dead tree was screening me from a clear shot at the vitals. A few moments later he stepped out and began walking up the slope. 545 metres came the next call as I made the adjustment and then focused the crosshairs on the animals shoulder and squeezed off the shot.
The bullet hit home and we watched as he ran up hill for a short distance before coming to a stop again, swaying a few times and finally toppling over. Although only 550 metres away, it took over an hour to trek around the hill and through the snow and it was well after dark by the time we managed to get to him. After some quick photos, I caped the bull and fleshed the skull for the carry out that night. We removed the intestines and placed the carcass over a log to cool the meat for retrieval later on. We began our descent down the mountain finally reaching the horses, saddling up and making the three hour frozen ride back to the trail head. Climbing into bed at 3 am I calculated having woken up almost 24 hours previously to make the trek up that mountain.
Although completely worn out it was a great feeling as I went off to sleep, to know that I had held out for a six point bull and had been able to achieve my goal on a public land hunt in Montana. We took a well earned rest the next morning, but headed back up the mountain a day later on another gruelling mission to go back in and retrieve all the meat. It was very satisfying to retrieve all of the harvested animal and fill Ricks freezers with prime venison.
An elk hunt in any of the Western States for the keen self guided hunter is very doable. Look at what you want to achieve, research state agency fish and game websites, find units that suit your physical fitness with draw odds that work into your hunt schedules and planning and start organising hunts that will give you memories to last a lifetime.