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Bob's Elk Hunt

By Bob Anderson

I've been up since 4 am and driven 50 miles, only to be sitting here in 12 below zero, the wind is 25 mph and my face is burning cold. I am surrounded by nothing but thousands of acres of snow covered fields up against the …......mountains. There is a freezing fog hanging over everything and I am waiting for it to magically rise, revealing a herd of elk.  How in the heck did I get here?

Sixteen months earlier at a friend’s summer garden party, nestled in a small valley with beautiful grounds, ponds and fruit trees, Brandi, the wife of one of my special friends approached me about putting together a unique hunt for her husband, Bob. These days money is beyond tight and after extensive conversations with Gary, the third member of our group; we decided on a Montana elk hunt.  Argentina doves were discussed, but at many thousands of dollars; it was decided that perhaps it was a “bridge too far”.

I approached Bob with the idea of hunting Montana elk and deer and he took the bait like a steelhead and ran with it. I provided him with a few websites for Montana and we met once with a friend of mine who hunts Montana annually. The next thing I know, he has purchased his tags and downloaded every bit of information and regulation concerning big game hunting in Montana. He asked me to arrange for lodging and I was able to get a great motel in Missoula the first night on the road and a week in a log cabin at our destination.

We arrived at the cabin on Saturday about noon found the owners working to get the cabin ready and we were able to check in and then drive 50 miles to where we wanted to hunt, a cow only area, the next morning. When we got there, we could see all the way to the top of the local mountain range and look out over thousands of flat acres of ranch land. The temperature was 12 below and the wind was bitterly cold. After we got the lay of the land, we left and headed down the road to the next ranch where we met the owner.  He was a typical Montanan and very friendly. He proceeded to inform us that the day before, he and the local game officer had gone over the mountain behind us, on horseback, and not seen any sign of elk. There were a few tracks only and a couple of days before there had been a fairly decent sized herd down in the valley and four nice cow elk had been taken. When it comes to hunting elk, Bob swears he has never found a marinade yet that works on antlers. He is an avowed meat hunter.

Sunday, based on the rancher’s sage advice, we elected to hunt closer to home. By noon, we had seen nothing and elected to go into town and pick up some necessities. While in town, Glenn our fourth member, decided to buy an over the counter doe tag and then we headed back to the cabin.  Having stocked up on essentials, replaced a broken coffee maker and topped off our gas tank, we headed for the cabin. It felt great getting back to a warm cabin and a home cooked dinner. The evening was passed with pleasant conversations and a glass of wine.  We had received a call from the rancher and he told us that he and the game commission guy for his area had ridden on horseback clear to the top of the mountains behind his place and had seen virtually no elk sign. His suggestion was to come back Wednesday and we should probably see elk by then.

Monday morning came with a burst of sunlight on the snow. It had warmed up noticeably and was only about 6 below zero. The sun created a dazzling display on the sparkling ice crystals in the trees and brush along the fence line. Since we were hunting around the cabin, we had a leisurely breakfast and Gary and I decided to have a second cup of coffee. While Bob and Glen, who had tags, dressed then went outside to retrieve their rifles from the truck. While talking to Gary, there was a sound that was very much like hitting the front porch with a 2x6 piece of lumber. I looked at Gary and said, “What the heck was that noise?” Then the door burst open and Bob came running in and stated “Meat on the ground!’ He grabbed his knives and ran out. We were right behind him with our knives in hand.

While Glen was getting his rifle from the truck, Bob had stepped around the side of the cabin and looked up on the bank above the fence line. There were two does standing there. He turned and got Glen’s attention, who stepped out around the corner in time to see one doe still there. He whipped up the Savage Weather Warrior in 270 Win with a Redfield 3x9 and put down the doe with one well-placed 150 gr Nosler Partition. She was a nice animal that we estimate weighed about 140 lbs. and was 60 yds. from the cabin.  By the time the three of us got up the bank and over the fence, Glen had already started dressing the deer. He had her positioned and had already made the first major incision up to the breastbone. He then slid the knife under the sternum and with both hands, lifted the deer up, gave the knife a quick jerk up and the breastbone split all the way through. He cut the wind pipe and everything dropped out. The surrounding sagebrush was alive with crows, Magpies, and even a Red-tailed Hawk, all waiting for dinner. The minute we had approached the deer, the birds began to circle and as soon as they recognized that we were not a threat, they settled into the surrounding brush to await their turn. Now it was Gary’s and my turn to make our contribution and we each quickly grabbed a leg and took off for the cabin with the deer.

The back of my pickup was fitted out with one of those baskets that connect to your receiver hitch. They are perfect for hauling game short distances and we placed the deer on the back and drove the 1/3 mile to the barn. With 8 inches of snow on the ground, it was easier to drive. The barn was perfect for hanging deer in the rafters and we even found a plastic tub to place under the doe while skinning her out. We then bagged her and returned to the cabin. It was 11 a.m. and time for lunch. The afternoon was spent reliving the hunt and planning the next day’s hunt.

The next morning we were up early and headed out for the town of Wisdom. It was clear, cold, sunny and a pleasant drive. When we reached town, we turned left and headed to the ranch that we had permission to hunt. Once on the ranch, I still focused on the road as we still had 8-12 inches of snow and the others concentrated on the surrounding area. Soon, we cut the tracks of a few elk, but continued on to see if there were others. We continued around a bend in the road and it ended in about a ¼ mile and there we saw more tracks crossing the road. It looked like the same bunch that had crossed the road further back. It was decided to go back to the first sighting and follow from there.

By the time I got out of the truck, got my coat on, and locked things up, the others were already across the road and following the tracks into a field and headed for a barbed wire fence. I chose to take off to the left and walk to the gate in the fence. By the time I got there, the others had decided, correctly, that the gate was the best route. I continued down the road and soon found where the tracks crossed the road. Since Bob was the only one hunting today, he and Glen had taken the lead and followed the tracks. It appeared that we were following two cows and calf and the tracks continued into the timber. Now Montana woods around here are not like the rainforests of coastal forests, which are thick with brush. You can move around easily through the trees. Eventually, Gary and I came to where they had jumped another fence and decided that they wouldn’t stop until they were in Yellowstone National Park. Hah!

After a relaxing 10 minute break sitting on a large log and an energy bar, we met up with Bob and Glen and headed back for the truck. When we got back we met a couple of other hunters that had followed the tracks we had seen around the corner. They informed us that the elk were being stalked by wolves. I found it interesting that the wolves didn’t continue to follow them on our side of the road. Then I remembered what the rancher, had said about wolves. They were getting pretty wise to humans and rarely just exposed themselves. The would use ravines and uneven ground to move through without being seed and even use the ruts caused by the wheels of irrigation pivot sprinklers.

The trip back to the cabin was uneventful and lunch was great. So great, in fact, that Glen and Gary decided to take a nap and Bob and I headed to town to visit the local U.S. Forest Service office to gather local maps and perhaps talk to a game officer or two. The Forest Service office, it turns out, is a regional office and quite large. We were able to get all the maps we needed and, as luck would have it, were able to talk to four or five Montana game officers who were down for a meeting. One was the local officer for Wisdom and when asked where all the elk were, his reply was “Idaho”. The wolves had pushed the elk further west into the Bitterroot Mountains. The lead game officer, when asked about the wolves, stated that it was mostly cougars causing the problem with elk numbers. That being said, all of the ranches we hunted on insisted that wolves were to blame. Who do you believe the people that out in fields taking care of their cattle or the game professionals? I’ll let you readers decide. I just know the elk numbers are not what they used to be, for whatever reason.

On the way back to the cabin and I got a call from our rancher friend. This time he said that he and his boys had ridden back over the top of the mountain and hadn’t seen a thing. Therefore, it was decided by a vote of 4-0 to hunt the area around the cabin again.

Wednesday morning we were up to scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage and fresh coffee. This time only Bob had two unfilled deer tags. One for a buck and the other for a white tail doe, just like the one Glen took.  Bob and Glen decided to take a walk down the road to the barn, about 400 yds. and check out the hillside from there. There was still about 8” if snow on the ground, but it was not fresh. There was deer sign going down to the Beaverhead River and it was pretty much coming off the hill behind our cabin. The fresh sign was easy to spot, because it was in our tire ruts and Bob and Glen went into the stalking mode. Moving carefully around the main ranch house, Bob paused at the corner of the fence. Crossing the pasture between our cabin and the house was a large White Tail buck. He was trotting at a pretty good clip and Bob, using his proven Weather Warrior, lowered the boom. At a laser measured 177 yds., he hit the buck in the side a little too far back. It stumbled and then jumped the fence and cleared another fence a about 30yards away. Glen, after 30+ years with the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Game and a long time bow hunter knew it was a solid hit and cautioned Bob not to chase it yet, but to wait a couple of hours and then go take care of it. With all the snow, tracking should be easy. So we just decided to let the buck settle down before we would retrieve it.

After lunch, all four of us set out to find the deer. Gary and I went clear around to the barn and worked the fence line and a stretch part way up the hill. Glen and Bob hiked over to where they swore the deer went over the fence, but found no sign. We all began working the fence line from both sides. Bob and I teamed up and Gary stayed higher on the hill. I cautioned Bob to be ready and he went to port arms. Shortly after that, I picked up some tracks and a bedding area in the snow. The buck had crossed in front of Bob.  I was about to warn him, but it wasn’t necessary since he spotted the blood and immediately knew the deer was moving up a draw to our left. A moment later Bob fired and I saw the deer literally do a flip in the air. He disappeared in the Juniper and a moment later he was streaking left to right at the top of the ridge about 70yds away. Bob fired once and then one more time. The second shot was perfectly placed behind the shoulder and the deer just did a head on nose dive into the snow. The buck was a 10 pointer and was huge. We estimated that buck dressed out at over 200 lbs.

After dressing out the deer, Gary and I drug it back to the truck and hauled it to the barn to hang. Glen, ever handy with a knife, quickly skinned it out and we all returned to the cabin to shower and get ready for dinner. Dinner that night consisted of freshly smoked ham taken from a wild pig taken earlier in the year. Without exaggerating, it was the best ham I had ever eaten. Not sure it was the pig, the smoke done by Gartner’s meats or both. It lasted two nights and now everyone wants to go pig hunting. I need to find a place to hunt pigs.

Thursday was the last day that we could hunt our ranch down by Lima, Mt. We got down there early and since Bob had the only elk tag, he and Glen went out through the snow and disappeared into the sage brush. Gary and I glassed the hill behind us, but could see no sign of any elk. A while later, we were joined by couple of rigs operated  full of hunters; one drove up on top of the mountain then soon returned and report that there was no sign up on top. So we decided to pick up Bob and take drive down the highway so we could drive through the back country. This was more for entertainment than actually hunting.

Driving out this road, we looked out into an alfalfa field and there were a half dozen elk, including one really nice branch antlered bull. No hunting zone. Around the next curve, lying in a field behind a ranch house were a dozen or so antelope, including at least four bucks. Two of which would have looked great on my wall. No hunting zone. A mile further down the road was about an 80 acre pasture that had just been mowed and bailed. There were literally over a hundred antelope in that field. When they spotted us they began to jump up and trot in single file around the back edge of the field. We watched them cross the road a quarter mile in front of us and disappear. No antelope tag and the season ended yesterday. Hah! We cut across the Matador Ranch and came out east of town. All along the road you could see the heads of mule deer resting in the wheat. No hunting zone and our remaining tag was for a white tail doe. Since it was Thursday evening, Bob had earlier stated that he wanted to take us out to dinner. However, there was enough ham left for another meal and no one wanted to pass up on that. So, it was ham dinner again.

We had run out of ranches that we had permission to hunt on and it was Friday and we were going home in the morning. It was decided that Friday we would again hunt around the cabin. We slept in till six and had breakfast. Gary and I did dishes while Bob and Glen again went out to see what was moving. 9 am seemed to be the witching hour. Sure enough, a doe was crossing the pasture in the same place that the buck had crossed. This time Bob “The Nailer” hit her solid at 175 yards. She jumped the fence and collapsed in a heap. She hadn’t run 30 yards from where she was hit. As luck would have it, Glen got to dress out another deer and Gary and I got to drag it to the barn and hang it up. Glen then skinned her out and started boning out the other two animals. Oregon does not allow bringing back animals with brains and nervous system because of chronic wasting disease. After boning out the meat wrapping it and putting it on ice, we all went back for lunch and a little rest. A couple of hours later we went back to the barn and finished boning out the last deer.

Saturday morning and it was time to say goodbye. We carefully packed all of our things and everything was neatly placed into my truck and the utility trailer I was towing. Goodbyes were said to our host who so kindly allowed us to stay in their cabin and use their barn. The temperature had been 12 below when we arrived a Bobs Birthday Buckweek earlier and was now about 40 above. Where I had endured roads that were slicker than owl spit, I was now facing a highway that was pretty much ice and snow free. Lookout Pass was ok and so was 4th of July Pass and the trip through Idaho was event free. It much different than my trip through Lookout Pass a couple of years before and a semi-truck had decided to jackknife at the summit. Ugh!

All in all, it was a great trip. We didn’t get an elk, but limited out on deer. We met incredible people that reaffirmed my belief that real Montanan’s are amongst the most trusting and friendly people on the planet. If there was a Nordstrom’s there, I might be able to persuade my wife to move there. Seriously, if you haven’t considered Montana as a place to visit or to hunt, you should think again. The country is so big, the people so friendly and there is more to do than you can imagine. It isn’t just the Mecca of hunting and fishing, you are only limited by your imagination for things to do.