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Happy Thanksgiving

By Tom Kuglin



Every opportunity to hunt elk is special. This year I was reminded again just how amazing a day in the mountains can be.
My good friend, Nate Ranstrom, had never gotten an elk. He’d spent plenty of time out trying but could never seem to connect. We had talked about getting out off and on over the course of our season here in Montana. Finally our schedules worked out for one whole day--the day before Thanksgiving.

I knew where we had to go with only one day to hunt. I had drawn a special bull permit the year before, taking a great 7x6 that went right at 340 B&C. That hunt had exposed me to some amazing elk terrain seldom visited by hunters because of the limited tags. The area was open for cows and spikes with our general tag. With our lone hunting day, and Nate simply looking for any elk to fill the freezer, we were going all out.

After chaining up my Toyota Tacoma in the dark, we busted snowdrifts for 45 minutes just to get anywhere close to the spot I had in mind. We finally abandoned the mechanized travel, and began hiking a 1000-foot mountain to get to the trailhead. The wind howled as we crested the long narrow ridge at shooting light. I had dragged my friend up to one of the harshest environments I had ever hunted with reassurances that I knew we had a great shot at finding some elk. Fortunately Nate’s a tough guy and didn’t seem to mind.

“The elk always like to hang just off the top of this ridge to get out of the wind,” I said.

We hunkered down to glass while the wind pierced our layers. No elk. After a few minutes clouds began rolling over us making glassing impossible. My “sure thing” spot was only giving us frustration. 

“Let’s make a fire and wait this out,” I said.

“Sounds good,” Nate replied, with a slight tone of disappointment.

 

We broke branches and soon had a decent fire to take on the nasty cold. All we could do was watch in respect as winter staked its claim. After about two-hours, the clouds lifted and we continued down the ridge. A couple of miles into our trek, at literally the last deep wooded draw we would glass before giving up, a lone bull stood in a small meadow.

The sun illuminated him against the stunning backdrop of the rugged mountain a few miles off. A bit more glassing revealed a herd of several cows bedded in the tress around the meadow. We had them.

“Well let’s go down and kill one of those cows,” I said, knowing this was going to be a long day.

“I’m ready,” Nate said.

We circled above the herd with perfect wind. We crept in until we caught sight of one cow through the trees. Then two, three and four. A spike. A bull. And no idea we were in the country. We got to 125 yards and began to pick our targets. I still had an elk tag, and even though Nate was top priority, I decided with only four days left in the season I would fill my freezer if the opportunity presented itself.

Nate picked out a spike while I watch three cows through my scope. He would shoot first, then I.

 

I heard the wallop of his bullet connect, and a second later his spike came into my scope and face planted. The cows were up immediately. I picked one out quartering away and touched my trigger. Just like that it was done. Two elk by noon.

We sat for a long time and talked before working up the elk for the pack out. I knew the misery that was coming. Nate was about to learn.

“We’ll be at the bar by eight,” Nate said.

I smiled and shook my head.

He was obviously in that elation all hunters know after a successful hunt, and not thinking straight. Two elk. Two guys. Four miles. Up 1000 feet to the ridge, then down a 1000 feet to the truck.

After packing out loose meat in game bags with our day packs, returning with pack frames and each strapping on a front and hind quarter, we got the first elk out around 1 a.m. Thanksgiving morning. Breaking through waist deep snowdrifts with 100 pounds each left us so tired and beat up we called it a night in the quite satisfaction perhaps only marathon runners and hunters can appreciate.

I’ve spent my elk hunting life chasing after big bulls. I pass on bulls every year looking for an older mature bull. I love the challenge. But it is a grind. Sometimes along the way it’s nice to be reminded just how fun elk hunting can be. Nate and I had gone into a spot no sane cow hunter would go. We made our one-day count and we’re better friends for it. We had plenty to be thankful for.