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Hunt the Big Sky

By Russ Van Orman
Come late November, Southwest Montana calls my name. Like the late migration of geese overhead, I was traveling south to Dillon, Montana. I am not exactly sure what keeps drawing me there but for the last two weeks in November I call it home.

My usual 8 hour drive to Missoula turn into 12 hours of driving through an ice and a snow storm that few people would have ventured out in. My determination kept me headed to my first night’s stay in Missoula.

Arriving in Dillon, I checked in with Dan and Shannon Keller, the owners of the Goose Down Ranch. They rent cabins and a two bedroom apartment to sportsmen and tourists (please check out the above link).

My next stop was to request permission to hunt a block management area west of Dillon. Then gather some provisions at the local IGA and settle in for the night.

The first few days of my hunt were bitterly cold with snow; I saw elk each day but they eluded me preferring to stay on private land rather than risk the dangers that lay on the other side of the fence.

"Hunting is sport where frustration and enthusiasm mix to create a patient resolve for success." I told myself.

Gradually the temperature started to warm up the next couple of days, so I head east out of Dillon. My truck splashing through the icy slush found its way to a place that some hunting buddies and I had hunted successfully 15 years prior.

My thoughts were my own as I climbed the steep hill ahead of me. Scanning the hillsides for elk every 50 yards, I found a spot in some rocks which gave me 180 degree view of area below and to the side. The early morning light gave way to mid-morning sunshine. My watch read 10:30 as I stood up. I decided to be a little more aggressive in my pursuit and try and cut some tracks in the melted snow. By the time I made it back to the truck, it was dark.

The next day I was fortunate to have permission to hunt some block management property. (Block Management is cooperative program between ranchers and Montana fish and Game that opens up thousands of acres to hunting BlOCK MANAGEMENT).

If the conditions are right this area can be an elk hot spot; the year before I had seen 3 bulls and a bunch of cows. However, luck being what it is I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Darkness surrounded my truck as inched along the road running through the property. The minute I had Elusive Elkunlocked the gate everything was in stealth mode. Creeping along with my headlights off, I followed the ruts and used the star light reflecting off the snow to guide me. It was still dark when the truck crested the top of hill.

The darkness engulfed me as I followed a fence line that led to a large open area. Sitting down with my back against the fence, I pulled up my collar up against the coldness. Taking out my binoculars, I scanned every inch that land without any luck. It was getting dark by the time I arrived at the truck.

The next day I picked my wife up at the Butte airport which is about an hour north of Dillon. The temperatures were rising as the truck headed south to our home away from home, at the Goose Down Ranch. “It doesn’t look to promising for elk,” I remarked. “Well, have you hunted Deer yet?” She asked. “Not really” I replied. “Maybe you should think about hunting for deer since you only have five days left” she responded.

The next morning we left to hunt deer on some Block Management Property. We saw plenty of deer but all on private land.  I’ll have to admit my frustration was rising.

The following morning I left early to hunt several places south of Dillon. Late in the afternoon, I decided to try a place where a buddy and I had been successful in harvesting two real nice bucks (Rattl’n in the Sage). Driving through an easement on some private property, I picked my way slowly through ruts headed up towards some BLM property. Looking over to my right there were seven or eight elk cows with calves. I quickly turned on my GPS with my OnXMaps installed to see if they were on public ground. As I drove past the elk, which were about 100 yards away, I realized they were just on the other side of the fence on the private ranch land.  Rounding another curve, there were couple trucks parked on the edge of a pivot field.  Pulling alongside they asked me “if I had seen the elk below us”.  “Yes”, I replied.

From this advantage point you could see the elk. We watch the elk until dark. Driving back to Dillon, I promised myself that the next day I would be there before light.

The next morning I put the truck in stealth mode and made my way slowly up the access road. It was totally dark when I parked the truck where I had the night before.  The access road from this point on was extremely rough with some steep rocky sections to maneuver around. Once the darkness started to give way to the sun, I turned the truck on and slowly made my way along the access road through the sage.  The access road followed the fence line and went through some dry creek beds. Suddenly, off to my left there were the same elk that I had observed the day before. However, this time a large cow was on my side of the fence. Quickly, I put the truck in park and grab my rifle. Opening the door slowly, I stood up; the elk, about 300 yards away, were in plain view as was I. Walking crouched over, I made it to a patch of sage brush that would break up my outline. The elk were standing there looking directly at me with no time to dead rest the Savage; I took aim at the cow and fired. The cow elk jump the fence in one leap onto the private land, before I could shoot another round. I followed the elk with my binoculars as they ran deep into the private land. Walking back to my truck, it looked like I had missed entirely.

The access road made a sharp left as I drove up to the spot where the elk had been. As all good hunters, I looked for any sign that the elk had been hit. Without seeing any sign, I got back in my truck and drove another ¼ mile to where I would start my deer hunt. Not bad, my watch read 7:45 and I had seen some elk and was able to take a shot.

I started heading across the short grass and sage brush towards the small hill that overlooked an area the BLM land jutted out into the private ranch land a doe appeared out of ravine about 75 yards away. With the rut going strong, I was on high alert once she appeared. Antlers appeared first, then bucks head because he was in pursuit of that doe. The Weather Warrior was already raised as he climbed out of the ravine. The cross hairs rested on his front shoulder…….BOOM….. The Weather Warrior had found its mark. He took several steps forward then fell backwards into and down the side of the ravine.

With my adrenalin pounding, I stood there for a minute in amazement how quickly everything had unfoldeded. Slowly, I made my way to where he had last been seen. Coming up to the edge of the ravine, I could see where he rolled down the side and ended up in a heap at the bottom.   

I kneeled beside him and thank the Lord for such a great hunt.  Climbing back out of the ravine, a couple of other hunters were headed towards me. They were the hunters I had met the day before. With their help the deer was quickly pulled out. I thank them as they headed back to their Jeep.

Pictures were sent and calls were made.

The next day was Thanksgiving. Dan Keller and I hunted in the morning. We saw some elk at distance but they eluded us. 

My wife and I had a great Thanksgiving dinner at Keller’s. Great friends, great food, great hunting; I have a lot to be thankful for…… but

"Hunting is sport where frustration and enthusiasm mix to create a patient resolve for success."

And I’ll be back next year….