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Mountain Solitaire

By Tom Kuglin

I think I was in a rut. Not the kind of rut that brings love struck bulls out from deep within their wooded hollows, but rather the routine that comes with hunting the same places year after year.

Coming from Montana, I have no shortage of places to hunt and explore. But like many hunters, I spent my time learning a few spots that consistently produced bulls over the years. I also have some great hunting partners, totally committed to packing mules and horses into distant basins where only the wind and an occasional bugle break the silence. I love these places for their simplistic beauty and the camaraderie that comes with a wall tent, a bottle of Wild Turkey and pure unbroken wilderness in all directions.

Drawing a special permit to hunt outside of my hometown of Helena should have brought elation. My excitement quickly tempered when I realized the unit I could hunt fell a hundred miles from where my friends would erect that distant camp I dream about all year. Instead of horse trails I would use roads. Instead of opening the tent fly on each frosty morning I would emerge from my parent’s house. For a moment I even thought about simply pretending a tag had not come my way, and returning to my old stomping grounds.

The unit’s reputation for incredible elk hunting inspired me to apply with a few key strokes months earlier. It’s an area I’ve driven by 10,000 times, but never spent much effort exploring with minimal odds of ever having an opportunity to hunt there. I studied maps that seemingly snarled from the pages. Topo lines almost merged into solids as nearly vertical cliffs dropped hundreds of feet into deep drainages. The extreme topography revealed an abundance of vantage points offering a spotter’s dream. I would spend my season behind the glass trying to turn old snags into antlers and patches of dry grass into elk hides.

I scouted the unit from a few of these points. While I did find great views, I hadn’t counted on consistent 30 mph winds making glassing through the spotting scope an effort at avoiding motion sickness. My experience taught me that wind makes elk nervous. They can’t hear in it any better than we can, so they avoid openings where predators might lurk in wait. The elk here, however, seemed to not even notice. I sat a couple of days before the opener watching four cows and a small five point feed 300 yards from the nearest tree. After my next 20 days in the field, I understood why. The wind never stopped blowing. If a bull wanted to eat, he didn’t have much choice other than to scour grass from a windy ridge.

Everyone I talked to had an opinion on how and where I should hunt. This guy had killed a bull here,  the biggest bulls in the unit all come out of there, or my friend’s brother’s uncle saw a big bull seven years ago up on that mountain. Advice becomes like wading through a beaver pond—sinking a bit with each step trying to emerge on the other side without going in over your waders.

As the season started, I had sorted through enough muck to find a couple of spots I felt offered my best chances. The first dropped from the highest point in the unit to three deep creeks. Timbered hillsides and small parks offered elk plenty of prime ground. The second started at the top of the steepest road my Toyota had ever climbed, and ran along a ridgeline for miles. Several steep canyons dropped into the valley floor, and elk could inhabit any one of them.

Opening day I donned my hunter orange and raced a crowd of hunters to a hillside we’d spotted a bull on the night before. I had my long time hunting partner Hank along to help spot, and as we snuck to the edge of the meadow, no bull appeared in the vapor like light. We eventually found a great bull with a herd of cows, but he just didn’t make the opening day cut. Hank took off the next day for our wilderness camp, and I began my solo hunt.

To hunt spot number one, I left the truck early in the dark and clawed my way up to a vantage point. The higher I climbed the windier it got. This surely felt like a miserable place for an elk to live. My eyes watered glassing the surrounding hillsides and my cheeks stung with pelting corn snow.

Three bulls fed straight across from me at 400 yards. The biggest bull was a small 5x6 and the crosswind made a shot out of the question for me. I continued glassing but found no other elk.

The routine continued for the next three weeks. Elk were not difficult to find, which made this hunt an absolute joy. With every elk I spotted the adrenaline built just a bit more. By the end of the first week, I felt like I knew every bull in the area. One great bull had given me the slip, and I hadn’t seen another I was ready to end my season with. I decided to change course to my other spot and see what I could turn up.

The ridge begins as a nasty climb before leveling out. The area held fewer elk, but their unknown quality renewed my enthusiasm. Finding them again proved not a problem. Every deep cut seemed to hold either a few cows and calves or a herd of small bulls. The wind had followed me here as well, and I cupped my hands around my eyes as I held my binoculars to my face.  I didn’t have a choice other than to absorb the gusts, hoping that the next elk filtering past would be the bull I was looking for.

I awoke one morning to a thermometer struggling to reach 11 degrees. Winter had come overnight to Montana and my goal of finding a great bull still remained unfulfilled.  I drove along under a full moon to the ridgeline I expected to spend my day clinging to for fear of getting blown off into one of unending canyons below. I got my truck as far as the four-foot snow drifts would allow, and left under clear skies and amazingly no wind.

I scanned some meadows a couple of miles below me as translucent snow met the shining moon and waning darkness. Two tan bodies.

I got out the spotting scope. I quickly found the elk and focused in on the first. The heavy black horns of a mountain bull swayed as he fed. I only needed one look. This was my bull.

The distance and terrain meant I’d leave the bull out of sight for at least half an hour. I slipped and slid from my perch into the forest below. Once I reached the bottom, I pushed myself towards the bull’s location. I don’t know if my heart was pounding harder from the race or his ivory tips silhouetted against the frozen landscape.

One patch of trees stood between me and the edge of the meadow. I could see one bull still feeding. A quick look with the binoculars confirmed it was him. I ranged him at 526 yards. I sat there for a minute contemplating my options. Could I make the shot? Should I take the shot? Ultimately I decided to pass, and circle to the other side of the meadow in hopes I’d be closer. Again I had to leave him out of sight.

When I emerged again he was gone. I jumped on his tracks, and held my rifle tight. Moving along with snow compressing ever so slightly, I approached a small rise. Peaking over there he stood at only 40 yards. His head flipped toward me as I brought my eye to the scope.

I sat in the snow after the shot for a long time. The biggest bull I had ever taken lay a few yards away. All the days in the wind and all the hours spent in solitude along with the time that was lived and now will never be forgotten. Weeks of attrition had taken its toll but resulted in such a magnificent bull. It’s a moment I’ve often shared with others. Now I shared it only with the landscape.

Hank and I came back in the next day with the mules and horses and packed my bull out. Next year I’ll be back deep within the wilderness. The tag is now meant for another hunter’s hands. How lucky that hunter will be.