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My Fathers Gift
 Russ Van Orman
 


I feel very fortunate to have a mentor like my father. I started hunting when I was five years old in northern Michigan. My dad decided to visit his high school hunting buddy and take me along. I am sure he wondered if he had done the right thing when his friend’s sons challenged me to shoot icicles off the rain gutters of their house with my BB gun. They were hanging in front of the kitchen window. Hmmmm…. I missed. My dad, with his infinite patience, explained that they were just kidding me. He then offered to pay his friend for the window. His friend Cal laughed and said “Kids” then walked away to patch the window. Dad told me, as I went to bed, we would see something to shoot the next day. With that I fell asleep dreaming of big antlered deer.

 

The next day I followed in dad’s tracks through the deep snow until we came to a fence line. With that, he whispered that we would sit here and not move or talk. At that time in my life, it was the hardest thing I had ever done. There I sat next to my dad quietly looking out at the snow in woods. Suddenly my dad nudged me to look down the fence line where three does were coming right at us. They stopped about twenty yards away. My dad whispered “Go ahead and shoot, son, sight on the front shoulder”. I sighted my BB gun on the first does’ front shoulder and pulled the trigger. The BB made the deer jump. She then bounded over the fence with her cohorts, their white tails bobbing up and down across the snowy field. 

 

That was forty years ago and I have been avid hunter ever since. My dad and I have hunted together every chance we’ve had. However, in the last 9 nine years I haven’t hunted with my dad. I moved to Portland, Oregon and my dad has retired and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. We talked about getting together for a hunt but for one reason or another it just didn’t occur. So when he called me out of the blue and said “find us an outfitter". Where to you want to hunt?” I was in shock. That was the middle of January and the sportsman’s show was coming up in early February. Montana was my natural choice, having hunted there before, I knew it was game rich and licensing was reasonably priced. Plus it is only an 8-hour drive to Montana from Portland.

 

The next step was the hardest. How to find the right outfitter from the hundred or so that attended the Sportsman’s show? Some were eliminated right away. Time had worn on my dad’s ticker. His pacemaker prevented him from riding horses. So hunting from a cabin was our only choice. I finally narrowed the field down to Ford Creek outfitters. I choose Ford Creek because they answered my preconceived questions straightforward and with honesty. My favorite question was “What was the weather like last hunting season…cold, snow? I knew it had been a warm season without much game movement. Travis Barker, the General Manger of Ford Creek, explained it had been a warmer than usual hunting season that year. I actually had some outfitters tell me they were hunting knee-deep snow that year. So Ford Creek it was.

 

Dad and I choose the 7-day hunt over Thanksgiving week. In talking with Travis, he explained that this would be an excellent time to hunt elk since they would be migrating down from the high country. This would give my Dad the best chance to shoot a trophy elk.


Early, on the morning of Friday the 18th of November, we left for Montana. During the drive, my dad and I talked about everything from hunts of the past to what to expect on our present endeavor. We shared a few laughs, and it seemed that we were in Montana in no time. Our first stop was in Missoula; we were planning on staying two nights. Friday afternoon we took a tour of the Big Sky Brewery (try the Moose Drool it is good) and got some dinner. The next morning we visited the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundations headquarters. It was a great place with lots of big antlered elk to see. Later that afternoon we sighted our guns in at a local firing range.

 

Early Sunday morning we left for Ford Creek. The drive took us through some great country and over the continental divide. Just on the other side of the divide we pulled into a mini-mart to fuel the truck and ourselves. My dad said “Russ look over there” I looked and saw that there was not one but two trophy sized Buck deer in the back of a pick up truck.

We arrived at Ford Creek excited and were more than ready to begin our hunt of a lifetime, after 10 months of waiting. I parked the truck and then looked over at my Dad. He had an ear-to-ear grin on his face. I knew that this would be a great hunt, whether we harvested game or not. Just like
Ford
Creek states in their brochure, the scenery is spectacular.  We got out of the truck and were greeted with “you must be Lane and Russ, welcome to Ford Creek” It was Liz Barker, Travis’ mom. She greeted us with a warm smile and told us dinner would be served at 6:00 and to listen for the dinner bell. Just about that time Travis came around the corner and said “let me show you to your cabin”. Travis explained that our guide was going to be Burt Fischer and that he lived in the area and we would meet him at breakfast. Dad and I were given our own cabin. The accommodations were exceptionally clean. In the room there was one King size bed and a Bunk bed. My dad took the King and I took the bunk. After unloading the truck, we took a short walk up Ford Creek which ran right by our cabin through the ranch. “Well, Dad what do you think?” I asked. “This is great, Russ” he replied. During a great dinner, we met the other hunters. Some had come as far as Virginia. After dinner, Travis introduced the guides, talked about safety, and the areas we would be hunting in.

It had been a restless night of excited anticipation so four A.M. came early that first day. During a great Breakfast, our guide Burt introduced himself. Burt explained that we would be taking his truck up to an area where he had seen some elk the previous week. He told us that he had looked over a TOPO map of the area and had a real good idea where they were hiding. He explained that the weather had been warmer than usual and the elk weren’t migrating yet. That had been my fear too; when we had driven over the divide we saw nothing but snow on the western side.

We were about 75 miles from Ford Creek when the weather warmed up to a balmy 50 degrees. It was beautiful weather but not exactly the greatest hunting weather. After Breakfast, we went back to the cabin and gathered our gear then headed for Burt’s truck. I jumped in the back seat and my dad in the front and off we took. We drove about 15 miles and the sun was just starting to come up when Burt pulled over and pointed to a Buck deer on a hillside. My dad and I each pulled out our binoculars and started glassing the Buck. It finally became light enough to see how big he was. It was a medium size mulie 4X4. Burt turned to us and smiled and said “Well at least the deer are moving around”.

We traveled about 5 miles when Burt pulled over again. Dad asked, “Is this the spot?” Burt replied, “Yes, gentlemen this is it” He then explained that we would hike up a ravine a short ways to an area where elk had been crossing. After loading our rifles and grabbing our packs, we proceeded to follow Burt. I followed my Dad watching him make his way through the brush. He hobbled a little bit now then but at eighty-two years old, his determination kept him going. Finally, we arrived at the spot Burt had talked about. He sat my dad up so he was looking uphill at some small
clearings. There was elk sign all over the ground. Burt and I then proceeded another mile up the ravine to where it widen out to large treed clearing.

During our walk I explained to Burt that the most important element of our hunt was that my dad have a good time and possibly get an elk. Burt replied, “My father is about the same age and really can’t hunt at all but I will do everything possible so we can have a good hunt. But, I can’t change the weather”. Right then and there I knew we had great guide regardless if we shot anything or not. Burt left me sitting as he attempted to drive elk to us. As the sun started to set behind the mountains, I got up and started walking back down the ravine towards the truck. Dad and I both agreed it had been a great day in the woods. We got back in time for hearty dinner and to plan our attack for tomorrow.

Burt, Dad and I decided after breakfast the next day that we would set up dad in a blind right next to some well worn deer and elk trails. Then, Burt and I would take horses up behind the ranch for about 3 miles, to see if we could locate some elk. We set the blind up well before light and Dad settled into his spot. Before we drove off, I shook his hand, wishing him luck and telling him to save the big ones for me. It was barely getting light as we rode up the trail. We were about a mile from the ranch when we spotted a group of whitetail does. They watched us ride past then returned to feeding. We reached a meadow and were following a fence line when Burt suddenly stopped and signaled me to get off my horse. He came over to me and whispered, “Do you hear that?” “Yes” I whispered back. “Those are elk and the cows are mewing. Follow me “. Earlier Travis had explained that this side of Ford Creek was any elk area. With the weather being as warm as it was, the big bulls weren’t coming down from the high country (Or so I thought). So a cow or a rag horn bull would still be a “trophy”.

We tied up the horses and snuck quietly down the fence line keeping a low profile. We couldn’t see the elk yet but they were talking it up. My heart was pounding as we headed downhill following another fence line. Finally we came to a small group of pines above the meadow. Burt went across the opening first and then I was to follow. Just off to my side and slightly below me was a large bowl area. As I started to sneak over to where Burt was sitting, I looked into the bowl area to my right. A large Mulie buck was staring back at me. Before I could say anything to Burt, off it took, trying to leave as much ground as it could between him and us. With that, instinct took over. My rifle came quickly to my shoulder and at about 75 yards my 180 grain Accubond found its mark behind the deer’s front shoulders. The Mulie ran up hill through the low grass of the meadow another 50 yards before collapsing. This happened so fast it actually surprised both Burt and I. Burt looked over at me and smiled “that’s not an Elk”. “Well, I replied, “the horns were wider than the ears and it looked big to me” (With a Montana Combo license you can shoot one deer and one elk). “Good Shot” Burt said still whispering “Let’s sit here for awhile and see if those elk start talking again”. We waited another hour but heard not a noise from the elk. While sitting there a forked horn whitetail meandered by and curiously looked at us then walked away. We walked up the hill to where the mulie buck lay.

It wasn’t a trophy size buck but it was a nice 5 X 6 and the biggest Mulie I have shot. Burt took care of dressing out the deer in short order. We rode back down to get a mule to pack the deer out. When I arrived at the ranch I drove my truck a short distance to where my dad was sitting.  “Hi! Dad, did I wake you up? Have you seen anything?” We have always given each other a good natured hard time. “Yes. Nothing to shoot at though, have you seen anything?” “Yes. Did you hear a shot a couple of hours ago?” “Yup, what did you shoot?” I told him the story. He was as excited as I. After we got the deer back to the ranch and hung up, Burt and I returned to pick up my dad. He was real
excited. He told us that a Mountain sheep had come within 30 yards of his blind and he had been spotting deer all day, nothing he could shoot at.

Wednesday morning came quickly with a fantastic sunrise. My dad was sitting in his blind. Burt and I were headed back up to where we had heard the elk. The early morning air was chilly but by nine it had warmed up considerably. We came across the tracks of elk from the previous day, but no elk. We sat glassing over a meadow and some aspen groves below us. I pulled out one of the sandwiches that I had picked up at breakfast and started munching on it. The sun rose higher in the sky.  Burt suggested that it would be a good time to take a nap since nothing would move around until evening. I settled in for my nap under the big blue skies of Montana. My day went quickly by with only a few deer seen that evening. However, dad saw “lots of animals but no large bucks or bulls”.

The next morning Burt suggested that we should drop off Dad at his blind a little earlier and head back up to where we had heard the elk on Tuesday. We drove dad up to his blind and made sure he had settled in and wished him luck. I followed Burt on horseback with the stars guiding our way. I looked around until I found the constellation of Orion the Hunter. Its stars shined brightly in the Montana sky. “This certainly is big sky country”, I thought to myself. We took another approach to the fence line where we had heard the elk two days ago. We arrived at the fence line just as the sun was starting to break over the horizon. We dismounted the horses and walked quietly down the where I had harvested the mulie. We started to glass the meadows and tree lines.

Suddenly Burt whispered, “There is an elk, follow me” Earlier he had instructed me if he said “it is time to go, it’s time to go”. He took off running across the meadow area where I had previously shot my deer then back up the hill to another fence line with me right behind him. We stopped and I could see the bull elk high up on the meadow above us, his antlers shining in the sun. “Follow me” Burt said. We went another 20 yards until we made it through a gate on the other side of the fence. I could feel my heart race. “Russ he is at about 370 yards, sit down and aim high on his back” Burt said. I sat down without a word. The elk had turned broadside headed towards the dark timber. I took a deep breath; my heart was now pounding out of my chest. I put the cross hairs high along his back and up tight against his front shoulders then slowly squeezed the trigger. My 30-06 roared. Then the elk hunch up a little as the bullet hit home. There was no time for a follow up shot because the elk walked into the dark timber.

 

I sat there in disbelief. Everything had taken place so quickly. “Well, Russ, what do you think?” asked Burt. “I think I hit him” I replied. “I think you did too,” replied Burt. “Let’s go down the trail and see if he crosses below us”. I jumped up and headed down the horse trail that cut through the dark timber. Half way in we sat down and started looking for my elk to cross. Here it was Thanksgiving morning, my whole hunting life I had dreamed of getting a Thanksgiving buck but never in my wildest dreams a bull elk. We sat on the trail for an hour my heart pounding with excitement. It seemed like forever.

Finally Burt said, “Let’s go up and see what happened to your elk”. We spread out about fifty yards apart and headed up the steep mountainside. I spotted the elk first then waved at Burt. We both ran up to where the elk lay. The elk went 10 yards into the dark timber before he tumbled down the steep hillside coming to rest against a pine. The bullet had entered both lungs. I was beside myself. It was like a dream come true. The only thing that could have made it better was my dad taking the shot. “That isn’t any rag horn. Congratulations he is a 300 class bull. Nice trophy.” Burt looked over at me and smiled. I looked over my trophy still in disbelief, as Burt took lots of pictures.

 

 With the skill of a surgeon, Burt dressed and caped out my elk. Then we headed down the mountain to get the mules to pack out the large bull. When we got to the ranch, I left to pick up dad. I ran up to the blind. My dad was already out of the blind waiting for me. “Dad, did your hear that shot about 2 hours ago?” I asked excitedly. “Yes” he replied. I got a Bull elk” “Congratulations, that is my son” “He is a large 6 X 6, I still can’t believe it” “Good, did you take lots of pictures for me?” “I sure did” “I am going to ride back with you so when you bring in your elk I’ll be there”. While driving back to ranch, I described in detail how the hunt had unfolded. Burt and I took the mules back up the mountain to retrieve my trophy. When we got there dad was standing by the trail waiting to see what his son had harvested. “Wow, nice Russ. Really nice” he said. I jumped off my horse and we looked over the Bull’s antlers. “Well, dad you’re next” I said. “If this all we get I couldn’t be happier” was his reply. My Dad and I were ready to celebrate. Burt and his brother came over to cabin before dinner “for a little happy hour”. Thanksgiving dinner at Ford Creek was delicious. It consisted of turkey and prime rib with all the trimmings. I don’t remember when I had a better Thanksgiving dinner. During dinner Burt suggested that we set my dad up further in the canyon the next day. The weather was finally turning colder and the elk could be starting to move down from the high country.

 

Overnight about three inches of snow fell. As we headed past the Ford Creek ranch the snow swirled around us. Burt explained we were going to drive about 10 miles back towards the continental divide. He knew a place where the elk came down to feed just about year around. We turned off the main road and drove about 2 miles where the road ended at a stream. It was just starting to get light when Burt and I set up Dad’s blind. We started glassing the surrounding meadows as my Dad made his way from the truck to the blind. Suddenly Burt pointed to a meadow over 1,000 yards away. There were two Bull elk just meandering around feeding. I looked over at Dad I could see excitement in his eyes. We made haste in getting into the blind and getting settled.

I had filled my tags so I was going to be spotting and taking video for my Dad the rest of the trip. While Dad and I were sitting in the blind, Burt was going to be trying to drive the elk down to us. Burt started his truck and headed off to find the elk we had just seen. I looked over at my Dad wondering how many more hunts we had together. My father had shared with me a sport that would last my lifetime. How could I ever thank him? He had taught me to respect the outdoors and the animals that lived there. In fact he had given me more than a sport but a culture to cherish and the duty to pass it on. My thoughts were interrupted with noise of a rifle shot close by. With that I grabbed the binoculars and started glassing for any sign of an elk.  After a couple hours of glassing, nothing came out of woods so I sat them back down. “Dad, what do you think?” I whispered. “I don’t know maybe we should eat our lunch” he replied. We sat in the blind until dark glassing every inch of the woods and field in front of us. Not even a deer appeared.

 

I could see my dad was getting a little discouraged. He had hunted hard and hadn’t seen anything to harvest yet. We could hear Burt’s truck coming to pick us up. “Maybe I am just too old to hunt, Russ” he said. I looked over at my Dad and you could see he was tired. “Dad, how many 82 year old men do you see hunting? I asked. "In fact most of them are wishing they could go, and lot can’t even wish". "I am just glad I can be hunting with my Dad” I replied. With that my dad put his hand my shoulder “Thanks, son” he responded. Back at Ford Creek, Burt explained he would like to leave earlier the next day and hunt the same area.

 

The next day found us sitting in my Dad’s blind an hour before first light. The sun slowly came up the canyon. Dad and I were glassing the meadows and forest around us. Burt had left to take my animals to be processed in Augusta. Ford Creek includes processing in the price of their hunts. It was almost noon when we heard Burt’s truck coming down the access road. I got out of the blind to greet him. As he stepped out of the truck he suddenly pointed across the creek behind us. There was large a Whitetail buck across the creek rubbing his antlers on some low branches. I turned to where my dad was sitting in the blind and signaled him to look across the creek. He looked over but couldn’t see the buck from where he was sitting. I looked back only to see the buck walk off leisurely into the timber until he was out of sight.

With that Burt said “Listen, I am going to drive my truck around to the other side of creek then try and push him back towards your Dad, OK?” “Yep” I whispered back. With that Burt jumped in his truck and drove off. I headed back to the blind. I
told him what Burt had said and I climbed into the blind. We were both excited with anticipation. Thirty minutes later a medium size doe snuck past the blind. I was starting to get discouraged, now. “Dad, only a doe” I whispered. “Shhh, be patient” he whispered back. I kept looking back to where Burt and I had seen the Buck earlier. Twenty minutes passed when I looked over at my Dad. He had his rifle pointed out of the blind. I about jumped as I looked at the large buck crossing the field in front of us. Dad’s rifle, a 300 Win. Mag.,  roared as the 180 grain Silver Tip hit home. The buck flinched as he took off across the meadow.

 

“Nice shot Dad. I saw the bullet hit”, I exclaimed. “Well darn it the Buck didn’t go down” he replied. I quickly unzipped the blind and stepped outside. “I don’t think he went that far. The shot was well placed.” I waited about ten minutes before I walked over to where the buck had been. In the snow you could see he had been shot in the lungs. I waved at my Dad and proceeded to follow the trail the buck had left. I walked about 50 yards and found the buck piled up against some rocks at the edge of the creek. “I found him and he is a great buck”, I shouted. Then I started to drag the deer over to dad.  From across the creek another hunter appeared. “Nice deer. Can I help you drag him?” he asked. “Sure” I replied. We dragged the large 8-point over to the blind. I thanked the other hunter and patted dad on the back. “Boy, this is a nice Buck. I never saw him until you were aiming at him” “Russ, I knew a buck would come along. He was trailing that doe” my dad exclaimed. While he was looking over his trophy with an ear-to-ear grin. It had been a perfect hunt.

Thank you, Dad for giving me the lifetime gift of hunting. 

Ford Creek is one Montana’s premier outfitters. It reasonably priced (a guaranted tag is included in the price); the food is great as well as the guides. This is a fair chase hunt; we saw plenty of game on our hunt. To find out more about Ford Creek visit their Website at:

Ford Creek