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My Best DIY Hunt

Russ Van Orman

I headed south on Interstate 15 towards Dillon, Montana. My thoughts were my own as my truck briskly traveled towards my destination. For various reasons, my hunting buddies had canceled out. So I was on my own DIY hunt in Southwestern Montana. I had been fortunate enough to have two weeks off at the end of November to hunt for elk and deer.  I arrived early in the afternoon, picked up some groceries, then headed to the cabin that would be my residence for the first week of the hunt.


My host, Gary Williams, had called me earlier in the day and explained that he would leave the cabin open and the key on the table. Arriving A Great Cabinat the cabin, I unloaded my gear and took a look around.  I was glad to see the cabin had all the comforts of home. What a perfect place to eat and prepare for the hunt each evening and lay my head at night. 


While eating dinner that first night, I poured over my topo maps looking at the areas that the wildlife biologist suggested I try in my quest to find a bull elk. As I finished the last of my steak, I decided to hunt in area 331. Craig, the wildlife biologist for region 3, had suggested I try this area. He had explained that it was forested with some open areas and there were some large bulls throughout the area.  I fell asleep in my chair that night dreaming of what was to come, awaking only to crawl in bed. 


When the alarm went off the next morning I jumped out of bed in the dark with excitement.  I showered, dressed, and quickly ate a hearty breakfast. I had loaded the truck the night before, so all I needed to do was climb in and start it up. The Montana air was crisp and clean so I rolled down the window and breathed it in.  What a lucky guy I was to be in my favorite state and heading down the road for my first hunting day of the year.


Night had just started to give way to sunlight as drove through the small southwestern Montana town of Argenta. I could hear the snow and ice crunch under my tires as I switched to four wheel drive. I had picked out a couple of trailheads that I would hunt from, depending on the hunting pressure. The first trailhead had a pickup parked next to it. The next trail was 5 miles further north into the Beaverhead National Forest. It was free of hunters, so I parked my truck, loaded up my gear, grabbed my rifle, and headed up the trail. It wound through fields of sage brush before it reached the dark timber. Even at 19 chilly degrees, I started to sweat as I followed the trail upwards. As I climbed, I saw plenty of deer tracks in the newly fallen snow but no elk.


Entering the pine forest, I saw more large deer tracks crisscrossing the trail but no elk tracks at all. I started to get hungry so I sat down and munched on a protein bar, trying to decide what to do next. The sunlight filtered through pines as I rested with my back against a tree.  I took a cow call out of my pocket and blew into it, making some cow elk talk. I stopped after two brief bleats. Suddenly, I heard a grunt that came from somewhere above me. Hmmm, I thought, that sounded like an elk.


I quietly but quickly got to my feet and started to slowly walk up the trail.  The dark timber gave way to a clearing.  In the snow a single set of tracks were in the middle of the clearing.  Approaching, I started to look diligently for an elk before I stepped out onto the edge of the clearing. I started to slowly follow the elk tracks; the elk had stopped twice along a fence line. Suddenly, the quiet of the woods was broken by the crashing of branches. I could see the bull’s antlers as he crashed through the brush, but I couldn’t get a clear shot. I lowered my gun in disbelief. The elk had been standing on the other side of the clearing and had been watching me. Hmmm, must be a smart one, I thought to myself. My watch read three o’clock so I decided to head back down the trail.


The second day started out much like the first except this time I decided to head towards some familiar hunting ground about 30 miles Mountain Highsoutheast of Dillon. A few years prior, some friends and I had seen hundreds of migrating elk and successfully harvested a real nice bull from the herd. Despite my best efforts and long hike, I only managed to find a few old tracks in the snow this time.


Darkness was just starting to fall, as I drove up to Gary’s house. My knock on the door was greeted with a loud “Hello.” “Well, Russ, have you seen any elk?” Gary asked. “Nothing today,” I replied with some dejection. “Would you like to stay for dinner?” he asked.  I briefly thought for minute to myself, “Hmmm, a home cooked meal or my own cooking?” “Sure I'll stay,” I eagerly replied. The family had fixed a hearty, delicious meal which tasted even better because of their hospitality. 


During the course of the meal, Gary mentioned that he had a good friend who owned a ranch south of Dillon.  He asked if I would be interested in hunting there because the elk were tearing up the fields. Without hesitation, I replied ''Yes”. “I’ll call him right after dinner and see if that can be arranged,” Gary said. The rancher indicated that it would be fine if I came down but I would need to stop by the ranch house for directions and to sign in before hunting.


The next morning, I left extra early so I would have plenty of time to find the ranch house. The rancher had asked me stop by no later than six that morning. At 6:00 a.m. sharp I pulled into the driveway. The rancher told me where to hunt and I climbed back into my pickup with excitement for the twenty minute ride to the hay field.


The sun was just starting to come up as I headed down the gravel rode to the “Elk Field." Just ahead of me I saw something was in the middle of the road.  It was a large cow elk, and then another elk appeared on the road followed by at least 100 more. My heart was pounding as my truck came to a stop 75 yards from the elk. I looked in the rear view mirror and even more elk appeared behind me on the road from the adjacent field. Suddenly, they took off running, some down the road others jumping a fence into another field.


I slowly took my foot off the brake and eased down the rode. I drove another 10 minutes and came to the fence line of the “Elk Field.” My ranch host had told me to follow the fence line until it ended at another property line. I quickly parked my truck and geared up since the sun was above the horizon. I followed the fence line across the short grass and stubble of the hay field. I briskly walked through snow until I came to the end of the fence line.  I then sat down with my back resting against the fence. I immediately started to glass the field and the sage brush on the hill above.  At the far end of the field, I could see two pickups. On the hill, I made out two hunters. This wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned the night before, but what the heck, I had seen lots of elk, I thought to myself.


The crack of a rifle broke the silence and I quickly raised my binoculars to the far end of the field. Two hunters were shooting at two cow elk starting to cross the field. The hunters above me in the sage brush started shooting as well. Swinging the binoculars around, I could see two cow elk and a spike running hard through the brush. Quickly, I put my binoculars away and waited for something to happen.  The two cow elk coming from the far end of the field never appeared. The hunters in the sage brush above me were looking to see if they had hit one of the elk that had run past them. Discouraged, I rose to my feet and headed back to the truck. This was too much of a crowded scene for me, so I decided to move on to somewhere that was hopefully more serene.


Once at my truck, I looked over my maps and decided to hunt in the BLM land that sat above the rancher’s field. I was hoping to find a nice bull since I had seen only cows, calves, and spikes that day. I walked and hunted the rest of the day with no success. I managed to see several real nice mule deer bucks but not another elk, so I headed home for some rest.


On the fourth day of hunt, I decided to hunt on some BLM land that was less than two miles from my cabin. I woke early, made breakfast, and then drove to where I had planned a hike back into the BLM land.  I made my way up through the junipers and rim rock reaching a high point.  I sat down with my back against a large rock just as the sun was starting to peak over the horizon. From my vantage point, the high prairie stretched out for miles and I could see the town of Dillon in the distance.


I pulled out my binoculars and started to glass the area below me. In the binoculars, I could see several Whitetail bucks and at least 10 does that were feeding along a fence line. Further along the fence line, a line of antelope were walking in single file. I thought to myself, “Boy, it would be nice to see some elk.” I slowly moved my binoculars to the right. As if magic, elk appeared in my binoculars and my heart started to pound with a rush of adrenaline. There in all his glory was a Bull elk with 15 cows.  All except for one or two the rest were lying down, looking into the valley below. 


With my heart pounding, I plotted my stalk looking over the rim rock and short grasses with my binoculars. I got up quickly and walked downhill away from where the elk were, trying not to slip on the snow that had melted the day before and was now frozen into icy sheets. The wind was blowing hard as I made my way down the rocky precipice. Grabbing junipers for balance, I dropped down 5 or 6 feet to the next group of boulders and so on as I made my way into the ravine below, trying to avoid detection by the Wapiti. I started to sweat as I made my way slowly up the other side of the ravine where I would soon tuck behind another ridgeline that wrapped around to a meadow area above the elk.


The ridgeline was strewn with boulders. Stepping from boulder to boulder I made my way quickly below the ridgeline. Suddenly, I slipped on some ice, hitting my knee against a rock. I bit my lip in pain as I stood back up to carry on my quest.


Finally, I made it to the short grass meadow. Walking slowly hunched over I started across it. My heart sank as I made my way to a small rock pile. Where were the elk, I wondered.  Frustrated, I stood up and walked across the second half of the meadow towards some large boulders. Looking down the steep rocky slope, I saw them. They Can see the Bulls Antlers?were standing up and looking in my direction. Quickly, I dropped to the ground behind a large group of boulders. I was shaking with excitement while waiting for the elk to calm down. After about half an hour, I slowly peeked over the large rock that hid me. To my amazement the elk had laid back down except for the lead cow who was vigilantly looking downhill away from me. Tucking down behind the large boulders again, I took my binoculars out and started to scan the herd for the bull. He was lying down among the rocks but because of the steepness and angle of the slope only his antlers could be seen. I sat huddled against the sharp wind while keeping my eye on the elk through a crack in the rock that was keeping me hidden.


I took out my range finder and put it on the lead cow; it read 210 yards. The bull lay about 30 yards beyond the lead cow. I managed to take several pictures of the herd without being detected. The cold started to seep in through my fleece insulated pants from sitting on the cold barren ground. I pulled out heat packs and put them in my gloves to keep my fingers warm. I pulled a PB & J sandwich out of my fanny pack and devoured it while trying to keep my core temperature warm.

Time seemed to be at a stand still, everything about me was focused on those elk below me.  I could hear my heart pounding in my chest as I tried to stay warm. Glancing at my watch, it read 12:30 p.m.  I had been sitting behind the rocks for over three hours. To my right, about ten yards from where I sat, was another group of large rim rocks.  I started to crawl towards them, in an attempt to try and get a better angle at the bull that lay below me. Once at the rocks, I got to my knees and peered over them. Down hill and on my right there were thirty more elk all looking uphill in my direction. “Darn, I've been busted,” I thought to myself as I tucked behind the rocks again in a desperate attempt to try to avoid detection by the elk. This time I waited a Busted?good twenty minutes before I peeked over the rocks again.


Slowly I raised myself up so I could see over the rock. This time the elk were feeding on the short grass between the rim rocks. I watched two calves play tag with each other. Through my binoculars I could see some larger cow elk and two real nice spikes. I scanned to my left and the bull was up and feeding. My heart started to pound faster as I put my binoculars down and reached for my rifle. I quickly determined the angle of my shot because the bull was feeding down the mountain away from me. The crosshairs of the scope rested about eight inches behind his front shoulder to compensate for his angle down the steep side of the mountain.


I slowly pulled the trigger then “Boom” the Savage Weather Warrior sent the 180 grain WSM 300 XP bullet to its destination. The bull took one step forward then dropped. I reloaded quickly and watched the elk in my scope. He lifted his head slightly then it dropped back down. Whether it was excitement or the cold at this point I didn’t know, but I was shaking badly. I slowly rose up off the boulders to my feet.  I made my way towards my bull, trying not to slip on the ice covered rocks.

Bull Down 4 X 5 

“Thank you! Lord,” I yelled into the wind in excitement as I reached the bull. My five hour stalked had ended successfully with a harvest. My bullet had penetrated both lungs I discovered upon field dressing the bull. Fortunately, I (with the help of Gary and his friend Robin) was able to drag the bull out by ATV through leased BLM land. Even then, with the ice and steepness of the mountain, it took over 2 hours to reach my vehicle.


Except for previous hunts with my Dad, this was one of the most memorable hunts I have had to date. I really appreciate Gary and his family and friends for their companionship and guidance during the hunt.  I love Montana even more than before, if that's possible.

End to a Great DIY Elk hunt   

Part two of A Real DIY hunt will appear in the next issue of Deep Countree.