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Return to Big Sky


By Russ Van Orman

It was late November as I climbed out of the cab of my Ford 150. The snow made crunching noises under my feet as I quickly unloaded the “rig” with my friend, Andy Schneiderman. Finally, after months of planning we were in Montana for Deep Countree’s third annual hunting trip. We had hoped to get an afternoon hunt in on our first day.  But, as luck would have it, we ran out of time after we sighted in our rifles. Another good friend, John Quevedo, would be joining us later in the week.

Our hosts, Dan and Shannon Keller, came by just as we were finishing unloading the last of our gear. They own the Goose Down Ranch which is just south of Dillon, Montana. They have a couple of great cabins they rent to hunters and fishermen throughout the season. Dan and Shannon are avid hunters and gave us some ideas on where to hunt.

With our gear and food put away in the cabin, we decided make some dinner, look over the topo maps, and plan for the first day of the hunt. Based on what the local wildlife biologists had suggested, we decided to hunt in an area about thirty miles west of where we were staying. The country we were hunting in was part of the block management program that Montana’s Fish and Wildlife runs in conjunction with ranchers in the area.  Some specific ranchers are allowed to have hunting on their property.
Goose Down Ranch

The alarm clock broke my restless slumber as I dreamed of large bull elk. The clock read 4:30 a.m. as we sat down to a warm breakfast of oatmeal and pre-cooked bacon. Plenty of hot coffee was on the menu too. We soon jumped into the truck with anticipation, covered by the darkness of morning. The drive west to our hunting area went fast but not fast enough. We turned off the main highway onto a ranch road which we took for three miles until it ended. The tires squeaked against the new fallen snow as I slipped the F150 into 4 wheel drive. The temperature on the truck’s thermometer read a balmy 20 below.

We quickly unpacked and hunted hard that day. However, the wolves beat us to the elk. Andy found the carcass of a cow elk that the wolves had ambushed against a fence. From the freshness of the kill sight, it looked like the ambush had happened the prior evening. I sat up against a tree as I watched the clearing below.  Wolves yipped and howled just out of sight in the creek bed about 500 yards below me.

Andy and I decided to pack it in early that day since the elk had been driven out of the area completely. However, I did make a mental note to come back because John had a wolf tag.

The next couple of days we decided to look over some areas south of Dillon. We traveled miles on back roads through BLM land, stopping to scan areas we thought might hold elk. The weather had warmed up and melted much of the snow. We hunted hard those two days but the elk remained elusive.

John arrived that next evening, ready to go. We talked about where to hunt and decided to try some property about 3 miles from where we were staying. In addition to his wolf tag, John had purchased an over-the-counter doe tag. The area we would be hunting in had an abundance of deer and the occasional elk.

The next morning, we arrived at our chosen destination before light.  We put on our packs as the frigid wind gusts buffered the truck. John and Andy were going to follow the fence line that separated the BLM land from a private ranch. They then planned to sit and watch the fence line High on the BLM Landbecause we had been told that the deer would often feed at night in the fields on the ranch property. Our plan was to jump the fence and all head for higher country (BLM land) once daylight arrived.  We wished each other luck as I headed in the opposite direction. The snow stung my face as the wind continued to blow.  I climbed up through the rim rock at a steady pace and found a place to sit that was out of the wind and had a commanding view of the valley below.

The sun was just starting to rise as the wind died down. Just below me, about 20 antelope walked single file through the short grass. I scanned the fields below for deer or elk with my binoculars. The sun finally crested the horizon and images started to appear below me.  Though the lens, I could see a herd of about one hundred elk in the private ranch land below. They were feeding in an open field.  On the far edge, a group of 8 bulls were standing proud but were scanning for something. Gazing toward the opposite end of the field, I could see a pickup driving slowly towards the elk herd. The main group of elk kept on feeding, not paying any attention to the truck which had just stopped about 400 yards away. However, the group of bulls was slowly starting to jump the fence and head towards the dark timber.

My attention then turned back to where the truck was parked. A hunter with rifle in hand was walking up right toward the elk; he actually looked like he was marching. As I watched the drama unfold below me, I just shook my head in disbelief at what was happening below my perch. Finally, the lead cow did a 180 and started to trot towards a timbered ridge to my right. With that the “hunter” started to shoot at the elk. The individual was now running through the field, occasionally stopping to shoot at the herd, which by now was about 500 yards away. I swung my binoculars around to see where the bulls went. They were running full bore up and down one little wind-blown coulee to the next. As you can imagine, they were putting miles between them and the threat.

So far it has been an interesting day, I thought to myself. A shot rang out from where Andy and John were hunting.  So I stood up slowly because my feet were numb from the cold. I made my way through the rim rock towards my friends. Once I arrived, I found that John had filled his doe tag. She was a good size doe which meant John would have some nice venison in the freezer. We dragged the doe to the truck, loaded her in the back, and drove to a meat processor in town.

The next day found us hunting on the ranch of our good friend, Gary Williams. He rents out cabins (The Fishing Cabins) to hunters and fishermen. I had met Gary the year before when I stayed at one of his cabins. His property runs into some BLM land, both having ample deer and elk. In fact, I had previously shot both a 5X4 bull elk and a deer on his property (please read My Favorite DIY hunt).

We had arrived at Gary’s place an hour before the sun rose. It was -10 degrees as our boots squeaked against the snow. We quickly walked up the steep trail that would lead us to the rim rock meadows of the ranch. Andy and John walked along separate trails that lead to a ravine. I headed up to where I had shot a buck the year before.

Breathing hard, I made it to the top of an outcropping of rim rock that overlooked a meadow and a fence line. Hurriedly, I brushed two or three inches of snow off a flat rock and sat down, resting my back against a large boulder. A perfect spot, I thought to myself. With my Savage Weather Warrior resting against across my legs, I sat motionless listening to the sounds a new day makes as the shadows give way to the light.

One dark shadow jumped the fence in silence and started to feed. I could barely make out that it was deer. Then another shadow jumped the fence. Hmmm, this certainly caught my attention. I put my binoculars on the largest shadow trying to see if it had a rack or not. It was getting lighter by the minute, so I kept my binoculars on the largest deer.  Antlers started to appear on that deer. I could feel my adrenaline start to rush; it wasn’t the largest buck in world but it would make some great venison steaks. No… maybe you should wait until a bigger buck comes along, I told myself. I went back and forth in my mind, soon remembering that, in two days, my hunt would end.
A nice Buck for the freezer

With that thought in mind, I took careful aim behind the buck’s front shoulder and squeezed the trigger slowly. The rifle cracked, sending the 180 grain 300 WSM to its destination. The buck dropped in its tracks as I started to shake with excitement.  I watched my trophy, lying in a heap in the snow about 150 yards away. I slowly stood up and started to climb down from my rocky perch towards the buck. I took a deep breath of the cold air and thanked the Lord for another successful hunt. “Two days. Two deer. Not bad,” I said aloud for no one but myself to hear.

Soon I took out my Benchmade knife and field dressed the deer.  Andy and John showed up and helped me drag it to my F-150 truck.  We loaded the buck up and took him to be processed alongside John’s doe. The next day, John and I took Andy to the Butte airport early in the morning because he was headed back to Washington, DC. After dropping him off, we hunted a couple of different ranches on our way back, without any luck.

The next day we got up early and headed out to the ranch where I had heard the wolves at the beginning of our hunt. I was hoping that John would at least score one. We both hunted hard that day but came up empty handed.  One thing about hunting…..there is always next season.

I would like to thank Gary Williams (fishingcabins.com) for allowing us to hunt on his ranch and for his hospitality. And many thanks to Dan and Shannon Keller of the Goose Down Ranch for their help and encouragement in our favorite pursuit. 

A pervious hunt at Garys