Editor's Note: This essay appears with permission from Extreme Elk Magazine in its entirety and as originally published in the Winter 2013 issue. To subscribe to Extreme Elk, click here.
As I steered with my knee and dialed Dad on the phone, I reflected on the chain of events that had led to this moment. When I had called him on the way to the trailhead, I said, “I’m headed out to kill a bull.” This was an optimistic statement, especially after the butt kicking I had already experienced this season. In a confident tone he said, "Well, when you get out, call me and let me know how big he is!”
Elk hunting is our passion. Dad and I have shared many successes and failures in over twenty years of chasing bugling bulls together. No matter how sour the hunting or how bad I may have choked on a shot, I can always count on Dad to bring me back to the hope of ending the day with a red arrow. It was no different this night.
Two months prior, I went to the store and bought a resident Montana elk tag for the first time. Six months of waiting to gain residency had finally passed. I am a lifelong elk junkie, and had recently jumped on the chance to move to the epicenter of elk heaven in the Rockies. It almost seemed too good to be true. The dry, Rocky Mountain air, juniper speckled foothills, and spruce-choked north slopes offered a needed break from the saturated jungles of western Oregon where I grew up.
With anticipation brewing, I spent the winter and spring picking apart maps, running trails, horn hunting, shooting arrows, and preparing my gear. My perception of this state was that there would be bugling bulls in every basin come September. With my experience, I should have no problem filling the freezer. At least that is what my ego let me believe, and what I relayed to my wife.
Until the crisp evening of October 4th, Montana elk had turned my legs to string cheese. They had chipped away my calling confidence bit by bit, zigged instead of zagged, and caused my wife to believe my promise of a "full freezer" was a mere fantasy. I'd hunted a half dozen mountain ranges, been bugled at from a guy on a running quad, had limb deflections for clean misses on two bulls, and put who knows how many miles of Rocky Mountain dirt on the soles of my boots. Still, I had no meat in the freezer, with the exception of a few dumb grouse. I had a week of season left, but was out of vacation time. I had a work deadline coming up fast, and my support at home was rightfully waning. In short, I was getting my tail handed to me by Montana elk and I was almost out of season.
That night, I was at the office working and couldn't get out until about 5:30 p.m. Since it was a 30-minute drive to my hunting spot and a mile walk in, I knew I would have to hurry. A cold snap had just hit the area and left several inches of snow in the mountains. It had always been a dream of mine to hunt bugling bulls in the snow, and I knew if I could find one, this would be my chance. I dressed as fast as I could and trotted to the truck to head to the hills. I think I must have hit every red light in town, and felt helpless as it drained the already limited, precious daylight I would have for my short evening hunt. When I finally got to the trailhead it was 6:15 p.m., about and hour and a half from last shooting light. Thirty minutes later, I was a mile in at the edge of a large meadow. When my friend, Jeff, and I had found it while bear hunting earlier that spring, it had looked promising for September elk. There were multiple wallows, meadows straight out of a Bugle magazine, rubs - we even saw elk. The only issue with the area was it was so close to town and typically attracted a lot of hikers. Much to my surprise this evening, there were fresh elk tracks peppering the snow instead of human tracks.
Track by track, I followed the wandering herd through the meadow and into the timber on the far side. I could tell there were a couple bulls with the herd based on the sign - at least one satellite bull about 50 yards from the edge of the herd and a mature bull tending the cows from behind. I stayed on the tracks and after several minutes, I knew I was getting close. I leaned down to smell the yellow snow and it was undoubtedly a stinky, rutting bull - and it was fresh!
As I wound past a series of snow-covered wallows and made my way into the timber, it became apparent I was not going to track these things down. The snow made a mild, but ever-so-annoying packing sound with every step, and the further into the timber I walked, the quieter the wind was. My chances of slipping in and getting a shot with traditional equipment in conditions like this were slim. Normally, I would be an aggressive caller, but this year the calling had been so slow that my confidence was depleted. Unfortunately, this was my only option and I had to trust my ability. I knew the elk couldn't be far and there had to be bulls within ear shot. It was time to call.
I huddled up against a snow-frosted pine tree and went through my normal sequence. I was mostly trying to sound like a group of elk moving back out into the meadow to feed. Twenty minutes into the sequence, nothing had happened. I knew elk could hear me and it was driving me nuts! The sun was showing its last rays over the horizon and I knew I had less than thirty minutes of shooting light. With this in mind, I decided to go to the edge of the meadow and wait, hoping the cold weather would drive the elk back to feed. Once I got to the edge of the meadow, I found a nice, steep spot of dirt with a low hanging juniper thicket as my backdrop. Jeff and I had sat in that very spot watching for bears earlier that spring. With daylight quickly fading, I decided to do some soft calling. I started with a couple soft mews and thought I heard the sound of something walking in the snow. Then it was silent. I gave a light bugle, and just like I hope for every time I blow my calls, a bull answered immediately from the other corner of the meadow.
I put an arrow on my string, and could hear the crunching of the snow as the bull headed directly at me. He came into view at about 100 yards in a classic, relaxed swagger. I was fairly calm and felt comfortable with the situation and when he got to 40 yards, he passed behind a tree. He was moving broadside and was about to walk right into the path of my scent. I drew before he came out from behind the tree, planning to shoot him broadside. When he came around the tree, however, he turned toward me and stopped looking right at me. I slowly tried to let down. I was shaking so badly I'm surprised he didn't take off immediately. He finally relaxed and turned broadside as he began moving to my right. I slowly started to draw again and picked a spot. I was sure I would have to stop him with a call, but he stopped himself with his head turned the opposite direction. I vividly recall a piece of tall grass with seed on top of it right over his vitals - this was my spot. When I let the arrow go I heard the "watermelon" sound indicating a solid hit, and he trotted off into the meadow. Fifty yards later, he was done. My arrow had gone right through the shoulder and taken out both lungs, and he fell in the middle of the meadow.
After what seemed like a millennium with no service on my cell phone, I finally broke out into civilization and got through to my dad. When he picked up the phone, I blurted out, "It's a 6x5!" He responded, "What?" Laughing, I said, "You wanted me to call and tell you how big he was!"
What did I learn during my first season as a Montana resident? Public land, over the counter units are no different here than in any other elk state. To be successful you have to hunt hard, do your homework, and be smarter than the elk at least once. It is not easy, and it only makes me love elk hunting, and Montana, that much more.