Montana 2014 Trip Report Part 2 a – Hit the ground running 1

In Part 1, we provided you with the background, core gun and gear basis and packing for this trip. In this part we will tell the story of basically what happened during the trip. Part 3 we will talk overall about specific conditions, and how the gear faired. As a follow-up to this trip report we will provide more detailed gun/gear evaluation details in separate posts.

Day 0 – Travel Day

Travel “out” days are always the hardest. Anticipation imposes impatience and desire to “get there and get going”. In the case of this trip, it was a two hop trip from my home to Bozeman, Mt. At the end of the day, I mused at the fact I can fly coast-to-coast  quicker than this trip.

Checking in at my home airport was uneventful. It was my first time checking guns and I arrived quite a bit too early thinking it would take more time than it did. That said, I would encourage anyone traveling with guns to “bite the bullet” (no pun intended) and arrive with ample time, as every airport is different (as we will show). This check in consisted of a normal checking of my “checked” bags with the counter agent, then taking them back to TSA and signing a form. It was fairly painless. I highly recommend locks with keys (and keyed alike) as the key can be passed to anyone who needs to open the bag during the check-in process, versus having to give out your lock combination.

The flights to my destination were pleasant and uneventful. At my destination in Bozeman, I had to wait to get my checked bags. One point to note, if you are carrying rifle sized cases, normally these will get dropped with the over-sized luggage. So be aware and look for them there.

Arrival weather was 60 degrees. Yes, that was 60 degrees in the deep fall period of Montana. As we will see that quickly changed.

Our original plan for the trip was to have Day 1 (Monday) as a logistics day and to be able to run errands and get my gun sighted in. There was a severe weather pattern that had hit the Pacific Northwest and was hauling butt across the country. Temperatures were slated to drop 70 degrees into the  minus teens the next day. Wooo Whooo… Time to go hunting. Logistics be damned we were going to head out the next day.

Day 1 – Madison Valley and Gravelies

We awoke to a temperature of -13. That is a 70 degree swing from the day before. With it over the night had come a good snow as well. This became perfect weather to push the elk down from their most remote, higher elevations places into the lower regions where we could hunt them.

Out the door at 5 am we head. My brother decided we would head down towards the Madison Valley and check on some places he had found elk before. The ride is about an hour from his house. He also wanted to scout out some sites to set up his trailer for us to base our hunts out of. That would entail a fairly “off-road” cruise in fresh snow, later in the day through a remote section of the Gravelies.

First order of business, though was getting some bullets on target with my new scope and rifle. It had not been shot and had only been bore sighted. The original plan with the “logistics” day was to take it out somewhere and do good sighting in. Unfortunately with the weather changing rapidly (in our favor), and needing to get on with the hunting, we did a roadside 50 yard sight in. I basically got 8 rounds off a fence post on the side of the road into a paper target. I did my best to get the groups centered and grouping well. Note to self… Always do your sighting in before you leave, and take those few rounds “in area” to tune up the rifle/scope after the travel.

Game on. Our first couple of places we go we did some spotting from the road to see where the herds might be moving. The areas one must cover in these areas are 10’s of miles at a time. Over the course of stalking a herd they can move through 5 or more sections of land (1 mile x 1 mile) in just an hour. So using good spotting points to identify the potential herds and movement patterns is a MUST!

Early in the morning we saw a few smaller herds, maybe 3-5 each, and none seemed to have any legitimate “bulls” in them. That is another unique thing about Montana elk hunting I found out that first day. There is no 1 rule on what can get hunted when. The area we were in had sub-areas where only brow-tine bulls were legal, other areas where any “legal” horned bull was ok, and then areas where cows could be taken (some under special licenses and conditions). The Montana Fish and Wildlife has to publish a whole “magazine” that covers the regions, and laws for elk hunting. Wow!

For me it was pretty simple, I wanted a good legal brow-tined bull. Granted if I got a good, legal shot on something else, then maybe, but for now the hunt was for that “right” bull.

While the weather was harsh and growing harsher, we weren’t seeing any of the herds we needed to find, so we decided to head into the Gravelies to scope out a place for the trailer and our base.

I have to say, my brother is a helluva driver. While I have been off-road before, he took his 4x into places I would not have. We did at one point get to a place his tires just wouldn’t safely get us up into and had to slide back down to the main trail and head back. That said, we toured the ridge line of this sub-range, along the way saw a lot of mule deer. I did have a tag for a deer, and at one point I had a nice 2x jump out in front of me less than 20 yards. Looking back now, I should have dropped it and called it a day (for Day 1).

I decided not to, since it was early and if I had then we would have spent the rest of the day dressing/cleaning the deer. Not to mention, it wasn’t a big deer for a 2x and it was just a 4 point.

After the tour along the ridge line in the Gravelies we headed back north into another section of the Madison Valley (we had been working South). With the weather worsening, daylight was dwindling. My brother pulled up to an area he has normally seen herds. Nothing of note was seen. Getting dark, we headed back to his house and called it a day.

Day 2 – Bridger Mountains and Flyover

The original plan had been to take his trailer out and use it as a base for our hunt. With weather forecasts putting temperature dropping into the -20s, and with some technical difficulties on the trailer front, we revised our plan and decided Day 2 we would head into the Bridger Mtns. There was a piece of public land he had hunted before that is a great ambush point when elk are moving down due to weather.

This is where I learned that everything in Montana is a “half a mile or so” regardless of if it is half a mile or 10 miles. It became a joke with my brother, and later he admitted he kept telling me that because he didn’t realize I would actually (eagerly) get out and hike it in, since I am a “flat lander”. Oh the region-isms!

Off we head into the Bridger Mtns. We arrive at the land we plan on hunting well before sunrise. The walk in was going to be a tough one, as it was a series of ravines and “gullies”, as my brother described, and there was a good 6 inches of snow on the ground. My brother had previously killed an elk in here a few years back, and while he dropped the elk mid-morning, he didn’t finish packing the elk back out until 8 in the evening.

Given it was dark, and temperatures were dropping into the minus 16/18 range, the walk in was a mindless trudge. As the sun started rising, we were about 3 miles in. As we crested the top of one of the areas we were going to watch, and the brutally cold wind hit both of us and literally we both got “ice cream” headaches simultaneously. Out came the extra head gear to keep our noggins nice and warm (or at least not frozen).

Once we found a good ravine top to position ourselves, we spread out our positions to cover the areas the elk traverse in the area. It was then I realized how absolutely perfect and gorgeous of “elk” territory this was.

Unfortunately, in spite of the beauty and perfect nature of the area, we saw no elk and very few signs of them. Late morning we called it a hunt and headed out. All in all it was a tough 8 mile hike in, through up/down ravines and gullies. Tough morning. I could feel my “flat lander” legs burning.

With a tough morning behind us, and still no good herds found, we decided to take a flyover we had reserved to see if we could get some clues as to where the herds were positioning themselves. Our original plan had been to take this flight Day 1 as part of “logistics”, but the severe weather moving in had grounded most small planes. Local pilot Ken Flikkema (here’s his facebook Ken’s Facebook) leases out plane time to tourists and hunters for scouting trips like this. He is a second generation local who has grown up in the surrounding Bozeman, and is highly knowledgeable. His spotting techniques for both the herds and regional markers is beyond reproach.

The weather was still “iffy”. As a result, we had to head back north into the same areas we had hunted in the morning period, and a bit further east. The flight plan was to try to work back down toward the Madison Valley, and cover most of the areas we had targeted to hunt. The problem was there was still a fair amount of low level clouds and moisture, and to prevent the small plane from icing-up we had to play dodge the water. At -15 it doesn’t take much or long for a wing to get icy.

Our flight back over the area we hunted that morning did not produce any evidence of elk or herds. It was not until we got further south (about halfway to Madison Valley) that we spotted our first herd. It was a herd of about 100, on the top of a mountain plateau. Several remarkable bulls were in the herd. My brother and Ken flew over them a while getting landmarks. Later my brother decided it might be a candidate herd as they had been either on or adjacent public, hunt-able lands.

The remaining flight was scenic, but uneventful from a spotting elk perspective. Except for some large herds we noted on some of the very large ranches in the area (e.g, Turner’s), we did not find any hunt-able herds. Given the dodging of clouds we had to do, we did not make it back down into the full Madison Valley and Gravelies areas where we had planned on hunting originally.

Flying over the different areas was spectacular. I highly recommend anyone out in the mountainous regions of Montana to take a flight. For me, it clarified the vast differences in elevation, terrain, distances, and weather that one encounters (and in this case has to take into planning) in hunting the area. Even with over a decade doing intense cold-weather operations in a diverse set of environments, I had never seen the vast diversity of all these elements. One minute you were sloughing through snow and ice crossing ravines and gullies at 7000+ feet, the next you were hauling booty across high mountain plateaus or pastures that ran for dozens of miles.

Coming up Part 2b – Can we find the herds?

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