Montana 2014 Trip Report Part 2a – 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 what happened during the trip. In Part 3, we will talk about specific conditions and how the gear fared. 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 the 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 that 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 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.  We will show that very airport is different. The check-in was 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 being keyed alike.  The key can be passed to anyone who needs to open the bag during the check-in process, rather than giving 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. 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 later,  that quickly changed.

Our original plan for the trip was to have Day 1 (Monday) as a logistics day.  We planned to use this day 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

On Day 1, we awoke to a temperature of -13. That is a 70 degree swing from the day before. With this drop during the night, a good snowfall came as well. This became perfect weather to push the elk down from their most remote, higher elevations 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 wanted to scout out some sites to set up his trailer to use as a base for our hunts. That would entail an “off-road” cruise in fresh snow later in the day through a remote section of the Gravelies.

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

Game on. At the first 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. 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.  Not one of the herds 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 nor when. The area we were in had sub-areas where only brow-tine bulls were legal.  Other areas where “legal” horned bulls were and where co could be taken was O.K. (some under special licenses and conditions). The Montana Fish and Wildlife has to publish a “magazine” that covers the regions, as well as laws for elk hunting. Wow!

For me, it was simple – I wanted a good legal brow-tined bull elk. 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 were not seeing any of the herds we needed to find.  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 4×4 into places where I would not have. At one point, we get to a place where his tires just would not safely get us into.  H 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, we 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 at 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 on Day 1.   I would have spent the rest of the day dressing/cleaning the deer. Not to mention, it was not 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 where he has normally seen herds. Nothing of note was seen. As it was getting dark, we headed back to his house and called it a day.

Day 2 – Bridger Mountains and Flyover

The 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 having technical difficulties on the trailer front, we revised our plan and we would head into the Bridger Mountains on Day 2. There was a piece of public land he had hunted before that would be a great ambush point when elk are moving down due to the 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. 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 Mountains. We arrive at the land where we planned on hunting well before sunrise. The walk in was going to be a tough one, as it was a series of ravines and “gullies” and there was a good 6 inches of snow on the ground. My brother had previously killed an elk here a few years back.  While he dropped the elk mid-morning, he did not 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 an area we were going to watch, the brutally cold wind hit both of us.  We, literally 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 where the elk traverse in the area. It was then that I realized this was an absolutely perfect and gorgeous “elk” territory.

Unfortunately, in spite of the beauty and perfect nature of the area, we saw no elk and very few signs of them. By late morning, we called it a hunt and headed out. All in all it was a tough 8 mile hike in through ravines and gullies. This was a 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.  We wanted 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 that was 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. He is a second generation local who has grown up in the surrounding Bozeman area.  He is highly knowledgeable and his spotting techniques for herds and regional markers is beyond reproach.

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

Our flight over the area where 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 while getting landmarks. Later, my brother decided it might be a candidate herd as they had been on adjacent public, hunt-able lands.

The remaining flight was scenic, but uneventful from an elk spotting perspective. Except for some large herds we noted on some 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.

Flying over the different areas was spectacular. I highly recommend that anyone in the mountainous regions of Montana take a flight. For me, it clarified the vast differences in elevation, terrain, distances and weather that one encounters (and planning) in hunting the area. Even with over a decade of doing intense cold-weather operations in a diverse set of environments, I had never seen the vast diversity of all of these elements. One minute you were sloughing through snow and ice crossing ravines and gullies at 7000+ feet.  Whereas the next minute 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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