Author and Editor’s note: We apologize for the delay in getting this article posted. It was completed months ago and I thought it had been properly published. Apparently there was a glitch in the system that caused the article to not display on the public sight. Being that I am normally logged in administratively, I could not tell that anything was wrong. It wasn’t until a reader asked me when “2b” would be finished, just a week ago, that I discovered the problem. We apologize once again, and hope you enjoy.
Day 3 – Speed Stalking Herds
Day 3 began with a critical decision: Do we try to find the herd we’d seen on the flyover, or head back into Madison Valley. It was a tough decision, as our Day 1 experience in Madison Valley had produced no viable herds to hunt, and we had seen one on the flyover. However, that herd was in unfamiliar territory, and we weren’t sure whether or not it would come close to the public lands we could hunt. If we didn’t make the right call here, on one of the last days of the hunt, it could mean going home without even firing a shot.
Hard decision, one that would set the fate of the hunt. It was Day 3 and if the wrong decision was made, well, it might mean calling “no-joy” on any elk this year.
What should we do??
After talking during the night, and all the morning we both agreed we should head back down to the Madison Valley. As tempting as the flyover herds were – we had seen several large bulls – my brother had a couple of key concerns: a) he was not certain about the area b) he was not certain that the herds were on public lands. He was pretty certain with the rapidly dropping temperatures it had a tendency to push the elk down into the valley.
As we crossed over the pass into Madison Valley, the cold reached -24 degrees. Yee haw!
The area we decided to hunt was a set of diagonally adjacent public land sections (1 mile square). On the public section closet to us, a large ravine crossed the section. It was probably 150 yards across and 75 yards deep. What was interesting, though, was that when you looked out across the section, you could not tell there was such a ravine. It looked like a flat plain. Of course my brother knew, as he had hunted these lands before.
As dawn broke, my brother’s experienced elk-eyes spotted a herd about half a mile away across the ravine and headed straight across our path. I positioned my gun on a fence post and put one of the bulls in my sights, but realized that at over 800 yards. he was too far away. The herd quickly disappeared down into the ravine out of our line of sight.
As we watched the elk go, we noticed that something was pushing them from our right. I grabbed a few things and started speed stalking the herd across the plain. The herd was moving fast and we were practically running to keep up with them. In spite of the -20 degree weather, both of us had to fully ventilate our cold weather gear to keep from overheating. When we found them again, the elk had moved out of the ravine and were heading to the back corner of the section. We hoped they moved diagonally into the other public section and not into the adjoining private ones, or stay on this one.
When we climbed down, we used a finger of the ravine that ran out towards the elk as cover and snuck toward them. As I got to the end, my brother motioned to set up and take a shot. I got a bead on a bull and, as I was about to take a shot, I once again realized they were too far away. Looking at the fence line I estimated they were at least 900 yards away. The 30-06 I was carrying would be marginal on elk at that range. For the second time that day we had them in our sights, but they were just out of reach.
Damn the distances in Montana!
I packed up my rifle hurried after the herd, trying not to lose them again. The trek down and across the ravine at the speed required to keep up with the herd was brutal for a “flat lander” like me. Thin, cold air was being sucked like a four-barrel carburetor into my lungs.
The herd appeared spooked again, but we knew it wasn’t us because we were down and in cover. We looked behind us and saw some doofus hunter was in plain view just walking up on the herd. He was over a mile away but he was clearly spooking the elk. They took off into the other public section and disappeared over a small knoll. We headed down the adjoining fence line trying to blend in. We thought we could predict where they were going and decided to set up and ambush. As fast as they were moving, we had to move equally fast.
My brother headed down the path they had taken and I went to set up the ambush. Three hours later we met back up. There was no sign of the elk. He told me that they had headed back up the side of the mountain. Clearly the careless hunter from earlier had spooked them pretty badly.
We headed back to the truck and then spent the rest of the day doing some scouting; scouting that would ultimately pay off well. All in all we had put in about a five to seven mile sprint stalk at an altitude of over 7000 feet. What a day!
Day 4 – Section Stake Out: Smaller Herds Further South
In spite of the excitement on Day 3, it was getting down to the last day and a half of hunting, and still no elk. During the end-of-day scouting on Day 3, we had spotted a herd a bit further south moving across the edge of some private lands near the edge of where we were allowed to hunt. It was a herd of over 80 which included several large bulls with very nice racks. We had also seen some nice mule deer and I had almost gotten a shot the previous day at a nice four to six point buck.
We drove around the property a bit trying to find a good area to recon and find the herd. An overlook off the main road sat up high enough that we could look out over about 10 sections of land. We parked and could see the herd moving on a section of land behind where we had permission to hunt, but moving our general direction. We moved to the middle of the back fence line where there was a cattle corral and section transition and set-up our stakeout and watched.
They were a several miles away and we had to spot them with binoculars. On the property to the north, we saw two hunters slip in and begin to stalk towards a shooting position on the herd.
About an hour into our stakeout the herd decided to take a “nooner” and lay down in the middle of the field in front of us. It was close to midday so this was not unusual. Unfortunately, they were still far away from us and on private lands we could not enter. As the herd rested, we noticed toward the rear there were three massive bulls whose racks were clearly visible while still lying down. The two hunters to the north continued to move closer. After about an hour of rest, one of the lead bulls caught wind of the hunters stalking them and the herd got up to move.
We noticed the lead elk appeared to turn in our direction to move the herd. We hoped that the hunters were going to move them our way. The hunters continued to try to stealthily move into a shooting position. We slid the vehicle back so we could have the option to move into shooting positions should the herd move our way, as we have learned our lessons of how fast they will move once they are alerted.
The herd was tentatively moving, the big bulls were still down in the back but most of the cows and a lot of the smaller bulls were up. As one of the bigger bulls stood we heard a shot and watched him drop back down. Shortly after that another, and what looks like an illegal bull (it didn’t have brow tines in an area they are required) dropped. The herd started moving fast basically due south by southeast. We watched hoping it might turn back toward us as the easternmost part of the herd seemed to be unsure which direction they were taking. We also kept glassing the area where the two bulls were dropped, because the one big one was a really nice seven-by.
We soon discovered that the shots were not taken by the hunters to our north. We watched and two hunters to our northeast emerged from a gully. There were two teams who had been working the elk from both sides. The eastern team had taken the shots and dropped the two elk.
As dusk approached, my brother looked at his GPS maps and thought the herd was headed to a Bureau of Mines land parcel. With little time before darkness we drove fast the 15 miles around the back side of the adjacent section, then walked in about 3.5 miles. As we walked in we got right to where the herd was crossing and night fell. Had we had about 15 more minutes we might have finally gotten a shot.
The snow started falling hard again, and the weather called for more through the night.
Day 5 – Finally a Shot… And Drama
Neither my brother nor I had planned on hunting a full day on Day 5. His kids were coming back from their mom’s and I wanted to spend some time with them. The morning hunt was going to be “do or die”. We returned to the lands we had hunted the previous day. The temperatures had warmed considerably, but it was now a near blizzard with the snow falling hard and fast.
We knew the elk were there. Immediately we found the herd and could see they were headed fast towards some public lands on the far north. We stationed ourselves we thought they might cross, but watched them go by on private lands too far away. Fortunately, they were headed straight toward public lands, so my brother and I hauled around to the closet point we could and jumped onto the back side of the public lands and ran to an ambush point.
It was a tough 2.5 mile jaunt through 8-12 inches of freshly fallen snow. The path we took was along a nearly frozen drainage canal. When we got there we watched as the herd pulled up short and lay down. We could see the whole heard about a thousand yards away just grazing, going nowhere. We waited about an hour hoping they would return to their original plans. Instead, we noticed that they started slowly meandering towards the lands we had been positioned on earlier that morning.
Elk are fickle creatures.
Time running out, we hiked back out to the truck to see if we could reposition ourselves where we had been and let them come to us. It was a brutal hike for me after five days of thin air, rugged terrain, and now fresh snow. My knees and thighs were killing me, but such is elk hunting in Montana. About halfway back I jumped a lone cow elk about 10 yards from me. She shot straight up and I’m not sure who was more surprised.
Before returning to our original location, we ran around to the westernmost side and found a group of hunters. They said that a few had stalked in on the herd and were about to take shots. We figured that if they did, it would definitely drive the herd back to our original location so quickly shot back over. We got there just as the snow moved in thick and hard. I think this was the coldest-feeling day in Montana.
We could barely see the herd, but it definitely was meandering toward the west. Then, as that group of hunters took their shot, the herd broke into two groups. The bigger of the two groups was moving rapidly in our direction. We watched and waited as the herd would panic a bit and then group again and again as the elk tried to figure out what was happening. They were definitely moving straight down the fence line into the section we could hunt, but were still a thousand yards away.
We were, however, on the far side of the field from them, so I had my brother move us toward them a bit as well until we covered about half the distance. They were still about a thousand yards away. There was a truck that moved directly in front of the elk and threatened to move them back west. We watched and hoped the elk would move toward us as an alternative. They moved a little toward us and started to spook back west. We watched a little and then my brother said “this is it, I think this is the best shot we are going to get.”
I looked at the fence lines and made a quick estimate. It looked like a 700-yard shot at least. I got out on the hood of the car and put one of the big bulls in the crosshairs of my scope. I was using a new gun and scope, and due to the rapidly changing weather, I had not had time to properly re-sight it in once on the ground in Montana. I had only taken six shots at a roadside target 50 yards away.
Yes, looking at the elk in the crosshairs of the scope it was a 700 yard shot!
When I took the first shot and I could hear the supersonic crack of the bullet go over the elk. I adjusted and took the second shot and heard it ricochet off earth. Given the two holds, I quickly recalculated and pulled the trigger. SLAP! I heard the sound of bullet hitting flesh, and that bull started bucking. Not a clean shot, but I had hit him solid in the backside.
The herd balled up around the bull, and I lost sight of him. Both my brother and I kept scoping for him and couldn’t find him. We weren’t going to “herd shoot” so we waited and watched. Suddenly the herd completely spooked and ran into the fog of the snow blizzard where we couldn’t see them. As I watched in despair thinking I had lost my elk a bucking elk came into my view only 500 yards away. It was the nice six-by bull I had butt-shot. I adjusted my crosshairs on him and pulled the trigger. He dropped like a lead weight to the ground.
I have to admit; I got a little kill-happy and started to launch myself across the field. My brother stopped me and warned me that I needed to let him bleed out or we would be chasing blood or could even lose him. As I stood there waiting patiently, my brother (who had his binoculars up) started swearing in what sounded like Greek. As he did so, I heard a “pop, pop.” I put my scope up immediately and saw my elk back up and running, then buckle, then run some more and buckle again. As I looked back toward the sound, I saw a guy nearly running across the field toward it just blasting away. My elk was getting poached!
Apparently as my elk was bleeding out, the poachers, who had been down in a creek, hopped out and ran up on it, spooked it, and started blasting away again. As we watched, a truck passed behind us and high-tailed it out onto the field and picked up the elk. It was surreal.
Not to be beaten, we headed down to the public lands where we had seen the herd heading for one last potential shot and set up. As we do, about 20 other hunters show up as well. After our poaching incident we decided that we are just going to call it a day. That day I learned the first rule of hunting on public lands in Montana—guard your elk.
While I did shoot and kill a nice elk, it got poached in front of my very eyes. Sad, but I would not trade the experience, the views, the exhaustion or simply the time out hunting for anything. A long time ago, it quit being about “the kill”. Sure, I still get a thrill out of downing a huge animal, but it’s about the experience of learning new hunting techniques, breaking in new guns and gear, and spending time out in beautiful creation God has given us. I hope the idiots who poached my elk enjoyed digging out my two Hornady SST bullets out of the elk, knowing it was mine.