Montana 2014 Trip Report Part 2b – Can we find the herds?

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 was not until a reader asked me just a week ago when “2b” would be finished that I discovered the problem. Once again, we apologize and we hope you enjoy.

Day 3 – Speed Stalking Herds

Day 3 began with a critical decision: Do we try to find the herd that we had seen on the flyover or do we head back into Madison Valley. It was a tough decision.  Our Day 1 experience in Madison Valley had produced no viable herds to hunt and we had seen only one on the flyover. However, that herd was in unfamiliar territory.  We were not sure whether or not the herd would come close to the public lands where we could hunt. If we did not make the right call here (on one of the last days of the hunt) it could mean going home without even firing a shot.

The herd seen during our flyover

The herd seen during our flyover

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 during the morning, we both agreed we should head back down to the Madison Valley. As tempting as the flyover herds were after we had seen several large bulls, my brother had a couple of key concerns: a) he was not certain about the area and b) he was not certain that the herds were on public lands. With the rapidly dropping temperatures, he was pretty certain 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!

-24 as we head into Madison Valley

-24 as we head into Madison Valley

The area where we decided to hunt was a set of diagonally adjacent public land sections (1 mile square). On the public section closest to us, a large ravine crossed the section. The ravine 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 that there was even a ravine.  It looked like a flat plain. Of course my brother knew since he had hunted these lands before.

As dawn broke, my brother’s experienced elk-eyes spotted a herd about a half of a mile away across the ravine – it was headed straight across our path. I positioned my gun on a fence post and put one of the bulls in my sights.  I 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 leave, 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 the herd again, the elk had moved out of the ravine and were heading to the back corner of the section of land. We hoped that they would stay in this section of land or move diagonally into the other public section and not into the adjoining private ones.

When we climbed down, we used a finger of the ravine as cover that ran towards the elk and snuck towards 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 that they were too far away. Looking at the fence line, I estimated that 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 and 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.

Herd of elk across the ravi

Herd of elk across the ravine

The herd appeared spooked again, but we knew it was not us since we were down and in cover. We looked behind us and saw that 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 we decided to set up an ambush. As fast as they were moving, we had to move equally as 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.

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 5 to 7 mile sprint stalk at an altitude of over 7000 feet. What a day!

Day 4 – Section Stakeout: 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 – still no elk! During the end-of-day scouting on Day 3, we had spotted a herd a bit further south.  It was 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 4-6 point buck.

Some of the muleys we saw

Some of the muleys we saw

My brother 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. When we parked, we could see the herd moving on a section of land behind where we had permission to hunt, and moving towards our general direction. We moved to the middle of the back fence line where there was a cattle corral and section transition.  We set up our stakeout and just watched.

They were 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 where we could not enter. As the herd rested, we noticed that there were three massive bulls – their 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 that the lead elk appeared to turn to move the herd in our direction. 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.  We have learned our lessons of how fast the herds 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 the smaller bulls were up front. As one of the bigger bulls stood, we heard a shot and watched him drop back down. Shortly after that, another bull dropped.  This bull looked like an illegal bull since it did not have brow tines in an area where they are required. The herd started moving fast due south by southeast. We watched, hoping it might turn back towards us as the easternmost part of the herd seemed to be unsure which direction they were taking. We 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 continued to watch and saw two hunters to our northeast emerge from a gully. There were two teams and they 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 that the herd was headed to a Bureau of Mines land parcel. With little time left before darkness fell, we quickly drove the 15 miles around the back side of the adjacent section.  We walked in about 3.5 miles and got right to where the herd was crossing as night fell. Had we had about 15 more minutes, then we might have (finally) gotten a shot.

The snow started falling hard again, and the weather called for more throughout 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 where we had hunted on 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 that they were headed quickly towards some public lands on the far north. As we stationed ourselves, we thought they might cross, but then watched them go by on private lands that were too far away. Fortunately, they were headed straight toward public lands.  So my brother and I hauled around to the closest 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 to the ambush point, we watched as the herd pulled up short and lay down. We could see the whole heard about 1000 yards away just grazing and they were 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.

With our time running out, we hiked back out to the truck to see if we could re-position 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 this for elk hunting in Montana. About halfway back, I jumped a lone cow elk about 10 yards from me. She shot straight up and I am not sure who was more surprised!

Lone cow elk I spooked up

Lone cow elk I spooked up

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 we 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 where we could hunt, but they were still 1000 yards away.

We were on the far side of the field from them.  I had my brother move us toward them a bit until we covered about half the distance. They were still about 1000 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 but due to the rapidly changing weather, I had not had time to properly re-sight it. I had only taken 6 shots or so at a roadside target that was 50 yards away.

Yes, looking at the elk in the crosshairs of the scope, it was a 700 yard shot!

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 of the 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 but we could not find him. We were not going to “herd shoot”, so we just waited and watched. Suddenly, the herd became completely spooked and ran into the fog of the snow blizzard where we could not 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 6-by bull that I had butt-shot. I adjusted my crosshairs on him and pulled the trigger and he dropped like a lead weight to the ground.

I have to admit that 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 was back up and running.  It buckled again, then run some more and then buckled again. As I looked back towards the sound, I saw a guy nearly running across the field towards it just blasting away. My elk was getting poached!

Apparently, as my elk was bleeding out, there were poachers who had been down in a creek.  They hopped out and ran up on my elk, 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 to set up where we had seen the herd heading so we could get one last potential shot. As we do, about 20 other hunters show up. 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.

Final Thoughts

While I did shoot and kill a nice elk, it got poached in front of my very own 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 is about the experience of learning new hunting techniques, breaking in new guns and gear and spending time out in the beautiful creation that 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.

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