Montana Hunt 2015 – How can a day go any worse? (Finale Part 1)

Day 3 Plans

After spending the previous day in Ruby Valley and having no luck whatsoever, we decided for Day 3 we would get up early and hike into the back corner of the Jeffer’s public lands. We might be able to catch the herds moving out of the gulley into the flat private lands we had witnessed them sunning in each of the two previous days. If we are really lucky,  part of the movement might be on public lands where we can hunt them.

This was a bit of a chance. We knew they were moving into and out of the further gulley (on private lands), but had not yet proven they were coming into the nearer one that was on public lands. We were going to use the Rhino GPS units to keep us as close as possible to the “invisible” (unmarked) rightmost public property line. If they were moving on public lands it would be along that line.

Gorgeous Bald Eagle at the Ruby Valley

Gorgeous Bald Eagle at the Ruby Valley

The hike in would take a good hour and so we would have to get started well before sunrise. I was also not looking forward to climbing into and out of my nemesis – that gulley/canyon that kicked my butt every time we crossed it.

Best Laid Plans

With that plan in place, we were up by 4 am on Day 3. Having snowed the previous day, it was a brutally cold when we awakened. The fresh blanket of snow from the previous day, acted as an additional chiller to the normal harsh cold Montana nights. The portable generator for the camper had had to run nearly all night to keep the camper warm. Shortly after our awakening, we heard the generator run out of gas and die. It would be fine, we thought, the batteries would hold for the few minutes until we had to leave.

We grabbed some breakfast quickly and begin to dress and load gear. As our departure time neared, I looked for the keys to crank up the car and warm it. I notice they are missing, so I go check in the car.

They are in the ignition! Oh no…

The previous evening after returning to camp, Brother Gagg had remained in the car for a few minutes talking to his gorgeous wife. The severe cold and limited signal strength zaps cell phone batteries, and vary rarely did either of our phones make it through half a day without a charging. Therefore as he talked to her, he left the ignition in auxiliary power to keep his phone charging.

I reached in the car to crank it, and as I feared, it was still in the auxiliary mode, which meant the battery had been draining in this harsh cold all night. Even before I tried, my gut knew what was next. I turned the key to crank the car and nothing happened. Not even the normal slight “RRRNNNT” sound a car makes trying to turn over with a dead battery. The battery was absolutely drained.

My brother and I both kicked into high gear. We needed to get out to the hunt. In the darkness of pre-dawn, we dismantled the battery pack from the camper (try doing that in the ice cold!!) and took the batteries and attempted to jump the car off of them. First we tried with one of the camper batteries. It didn’t have enough juice alone. Then we pulled the second and wired them together. Apparently the camper had drained them more than we thought, because even with both, the car wouldn’t crank.

Catastrophe = Karma

So what does one do when you are at a remote camp site and the generator is out of gas, the camper batteries are partially drained below their ability to jump the car, and the car battery is dead?

Call for a battery jump from a service in the local small town and hope they will answer AT 4 am!

Which is exactly what we did. Surprisingly, they did answer their phone and the guy said he would be out as quickly as he could.

As we sit waiting, Brother Gagg kicked himself in the butt over and over for leaving the car battery on all night. Its hard not to, I know. I have been “there” before, and did the same. That said, every fishing and/or hunting trip I had been on that started with some catastrophe like this always ended with a spectacular day. To calm Brother Gagg’s self-butt-kicking some, I reminded  him of this fact and told him jokingly that today we weren’t just going to get 1 elk, but 2.

Didn’t help much, but at least it made us both laugh a little at the insane thought of killing 2 elk.

As it turned out, it only took about an hour and a half for the wrecker service to get out to us – we had expected longer. When he arrived he jumped the car and got it started. We packed up quickly and headed out to the Jeffer’s area we were going to hunt. Unfortunately the sun was already well up and we had missed our chance to hike back and catch them crossing before dawn. Plus, given the drained battery, we had to keep the car running for a few hours, to allow the battery to properly and fully recharge.

We pulled up to Jeffer’s. It was the first day that week that the road adjacent to the property didn’t have half a dozen or more trucks lined up along it all hunting as well. Guess the weekend traffic had subsided.  Pulled off on the side of the road scoping the horizon, we could see part of the herd already sunning itself on the private land’s plain. We both noted that it didn’t look like the whole 300+ herd we had typically been seeing, but thought the rest might be hidden from view in the further gulley behind them.

After a few minutes of watching them, I told my brother I was going to hop out and walk to the edge of the first gulley and just see if there was anything down in the gulley. In the past, small sub pods of these large herds have become separated and we have caught them using one of the gullies to get back to the main herd.

Soup & Shot

I take off across the plain in front of the truck and head toward the gulley edge. It takes a good 15-20 minutes to hike into it. Its brutally cold even in the morning sun. I have my gun, binoculars, and cell phone. Thinking I was just “checking things out” I had left the rest of my gear in the truck. As I neared a slight rise in the terrain (about half way to the gulley), I started to see part of the plain area on the far-side of the gulley, and I spotted a large dark mass. I grabbed my binoculars,  behold the other half of the herd was moving on the far side of the gulley.

The Dreaded Gulley

The Dreaded Gulley

I started half-crouch-walking toward the gulley edge to get a better view. With each step I could see this was the full “other half” of the Jeffer’s large herd. It must have had 150 elk in it. At the gulley edge I could see the herd strung out in the typical line of a “moving herd”. They were moving along the back fence line toward the corner of the public/private lands.

My heart started racing. This was our chance. I try to hand signal to my brother that I had spotted the elk, but the truck was over half a mile away. Then I hauled booty down into the gulley to get across to the other side into a decent shooting position. Fortunately, the far side of the gulley had a smaller “finger” gulley that headed back in the direction of the back side of the lands – exactly where I needed to head. Thank goodness!  I was close enough to spook them. Several times as I moved up to the lip of the smaller gulley and checked on them, I could see the lead elk alerted and began to turn and look in my direction.

They were close!

It was a race. I had to get into a shooting position quickly or I was not going to get a shot. With my heart nearly exploding in my chest, I basically crouch-ran down the main gulley and up the other side into the finger that I was hoping to move down. I had to stop a few times and catch my breath, this was 6000 feet in Montana and I am a flat-lander (as Brother Gagg constantly reminded me). When I was close to what I thought would be a good shooting position, I crawled up to try spot the elk. They were nowhere to be found. I had to crawl up higher out of the lip of the small finger to finally spot them. They were now down in a small finger depression that ran parallel to their track.

To be able to see them, though, I was now totally exposed out of the finger and they were very alert to my presence.

The Finger I Used To Get Shooting Position

The Finger I Used To Get Shooting Position

This new twist was going to force me move to another shooting location. If I stayed exposed, as they neared they would see me and run. I had left my rhino in the car and I couldn’t tell (by sight) exactly where the invisible public/private line was. I knew I was near it, and the position I needed to move toward looked like it might cross onto private land side.

Damn Montana private land laws and the “invisible lines”!!

As I pondered the dilemma, I remembered I had my cell phone. The elk were close enough that I had to stay low and whisper, but I went ahead dialed Brother Gagg to see if he could spot me. When he answered I asked him, “Can you see me”. His reply was “No”. I then asked him to see if he could get up on the truck and spot me to tell me whether I was still on public lands. He then began to explain he had gone back to the camper and was making soup!

Making soup!

I hurriedly told him I was stalking the other half of the herd and was close to a possible shot. He thought I had just wandered off scoping the area. I could hear the excitement in his voice and him shutting off the camp stove and getting back in the SUV. I had him talk me through the landmarks and realized the place I needed to set-up for a shot, and the place where the elk might cross were both still on public lands. I looked up and I saw the elk beginning to jump the fence into private lands right inside the corner of the public land section. I hung up abruptly and literally crawled like a snake 50 yards to my shooting position.

Finally in position for a shot, I realized that a lot more of the herd had already jumped the fence than I thought. Apparently the depression they had been moving down had hidden a lot of them. Across the fence, just inside private land I peered through my scope at two monstrous 7x bulls which had already jumped the fence.

I had missed my chance!!!!!

With that said, I saw about 7 more elk that had not jumped yet. I stretched out prone and put my scope on the biggest, hoping it was a bull. Nope! All cows. All big, fat, cow elk. I dialed my scope in and put the cross hairs on the chest of the one I wanted to drop. It was less than a 300 yard shot. Finger on the trigger, I began to squeeze and then in the same thought, I released and didn’t take the shot.

I remembered my mantra from earlier… Bad Day = Good Karma. I just felt like that bull I wanted was in my future. Well that thought as well as the dread of having to drag a 600 lb elk through that horrible gulley! LOL

I watched, crosshairs on each as they jumped and crossed, the remaining elk move back onto the private lands. So near, such an easy shot, was I making a mistake and not taking one?

What a stalk it had been. I picked up my gear and called my brother as I was still adrenalin rushed from the near shoot. I began my hike back to the truck, thinking “the day has already been awesome”. There’s nothing like that feeling of you, a wild animal and the environment playing the chess game of the hunt.

Random Chance, Karma Realized

Hot soup was waiting for me in the truck when I got back to it. I was still too hot from the hike to want any. The morning was now a total bust – well aside from the thrill of the hunt. We decided to head even further south and try a location my brother had only hunted once before. On the way down, just outside of Cameron, we randomly decided to stop on the side of the road at an overlook location not far from where we had shot an elk last year.

In spite of stalking several smaller pods and a 80+ herd the previous year, we had not seen a single elk in this area during the previous two days of hunting. I am not exactly sure why Brother Gagg stopped there, but henceforth I won’t question his elk instincts. We both took our binoculars out and scanned the area, nothing. Nothing but the vast, flat, snowy plains of Montana. It had been a tough morning hike and I took a minute to grab a snack. Brother Gagg was scanning an area to the left of the truck, the area to my right was where we had stalked them last year.

After about 20 minutes of sitting there refueling, I peered out in the stark snowy glare and something caught my eye. It was probably 4 miles out but it seemed to be moving. I grabbed my binoculars and focused in on it. On the furthest south end of this long Cameron run of fields, there was a small pod of 5 elk!!

They were moving fast and directly north. Mostly trotting at a brisk pace, but occasionally stopping for a few moments to graze. In a period of just minutes they covered a couple of miles of fields and were now positioned directly across the field from our position. That was still almost 3 miles away. Brother Gagg and I both stared intently through I binoculars trying to see whether they were cows or bulls. It is not uncommon for a group of cows to get broken off from a herd and run like that to regroup with the main herd. Often such a group will lead to a much bigger herd if they are followed.

Almost in unison we both exclaimed they were all bulls. All big bulls! This was uncommon to find. A pod of 5 bull elk. Brother Gagg quickly formed a plan.

There Are Elk Out There

There Are Elk Out There

Four miles north of their position was a landlocked piece of public land, normally un-huntable due to its private landlocked status. Fortunately for us, one of the adjacent landowners, Mr Storey,  had let us hunt his lands last year and we had a rapport with him.

Like a bat out of hell, Brother Gagg took off to the landowner’s house, it didn’t take long to get to his house. As we were exiting the truck, Mr Storey stepped out of his house. Apparently he recently had been getting visited frequently by hunters.  We discussed with him our plans and needs, and he reluctantly agreed to let us cross his land to get to the public lands, but told us he did not want us “hunting” on his lands – unlike last year. Apparently some other hunters the previous week had nearly ruined hunting on his lands for the future. I personally think given I was a vet and it was Veteran’s Day, may have been the only reason he made an exception. Thank you Mr Storey for that consideration!

Veteran’s Day… I had totally been caught up in this week of hunting, and had forgotten about it being Veteran’s Day. Wouldn’t it be so cool to celebrate this day with a successful hunt?! Whatever the outcome, this “bad day” was shaping up to be a great day or hunting – elk or no. Off we headed from Mr Storey’s house to drive to an access point to get to Mr Storey’s lands and ultimately the land-locked public land.

Finale part 2 coming this Friday. Stay tuned this is going to amaze you!

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