As decided the previous evening, we would hike in towards the back side of the public lands near Jeffers before sunrise and see if we could catch the herd moving out of the canyon. Overnight the snow we had been looking for had moved in. We got to our hunting site about an hour before sunrise.
The area had two deep long gullies on it. The nearer one was on public land, the further one was on the back section of private land. When we had hunted this spot the previous year, the elk had moved back and forth between a nearer canyon and the further canyon. I had brought my hand held thermal monocular on this trip. In the pre-dawn darkness I ran it across the horizon to see if we could make out any parts of the herd before we walked in. If they were in the nearer canyon, we could spook them and lose a chance at a shot carelessly hiking-in. Since thermals don’t work well through glass, I had my window down imaging the lands.
We hopped out of the truck and headed in towards the near edge of the canyon in front of us. We originally had only planned to stay on the near side of the canyon until sunrise. As we moved toward it, I continued to scope and survey the areas in front of us with the thermal to prevent us from over-running a herd. On the way in, I saw several rabbits and even a few antelope but no elk.
As we neared the edge of the canyon my brother thought he saw several elk moving up the far wall and into a finger heading away from us. We both scurried down the near side and headed up a parallel finger hoping to get a shooting position on them as the sun rose. As the sun finally began to rise we realized whatever had been seen were not elk. As dark and snowy as it was, it could have been a small pod of antelope that in the semi darkness could look like a few elk moving.
Since we were already across the canyon we decided to move back further and see if we could find any signs of the elk and how they were moving. After working our way across the center area of the lands, we spotted a lone tree near the back middle and hiked toward it.
The snow was coming down pretty hard as the sun rose fully. Our field of vision was limited to 200 yards at best. Since we were already 2/3 of the way in we continued to the tree. Once we arrived there we waited for about 2 hours to see if the snow might clear and we could spot the elk. No joy, it stayed snowing and our field of vision even decreased.
That piece of land near Jeffers is always a fun hike. With the wind in our face and it blowing 35 – 45 mph snow, we trudged back to the truck. The day here was going to be a bust. Actually the cold wind was a nice break once we got to that canyon and started hiking up the steep taller side.
As is the custom with Montana hunts, I try to get at least 1 icicle GAGG picture. The trek back with the snow and sleet in my face was the best I could do this year. Sorry not up to normal standards.
With the snow nearly blinding us, Brother GAGG whipped out the Rhino to make sure we tracked back to the vehicle. Literally within less than a 100 yards we could barely make it out. That’s how hard it was snowing. By the end of the hunting trip that Rhino may have paid for itself 2 or 3 times over!
I was the first to arrive at the truck. As I moved to the passenger side to start peeling off clothing, and put up gear, I looked up. Remember where I said I had been using the thermal that morning? Remember where I said I had to have the window down to do so? Well this is what I arrived to…
Wonderful! Lesson learned. Don’t hop out of a car early in the morning without making sure the windows aren’t rolled up!
As a side note, a few days later when we are breaking camp, another camper came over and asked us if that was our truck he had seen with the window down. I am now renown in Jeffers Montana as the window neglecter!
Heading to the Promised Land
After cleaning snow out of the car for about 20 minutes we decide to head back to camp and regroup. With the snow coming down and visibility reduced, hunting around the area was going to be tough. These are rolling plain lands and “jumping” an elk (much less a herd) within a 100 yards or less is going to be tough.
We fixed lunch and looked over some game land maps. It looked like there were several co-located and close together public land sections in the valley to the west. We know where the herds are in Jeffers (and Cameron). In these conditions we aren’t going to be finding them. So off we head to the west.
The route to the other valley was a decent road in spite of the snow. Along the way there were several public land sections we scoped out. The route also took us through two of the most historic towns in America: Virginia City Montana and Nevada City Montana. Both were mining towns which flourished during the boom eras and collapsed once the mines went dry.
Thankfully the state of Montana has invested in them and kept them up. In both cases the original town structures and many of the original buildings still stand.
Here is a little montage of the scenery…
After enjoying the scenic ride through Virginia City and Nevada City, we descend down into the famous Montana Ruby Valley. A place historically known for its gold, now well known for the garnets and ruby mining. Our first stop was a ranch that had put some lands in the public trust lands for hunting this year. It required a sign in at “the shop”. We make a few wrong turns on some dirt roads but ultimately find “the shop”.
On the way in, both of us are comment on how perfect of “elk lands” these look. Unlike Jeffers, the plains here are surrounded by “mountainous” alluvial canyons. The elk have the plains they need and the cover and protection of the steep canyon runs. We are excited and ready to get moving on some hunting.
As we pull up to the shop we find one of the land owners outside. He is very nice gentleman who has grown up (several generations of family) in this area and knows it well. Unfortunately he tells us all the slots for hunting the lands are signed up for, but takes us into the shop and shows us some good alternative possibilities.
One of the possibilities is at the damn end of Ruby Lake. He shows us some “not well marked” paths to get into them on the map. Tells us how to navigate them, and answers some of our other questions about the other public lands we were intending to hunt. He also lays out that the herds have remained (so far) in the mountainous canyons and are only moving down into the alfalfa fields at night.
We head off to the entrance point of the Ruby Lake lands. Once inside the path is treacherous. Brother GAGG is an expert at off road driving – and at times a little crazy! The guy at the shop had mentioned an overlook point where you could glass anything on two sections of the public land.
At about 7 miles in the road forks (as the guy said it would) starts up a steep and very narrow grade. My brother starts up it and realizes it is completely ice and he has no traction. We back down to the fork and put on our gear to walk it. On foot it is treacherous. Thank goodness we didn’t risk driving it.
In my seasons in Montana, I have to say, this is the place I would have loved to have killed an elk. It just looked like elk country. The hike is about 2 miles climbing an 1500 – 2000 feet in elevation. At the top we were above 7000 feet and you could feel the difference in each breath. Sadly, on the walk up we saw zero signs of anything, and after scouting the surrounding areas from the vista, didn’t see anything.
Strike two for the Ruby Valley!
We hiked back down. We worked our way out and started to head to some other public lands further south and west. The shop keeper had said there was a very specific road we needed to look for. I believe we missed it. That said, we followed a road that snaked along with the Ruby River and found another set of public lands we took a look at.
No elk anywhere in the Ruby Valley. In fact, during the entire time we saw maybe 3 mule deer. The Ruby Valley just wasn’t a fertile hunting ground this trip.
By 3 pm we headed back towards the Madison Valley. Coming down into the Madison Valley we saw a herd of elk (private lands) and deer – more than we had seen the entire day in the Ruby Valley! Oh well, maybe next year we can scout out some better places in the Ruby.
The snow had subsided in the Madison Valley and we decided to head over to the Jeffers lands. As is the usual we see the two herds of elk (again). They were of course on the private lands.
So near yet so far.
To end the day of hunting we decide to head back down the Gravelly mountains and see if we can re-jump that mule-deer buck or by chance jump an elk. It is about an hour from sunset when we get there. As we enter the trail, I note an ATV heading out and it sure looks like it has that big, basket, mule deer buck on it. Dang it! As we are heading back to the area where that buck had been jumped, I note a small pod of what looks like 5 mullies tucked down in the woods.
I have Brother GAGG drive by them and drop me off up the trail. I had brought my 300 BLK AR-15. I grabbed it and started walking the edge of the woods back down toward them. Snow in areas was a deep as 3′. As I near where I saw them, I kneeled and scoped out the area. They were exactly where they were when we drove by. I could see 3 nice does, but I thought (when we drove by) there were 2 more. I worked my way around them for about 30 minutes while my brother went up the road to the fork to turn around.
Unfortunately there was no buck. Maybe it was the pod we had spotted the day before, and the guy on the ATV had whacked the buck from it.
We head back to camp as the sun sets on the Gravelly mountains.
Since we needed to get gas for the truck and the generator, we head into Ennis (the local “big” town). Ennis has a shotgun, traditional western downtown – all the store fronts along main street. It is a very quaint and welcoming town. It also hosts Willies Distillery. Which Brother GAGG suggests we try out. The bar maid proceeds to let us sample the wares (and yes it was thimble sized samples). They have a really good bourbon! I had to get it.
What do we do tomorrow?