Montana Archery Elk Update

The last couple of days have been nothing short of amazing. I'll do my best to fill you all in.

I made the return drive from a needed day at home/office in Bozeman around lunch on the 8th. I've been fortunate enough to gain permission to hunt a small piece of private property in the unit I'm hunting this year. The first three days of the season I hunted this private section, but as good a piece as it is, I didn't see anything. It's dense timber with small pockets… great if the bulls are bugling, but tough if they're not! I needed some AIR. I needed to hunt the way I'm used to… in the mountains.

The day prior to the opener, Katie and I put in some miles in the backcountry. It seems to always be our pattern before an elk hunt. We get excited for the season to start and usually put on so many rough miles looking for elk that we're tired heading into the opener. It would be a typical start to 2010.

We found bulls in the backcountry, but there were also a ton of people heading up into that country, so we decided to let the bulls battle the crowds and then return up there mid-week. This hadn't been our plan going into the hunt, but we quickly changed our tactics, considering the location of the elk, stage of the rut and amount of time we had to hunt.

I don't get a ton of time to hunt SOLO. I was going to get the chance to hunt for three days on my own. I was stoked.

I've been lucky enough to get the chance to stay at a cabin (between mountain trips-- I don't stay there every night!) that some of my friends own in this country. It has all the amenities: stove, power for this damn laptop, microwave, SHOWER…. BED. It's a great place to base-camp out of, especially during the nasty September weather we're getting right now. Special thanks to my friends who own the cabin--you know who you are!!!

I took off for the mountain basin early that afternoon. It wasn't long before it was officially fall. Fall to me opens up with the first bugle of the season, and 20 minutes into my hike, I heard a rip-snorter from the basin above… perfect.

The last few years I've taken a very patient approach to hunting elk in the high country. This is much different from my beginnings. I used to cover as much country as possible and make a stalk on bulls every time I found one, ignoring patience and just putting myself into position. Those early days gave me one key to elk hunting--lots of stalking practice. I was often able to get close, but if I could be more patient and wait for the PERFECT OPPORTUNITY, I'd have more success.

I found a great glassing position and began to look for elk. I found a heavy 340-inch 6-point running a harem of 34 cows and 5 satellite bulls. I found an outstanding 7x7 with 3 cows and a calf. (Mr. Big, whom Katie and I found while scouting the previous week.) And I found two more big bulls (too far to count tines) with small herds of cows in some pretty nasty country. Probably close to 80 elk in total, with 4 definite shooter bulls from one location--choices, choices, choices!

The older, more mature bulls had smaller groups of cows pushed into some tough country to keep them away from the younger challengers. (You can't maintain a ton of cows in some of these areas, and the bulls that had chosen to do so were all in nasty country.) I watched for 15 minutes as the 6x6 with 34 cows ran all around his herd, constantly fending off the satellites, working 10 times harder than the bigger bulls.

The big herd was in a tough spot to stalk, and still a long ways off. The two bigger bulls I found were also in tough spots. I didn't know enough yet to get close for a perfect opportunity, so I decided to go for Mr. Big--he was in the best spot and he was my also my Number 1 choice.

I started making my way toward him. The wind was perfect. As I was getting to his location, I came across a bull bugling like crazy and scraping a tree 70 yards below me. By lying down, I could only make out his legs through the dense timber, so I slowly snuck in above him, wind hitting me in the face the whole time. He was bugling back and forth with Mr. Big, and I wanted to get a good look at him. After 30 minutes, I still couldn't see him even though I had snuck down to within 40 yards of him. I decided to back out slowly and not spook him, then head up the drainage for Mr. Big. I had only an hour of daylight left. I had wasted some precious time on his competition.

Mr. Big and his small herd of cows had moved from their timbered location to an open area on the hillside. I could make him out below his cows drinking from the spring, tearing up saplings and bugling like mad. I worked my way below them with some help from a great wind and put myself in position. I had sparse tree cover to work my way toward the bull, but the cows kept a watchful eye from above and it took a lot of patience and time to wait for them to feed to move closer. I was running out of daylight fast.

As I neared the bull, I spotted him scraping a tree that I ranged at 72 yards--no view of his body. He began to move toward the cows and I worked fast to cut the distance. The bull only stopped once on his way to the cows, to fire a bugle back at the bull below. At the same time, I reached my last piece of cover on the hillside, a small bush that hid my location perfectly. I ranged him--98 yards.

***Sidenote*** for those who've followed my previous blogs, I practice shooting like crazy. During my daily sessions, I shoot 8 arrows from 120 yards. I don't miss the target while practicing, but my shots are not always perfect.

The situation was this: huge bull, 98 yards, last light. I let him walk. With luck, and more patience, I'd get another, BETTER, chance.

I continued hiding behind the bush until well after dark, getting the opportunity to watch this bull above me on the mountain for another 30 minutes.

I grew up hunting with my father and one of his closest friends, a man named John Armstong. In John's home in Montana, he has a photo of a huge bull elk skylined on a mountain ridge somewhere. Through my binos, I was looking at this same image. The bull was an enormous 7x7, one of the biggest elk I've ever seen on public land. He bugled there, silhouetted, about a dozen times. Every now and then he'd stretch his head/neck down low and fire another bugle into the basin. Without a doubt, one of the best experiences I've had ever elk hunting.

After the bugles had subsided and the bull made his way over the ridge, I worked my way back down the mountain in the dark without a headlamp, so as not to inform any of the elk of my presence there that evening. I'd had a sweet opportunity, but more important, I hadn't spooked any bulls along the way. I'd be back the next morning, and hopefully, so would they.

After returning to the truck, I went through my ritual of hanging my hunting clothing on a line, spraying them with de-scenting solution, and changing into some other clothes before getting into the truck. I then slammed a Gatorade, put down a few Mojo bars and some of the Umpqua Jerky I've been enjoying all season. These folks advertise having the best jerky on the planet, and that night it sure hit the spot.

I also took some time to pull out the Google Earth images of the basin I'd printed before the trip and began making notes. I plotted all of the elks' locations and times, where they crossed the basin, where they were watering, and where they bedded before crawling into the back of my truck for a short night's sleep.

I awoke at 3:45 a.m., and began getting ready. Nothing like waking up to frost in the high country while stripped down to my underwear spraying my skin with COLD scent eliminator! I putting on my Sitka clothing piece by piece, spraying each piece as I had the night before. Soon I had bow in hand and my pack on my back headed up into the basin, this time choosing a ridge that would put me between the large herd and where Mr. Big had been the night before.

Bugles started echoing through the basin at 5:00a.m., but I didn't hear the familiar sound of the 7x7 that morning. I stayed in my glassing location longer than I normally would, hoping he would show up, but he never materialized on the hillside. I was able to locate the other 3 shooter bulls, but I chose to go light that morning and left my spotter/tripod at the truck, so I didn't get to really see what the other bulls looked like. I knew exactly what kind of bull the 6x6 with the large herd was, and I decided to make a play toward them as they fed in the basin to my left.

The wind was perfect, and I attempted to cut them off. Once again, I was running late and the lead cow took the herd farther up the mountain than I had expected. I figured they'd head to a bedding area to my right, and I'd already worked my way to that location before I spotted them heading up toward the high mountain pass. The wind was in my favor, but with nothing but open hillside between me and the elk, 40 sets of eyes said I'd better stay put. I found a good observation point and settled in.

The other bulls were taking their cows to some secluded timber patches so I pulled out my images to catalogue their locations and times. I was getting these herds patterned; now I just needed an opportunity. I made the decision to spend the rest of the day in that spot, then pick one of the 3 bulls to stalk for the evening hunt. The big herd had just topped out on the high saddle when a storm started rolling in. A dense fog gave me an opportunity to cut almost all the distance between us, so I hurriedly packed my gear and raced toward them with a good wind.

After almost reaching the saddle, the fog was getting really thick, so I opted to move high and right to avoid getting spotted and ensure my wind wouldn't blow in their direction. I found a small group of alpine pines and hunkered down for a nap. I woke to sunny skies and cautiously peered out from the trees with my binos. There they were, the whole herd bedded on the hillside about a quarter-mile from my location. I'd be completely exposed if I tried to move. This was going to be a long wait.

The storm had picked up in intensity and I was forced to endure the elements for the next 6 hours. The wind was doing all kinds of crazy things, and my best chance was to remain hidden, within hearing distance of the herd. Every 30 to 45 minutes the 6x6 would bugle, and I could occasionally make out the faint sound of a cow/calf conversation. It rained, sleeted and snowed on me. Having made the decision to go light that morning, I had left stuff like the spotter/tripod that I mentioned before at the truck. I also left behind a bunch of clothes that help make up my layering system. It was going to be an "alpine-style" day, I said to myself that morning, no need for any extra comforts. I was hoping to be carrying elk quarters to stay warm.

Armed with only my Ascent pants, a Traverse shirt and Stormfront tops and bottoms, I was shielded from all of the rain/sleet/snow/wind, but I couldn't escape the cold This was the last time I was going to be caught out without my insulation layers. I had nothing to do but look at the map on my GPS and think about my situation. I replayed the encounter with the 7x7 from the night before over and over. Could I have made the shot? I know I made the right decision, but those moments hang with you forever--a constant battle of mental chess I will always play with the bulls who eluded me. I cursed my decision to travel so light and wished I was layered up with my spotting scope watching bulls from a protected spot.

I was shivering fiercely and slowly rationed out my jerky, 2 mojo bars, probar and clif shots during the sit. I'd save my last bar for the hike out in the dark--hopefully after I'd harvested my bull. I knew the elk had been feeding out onto the face from somewhere at about 5:30 each night, so at 5:00, with the storm reaching full value and an advantageous wind blowing, I snuck out and positioned myself in a good ambush spot overlooking the trail that the elk would most likely take if they stuck to the pattern. I had great shooting windows at 18, 23, 28, and 37 yards, should the elk cooperate.

I waited there till dark with no sign of the elk. I heard the bull bugle from the timber a half-dozen times that evening, so I knew they'd decided to wait out the storm. I slowly picked my way down the mountain back to the truck in the dark again. I was dry, but I was really cold. All of my substantial food was down the valley in the cabin, and I made the long drive home without headlights.

I woke up at 3:00 this morning and the weather was fierce again. I decided to get some extra sleep and completely dry out all of my gear. I've checked all of my hunting equipment, cleaned my cameras, binos, spotter, and rangefinder, and I'm gearing up for my evening assault. The clouds are beginning to break and the elk will definitely be out feeding after the storm. "Tonight is going to be a good, good night"--or so the song goes.

Curiosity and confidence got the best of me a little while ago. I set up my target, walked out to 98 yards, grabbed my lucky #13 arrow and center-punched my shot. Tonight I'm hoping for a chance at Mr. Big from 50.

Mark Seacat