A Storm in the Castles

A father and son head west for their first elk hunt

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My father, a passionate, lifelong hunter, has never had the chance to travel any great distance from where he’s lived to hunt. He grew up chasing small game and birds around his family’s Central New York farm, and when my family was living in New Hampshire he would drive back to CNY every fall to hunt deer with my uncles and cousins. He always pined to chase elk in the mountains of America’s west, but a lack of time or funds or some combination of the two never allowed for it. He turned 60 this year, so my brother Joe and I, realizing Dad wasn’t getting any younger, decided to apply for a Montana elk tag in his name as a birthday gift. We knew the odds of him drawing a tag were slim (about 30 percent, I was told), but we had to try and so we did. One day in May, I logged onto the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks web site to check the status of the tag draw, and there it was: “Results for Angelo Taranto: 2009 General–Elk Combo: Successful.” I could hardly believe it. My dad was actually going to hunt elk in Montana. After months of planning, the day finally came to head west from dad’s house in Central New York. He and I would drive across the northern part of the country (my brother was saddled with too much school work and couldn’t make the trip) and arrive in the Castle Mountains on opening day of Montana’s rifle season, Sunday, October 25. After a coffee mug fill-up in the wee hours of Friday, October 23, at a filling station near I-90 in Canastota, New York, and one last check of our cargo, it was time to hit the open road.
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With this being the first elk hunt for both Dad and me, it was great to have along OL’s Hunting Editor Andrew McKean, who drove down from his home in Glasgow, Montana, to hunt with us. We met Andrew in the rough-hewn half-horse town (a one-horse ranking would be generous) of Checkerboard, Montana (pictured), before heading into the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
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After driving a few miles into the forest, we found what looked like an ideal campsite. We set to work and had our sleeping quarters, a Cabela’s Alaskan Guide domer, our mess hall/storage closet, a Hilleberg Altai, and even a sheltered privy erected in time for a little late-afternoon scouting. While we didn’t glass any elk or spot fresh sign that first evening, we did see plenty of other hunters driving around the National Forest roads.
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Quick aside: As Gear Editor of this fair magazine, I get to test out a lot of great gear. We secured coolers from both Yeti and Engel for the trip and both performed exemplarily. In fact, the ice we dumped in each before we left for the trip was still frozen by the time we got back to dad’s house 9 days later. We also took along a first aid kit from the good folks from Adventure Medical Kits, which, thankfully, was never put to use.
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The alarm clock buzzed at 5 a.m. the next morning, and the three of us extricated ourselves from our cozy sleeping bags (dad and I were utilizing a couple of Cabela’s inflatable cots, which I can’t recommend highly enough) and headed over to the Altai, as snowflakes fluttered to the ground, to prep for the first full hunt day.
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McKean manned the Brunton BrewFire and made a pot of coffee as dad and I organized our gear.
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Dad shook the cobwebs loose with a strong cup of joe and got himself focused for a day 60 years in the making.
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After studying topo maps of the area, we picked a ridge we thought looked promising and spent the morning glassing and hiking, trying to spot a cruising bull or cut a track.
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While we didn’t uncover any fresh sign or spot any animals, we did come across a couple truly impressive rubs. The whitetails dad and I hunt back east could only dream of creating this kind of destruction.
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No elk in the sight picture, but a man can dream, can’t he?
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We spent the rest of the day exploring our hunting grounds, repeating the drive-park-hike-glass process several times with not so much as a fresh track to show for our efforts. As the snow continued to fall and the winds escalated to “howling” status, we headed back to camp to find that the 40 mph gusts had wreaked havoc with the Altai, snapping the center support pole and waylaying the tent. Dad salvaged as much of the pot of chili we’d left on the table inside as Andrew and I set to re-staking the tent.
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We jury-rigged the center support with a tripod set atop a cooler in the middle of the inside of the tent and then dined on chili as we tried in vane to ignore the savage winds that continued to whip around outside.
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Sleep came in spurts that night as I dreaded waking up to find the Altai crumpled on the ground and covered in a foot of snow. Amazingly, our tripod quick-fix held up. The several inches of powder that had fallen overnight renewed our hopes of being able to find good tracks to follow.
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After spending an hour that morning pushing and pulling a fellow hunter’s truck out of a snowdrift that had built up in the road, we were sure we’d compiled enough karmic brownie points to change our luck. Off we went into the teeth of a fierce front.
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The snow and wind showed no sign of relenting, but we were determined. After all, Dad and I had traveled thousands of miles to hunt these darn creatures. It would take more than a little blizzard to deter us.
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We hiked and we glassed and we hiked some more, but frustration set in as it became apparent that the combination of nasty weather and lots of hunting pressure had conspired against us and pushed the elk into far-flung reaches of the forest that weren’t going to be easily accessed.
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That night we headed down into Checkerboard, where most of the other hunters were staying, and popped into the bar/general store to see if anyone else had experienced better luck than us.
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Aside from one guy from Wisconsin who had dropped a cow, no one else was having any better luck than us. While the hunting outlook was disheartening, we took some comfort in knowing we weren’t alone in this quest of futility. We also took comfort and in the warmth of the bar, in greasy burgers and in several adult beverages.
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After a quick look at the four-day forecast, we piled into the truck and headed back for what would be our last night in camp. Andrew had to leave for home the following day, and with the elk prospects low, and two and a half days of driving ahead of us, dad and I decided we’d give it one last go the next morning and then break camp and head east.
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The third morning brought more of the same hunting-wise, but it was hard to tire of the beautiful scenery in central Montana’s Castle Mountains.
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While the trip didn’t result in an elk for my dad, which was somewhat disappointing, we both were grateful for having had the experience…and the fact that his tag went unpunched only fueled our desire to head back out west another time and give the elk another go.

A father and son head west for their first elk hunt