Missouri River Breaks: Surprising Elk Country

The heart of the Breaks is the Missouri River. In its western section, the free-flowing river scours a deep canyon bristling with exotic rock formations and is surrounded by the BLM's Upper Missouri River National Monument. Downstream, the Breaks are bordered by sprawling Fort Peck Reservoir, the uppermost--and the largest--of the big Missouri River impoundments that extend through the Dakotas and into Nebraska. Read a blog about my hunt in the River Breaks from a few years ago.
Seen from the air, Fort Peck dominates the landscape of northeastern Montana. The Breaks are the timbered ridges that drop into the lake's bays and points. From this elevation, it looks like bleak, sterile country that briefly stops the shortgrass prairie from spilling right into the Missouri River.
But drop a little lower in an aircraft, and you can start to see the Breaks' remarkable texture and diversity. Bare gumbo ridges rise to thick stands of ponderosa pine, bunching juniper and even stunted, wind-blasted cedar trees. It's that timber that serves as the heart of elk habitat in the Breaks. You can also see from this elevation how valuable a big-lake boat is to access much of the Breaks' lonely country.
The Breaks owe their appearance to a millennia of the harsh weather of the Northern Plains. Wind scours the rocks. Water courses down the gullies. Drought ensures that timber stays in its place. And fire periodically tamps back the thin vegetation.
Harsh conditions challenge the place and its occupants, but the Breaks are remarkably resilient, and even in bone-dry drainages, trees grow tall and shady, and gently transition the landscape from the wind-whipped prairie to the river valley. Most north-facing slopes--those areas that retain snow longest and stay cool and moist--are clad with timber. It's here you'll find elk on the hottest days.
Much of the Breaks is public land. The land adjacent to the river and Fort Peck Reservoir is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service within the boundaries of its C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the Lower 48. The Bureau of Land Management also manages significant chunks of the Breaks.
There's plenty of elbow room here. Elk hunting is distributed by special draw (the deadline for nonresidents to apply is in mid March), and even though several hundred archers carry either-sex elk tags for this month's archery season, it's easy to get away from hunting pressure.
For first-time hunters, the Breaks can be intimidating. So much country. So much open land. Where are the animals? They are in pockets of habitat, little chunks of timber, dense willow thickets, higher-elevation rock gardens and gumbo ridges. You have to rely on good optics to glass expansive country, and then be prepared to hike miles between these oases of habitat.
Much of the private land in the Missouri River Breaks is managed by large ranching outfits. And some of the largest, like the Page-Whitham Ranch, allow public hunting access. All you have to do it sign yourself in daily at the designated sign-in boxes and you can hunt tens of thousands of acres of game-rich land.
Critters don't confine themselves to the timber, though. You're as likely to find elk in the wide-open prairie as in the tight timber, at least before hunting seasons begin.
Sneaking in on these open-country animals requires graduate-level stalking skills, and the ability to use little creases in the landscape to hide your approach.
You can also use the rough terrain to hide you. The minute these mule deer walk over the ridge, you can run up to the crest and get a shot at an unaware buck.
Use the gumbo knobs almost as walls, sneaking along on the blind side of the obstruction until you can get a slam-dunk shot.
It's not just mule deer and elk that occupy the Breaks. Whitetails, wild turkeys, sharp-tailed and sage grouse and waterfowl are here in good numbers. The most celebrated species is probably the bighorn sheep. A ram tag for the Breaks is possibly the most coveted big-game tag in the Lower 48.
You never know when you'll flush an elk or a mule deer from even small patches of cover.
Of course, not all the wildlife here is particularly happy to see you. Rattlesnakes abound, and an encounter with an especially surly snake can change the quality of a belly-crawling stalk in a hurry.
Mysterious, remote and remarkably rich in game and terrain, the Missouri River Breaks have been attracting hunters since well before Lewis and Clark trekked through here. It's in this wild country that Outdoor Life kicks off its Record Quest - Elk season. Stay tuned to see how I fare in my pursuit of an early season archery bull.

We're starting the second year of Record Quest by pursuing big open-country elk with a bow, this weekend in the Missouri River Breaks.