After we celebrated Jim’s first-day bull, we got to work packing his meat. As we finished that chore, Advantage Backcountry Outfitter owner Layne Wilcox turned to me and said, “You have your Montana elk tag, right? We’re in the mountains for the next two days. Why don’t you take a turn.” I was jacked! I hadn’t expected that I’d get a chance to hunt, since I was hosting Jim. But I jumped at the chance to chase my own public-land bull.
My guide would be Tom Kulesza, part muleskinner and full-time mountain bum.
By this time, videographer Troy Batzler had arrived in Layne’s backcountry tent camp. Batzler and I met about seven years ago when he was an elk guide at this camp. He’s now a full-time photographer and videographer, but he was as happy as me to be back in the mountains.
We got an early start out of camp and rode horses through stands of snow-draped timber.
By the time we broke out of the timber in the high meadows, light had broken and we were on the lookout for elk.
The sky was overcast and threatened even more snow. That was fine with me. The snow accumulation and dropping temperature meant that elk would be out feeding later in the morning and earlier in the evening than usual.
Still, we covered miles in the saddle and on foot and weren’t able to spot any elk in the high basins.
So we rode over another high pass into a series of subalpine parks and timbered bowls.
We took frequent breaks to glass wind-blasted slopes and edges of timber, places where elk were likely to be feeding on the wintery day.
It’s hard to glass from the back of a horse — about as tough as target shooting from the deck of a bass boat — so we dismount to study the terrain.
Then we mount again and ride into another drainage. It’s getting toward late afternoon and we still haven’t seen much more than elk tracks.
We take a break on a high ridge. Guide Shane Escott points out a pair of mountain goats on the ridge behind Ewing. It’s the first time Jim, a Vermonter, has seen the alpine goats.
Troy can’t let any photo opportunity go by, and captures some video of Jim glassing the goats.
Finally, we bust through drifted snow into the most distant bowl in our hunting area. We’ll circle this area and if we don’t cut fresh tracks or see elk we’ll start the long ride back to camp. This is the essence of public-land elk hunting: cover ground, glass and keep moving.
The snow is deep, but there’s enough vegetation on the higher ridges that elk can paw through the drifts and find food. If they’re here, we should see them.
Still, we’re hunting tens of thousands of acres and there are plenty of places for elk to hide.
We tie up the horses and hike to a lookout where we can glass an expanse of sheltered meadows. About a half hour before sunset, we spot a herd of elk feeding out of timber. There’s a legal bull in the group, and we make a quick decision to go for him. I ask Jim, “You want to come with us, or do you want to go back to the horses?” His answer is quick and steady, “I’m coming with you!” We cover 1,000 yards of hip-deep snow in 20 minutes and emerge from timber just underneath the feeding elk. I drop this bull with a single shot at 312 yards from my .300 Remington Ultra Mag.
Tom and Jim join me for a photo. I’m tired out but ecstatic with my success. It’s not often that you take two legal bulls on public land in just two days.
Then the work begins. We quarter the bull on the steep slope and pack the meat back to camp. The next day breaks even colder and snowier. It’s time to head down to the trailhead before we get snowed in.
After OL reader Jim Ewing scores a bull on the first day of his Montana Grand Slam Adventure, Hunting Editor Andrew McKean gets his turn to chase a snow-country elk. Will some of Ewing’s beginner’s luck rub off on this veteran mountain hunter?