September 27, 2015

Hunting Montana: Version 1.2 (Jane Doe's Last Stand)

I just returned from another three days of hunting for elk in the Beaverhead Mountains.  I was in the same place as a I was a few weeks ago where I had no trouble finding elk every day, but this time they were elusive.  In two and a half days, I saw/heard exactly zero elk and scared a handful of deer: and this is supposed to be approaching peak rut when they become easier to find.  Frustrated, I decided to move south during the middle of day three, closer to where I had the mountain lion encounter (see Version 1.0).

In this new area, I discovered a road was closed that I was anticipating being open.  In this, I saw an opportunity.  Instead of hunting from my truck each morning and evening, I would backpack in to this difficult-to-access basin and see if I couldn't stir up any elk in the next few days.  Thirty minutes later my backpack was packed and I was headed in.  By 3:00 pm I had my camp set up, including tent, hammock, and bear hang.  I left around 4:00 to head up the ridge I was camped near.  There was a road (shown on my map) traversing the ridge about 2/3 of the way up, which I assumed would also be closed.  When I got there, I found a fairly well maintained road with recent tire tracks.  Did I just walk a whole bunch and delude myself into thinking I was in a more remote area than I really was?  Probably.

I would periodically bugle and hope to hear a response either above or below me as I followed the road, at the same time walking quietly in hopes that I might discover an elk before it noticed me.  At about 6:00 I was a good two miles from my camp when I saw a white ungulate butt near the top of a meadow.  Given our separation, I could easily tell it was a doe.  My first thought was, "Just my luck.  I finally found fur and it's something I can't shoot."  I used my range finder anyway, which told me the doe was 78 yards away.  Where I had been hunting previously, I could only shoot antlered mule deer.  After further internal mental debate, I convinced myself that I had moved far enough south that I had entered a different hunting unit, and in this unit I could only shoot antlerless mule deer.  I realized this about the same time I noticed three more deer, all does, following the one I initially saw.

I've got fur in sight, it's legal to shoot, and they're just on the edge of my maximum shooting range.  They're all feeding downhill through the meadow, which means they'll continue to get closer until they get to my elevation.  There's a large tree in the middle of the meadow with branches all way to the ground, so I take a few steps to position myself in the trees at the edge of the meadow to shoot as soon as they come out from behind the big tree.  My shooting lane is wide enough for them to take about 10 steps and be within the window the whole time.  At the rate they were moving, this should be more than enough time to range and shoot one of the deer while they fed.

Of course, it can't be that easy.  When the deer come out from behind the tree, I ranged them at 55 yards, but they didn't stop and feed.  They walked about 15 steps before going back to feeding, not giving me an opportunity within my window.  Now the tree immediately to my left was blocking a clear shot, and I was in a kneeling position.  With four deer about 50 yards away, I had to stand up and take three steps in dry, crispy, crackly ground.  I waited until all four heads were down feeding, and I stood up.  Several seconds later, I took a step, but didn't weight that foot until I was sure they hadn't seen my movement.  Weight foot, wait several more seconds until all four heads are feeding again, and repeat.

I now had a clear shot, but I was less hidden by the trees lining the meadow.  I ranged the largest deer in the group at 53 yards.  I slowly brought by bow up to draw position and waited for that deer to turn broadside, which she did a few seconds later.  I drew by bow and noted that none of the deer seemed to notice.  I sighted my 50 yard pin just above where I wanted to hit, focused on my target, and released.  To say I was determined not to screw up the shot would be to put it mildly.

I couldn't see my arrow or where it hit, but about 1/2 second after the release, I heard a sound I'd often heard described; the slicing, hollow, thwack/thump of the rib cage taking a high velocity impact from a razor sharp object.  Even so, all the deer ran 15 yards to the opposite side of the meadow, none of them acting injured.  A few seconds later I thought I saw the white flicker of a tail, which I interpreted as Jane's end.  After 10 minutes of waiting, I went to search for my arrow.  Unable to find it, I began looking for blood.  I didn't see any right away, so I started to second guess the sound I heard that made me so certain I'd made a good shot.  Five yards from where she was when I shot, I found a good quantity of blood on the ground.  I followed the blood trail and found a dead deer about 10 yards inside the tree line, about 25 yards from where I shot her.

Upon closer inspection I realized I'd made a perfect double lung shot, and the doe was even larger-bodied than I had thought.  It was now 6:30, only 1.5 hours until dark.  I was two miles from camp and four miles from my truck.  I was now glad that the road I had been walking up seemed to be open, because the deer had expired about 150 feet from it.  Over the course of the next three hours, I did the following:

  • gutted, skinned, and butchered the deer,
  • hauled the meat in game bags up to the road,
  • tied the meat up in a tree,
  • walked two miles back to camp,
  • packed up my camp,
  • walked two more miles with a full pack back to my truck,
  • drove up the 4WD road to where I had left the meat hanging,
  • packed the meat in the cooler,
  • made one last attempt at finding my arrow, which I eventually found firmly embedded in the ground, and
  • started driving home with a cooler full of meat!
It was a goal of mine to redeem myself by making a good shot on a deer or elk after shooting a pine tree instead of an elk earlier this year.  While target shooting, every shot is a double lung kill shot out to about 70 yards.  Shooting at live animals has proven to be much more difficult for me.  I get too excited, think that the animal is going to move, and rush the shot.  Now that I've proven I can make a good shot in a real situation, I hope I can make it a habit.

Firsts:  This is the first mule deer I've ever shot, the first non-Whidbey Island deer I've killed with my bow, and my longest kill shot by about 20 yards.

The Arrow:  The arrow I recovered late at night was no more worse for the wear.  It also happens to be the same arrow I shot into a pine tree earlier this season and proceeded to excavate with a bone saw.  With a bit more luck, this same arrow will shoot a pine tree, a mule deer, and an elk in the same year.

Jane:  I referred to this deer using the non-so-clever name of  Jane Doe.  I've come to realize that naming the animals I've killed is commonplace for me.  I believe I do this to single out the particular animal, thereby recognizing it as a unique being and appreciating the fact that I have ended it's life in order to feed my own.  I know if Jane had a choice in the matter, she'd still be running around in the woods, dodging hunters, cougars, wolves, etc.  Nonetheless, I thank her for her sacrifice and the resulting meat in my freezer.

September 23, 2015

Shed Foundation Complete

I took a break from elk hunting in Montana to help Kris hunt elk back in Washington.  While he didn't shoot one, he had a couple of close encounters and came closer to sealing the deal than he ever had before.

When Ava and I returned to Montana (she was teaching a course for the Y in Seattle while I was hunting with Kris), we had our sewer repair/stump removal/gravel delivery scheduled.  With that out of the way and gravel on hand, I was able to complete the foundation for the shed that I had previously excavated.

The basic idea was to lay out the free, used railroad ties to support the walls that I will be framing in the next phase of things, level the ties, fix them together with metal braces, and backfill around the ties.  I placed, leveled, and compacted about 3 inches of gravel below the ties prior to setting them in place.  I also oriented the ties vertically to maximize the depth of the bottom of the tie; thereby minimizing the potential for frost damage to the foundation.  Because the ties varied slightly in size, burial depths range from about 7.5 to 9 inches below grade.

The gravel inside the ties will be the floor of the finished shed.  The framed walls will be nailed directly to the railroad ties.

Now that this phase is complete, I feel better about going back into the mountains in pursuit of the glorious wapiti.

September 11, 2015

Hunting Montana: Version 1.1

I just returned from spending a few more days in the forest searching for elk.  On my first night out I was sitting quietly at a pass in a ridge, waiting for a few more minutes to tick by, when a coyote trotted by within 10 yards of me.  It didn't realize I was there until it had passed me and got downwind, at which point he paused momentarily to glance back at me, then his pace quickened until he was out of sight.

Later that evening I was still-hunting further up the same ridge when I noticed a cow about 100 yards ahead of me, heading in the same direction.  One cow soon turned in to three, and I was able to close the distance to about 60 yards.  I followed them at this distance for a while, waiting for an opportunity to present itself for a shot through the thick pine trees.  Eventually one of them saw me and the game was over.

A quick note on my tactics:  the elk in this area were not bugling yet, so locating them via sound was out of the question, unless you already happen to be very close and hear them breaking branches as they walk.  Dense forest covers about 100% of the area I was hunting, so spotting them from afar was out of the question, eliminating the common "spot-and-stalk" method.  Given this situation, the only way I could find to locate the elk was to walk slowly and quietly through the forest until I saw one, hoping that I would see it before it saw me.  I like to think of this as the "hope-and-stalk" method, but it is more commonly referred to as still-hunting.

The following evening, I hoped really well and my hope-and-stalking found me in the vicinity of two bull elk.  Before I saw them, one of them barked, which is an undesirable sound as it means they've detected something suspicious.  The bull that barked (we'll call him Barker) ran off, only to return a minute or two later when the other bull didn't follow.  Barker continued to bark every few seconds for the next 20 minutes, all the while peering through the trees in my direction from about 60 yards away.  I couldn't move with that much attention, so I hoped that by holding still he would forget about me and go back to feeding.  He eventually did go back to feeding, but not without occasionally barking and regularly looking in my direction.  At one point I drew my bow when Barker was headed for the one opening in the trees where I had a slight hope he would pause and present a shot, but he didn't and the shooting ally wasn't very good anyway.  Eventually they fed out of sight, so I took my boots off, put on my extra pair of socks, and tried to sneak in for a shot.  I got back to within about 60 yards when Barker's barking frequency escalated.  I had been pegged.  Eventually the other bull got on board with the looming threat that Barker had been barking about and they fled the scene.

The next morning I encountered a lone cow while hoping-and-stalking.  This time I caught her completely unaware.  I quickly pulled out my range finder, which read 42 yards.  I then nocked an arrow, and with all my fidgeting the cow stopped walking and turned to look my way.  Under normal circumstances, this would be a pretty easy shot.  Yet once again, there were copious trees in the way.  Where she stopped, I could see her vitals through a narrow, 3" gap in the trees, but I had to lean far to my left to take advantage of it.  With the cow looking right at me, I was afraid to step to my left, so I came to full draw, leaned awkwardly out to my left, sighted for a 42-yard shot, and released.  That cow will live to see another day, but the pine tree on the right is dead vegetarian meat.

I went back and forth emotionally between being upset at missing the shot (one I should have made), and thinking it was somewhat comical that I just shot a pine tree.  I had visions of chopping down the pine tree, cutting it into small rounds, and stacking it in my chest freezer.  Life goes on, for both me and the elk.  Perhaps this shot error was a blessing in disguise.  I've never hunted bulls during the rut before, and by the time I have another opportunity to hunt, the rut should have started.  With the generous Montana archery season, I have confidence I'll be able to fill the freezer with something other than lodgepole pine.

September 08, 2015

Hunting Montana: Version 1.0

I just returned from my first stint of hunting in Montana.  It began with three and a half days of scouting for sheep in the Tendoy Mountains.  During this time, I saw exactly 0 rams, 0 ewes, and 0 lambs.  The area was huge and the population of sheep was a diseased and dwindling 30 to 40.  I did have a great time walking around in the mountains and spying on imaginary sheep through my binoculars and spotting scope.

On the first day, I saw 5 pronghorn, a coyote, and a couple rabbits.  This was my most eventful day as far as seeing wildlife.  It seems the hoard of hunters in the area quickly sent all fur-bearing animals into hiding.

Despite not seeing any sheep, I gave it a go on opening day.  I woke up to cold temperatures and foggy skies.  As I hiked up the hill to search for sheep, I assumed the fog would clear and I'd be alone up high with only the hard core hunters, giving me a better chance.  Then it started raining.  Then the rain turned to snow.  By late morning, the skies cleared and I was able to glass a large area, once again turning up nothing.

The fact that I am more of a meat hunter than a trophy hunter became very apparent during these first 4 days of sheep scouting/hunting.  What I really wanted to be doing was hunting elk, which yield a much higher meat reward upon success.  So, after admitting this to myself, I decided to pursue a raghorn bull elk that two people I encountered reported seeing a few days prior.  Both times he was seen it was in a relatively small patch of trees surrounded by open country, so I figured there was a good chance he was still in there.

I awoke the following morning, this time to clear skies, 20 degree temperatures, and thoroughly frozen ground.  I made my way in about two miles to where the bull had been seen and was at his patch of trees at first light.  I slowly and sneakily made my way through the trees, ultimately discovering that the bull had previously vacated this place he once called home.

Having had enough of not seeing animals, I gave up on sheep hunting and headed for more promising elk country, of which Montana has much.  While driving I saw two buck mule deer and two pronghorn, the first fur I'd seen in quite a while, excluding squirrels.  I pulled over in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, near the Idaho border in an area I'd heard held quite a few healthy elk herds.  That night I still-hunted up a drainage, spooking two bucks and an elk at close range.  Even though these encounters were far from presenting an opportunity to shoot an animal, it was much more excitement than I'd had for the last several days of hunting.

The next morning, I woke up early and made my way up the drainage to an area I knew had good feed and elk were more likely to be at that time of day.  As I got close, I heard a bugle.  I'd heard many bugles before, but this one was much more exciting because I actually had a tag to shoot the animal that made the sound.  I quickly made my way toward the bugle, careful to keep the wind in my favor.  After about 150 yards of moving quickly, I slowed my pace and soon saw elk through the trees about 100 yards off.  I remained about this far away from the herd as I paralleled them up the drainage, which I was in and they were sidehilling just above.  I decided to dog the herd (trail them at a distance), in hopes that an opportunity would present itself in the form of the herd bull or a satellite bull.  After 15 minutes of this, the herd spooked but didn't go far.  I was pretty sure I hadn't made myself visible, and the wind was still in the right direction, but you never know what 35 pairs of elk eyes can see.  They didn't go far, so I continued to pursue them up the hill.  When I was about 80 yards from the nearest cow, they spooked again, and again I thought I was being pretty conservative.  Immediately after they spooked, I saw a mountain lion run across the hillside directly between the herd and myself, about 40 yards away.

This was the first mountain lion I'd ever seen in the wild, and it was impressive to see how quickly and stealthily it moved in rugged terrain.  I only saw it for a couple of seconds as it streaked across my field of vision, after which it vanished back into the nothingness whence it came.  I followed the herd up and down a mountain for the rest of the morning, but was never able to get close without being detected, and regularly kept an eye out behind me.

I'm headed back out for another stint in the woods soon, hunting elk in yet another new area.  Hopefully this will result in more exciting stories like this, ideally yielding freezer fodder.