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.

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