A new bowhunter from the Midwest with an empty freezer and a MT elk tag. When he meets the mountainous west, will the learning curve be as steep as the terrain?
Just over three years ago I picked up a compound bow for the first time as an adult. I’m a professional photographer and was sent on assignment to cover an adult “Foraging and Archery” class. There were a pile of Genesis bows set up for instinctive shooting and one of the teachers asked if I’d like to try. Instantly I was taken back to my childhood, recalling arrows shot at a loose bale of hay, while absorbing instructions reminiscent of a Yoga class I’d stumbled through in my 20s. “Focus, take slow even breaths and look where you want to hit.”
My first arrows flew true and I was immediately hooked. Then my fiancé stumbled on a cheap starter bow in a pawn shop a week or so before my birthday, an old Browning that was definitely top of the line circa 1998. Simultaneously I was learning about hunting via podcasts, Youtube and Netflix. It all fit nicely into my goals of self-sufficiency, eating the most delicious and nutrient-dense foods I could find, and spending time outside to deal with the recent death of my mother.
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A month later I stumbled into my first few encounters with deer, literally missing a doe twice because my down coat sleeve was hitting my string and finally taking a decent 8-point buck on a spot-and-stalk hunt in my native Iowa. I’d followed some rules that people had told me were essential, and made up some of my own along the way. I was successful after five trips afield, and over the moon about it. I dry-aged that deer exactly 18 days, then turned as much of it into steaks as I could, and made my own smoked sausage by grinding in free-range pork obtained from a buddy. That deer definitely wasn’t nearly enough for the cravings of my partner Rebecca (the lady loves venison) and I’d been hearing about how overlooked the over-the-counter “Elk B” cow tags were in Montana. I had it in my mind that this nicely attainable elk tag would be our one-way ticket to the steak train…
Something to remember if you’re new to a pursuit: Experts will overlook what they see as obvious. Elk hunting is hard, and 99.9-percent hiking in extreme terrain—with some glassing and camping and mountains sprinkled in. I figured that I’d hike a few miles, hear some bugling or glass a herd, and shoot an elk. Easy. Hunting videos definitely make it seem that way. Of course, successful elk hunting requires elk to be where your tag is valid. That seems obvious but actually, hunting with an antlerless B tag in unit HD311 in Montana, that’s actually pretty unrealistic in late September—unless it’s already snowed a bit and pushed elk down into the foothills from the big peaks. Between National Forest lands being exempt from my specific tag (but not the general tag in that unit) and Ted Turner’s expansive personal ranch, most of the huntable early season land is mostly inaccessible.
On our way out to Montana we stopped and stayed in the Bighorn mountains for the night. While hanging out by the fire having a nightcap, a small deer was eating grass 10 feet away, and then elk bugles kept me up half the night. I was fired up and ready to go but we still had a week before we started hunting; we had some close friends to visit in Whitefish. It seemed like a great sign; elk were out and vocal and we weren’t having to do much to get close to them. We practiced shooting our bows for a bit the following morning, then packed up camp for the next round of driving.As the weather turned cold and rainy we had decided that heading away from where we were going to end up hunting was the best option. Looking back now that was probably a huge mistake, but more on that later. Heading over the west side of the Bighorns was gorgeous, which allowed our brakes to cool off on the grade 10 drops. I was still really optimistic with zero personal elk hunting failures yet to count, and elk bugles fresh in my mind. The temps were falling nicely, supposedly headed to just above freezing for the foreseeable future. After the bad weather I was sure all the areas I’d scouted on maps would be great places to hunt.Once up around Whitefish we had some time to kill, so we filled our days with target practice, making food, and catching up with friends—all while trying to ensure our gear was good to go for the coming week. I realized I wasn’t happy with my bow tuning and needed a new D-Loop, so we headed down to Kalispell for the day to visit Flaming Arrow Archery and get some pro shop help. The owner was one employee down, and displayed a pretty absurd level of multi-tasking skill, tuning bows while answering questions and ringing people up. Soon I was good to go.Back at our friends’ place we made some killer venison beer chili, sat by a fire and prodded my friend to tell a bunch of his hunting stories. Turns out he snowshoes out of his house into the forest and hikes back out with a bagged deer regularly, wrapped in its hide. He also let me know his theories on the local elk herd.Since we had a solid fire and more beer, we used the leftover chili juices, mixed with a can of dark beer, to slow-cook a deer shank; it would end up as the main feature in a few hobo dinners the following week during our hunt. Pre-cooking the meat and other ingredients meant being able to simply reheat our food as we hunted, allowing for more time in the woods. As you can see in the photo above I like a lot of tumeric on my venison shank; a shank has a ton of flavor and can take whatever you throw at it—and my knees feel better when I eat more anti-inflammatory foods like tumeric. It also takes me back to a lamb dish I once ate, prepared by a French Morrocan chef friend. The shank roasted for five hours in a dutch oven, and pulled apart nicely later.
Hanging out with friends was great and all, but I was fired up to hunt. So we headed south to camp one night in the Yellowstone valley, fished for trout that next morning, then continued on to the Madison River valley to start scouting.During the first day of elk scouting we drove around for the morning, getting acquainted with where we were with help from HuntStand. We used to app to decipher public lands from private, see where the BLM and USDA lines were, and, once in our spots, for general navigation assistance through rugged terrain. We saw that unit HD 311 has a few block management areas that seemed like they needed to be seen in person, so we drove through them to understand them better and ended up hiking in to a nice public area that featured a good-looking drainage leading to a river and dense cover. It seemed like a great place if the lower part of the range was still holding elk, following the cold snap earlier the previous week. We walked four miles in, bumped a few nice mule deer and realized we could take a different path in the next day, while glassing the whole area for the last two hours of sunlight.We’d picked up some new gear for the trip, and the Tract Toric UHD 10×42 binos really helped. Previously I’d been rocking a pair of ancient Tascos I’d had since who-knows-when, which weren’t really all that clear; owning some new waterproof HD glass really helped. It took me a bit to figure out how the diopter on the lenses worked, but once locked into place I was surprised how far into dusk I was able to glass. A diopter adjusts the focus for your particular eyesight and once it’s dialed the detail is improved. I shoot pictures for a living and cameras always have them. If your binos don’t have a locking diopter ring, I’d recommend a dot of hot glue once set, or at least a small reference dot on the underside, for quick readjustment. Or just buy a model with a locking diopter.
As far as clothing goes, I chose to bring layers that breathe and could take me from 20 to 60 degrees in a day, stuff that let me sweat and still kept me warm. I used a mix of baselayers from several companies, and outerwear from Huntworth featuring the company’s Disruption pattern. It served me well out west (I got as close as 5 yards to a mule deer) and I’ve shot an Iowa deer on the ground while wearing it. The second day into this location was really promising. We spent some time glassing in the morning and decided to move into what looked like a good transition area for elk, and found a ton of fresh sign. We decided to sit that area, with Rebecca calling 50 yards off with a cow/calf call. Normally we hike with some light internal frame packs on our backpack adventures, but with the hopes of bagging a cow elk, we wanted something a bit more sturdy. The ALPS Extreme Hybrid X seemed like a nice balance of pack space without being overbuilt. We didn’t set up a backcountry camp because the huntable area covered by my elk tag didn’t allow camping. So we were hiking five to eight miles in, scouting until we were beat up, then heading back out just before dusk. Knowing what I do now, I would have geared up to set a base camp in the National Forest, very near the BLM land we hunted. After a second day in that area a local gave us some advice; unfortunately it did not pan out.
The guy was really nice, saw we were sporting out-of-state plates and claimed a certain management area would be amazing and we should check it out; he offered many compelling reasons. Previously I had passed it up after checking maps because it didn’t seem remotely good for warmer-weather hunting, with almost no elevation and tree cover I’d found with HuntStand. It was right off a lake and our tipster claimed with the lack of rain elk would be heading down to drink in the late afternoon/evening. But once there we found no sign, no animals and one other person chasing mule deer. It seemed ideal for deer and we saw lots of them—just no elk.
On the way back to our camp I saw some great-looking water and pulled over to at least get some fishing in to clear my mind. That stop led us into a drainage that connected with a large area of private property that we later found was managed for hunting. After spending the afternoon scouting, back at our vehicle a 78-year-old local was really keen on asking us what we’d seen. He’d grown up a mile from the location and had no issues telling us that it was an amazing wintering area for elk; he was scouting for what was likely going to be one of his last seasons afield, and was incredibly happy to share helpful information with a couple of budding hunters. This type of attitude is what I’m used to experiencing with fellow hunters, when I tell them that both me and my fiancé are new recruits.
Back in camp we cooked our dinner and had a glass of whiskey while listening to faint elk bugles somewhere far off in the distance. We knew they came from more BLM land close to camp, and decided to head over there at first light. The shank we had prepared earlier in the trip was wrapped in tinfoil with potatoes and green beans; sliced mushrooms cooked in butter were a perfect match, and all of it would be necessary fuel for the steep hike looming before us the next morning.
Hiking into our chosen spot was a fantastic effort. The first two miles were mostly uphill, we didn’t see any elk tracks but did see some horse prints and a massive mountain lion track. It definitely made us more aware of our surroundings. Earlier that week the mountain range south of us was closed due to four grizzly attacks in a short period. The thing is, you’re participating in a risky hunt by quietly walking through the woods and making elk calls, but there’s really no other way. The reality is that you’re interacting with nature directly, hoping to kill an animal for sustenance while avoiding being eaten yourself, which makes a western hunt so thrilling. Further up the hill we saw lots of black bear tracks and even heard a bear grunt downhill from us at one point. It had been three years since last camping in bear country and this time around I was much better prepared. Both of us had bear spray and I was carrying a bow. I wasn’t going to let fear keep me from a hunt. It’s like eating chili peppers: at first it’s kind of terrifying and your body is telling you something is wrong but eventually you get over it and start to enjoy the sensation. You feel alive—knowing you’re doing what humans were meant to do, and have been doing for generations.
The last day of our hunt was soon upon us, and we were committed to heading in as far as possible for our final effort. After being in the mountains for a couple weeks, I was ready to give it all I had. I was warned by a friend not to get too aggressive and hike myself too far in, so we located a nice watering location just off some gnarly dark timber about five miles in. The earlier hikes were not as enjoyable as this last day, as it was apparent I’d found my mountain legs. The most-heart-pounding part of that last day was getting run out of a prime spot by a free-range cow—not an elk but rather the milk-making bessie kind. We were warned by a friend that more people are injured each year by cattle than bear attacks, and we saw first-hand why. In the end, I’d certainly do this all over again but would tweak a few things to increase the potential for elk success. Being a new hunter without a huge in-person community to share important tips and tactics can be rough at times, but Youtube and how-to articles offer lots of varied experiences to draw from. Of course, nothing beats being out there and seeing it all first hand. If you’re looking to undertake a DIY hunt in a new state, I’d suggest spending as much time scouting as actually hunting, if not more. And when the goal is bowhunting for elk, the more time you can spend afield the better. Two weeks is good but if you can swing it, three or four are even better. I learned quickly that the weather often determines where the animals will be, and they move a lot.
A week of hunting time was not nearly enough. Chase the animals the best you can, talk to the old guys wearing camo, talk to local game wardens and game and fish department employees, peruse all the map layers in HuntStand, and give yourself way more time to do it all than you’d ever imagine you’d need. In the end, hopefully you’ll wind up in the 15-ish percent of successful elk hunters, the lucky few who get to take home some of the best wild game the field has to offer. But if not, that’s alright too—you’ll have made memories you’ll likely never forget.