31 January 2007

Elk Hunting Advice

I've been visiting a Cabela's talk forum, and this is the time of year that many hunters begin dreaming about their trip to Montana. I've tried to offer some advice. I don't pretend to be an expert. I am just a guy who moved to Montana 17 years ago and worked very hard at knowing the lay of the land--including the elk.

My advice on the forum included some ethics (don't shoot at extreme distances, etc), which offended some forum participants. Sorry they were offended. But I'm fed up with the "kill an elk at all costs" mania that has infected the sport and resulted in a lot of wounded elk, poor relations with landowners, and even altercations with other hunters. I spent some time living in Germany, and learned a nice distinction between "hunting" and "shooting" wild animals. Hunting is more than shooting, and involves the ability to read sign, track, get close, etc. I've seen guys dust antelope at unbelievable distances shooting off the hood of their truck. Great shots. Lousy hunters.

Anyway, one hunter asked about a "do it yourself" hunt for him and his son. I stick pretty close to the Butte area of SW Montana, where I live. The Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest has a LOT of elk. So many that FWP has made it "open season" on cows after the first week in most of the districts in the 300 region of SW Montana. I.e., you can shoot a cow on your regular elk tag after the first week of season.

BDL Forest has good public access. If you want to pack in (horses or backpack), there are plenty of roadless and wilderness areas too. Rifle season is 5-weeks long: from late October to end of November. Generally, early in the season, you'll find elk spread out pretty much everywhere. After the shooting begins, most elk will move up high and away from roads: in my area that means above 7,000 feet and 1 - 2 miles from the road. In the latter part of season, if we get the usual large snowfall, elk move back down and to winter range. The bulls usually stay in the high country until their bellies start dragging in the snow (two feet deep).

Generally, there are two methods of hunting: (1) ambush them in the parks (i.e. big open meadows) at first light; and (2) stalk them where they bed in the timber. The first method requires that you hike in the dark to reach the park. Then either sit tight in a place where you can see well or move VERY slowly around the edges, peeking out here and there. By 9 am, it's unlikely elk will be out in the open (at least after the first few days of season). The second method requires that you dress QUIETLY (all wool or fleece--including hat & backpack) and move VERY SLOWLY. Our elk usually bed on the north-facing benches at 7,000 - 9,000 feet, often in the whitebark pines or in dense stands of smaller stuff. Keep your nose into the wind. Usually, you can smell elk 200 yards or so away before you get to them. Snow conditions can make it impossible to hunt quietly enough, but when things are right it's exciting to walk up on a bedded bull at 30 yards.

Knowing the area you are hunting in is a huge advantage. If possible, visit Montana during the summer or early fall (when the fishing and backpacking are great!) and scout your area. I hunt where I hunt because it's close to home, but anywhere in the upper Beaverhead, Big Hole, or Ruby valleys will be good.

As for where to stay, if you have a nice camper-trailer then use it. You can just park at the end of a Forest road (there's usually a turn around area near the gate) etc. Or you can stay at a local motel and have a warm bed & hot shower. I've got a buddy who likes to put in a horse camp, but to tell the truth I prefer simply hunting from home. That way, I'm not tied to one area and can move around as conditions dictate. Also, you don't want to hunt an area hard for days on end: the elk will simply move over to the next valley (3 or 4 miles away).

Don't worry too much about griz unless you are hunting near Yellowstone or Glacier Natl Parks. Outside of these areas, grizz are scarce. If you are worried, carry pepper spray and know how to use it. For many reasons, it can be a better choice than a bullet. Ask the hunter who watched his buddy get munched after said buddy glanced a 7mm mag bullet off the side of a surprised bear's skull. If you end up shooting or killing a grizz, it will ruin your whole trip: there'll be lots of explaining to do to FWP and to the US Fish & Wildlife Service. The paperwork will make you wish that the bear had got you first.

Check out some of my posts from hunting season (Oct-Nov-Dec) here on the EcoRover blog.

Hunting together is a priceless gift to your children. And hopefully it will be something the two of you do together for many years to come.

Good luck to you!

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