Season began with me at a conference in Washington, DC. Of course, conditions were perfect with cold weather and eight inches of fresh snow. The second week, I was complacent. My friend Don was coming to hunt the following week, and so I roamed the hills and even passed up a shot at a cow. Well, it wasn't a good shot, and as my friend and now-retired colleague Dennis Haley counseled, "Hunting elk in timber is a percentage thing. If you are patient and get into them six or seven times, then you will get the good shot you want. There's no need to take those "iffy" shots."
Here's AJ, crashed for a nap in the warm noonday sun after we climbed into a remote (and elkless) Pintler basin:
Meanwhile, I ate my lunch and waited for the tea to boil:
Don Kieffer arrived from upstate New York the first week of November. The weather was beautiful: warm, sunny, and lousy for elk hunting. Up high, the old snow metamorphosed, turning icy and crunchy. Down low, the snow melted away. But we had a great time hiking the hills:
Visiting some of my favorite elk haunts:
And of course enjoying a hot cup of tea come noontime:
As my old friend BAT (aka Bob Thomas) likes to remind me, hunting is a lot more than killing. Especially on those blue sky days when the weather is just too damned good for serious elk hunting, you can lie back and listen to the serenade of migrating flocks of snow geese:
Don & I also saw a peregrine falcon, and visited the spot where indigenous peoples mined jasper for tools:
After Don left, I tried to get more serious about elk hunting, but still the weather was not conducive to it. Hunting at such times becomes a good excuse for hiking into spots that need to be visited from time to time, such as these logging-era cabins, probably built to feed the flume that sluiced cord wood from the Big Hole valley to the Anaconda smelter:
And when the elk are hard to find, there is the occasional moose; here, a cow and calf on a remote, windswept ridge along the Continental Divide (folks don't think of moose as mountain animals, but they are in Montana!):
And the occasional fool hen (this one, felled with a rock, made a welcome and savory supper that night):
Finally, though, right at the end of season, conditions turned favorable with new, quiet snow and consistently cold temperatures. I spent a day or two hunting a spot that I had hunted many times over the years with Brent Patch and Dave Carter. In those years, I had not learned the lessons of a good "black timber" hunter, and wasted a lot of time peeking into parks and coursing through open stands of lodge pole pine.
In the timber, you keep your nose to the wind, move slowly and quietly, and check out all those stumps and rocks that look very much like elk:
Two Butte boys, hunting a park along the ridge line, flushed a bunch of elk from the north-side timber just below the ridge. I smelled them out ahead of me, found their tracks, began repeating my mantra ("I will honor your spirit and use your flesh well."), and began still hunting. One mile into the chase, they passed through a stand of dense Douglas fir, meandered about, and I thought sure they would bed down. It took me an hour to track them slowly and carefully through a half-mile wide thicket, sometimes crawling on my hands & knees to be quiet and stay below the branches. I could smell them and knew they were not far ahead. They continued through and fed in a small park. This told me they were relaxed and not worried about a predator on their heels. Very encouraging.
And then there they were, heads tilting and ears twitching, bedded in some thick, snow-covered firs at the park's edge. In timber, one seldom sees a whole elk. Because of the roll of the slope, I could not see any elk shoulders or ribs, my preferred shot. I usually avoid neck shots, since if you don't hit the spine there is not a quick death. But the elk were just seventy yards or so away, and I had a good rest on a tree limb. She never moved from her bed:
An hour or so later, I had the carcass split into two halves, dragged well away from the gut pile where the coyotes and ravens would be less likely to feed on it, and covered with pine branches until I could return:
The heart, liver, tenderloins, back straps, and tongue I laid out on the snow to cool:
Together, they made a forty pound load in my little rucksack. By the time I reached the road, three miles distant, the load felt like one hundred and forty pounds.
At the Check Station, I learned from the nice biologist that there was a Forest Service road within a half-mile of where I killed the cow. The next morning AJ came along to help me, and his good company and a sled made for a pleasant down-hill drag:
"I will honor your spirit and use your flesh well." This promise began with a supper of elk liver and onions last night, the heart is ready for pickling, and there are already plans for barbecued ribs, grilled tenderloin, back strap schnitzel, and roasted tongue with huckleberry glaze. Elk are great animals, and deserve the honor of a great (and arduous) hunt.