Outside: Deep-Timber Bulls

I can’t blame the guys for figuring I wouldn’t show up. I mean, for two years I’d told them I might meet them at their elk camp on the west side of Montana’s Madison Valley … and never did. This time I told them to expect me, but I don’t think they believed me.

So at 4:30 a.m., after dropping off a high ridge and switchbacking my way down a super steep slope and into an abyss, I shouldn’t have been surprised when a man walked across a moonlit meadow and said, “I’m Short. You must be Greg. We didn’t think you’d be here.”

I was there all right, with all my gear in a pack on my back and a .270 rifle strung over my shoulder. Those boys, Short and his son Dillon, said they’d started packing up camp because they’d already tagged-out on six-point bulls and there was nothing left for them to accomplish. And because they were spent and wanted a hot shower.

My presence threw a monkey wrench into their exit plan. But Short and Dillon are lifelong hunters, good ones at that, and they know the cardinal rule: If you tell someone you’re going to be somewhere to hunt, you have to hold up your end of the deal.

The plan was this: We’d stay in a classic basecamp, which consisted of a full wall tent with cots, a wood stove, and a kitchen; we’d ride out each morning on horses and head deep into the mountains, keeping an eye out for animals on the way; we’d tie off the horses at the mouths of finger drainages and still-hunt through thick timber the rest of the day; then we’d ride back to camp, care for the horses, and eat a quick dinner before repeating the process the next day.

This is how Dillon and Short have done it for many years and they’ve perfected the process, as evidenced by the array of massive elk racks that Dillon displays on the walls of his home in Ennis, and the racks that Short hauls back to his home near the Hi-Line.

Those public lands bulls don’t come easy. November in Montana’s mountains can be bitterly cold with temperatures falling below zero. And by that time, a month into the general elk season, the animals have been pushed hard by hunters. The bulls — especially large bulls — search for the most remote and densely timbered terrain, nooks where most hunters won’t go. Picture a thick pine and spruce forest with plenty of brush and deadfall. Visualize hunters taking one step and pausing for a minute, scanning every inch of the forest ahead — searching for an ear, or a horizontal line that might be an elk’s back, or a glint of light off an antler — before moving ahead.

Horses are a big-time asset to the public lands hunter. That’s because finding elk in the mountains isn’t always a problem, but trying to get an elk out of the mountains is. Think about it. A large bull may weigh 700 pounds on the hoof and 500 or more pounds field-dressed. Each quarter may weigh 90 to 100 pounds. Rib meat, backstraps, tenderloin, neck meat, and the head and antlers add to the burden. If you are on foot five miles from your truck, and you get a bull on the ground, you may regret having pulled the trigger. If you have horses, they can do the heavy lifting.

So I was happy to see that Dillon and Short had horses in camp, though I viewed those animals with trepidation. I’ve never gotten along well with horses. I believe people sense that and match me up with the most temperamental ones available, just to see what might happen.

On this hunt I drew Blackie, which the boys said was a very kind animal who sort of plods along and minds his manners. A mile up the trail I was already doubting that as all Blackie wanted to do was turn on the jets. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the trail hadn’t been covered in snow and packed ice. Ditto for a little wooden bridge that we crossed. When Blackie hit that bridge his two left hooves slid on the angled board, his haunches dropped, and I thought I would land in the icy creek with a horse on top of me. Fortunately, Blackie righted himself, I managed to hang on to the saddle horn, and a moment later we were back on the trail with Dillon and Short chuckling from the backs of their surefooted steeds.

I don’t consider myself to be the most accomplished elk hunter. In fact, for the number of days I’ve hunted elk I should have more to show for it. Some of this falls on me and the blown stalks and the missed shots. But luck isn’t always on my side either. Once, while hunting my way back to a camp, I peered down from a windy ridge and inspected the heavy timber on a north-facing slope. I spotted an elk bedded down between the bases of two trees, just 100 yards away. I could see it was a branch-antlered bull, but only a “raghorn” (a young animal with small antlers). Those who consistently harvest large bulls often pass on these raghorns, but I have no discipline. When I shot, the bull leaped up and raced downhill to my left. I stood and ran to my left, hoping to get another shot. Instead, when I peered off a cliff and into the forest, I saw a massive, six-point bull staring back at me, just 50 yards away. I had a shell chambered, I took the safety off. I had one of the largest bulls I’d ever seen standing broadside, practically begging me to shoot. But I couldn’t — I was not completely sure that I’d missed the raghorn, and wasn’t willing to take the chance of killing two bulls when a hunter is only allowed one a year.

You know what happened. Sure enough, I didn’t even nick the raghorn bull and I went home empty handed, again.

I recalled this and some other mishaps as I rode up the trail on Blackie. I had expected us to ride a few miles and then pile off the horses to begin the hunt. So I was deep in thought and half asleep when all of a sudden Short said, “There’s an elk,” and pointed across a canyon to the opposite slope. We bailed off our horses and I laid down on the trail, trying to find the animal through the scope.

When I did, I could see it was a mature bull, at least a five-point and maybe a six-point. I shot, but didn’t feel confident that I’d hit the animal. I tracked the bull in my scope and — just as it was about to disappear into heavy brush and timber — I squeezed off another round. I sensed that I hit the animal with that shot but couldn’t be sure. Neither could Short or Dillon. This meant one thing: I had to climb down from the trail, to the bottom of the canyon, and scale the other slope, all to determine if I’d hit the bull.

Three-fourths of the way up that opposite slope I saw blood. And 50 yards later I found a pool of foamy blood where the elk had bedded — a lung shot. I fully expected to find the bull nearby, but after carefully examining the area I whispered under my breath, “No bull,” and feared I’d blown it again.

In hunting, you can’t give up that easy. The animal deserves your best effort. So I followed the blood, at first an easy task that soon became extremely difficult when the blood nearly disappeared. Fortunately, the bull was on a game trail that crossed the slope at a slight downhill angle. The bull didn’t want to leave the trail, so I just followed it and every once in a while found a spot of blood, which meant I was on the right track.

I followed for an hour or two, then finally spotted the bull ahead of me, again in heavy brush. For a couple of minutes I moved right, then left, uphill, then downhill, trying to get a good shot. I couldn’t see any more of the animal than its rump, until finally it moved. I quickly fired a shot at its ribs. A pile of hair where the elk had been announced a miss. I turned around to see where I’d shot from and standing right there were the boys, shaking their heads with half-smiles on their faces. Dillon said, “What were you doing? We’ve been watching you for five minutes.”

Flustered but defensive, I said, “What do you think I was doing? I just shot at a damn elk.”

After a quick lunch, we were back on the trail with me wondering if I’d ever get a bull. An hour later, as we topped a little rise in the trail, I had my answer:

The bull was down, in the middle of the trail, dead. The bull carried six ivory-tipped points on each side of its wide rack. I was happy to put my hands on him, happy he didn’t suffer any longer, and I felt extremely fortunate. Yes, my years of trying for a big bull had paid off, but only because this one never veered from that game trail.

By the time we had the bull field-dressed it was late in the day. We decided to leave him overnight and return with horses the following day. And that’s what we did, with Short and Dilllon admiring my horsemanship the entire way. In the morning we tied off the horses about a mile away from the bull, then spent the better part of the day packing elk quarters off the mountain, a brutal task when negotiating a maze of downed trees and brush.

When we had the packhorses loaded, I climbed onto Blackie and followed the boys through a dry wash. At one point a very narrow trail split to the left, climbed a steep hill, and snaked through a thick patch of bushy, 10-foot tall trees. The boys led their horses and pack animals past that trail to where the main trail curved left and took a safer, less vegetated route toward that hill. Blackie, however, spied the shortcut, whirled left, and against my will took four long strides toward the top of the hill. Tree limbs nearly cleared me from the back of the horse, and when Blackie bounded into the air and over the crest of the hill, I thought I was dead. He landed just in front of Dillon and Short. When I returned from orbit, and miraculously landed in the saddle, they shouted, “Wow, a cowboy!”

Cowboy? No. But I was becoming an elk hunter and had the antlers and meat to prove it. I knew right then I’d go after those deep-timber bulls every chance I got.

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