Story and photos by John R. Higgins
“Don’t worry honey, the chances are only about 30 percent that I will draw the tag and have to go hunting this year…”
So started my 2011 Montana big game hunting season. With three young children, I knew that heading over to Montana to hunt was probably not being a good husband, but I applied anyway for the tag with a good friend, Sean, in what I thought was going to be an effort to just earn some hunting preference points and perhaps get drawn in the future.
But thanks to the Montana legislature, and $950, this year would be different. They had apparently raised the price about $300 in an effort to increase state revenue. In a good lesson of supply and demand, they also learned that there is a price above which people say “no thanks” (economists call it the clearing price). So when I got the call from Sean, I was surprised to learn we were going hunting in Montana this year.
In Montana, the rifle season for deer and elk is mostly concurrent – and so if you want to hunt during the rut, with a rifle, then deer are your only option. But with a deer/elk combination permit, I wanted to hunt both. So after much thought, I decided to hunt opening week for elk and then come back later the next month and hunt the whitetail deer rut. I was going to hunt elk with Sean at his family’s place in Southwest Montana (Wise River area) and later deer at my wife’s family cabin in the Swan Valley.
The 2011 hunting season started with the long drive to Wise River (south of Anaconda/Butte about 30 miles, on the Big Hole River). We got there on Thursday night, with opening day on Saturday morning. Friday was out scouting day for elk: We drove all over our hunting area — public land, both Forest Service and BLM — looking for sign and anything else that would lead us to believe we’d found a good spot for elk.
We were also fortunate enough to get a two-hour guided tour of the area by a local and accomplished hunter. There were three of us hunting together – Sean, his uncle Frank, and me. We did as much scouting as you can in a day and settled in for the evening, excited about the prospects of opening day.
On opening morning, we drove to our area and deployed to each of our hunting spots. I walked in about half a mile to a nice park and the convergence of three different travel routes. Sean took the high ground adjacent to some private property. Frank stayed near the truck and watched another park. At about 9 a.m., I heard a few shots and briefly turned on my radio to make sure that everyone was OK.
A strange conversation followed:
“John, you there?”
“John, you there?”
“Yes, Frank, everything OK?”
“Well, I have a flat tire.”
“I have a flat tire.”
“Well, do you have the tools to fix it?”
“Well, I dropped my gun in the mud.”
“What was the shooting?”
“I saw some elk, and missed, and dropped my gun in the mud.”
“Really, can you get it cleaned off?”
… and on it went. I didn’t really understand, and just kept sitting at my spot, waiting for elk. About two or three hours later, I radioed my friends to see if they wanted to meet for lunch; we arranged a spot, and off I went.
I was surprised to learn when I got to the truck that a “flat tire” was code for “John, I shot an elk, and I need some help getting it out of the woods.” In any case, Frank had shot a rag horn 5×5 elk and needed help getting it out of a “no motorized access” area.
So as Frank watched, Sean and I lashed ourselves to a small log, and like a mule team drug the elk about half a mile down a dirt road to the truck. Narrowly avoiding a hernia, we got the elk into the truck. We brought it home and the work began.
That afternoon we went back into the woods, but didn’t see anything, and so called it a night and got ready for the next day’s hunt.
Day two, Sunday, was a day I’ll never forget. After studying the maps the night before, I realized there was an easier way into the spot where I was hunting. So instead of walking in along the elk trail, I realized I could quietly approach from a road about a quarter mile above the spot. And so, at about 20 minutes before shooting light, I left my friends on the road and began to navigate down the hillside to my spot.
About 200 yards in, I heard a loud crash and saw the back end of an elk running down the hill ahead of me. It was definitely a bull just based on its size, and I was excited. I continued walking, quietly up to the spot. My handheld GPS was able to get me there easily, and I stopped just short to make sure my gear was in order. Someone once told me to never just crawl into your hunting spot, but to instead make sure and glass all around first.
I’m not sure why, but I remembered those words of wisdom and decided to take a look around the park before settling into my spot. As I was looking, something caught my eye. Movement, about 250 yards away, on a far hillside. It looked like a big elk rack moving – but I wasn’t sure.
Knowing that you should scout with your binos, but also thinking this was almost certainly a big bull, I put my rifle scope on the animal and confirmed it was in fact a nice bull – straight across the park on a hillside, feeding. I had seen the white tips of his antlers moving as he moved his head.
For about three or four minutes I just watched. He was incredible. Straight out of an outdoor magazine – a mature bull, feeding in plain view 250 yards away from me, and he had no idea I was there. After watching him, I started to get nervous thinking what if he spooked and I never took a shot? So I made up my mind to shoot, and then the rifle went off. The .308, shooting a 180-grain Winchester fail-safe, was at the limit of its effective range on game of this size, but I knew that it was all about shot placement.
After the shot, I looked up to see what had happened. No elk, lots of quiet. Had I missed? Did I hit the elk? Anyway, it was time to wait, so I did so for about 15 minutes. I know, they say 30 minutes, but I was anxious, and headed over to see what I could find.
I got there and saw nothing. My first reaction was – damn, I missed the elk of a lifetime. Wow, and I considered myself a good shot.
But as I started to widen my search, I saw him. There he was, dead, about 30 yards from where he was standing. When I shot him, he had been facing me at a slight angle, and I had hit him squarely between the shoulders. As I cleaned the elk, I found the bullet lodged in his rear hip. It had traveled the entire length of his body – taking out his lungs, heart, and other organs.
JOHN HIGGINS’ SOUTHWEST MONTANA BULL. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)
I was ecstatic — public land, hunting by myself, and a mature 6×5 on the ground. It took horses, horse trailers, and two friends to get the elk out of that spot – but at about midnight we were finally home and ready to begin the rest of our hunt.
The last seven days of our hunt weren’t nearly as productive as the first two. We didn’t see any more bulls, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying. We hiked deep into the Pintler Wilderness and through many other areas that we thought would hold elk. In every case, nothing. We ended up with two elk for three hunters, both taken in the first two days of our nine-day hunt.
THE SECOND PART OF MY 2011 EXPERIENCE took place in Northwest Montana, near the town of Seeley Lake in the Swan Valley. My wife’s family has been a part of the Swan Valley for more than 80 years – her great grandfather worked for the U.S. Forest Service in what is now the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Three years before I had drawn a Montana deer tag and, along with a friend, drove to Seeley Lake determined to get a buck. After spending nearly a week in the mountains, we came home with only a doe. It was frustrating, for I knew that big bucks definitely lived in the area. The challenge was just finding them.
So this year, instead of trying to do it by myself again, I decided to hire a local outfitter to guide me for the five days I’d be there. I thought that it would probably be the best way to learn how to hunt the valley.
I timed the hunt to correspond with the deer rut, which meant hunting in mid-November. The drive over to Seeley Lake from Seattle saw the weather get worse and worse, and by the time I got there, I saw a foot of snow on the ground and temperatures hovering around 10 degrees. This was going to be a cold hunt – it turned out to be one of the earliest winters in more than a decade.
The good news, though, was that the snow had pushed the deer down from the hills and concentrated them in the valley bottom and winter range areas, making finding them much easier.
Together with the guide, we hunted hard for all five days. We used both spot-stalk and calling to find the deer, and every day saw mature bucks.
The first real shooting opportunity I had came on the second day as we were walking through a regenerated clear-cut. I saw two big-bodied bucks walking away from us in the woods at about 200 yards. We froze and began to call the deer using a grunt. We set up behind a stump, and a few moments later a big-bodied 5×4 came out of the tree line and stood there, broadside, head turned at us.
With my crosshairs on the deer, I asked the guide, “Take him?”
“Your call … but I would recommend against it. You can’t shoot the big ones if you shoot the small ones.”
So I was staring at a nice buck, at 60 yards, in my crosshairs – and the guide wanted me to not shoot. Wow, this was going to be a great trip, I thought, and waited.
Every day of the hunt had similar results. Lots of deer, and at least one look at a big deer.
On the third day we moved to a new spot, a hillside that was pretty brushy in an area that had been previously thinned and adjacent to a thick, older growth forest. The guide indicated that he had seen a bigger buck in here in previous years, and wanted to take a look.
As we walked in the first day, we saw a group of does, downhill at about 150 yards in the brush. As we watched the does moving, I got my first glimpse of the biggest deer I’d ever seen. I saw him chasing a doe and then stand still for about a minute, as I got myself into position to shoot. Unfortunately, when I got my scope back on the buck, all I saw was his rump — separated from the tips of his antlers by a large tree. Not being willing to take the unethical shot, through the brush, at his body, I let him go.
For the rest of that day I retreated to a ground blind on the hillside, watched, and waited. I saw a number of does as well as some smaller bucks, but never the big guy.
We hunted the same area the next day, and again I saw and heard grunt the big buck. He showed himself right at sunset, so I passed.
The last day of the hunt came and I had a good feeling. As we walked back into the same area, we noticed some new deer prints in the snow. Maybe there was another big buck in the area? We walked in and took up a position on the same hillside, overlooking the brushy clearing where we’d seen activity before.
Again, we saw more does and bucks – including a 4×4 that was awfully tempting on my last day. But I passed, and waited.
It was stormy and cold, and the deer were moving unlike anything we’d seen before. We decided to grunt and rattle to see if we could get the big buck’s attention, and sure enough, after about 15 minutes the guide whispered, “Big deer, coming at us at about 200 yards.”
I looked hard, but didn’t see anything. It was so brushy that, at best, I would see a flash of fur or a tail from time to time, but never really had a good look at the deer. This went on for about 10 minutes as the deer meandered towards us. At about 150 yards, he finally stopped behind a tree, but gave me a narrow shooting window. We grunted and I took the shot — and the deer didn’t move.
I turned to the guide and said, “I’m sure I hit him.”
“No, you missed. I heard it hit a tree.”
“Can’t be – I am sure he is hit.”
“No, he is still walking.”
The guide was right – the deer didn’t run, he had just kept walking towards us, unphased by the gunshot. Amazing, I had just shot at the buck of a lifetime, missed, and he still kept coming.
The guide kept grunting and the buck kept coming. I was nervous that he was going to get nervous and take off as he quartered away from us – but he hit our scent cone and turned back around, walking straight towards us. At about 110 yards, downhill, I had a clear shot and took it – dropping the buck with a double lung shot.
We stayed in the ground blind for another 15 minutes to make sure the deer was dead, and then cautiously approached him. As we got close, there was blood in the snow and the deer was not moving – it was clear he was dead.
Laying in the snow was the biggest buck I had ever taken – a mature 6×4, with a split main beam. The deer was obviously a mountain whitetail, given its large body size and the bleached hair on its head — he had spent most of his time up high in the sunshine on the mountains.
JOHN’S SEELEY LAKE MOUNTAIN WHITETAIL. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)
Keeping a close eye out for bears (the valley hosts a substantial grizzly population), we cleaned the deer and hauled him back to the truck. His next stop was Seeley Lake, in the cabin’s garage – where we hung and quartered him for the drive back to Seattle.
So much for not hunting Montana in 2011.