What goes on in a hunter’s mind when all that lies between him and a bull elk trophy is a long walk and a good shot?
With an endless trail of boot tracks behind me, I’m shuffling on leaden legs into “Cow Camp.” Cow Camp’s main function is to house cowboys during branding and roundup, but at the moment it serves as our prairie-hunting outpost on central Montana’s C.M. Russell Refuge. It sits on a rangeland ridge with timbered canyons sprawling all around us, reaching for the north bank of the Missouri.
They said the elk might be easy because here they don’t have the steep, rugged mountains working for them as their Rocky Mountain cousins do. But as with all things in life, there are tradeoffs. These elk know they’re more vulnerable, so they got smart. They keep quiet, keep hidden, and keep their eyes peeled even now, when the weakening of sun in September should drive them rut-nuts.
A few hours ago, I would have traded anything for a glimpse of tawny hide, or the hint of a distant bugle. But these damned silent and slippery bulls — I knew they were here, but plains elk are too elusive. After dragging my bow and binoculars across these cruel Missouri Breaks all morning and for the last three days, I just wanted to forget elk for the moment. I was focused on hunting down something cold and wet, shooting into the tent, and killing a couple hours bunk-side before the evening hunt.
Guide Spots A Bull
Tom and Leroy were outside, shooting the breeze and a few arrows. Tom’s a friend from Minnesota who’s new to bowhunting. Leroy’s rifled game in these Missouri Breaks for decades, but now he’s concentrating on running camp and getting us bowbending flatlanders a bull. Leroy is a great talker in his unassuming way, but I have to admit I was hardly in the mood for chat. Then something caught my attention.
“Excuse me, what was that, Leroy?”
“I said I saw one this morning. A nice bull on a mountainside down toward the river.”
“That’s great, somebody will have to try hunting over there one of these days,” I said, peeling muddy clothes. I was oblivious to the obvious. I’m claiming combat fatigue. Then realization crept up on me.
“Say Leroy, you don’t figure he might be bedded there, and that you could find him again, do you?”
“Well, yes, he probably is and I probably could.”
I slammed into my boots, not bothering to retie them, hustled Leroy into the pickup, and gunned it down the Forest Service road. It was a pretty long push over the winding, rocky downgrade. At first Leroy wasn’t sure which mountain it was. “Just as I suspected,” I thought. Then he thought he found the mountain, but it was so far, so vast, I knew there’d be no chance to locate the elk. There was a good possibility they’d moved, or that they’d be in dark shadows now and we couldn’t spot them again. And I still wondered if this was the right mountain.
While I glassed with my binoculars, Leroy latched his spotting scope to the window mount. Only a couple minutes passed before Leroy piped up, clear and confident. “Yep, there he is.” I jerked to attention and leaned across Leroy to peer into the scope. It framed a beautiful branch-antlered bull, dozing beneath a pine, with a couple of cows and calves loitering around him, munching on grass. It was too far to count points, but that was the least of my concerns at the moment. This was the break I’d been looking for.
“Geez, Leroy, you’re good!”
Please read more in Part 2.
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