Today’s blog post comes from Jana Waller, host of Skull Bound TV. You can tune in for hunts with Jana Wednesdays at 8:30 PM ET and 11:30PM ET and Thursdays at 12:30 PM ET. Follow Jana on Twitter or Facebook.
When you hear someone mention the great state of Montana, you most likely conjure up images of snow caped mountains, blue ribbon trout streams and endless blue skies. Home to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, Montana is known for it’s rugged mountain ranges and picturesque beauty. Montana is plain an simple an outdoorsman’s paradise. Executive Producer Jim Kinsey and I decided to put together an episode for Skull Bound that highlighted some of our favorite Montana moments of 2013.
The Bitterroot Mountains of Montana is where we hang our hats and call home. We’re just a five minute drive from wetting a fly on the Bitterroot River or a fifteen minute drive to some great public land hunting. And along with a plethora of eye candy, Montana is home to some of the most passionate hunters and conservationists I know. With such a strong history of hunting, Montanans know that protecting our heritage of hunting starts with the youth.
This past May the local conservation groups gathered their resources and energy to hold the first annual Teller Wildlife Refuge Youth Expo in Corvallis, Montana. Every big name conservation group participated in the Expo. From the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Mule Deer Foundation to the Sheep Foundation and the National Wild Turkey Federation, the groups were there for one cause…the kids. Each organization had a booth or event set up for kids to simply learn about hunting, fishing and the great outdoors. Many of the booths were ‘hands on’ and we were there capturing the kid’s smiles and excitement as they tried their best at archery, shooting BB guns, casting fly rods and even backcountry horse packing. The kids were also treated to Kate Davis’ program “Raptors Of The Rockies” where they watched a live presentation with a golden eagle, peregrine falcon and great horned owl. An introduction to hunting needs to start with a respect for animals, birds and their habitats and it was wonderful to see the various conservation groups come together to teach our youth that hunting IS conservation!
Montana is also home to some of the best public land elk hunting in the West. Weeks are spent planning for opening weekend in September and this year we decided to hit the mountains with our friend Eric Siegfried, Fonder of OnXmaps which is located in Missoula. We loaded the Polaris onto the Jumping Jack trailer and headed out for one of Cameraman Jimmy’s favorite spots for archery elk.
The crisp, cold air stung our faces that opening morning as we rode through the dark timbered trails along the creekbottom. It was a four mile ride to the trail’s end where we ditched the ATV, adjusted our headlamps and headed into the thick lodge pole forest in search of bugling bulls. In the distance elk bugled echoed as the morning light began to illuminate the forest floor. It was obvious we were in the right place from the amount of fresh wallows and rubs in the area but capturing any elk on video was a challenge in itself that trip. We did have a couple of amazing encounters with bulls throughout the weekend but the encounters either happened too fast or the terrain was too thick to capture the bulls on video. At one point we were hiking through thick, short pines and stopped dead in our tracks as we watched a bull raking his horns on a tree approximately 80 yards away. Eric stayed back and attempted to lure him over with a cow call but a quick change in the wind direction caused the bull to bolt down the hillside. Although no one notched their tag that weekend we had a great time hiking the beautiful mountains of Montana, sharing stories around the campfire and playing cat and mouse with some curious bulls.
The rest of the archery elk season proved to be successful in terms of sheer excitement, adventure and exploration despite not releasing an arrow. I spent a total of 13 days chasing elk with my bow and got to experience new areas, mark some great waypoints for next season on our OnXmaps and filled my lungs with fresh mountain air.
Rifle season kicked off late October and we spent many days searching for bulls on public land. While Jim and his son Walker both tagged out on their elk early in the season I was having trouble finding time in our busy schedule to get into the backcountry. With the mule deer rut kicking in mid November, Jim and I changed up gears and headed to Fort Benton, Montana in search of mountain muleys.
Battling a chest cold for weeks, I was excited about spending a few nights in the newly refurbished ‘Grand Union’, Montana’s oldest hotel built in 1882. After two months of sleeping bags and scent-free hunter wipes, coming back from a long day’s hunt to the comforts of a plush bed and bath were a delectable treat. With it’s old world charm and historic beauty, the Grand Union Hotel was worth the visit alone.
The peaceful calm of the early morning was interrupted by the ringing of our 5:00am wake up call. The air quickly filled with the aroma of fresh brewed coffee as we slowly got dressed for a long day’s hike. Jim and I had hunted this part of the Missouri River Breaks in the past and knew we would most likely spend the day hiking and glassing until our legs ached.
Montana’s beauty never ceases to amaze me and this morning was no exception. Coyotes howled in the distance as the sunrise filled the sky with brilliant orange and red hues. Thousands of clamorous geese gathered on the nearby river, taking a break from their migratory route to the South. Tracks in the snow told us it was only a matter of time before we would run across a buck on the move. An hour into our hunt we glassed a small forked horn buck moving off the river bottom and into one of the dozens of coulees that lead up into the open prairie. We waited until the young muley moved over the ridge and out of sight to continue on our search.
Later that afternoon we spotted a couple of mule deer far off in the distance and slowly made our way around the rolling hills to get a closer look. “That’s a buck on a hot doe’s tail” Jim exclaimed as he kicked open the tripod legs and readied the camera. Unaware of our presence, the buck continued to push the doe around in typical rutting fashion. We watched through our binos until they disappeared into a dip in the terrain. Determining the buck was a mature, older deer we made a move to get within shooting distance.
We covertly made our way towards the buck and doe and positioned ourselves high on the opposing ridge. Minutes seemed like hours as we patiently waited for the pair to reappear. Suddenly the doe popped out from a coulee at 500 yards away with the buck still hot on her trail. “He’s super tall but not very wide.” I whispered. “But he’s a cool looking buck!” I added. I ranged the deer and dialed in my scope, feeling confident in the shot distance. “Ready if you are” I whispered to Jim. Steadying my Nosler Trophy Grade .300wsm rifle from the prone position I slowly dropped the hammer on the tall old buck. The shot rang out and I watched the buck collapsed in this tracks. Suddenly the buck got up and tumbled over the edge of the small hill, never knowing what hit him. “You got him! He’s done!” Jim exclaimed as I laid on the frozen ground trembling with excitement.
We gathered our gear and made our way over the hill to find the beautiful old muley only fifty yards from the shot. There’s nothing like wrapping your hands around the bases of a unique buck after a long day’s hunt. We filmed a final interview with the sun fading fast, giving thanks to the buck for filling our freezer and taking a moment to appreciate the beautiful state of Montana we call home. We field dressed the buck and loaded his quarters, head and hide into our Tenzing CF13 backpacks and headed back to the truck parked 4 miles away. Darkness quickly filled the prairie and again the coyote’s howls echoed in the distance as the stars twinkled bright against the dark, black sky. Trudging through the snow and sage brush, the packout was long, strenuous and backbreaking… and worth every second of it.