As fall of 2013 rolled around, I was headed to Montana to start my freshman year at the University Of Montana, and unknown to me at the time, a journey that would would take me on an unforgetable ride over the course of the next four years. Growing up in Wisconsin, western hunting was something completely new to me, and I couldn’t wait to jump in feet first. Instead of spending my mornings in a cold ground blind, come September I would set out into the mountains of western Montana in search of my first bull elk.
After getting to know a few locals and doing as much research as I could, I was ready to head out into the field. To be completely honest, my only goal that first year was to find elk on public land, and go from there. If I got something, great, but I was as excited as could be to just get out and explore. After wandering around aimlessly for a few days, I went out with a friend who had hunted elk before, and got my first real elk hunting experience. Somewhere in the middle of a 4:30 AM hike in a snowstorm without the right gear, I found myself questioning what I had gotten myself into, but by the end of the day, I was hooked. This first season would go on to be a great learning experience, as I found myself “in elk” a handful of times, and learning something valuable with every encounter. Being that western hunting is about as opposite from hunting in Wisconsin as it get’s, I found myself hiking further, spending more time behind my glass, and realizing that if I was going to take this seriously the following year, I’d need to step my game up.
Over the course of the next two seasons, I found myself not only spending more time in the woods, but being much more strategic about how I would spend my time there. Learning how to elk call, paying more attention to detail while glassing, and hunting in a wide variety of locations lead to a mixed bag of success including mule deer, whitetail deer, cow elk, antelope, and black bear. Although despite the many stalks, calling set ups, and extremely close encounters, I had yet to wrap my tag around a bull’s antlers.
Some of the biggest lessons learned throughout these seasons are as follows:
Time: As with anything, the more time you spend doing something, the more likely you are to be successful. This means getting out whenever you can, and making your time in the field count by hunting as hard as you can. It doesn’t matter if the weather is crappy, or the animals aren’t being as active as you’d like them to be. Go as often as possible, and stay for as long as you can. The bottom line is, you can’t kill them from the couch.
Distance: One of the biggest keys to success in western hunting is getting away from other hunters, and finding animals that aren’t as pressured or educated from previous human encounters. This means lacing up your boots, throwing on your pack, and hitting the hills for a day full of hiking. If possible, I generally try to hunt in areas that are at least two to three miles from the nearest road. This will cut your competition in half, and greatly increase your chances of seeing larger numbers, and a better quality of game animals.
As I entered my fourth season of hunting in Montana, I had gained a ton of knowledge, had drawn a limited entry bull elk tag, and for the first time in my short elk hunting career, was feeling confident in my ability to fill my bull tag as the season approached. As archery season began, I found myself surrounded by elk, and calling in a bull pretty much every time I went out. My skills as a hunter were growing, and the lessons I had learned from previous experiences were giving me the advantage I needed. At this point it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before I would release an arrow, and on the morning of September 12th, I did. Unfortunately, the shot was followed by the unmistakeable sound of my arrow hitting the bull’s front shoulder blade. After hours of searching, and scratching my head as to how I could have possibly messed up an opportunity that I had worked so hard for, I went home without a bull. Luckily, I was able to locate the same bull a few days later, and was pleased to see him chasing cows around like nothing had ever happened.
As the season went on, I continued to hunt hard, getting out every day I could, but the majority of the elk in my unit had made their way onto private land. This meant that hunting far from the truck wasn’t going to increase my chances by a whole lot, and if I wanted to fill my tag, I was going to have to take a different approach. As I set out for the final week of Montana’s general season with a bull tag burning a hole in my pocket, I knew that if I wanted to be successful I would need to spend my time in areas surrounding the private land that was holding the majority of the animals. On November 25th, I headed into a spot that bordered a section of private that I knew frequently held elk. After watching the main herd of 40 + branch bulls feed past me a mere 100 yards on the wrong side of the fence, I glanced over to my left, and there stood a bull on my side of the fence. After a few chaotic seconds, I settled my crosshairs and my rifle roared, followed by the unmistakeable “whop!” we all hope to hear after pulling the trigger. After four years of learning, making mistakes, and hunting my hardest I was finally able to wrap my tag around an awesome first bull.
Over the course of the last four years, the journey to harvest a bull elk has been an unforgettable one, taking me to some of the most beautiful places montana has to offer, and allowing me to witness things in nature that I would have never imagined. Teaching yourself how to hunt elk on public land is no easy task, but with the right mindset, a willingness to learn from your mistakes, and a little bit of an obsession that keeps you coming back for more, it’s a journey that will eventually pay off in a big way.
Words by: Calvin Connor