There would be no dark timber, no wallows and downfall this September. The subsititues would be coulees filled with sage and brush, patchy timber, clay buttes and grassy bottoms. The elk would be more visible but also much more educated. The name of the game would be spot-and-stalk, which was fine with me. When we arrived at our campsite a few days before season we were welcomed by seeing a dozen bulls trotting off from a pond nearby. The elk were here, we just needed to find the half blind, deaf and dumb ones and we’d be ok.
The first day started quick. We spotted a herd feeding up back towards the hills as the east was beginning to lighten. The wind was still working in our favor and we quickly looped ahead. A couple bugles littered the morning as we dropped the packs. I snuck up to the last bush before the saddle I figured they would travel through. Travis stayed back with the camera in a more hidden position. I slowly stood to see if they were still coming. A small raghorn was looking my way but didn’t appear to recognize me. There were a bunch of bulls behind him and I crouched back down and put my release on the string. A minute later the first of about 10 bulls came through at 56 yards. Raghorn, spike, raggy, raggy, raggy, damn raggy! The last two bulls came into view, both small immature bulls. I cow called and one stopped perfectly broadside. I held my pin behind the shoulder. He was toast if I wanted him. I let down and they trotted off. Well things were off to a good start but where did the herd bull go? We dipped over to the next small ridgeline and sat down. Soon we saw a good bull emerge across the basin, pushing cows and softly bugling. They had made it to the timber and the game was over at the moment.
Right now your probably thinking it’s just another cheery day in Montana out elk hunting but I’ll give you one word that will change your mind, mosquitoes. Heavy rains dropping multiple inches of moisture in late August had spawned the gnarliest hatch of mosquitoes that anyone had seen in many many years. At any moment you could have 20-100 mosquitoes swarming your body thirsty for blood. It made life miserable as they were there 24/7. Any semblance of scent control was out the window as you had to constantly be spraying bug spray to have any degree of comfort out there. The daily bite average had to be over 20 bites even with bug spray and head nets, which were worn during times of the most intense attacks.
After a few days of this we were greeted by heavy rain for two days. Our boots were wet and with nothing to build a fire near our truck we were stuck in the truck with wet layers, socks and sleeping bags courtesy of a leaky topper. We camped it out, it’s part of the adventure right?
When the rain had resided we began hunting again. The mud stuck to your boots in large amounts. Turning your boots into 5 pound mud clogs. We still found elk and even a couple nice deer but stalking in mud that was multiple inches deep that squeaks and sloshes makes a quiet approach almost impossible.
A day after the rain the hordes of mosquitoes were back which made for equally difficult stalking conditions. Trying to sneak through the timber within 100 yards of a bull with 10 cows is tough when your trying to swat mosquitoes out of your eyes and ears, add in a second guy filming and it gets even harder. Over the next week I was within 100 yards of 7-8 bulls that I’d be more than happy to tag. It seemed the elk had a sixth sense and would do everything opposite of what they had been doing prior to the stalk and contrary to what you thought they’d do. Add in a few stalks blown by dumb hunters (me) and a couple by death by mosquito and I was feeling a bit angry and frustrated. My time was up for the time being and it was my turn to pick up the camera and get to filming. Four days later Travis had a bull down and we were headed back to Missoula with an elk in the truck.
We knew we had to return. We had about a week and a half until we had to head east for mule deer and I had a grudge to pick with these bulls. As we pulled into our morning spot the truck read 74 degrees. This was at 5:30 am. It was hot and daily temps for the next two days would easily surpass 85 degrees. The elk were back in their first and last hour regiment and sightings were minimal. The third morning the bulls were pumped up though, with 5 different bulls firing off in one small basin. After a couple hours we had closed the gap on the one bull staying vocal after the sun had risen. He was up at the head of a small draw. The boots came off and we headed up the side of the draw. After twenty minutes we heard coughing and hacking about 70 yards in front of us. After sneaking around a couple bushes I could see a cow shaking her head and blowing her nose trying to clear her airways of something. It seems she had sucked in one of those pesky mosquitoes. I glassed around her but saw no elk. I decided to loop up around a hundred yards. As we started dropping down into the timber I heard a bugle right back where we had been just ten minutes ago. They had circled under us and they were now up and moving. A few minutes later as we closed the gap on the bull a collared cow busted us and the gig was up. As we got back to the packs Travis says, “I wonder if that bull smelled the estrus I sprayed while I was waiting as you were watching that cow?” All I could do is laugh and shake my head. Sabotage at it’s finest.
Two days later we quietly slipped down a ridge. It had once again rained and everything was quiet. As we sat down to glass we quickly spotted two bulls. One fed over the far ridge and the second bedded in a group of brush. It looked like a stalk was possible and we closed the gap. We peeked up over the ridge across the basin from him and he was still there looking complacent as he chewed his cud.
I got landmarks, took off my raingear and headed off. As I crept over the ridge I knew the brush was taller than I had expected. I kept sneaking in closing the gap and the far hill was only 60 yards. He was close but I couldn’t see anything. As I stepped back to move further down the hill I heard grass being ripped up. I turned back and saw antler tips through the brush. He was now on his feet feeding. I stepped back up but my only gap left a shooting lane that only revealed his upper back and head. No shot. He soon had wandered downhill behind the brush. I looked down the hill and noticed one small gap and the area behind it looked grassy. I hoped he’d head that way. After a tense moment that felt like ten I saw him coming. I was ready and as soon as he was a step from hitting my lane I drew. He proceeded to turn downhill and then enter my gap quartering away too hard. He was 45 yards and after just over a minute of being at full draw he turned broadside. My pin settled behind the shoulder and the arrow was off. It made a loud smack and he ran down the hill. I could see my arrow sticking out and as soon as he disappeared I heard crashing and wheezing. I knew it was over, all the effort fighting the elements and matching wits with some of the most educated elk in the state had finally paid off.