For several years my friend Eric has been inviting me to come to Montana to hunt with him. This year I finally went ahead and put in for the drawing for an out-of-state elk/deer combination tag (with about 50% chance of getting drawn). I got the tag, and arranged for two weeks of vacation in late October and early November.
Of my available rifles, I decided my best bet for elk was my Savage 111 .300 Win Mag. It’s arguably more gun than is strictly necessary for elk, but not excessively so. I had used this rifle for long range shooting (I took it to Eric’s Longrifle class in 2015) but it’s not a big heavy benchrest gun. It has a fairly thin barrel profile and the OEM Savage stock (which isn’t great, but is serviceable and fairly light). It would suit just fine as a hunting rifle.
One thing that would not suit were the 230 grain Berger Tactical handloads I had previously run through this gun. The Bergers are very accurate, but they’re thin skinned bullets not designed for expansion or terminal effect. I bought some Barnes 200gr LRX bullets and worked up a load with them. These are much more suitable for taking large game (or any game, really). I figured they’d do just fine for Elk.
Back in May I gave the rifle a camo paint scheme. This was something I wanted to do as far in advance as possible, to give the chemicals from the new paint time to outgass so the rifle didn’t smell to high heaven (hard to sneak up on an animal with a sensitive nose when your gear smells like a chemical factory).
The rifle has a Leupold Mark 4 3.5-10x scope on it, as well as a Versapod bipod adapter (though I wasn’t expecting I’d get a chance to use a bipod on this trip) and a TAB Gear sling (much more likely to actually be of use).
Since this is grizzly country, I also brought a 10mm Glock, loaded with 200 grain hard cast Buffalo Bore ammo. One can certainly argue that there are big bore revolver cartridges that hit harder, but I’m familiar with the Glock manual of arms and I figure I can get a bunch of these rounds into the bear as possible in a short amount of time. Eric carries pretty much the same thing.
My field holster for this is a Safariland ALS mounted dropped and offset so it will clear the waist strap of a pack. This is far more comfortable than a thigh holster but leaves the pistol more accessible witht he pack on than a belt holster. I ran this setup for a four day backpack in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness last year and it carried well. I also brought along a Dale Fricke Seraphim belt holster for wear around Eric’s place.
For any “social purposes” that might develop on the way to or from Montana, I brought my EDC 9mm red dot Glock and my 14.5” AR. The AR also had my MAWL-C1+ IR laser/Illuminator on it, which I wanted to show Eric.
Binoculars are very important to a hunt like this and I brought a nice pair of Vortex Viper R/T 8x28mm binos. I also brought along my Leica 1600 rangefinder.
To carry all my kit I brought an Eberlestock Halftrack pack. This is one of their medium sized packs without a built-in scabbard. I’ve used it as a sniper pack in the past, but I haven’t had the opportunity to carry it for an extended period. It seemed about the right size to carry extra clothes, food, and other necessities.
I knew the weather in Montana in the fall could be highly unpredictable, so I basically brought every stitch of warm clothing I’ve got, from merino wool long underwear, to fleece, to flannel shirts, to hats and gloves.
I also brought every pair of boots I have available, including several pairs of the Keen boots I wear every day (3 pair: my current everyday pair, a brand new pair, and an old pair), a pair of Under Armor multicam boots, and a pair of heavy all leather hiking boots. I also brought a pair of Teva sandals for wearing around Eric’s house so I could give my feet a chance to air out some after long hunts.
The Coleman company is headquartered in Wichita, and before my trip I dropped by their factory outlet and picked up a pair of 100 quart coolers to bring back meat from any deer or elk I managed to get.
One of the challenges with this trip is that I would be out of town at a conference in Savannah, GA the week before setting off to Montana. So the weekend before I got most of my gear together. I got back from Savannah at 9:45pm the night before and threw a load of laundry in the machine before going to bed. The next morning I threw those clothes in my suitcase and started loading up the car. My little Ford Escape SUV was loaded up to the brim. Even with the back seats folded down the entire back half of the car was filled up to the ceiling with guns, gear, coolers, and warm clothing.
Trip to Montana
I had a few errands to run, but I got on the road to Montana 10:30 on Saturday morning. I headed north out of town and reached Ogallala, Nebraska by about 6pm. I’d been hopeing to get a big further (to Scottsbluff) but with the late start this was as far as I could get.
Sunday morning I got an early start (still on Central time) and drove to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in northwest Nebraska. I’d been here for the total solar eclipse back in August, but it had been so busy I really hadn’t had a chance to see any of the park. This time I was able to hike a short trail and stop by the visitor center.
From there I headed over to Wyoming and spent the night in Sheridan, WY, near the Montana border.
Monday morning I headed up I-90, stopping at Little Bighorn Battlefield. The exhibits and interpretative signs there were quite good. Then it was a solid drive to Eric’s place in the Swan Valley, between the Bob Marshal and Mission Mountains wilderness areas.
I arrived about 6:30, and we had a nice dinner (roast venison fajitas). Afterwords we broke out the bottle of whiskey I brought and chatted late into the night.
We were up early, and after a quick breakfast we were out the door at around first light.^1. The coyotes were yipping and yowling like mad. We headed north along an old logging road, gone so far to seed that even an off-roader would have trouble navigating it. Eric bugled with an elk call.
Eric had a spot in a couple of trees where we could overlook an open ridge where he said elk often moved. We settled in watched the ridge for a while. The forest was beautiful in the early morning light. The tamarack had just turned yellow and added a ton of color. Eric banged some antlers together and used a call to try to attract any bucks in the area. My fingers were getting a bit cold and I wished I’d chosen one of my warmer pairs of gloves. After we’d been there long enough to get cold, we loaded up and moved further north along the road.
The old logging road ended in a clearing where we jumped onto a game trail. Eric had set up a scent dropper and a fake scrape along the trail and we stopped to refill the scent container.
We followed the game trail east to another logging road and headed down the road to an area where a couple of treelines funneled animal traffic into a confined area (Eric noted deer and elk’s propensity to follow boundaries between areas, like treelines). We moved into one of the treelines and worked our way through that patch of forest to the far side where Eric has a tree stand set up. Following this margin, we continued until we got a nice view to the north.
Eric banged he antlers together for a bit, but no joy. then we turned around and headed back through the forest to the logging road. Rather than go back the way we came we headed down a side road to the east, which divided two large areas that had been clear cut and were covered with head-high pine trees. We headed back towards Eric’s place, following the road to the south, then cutting cross country back to his house.
We’d seen lots of sign (elk, deer, mountain lion, and some big piles of bear scat) but no mammals larger than a squirrel.
Linda had a nice lunch of shredded pork, roast potatoes, and a salad laid out for us.
We spent a lazy afternoon hanging around Eric’s place. I worked some on this writeup, then we got geared up for an evening hunt.
This time we headed south, and Eric toted along a large blind. We dropped down into a small drainage and circled around a swampy pond before hitting another of his tree stands with a scent drip nearby. Then we continued on to a big bare knoll that had been clearcut some time ago.
Near the top of the knoll we set up the blind. It was too bad there wasn’t anyone around to video us trying to get the blind set up, because it would have been hilarious. After a bit of struggle we got it set up and spent about an hour at dusk glassing the edges of the clearcut area looking for any animals.
After dark, we walked back via a logging road that connected up with the main road into Eric’s place. When we got back, Linda told us two big deer walked by the house while Eric and I were out at the blind.
They’ve got a big tub (big enough even for a tall guy like me to fit in), so after another great dinner I took advantage of it to soak my neck and shoulder muscles that were tense from crouching down to glass in the blind (the blind itself had plenty of headroom, but the windows were lower than I would have liked).
Up early again, we headed out to the blind at first light. We settled in to the blind and started glassing the treelines surrounding the knoll. This morning I wore my warmest pair of gloves (mittens, really) and they were quite a bit better than the previous day. The sun came up and it warmed up nicely.
After a couple of hours we saw a pair of does moving through the treeline to the east. We decided to pack it in about 10:30 and took down the blind. In the daylight, the beautiful 360 view from the top of the knob was fantastic.
We enjoyed a nice walk back to Eric’s place.
After a delicious lunch (leftovers from yesterday) we all piled into Eric’s SUV and drove some of the back roads around Eric’s place. We saw lots of does, and I spotted one rabbit. The rabbit made a poor choice of freezing a few feet off the road rather than fleeing and Eric slammed on the brakes. He got out and dispatched it with a .22/.410 over/under. When we got back to the house Eric skinned it and tossed it into the freezer.
Eric and I headed out for a bit of hunting before dinner. We walked down to the creek and set up at a good vantage point on a high cut bank to watch for any animals moving along the creek or coming down for a drink. Earlier that week Eric had seen a mama grizzly with two big cubs on the other side of the creek, but no such luck for us today (whether that would have been good luck or bad luck is open to interpretation).
Thursday morning came with a thin layer of snow and a light drizzle. Knowing that today would be a very late night we decided to hold off on the hunting and grab another hour of sleep instead.
After we were up we loaded up the car and headed out for Eric to do a shift at his job as a police officer in a small town about two hours away. He does very long shifts (about 14 hours) three days a week. By trading some shifts with a fellow officer, he was able to clear a bunch of time while I was there, but he still had this one shift. I went along as his ride-along for the day.
It was a fairly quiet shift, with a couple of traffic stops (one assisting Highway Patrol), delivering some evidence to the county prosecutor, going to the range and qualifying a reserve officer with his handguns, and lots of driving around town. We saw a lot of does and some turkeys. He also used a spotlight to chase off a black bear that was trying to chow down on some fruit trees in a local yard.
We knocked off around 1am and racked out in Eric’s fifth wheel trailer, which he has parked on a friend’s property over near work so he doesn’t have to make the two-hour drive home after a shift.
After a short night’s sleep we drove up to Kalispell and hit a couple of stores, including Cabela’s, Sam’s Club, and a local gun shop before heading back to Eric’s place. At Eric’s recommendation I picked up a pair of big rubber overboots at a local shop.
We went on an mid-afternoon hunt with Eric’s 3-year old son (who is quieter in the woods than you have the right to expect any 3-year old to be). We headed north again on this hunt, but kept closer to the river than we had on Tuesday morning. There were a few patches of snow left from the previous morning’s light dusting, but it was sunny and warm (by Montana fall standards, anyway).
We spent some time staking out a large, swampy meadow and Eric rattled his antlers some, but didn’t see anything. We moved down the cut bank of the river and overlooked some swampy, wet areas that are probably great prospects for elk, deer, and black bear (and grizzly). After a bit we headed back to Eric’s place.
After relaxing for an hour or so we headed out to an spaghetti dinner/Halloween fundraiser at Eric’s son’s school.
We got up early again and headed out at first light. Today we went down to a two-man tree stand at the boundary between a large meadow and the floodplain of the creek. The tree is right on the 15 foot bank separating the two, so on one side it’s about 15 feet above the margin of the meadow while on the other side it’s about 30 feet above the swampy ground of the floodplain.
We climbed up into the stand and secured ourselves with climbing harnesses and settled down to wait. It was pretty chilly and I was glad I’d dressed extra warmly this morning. The wind blew a bit and sent the tamarack needles raining down. It was pretty picturesque.
After about an hour of observing as the morning light grew we saw what we initially identified as two does. As they moved from left to right across the meadow I saw that one was a spiker (a buck with unforked horns). Since I was looking for meat more than a wall hanger, I took the shot (with Eric’s encouragement). The buck was about 25 yards away, broadside. About the best shot at a deer you could possibly ask for. I hit him through both lungs with my .300 Win Mag. He dropped on the spot.
Oddly, the doe accompanying him didn’t run off. She just stood there for about a minute before deciding that this was bad news and bolting.
Rather than a spiker, the bucks was really more of a spork. He had a spike one one side and the just barely beginnings of a fork on the other. Despite not having an impressive rack, he was fairly sizable, and quite well fed. He’s going to produce a good haul of venison.
After snapping some pics Eric dragged the deer over to a nearby dirt road and we gutted it (Eric demonstrated the procedure for me). Both lungs were pretty baddly shredded by the passage of the round, but remarkably little of the meat was spoiled, just a bit of the rib meat. The backstrap above and the heart below were intact.
Eric walked back to the house and retrieved his SUV. We threw the buck onto the hitch basket and drove back. Using the skid steer and some chain we hung it in the barn.
After lunch Eric taught me how to cape the buck (take the hide off). This one isn’t anything that I’m going to have wall mounted, but after talking with Eric I decided I’d like to have the hide tanned, so we skinned it with that in mind. For the most part the skin and the underlying muscle are pretty separate. You do a lot more pulling than you do cutting, but if you’re patient it’s not hard to separate them without damaging either the hide or the underlying meat. The one part I had some trouble with was around the midsection, where there’s a thin layer of muscle that adheres to the skin. This isn’t anything you’d want to eat, but getting it off makes the taxidermist’s job easier.
We also took out the tenderloins. Once we got most of the hide caped we took the head off. Eric talked about how you would remove the hide from the head if you wanted it mounted, and I went ahead and did this for practice (even through we’d just throw it away). We let the meat hang in the barn, with the plan to butcher it tomorrow.
Eric and Linda had invited a couple of folks who I’d met in previous classes with Eric over for dinner. We had a great meal (including the tenderloins from my deer) followed by some drinking around the bonfire. Much booze was consumed and we talked late into the night.
Once again, Eric and I headed out around first light. We walked down to the vantage point along the creek where we’d been on Wednesday afternoon and observed from there for a while, then worked our way north where the bank dropped down to a lower level. We took advantage of a pair of overboots that I’d bought in Kalispell on Friday and waded across the river.
Eric has only been exploring this AO for about five months, and he hadn’t really explored much across the creek. This area was fantastic, basically a wonderland as far as hunting was concerned. You couldn’t walk more than 50 feet without encountering deer sign, elk sign, or bear sign. The on the west side of the creek the land down in the flood plain was a large open meadow broken up by a couple of stands of small pines. We followed an old, overgrown two-track dirt road south for a ways and quickly encountered a trio of does. Very shortly thereafter we saw another four.
We worked our way up a bank out of the floodplain and onto some higher ground and soon saw another trio of does. Here the forest was denser and taller, but the understory was still relatively clear. The game sign wasn’t quite as dense here; you might have to walk 100 feet before you encountered something.
Moving north we found a cut bank with a small, slow flowing side channel of the creek (we debated some as to whether this was a side channel or a tributary, but later examination of Google Maps seemed to confirm the side channel hypothesis). We dropped down the bank to a very dense, moist area (practically like a temperate rainforest like you might find in coastal Oregon) between the side channel and the main creek. We walked through there for a while. Much like the more open floodplain area we’d traversed earlier, you couldn’t move more than 50 feet without encountering game sign.
We worked our way south for a ways, then recrossed the creek. This brought us into the forest just west of the knob where we set up the blind on Tuesday. We pushed far enough into the forest to see the knob and glass it, then worked our way north to meet up with an overgrown road that leads back up almost to Eric’s place.
After getting back, we worked on butchering the deer I shot yesterday. Eric showed me how to quarter the animal, and how to disassemble the quarters into stakes, jerky meat, and grinding meat. Despite just being a spork, this was a fairly stocky deer that produced a good deal of meat. It had a very thick layer of fat (pushing 1” in some places). This was one well fed buck.
Disassembling the buck and prepping the meat took most of the afternoon. We had elk nachos for dinner and watched The Revenant.
Monday morning dawned considerably colder than previous mornings; about 20 degrees, compared to the low 30s on other days. I wore my merino wool long underwear bottoms rather than just the Under Armor layer that I’d been using. I also triple gloved it, with a pair of thin glove liners, gloves, and mittens with a finger section that flips back so you can shoot.
We waded across the creek again. This time I brought one of Eric’s shooting sticks to help keep me upright when crossing the river and it was a big help. After we got across I said to Eric, “Crossing a river in sub-freezing temperatures; this is some real Montana shit.” Once I got my overboots off we worked our way across the large open area. Rather than moving south like we’d done the day before, we moved north for a bit. We picked out a spot near the treeline and sat for a while, observing.
After the sun cleared the mountains (and oh boy did that sun feel good) we loaded up and headed further west. Eric saw something moving back in the trees and we spent some time glassing with our binos trying to find it. We didn’t, but Eric did spot an old tree stand back in the treeline.
Moving back to investigate we found both the weathered tree stand and a newer elevated blind fronting a small meadow. Both were built from plywood and lumber and were clearly the product of considerable effort. There was also the remnants of another tree stand on the other side of the meadow, so whoever built these had been hunting here for many years.
After we worked our way around the meadow and into the forest beyond we learned one of the reasons why: we heard a bull elk back in the trees to our right. It wasn’t a full fledged bugle, but some squealing noises. I mistook it for a coyote at first (though it would have been very late in the morning for coyote howls).
We worked our way up the ridge to our left to a good shooting position and Eric tried to use a cow call to draw the bull out. We spent about half an hour on this, but no luck. Rather than pressuring the bull further, we decided to break off and come back tomorrow. Since we were fairly deep in the woods to the west, we decided to head further up the mountain to intersect an old logging road there. Eric had been up on the road during bow season, but he hadn’t explored the terrain between here and there.
We found a mix of wooded ridges, swampy low areas, and areas that had been clearcut. Very varied, with lots of good opportunities for hunting. Eventually we came up to a large (probably half mile square) area that had been clearcut long enough ago for the new trees to be 6-10 feet tall. They were packed very close together and would have been tough going, so we followed the edge of the clearcut to the south, then swung round to hit the road Eric had explored back during bow season.
It was still only about noon, so we headed north along the logging road. There was deer and elk sign, and so many piles of mountain lion droppings that the road seemed like a litter box. In some areas there was literally mountain lion scat every hundred yards or so. Most of them were pretty big too, some piles the size of dinner plates.
We followed the road north and higher up the mountain, then took off cross country to climb higher. After a break for lunch the warm temps lead us to ditch the long underwear. We continued climbing and eventually we reached the middle of a big clearcut scar that was visible from Eric’s house. Eric called home and had Linda and his son come out with binos to see if they could see us. No joy, but we were about 2 miles away so it would have been hard to see us.
Descending, we worked our way through some nasty deadfall to get back to the logging road and followed it south. After a few miles we reached the point where it met up with a forest service access road. More elk and deer sign, and a lot more mountain lion scat.
As we got to the gate around sunset Eric gave Linda a call to come out and pick us up. Rather than just stand around in the increasingly colder air we started walking down the road. Where the road skirted a major lake where we saw plenty of wildlife, including beaver, ducks, an ermine, and a bald eagle.
When Linda picked us up it had been about 11 hours since we stepped off. I measured our trail out on Google Maps later and it came out to about 8 miles (at least 3 of them cross-country).
Back at home we had another great dinner and I took advantage of the big tub to help soak away the effects of all those miles.
This morning we headed out slightly after first light. It was significantly warmer than the previous morning. Much like the day before we headed down and crossed the creek at our usual spot, then worked our way across the open meadow to near where we heard the elk the previous day. This time rather than going by the blind and old tree stand we veered off to the left and worked our way up the ridge, ending up about a few hundred feet east of our position on the ridge the previous day. This spot gave us a view down both sides of the ridge, to both the meadow with the blind and the swampy area on the opposite side.
After we got set up Eric got out the elk call and worked some squeals and grunts to draw out the bull, but we didn’t get any response. As we waited it got noticeably colder. I’m not sure if this was an actual change in temperature or the air just becoming more moist, which sucks the heat out of you better.
After an hour or so of watching and waiting we geared up and headed out. I was so used to the falling tamarack needles that it took me a while to notice that it was snowing. The snowfall started out light, but intensified as we worked our way back to the river. I threw on my goretex shell (as much for the warmth as for the water resistance). We crossed the creek again, this time at a new spot further upstream than were we’d been crossing the past couple of days, near the tree stand where I shot the buck. The crossing here was probably a bit easier than our usual spot.
We headed back up to the house and spent most of the afternoon making bratwurst out of the deer I got (as well as some ground venison from one of the deer Eric shot the previous year). Once that was all packaged we took Eric’s son out for a short hunt around dusk.
We walked up to the same spot we’d first stopped at last Tuesday and settled in to watch the game trail as the sun went down. Nothing happened by, so we headed back to the house and dinner (the heart of the deer I shot and one from the antelope Linda got a few weeks ago).
My throat had been scratchy since Monday night, and by late Tuesday I had a full blown cold coming on. Nevertheless, I kept Eric up to the late hours picking his brain on cold weather gear.
Wednesday morning dawned to a substantial accumulation of snow. Unlike the previous day where we’d gotten a few flakes, there was 3-4 inches on the ground and more big, gloppy flakes falling down. It was only just below freezing and the snow was pretty wet.
Eric and I went out regardless. We laid on the goretex (and Eric donned some of the cold weather gear we’d been talking about the previous night). Right before we left, both of us decided that long underwear bottoms, regular pants, and weatherproof outer pants would be way too hot in the 30 degree temps. This was a good decision, as we were plenty warm without them. I still had the cold, which didn’t exactly add to my enjoyment of the hunt, but I soldiered on.
We headed south, veering left (east) of the large knob where we’d set up the blind a week prior. Our goal was a couple of local lakes. We saw one doe (who initially spotted us before we spotted her). Other than that not much seemed to be moving. The snow was great for tracks though. We saw several sets of deer tracks, including one where the deer’s trail were paralleled by a set of bobcat tracks. Evidently we weren’t the only thing on the hunt this morning.
We came to the first lake and circle around to the west. Doing so, we came across a road that Eric hadn’t seen before. Since he’s always looking for ways to get game out of the back woods, we followed it for a ways, taking us back around the south side of the lake. We dropped our packs near the shore and took a break. The still, snowbound lake with snow falling on it was pretty magical.
As we were sitting there we heard a crack from behind that had us on alert for a bear trying to sneak up on us. We grabbed our rifles and took a look, but didn’t find anything. Loading up our packs and heading out, we followed the road the rest of the way out to an access road that Eric knew, and decided that rather than following it out (in the opposite direction of Eric’s place) we would cut north cross country. As we circled around the lake we saw some geese. The waterfowl migration hasn’t really started around Eric’s place yet, and these were some of the first he’d seen.
We made it out to the main road and followed it back to Eric’s place. After a bit of a break we took the chainsaw out and (after some trouble getting it going) used it to chop up a tree that had fallen across one of the fences. Linda came back from an errand and let us know that a small tree had fallen across the road coming in. Since we had the chainsaw out we drone out and took care of that too.
At this point the snow was up to 6-8 inches, which Eric decided was enough to justify plowing the road. Since this would be the first plow of the season he wanted to do it right and get a nice wide cleared path. We borrowed the plow truck from his neighbor (also a student of Eric’s that I’ve attended some classes with). We made four passes over the road and got a nice wide base of cleared snow set up that will hopefully serve him well over the rest of the winter. After that we cleared the area around his house and returned the plow truck.
We were going to chop off a tree sticking a few feet into the road that we’d found when plowing, but when we got out there the chainsaw didn’t work. It clearly needed a rebuild.
It was getting kind of late, but we decided on a quick afternoon hunt. By now the snow was 8-10 inches deep, mid-calf height. The going was much harder than this morning and harder than any previous day’s hunts. We waded through the snow down the same dirt road we’d hunted on the first day. When we got to Eric’s scent dripper we found a set of deer tracks leading up to it and away, so a buck is evidently interested enough to come out and check it today. The dripper itself was empty (or frozen solid) but there was evidently enough scent on the ground to attract a buck.
We waded back through the snow to Eric’s house, having seen a few sets of tracks but no deer or elk. Of all the things I’ve done so far on this trip, including going up and down mountains for miles on Monday, going through this calf deep snow took the most out of me. Raising my legs to wade through the snow, especially encased in three layers of pants, was very draining. My quads burned by the time we got back to Eric’s place around last light. With this heavy activity I also got pretty hot and sweaty, which can be dangerous in cold weather (you get wet and end up freezing when the activity that had you sweating stops). I’d rather be a bit cold than too hot (except for extremities vulnerable to frostbite).
We had another great dinner and I took a soak in the tub, which helped a bit with both my cold and my aching muscles.
It had snowed a bit more overnight, but not a huge amount. Eric and I headed off in the gray light of dawn under thick cloud cover. Sparse snow sprinkled down. It was about 10 degrees colder than yesterday, in the lower 20s. This actually made things considerably more pleasant. The colder temps meant most of the snow that fell on us stayed frozen, rather than melting.
We followed the trail we’d broken last night out to the sheltered spot observing the game trail that we’d visited the first day I was out here. Settling in, we spent about an hour observing. Earlier in the year Eric had trimmed out some of the branches on the two small trees we were sheltering under to create the space where we were sitting, but he hadn’t accounted for the branches drooping under the weight of snow. He took the opportunity to trim a couple more.
With no sign of any game, we got up and followed the old logging road down to it’s end, then headed cross country across an area that had been logged and was dense with young 6-10 foot tall pines. The snowfall picked up a bit, coming down at a pretty good rate. We ran across quite a few fresh sets of deer tracks. Eric spotted a buck moving through the dense trees, but it squirted before he could get a shot.
Moving back into some unlogged forest, we headed over to the vicinity of one of Eric’s tree stands (again, similar to what we’d done on my first day’s hunt). We moved back through the woods and followed the treeline east, catching several more sets of deer tracks. Both Eric and I stripped off a layer. Even with the colder temps the amount of work busting through the snow was getting me sweating.
We turned away from the treeline, intending to start making our way home when we ran across a set of elk tracks (the first we’d seen today) heading back the way we came. They weren’t all that fresh, probably from last night, but lacking any other elk sign, and having seen that the game seemed to be more active in general back where we’d been, we turned around and followed our own tracks back, parallel to the elk trail.
When we came to the point where we’d originally hit the treeline, we decided to head back to Eric’s place, retracing our steps. The snow had stopped and the forest was still and silent. This hunt had been another ass kicker, but being out there in these cold, quiet conditions was great.
After the hard hunt, a hot bath really hit the spot. That afternoon I helped Eric with some chores around his place.
Late that day we headed in Eric’s SUV for a short road hunt, cruising up and down a few of the snowy forest service roads around his place. We saw a dozen deer, including a few bucks, but Eric was holding out to see if he could get something more impressive looking before the season was over (there are so many deer around his place this makes quite a bit of sense).
With that we retired for a nice dinner and a quiet evening.
On Friday morning I packed up my gear and loaded it. The steaks and brats from the deer filled one of the 100 quart coolers I’d brought to the gills.
I reluctantly said my goodbyes. Eric was heading out for another shift of police work, so I followed him out. There was only a couple inches of fresh snow on top of the plowed surface, but I was a bit worried about getting my 2WD SUV out.
I didn’t have any trouble until I stopped behind Eric at the turnoff onto the paved highway, but when I tried to pull forward after he made the turn, my wheels just spun in place. The packed down surface there where everyone stops before the turn was too slick. I honked and Eric came back to help me if I needed it. I backed up a ways to where the traction was a bit better and pulled forward again making sure to stay in motion rather than coming to a stop. That did the trick; I made it onto the paved road.
Even the highway was a bit sloppy, with some blowing or unplowed snow, so I kept my speed down as I worked my way south. I took a slightly longer route that kept me at a lower elevation and got me to I-90 sooner. I figured once I was on the interstate I’d be in good shape, since Montana DOT would concentrate on keeping it clear. Famous last words.
As I got on I-90 and headed towards Butte, the snow started coming down moderately hard and there was a lot of slush on the road. Eventually I caught up with a long procession of vehicles on the one clear lane behind a plow truck. I followed them into Butte, where I stopped for gas. The local streets in Butte were even worse. When I got off the freeway there was a fender bender ahead of me on the exit ramp. Driving to the nearest gas station I had to be extremely gentle with the gas and the brake lest I start sliding.
I gassed up and and got some lunch before heading out. The road conditions between Butte and Bozeman were as bad or worse as they’d been west of Butte. I probably averaged less than 30mph the whole way. Past Bozeman there was a lot less snow and the roads were clear. I made it to Billings by evening.
It seems I couldn’t escape the snow, however. A few inches fell in Billings overnight and it continued to snow lightly as I headed out the next morning. Road conditions were a bit better than the worst yesterday, but they were still pretty sloppy. Things finally dried out shortly before I hit Sheridan, Wyoming around noon. I was able to pick up the pace a bit and made it to Scottsbluff, Nebraska that night. The next morning everything was dry and clear all the way back to Wichita.
This was a great trip. I had a fantastic time and enjoyed myself immensely. I am tremendously grateful to Eric and Linda for inviting me out. While I am still definitely an amateur when it comes to hunting, Eric taught me enough that I think I could shoot a deer and turn it into meat and hide by myself.
Most of my gear worked well. The rifle and round were effective on the deer (though 25 yards with a .300 Win Mag is not exactly a challenge for external or terminal ballistics). I did have some feeding issues with the Savage though, with some of my rounds getting hung up when loading the rifle at the beginning of the day and banging up the ballistic tips. My rounds were loaded to just under magazine length, but I think they may be catching up on the front of the mag. I’m probably going to try shortening the OAL a bit and tightening up the crimp.
One other issue with the Savage came up when I was taking my shot on the buck. When I was doing dry fire practice before the trip I occasionally failed to disengage the safety after mounting the rifle. So when I was in the tree stand about to take the shot I wanted to be extra sure I disengaged the safety and I was shoving forward on it with a gloved finger. I had disengaged it, but it was hard for me to tell because the tang safety on the Savage does not provide much of a tactile indication of it’s position, especially when wearing heavy gloves. This hadn’t been a problem in the past, when I was usually manipulating it barehanded, with plenty of time to visually check the position if I was in any doubt. I like the easy accessibility of the tang safety, but something like the Remington 700 safety where the position of the little lever provides a positive indication of the safety’s condition has some advantages in conditions like this.
The Butler Creek scope covers on my optic failed the test big time. The rear flip up cap tore most of the way off at the base, and I ended up just separating it the rest of the way. The front cap popped off entirely sometime while I was out in the field. This one is more on me, since I’d had issues with it before and I should have added some tape or some other means of securing it. The lack of scope covers could have caused some issues in the snow. I never ended up needing to take a shot, but I was extra attentive to keeping the rear lens and the killflash on the front clear of snow. I think I’m going to spring for a pair of AADmount scope covers as replacements. They’re expensive, but the pair I’ve got on my AR seem much better built and their attachment is far more solid than the press-on Butler Creek covers.
The Eberlestock Halftrack pack worked very well. It carried comfortably even on long hunts and isn’t big enough to be unwieldy. There were a few times where I really had it bursting to the seams and could have used a bit more space. I think I may get a big MOLLE pouch to put on the back when I need a bit of extra space. I also need a better solution for lashing stuff to the outside of the pack (Iike those rubber overboots).
Speaking of the rubber overboots, the ones I bought in Kalispell were one of the best investments I made in gear for this hunt. The other side of the creek was by far the best hunting ground we saw the entire trip and it was those boots that allowed me to get across. That said, stopping before and after each crossing to put on and take off the clown shoes was a bit of a pain. If I were to do this again I’d like a nice pair of rubber/neoprene boots like the ones Eric had. He was able to cross the river without any additional preparation and get right to business when he got to the other side. On the flip side, though, I think he would rather have had overboots and regular hiking boots on the day where our creek crossing turned into an 11 hour hunt up the mountain with a lot of miles involved, so there’s a place for both types of gear.
The other piece of kit that really helped with the river crossing for me was Eric’s shooting stick/trekking pole. I never used it for any shooting, but having that third point of contact when making my way across the slick rocks in the creek was a real godsend that probably kept me from ending up in the drink in sub-freezing temperatures. I actually brought a couple of trekking poles of my own, but I figured if I was going to carry something like that I might as well make it something that was also useful for shooting. I need to get one.
My cold weather gear worked pretty well. For most mornings I wore a synthetic t-shirt, merino wool long underwear and a multicam BDU shirt up top and Under Armor Heat Gear leggings (not insulated, but served as another layer) and multicam BDU pants. This worked quite well while we were moving, and was tolerable even when we were sitting in one position for half an hour or so. On the coldest morning I swapped out the leggings for merino wool (this was our all-day hunt, and I changed out both the merino wool top and bottom as the day wore on).
Once the snow hit, I added multicam Goretex pants and jacket, which did a good job keeping me dry and warm. In fact it tended to do too good of a job keeping me warm; combined with the effort of moving through the snow it got me hot and sweaty, even in 20 degree temps. On Thursday morning I even stripped off the merino wool top about halfway through our hunt, leaving just the Goretex, BDU shirt, and t-shirt in 23 degree weather.
My hands and feet tend to get cold very quickly and when they do the blood vessels constrict, making them very difficult to get warm again. Keeping them warm was a priority. I used three different pairs of gloves and mittens, swapping them around depending on the temperature: a set of thin liners, some moderately warm (but still fairly dexterous) gloves, and mittens where the finger portion could flip back exposing the gloves beneath. On the coldest days I was wearing all three, and that worked quite nicely.
For my feet I wore a pair of uninsulated, but goretex lined Keen boots, which are my daily wear. They’re more like high-top sneakers than serious boots, but I figured something nicely broken in that I wear every day was better than digging out some of my more specialized boots that I hadn’t had a chance to wear enough to develop some callouses for before the hunt. I backed these up with thin polypro inner socks and medium or expedition weight wool socks. I only had one pair of the expedition weight, and wished I had a few more for some of the cold mornings, but generally they worked well.
My headgear was a simple Condor watch cap, which kept my noggin plenty warm.
One of the few pieces of kit I bought specifically for this trip was a pair of good gaiters. They were a real godsend on the snowy days. It would have been miserable without them. With them, however, my feet stayed warm and dry even with my relatively low profile boots. I do wish I had a pair of these in multicam, rather than black (all that was available when I got them).
While my clothing worked well, the 20 degree temperatures we had a few mornings were probably pushing the limits of what my gear could handle. Anything significantly colder than that would have left me pretty miserable. Eric has a wealth of knowledge on this stuff and I spent quite a bit of time picking his brain about cold weather gear. I’ve got a pretty hefty shopping list.
In my previous experience in long-range shooting classes I was quite happy using a dedicated laser rangefinder. There was always ample time to lase the target before taking the shot. On this hunt, on the other hand, I didn’t get out my LRF a single time. It would have been much more convenient to have binos with a built-in laser rangefinder like Eric’s. Now in this case it didn’t really matter that much, since my rifle had a 300 yard zero and there were precious few areas where there was a shot any longer than that (and most were even shorter), but being able to easily confirm this by lasing the distance would have been nice.
The other issue I found with the Vortex 8x28 binos I was running was the rather modest field of view. I did a lot more scanning with these binos on this trip than I ever had previously and for that the small field of view was a bit of a pain. They’re good for checking out potential targets that you initially identified with the unaided eye in more detail, but using them for extending scanning in a blind or fixed position was kind of uncomfortable. I’d almost rather have a small pair with a limited field of view (and preferably with a built-in LRF) for use on the move and a bigger pair with a wider field of view for use in fixed positions where a lot of scanning was required.
Thanks to Eric and Linda for inviting me to Montana and putting me up for a couple of weeks. If this were a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it would be well worth it, but I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it isn’t a one time thing. Eric and I strategized a bit about what tags I might put in for next year and one way or another I certainly intend to be out in Montana sometime next fall.
As far as this year goes, between shooting the deer, doing a lot of great hiking, going up and down the mountainside, the fantastic views, wading across rivers in sub-freezing temperatures, hiking in the snow, and driving in the stuff, I really feel like I got the full Montana experience.
^1: A while back on the Paragon Pride forum there was some debate about the merits of living “off grid”. In Eric’s case, one of the benefits is that you can walk right out his front door an start hunting on elk National Forest land.