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Lessons from hunting a ranch

tmcdowell

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May 7, 2021
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My favorite part of being a member of HT is reading others' trip reports - successful or otherwise. Nothing beats a good hunting story, and some members on this forum ought to be published for the quality of their writeups (anyone want to edit and publish a book..?). I can't say I've contributed much to this forum, but I thought I'd take a crack at sharing some stories from the last two seasons here in Montana.

Last year I was drawn for a cow elk damage hunt. After calling around to participating landowners I received permission to rifle hunt a family ranch situated in a gorgeous river bottom. This was an important development in not just my season, but my entire hunting career. I'm a new hunter, and up to this point I had only chased Mule Deer. The chance to elk hunt on private land wasn't something I thought I'd get the chance to do, so I didn't take the opportunity lightly. The rancher - I'll call him Bob - is an older gentleman; kind as he is, he gave me a few tips on where to hunt, where to sit, and tells me "if you shoot something, give me a call." I was hunting mid October, before the general season. I remember parking my truck outside Bob's shop, getting out in the cool morning and hearing a distant bugle coming from somewhere in the darkness, in the general direction I planned to hunt. Oh boy..

Bob's ranch has been in his family since it was first homesteaded some 100+ years ago. Dilapidated log cabins are all that is left from some of the earliest inhabitants. Elsewhere on the ranch are a couple of junked 1950s era cars (I didn't catch the make) lying on their sides against old cottonwoods. Maybe there is a story there. The ranch is comprised of bunch of pastures of wild grasses, irregularly placed between stands of aspen and cottonwood. Some of these pastures/groves are small, others several acres around. The larger aspen groves are particularly thick, littered with underbrush and deadfall - the kind of dense cover that can hide an entire herd. A river splits the down the length of the property, and with high Muck boots and careful foot placement, you can cross the river on foot in some places (I've learned after a few times hunting here to pack extra socks, because I tend to bat .500 at not filling my boot when crossing). Some of the larger patches of forest sit on the far side of the river, straddling Bob's ranch and his neighbor's.

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I spent a couple days hunting this pre-season daIMG_7619.jpegmage hunt and learned real quick that the elk bed down in the thickest, nastiest stuff (affectionately called the "jungle" by Bob's sons). I also learned that they particularly like to bed down in the portion of the jungle that sits across the fence - the wrong side of the fence (I had spoken to Bob's neighbor to ask for permission, but was politely declined). I spent a lot of time tip-toeing along the edge of pastures, stopping to peer into the forest to look for movement or brown bodies. The herd bulls were particularly chatty, which made it painfully obvious where the herd must be bedded. I could sneak up to the fence line and catch the glimpse of a few cows moving through the trees, confirming my suspicions that they were unreachable. Mid-morning one day I was across the river hoping to catch a cow wandering on my side of the fence when I herd another bugle - this time coming from the opposite side of the river. I knew right then that the elk had crossed the river and squarely into Bob's ranch.

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I haphazardly crossed back over the river, filling one boot, and hurried from one pasture to the next in the direction of that Judas bugle. Remember, I was (and still am) an elk and hunting neophyte so you can imagine the kinds of thoughts, nervousness and adrenaline welling up inside at this point. I eventually reached the edge of the farthest and largest pasture and could see elk at the far side, maybe ~800-1000 yards away. Crouching next to some willows and trying to figure out how the hell I'd close that distance, I noticed in a flash of movement the herd rallying together and making a swift escape across the pasture - towards me. I don't know what spooked them, but now I had maybe 80 head racing my direction. You can imagine my heart rate at this time. I hastily set my rifle on a shooting stick and watched as the elk raced through a stand of cottonwoods 100 yards from me. I waited until the last of the herd had filtered through, hoping I could single out a cow away from the rest. Finally, she presented herself. Stopped broadside and I squeezed the trigger.

She dropped to the ground instantly but kept her head up. I let her sit an agonizing 10 minutes before deciding that she wasn't going to die. I snuck around the side of her and sent a second shot into her back and below her neck - putting her to rest. My first shot had entered her muzzle ahead of her eyes probably stunning her. I still don't know what happened. The shot didn't feel totally errant but also didn't feel completely sound. Did I pull at the last second? Maybe she turned her head to her side to lick her flank or scratch an itch the moment before I pulled the trigger? There isn't a worse feeling than knowing your shot wasn't true. My feeling of elation over killing my first elk was muddled by "thank god it's over.." Feelings only lasted a moment before getting to work. Even though she was small, elk sure take more muscle to dress them than do deer.
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After dressing her, I called Bob as directed and explained my general location. Twenty minutes later I hear the rumble of Bob's tractor as he makes his way through the pastures and over narrow bridges spanning irrigation ditches. He congratulates me when I tell him this is a first for me. We chain the cow to the tractor's bucket, drives her a short way to my truck and drops her right in - saving me time and my back.

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A couple weeks later after the opener, I got the green light to return to Bob's place to hunt on my general tag. Long story short, I shot another cow at almost the exact sample spot. I was lucky to catch a glimpse of the herd crossing the river and positioned myself to intercept them, which is exactly what happened. My wife and I enjoyed eating elk most days this past year, which (spoiler alert), as I sit here elk-less after this current season, I recognize as a true privilege. I made sure to thank Bob and his wife profusely after last season, and as sappy as it sounds I think to myself often what an honor and privilege it is to hunt Bob's place. That he was willing to let a complete stranger onto his property to chase elk with a rifle pretty damn generous.

I'll close this prelude, because the rest of the story has more to do with my tribulations of a lousy and outsmarted elk hunter, and how one elk hunt became a whitetail hunt (after all, this is posted in the "deer" forum).
 
Congrats on your first elk, and then your second elk!

Great story and pics! This story, and the numerous other untold stories like this, are a success for all parties involved!
 
Fast forward to this past October. Bob graciously lets me come back opening weekend to hunt my general elk tag. It had been a full year since I had been up that way and it was a welcome sight to see that pretty chunk of country in its fall splendor. Opening weekend in MT, some might recall, was pretty soggy. Rain, wet snow and high winds made for an interesting weekend. The bulls were bugling again, and I had high hopes of catching the herd crossing into Bob's ranch much as last season had played out.

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It was an eventful weekend with action right out of the gate. Sneaking along the edge of an aspen stand at first light, I heard movement to my side and dropped down on a knee - a lone spike chewing on some browse just 15 yards from me. Spike bulls are legal in this unit, but I had failed to ask Bob if my hunting permissions extended to spikes, or if cows were solely on the menu. Not wanting to make a hasty decision and risk doing something without approval, I watched the spike feed off and disappear into the trees. I did ask later and found that I was okay to take a spike, but I still don't regret passing on that spike. Better safe than sorry.

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The rest of the day unfolded with some exciting bull encounters (not legal to take on a general tag) - bumping one in its bed, and watching a nice 6-point harass the hell out of smaller bulls. Late that evening I decided to sit in a spot hoping to catch the elk feeding out from the trees. By that point I was pretty wet from the day's rain so sitting there in the rain felt like drudgery. I sat and listened to the rain on the trees above me. Heard a couple shots not too far off, thinking maybe the herd had fed off into someone else's pastures. As the light faded I watched as small bull moose spooked out into the pasture in front of me. Then another small bull. Then a bigger bull. And finally a large Shiras stepped out into the clearing. Four bulls right in front of me - what a sight. I'm no judge of Shiras moose but the one was really handsome. I watched as he and the next largest sparred casually, fed, then bedded down at the edge of the clearing. Moments like this are a real treat, and rival the best moments of hunting.

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On my walk back to the truck right after shooting light I rounded the edge of a pasture and was treated to the sight of two bull elk grazing casually about 70 yards ahead of me. In an instant, cows began racing into the clearing maybe another 100 yards behind the bulls. The way they were bunched up and nervously hurried in made it seem likely that they were fired upon earlier when I heard those shots. I did later meet the hunter, Bob's son-in-law, and turns out he took a cow on the neighboring ranch. By this time of the evening it was simply too dark and would have been totally reckless to try to take aim at a cow in that swirling herd.

Back at the truck I ran into Bob, told him about the day (he was particularly excited at the mention of those moose), and said I had plans to camp nearby on FS land so I'd be back tomorrow bright and early. This still stands as the highlight of my season - he insisted that I stay the night in his heated shop. A completely unexpected but welcome treat after a day of hunting in the rain. And to top it off he brought out a cot. It was the best night of sleep I've had in a long time, and I'm a great sleeper.

Next morning, rested, dry and warm, I headed back out. Light snow in the night revealed that the elk were busy on the near side of the river. The day unfolded with little action other than hearing the occasional bugle over the wind - usually from the jungle on the neighboring ranch. At closing light I was wandering along the river hoping to catch sight of the elk on the other side. Eventually I did spot a cow moseying through a pasture across the river. Wanting to get across and into a shooting lane, I snuck along the river until I found a place I could cross (I still filled both boots with water). Once on the other side I took position where I thought she might be heading. I waited a while but realized she must have ducked back into the trees. Thinking I might be able to catch her on the other side of the trees, I hurried a good 1/3 mile around the edge of the forest to try to setup on the far side - the direction I assumed her to be headed. She must have winded me, because by time I got to the other side I watched as cow after cow shot out of those trees like a cannon and right across the property line.


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My elk hunting for the season effectively ended that night, as I turned the rest of my attention towards mule deer for the next few weeks. Despite having so many encounters with elk over the weekend, they just always held the upper hand over me (which doesn't say much because I make no claims to be good at this sport). The broken forests and pastures make spot and stalk pretty hit-or-miss, and because of that I realized my fatal inability to effectively still hunt or to sit for long periods of time. Regardless it was an incredibly enjoyable weekend and further cemented my reverence for these animals and the bottomland they live in. I also took some of these lessons and made use of them in what is perhaps the most enjoyable hunt I've ever had: still-hunting whitetails on Bob's ranch.
 
What a gift to be allowed access onto such a cool place to adventure. Salute to "Bob" and family and I hope for your sake that you get to continue to have fun adventures into the future.

And I would be remiss if I failed to salute you on your good self control to not shoot a spike, as you were unsure of the rules of the ranch.
 
There are some incredibly kind and generous landowners out there. I've been fortunate to build some genuinely great relationships that simply started with a knock on a door or a conversation on a gravel road. They are a gift.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and for reminding us just how many Bobs are out there.
 
You're doing just fine at this whole hunting thing.

I'm ready to read the whitetail story. Soon as I saw the pictures of Bob's awesome pastureland I wanted to know how the deer sign looks
 
To answer RobertD's question, the deer sign was phenomenal. Each time I hunted on the ranch, I kicked up more whitetail than I could count. Some really handsome bucks too. It got to a point where I would just ignore them outright. They were safe from me, not on the menu. I had never really considered asking to hunt the local whitetail on Bob's ranch, mostly to not detract from my time hunting elk there, but also because I think whitetail are enigmas. I spent most my time growing up in central Washington where mule deer are a common sight in the rolling sage hills. When I first took up hunting, all I really had in mind was hunting mule deer because they were most familiar.

So after opening weekend this season, that's what I did. I hunted hard with the limited time I have (life gets busy when you have a wild two-year-old and a wife who's 8 months pregnant!). It took me most of the season to finally connect with a small mule deer buck in a spot where I've taken deer the last two seasons. Thanksgiving week, my wife's brother and his wife made the trip out from Missouri. My brother-in-law hunts, so I thought it would be fun for us to try to chase elk one more time before the season closes. I made arrangements to visit Bob's ranch once more. Knowing how fickle the elk situation can be, I asked if I could hunt for my deer B tag (regional antlerless whitetail) if the elk were being uncooperative. "Sure," he says.

My BIL and I drove out to the ranch early in the morning, and hiked to get across the river in the dark. My hope was to set up near some game trails that filter through the trees and out into the pastures, anticipating their early morning movements from feed to bed. While we didn't catch them as hoped for, we did see some cows across the fence line. There was hope that they might feed out in the evening, but I felt pretty sure that they were unreachable during the day so long as they bedded in the neighbor's share of the jungle. We walked around to check out some other parts of the ranch and saw no more elk. By midday, we were back at the truck enjoying freeze-dried soup heated and rehydrated over my camp stove. Chatting idly about the situation, I decided what the hell, let's go hunt whitetail.


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I was in luck, because that is all my BIL hunts. We'd be employing a different strategy than how he hunts - still hunting vs. hunting from a stand, but he was still incredibly insightful on whitetail habits. The plan was this - we'd pick a game trail with reasonably fresh sign, and follow it into the trees. We'd hunt slow. Very slow. The fresh snow from overnight dampened the crunch of our footsteps. I had tried this same strategy earlier in the season before snow blanketed the ground, and it was near impossible not to crunch ever leaf and twig the littered the trail. This time, we were silent. After a half hour of this, and maybe 100 yards of sneaking, I felt like we were in a rhythm. Creeping along silently, stopping every 10 yards, we'd wait and watch for the slightest sign of movement. I felt like I had retrained my eyes to pick out the V-shape of an onlooking deer's face, the slight curve of it's broadside back, or the subtle flick of its white tail.

We bumped a few does in the first hour of this, but not before we saw them. It was progress that we were spotting deer before they spotted us, but it was a razor's edge of keeping unseen and blowing them out. A couple times, it seemed, we spooked a few does, but rather than head for the next county, we relocated them just a short way up the trail. It was like their predator avoidance strategy told them to flee at the slightest sign of movement, but not knowing what the source of the threat was, they eventually settled back into their routines of feeding. This would allow us a couple chances on the same deer before they learned for good to make haste and leave us in the quiet forest. The challenge wasn't finding deer, or even getting within range. Most deer we found were well within 50 yards. However, as thick as those woods are, you could practically smell the thing but not have a shooting lane. More than once I spooked does trying to lean a little bit to peer around an aspen. More than once I had chambered a round, thumbed the safety, only to watch the doe wander safely behind cover too thick to shoot at. It was an exhilarating way to hunt, but sure was hard. I felt certain we'd have plenty more opportunities, but would any one of those ever give me a shot?

We'd been at this for a while now and felt like we were getting the hang of it. At one point we were watching a doe and fawn feeding, when we caught a glimpse of a third body moving through the trees. Leaning against a couple aspens, we watched in silence as a whitetail buck wandered parallel to us at 20 yards. His nose was to the ground, no doubt assessing the local ladies. We watched him follow a trail and suddenly turn and angle away from us. He zig-zagged through the forest until he was directly behind us and approached within 10 yards. Eventually he stopped, lifted his head and stared right at us. We didn't flinch, but the wind was blowing right in his face. Amazingly, he didn't budge. We watched each other for what felt like an eternity before he got wise and took off. Later, my BIL told me that was the second nicest whitetail buck he's ever seen. He was certainly the most handsome I had seen by a mile.

Hunting this way not only lets you spot deer, but one also has time and awareness to notice the abundant sign all around. We took inventory of the many beds - whitetail and elk - we spotted, the frequent urine marks in the snow, and the countless rubs. The snow made for great tracking, and we could easily pick out the movements of deer from that morning. The lack of recent elk sign made me feel more comfortable with the idea of taking a different pursuit.

It's mid afternoon now, and almost time to make plans for the evening sit. My BIL and I had just crossed a small clearing in the woods - a tractor trail - and into the next chunk of trees. We made it 10 yards in before my BIL sees movement up ahead. It was so thick up that way it took me a while to see what he motioning at. Through my binos I could see two deer, and after watching them a while we realized one was a buck - if only by the fact that it was mounting the other deer. Through a small break in the brush, we could glimpse that it was a button buck, and he was panting hard. The doe of his affections looked pretty fed up with him and tore out of there. The poor desperate little guy would chase after her. Ah, to be young and in love...

We watched the chase unfold, mostly by catching bits of movement through the trees and brush. At one point, I thought I saw the doe turn sharply as if she was about to break into the clearing we had just come from. I broke our stillness and scrambled to the edge of the narrow clearing before stopping to scan for movement. I had figured by this point the harrassed doe and her "lover" were long gone. In an instant, movement through the trees ahead. The doe raced to the edge of the clearing, just opposite from where I stood. She skidded to a halt, when she saw me directly across from her at 15 yards. I lowered my Ruger .30-06 as slow as I could, pulled the bolt back and chambered a round. The "click" of the bolt spooked her and she fled back the way she came and away from me. Amazingly she stopped, this time at about 30 yards away. Seeing my opportunity, I raise the rifle to my shoulder and fired.

I was certain it was a hit. She bucked, and raced out of sight. I only hoped it was a good hit, it felt good but I've never seen a shot animal break the sound barrier like that. We waited for a few minutes before crossing into the treeline to look for blood. We found some - a good sign. Ducking under branches and getting our faces smacked by branches as we waded into the thick, we followed a blood trail that started as a few drops and eventually looked more and more grisly. I evidently hit something pressured, because the blood trail was 6 feet wide in places. With our noses to the trail and feeling certain it was a lethal shot, I happened to look up and see a deer standing just up ahead. Shocked, I whispered to my BIL "there she is.."

My BIL says, "Yea I see her."

Me: "How is she still standing, my God.."

Him: "Standing? What are you talking about?? She's lying right there."

I angle my head 15-degrees from the very-much-alive deer. There my doe lay on the ground, dead. Turns out I had been watching that button buck, thinking it was her. He was there, still harassing her. She was stunning - large, thick coat. We took a few minutes to marvel at her - very much a trophy in my book. My first whitetail. I felt proud, and happy to have shared a successful hunt with my brother-in-law. The 150-grain round entered her chest, took off her aorta, and exited her shoulder. She has somehow made it 50 yards through the dense forest without much of her heart. The tenacity, even in death.. IMG-1385.jpg


We dressed her quickly, dragged her to the frozen river, and decided to sit the final hour of light at the edge of a clearing in hopes we might still see elk. While we didn't, we could hear the mews of cows calling to each other in the dark.
 
My season was now over. Although bittersweet, I enjoy the close of the season. With success behind me, stories to reminisce on, and a fuller freezer, I felt like I could close this chapter and savor the coming weeks before the arrival of our second daughter (we are still waiting as I write this).

This season was also my first butchering at home. All processors were at capacity, or simply never answered my calls, so I decided now was the time to learn how to do it myself. I don't have a garage, and I wasn't interested in trying to hang a carcass from the spruce in the front yard. Fortunately, we have the best neighbors and one allowed me to use his garage to hang and quarter my animals. It was a very enjoyable process, and I'll never pay someone to butcher my animals again. Something I also decided I was going to try this season was tanning a hide. I regret not keeping the hides from my elk last year, and vowed to try tanning this year. The whitetail seemed like a perfect candidate as her coat was so luxuriantly thick (she also had so much fat on her we had to trim away 1/2 inch of it just to expose the backstraps). I followed a simple process of fleshing, salting, pickling and finally applying a tanning formula to the flesh side. My wife was pretty excited about the final product, and didn't bat an eye once that I had taken up the entire guest bathroom to work on this hide. Once dried, I cleaned up the flesh side a bit with a wire wheel and we decided to hang it on the wall in our room.

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Tomorrow I plan to take a drive up to give thanks to Bob and his family for their incredible generosity. My wife plans to bake a loaf of her pumpkin bread, which I will bring for them since he declines to accept any of the meat from my hunts. I am incredibly gracious for these opportunities. They are memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life, and I hope to let Bob know that.

This Christmas we will be braising an entire quarter and sharing the meal with our good friends and neighbors. I think will be a fitting conclusion to a hunt worth celebrating. Happy holidays, everyone. Thank you for reading.

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