Zootopia - 2023 Montana Hunt Diary

Wildabeest

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2023 hunting plans began, as always, with the application process. An employee and good friend of mine, Steve, from NC had heard my tales of western hunting and was itching for a chance to hunt the Rockies. He bought a point in 2022, and then put in for MT Big Game Combo with an extra point this year and was successful in the draw. MT did not, however, deem me worthy in the random draw for zero point holders, so I was relegated to just a cow elk tag for this year’s hunt. My main objective became ensuring a great experience for Steve.

After lots of “expectation setting” discussions with Steve, he arrived in SLC on Weds night before the Saturday opener. We stayed at my place in UT Weds night and headed out at 6:00am Thurs for MT. We arrived with enough time to pull cards from some trail cams I’d put out a few weeks earlier to see what might be hanging around the small section of State land I like to hunt there. The pics were encouraging, showing elk in the area the previous day.
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We settled into an AirBnB just a couple of miles from the trailhead for the State land – my “neighbor” if you will. This particular section of State land is surrounded by private with no public access, so only adjacent property owners have access. I own a piece of property that allows me access, and it just so happened that another property owner operates an AirBnB in the same development. So no need to setup a tent camp on my property. The birds were friendly, so we took that as good karma for our hunt.

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Friday was scouting day. The plan was to check out some nearby BMA and National Forest options before going into our primary target of the State land we had access to. We saw some beautiful country, but nothing that came anywhere near the habitat of the State land I’ve successfully hunted the past 5 years.

We scouted the State land Friday afternoon, seeing 9 deer – 4 whitetail does, 2 muley bucks and 3 muley does – none of which seemed to be very concerned about our presence. They know when season starts!

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As we were getting back near the trailhead, we got into elk! We saw one bull and at least 5 cows. They were already moving when we saw them, so it was hard to tell exactly how many there were. The bull puts out a weak bugle to corral the cows. Steve was pumped! As we got back to the trailhead, we located them again going up the hill. They didn’t seem to be too spooked, so we were encouraged that we might find them again when the season opened.

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We went into Bozeman that night for some food and beverage at Montana Ale Works. Highly recommend!
 
Opening day had us at the trailhead about 30 mins before legal shooting light. Plan was to hike in about ¼ mile and then split up to still hunt opposite sides of a small ravine that has some really nice habitat with a mix of open timber and willows surrounding several springs feeding the creek running down the ravine. Shortly after we split, and 10 mins after legal light, there’s a shot above us seeming to come from just where we are headed. Given the favorable morning wind coming down the hill, we proceed with the plan hoping something may get pushed to us.

I continue my still hunt on the far side of the ravine without much activity. Steve has a similar experience on the near side, seeing one muley doe. Once I get above the willows and start heading to our rendezvous point, I glass a muley buck, obviously dead, in a clearing near the upper spring. I assume it’s the shot we heard just after opening light. Just a few minutes later, there’s another shot higher up. Given that there were no hunters near the downed buck, I assume that it must have been a pair or group and they continued hunting up the hill. So I hiked up higher to see if I could figure out where they were. Seeing nothing, I work my way back down, and by the time I get back to the rendezvous spot, there are two hunters with the downed buck I’d seen earlier.

I worked my way down to them, and then learned that they had indeed continued hunting, but ran into several other hunters up on top. The shot I heard up there was from the other hunters – two groups, one was lining up a shot on a nice bull elk at 300 yds when a hunter from the other group took a shot at 500+yds and missed and caused the elk to bail onto private.

Steve and I regrouped, had lunch, and made plans for our evening hunt. Given the elk had been blown, we decided to sit an area where I knew there was good muley activity. We saw several does that seemed to want to eat from our hands, but no bucks.

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We had a nice meal of salmon that night.

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Sunday saw less hunter activity than the opener. We did a lot of hiking, exploring and still hunting. We saw one small muley buck as far from the trailhead as we could possibly be, and fortunately I was able to talk Steve out of shooting it. During the evening hunt, Steve thinks he sees a loan cow elk, but later we agree that it was likely a cow moose (he’d never seen either before this trip). We logged 9 miles of hiking and took in some great scenery.

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We did some Wagyu ribeyes on the grill at the AirBnB that night.

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On Monday we went back to our plan of splitting up and still hunting. Just after legal light, Steve encounters a bull moose (the first of several sightings).

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He then sees a cow as well, which it then dawns on him is what he saw the previous day. The moose were blocking his progress up the trail, which led to some interesting txt exchanges about what he should do. They eventually move off and he progresses up the intended route only to encounter another bull moose further up!

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Rain and fog moved in late morning, so we decide to head back to the AirBnB for lunch. I’d brought some leftover venison pastrami which made great rueben sandwiches. Had I known the Thanksgiving parade would be awaiting us, we could have done Turkey ruebens instead…

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The weather broke early afternoon on Monday, so we decided to head back out for an evening hunt. Similar plans as before – split up and hunt opposite side of the ravine. Just after we split, Steve sees the bull moose again. He’s bedded in a wedge between us. Steve wallks back to me and we watch him for awhile.

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The fog begins to move in fast, which is going to pretty much obliterate our elk and deer hunting plan, so I decide to stalk in on the moose to see how close I can get. I assess the wind and the cover and make a plan. I get to withing 30 yds.

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He’s still bedded and seems to have no clue I’m there. So I do some moose calls to see if I can get him to stand. He stands, but is looking back towards where Steve is vs. looking at me. There’s one more big pine I can get behind and be closer, so I stalk to that. I’m now at 22 yds. He’s alert, but still not zeroed in on me.

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After screwing around with the moose for an hour, there’s only 90 minutes of legal light left and the fog is even thicker, so we decided to call it a night. We hike out and head into Bozeman for a nice dinner at Sweet Chile – another highly recommend!
 
Tuesday is our last day of hunting. Bad weather is coming in, so we head out early on Tues morning to get to the trailhead well before legal light. Same plan as before – split and still hunt opposite sides of the ravine in the morning. Steve takes the far side this time and I head up the near side. I encounter two muley does just after we separate. Steve jumps the same group of four whitetail does we’ve seen pretty much every day, then about an hour later txts me that he sees a muley buck in the ravine. He doesn’t have a good shot, but is working his way closer. About 20 minutes later I hear a shot. Buck down! After some initial miscommunication about where he is, I finally work my way over to him. A small young buck, which is typical of what we get on this small piece of public land, but Steve is super excited.

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I’d decided to leave my pack and just carry my rifle that morning, so I tell Steve to start skinning the buck while I head back to the truck to get my pack. On the way out, close to where we normally split up, I hear a bugle about 50 yds below me. I was not really in hunting mode at that point, but freeze to see if I can locate him. I’m in a clearing, but move behind a nearby pine tree and let out a few cow calls. I see something moving through the trees directly in front of me, but it doesn’t come out the other end of the small grove. I do a few more cow calls. And then hear another bugle further away up the hill. So I move to where I can get a better view of that area and see several cows moving up the hill. One stops broadside. Range finder says 450 yds. I’m not setup for a shot that long. For a brief moment I consider going after them, but given that I need to get back to help Steve and they are within 50yds of private land and heading that direction, I decide to stick with the plan and go get my pack.

After retrieving my pack and getting back to Steve, we proceed to break down his buck and pack it out. By this time, snow is falling, and visibility has gone to about 30 yds. It’s 3:00pm, so we decided that we are going to call it a day and end the hunt.

I’d posted in the 2023 Hunting Goals thread that my main goal this year was to try and help Steve have a successful and enjoyable first-time western hunt experience. Between the variety of critters we encountered, the amazing landscapes and vistas he saw and the successful harvest of his first muley buck (as well as appreciating sucking wind at altitude!), I think the goal was achieved. I’m doing a Euro mount of his buck for him that I will deliver when back there in a few weeks.

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