Here in Montana, there are four "wilderness areas" where the big game seasons open on September 15th. Last year (2008), I was not yet a resident of Montana and missed the deadline to apply for a non-resident elk or deer tag. But, I went into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area with three others, just to spend a week or so "In The Bob". One of those hunters, at age 75, took the 62nd elk of his life - a good 6x6. And I was there to help him pack it out.
Anyway, this year was different. And with a resident elk, deer and wolf tag in my pocket, I headed into the Bob Marshall for a day-long hunt, and tagging along with me was my good friend, and fellow muzzleloader hunter, Will Moore - who owns a small piece of Big Sky Country in the Bitterroot Valley.
We left my truck at the trailhead in the first light of morning, then made the 5 mile walk, from 5,500 feet to the pass at 7,500 feet. It is a good trail, and that hike took about 1 1/2 hours. At that point, we were in the wilderness area, and the hunt began. On the way in, we had spotted about 20 elk - including a good bull.
Will and I decided to follow a shelf that ran along the side of an otherwise steep mountain slope, which paralleled a heavily wooded valley - with a nice open meadow here and there. Elk sign was everywhere - with the ground so tracked up it looked as if it had been plowed. And in several places a small pine or spruce didn't have a chance, and all had been nearly ripped out of the ground by bulls doing a little antler rubbing and perhaps practice sparring. Several times, our cow calls were answered by a half-hearted squeal from a bull. But, by noon we had not seen another elk.
It was dry, with none of the usual springs running up high. So, we decided to drop down a thousand feet or so and hunt the grassy meadows - where I knew a clear running mountain stream ran freely. Not surprisingly, we found lots of older wallows, a lot more tracks and dozens of major rubs. But, we still did not see any elk. By the time we stopped for lunch, around 1 p.m., we had already covered close to 10 miles of extremely rugged mountain country.
We hunted the series of meadows up to the head of the valley, and with afternoon temperatures in the 80s, we never heard another elk that afternoon. Fresh wolf tracks here and there told me we ought to try calling - to see if one of us could be the first modern day Montana hunter to take a wolf with a muzzleloader. Relying on a multi-sound Knight & Hale deer call, I started with a series of doe bleats...putting just a bit of distress into the calls. Within 5 minutes, something was right behind us, stomping and snorting. Through the trees and low brush, I could see it was a mulie buck, but could not get a visual on the rack - other than it looked heavy and tall.
Will brought his rifle up several times, but never shot. The deer finally turned and bounced back into the heavy cover.
With all of the commotion, I decided to switch to one of the Knight & Hale rabbit distress calls, hoping that a wolf nearby just might charge in for an easy meal. I had made a couple of squalls, when my partner brought his Traditions Pursuit up, and was aiming once more - in the opposite direction. Then, suddenly, the deer was back, less than 20 yards behind him...stomping and snorting once again. Will turned and aimed at the deer for a few seconds, then turned and aimed again 180-degrees the opposite direction. The deer finally ran off, and whatever it was in the opposite direction had also slipped away.
It turns out that he could have shot the buck, knowing it was big and heavy - but never getting a good look at the rack. And his other "target of opportunity" had been a big old dog coyote that had run to within 50 yards of where he sat - 25 or so yards to my right. We enjoyed a few laughs, and with a good 5 hour walk out, we headed for a trail we knew would take us back to the main trail and down to the truck. In the dim evening light, we stopped occasionally to glass mule deer and a few whitetails - but no elk. We did hear one good bull bugle, but never managed to get a fix on his position - since it bugled just once.
We ended up walking the last 2 miles of the trail in total darkness. And with a long day and close to 20 miles of tough walking under our belt, the ride down the mountain to camp was a quiet one. It had been a great day, even though neither of us had snapped a cap. Fortunately, I had a very good woman waiting for me at camp, with a good fire and a hot meal. Sleep came easy that night...after a day's walk in the park - a very, very big park.