Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Meat In The Freezer

I love hearing from those of you who visit this blog and the NORTH AMERICAN MUZZLELOADER HUNTING web site. That's especially true at this time of the year, when many of you want to share your hunting experiences - and how well your rifles and loads are performing on big game.

Please...Keep It Coming!

For me, the 2009 season here in Montana has been pretty lackluster - when it comes to taking game anyway. I've enjoyed every outing during the course of the state's five-week "General" firearms season, and I have had the opportunity to pass on seven or eight different bucks. So, it's not like I did not have an opportunity to fill that tag. Twice during the season, I saw bona fide shooter whitetail bucks. But never where I could get a shot.

My girl and I did put a couple of big, fat and tasty does in the freezer - so it's not like we'll go without venison. Her's was the first game she had ever tagged with a muzzleloader. Last year, she sort of adopted my short and fast handling .50 caliber MDM QuicShooter as "her" muzzle-loaded hunting rifle. She liked the way it came up and held...so I set out to work up a light recoiling load for her - one that could still shoot with exceptional accuracy...and deliver the wallop needed out to 100-125 yards. That load turned out to be 70 grains of Blackhorn 209 and an experimental 240-grain version of the Scorpion PT Gold that I had convinced Harvester Muzzleloading to put together for me. At 100 yards, the bullet (set in the slightly tighter fitting red .50x.45 Crush Rib Sabot developed for the Savage "smokeless muzzleloader") would group inside of 1 1/2 inches. And thanks to the improved aerodynamics of the light polymer-tipped spire-point, this mild load would still hit with around 850 foot-pounds of energy at that distance - still enough to cleanly down deer-sized game.

On the third morning of the season, following a light layer of fresh snow through the night, Christy got her chance to fill her tag. A 70 yard shoulder shot put the big doe on the ground - quickly. And muzzleloader hunting has now gained a new follower. That's Christy, with her doe, in the photo at the top of this post.

I was hunting with the short and light .54 Green Mountain "Brush Rifle"...going for the high shoulder shot (shooting Harvester's saboted 400-grain "Hard Cast" bullet), and will recap the shots taken at the end of the season. All I'll say at this point is that the accurate custom .54 in-line, load and shot placement used works well!

With meat in the freezer, and a fairly long 5-week firearm season to enjoy, I spent most of my time looking for game. The presence of elk usually becomes more predominate once there's a few feet of snow in the high country. And an elk is what I really wanted to take with the Green Mountain .54 rifle.

The area I hunted this season is a relatively wide, mostly wooded, flat valley set at 4,000 to 4,500 feet. Lots of waist high grasses provide lots of winter feed - usually pulling the elk down once the snow begins to fly. Unfortunately, following those elk are now quite a few wolves. The area is home for three known packs...and more than likely a few lone individual wolves. And they keep game extremely stirred up and spooked these days.

I spent a big part of the third week of season hunting the area, camping alone with my two dogs - Bob and Tully. Despite morning temperatures right at 10 degrees, we kept our tent warm and dry, thanks to a small propane heater. Still, on the last night in camp, the dogs were nervous all evening - constantly watching down a Forest Service road we had camped next to. And by the time I had rustled up a hot evening meal, the dogs were ready to turn in - which is kind of unusual. Once into my sleeping bag, with an extra heavy comforter thrown over the top, due to the day out in the cold, I fell asleep quickly. A couple of hours later, I was awakened as both dogs nosed their way in under the comforter - and not because they were cold.

Even before Bob and Tully settled down, a wolf howled...followed by another...then another...and another. And they weren't more than 150 yards from camp. I reached over and made sure my Ruger .44 magnum Super Blackhawk was within reach...and tried to go back to sleep. But, that was impossible. For the next two hours, the wolves covered every inch of the timber surrounding camp, howling every few minutes. Finally, about 2 a.m. in the morning, they apparently moved off and things were quiet.

With just a couple of hours of sleep, I was up about an hour before first light. After several cups of warmed leftover coffee, I put the dogs in the truck (for their safety)...shouldered my .54 Green Mountain rifle...and headed on down the Forest Service road, to a swampy area 3/4-mile from camp. A couple of inches of fresh snow had fallen through the night, but I did not cut a single fresh deer track. Every hundred yards or so, there was a set (or two) of wolf tracks crossing the roadway and snowmobile trail I eventually followed into where I planned to hunt. Most morning walks into the area would produce sightings of a half-dozen does and fawns, and occasionally the glimpse of a buck. But, not this morning.

By late morning, I still had not seen a single deer - in an area where I usually see seven or eight during the course of a morning sit on my stand. So, I climbed down and decided to still hunt back in the direction of camp. About a quarter-mile into the slow walk back, several wolves howled again - on a small section of high ground about two miles away. I had a wolf tag in my pocket, and I'd had my fill of wolves. I hurried back to my truck, jumped in with the dogs and drove around to another Forest Service road. I knew that's where the wolves were, and quickly headed down the roadway...topping a small rise just in time to watch a big black wolf dart across the road. I jumped over to a nearby pine, and took a leaning rest - hoping another wolf would step out.

Not one, but three wolves appeared on the roadway - so I yelled to get them to stop. And they did, offering a perfect broadside opportunity. I guessed the range to be
200 yards. The carbine length .54 "Brush Rifle" had been sighted in to print "dead on" at 100 yards. And I knew it put the big 400 grain lead slug a full 7 to 8 inches low at 150 yards. So, I put the crosshairs about 10 inches over the back of the largest wolf (probably a 110-120 pound animal) and squeezed off the shot. I watched as snow and mud flew in the air behind the wolf. I had apparently sailed the bullet right under the wolf. I thoroughly checked for signs of a hit - nothing! And when I pulled my laser rangefinder from my pack and took a reading on the pine tree I had used for a rest, it was 231 yards away. I had miscalculated the drop of the big heavy bullet and the range.

I spent the rest of the morning tearing down camp, then drove around to four other camps I knew in the area to talk with other hunters. All shared the same feeling - the wolves had pretty much run all the game out of the area. Four or five of the hunters I spoke with that morning had been hunting the area for 20 or more years, recalling when it was nothing to see 20 or 30 deer a morning, and encounter a small herd of elk at least several times a week. One group of five had been hunting for six days straight, and had one small buck hanging on their meat pole. No one had seen a single elk in nearly a week of hunting - nor had they seen any elk tracks. And this in an area where ten years ago they often had two or three elk on the meat pole.

"The game is not here any more...it's either been pushed out or killed by those damned wolves," proclaimed one hunter.

Not one of the 20 or so hunters I spoke with that morning had anything good to say about reintroduced wolves - or what Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks was doing to correct the situation. Several of those hunters strongly felt that the state's wildlife agency had sold them out over the course of the past decade, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could "successfully" complete their so-called "Wolf Reintroduction Project". Now, big game populations in the area are disappearing quickly.

And those are exactly the same feelings voiced by the several hundred other Montana hunters I've spoken with through the past year. All are now realizing that wolves are making a strong negative impact on big game numbers, especially on the elk population. Likewise, not one of the hunters I spoke with that day, or since, think that the token Montana wolf season, and unreached 75 wolf quota, will have any impact on the situation. In fact, most hunters feel that, due to the natural growth of wolf numbers next spring, come fall 2010 we'll have close to 20-percent more wolves - and even fewer elk and deer to pursue.

On my 15-mile drive out to the highway that day, just a half-mile from the pavement, movement off to my left caught my attention. I rolled to a stop on the gravel and grabbed my binoculars. The movement turned out to be 19 elk - 1 spike bull, 17 adult cows, and 1 calf. They were running helter skelter back and forth. All had crossed a fence, except the calf. And the cows were frantically trying to get the calf to jump the fence. So, I scanned the area...and in short order saw the reason why. A huge gray wolf was following them...just waiting for the chance to pick off the last remaining survivor of that herd's spring calf crop. And that's where wolves are making their biggest impact on the future of elk hunting in the Northern Rockies. These apex predators are totally wiping out future generations of elk.

Hunting in the West is at a crossroad. We have a dire situation that can no longer be put on a back burner while questionable wildlife managers twiddle their thumbs...guessing how all of this will end. Sportsmen need to demand action now.

For more on the wolf problem, go to the following links for the LOBO WATCH website and Wolf Hunt Update blog.



Toby Bridges

Save An Elk Herd...Kill A Wolf!