By Koy Hoover
Explore Big Sky Contributor
Hunting is a long-standing tradition in Montana, providing nutrition for families since mankind set foot in the state. In the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt would venture to Montana – and surrounding states – to mix in a little hunting with his executive duties.
Hunting has recently become controversial in many other states, and understandably so. Watch a hunting show on TV and you’ll see how technology has taken the fair chase – the essence of hunting – out of the hunt. You’ll see heated stands over a food plot, automatic feeders, bait stations and electronic scent dispensers. There’s even a new remote game camera that will send a text to your phone, alerting you when a mineral-enhanced buck has arrived at the bait station.
But not in “the last best place,” which sticks true to its fair-chase ethos. During hunting season in Montana, remote cameras, baiting, salt licks, and airplane spotting are illegal. Hunting in Montana requires a person to hone their senses, absorb the signs of the landscape and let their mind begin to think like their quarry.
Few experiences are more exciting than creeping within 10-40 yards of a bugling bull elk during archery season. It takes some luck to get this close – within range for an arrow – but more often it takes time, dedication and hard work. Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis nelson) are the main draw for hunters in Montana.
Consider this basic elk hunting 101. Higher-level training can only be obtained by gearing up and heading into the woods yourself. The classroom work is never finished and there’s always a new lesson to be learned.
One must observe the following: tracks, scat, rubs, beds and wallows. Where are tracks highly concentrated? Are they rounded and dried out, or sharp impressions of their shape, indicating they’re fresh? Also look at the typical patterns and direction of travel, to make sense of where the animals head at different times of day and season.
When you’re looking at scat, are the droppings dry and old, or are they shiny and moist, still steaming in the morning mist? If they’re fresh, get ready because the animals are close. Look at the size and quantity of piles, it may help determine whether you are tracking a solo bull or cow, or if it’s a herd of 20. With 40 eyes, 40 ears and 20 noses, a sizeable herd can be difficult to penetrate, especially at close enough range to harvest an animal with a feathered stick.
Rubs indicate the presence of bulls. They’ll rub their antlers on trees to clean off the velvet as it begins to dry and shed off, but also to take out aggression and show their strength, polishing the antlers for battle during the rut. Look for rubs that are moist and effusing fresh liquid pitch. Elk don’t often return to the same rub, but will typically stay in an area where they have multiple rubs.
Elk beds are most often found on benches where they can stay during the day, chew their cud and have a good view of what’s coming from below. Try to get to their beds before they do, but beware of shifting winds that can alert the animals to your presence.
Wallows are a great place to find trophy bulls, but the animals tend to use these mostly at night. Bulls will roll or wallow in what to the untrained eye seems like a smelly bathtub, but it actually plays an important role during the rut. The males are caking themselves in mud and urine to make their scent available to cows in heat. You will often smell a wallow before you see it. Visit too often and your scent will taint the location and the prized owner will stop showing up.
Listen for movement and – the best signal of all – a bull’s bugle or cow’s call. You will often smell the elk before you see them and you can literally taste them in the air. Elk become wary when they hear or see you, but once they smell you, the game is over. All your senses must be used, including the sixth sense, wherein you sense an animal’s presence. This comes with many years at close proximity with these elusive animals.
Everyone should experience the pursuit of a great animal like the Rocky Mountain elk, even if you’re not interested in harvesting one. Put on your boots and spend countless hours in the woods, detached from everything, save for the sights, sounds and smells that the Rocky Mountains have to offer.
Koy Hoover grew up hunting in Washington beginning at age 14 and guided backcountry hunting trips for several years in central Idaho. He has enjoyed hunting, fishing and exploring Montana since he and his wife Jennifer moved here in 1997.