A Montana Twofer
The bull was over 500 yards away, trailing a small herd of cows. Too far for my rifle. I swapped rifles with Dylan, knowing his 7mm would get the job done. I pulled the bipod legs out and laid prone in the dirt. I switched the safety off and my finger was resting on the trigger, anticipating the explosion, which was about to ring through the mountains. He just had to take a few more steps.
My friend Dylan Dowson and I drove up to my dad's camp after work the night before. We planned on getting dropped off on top of a ridge in the morning for an eight mile hunt back to the tent. The temperature was uncharacteristically high and in the eight miles, we saw several other hunters and very little elk sign. When we got back to camp, we were ready for some new scenery. It was time to hit the river.
I was looking at maps all year, focusing on one particular section of river that would require us to use my raft. Our goal was to float in well before daylight and, hopefully, hike into elk country inaccessible from a vehicle. We gathered our gear, drove home, and loaded my raft that night.
Dylan was at my house at 4:00 am and we were on the river by 5:00 am. Using only our headlamps for guidance, we carried the raft full of our gear to the river and pushed off. The air was crisp. We could see our foggy breath rise up through the light trying to guide us. As we floated down river in the pitch dark, all we could think about were the possibilities that lie ahead.
We reached our take-out spot and cached the raft. The hike in consisted of a 1,600-vertical foot climb on a sheep trail into some old logging units. Dylan had to be having some doubts as we picked our way through moss covered cliffs but his attitude quickly changed when we summited the peak and looked over the vast expanse of open hillsides.
We hit an old logging road and started to glass. Moments after, we looked up to see dark, grey clouds rolling in over the peak behind us. The sleet hit our backs hard and we took cover under a nearby pine tree. Sitting, wondering what the weather had in store for us and if we made this grueling hike just to be rained on, I looked across to an opposite hill side and saw a small herd of elk crossing a large clearing, toward a small patch of timber.
We jumped up and ran to the logging road. I brought my binoculars up and glassed a single bull in the back. Dylan ranged him right at 550 yards. Out of my comfort zone with my rifle. Dylan's rifle, however, was custom built for long range shooting. Good thing I talked him into bringing it. He handed me the rifle and I dialed up the scope.
My crosshairs rested behind the bull's shoulder. I took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. Amid the explosion ringing through the mountains, we heard an audible impact as the bullet found its mark. The bull ran a few yards downhill and stopped. I settled in and took a second shot. After a few tense seconds, he was down and the high fives and "bro hugs" began.
Thankfully, the rain and snow rolled past us sometime in all of the chaos. We hiked our way to the bull and admired the massive animal. The admiration phase didn't last long, however. There were only two of us, daylight was fading and we had a bull weighing close to 700 pounds at our feet.
We boned out all the meat and distributed it between our two packs. After looking at the GPS we decided to take the drainage out that leads to the river. It was choked with willow brush and downed logs, but it beat hiking straight uphill and down the cliffs we came up through. We estimated the pack out to be just under four miles back to the raft and needed multiple breaks to rest our legs and backs.
With a little under a mile left, we sat down for some water. I took a drink and heard some movement coming from a rock slide above us. I looked up to see a beautiful, brown, color phase black bear. The exhaustion we had just felt moments ago, was instantly gone. I told Dylan to grab his rifle, as I tore through my pack for the camera.
I swung around and found the bear in the camera, just as Dylan touched off a round at 100 yards. The bear spun and rolled down the hill. After countless days hunting in the spring, Dylan harvested his first black bear.
We recovered the bear and brought it down to the stream that ran in the bottom of the drainage we were in. Combined with the bull, we had a hell of a load to take out. The light was fading and soon we would be in complete darkness. We had to store the meat overnight. We built a small bridge out of logs, marked the spot on our GPS and stored the elk and bear meat over the stream to keep it cool for the night. The light of our headlamps guided us the rest of the way through thick brush and we made it back to the raft at about 9:00 pm. Tired and wet, we loaded the boat and drove home completely exhausted.
The next day after work my Dad floated back in with us to help us pack out the last mile. Dylan loaded his bear meat and hide in his while Dad and I split the elk load. We set off back to the raft, our backs aching under the weight and the light from our headlamps bobbing in the darkness. When we finally unloaded our packs into the raft, we sat back and enjoyed the cool air and the sounds of the river. Two days hunting, two days on the river and two tags filled. The work is hard, but life doesn't get much better than fall in Montana.