Last September, seven days into the 2014 Montana archery season, my good friend Alec Underwood and I were headed for one of the many mountain ranges that define the western Montana landscape. Both of us were — and still are — students at the University of Montana in Missoula, where I am a senior studying business and Alec is a senior in wildlife biology. This was the second weekend of the season, and we would be hunting public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
We already had one good bull to our credit. In the season’s first weekend, Alec had arrowed a dandy 5x5 bull as the animal came to a natural wallow just before sundown. Good as the area was that we hunted that weekend, we felt it was best to move to a new region. We had already packed Alec’s bull about 3 ½ miles out of steep country, carrying the quartered animal and our camping gear to lower elevations on our backs on multiple trips, and now we hoped I could find a bull in country somewhat less demanding. We did have classes, after all, on Monday that we hoped to attend.
So it was that we rose early the Sunday morning of the second weekend, fighting the urge to stay in our sleeping bags and out of the cold mountain air. But we were soon up, well before 5 a.m., and downed only minimal provisions before heading uphill, through endless stands of lodgepole pines.
Our first ascent was up a small drainage we knew held elk. Last summer, Alec had a seasonal job with the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Department, and on his free days he scouted these mountains. Similarly, I’m a fly-fishing guide in summer, working generally out of the Missoula area, and I, too, had scoped out this big country in July and August on my days off, checking for elk sign. Now on this September morning, with the moon high and bright and the mountain air fresh, we were eager to see whether our advance work would pay off.
• • •
In some ways, the morning was similar to those I experienced years earlier in the Rockies of western Colorado, where my dad, Dennis Anderson, whose stories appear on this page on Sundays, took me on my first archery elk hunt. This was when I was 13 years old. On that hunt, we also slept in tents and rose early. The difference then was that we hunted with an outfitter, and rode out of camp each morning and returned late each evening on horses. Now Alec and I had only our legs for transportation and what we carried on our backs for provisions. These included a lightweight tent, sleeping bags and freeze-dried food. Also, in the event we encountered a grizzly, I packed a .454 Casull handgun. A good day, I figured, was one in which I never had to reach for it.
We hadn’t hiked much more than a mile when, amid the morning’s gathering light, and as if on queue, the screeching, high-pitched bugle of a bull elk broke the dawn’s silence. Perhaps, I thought, after being so close to — yet so far from — drawing back my bow on a bull during the 2013 season, I would finally get my chance.
“This is the bull we’re looking for,” Alec whispered.
“I hope so,” I said.
About every two minutes, the bull bugled, as if to announce his presence, and perhaps dominance, to the surrounding mountains. The good news was that he was close, perhaps 200 yards away.
We needed a plan, and we quickly decided to loop downwind of where we thought the bull was. Our intent was to conceal ourselves from the animal’s nose, which is an elk’s best defense.
Because Alec had already taken a bull, I would be the shooter, should we get close enough for me to draw back. Thus, Alec positioned himself about 75 yards behind me, and we began an alternating series of calls imitating cow elk.
Five minutes passed. The bull responded to our calls with his bugles. But he was reluctant to close the distance between him and us.
Then, taking the bait, the as-yet-unseen animal moved closer, vulnerable now, it seemed, in his breeding season, to the possibility that a cow elk or two might be available to join his harem.
Finally, just 60 yards in front of me, the bull appeared, paused, threw his head back and screamed a bugle through the lodge poles. Then he trotted in my direction along a path that might, I thought, give me a shot.
Drawing back my bow, I felt my heart throb in my neck as I intently watched the elk’s movements. At first visible, then disappearing briefly behind one lodgepole, then another, the bull showed itself, disappeared, and showed itself again. Wait, I thought.
Then, in the blink of an eye, that chance presented itself when the bull stopped between two trees. Settling my site pin, I touched the trigger of my release. The arrow flew true to its target, and disappeared behind the elk’s shoulder. Soon I heard the bull crash downhill in the near distance.
“He’s hit good,” I told Alec.
We let an hour pass, before finding the bull not 80 yards away. I approached the downed elk with great excitement but also with respect and reverence. Killing such an animal is something that should be done responsibly and ethically, under fair-chase conditions.
Thanking the bull for its life, we snapped a couple of photos. Then the real work began, as we quartered and removed the meat from the carcass. Along with Alec’s bull, this elk would sustain me and a few of our roommates for the winter with healthy, organic nutrition you can’t buy in a grocery store.
Loading our packs, we made two trips to the truck with the meat and antlers. The going was slow: Both of our packs weighed in excess of 100 pounds. Three hours and four sore legs later, we headed home to butcher the meat and get it into a freezer.
• • •
Taking an elk on public land, do-it-yourself style, was one of the most exciting and fulfilling moments I’ve experienced while hunting. It required more work and planning than almost any other outdoor pursuit I’ve done. Still, I made myriad mistakes, and learned from them before tasting success.
Now, in January, as thousands of Minnesotans plan fall trips to the West to hunt elk, some of what I’ve learned might come in handy. Such as:
• Research. What state will you hunt, and more specifically, what hunting unit(s)? Some states require years of applying before drawing a tag; others have over-the-counter tags available. National Forest Service maps, state hunt planners and Google maps are great tools for getting started.
• Determine how you will hunt. If you’re bow hunting, elk will generally be farther back into the mountains, in higher elevations during September bow seasons. Backpack hunting or hiring a horse rig to set up a “drop camp” can get you deeper into elk country to find less-pressured elk.
• Pick a time. If you are both a bow and rifle hunter, and looking to go on your first DIY elk hunt, archery hunting during the September rut is arguably a better experience, because it is easier to find and get into bugling bulls during the rut than in the late rifle seasons.
• Training and preparing. Being physically conditioned to comfortably hunt in the mountains for a week is something only achieved through months of training. Running and hiking up steep hills with a loaded backpack are the two most important training regimens in my summer routine.
E-mail Trevor Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org