The last best hunting grounds

The most important season of the year

When cool winds turn Montana’s leaves shades of gold and red and the year’s first snows dust our mountain peaks, a special time of year has arrived in Big Sky Country: hunting season. For many Montanans, this is the most important season of the year. It is deeply embedded in our state’s culture and identity, even though it can seem bizarre and, perhaps, barbaric for the uninitiated.

Montana’s general hunting season opens this Saturday, Oct. 20. Seasons for antelope, most birds, and big game archery are already underway.

The age-old pursuit of hunting can link a college student in Bozeman to a third-generation rancher in Big Timber. Perhaps the best way to unite two such disparate groups is to recognize one unchanging fact: Hunters are among the best storytellers, rivaled only by fishermen. Whether it’s an old-timer spinning yarns around the campfire about the deer or elk before they built “those damn condos” or a college student telling his roommates about a successful hunt, the art of storytelling runs through the center of this tradition.

There are myriad more components to hunting, of which a few deserve special mention. Ethical hunting depends heavily upon the concept of fair chase, a philosophy that strikes a balance between the hunted and the hunter. By not taking an animal from a motorized vehicle, with the use of a spotlight, or inside a game farm, the hunter succeeds, but the hunted has a fighting chance and often escapes.

Hunting is also one of the best meal plans for a college student. A successful day in the field can stock a freezer with free-range, hormone-free, grass-fed meat for an entire winter.

If you’ve never spent a day in the field, consider trying out this oldest of traditions at some point during your college experience. I guarantee you’ll understand this state better afterward. If you’re already a hunter — serious or occasional dabbler — take advantage of Montana’s world-class opportunities and work to protect them for future generations.

This feature explores some of the significance of hunting in modern Montana. Every hunter has a story, and we hope you’ll share yours at msuexponent.com/HuntingStories.

The hardest hunt of my life

— Brent Zundel

The most memorable hunting experience I’ve ever had was taking a mountain goat in the Crazy Mountains. As a sophomore in high school, I drew this coveted tag and spent most of the season trying to find the perfect goat with my dad.

On the last day of the season, my dad and I arrived at the campground in the dark and spent hours trekking along game trails up the side of a 9,000-foot ridge, trying not to be too concerned about the fresh mountain lion tracks we discovered at around 8,500 feet.

We scrambled to the head of a glacial valley, I spotted a nanny goat on the opposite ridge, set up my tripod in 2 feet of snow, readied my dad’s .30-378 Weatherby Magnum — affectionately nicknamed “Bertha” — and set my sights dead on at what I estimated was 300 yards.

Bertha let out a deep boom, and the goat dropped instantly. After a short hike around the cirque, we snapped a couple pictures and field dressed the goat. By this time, the sun had set behind the mountain and the early 4:30 p.m. dark of winter had nearly engulfed us.

By the time we began descending our original ridge, it was pitch black. We made quick time through a combination of walking downhill and sliding down the late-season snow banks on our butts. At one point, I couldn’t stop myself, slammed into my stationary father and sent him careening 30 yards down the mountain — stopping just feet from the top of a 40-foot cliff.

We kept expecting to hit our tracks again, and the glaring lack of them genuinely began to worry me when my flashlight died. Some 20 minutes later, my dad’s headlamp began to flicker. I began to wonder if my still-fresh goat hide could keep both of us warm all night.

Just as my dad’s light gave out completely, we crossed the creek where we had begun our journey and ran straight into our tracks — 100 yards from the truck. I collapsed into the snow near the truck and rested before loading up after a 15-hour day of hiking.

“Sometimes we even remember the gun and license”

— Nate Carroll

Nate Carroll, a graduate student in paleontology, took a casual friend from chemistry class elk hunting near his property in Ekalaka, located in extreme eastern Montana. Nate had never been archery hunting before, but they managed to enjoy themselves anyway.

While climbing around the buttes for which the area is famous, they jumped a female bobcat and her kittens and were able to observe them and snap photos for a while.

Nate’s friend got on a large mulie buck and was able to sneak up within a couple hundred yards. At this point, he removed his shoes and hiked in only his socks, so that he could move more stealthily. Unfortunately, the buck busted him, but Nate enjoyed basking in the sun, “which is really the way [he] likes to hunt.”

Some of Nate’s best hunting stories are about the relationships he’s formed with friends and family out in the field. Whenever he goes hunting with his grandpa, there are a few items he never forgets: gloves, summer sausage, “a good knife to cut the summer sausage,” and coffee.

“Sometime we even remember the gun and license,” he concluded, smiling.

A bit of experience pays off

— Kyle Shuck

Fresh out of hunter’s safety at 14 or 15, Kyle Shuck, now a senior in civil engineering, was hunting the prairie and rolling hills around Big Timber for antelope with his dad and some of his dad’s friends. Kyle was sure that the purpose of the day for all of them was to find a buck for him.

One of the most unique aspects of antelope hunting is the opportunity to spot them in the distance and then stalk them by sight. The party spotted a herd of antelope and started to sneak on them from about 500 yards. Around 300 yards away, the antelope spotted their group and bolted.

Quickly, the hunters determined that the antelope would have to cut behind them to escape the valley in which they had been grazing. Kyle, the youngest of the group, booked it to a nearby hill. In his youth, he didn’t set up by finding a good rest or using a tripod; he remained standing, looking for the antelope around the hill.

In no time, the antelope — the second-fastest land animal in the world — exploded past the hill. Kyle took three shots off-hand at 100 yards and missed all of them.

Before their final escape, the antelope had to circle past one more hill. Kyle again managed to cut them off at the hill, but didn’t set up this time either, missing the next shots.

His dad’s friend, with a few more winters under his belt, had set up a hill down the line. After Kyle’s chances, the antelope ran right by his dad’s friend, who had been calmly waiting the entire time. He successfully took one. Kyle explained that this day demonstrates the need for patience — and a bit of experience.