First Hunt for a Montana Private Land Bull
We hunted in the morning but could not find a fresh elk track. We had started hiking an hour before sunrise to reach the top of a ridge. The view was spectacular, overlooking miles of alfalfa and winter wheat fields with a backdrop of rocky cliffs and pine-studded ridges. This steep country is where the elk typically hung out for the day and catching them coming back from a night feed was part of the strategy.
We hiked down the ridge to check adjacent draws and spotted some cows scattered in the timber. Upon closer inspection, we found hundreds of elk settling for the day. There were dozens of bulls, some sporting lots of antler. Unfortunately, the elk were on the neighboring property and safe for the time being. This situation is one of the common challenges of hunting private land.
The adventure started two days prior when I traveled to Big Sky Country. Watching the road with the incredible scenery in every direction while driving into camp was challenging. Towering buttes shadowed the rugged mountain range to the west with grassy bottoms topped with pine. Clearwater trout streams crisscrossed the highway, while deer and antelope appeared where habitat would naturally draw your eye. It would be my first Montana elk hunt.
I met Charles Oberly in Mexico on a Coues deer hunt. The burly, barrel-chested gent was quiet but knew how to find game. The discussion soon centered around elk, deer and antelope when the conversation changed to Charles’ main gig, Oberly Outfitting.
Our license applications had been submitted and November had turned up on the calendar before we knew it. I was hunting with my good buddy Brooks Hanson, with Camp Chef. Brooks and I have shared some excellent hunting and fishing adventures across North America and met up at the riverside cabins where Charles bases his operation. On my recommendation, Brooks had come on the trip, never having met Charles, and the two hit it off like meat and potatoes.
The conversation after dinner was “guess that movie,” and the two bantered back and forth, throwing out quotes and laughing at responses. Famous one-liners from comedies over the last two decades flowed like my hunting pals were secret Hollywood scriptwriters. I looked like a lost child, with a blank look on my face that matched most of my answers. However, my hunting pals were plugged into the same movie theater speakers as if talking in code. We went to bed with our sides hurting from laughing so hard.
The first morning out was cold. It had snowed, and the temperatures dropped, making the landscape a crunchy mess. We loaded into Charles’ Suburban and headed out with the headlights catching deer bounding across the driveway. I quickly became disoriented and asked questions about where we were headed. Hunting private ground meant keeping the elk and deer on the right side of the fence, and we traveled a big circle to ensure our headlights would not give away our presence.
We parked in a steep draw to keep the vehicle out of sight and started the long hike up a spur to some gnarly old trees that provided a small quantity of cover on a vantage point. Our binoculars scanned the horizon. Frost grew on Charles’ beard, and the wind made it obvious why our outfitter dressed in a wool jacket and cap with ear coverings. Brooks and I found what little shelter was available to stay out of the elements.
SWITCHING TO DEER
Charles spotted some cow elk on a distant fence line, but no bulls showed. There was a chance the elk made their way back up the butte in the darkness, or they could be on other ranches surrounding the butte. We hunted until midmorning when Charles told us it was time to hunt deer. I am used to hunting the entire day for elk, but private ground means more looking than hiking. Besides, there were so many Whitetails, we looked forward to some time in the cottonwood bottoms along the river. If the winds were right, we would continue hunting elk later in the evening.
The following day brought warmer weather, but the elk were absent. That is when we found the mind-boggling herd of elk on the neighbor’s land. There were so many elk that it is hard to describe. Charles knows that patience will pay off and that putting in the time and sticking to a plan leads to success.
The next day we opted to hunt some country farther south. We headed out early and wound our way up ranching roads until we could overlook miles of country. Elk tracks were everywhere in the snow, and it didn’t take long to spot tan-colored hides wandering through the trees. There were lots of cows, but no big bulls to grab our attention. It was interesting to see new country and appreciate the incredible elk population of the area. We met the rest of Charles’ family before heading back to the cabins for an evening hunt.
Brooks and I had both taken nice Whitetail bucks. The hunting was impressive, with dozens of bucks chasing does across fields and along the river flats. It filled the days, and we feasted on deer every night in camp, which I had the pleasure of preparing. The landowner had come down and joined us for dinner. He raved about the deer meat and said he had honestly never had it taste so good. He politely asked if he could bring some family back the following night for another rendition of the local deer transformed into table fare. It was fun to share the bounty and background of cooking wild game.
We talked about elk and how much impact they can have on crops when over a thousand come each night to fill their bellies. Taking a couple of elk a week is low hunting pressure compared to the public land in adjacent areas.
It leads to interesting management strategies where the elk population can proliferate and learn to stay in an area with relative safety. It is a balancing act between landowner tolerance, outfitter success, and impact on other hunters. Charles is well aware of all factors and does his best to help all factions remain happy.
Ranchers find a balance between tolerating wildlife and managing cattle production. Clients harvest bulls during the archery and firearms season, but locals fill a lot of antlerless tags in the late season. It is a complex situation that I was happy to be part of as a hunter, but I would not want to make management decisions. Elk can be a problem, but they can also be a benefit. It just depends on what side of the fence you are on.
Fence lines are distinct when it comes to elk. The physical markers are a line that does not get crossed, so hunting requires careful consideration. I was not used to the waiting, but Charles had the game figured out. He explained that the elk would do a circuit around the butte and always show up. You just have to be patient. Wind direction, hunting pressure, predators, and a host of other things all play a role in elk movement. Learning to be patient was starting to grow on me, and glassing the fields was much easier than hiking mountains.
We had two days left to hunt when we headed out from the cabin in the pale moonlight. It was frosty and the kind of morning where elk should be on the move looking for the best groceries. We drove downwind of the fields and circled back towards the butte on the other side of the ag fields. We got in place and started to glass. It seemed strange that the elk were not in the fields yet again. Turning to whisper to Charles, I caught movement on the butte behind us—elk.
A couple of cows were prominent but glassing the trees showed several nice bulls. The elk had returned to cover well before sunrise and beat us into the timber. We were lucky to catch a view. It was the first time we wandered into the pine forest searching for elk. The game trails were beaten deep into the ground, trees were turned to tatters during the rut, and droppings were scattered everywhere. It was a venerable elk highway.
The elk did not come across on the trails, and Charles caught movement well above. We scrambled up the steep terrain to the base of the cliffs. The pines stretched another 300 yards to the rock, and we no sooner got to our vantage point when elk started to cross at the base of the rocks.
AT THE READY
Charles told me to get ready and to focus my attention on the game trail where the elk were exiting the trees.
A spike bull held his head high and ran into the open. Several cows followed together in a tight group. A five-point bull emerged. I placed my crosshair on the vitals and watched the bull run across the opening. The hill was so steep that I was having trouble staying in place, sliding down the hill when I was concentrating on aiming. Brooks sensed the trouble, crawled in below me, found something solid to rest his feet on, and pushed his shoulder up into my feet to stabilize my body. It made a world of difference.
Charles was glued to his binoculars. He paused to tell me not to shoot the wrong bull. There were several nice bulls in the group, and he would tell me when to shoot. It was over 300 yards at a steep uphill angle. With a solid rest, I watched elk file out of the trees, knowing I had a steady rest for a perfect shot. A nice 6×6 showed, and I could feel my finger tighten on the trigger. There was no call for a shot, and I watched the bull prance across the open. The number of elk was starting to slow down. I was starting to worry that we had inadvertently let all the bulls sneak by or that the one we were after gave us the slip. Big bulls tend to find a back door when required.
Antlers flashed in the trees, and I saw a bull slowly appear. Charles calmly indicated, “That’s your bull.” The words no sooner left his lips than my Remington 700 AWR roared. The bull fell on impact and started to roll down the steep terrain, disappearing on a slight ledge. I have always been a fan of solid copper bullets and the Remington .300 Win Mag Barnes TSX BT paid for itself in elk steak.
It was a moment of elation for all, and we enjoyed our success before the hike. I was anxious to get to the bull, losing sight of him while crashing down the hill.
The smile on Charles’ face told me not to worry, as he knew the bull had found a solid resting place above. The open timber was easy to navigate, and it did not take long to find antler tips showing through the dark trunks of the pines. We had hunted the full extent of our private ground and were successful by being patient and listening to our guide.
The trip had been a tremendous amount of fun, reminding me of hunting with old friends. Charles is one of those outfitters that quickly become a great friend and makes you look forward to the next adventure. Brooks is always there for support in any way possible and knows more one-liners from the movies than anyone else I know.
MARINATED BACKSTRAP ON THE GRILL BOX
The landowner vowed to take his kids hunting for deer after enjoying several dinners in camp. The Whitetail backstrap was marinated for 10 hours and seared to perfection on a Camp Chef Grill Box.
2 pieces of deer backstrap, 6 to 8 inches long
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 Worcestershire sauce
- Juice from one lemon
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 seasoned pepper or Montreal steak spice
Combine all ingredients in a sealable bag or container and mix. Add the meat and marinade for two to 12 hours.
Set the Grill Box on a Camp Chef stove and preheat the grill to 400°F. Remove the meat from the marinade and let any additional oil drip off before setting it on the grill. Leave covered for 3 minutes and turn the meat over. Cook for 4 minutes and remove the meat and wrap in foil. Let the meat rest for 3 to 4 minutes before cutting and serving.