feature By: Jack Ballard | January, 19
Given their high drama, baseball’s “grand slam” and “triple play” concepts have worked their way into other sporting pursuits. Saltwater fly fishermen in Florida may pursue an “Everglades slam” – catching a tarpon, redfish, snook and seatrout in a single day. Affluent big-game hunters can pursue a “grand slam” of North American sheep, the Dall, Stone, Rocky Mountain bighorn and desert bighorn varieties. Anglers on Wyoming’s Bighorn River near Thermopolis have a “triple play” in the making, the netting of a rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout in a single outing.
For western big-game hunters, there is an obvious “triple play” available among the most iconic species of the region. Securing a pronghorn buck, a bull elk and a mule deer buck in a single season is a challenging but reasonable goal, whether pursued in a single state or as a multi-state adventure. A white-tailed buck may serve as an alternative to the mule deer for the “triple play,” or it could be added to complete a “grand slam.” However, opportunities to shoot both deer species in a single state in a single year are severely limited, so a western grand slam of this nature pretty much necessitates hunting in more than one state.
I made my first triple play of sorts long before the concept tickled my awareness as an adult hunter. As a junior in high school, I drew a cow elk tag, greatly upping the odds of killing what would be my first elk. I also scored an antelope tag, a species present on our western Montana family ranch, though not in abundance.
Next came a cow elk taken with a close shot in the timber with a Winchester Model 94 .30-30. The harvest was sweet – not so much the aftermath. Returning to school, I found the despotic football coach was benching me from the squad for the coming weekend game due to practice missed while elk hunting. Not all was lost when I ditched the game completely to hunt mule deer on a mountain pasture and dispatched a forkhorn buck with the Swift rifle.
Access to private land on the ranch made getting to second base (antelope and deer) on a triple easy, a fact I failed to appreciate until I left home and began hunting mostly public land. We could apply for antelope tags with “landowner preference,” which greatly upped the odds of drawing. Deer and elk can be hunted in Montana on general tags, and mule deer were plentiful on our property.
Taking a swing at a triple first means acquiring the requisite tags. Several states make the quest much simpler with the option to obtain over-the-counter licenses – or draw them with a minimal number of preference points. This allows a nonresident hunter to map out a plan to secure the three necessary tags in a given year. As it so happens, my home state of Montana is one of the best destinations to secure the requisite tags. With just a couple of “bonus points” a nonresident hunter has very good odds of pulling a big-game combination license for deer and elk; ditto an antelope tag for the sprawling 700 district covering most of southeastern Montana. As an incidental bonus, southeastern Montana is an excellent mule deer destination, making it relatively easy to secure a mule deer (or whitetail) and pronghorn buck in fairly short order, leaving more time to pursue an elk. The state also has a very generous six-week hunting season for all three species (though antelope season opens and closes two weeks before deer and elk), allowing adequate time to make the ambition an accomplishment.
Wyoming is another attractive alternative. A few preference points nearly guarantee a general elk license that allows hunting in numerous districts around the state. Several regions offer an easy draw on deer and pronghorn tags. Season lengths generally span several weeks, and many of them open earlier than Montana’s inaugural antelope opener the second weekend in October, making it possible to hunt in predictably mild weather. Colorado is another possibility, with over-the-counter elk tags and mule deer licenses that can be drawn with a preference point or two. It will take additional preference points to pull a pronghorn license in a good district, however. Across most of the rest of the West, engineering a triple play in a single state will require diligence in acquiring preference or bonus points and navigating a system where all three nonresident tags can be only obtained in a drawing.
When tags are secured, realizing a triple play requires a plan, and typically a backup should the original design fall prey to
Around the year 2000, I set out to shoot three big-game species with a .50-caliber inline muzzleloader. The plan was to hit the serene southeastern prairies on opening weekend of antelope season, motor in the opposite direction for a six-day elk hunt then wrap up the adventure with a mid-November rut hunt for mule deer close to my home at the time in Billings. But the antelope hunt was scuttled when an early-season storm doused the plains with rain.
On the bright side, I located a 5x5 bull by its predawn bugles on the elk opener. A 90-yard poke with the smokepole ended the season less than 15 minutes after it began. The following weekend my five-year-old son and I made the Plan B pronghorn hunt. This time the weather was perfect; crystal blue skies above the multitude of yellow and golden hues of cured grass and pewter swatches of sagebrush on the southeastern plains. When a 13-inch buck walked into close range where I was hiding in the sage, I shot what I assumed to be the two most challenging animals of the quest.
However, a death in the family allowed just two days to hunt mule deer before the funeral. The “easy” hunt culminated with a challenging 225-yard shot in the final hour of the second day. I had become very confident in the accuracy of the muzzleloader and downed the buck with a single shot as it fed behind its tiny herd of three does on a mountainside.
Even with a home-field advantage of hunting in areas with which I’m very familiar, I plan for a minimum of a dozen days to tag a triple. A bull elk is the biggest challenge. Peruse the harvest statistics for elk in pretty much any hunting unit in the Rockies and you will find the average days to shoot a bull number 10 or more. Seven is a reasonable span for hunting a mountain range I’ve hunted for decades. Deer and antelope can easily be combined in eastern or central Montana. Five days is plenty to garner those two species. Realistically, add 50 percent to that figure for hunting as a nonresident in less familiar territory, or in search for a triple involving better-than-average animals on the home front.
The second weekend of antelope season found me hunting in very warm weather west of the sturdy ranching community of Broadus. After passing on a narrow buck with a head-on horn shape that disguised exceptional headgear but offered no shooting opportunity when he turned broadside and bolted, I figured I had burned up my good fortune for the day – perhaps for the hunt. Later in the afternoon, though, a hunting companion spotted what he called a “good buck” sauntering alone along a low ridge. A speedy sneak put me in position to intercept the idling pronghorn, an animal with excellent horn length for the area, and jutting prongs. With John keeping an eye on Dominic, my preschool son who tagged along, time was available to nestle behind the stock of the bolt-action .25-06 Remington and focus solely on the shot. A Federal Premium 100-grain copper slug took the buck at the rear of the front shoulder, dropping the animal on impact. At just shy of 15 inches, the pronghorn was actually a bit better than expected. One species, one shot, one day.
With the rut in full swing in mid-November, I decided to make the final play on a white-tailed buck instead of a muley. Camp burdening my backpack, I toiled up a trail into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in a drainage inhabited by a sparse population of whitetails. With a single-shot rifle in hand, I threw the .243 Winchester to my shoulder when a mature buck appeared just off the trail some 80 yards beyond my position. A quick shot failed to connect, but the buck stopped in the aspens, seemingly unaware of the origin of the shot. The second Federal 95-grain Fusion bullet hit the mark, and the burly 8-point stumbled and fell after a short flight. Three species, four shots, four days.
I will not likely tag a triple so easily in the future, but it most certainly won’t be for a lack of trying.