feature By: Brad Fenson | January, 18
My step into the dream-like landscape was snapped back to reality as we got back to the task at hand, scanning the open meadows and ridgelines for elk tracks. Any tracks in the fresh snow would be burning hot and would certainly lead us to the big, rogue bulls that eked out a mostly solitary existence in the winter wonderland. Hunting the edge of Yellowstone National Park, there were thousands of elk on the front range, where they wandered down to hayfields and agricultural crops to supplement their diet with the sudden onslaught of winter.
Ron Peterson was lying under the front of his truck, ensuring the tire chains were on securely before venturing any farther. We had been traveling the winding, mountainous trails for several days, pushing forward on foot to explore the backcountry for tracks and hidden basins – for any sign of elk. We zigzagged our way up the switchback trails like a locomotive pulling cars full of coal. The truck chugged along as the chains ate their way through the snow and ice to find solid ground. We had made it about three-quarters of the way up the mountain when we found tracks. About six elk had traveled a short distance down the road before bailing off one side to head through a stand of mature pine. Ron smiled and let me know it was “go time.” We parked the truck, secured our packs on our backs and started tracking.
The elk wound their way through the steep terrain with ease where I struggled to stay on my feet with the slippery substrate and acute angle of my boots to the ground. I felt like I was using my toes to grip with each step, and my calves burned from the downhill grind that kept my muscles fully engaged. We made our way down to a series of meadows when I spotted a cow elk on the next ridge. I grabbed Ron by the sleeve and whispered, “Elk.” We sunk in our tracks and pulled out Swarovski 10x42 binoculars to check the tan objects moving through the trees.
Several cows and calves moved in and out of cover as they meandered down the ridge. Sometimes we could see one or two, sometimes none. Just when we thought the herd had dwindled, another would show up and keep us pinned down under cover, but no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t find antlers. Ron suggested we make a wide circle across several draws to see if we could cut any more tracks. Bulls often travel parallel to cows, just to remain undetected.
We grunted and groaned as we side-hilled and gouged our way in and out of the steep ravines. We found a couple of nice mule deer bucks, but no elk seemed to be in the vicinity. All of the elevation we had lost to check the tracks and ravines now had to be reclaimed, so we marched our way up the hill, plowing a furrow through the snow. I was starting to get conditioned to the elevation, hiking the steep country and most of all, keeping up with Ron.
Ron was very familiar with the backcountry and knew every hidden valley, basin and trail that would allow us to check new territory. A long valley behind the front range offered no road access and had been a producer of big bulls in the past. It was a natural migration route for elk moving farther out of the high country, and with the snow starting to let up after days of white out, elk were on the move.
We hiked several miles into the valley with the hopes of cutting fresh bull tracks, as the big bulls would be traveling solo or in small bachelor groups. We had been down on the fields off the front range in the morning and watched hundreds of elk funnel across prime feeding areas and back into the high country. It was a sight to behold, and even though I was spellbound by the incredible number of animals, Ron and the other guides with Montana Guide Service had sad looks on their faces when they recalled the good old days before wolves were returned to Yellowstone. The elk herds may have looked impressive to me, but they were a scant remnant of what they were just a decade before. It made me feel like I was hunting the last bastions of native Yellowstone elk, and I hoped they had the resolve to make a return.
We were on constant guard with the number of grizzly bears and wolves in the area. Every trail we hiked looking for elk, there would be grizzly bear tracks on it later that day or the next morning. It was rather unnerving, knowing we were likely being watched on a regular basis. One old boar had pads the size of dinner plates and left needle-like impressions from its long claws that dug through the snow like our tire chains.
Back in the valley we were protected from the wind and elements. It was pleasant walking, even though my lungs and legs were often burning. Ron warned that things could happen fast, and if we put a bull up out of its bed we would have to assess quickly and hope it provided an opportunity for a shot. The bulls would often stand and stare for a moment before heading out, especially if they didn’t smell us. We kept the wind in mind and inched our way through the pines and small meadows. We cut some older tracks and it was easy to see where the bulls had made their way through the valley, just as Ron had predicted.
When it started to snow again we began hiking our way out of the valley to get back to the truck. There would still be time to check the high country, where big bulls often hid from other elk and hunters. Finding one can be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but after several days of pounding the snow and glassing the ridges, it was time to play any odds we were offered. It wasn’t that we weren’t seeing bulls – we had passed up dozens – but they were all raghorns or small 5-pointers, and not what I had traveled all the way to this historic elk hunting area to hunt. I wanted a big, mature bull, or nothing.
We drove the truck up the switchbacks, getting higher and higher in elevation. Snowflakes pasted themselves to the windshield in random patterns, and the wipers had trouble keeping up with them. There were no fresh tracks and the elk seemed to be changing their historic travel patterns. Perhaps it was a response to the predators that kept constant pressure on them.
We got out near the top of the mountain and walked our way to a small meadow where Ron had often caught elk in the past. We hiked fast to get there and set up for the sunset, but were disappointed when we arrived and there was absolutely no sign; no tracks, no animals, no beds, nothing. We almost felt defeated, or at least I did, after having scoured the hot spots, hiking hidden valleys, checking on meadows where elk could feed undetected, and after days of tramping through deep, wet snow, we still hadn’t even seen a trophy bull. Ron was still all smiles and warned me to always be ready, as you just never know when things will happen.
We snaked our way out of the meadow and headed around the corner of the mountain. The sun was setting. With heavy clouds and huge snowflakes falling, it was getting dark fast. We never quit looking and searched the open understory of the pines for the tan outline of an elk.
As we chugged along I almost forgot about elk for a moment when Ron slapped me on the shoulder, yelled “Elk!” and pointed at the hulking mass of a big bull trotting through the pines quartering toward us. Just as Ron had predicted, we had found a big bull cutting through the high country on a secretive mission taking it from its summer home to the wintering areas with less snow farther down the valley.
The bull and I made eye contact at about the same time, and it stopped dead in its tracks. Ron confirmed it was a big 6x6 and a definite shooter. I wasted no time leveling my crosshair on the vitals of the bull and squeezed the trigger. At the report of my .300 Winchester Magnum, the bull lowered its head and raced off like a thoroughbred at a high-stakes race. I worked the bolt on the rifle, tracked the elk as it appeared and disappeared in the maze of pine trees and somehow found an opening, and I fired again. This time I heard the resounding whack of the bullet finding its mark and the bull ran another 20 yards before tumbling in a heap.
Ron and I were ecstatic and jumped up and down, exchanging high fives. Somehow in the fading light our bull had shown up, and even though the window of opportunity was short, I pulled off the shot. Ron said I hit the bull perfectly with both shots and that the running poke through the trees was great insurance.
It may have been uphill to the downed bull, but we marched directly at it until I could put my hands on its snow-covered antlers. It was the biggest elk I had ever shot, anywhere. My dream of hunting Yellowstone elk had become a reality, and the reward was nothing short of what I’d dreamed of.
Swarovski X5(i) Riflescope
The X5(i) was developed for the long-range hunter but has proved its versatility when it needed to perform during a split-second opportunity. In that high-pressure situation, the scope and rifle performed just like I’d experienced on the range. Sighting the rifle in at 100 yards, I also knew exactly where it was hitting at 200 yards. The clarity of the scope helped on the dark and snowy evening when the bull I shot showed up. I could see every detail of the elk and was able to track it running through the timber to place a second bullet in it.