By Rita Wolfe
The final weekend of this past hunting season, after 13 days of hunting (not necessarily consecutive), Gary got a nice 5x4 whitetail buck, and after 17 days, I got a 2½ year-old, 5x5 bull elk!!! I’ve taken a number of cow elk over the years, but this was my first bull. Luck had finally caught up to us.
Elements that seem to be at our disadvantage can sometimes work just the opposite. The icy conditions were to Gary’s benefit this time. After hiking around in snow and ice, he took a rest near a beautiful old snag. His focus on a specific direction and down-slope area was suddenly switched when he could hear the buck coming from behind as it crossed an icy opening. Otherwise, he most likely would have never seen the deer crossing 85 yards behind him. Gary’s quick response and shooting abilities paid off. Only four packages of venison from the amazing whitetail buck I harvested last fall in the Swan Valley remained in the freezer, but that’s another story. After 32 years of marriage, we’ve never been without wild game to eat. Aren’t we blessed? I was feeling anxious to fill the freezer before the close of hunting season. When I heard his shot, I felt a deep appreciation for the meat. I just knew it had to be his shot because we were not that far apart, as is usually the case when we are hunting in grizzly bear country. I stopped to retrieve my walkie-talkie and started to head his way. It was quite an easy hike when you know your partner has got game on the ground.
It was snowing hard the next morning and we were excited to return to the same area to look for the magnificent whitetail buck I’d seen the previous day. After hours of sneaking around, the only thing I saw all morning was four dashing does and fawns, and not a single buck or elk track. Gary and I rendezvoused where he’d gotten his buck the previous morning, kicked some snow around, and found nary a sign of the gut pile. There were no bear tracks, but mostly coyote and bird sign. Many critters had been well fed. We took a lunch break and decided to go hunt another area for the afternoon.
So as to cover more country, we took separate routes back to the vehicle. I could see Gary below me once or twice, and then disappear as he worked his way further west. No tracks, no deer, no elk in sight, but the trees, squirrels, birds. What a beautiful day. Wait, what is this? These tracks are “right-now” fresh, definitely at least one bull elk, maybe two! My eyes and feet follow the tracks to my right. Just below me feeding on an open sagebrush hill-side are two cows and a brow-tined bull elk. The bull glances up at me, lowers his head and goes back to feeding. Suddenly, one of the cows jumps, so the other cow and bull jump, too. I’m already focused on the bull and when he jumps, I wait, knowing he’s going to stop. Standing broadside, he hesitated, looked up at me and I squeezed the trigger. It all happened so fast! All three were out of sight instantly and heading down hill. I took off after him in the slippery, fresh snow. I had to give chase for a few minutes before I was on his blood trail. I could see the elk tracks heading up the next hill and I thought “get going.” To my sudden amazement, there was the bull. He couldn’t make it up the next hill and had dropped near some trees that had blocked my view of him. By the time I called Gary on the radio, he knew I’d shot a bull and not a buck. Running full speed, the two cow elk had nearly run him over. He followed their tracks back to me and was thrilled to see the bull lying near the road we had walked in on.
Back home, after hanging and ageing the buck and bull for several days, we carefully deboned them, cut and wrapped the meat and the freezer’s full once again. I relive the experience in my mind and still can’t believe I got a bull. I also think about the women’s shotgun class I took this summer and believe it helped with my reaction time big game hunting. We are so grateful for this superb meat. We worked hard and it paid off.
*Rita is a long time conservation minded sportswoman lviing in Missoula. She is a proud member of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers