Monday, December 29, 2008

First Day of Elk Season (2005)

When rose-colored sun kissed Sawtooth Mountain and began melting Sunday morning's frost, Montana's big game season was an hour old, and Augusta's checking station had been open for three hours.

During the morning hours, outbound hunters stopped at the station for coffee, hints on "good hunting areas," and to report their hunting status. The rest of the day, hunters refilled on coffee, checked in game, reported their status and marveled at the days photos posted on the wall.

The biggest marvel of the day was a black bear brought in about 6:30 p.m. the black bear, taken by Ryan Crawford of Helena, weighted 370 pounds. Crawford said that he shot the bear in the Skunk Creek drainage north of Roger's Pass.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game biologist Quentin Kujala said that Crawford's black bear had to be the most impressive animal of any species ever checked through the station. Kujala recorded the bear's length--from nose to tail--at 79 inches and its chest girth at 54 inches. None of the hunters in the crowd were 78 inches tall, 54 inches at the chest or weighed 370 pounds. Everyone got a chuckle when one of the hunters remarked, "That's probably the bear the guy from Lincoln was feeding dog food all summer."

After Crawford left to go home, but while the hunters and FWP personnel were still discussing the huge bar, wildlife veterinarian John Murnane stopped by the station with an antelope he had taken near Grass Range. Murnane works with the grizzly coordinating office of the Interagency Grizzly Study Team near Yellowstone Park.

Murnane said that the average weight of grizzly bears they capture was 350 pounds. As Murnane and Kujala chewed over the facts, they came to realize that the black bear was without the guts, and Murnane's grizzlies were live weight. Both experts believed that the live weight of the black bear was close to 500 pounds.

After the bear, the biggest sight was six pickup trucks that arrived about 1:30 p.m. About 15 hunters piled out of them. Most had blood on their hands, arms, boots and pants, and big smiles on their faces.

The trucks were loaded with nine elk--five bulls and four cows--all taken in Harrison Basin on the Krone ranch, south of Augusta. The bulls ranged in size from 3X3s up to a 6X6 taken by Shaylin Krone.

Matt Troy, a contractor from Fairfield, said that he was with his friend Brian Neckstad of Augusta when an elk ran toward both of them. Troy said, "Brian was quicker than I was, so he ended up with the elk. Troy said that all of the shooting at the Krone ranch was over in 30 minutes.

Fifteen minutes of activity by the checking station team had all the elk measured, tagged and recorded. As Kujala walked from the trucks, he said, "That's a lot of meat to have out in the sun."

Sunday had started with a hard frost, but by noon the temperature was over 70 degrees. The bright sun and balmy temperature brought comments from hunters that they should be fishing, swimming or sunbathing. When one hunter checked in at the end of the day, he said, "All we've got is a tan line from where the sling went over our shoulders."

Working in Sunday's sun at the checking station was Kujala, conservation aides Graham Frye, of Choteau, and Joan Hicks, of Augusta, and Game Warden Jason Snyder, of Great Falls. During one break in activity, Hicks said that the station goes from "busy to crocheting."

Total number of animals checked in the stop-and-go operation was: 15 elk, 15 mule deer, 11 whitetail deer and one black bear. Numbers for opening day in 2004 were: eight elk, 15 mule deer and 10 whitetail deer. There were 43 successful hunters and 108 unsuccessful hunters recorded this year. That compares with 33 successful hunters and 166 unsuccessful hunters in 2004.

Kujala said that with the nice weather and five weeks of hunting season ahead, most hunters are optimistic and very upbeat for a great season.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What is a Successful Elk Hunt?

In my previous post--Father and Son Elk Hunts--I stated that fathers and sons seemed to have more realistic expectations for their hunts.  

A reader emailed me and asked, "What are realistic expectations?"

Before I answer that you might look at another post--Can ya' shoot that there thing?

In that post I stated, "As a rule, about 98-100 percent of hunters had the opportunity to take a 5X5 bull or greater, but only about 60 percent ever succeeded."  It should also be noted that the hunters I took were on seven-day hunts.  That means that they rode in on day one, hunted on days two through six and rode out of the wilderness on day eight.  Additionally, the discrepancy from 100 percent to 60 percent was usually a matter of shooting.  In that vein, when shooters have not trained to shoot, then small things like excitement, adrenaline and physical effort wreck a hunter's marginal shooting ability.

With that said it is interesting to look for facts from the source--Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  You can go to their web page titled, Harvest & Hunt Reports.  It has most of the reports from years 1999-2005 for antelope, black bear, deer, elk, furbearers, moose, sheep, goat, and upland game birds.  Reports for later years have not been completed yet.

Percent success for elk hunters in Montana for the years 1999-2002 was 16.7%, 24.5%, 18.0%, and 19.5%, respectively.  For those same years it took the following number of hunter days to harvest one elk: 1999-44.4, 2000-29.1, 2001-40.1, 2002-37.1 days.

For Region 4 where my camp was located the success was 1999-17.5%, 2000-21.7&, 2001-18.6%, 2002-21.2&.  Days to harvest ran from 26.8 days in 2000 to 34.1 days in 1999.

These numbers are overall success.  FWP statistics further define success by the percent of cows and calves harvested within the overall success.  Most regions harvest 50 to 54% cows and calves.  That leaves less than 50 percent to all bulls--including spikes.

So, what are "realistic expectations?"

Take it from Larry from Florida (in photo above).  This was his first elk.  It was also his first elk hunt.  And, his first trip to Montana's wilderness.  He shot the first elk he considered.  It was on the sixth day of his eight-day hunt.  He has quite a story to tell about this elk.  First thing off the horses, he couldn't get the bolt open on his Browning BAR.  We had to do what we used to do with M60 Machine Guns that jammed--we "kick started them."  Put the edge of your boot on the charging handle and jump on it.  (there is a learning lesson here: Rifles held in scabbards on horses tend to gather some moisture.  In below zero weather, rifles, triggers and scopes do not always perform as they would in sunny land.  Hint-oil doesn't help; it turns to a thick sludge below zero.)  Back to Larry, and his guide Don Otto.  They walked up a small ridge and two bulls were bedded.  They were only about 50 yards away.  The bulls got up, looked at Larry and Don.  Don asked Larry if he liked either one.  Larry replied by shaking his head up-and-down, sighted and shot.

My comments to people who say they are "trophy hunters," is that after over a hundred years of records being kept by Boone & Crockett, and others, there is still only ONE NUMBER ONE elk.  That is a fact.  Another fact--from both me and FWP--is that most elk hunters are not successful.  And, the ones that are take more cows and calves than bulls.

Shoot the first elk that looks good.  Don't sell yourself short.  Plan your hunt.  Quantify what you want out of your hunt--a bull, an elk, a wilderness experience, a reason to get out of town and have fellowship with like-minded people.  Maybe all of the above.  Maybe only a few of those elements interest you.  Just keep that in mind when planning your hunt and contacting potential outfitters, guides etc.  Caveat emptor.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Father and Son Elk Hunts

The most memorable hunts I have been on were with fathers and sons. Many hunters have unrealistically high expectations of hunting. One would think that a father/son team would have equally high expectations, but I have found that those expectations are usually more in line with reality than is normally the case.

Oddly enough, the father/son teams are unusually successful. Maybe it is because fathers seem to set aside their dreams and focus on helping their sons have a memorable experience--similar to some experience the fathers had in their youth.

The last year I was an outfitter I had a father/son team who were both successful. When we left camp, the sky was bright, but the rising sun had yet to touch the western peaks. There was little snow, but a heavy frost. Less than a half mile from camp, we saw a herd of over 200 elk. This was Thanksgiving week and the elk had bunched for their migration.

We tied the horses and made a sneak to get ahead of the herd. (Knowing where the elk usually travel makes a big difference here.) I set the hunters up in a tree line of a large meadow. At first we didn't see any bulls. The elk had stopped in the meadow and were grazing. Because of the slope we couldn't see the main bunch below us. As they milled around several bulls drifted in front of us. The son didn't see one that he liked. I asked the father if he wanted to take one. The dad hymed and hawed and said he didn't want to spoil things for his son.
I replied, "If you see one you like take it. Sort of one in the hand kinda thing. With this herd here we can hunt for a big one for your son all day, and possibly tomorrow."

He chose the largest of the six-by-sixes (good mature bull with a 32" spread), and shot. The bull was down.
I had everyone stay low and took the son down a hump in the meadow to watch how things developed. We just kneeled down in the frosty grass. Was it the way the sound echoed in the meadow, or the way the stars had aligned that night, who knows, but the entire herd went past us in almost single file.
I told the son, "You'll have to wait for a while. The biggest bulls will be the last ten elk in the line. When they get here pick the one you want and take him. You'll have about 30 seconds to decide on the one."

The son was trying hard to contain himself. For over three minutes elk walked single file within 40 yards of us. The lead cow never even showed us her "Mickey Mouse ears." (I always refer to a cow that spots me as having Mickey Mouse ears. That is how they look when they spread the ears and look directly at you--just before they run off!)

The bull chosen was third from the end. Forty yards away--bang--he was down--then the young man could feel his knees shake without wondering if it would affect his aim.

The photos in this post were taken just after the shots, but before we caped and gutted them.
Another great Father and Son Elk Hunt.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Good Planning

Like most worthwhile things in life, elk hunting takes good planning.

My grandfather, Charlie Carter was a planner and a rather smart man.  When we were planning our garden one spring, grampa gave us a few pointers for gardening.  (Grampa wasn't a gardener, he was a cowboy, but well versed in many things.)  

One of his pointers for gardening was, "You should never fertilize squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and the like."

When we asked why, he replied, "Well, it causes the vine to grow so fast that it drags the vegetables around and wears the hide off."

So much for today's gardening (planning) lesson.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Can ya' shoot that there thing?

Shooting practice at the 200 yard line at Fort Ord, California, April 1987.  Shooter Russell Holt and coach (me) were TDY shooter at the 6th Army Marksmanship Training Unit.

Shooting or Marksmanship?

When hunters have asked me how they could improve their chances of getting an elk I have one answer.  Develop a consistent level of marksmanship.  As a rule, about 98-100 percent of my hunters had the opportunity to take a 5x5 bull or greater, but only about 60 percent ever succeeded.  For clarification those opportunities were at ranges less than 200 yards.

If a person just goes out and shoots a few times each year they can never develop into a marksman.  One needs to go further--practice to develop the skill.  The adage, "Practice makes perfect," is only half corrrect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.  As a competitive shooter, I know what that means.  As an elk hunter, I don't have to have the skills required for national level competition found at the Marksmanship Units.  But the ability to turn a conscious act into a subconscious skill is necessary if you want the big bull--on demand.  The schedule for the Marksmanship Unit was to live fire every other day, and dry fire on the other days.  Dry firing is important.  Perhaps, dry firing is required.  Only through dry firing can you really see what the rifle is doing.  There is no recoil or loud noise to disrupt the firing process.  And if you followthrough you will be able to spot most of your errors without a coach.

As this post is being written the smallbore leagues have started across the country.  Smallbore shooting is great to develop that unconscious skill, show your spirit, and enjoy fellowship with like-minded people.  It doesn't cost much.  After purchase of a rifle, glove and jacket, the rest is nickels and dollars for shells and entry fees.  After dry firing, smallbore and air rifle shooting will improve your shooting more than shooting a big bore rifle.  Shooting a smallbore or air rifle gives you feedback of where that shot went--one step beyond dryfiring, while still not having too much recoil or noise.  (wear ear and eye protection)

For information on competitive shooting you can contact the National Rifle Association competitive rifle shooting programs.

Don't be a shooter.  Shoot to be a markman.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Technorati Profile

Montana's Swift Fox

This doesn't have anything to do with Montana Elk Hunting, but it is a good story about wildlife in Montana.  I wrote this 16 September 2005.  It is still pertinent.

A diminutive, nocturnal, prairie resident, although out of public view, is north-central Montana's small success story.

Weighing only four-to six pounds, the swift fox is making a comeback.

Brian Giddings, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Furbearer Coordinator said that there is no record of a swift fox in Montana between 1918 and 1978.  Montana FWP listed swift fox as extirpated--extinct within Montana--in 1959.

Most biologists agree that swift fox were an integral part of the landcape when the first Euro-American explorers of "the west" arrived in the early 1800s.   Meriwether Lewis reported swift fox near the Missouri and Marias Rivers in 1805 and 1806.

Giddings said two practices that led to reduction of swift fox in Montana were loss of prairie habitat through farming and unlimited trapping.  He also said that swift fox can only survive in short-grass prairie habitat like that found east of the Rocky Mountains.  Swift fox spend most daylight hours in burrows.  Their food choices include ducks and native ground-nesting birds in the spring, small mammals like ground squirrels most of the year and lots of grasshoppers in August and September.

Records of Hudson Bay Company show that 117,025 swift fox pelts were sold in London between 1835 and 1877.  Hudson Bay Company had trappers throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Montana.

Giddings, a 20-year veteran of FWP, said that historically, swift fox scavenged wolf-killed bison, and with the elimination of bison, so went some swift fox.  He added that poison set for wolves and prairie dogs during the late 1800s and early 1900s eliminated most Montana swift fox.

In 1972, the Canadian government developed the Cochrane Ecological Institute in Alberta to study and raise captive swift fox for later release in the wild.  Giddings said Canadian biologists released swift fox along the U.S. border only to find half were "escaping" to the U.S.

In 1978, in order to protect swift fox, FWP classified them as furbearers and closed swift fox to trapping, Giddings said.

Giddings also added that the Swift Fox Conservation Team, a group of biologists representing wildlife departments of 10 states, have been working for sustainable numbers of swift fox, and have developed state-controlled management plans rather than depending on federal management and Endangered Species status.  The states that comprise the SFCT are Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, North Dakota and Colorado.  Giddings added that the program's true success is that only 1 to 1.5 million dollars has been spent on swift fox conservation by all 10 states since inception in 1994.

About the same time that the SFCT was formed, the Cochrane facility approached the Blackfeet Nation (in the U.S.) with an offer to continue the swift fox breeding and release operation, said Minette Johnson, Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife.  Johnson said Defenders decided to pay for logistics and maintenance of Cochrane, as they believed the Blackfeet Nation had some of the best remaining short-grass prairie in Montana.  In 1998, the Blackfeet reintroduced 30 juveniles from Cochrane to an area near the Two Medicine and Badger Creek drainages.  From 1998 through 2003, 122 swift fox were released on Blackfoot land.

Johnson said Defenders' previous experience with wolves showed that reintroductions were costly, time consuming, and polarizing.  She said swift fox reintroduction had none of those elements.  The 1998 release cost about $30,000.  This winter (2005), seven years after the first release, a census will be conducted to determine population and density of swift fox on both sides of the Montana-Canada border.  Johnson said it is expected to be so successful that reintroduction will halt in that area.  She also noted that since swift fox do not impact livestock and only kill small mammals like gophers and prairie dogs, farmers and ranchers tend to like them.

One of the people doing this winter's census is University of Montana graduate student David Ausband, who has been studying swift fox on the Blackfeet Nation for four years.  Ausband said that last month he trapped and radio-collared two juvenile swift fox located south of Montana's Sun River, 70 miles south of the Blackfeet tribal land.

Ausband added, "It's pretty awesome to come to know individual foxes.  Even with a scientist's detached perspective, it is hard not to watch an animal from mother--to birth--to mating--to death and not feel an attachment to the animal."

While swift fox numbers currently look great, Giddings, Johnson and Ausband said they worried that future loss of short-grass prairie would mean loss of swift fox.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Montana Elk Hunting Survival Tips, Part 2b

This is part 2b.  Go to the previous post on November 30 for part 2a.  The above picture is Nick Daniele, a pilot for United Airlines, his first elk--a 5x5, and me.  We are about 200 yards north of Headquarters Creek (see map on previous post) and 1/4 mile east of the North Fork of Sun River.  The vegetation and tree cover is similar to the area that the two elk hunters became lost in in the previous story.  The Gates Park Fire of 1988 burned through leaving a landscape that always appears "the same."

What can be learned from the experience of the two lost hunters in the previous post?

The first thing is an age-old mantra for being lost: IF YOU ARE LOST, DON'T GO ANYWHERE.

It is difficult to say when the hunters knew (or believed) that they were lost.  Instead of going only 400-500 yards back to the horses, they traveled nearly three miles.  There is a tendency when you are lost to say, "Well, I'll just go to that hill, or tree, or ridge, or cliff, and then I will see where I am.  That is followed by saying, "Well, I'll just go to that hill, or tree, or ridge, or cliff, and then I will surely know where I am.  Don't believe it.  That little voice in your head is doing what many people think politicians should do, namely "DO SOMETHING, EVEN IF IT IS WRONG.  What the voice should be telling you is the adage some wish politicians would do, "Don't just do something, stand there."

Secondly, keep your senses about you.  The two hunters were still elated at their good fortune for killing two six-point bulls in the same location.  In their minds, they were no longer foreigners in a strange land--they came from an urban environment and were now in Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, 30 miles from the nearest phone and over 100 miles from the nearest hospital.  They had become "old hands," able to navigate the wilds and successfully kill Big Game in Montana.  Don't let emotions lull you into complacency and becoming lost.

Thirdly,  know where you are.  From the kill site, the hunters could look down on the Sun River, Ray Creek, and Headquarters Creek--and almost see the horses.  They apparently drifted too far north in the first 100-200 yards, and drifting away from the horses.

Fourth, look all around your location when you are involved in something.  Slowly creeping through the trees, with your head down looking for tracks and sign is an easy way to get lost.  It will surprise most people who have been intent on one direction, to look back and find that the reverse route looks completely different.

Finally, take a break.  Even before you are lost (or believe you are lost) sit down and rest.  If you think you are moving too slowly, slow down.  Most hunters move too fast and push elk out ahead of them.  I'm not sure how fast an elk sees things, but US Army sniper school teaches that the human eye can discern any movement greater than 1/60 second.  That means the sniper can see someone turn their head if the head is moved 90 degrees in less than about 20-25 seconds.  By moving slower you will scare less game, see more game and conserve your energy.  And, conserving energy is the prime consideration for being successful at Montana Elk Hunting.

Slow down, know where you are, know what you are doing and enjoy your next elk hunt.