Bill and I did not draw tags last season for the district we’ve been regularly antelope hunting together now for numerous years. I was pretty excited when we got the envelopes for our tags this season. Unfortunately, do to athletic endeavors, Todd and Erin were not able to make the trip this season; however, literally the day prior to the weekend opener, I made the decision to go regardless as who knew when the opportunity might ever present itself again. Besides, Bill and the other usual company I’ve gotten to know over the years, who are often there as well, are excellent company. Time at the campground during the evenings listening to the day’s stories is always quality, far away from the contemporary world. In a sense, parts of eastern Montana are a time-warp. Bill was going regardless, meeting up with the other folks as well, so I did not mind procrastinating. Once one’s children are old enough to hunt, the time in the field is high grade, which remained a minor shadow over this year’s journey. The beauty of Montana is that in its vastness there is so much diversity. Driving Hwy 12 prior to Helena, looking over into the Deerlodge country, the Pintler’s were snow capped and the foliage along the Clark Fork was beautiful. There were antelope along the interstate near Gold Creek. The Little Blackfoot was spectacular as well with the Autumn colors. We noted two Golden Eagles along the drive this year, which was a new first. Dropping into Helena, MacDonald Pass was clear. Near Prickly Pear Creek, the usual herd of antelope between Helena and Townsend surfaced as well. It’s a vast open field looking over into the Canyon Ferry area, a popular fishery. It was a blue bird day, cool with the sun shining. In year’s past we had taken Bill’s prairie schooner over, a rear pickup bed Alaskan camper that he had mounted on a small trailer. A true jitney of a contraption with wood interior panels. This had now gone to another family member following an upgrade to something a little more retirement like.Continuing east, one views the Big and Little Belt ranges. I’m particularly fond of the Little Belt’s having skied in the Baldy area during the kid’s ski races at Showdown between White Sulphur and Great Falls. Beautiful recreation country with abundant game. We have excellent junior Super G ski race memories at this small hill. “Racers, do not leave your bags on the floor or the tables, there are hooks on the walls! Use them,” I can still hear the owner, Goerge’s, voice booming in the small building on the hill that serves as the lodge and bar.
Overshadowing the grasslands further east are the Crazy Mountains, a favorite Range which always serves as a bearing for me during the hunt itself. The top photo of the Crazies between the buttes was with a small pocket job while hunting in the rain.We made good time across and this year skipped out on the standard chicken fried steak and beats, which is usually put on by one of the local lodges as a fundraiser. The last season over we had to stop at one particular bridge that for some reason was the hot spot in town for cell reception. A couple of years later and a new tower in the area provides broad coverage. It’s funny, I can recall vivid past conversations stopping at the bridge making calls to the wives in the past. Each time we drove over it this trip, I thought about that and how things change.
The Hutterites have an amazing operation close by which also includes large wind turbine farms. I recall once seeing one of the blades stretched behind a semi parked along the main drag. “Can you believe how huge those blades are?” I recall asking. I still cannot figure out why it is that they seem to be pointing in the same direction and only half are spinning? Perhaps controlling the grid intake or something to do with demand. I still have no idea.
The big conversation in camp Friday night was about how few antelope were being seen during the day’s scouting. Some of the guys had gotten over fairly early Friday and had spent some time glassing the properties for game, trying to get an angle on the next day’s approach. Bill and I had done the same during the latter part of Friday and signed in on one of the block management sites for Saturday. In the past there have been pretty significant herds or groups of say thirty or so in different spots, but we only noted one small group above an old stock tank where we have had some success in the past. Great memories surround the old stock tank actually. Snakes and naps types of stories.One of the ranches we’ve hunted on over the years had a wonderful lady who Todd asked about when I returned to Missoula. “Is she still alive?” he asked when I got home. “No, we went by and Randy said she had passed away recently.” He was still letting folks sign in but had limited the number during the opening weekend. I always liked their home, a typical small white ranch house with the paint flaking off the exterior. Dogs and cats around as one pulls up to the place. Not being a big cat fan, one of the cats came up to me while signing in and managed to get me to warm to it pretty quickly. The claws were long and sharp, a barn cat I suppose, which dug them into my trousers around the shin. “Where is the old stove?” I asked. “We had to get rid of it and replaced it with this one.” Randy said. The house had an old antique gas furnace that heated the main area which I had not forgotten. “That’s her on Merlin.” He said as we thanked him for letting us access the property again and for the tick tacks that he handed out to visitors which he said he found in one of her side drawers. Merlin was a horse she was riding in a photo hanging on the wall taken during the 1920s, I believe Randy stated. “It’s funny how all of the equipment sheds and outer buildings of ranches are immaculate, while the main houses of many of the properties are not as important,” Bill commented after I made a similar remark noting how grain and hay growers, and sheep and cattle ranchers let their homes go while keeping the investments immaculate. We watched one small buck ‘lope wander around behind a structure. There were old rusted vehicles nearby lined in the tall grass side by side. “My grandson has been keeping an eye on him,” Randy said, laughing.
Saturday we got up around five thirty, though it was not daylight until later in the morning. I think the others were heading out around six forty five or so to their areas. The day turned out to be beautiful. One can literally see for miles across the plains in this area, especially if the weather cooperates. We split up in one section, hiking south. I went to an area where I’ve had success in the past, looking down into pockets of coolies from shale rock formations above. This is typical terrain in this area and allows hunters to find some relief from being seen if things come together correctly. I always look under the shale prior to stepping in the area or having a seat, as it seems inviting for rattlers. I watched a small herd drift slowly up a section going south west that I probably could have gotten up on if I had pushed things along, but I found myself not wanting to rush things and certainly had no desire to rush getting back to normalcy, work. We had decided to stay and hunt until perhaps as late as Wednesday morning if the weather held. Most of the guys were leaving Monday and some Sunday evening. It’s always a risk telling one’s self that there will probably be additional opportunities later in the trip. That, however, was the approach I decided to take at that moment. I sat on a high bench and watched maybe a dozen of the animals cross well below another hunter in the distance and wondered if he would attempt to stalk the group. He did so and I enjoyed the entertainment, watching them meander away along a fence line, going further south.Once seen, it’s generally over with antelope. They are very difficult to pursue in open country, which is where they seem to feel most comfortable, standing literally in the middle of large open fields of grass where everything can be observed. This contrasts with most other hunting where animals seem to feel more comfortable in the thickest patches of laurel or tree stands available. Also, I have never seen an antelope jump a fence. They seem to always prefer to crawl under the barb wire one at a time, single file. One can see their little crossing paths when walking along the fence sections.
I’ve often enjoyed just sitting in the fields taking it all in or napping. There are always peregrine falcons around to watch harass the jack rabbits. Often guys spy coyotes roaming the prairie as well. Prickly pears abound. Prior to my hunting in the area, Bill and his other companions one season came across a sheep herder during a frigid snowy day who while riding his horse only wore boots, chaps and a vest. He had a long ponytail and was otherwise unclothed. He never spoke. The kids who were with Bill and the other adults at the time are now older and return to hunt in the same area telling the story with unwavering exactitude. People do funny things to get away from it all, I suppose. I can almost kinda see it myself. Of course, one might go mad on the prairie as well, given too much prolonged exposure to tranquility.None of the larger party was successful Saturday that I can recall. We bullshitted around a small fire and called it early after reading for a short period. It was a clear night and stars were everywhere along with a full moon. It was in the high teens or low twenties during the evenings. There were some folks in tents in the area and I almost felt guilty sleeping in the bed Bill’s big fifth wheel.
Sunday morning we split up again, but when I came to the area where we were going to meet to the south, near where I had seen the group the day prior, Bill was crouching down acting funny not far above the rock shale. I watched him creep to the upper edge, fogging my breath fogging the binoculars. Once he settled on the rocks looking into a grassy bottom, I hiked down to his site to observe. “There is a buck above the six does,” Bill whispered. The buck was not visible, safely above in a small pocket rolling between us and the group of animals. Bill squirmed around a short bit trying to get a good rest and finally the animal dropped down joining the others. The antelope were distant, but Bill felt comfortable, firing his 7mm. “Crack!” the report was muffled as I had plenty of time to place my fingers in my ears. The animal now stood with its butt facing us while the does moved off to the west. This went on for a little while, us watching the animal keep itself facing perfectly in the opposite direction, motionless. Finally, the animal laid down with its head up observing. Bill saw the opportunity to do a wide sweep along the rocks above, eventually taking a second fatal shot. I observed from the original location. I paced two hundred and eighty paced to the site the animal dropped. It was a beautiful animal, and given the lack of success by the group the day prior, we considered ourselves fortunate.Over the years, Bill has perfected a “ponchless” field dressing method that allows one to remove the hind and front quarters, the back strap and neck meat without getting into the innards. It’s an impressive method that’s perfect for lope hunting. We placed the meat into pillow sacks and then into the packs and hiked out two or three miles to his vehicle. Retired, Bill is in good condition and had no problem with the hike out carrying the load and gear.
Another individual in the camp was successful Sunday, a freshman at Montana State. We both felt good for the young Bobcat. I had seen no game during that afternoon, visiting with the game warden at one point who pulled up on the county road.
“What happened with those?” I asked him seeing feet sticking up in the back of his truck. “Someone shot from the county road and antelope on the road,” he said. One is not supposed to shoot from or across a county road. He had the NFL going on the laptop in his truck, which I thought was pretty humorous. Nice guy out doing his job. We visited about his territory which as it turned out was quite large.Sunday evening I sat listening to the rain on the roof of the trailer. We realized that the roads would be too bad to go into the stone house, an area on Randy’s property which we had permission to hunt Monday and Tuesday. I despise hunting in wool in the rain, and was thinking about that as we sacked out. We decided to sleep in. Once up and following the standard morning fare of oat meal, I decided to hike into an old favorite area where there is one tree. It reminds me of the “Whomping Willow” in the Potter series. I’ve photoed it in the past on nice days. It contrasts with the surrounding area quite well, standing aloof alone among nothingness. I, with feet completely soaked from the muck in the bottom areas, took a quick photo of Bill near the tree and we hunted back up the bottom west. Bill peeled off early to head back to the vehicle and take a nap while I did a much larger loop hoping to see game. I managed a photo of a jack rabbit that spooked me exploding out of some cover after I almost literally stepped on him. Hugh ears and long feet. He hopped off a few yards and went still. These animals have an innate sense that to hop or run is to attract unwarranted attention from above and I could see this in his behavior. He did not want to move. I took a rock (seat) and wrung out some of my cloths. The handkerchief was wet, but I cleaned the scope and binoculars, then put the covers back on the devices. While it rained on Sunday night’s snow, I drank some water and had some sardines I had bought in Missoula. I had never hunted in this area of the bottom and noted the awkward terrain. The snow shot above does not quite do justice to the depth and vastness of the country. It was at this point that I began to wonder if I should have been more aggressive on Saturday. “Nah,” I thought silently to myself watching water beed up on the rifle barrel and slowly run down towards the stock.I got up and humped around the two buttes following tracks in the wet and heavy snow. I listened to my boots make sloshing sounds and felt the water between my toes. At one point walking down an area I slipped briefly landing on my tail prior to catching myself and quickly rising up again. When I got the the vehicle, Bill was comfortably snoozing. “What do you want to do now?” he asked over a sandwich. “Lets drive to the south border of the property and maybe I’ll hunt that area after glassing it for a bit,” I exhaustedly replied, sensing a nap of my own was in order. I tried after eating, but hate sleeping while wearing contacts.
Once to the lower end of the property, there is a school section what is simply like everything else, a grazing area. Schools own property and receive lease money from the cattlemen who graze their herds on the grounds. It is open access to hunters and I noted a fairly large group that was high up on the top of this area which started with one small doe that was followed shortly by two bucks and numerous other does. We pulled into the area and parked to glass things further. Private property was to the east and west of the area. “Now how am I going to go about this?” I inquired. The animals were, as per the routine, in an open snow field above us with a few indentions between that had possibilities if I stayed low. I got out and crouched down along a fence line walking slowly west, hoping the get into an indention (similar to a creek bottom) and follow that up the hill to where the lope were. Bill stayed in the vehicle watching the critters and the soaked hunter attempt a long stalk. Well, I got about half way up to where the animals were, maybe having gone four hundred yards or so, and noticed a hundred or less yards away, a beautiful large antlered buck just under the barbed wire fence to the east along with six or seven does. He was blowing at the other half of the herd that was now long to my west and headed quickly also to private ground. This was disconcerting and I simply let it go, knowing I probably could have dropped the buck and gotten him quickly under the fence onto the school property, but thought ethically otherwise.
“Did you even see the animals along the fence?” Bill asked. “Yes, I easily could have shot the buck there, which was right at the fence blowing at the others as they scampered away,” I looking down replied. “That was a nice animal.” The lope were, even from the long distance, spooked from the beginning and when I came out of the small depression to look up they had already scattered. Prior to coming down, I hiked to the top to look over the other side. Again, vast open prairie with a few bits of rock picking equipment and cattle here and there. Trees contrasting along the river bottoms.
“Now what?” During the prior day, I had in the afternoon hiked from the furthest point in south to the northern area where we had parked prior. This was a fairly big walk and I decided not to spend Monday evening with wet gear doing it again. “Let’s go to where Mike and Jim came out last night and I’ll hike through that lower area,” I said. I was now pretty sure we’d be hunting for at least part of Tuesday which did not bother me as long as I could dry things off during the evening.
This lower section is probably like hunting in Indiana. Low grass fields that go on forever. I climbed over two different fence sections along this walk, exhausted. Finally, I came to some rocks looking over a bottom again with trees in the distance along the river. It was beautiful. There was a lone horse in the distance grazing. I took a photo of an odd grey colored flower and began to photo the area in general just prior to dusk. Then I noticed a lone antelope that had seen me sitting above the section and decided to head out of the area. I let it go thinking the heck with it as he was over the bend a pretty good ways by the time I noted his presence. Then I realized I better give it a whirl as the trip was about over. So, I slid down the section, then hiked up above another to more rocks to look into yet another field. The animal, a small buck, had stopped in the second section and was looking back towards me through the upper rocks. I removed my pack and crept to the outer edge just peering over one small rock. It was still light and was not raining. I removed the scope cover, an old section of machinery inner tube, and tried to take a rest on a V stick I had on my pack’s exterior aluminum frame, attached with a bungee cord. This wobbled a bit being balanced on the rock, so I discarded it and waited for the lope to move into a position where I could hit the vitals, which he eventually did, slowly walking, unconcerned with my distant presence. I rested on the rock and tried to get the proper eye relief in the scope which was on six power. I exhaled and squeezed off the .270 nosler. The animal immediately collapsed. I hiked over to the animal and noted it was maybe only a hundred and fifty yards or less. Not a long distance. My cell phone was in the red when I called Bill to let him know. He hiked in and managed to find me in the now dim light, hearing my whistle as I noted him in the distance. “I never heard the shot,” he noted. It turned out to be an easy pack out. I had a lamp in my pack which we used in a few sections, trying to avoid badger holes.
It had been a successful trip once again to just beyond the Crazies. One awkward thing occurred driving up MacDonald pass on the route home. Cattle were being wrangled up the pass on Highway 12. I’ve seen this in the Philipsburg area and in other parts of the state, but never going up a pass? Montana.