Press Lake Camp
Fishing and Hunting Camp

January 14th, 2024 – Montana Hunting Journal Pt. 4, Days 7-10.

Posted on January 14, 2024

On the morning of day 7 we headed back into the spot where we had located elk while scouting on day 1, to be set up and glassing before sunrise. This time opting to walk the last 1.5 miles in as the road was a little sketchy for a pick up. It wasn’t long and we found a herd of elk on a ridge in the burn a little below us about a mile or so away. We sat and watched the elk feed along the top of the ridge until they disappeared over the back side as the sun started to get higher, presumably to bed. We didn’t have a good way over to them from where we were, but we knew of a trailhead we could use that would get us in pretty close so we marked their approximate location on the GPS and headed back for the truck.

It took us about an hour and a half to hike out and drive around to the trailhead and we had our packs on and were on our way in again, looking at about a 2.5 mile hike. It was pretty easy going as we were on a trail most of the way and were actually slowly dropping elevation on the way in. Along the way Linds and I had to stop to squat behind a tree so I told Jake to keep going and we would find him at the top of a little knob we were hoping to locate the bedded elk from. The plan was to circle the elk wide keeping them on our right until we got past them and downwind. We were hopeful we would be able to glass them up again from our new location and then begin to close the distance, and if that didn’t work, we would get the wind in our face and try to still hunt in through the relatively open burnt timber.

As Lindsay and I were headed to meet Jake, we were circling the elk about 500 yards out from their last known location, and suddenly we heard 3-4 “mews” from some cows inside 100 yards directly in front of us! We couldn’t see them for a small rise in front of us but we hunkered down and I checked the wind on my puffer bottle and it was headed straight to them. Worried we were going to blow this second herd of elk out of the country if they winded us, we opted to turn left hard and head straight uphill to try to get a more favourable cross wind and to see if we could see them from the higher ground. It was pretty steep country and with the small undulations in the ground we weren’t able to see into where we thought the elk were, but we could see Jake waiting for us at the top. We climbed up to him and told him what happened and we made a plan for him and I to circle around wide behind them to get the wind in our favour and to see if we could sneak within range, while Linds stayed back in case we happened to bump them back towards her.

Him and I set out making a wide circle into where we had heard the elk “talking,” and when we arrived there was nothing but a mess of tracks in the snow. It didn’t look as though they had left running as though they had winded us, but they had clearly continued on their path of travel. We also noticed the tracks had come from the direction of where the first herd of elk we had spotted that morning bedded down. We followed the tracks about halfway back to the bedding area to realize that it wasn’t a second herd of elk that we heard, but the original herd as they had gotten up on their own and were moving along. As it turns out Lindsay and I missed intercepting them by probably less than 5 minutes.

Jake and I spun around on their tracks and started going in the same direction they were headed knowing they had a pretty good head start on us by this point and followed their tracks for around a mile until they went through a saddle and dropped off onto the other side of the mountain. We decided to go back and regroup with Linds and sit the hillside until dark hoping they would come back through to feed as we were overlooking a bunch of nice grassy meadows. As a bonus we had some decent glassing from where we were sitting to keep us occupied until dark.

Shortly after settling into our spot for the evening we saw a couple of long legs coming though the trees behind us. It was enough to get our hearts racing for the split second it took to realize that it wasn’t an elk, but was in fact a horse topped with a blaze orange cladded rider equipped with a pack and rifle. We watched him go by us at about 75 yards continuing down the ridge, seeming to not have noticed us huddled under a tree below him as he went by. A little defeated that we had some competition we kept our heads up high and stuck out the rest of the evening. The herd of cows never came back through, but about a half hour before dark I glassed up a small bunch of elk in a meadow about 1500 linear yards away from us and probably 500’ or so above us. Even before we were able to set up a spotting scope, we could tell one of the animals was considerably larger than the rest and knew there was at least one decent bull in the mix. The spotting scope confirmed this and we watched as the bull and the few cows with him filtered in and out of this little micro meadow feeding. We didn’t think we had enough time to get over there and make a play that night, as there was no good shooting position to get within range, so the only play would be to try to sneak in close enough to get a shot amongst the burnt trees. We watched the elk feed until dark and begun our hike out with plans to return in the morning.

On our hike out in the dark, and not really to our surprise, we could hear the hoof beats of a horse behind us sharing the same trail. We hopped off the trail to make some room and the other hunter came through and stopped to chat a bit. He was very surprised to see other hunters back in where we were and even more surprised that we hiked in. We chatted for about 20 minutes doing the familiar dance you do with another hunter in the field, toeing the line of comrades but also competitors looking for the same prey, sharing information but vaguely enough as to not give away the animals we were both after. We talked very openly about the herd of cows that went up through the saddle as he was aware of them as well, but we kept “our” bull in our pocket and got the impression he was doing the same with some information. We left hoping we both weren’t after the same animal the next morning.

We got some snow overnight and the road into the trailhead was already a little icy so we threw the tire chains on our rear tires for our drive up. It was my first-time using tire chains and I’ve got to say, holy crap do they make difference! Almost gives one the confidence to try to drive somewhere they don’t have any business going – haha. Anyway, we reached the trailhead and started hiking in knowing we were already behind our friend on the horse as he was camped at the trailhead and we could see the fresh tracks in the snow going in. Undeterred we started out knowing there was a lot of country and a lot of elk back there and hoping we wouldn’t be on the same ones. The storm had broken but left behind a lot of fog in its wake making glassing a challenge, but as soon as we got to our glassing knob Jake threw up his binoculars and said “got them!”

On an exposed hillside made up mostly of shale and loose rock with some patches of grass and the odd burnt tree, there was a nice bull and 7 or 8 cows brightly lit up against the backdrop of the fresh snow. We were about 1200 yards from the elk, but they were on the other side of a large bowl. Going straight would mean dropping down and then climbing back up 1200 vertical feet, and doing so undetected (and safely) in the loose rock would be almost impossible. The much better option would be to side hill around the bowl into their zone, which would be about 1.5 miles from where we were. Lindsay volunteered to stay behind and watch the elk for us flagging with a spare orange vest if they moved, and Jake and I headed out, really hoping to connect as this was his last day before having to head home to Wisconsin the next morning.

We knew they had to have bedded in the timber we were working though and moved out of it to feed in the open early that morning, and we were hopeful we could get over there before the sun warmed them up too much and they moved back into the dark timber to bed. On our way around we found their fresh beds and tracks headed out of the timber from the night before, and we followed them to the edge of the open, steep, shale-y hillside. We knew we were only about 300 yards from where the elk had been feeding, but we couldn’t see them, as they were in a bit of a dip. We could glass Lindsay from our location and she hadn’t moved the orange vest, indicating that the elk were where we had left them. Deciding it would be impossible to get any closer across the loose shale we decided to set up on their tracks where they left the timber and where we had a pretty good field of view, hoping to catch them on their way back to bed.

As fate would have it, elk weren’t the only tracks we saw in the timber that morning. On our way around the bowl, we intercepted fresh horse tracks in the snow, but since we had glassed the elk up in the open and didn’t see any orange, we were hopeful our friend was working into somewhere else and didn’t know about “our” bull. As we got farther into the timber the horse tracks veered left deeper into the woods and we were headed right towards the timber’s edge, so we pushed on hoping we wouldn’t interfere with his hunt, but determined to get an elk. As we sat in the shade of the timber waiting for the elk to work back to us with the rising sun, we heard the familiar BOOM of a rifle behind us in the timber maybe 300 yards away. It wasn’t in our direction or at the elk we were watching, but as we would later learn from Linds, as soon as the shot wrang out the herd we were working took off straight downhill. The icing on the cake was the second shot a few minutes later which pushed the elk the rest of the 1200’ down to the bottom of the canyon where we lost them in the timber altogether.

As a funny side note, Lindsay ended up seeing a post on a hunting in Montana group we are in on Facebook where she recognized a hunter from his horse and dog that we were playing with at the trail head the night before. I reached out and sure enough it happened to be the same guy and we became Facebook friends and bullshitted a fair bit. He is a really good dude who had actually offered to help us pack meat with his horse when we met him on the trail had we happened to kill something. I’m not going to call him out by name but if he happens to read this, congratulations because we later learned that he killed a totally different bull bedded in the timber in behind where we were.

Anyway, Jake and I sat the hillside until the early afternoon in case all of the commotion pushed something our way. Unfortunately, it didn’t and after a while we were getting pretty cold so we made our way back across to Lindsay where she filled us in on what happened with the elk after the gunshots. We sat and glassed from that location until dark but didn’t turn up any more animals. We headed out that evening knowing Jake’s elk hunt was over but hopeful that Linds and I could turn something up with the 10 or so days we had left. We put together a plan to pack everything up in the morning and to head to Great Falls for two nights to resupply, shower, and eat some real food. When we would come back, we were planning to pack in our tent and woodstove and to spike out into where we had been seeing the elk to save the hour of driving and 1.5-2 hours of hiking in and out each day. Hopeful that after a couple of quiet days some elk new or the same, would be back in that secluded basin.

On the morning of day 9 we said goodbye to Jake and we headed off to the city where we enjoyed a lot of sleep and some really good food at a couple of restaurants. As usual, we also spent a good bit of time and a bit of money at the local Scheel’s as well! On the evening of day 10 we swapped our smaller bags for our bigger spike out bags on pack frames and packed all of the gear we would need for our first true spike out adventure the next morning.