No More Begging for Elk Steaks

By Mark Hernandez
Montana, 2011, DIY, Public Land

Mark Hernandez - No More Begging for Elk SteaksJune/July 2012 EHJ (Issue 131) - It was mid morning in the Elkhorn Mountains as Jake and I stood on a ridge looking east. Steadily and carefully we glassed the hillside below. Turning around briefly to glass uphill, there was some movement just above the tree line. Soaring gracefully, a bald eagle appeared; it moved right over us. The eagle appeared to be hunting the same hillside. It was already a perfect and beautiful day, and the eagle was just the beginning of great things to come.

The end of October in Montana had very little snow on the ground. Fall was warmer than usual and the 30-degree morning warmed to a brisk 40 degrees. It was very comfortable hunting weather. The wool pants and pack boots were a bit too much.

Hiking several miles in the dark was necessary to gain elevation and better positioning to glass as the sun came up. Cresting the first ridge just before shooting light revealed a set of antlers. A mule deer buck on the opposite ridge stared back trying to make us out; the buck took off down the hill after a few minutes. There were no hard feelings, as the mule deer were not the chosen quarry…we were hunting elk.

Not as harsh as other mountain ranges in Montana, the Elkhorn Mountains are forgiving. The alpine meadows and forested hillsides are not nearly as steep as other mountain ranges in the area. There are a few peaks nearing 9,000 feet and we hunted between 6,000 and 8,000. They’re mostly public land with a few small mining claims and private parcels interspersed.

A week of hard hunting during bow season revealed about a dozen bulls. One 50-yard shot at a nice bull yielded no reward. It was a clean miss and there’s a tree stump in the Elkhorn Mountains with my broadhead still stuck in it. Paul was with me and was very encouraging. After finding the arrow in the tree stump, Paul told me not to worry and it was only a 340-class bull. Paul laughed and said there would be more hunting.

It was the beginning of rifle season and the pressure was mounting. Opening day yielded no elk, just a pack of wolves. Jake saw one wolf at the top of a hill poke his head over and disappear down the other side. Their howling was a haunting indication that we would not find elk in this part of the district. The remainder of opening day was uneventful and the elk had moved on.

Seven years of hunting for elk and deer in Montana proved unsuccessful. Despite hunting many days with experienced hunters year after year, there was not a single steak in the freezer to account for. Each unsuccessful year meant begging for an elk steak from a successful coworker. The special permit added more pressure to an already pressured hunter.

The decision to learn how to hunt several years ago was made more difficult by a number of factors. Being raised in a big city where hunting was not a part of the culture was difficult. There were also no hunters in the family to learn from. Most of my initial knowledge was gained from reading or watching videos or talking with other hunters.

The desire to hunt grew several years ago as my appreciation for nature developed. It’s difficult to describe where the desire came from…it just felt natural. There was a great deal of awe and respect for those who were able to hunt successfully every year and provide food for their families.

Being with a seasoned hunter like Jake would prove invaluable and trying to keep up with him was hard work. It felt like a pony trying to keep up with a thoroughbred. Born and raised in these mountains, he knew his way around. He climbed hill after hill with little effort and he only knows two speeds, fast and faster. Jake was kind enough to accompany me on my second full day of rifle season.

Mark Hernandez - No More Begging for Elk Steaks

For a full account of Mark's adventure, go to page 42 in the June/July 2012 issue of Eastmans' Hunting Journal.