Memories from elk hunting out West for the first time

Montana elk hunting scenery
Finally, it had come down to this: Even though the herd had moved around above where we thought they would appear, they were still within range. I located the first bull from the front and found him in my crosshairs. He stopped. It was now or never. After months of preparation, this was it. Everything that I had hoped and dreamed about for years was about to come down to one simple pull of the trigger. With a deep breath and a little prayer, I squeezed.

This started a little over a year ago with a conversation with my father-in-law, Harold Davis. We had talked about going on an elk hunt a few times in the past, but decided it was time to finally make it happen. Once we decided to pursue this dream during the following fall, the next step was to pick an outfitter to lead us on our first adventure for big game out West. My ultimate goal is to travel out West and hunt big game totally on my own, but with this being both of our first times, we thought it would be better if we had a little help and guidance.

After completing tons of research on not only who to go with, but also when and where to go, we had it narrowed down between New Mexico with an outfitter a friend had used and Montana with an outfitter that was referred to us by another friend. I traveled to a local outdoor show in mid-January with hopes of meeting with the outfitter from New Mexico, who was also attending the show. After a brief moment of standing around his booth waiting my turn to speak with him, the feeling that this wasn’t the right outfitter came over me. I didn’t like how he conducted himself in a business setting because that is what these shows are to outfitters and guides. I wondered if he is acting like this here while he is trying to sell a hunt, how he would treat us after he had our money.

Disgusted, I made my way around the show for another hour or so. My wife and I were about to leave when she said, “Have you talked to them?” I looked over to see a booth advertising hunts in Montana. I had passed by a couple of times and the gentleman was with other customers so I hadn’t stopped. Right before we left, I made my way over to him and inquired about what he had to offer. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was going to be the guy who leads us on our first elk/mule deer hunt. Sometimes there are people that we meet that we initially bond with and Roy Reiff was one of these people.

Roy owns Rawhide Guide Service out of White Sulphur Springs, Montana. After talking to him for about 45 minutes at the show, I told him I needed to talk it over with Harold and I would get back to him the next day. While talking with Harold when I returned home, it seemed that I was a salesman for Rawhide Guide Service and was trying to sell Harold a hunt. This place seemed like the perfect fit for us and the following day I called Roy back and booked our first big game hunt.

Now, this was January and the hunt wasn’t until October, which means that I had about nine months to not only get ready, but also nine months to over analyze every aspect of this hunt. The months ticked off slowly but surely and the gear along with the anticipation seemed to build. I tried to play out in my mind every possible situation and to make sure I had not only a plan, but also a backup plan for each one. I had both of our guns dialed in after a lot of time at the range. I had enough gear for a 10-day Dall sheep hunt in the NWT. I had backup gear in case of my first line of defense failing. I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. If, by chance, a stalk was blown or an animal was missed, I didn’t want it to be because I wasn’t prepared.

The season was upon us

October finally arrived and a couple of weeks out from our hunt, it looked like the weather forecast was going to be for a spring bear hunt in Montana instead of an elk/mule deer hunt. The lows were only going to get into the upper 20s and the highs each day was going to be in the 50s. Now this is comfortable for the hunter, but for the animals to move and do what we needed them to do, this was bad news. The more snow and colder the weather, the game seems to move down and allow more opportunity for the hunters. The warmer the weather, the elk seem to not want to move much until later in the day and usually head to bed just after daybreak. Regardless of the weather, we were headed out to Montana and, honestly, that’s as good as it gets.

Our flight would be departing Lexington, KY and arriving in Bozeman, MT after a connection in Chicago. Roy would pick us up at the airport in Bozeman and, from there, we would make our way to the newly refinished lodge that Rawhide Guide Service calls home.

After arriving at camp, we met our campmates for the week and got settled in. Before dinner, we took a short drive to a spot where we could check our firearms to make sure that they were still hitting where they should be. It was my turn up to the bench and while chambering a round the bolt would not close all the way. I tried again and still, it wouldn’t close. I tried to eject the shell and it was stuck! Seriously, after all of the range time I put in and all of the different loads I tried, I was finally here and this happens. These were factory loads that just before leaving, I had shot a complete box of the same lot number through my rifle and everything was fine. Now I was in Montana, the day before my hunt starts and I had a round stuck in the chamber.

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After doing some field surgery on my gun, I finally got the round out. I tried to load another shell and it, too, managed to get stuck. I hand-loaded each round from the box one at a time into the chamber to see if any others were bad. Fortunately, the first two shells stuck, but the other 18 were fine. I couldn’t make this stuff up. If something’s going to happen, it will happen to me. I finally got to send a couple rounds down range without any problems and was hopeful that the worst was behind me. We headed back to the lodge for some dinner and a restless night of sleep.

The first morning

Daniel Smith soaking in the elk hunt scenery
The following morning, I was like a kid at Christmas. This was the day I had been dreaming about for years. We had a plan to drive up to a high point and spend the morning glassing. Although Montana has several things to offer, the sunrises are one of my favorites. God paints a beautiful picture each morning for us to enjoy and he didn’t disappoint this morning. It was like a private “Welcome To Montana” just for me.

Because I’d never hunted big game out West before, I wasn’t sure what to be glassing for. I knew I was looking for elk and mule deer, but in this vast country, I didn’t know just what I should be seeing or where I should be looking. It didn’t take long for our guide, Mike, to spot a couple of elk making their way from their feeding area up to bed. As I peered through my binos at my first elk in Montana, I couldn’t quit smiling. I was actually here! Doing this! These were a couple of smaller bulls that actually weren’t on our property. We watched them feed up onto the hillside to bed and Mike suddenly said, “There are the rest of them.” I panned back to where we had first spotted the small bulls and wow! There was the entire herd and by herd, I mean probably 75 to 100 elk!

Now, honestly, I had just hoped to see elk on this trip with the opportunity to harvest one, but after seeing this I couldn’t believe it. We were definitely in some elk country. The only problem was that these elk had just left an alfalfa field that was on our property, but they were now on a neighboring property that was off limits; it seemed like they would bed on the property that we couldn’t hunt. So my next question to Mike was, “I guess we will go down there in the morning to meet them on the alfalfa field, right?” He said no. What?

After I asked why with total disappointment, he explained that, in the morning, the thermals are being pushed right where the elk were on that field and that there was no way to get down there first thing without the risk of running the entire herd off the property. With only a week left to hunt, we couldn’t chance that.

“But, there is a way,” Mike said.

Of course, he had my attention now. He said the only way to hunt these elk at first light was to already be there when they start to leave the alfalfa field. The only way to already be there was to drive down past there this afternoon, while the elk are on the hill bedded, and stay down there all night; in the morning, we can move up to there with the wind and thermals in our favor and get set up. Now, when he said stay down there all night, it didn’t mean that they had an auxiliary lodge down in the canyon; it meant that we would sleep in the truck.

This was perfectly fine with me because I was already thinking what a story this could turn into: having to stay out all night under the stars in a truck to be able to put ourselves into position to be successful is all part of the adventure. Harold, on the other hand, I was concerned about. Not that he is on his deathbed, but he is 69 years old and at that age, most people aren’t as healthy as they used to be. He does have some back problems that usually are no concern, but trying to sleep in a truck all night would surely cause some issues. After talking it over with him, he was 100% on board with doing whatever we needed to do to make it happen. So we made a plan and headed back to the lodge to get some more food and supplies for the evening, night, and the next day.

We drove back down in the canyon around 2 p.m. and found our spot for the evening and night. We split up and hunted around there that evening, trying to stay within glassing distance of the alfalfa field to see if they made their way back to it. Mike did see a few elk on the hill across from us that were making their way down to the field just before dark. As daylight faded, the morning looked positive. The night, however, not so much. When sleeping in a truck with two other men, the best bet is to try to fall asleep first, because if not, the snoring might not allow much sleep. The night was long and restless, but I kept telling myself that this was a means to an end—however long it took that end to get here!

Day two

Waiting for the elk to show in Montana
Morning finally came and with a quick snack and toothbrushing, it was time to begin our stalk. The plan was to make our way to a fenceline where Harold would sit; his role was to play backup in case our stalk fell apart. He was on an escape route. Mike and I would make our way on up the fenceline about another half mile up to where we could intercept the elk as they left the alfalfa field and headed to bed. As we eased up the fence line, I could hear elk in the distance. Cows and calves were communicating, a few bulls were bugling and I even heard a couple of bulls fighting. Awesome! With the rut practically over, bugling and fighting wasn’t something I expected to hear.

We got settled along the fencerow, setting up for the elk to come over a little rise about 200 yards out in front of us. Mike said he thought this was the way they would exit the field similar to what they did yesterday morning. As the sky began to lighten up with the most beautiful reds and oranges, the volume of the cows mewing grew along with my anticipation. I knew they were moving and getting closer. I was certain that we should be seeing them at any moment. Minutes seemed like hours as we waited. I was in the prone position with my rifle resting on my pack, pointing toward the rise. The sounds became even louder as I was certain it was about to happen.

Suddenly, Mike said, “There they are. Do you see them?”

I said no.

He said, “Above the rise to the left, they are going around the side of the hill.”

I quickly changed my focus from the rise to the side of the hill and there they were—all of them! It’s hard to believe that a herd so big can ease around without being detected. Fortunately, they were detected and even though they weren’t where we initially thought they were, they were still within shooting range—just not the range I had hoped for.

I asked Mike, “How far?”

He replied that they were at 540 yards.

I had never shot that far at anything, but from all of the range time I had spent with this gun and round, I was certain of both of our abilities.

Mike said that there were several bulls in there so I should pick one out and shoot when I’m ready.

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Finally, it had all come down to this. Even though the herd had moved around above from where we thought they would appear, they were still within range. I located the first bull from the front and found him in my crosshairs. He stopped. It was now or never. The months of preparation had come down to this. This was everything that I had hoped and dreamed about for years. It was all about to come down to one simple pull of the trigger. So with a deep breath and a little prayer, I squeezed.

I dropped him! He fell after one shot; I was ecstatic. As my predator skills were kicking in, I told Mike that I was going to shoot a cow because I also had a cow tag. As I panned over to try to pick out a cow, Mike yelled, “He’s up!”

Oh no.

I switched my focus quickly back to the bull that had stood up, but wasn’t moving. I squeezed off another one into his shoulder and could see him flinch. I chambered another and sent it toward the bull. Thud! Another hit and he still was standing. A third round missed its mark as I saw dust fly up over the bulls back. Now my rifle holds four rounds and this was round number four! I was out.

I quickly dug into my pack for more shells. I got two more loaded and centered the crosshairs on the bull for the fifth time. I squeezed another one off and it found its mark and the bull dropped for the last time. What just happened!

My adrenaline meter was in the red and I was an emotional wreck. I high fived and hugged Mike and thank the Lord for this opportunity. 537 YARDS! Are you kidding me? I was having a hard time believing that I pulled this off. But with a dead bull elk lying on the hillside as confirmation, it really did happen. As we made our way up to the bull, I couldn’t help but get emotional. This was something that I have dreamed of and honestly didn’t think would ever happen. All of the hard work and all of the people that help make this possible is too numerous to count. My wife has put up with this nonsense for nine months and I was missing my son’s regional playoff football game (which they won yesterday!). The only thing that would have made this better would be if they both were here beside of me.

As we approached the bull, I couldn’t believe just how big and tough these animals were. This bull took four .300 Win Mag rounds in the side and in the shoulder and barely flinched. But regardless of how everything had panned out, there he was: the majestic bull elk. This was exactly what I imagined it would be. I have read hundreds of articles and watched hundreds of hunts on TV and always pictured myself there and now here I was.

Honestly, the only thing that could have made it any better is if we had to quarter up and pack it out (I’m serious about this. Part of my dream has always been to have a pack full of meat and topped off with a rack heading back to the truck. I know I’m a little crazy.), but Mike informed me that he could get the truck to the downed bull. Since the pack out part was only my dream, the truck would have to do.

First bull elk for Daniel Smith

Creative elk antler photo by Daniel Smith
I asked Mike if he cared to walk back to the truck alone while I stayed here with my bull and he agreed. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to walk back, but because I wanted to spend a few moments alone with this animal taking pictures and reflecting and appreciating what had just happened.

Holding Montana elk antler

After several pictures, I sat back, leaning on the bull and looking out over the view that the Lord had blessed me with this morning. Honestly, I couldn’t be more thankful.

Daniel Smith with his Montana bull elk
Mike told Roy and his group of hunters about the bull. They were in the area and actually beat Mike back up to me. Like I said about Roy earlier, sometimes you just bond with certain people and I could tell he was genuinely happy for me. His other two hunters, Mark and Jerry, were also happy. We all loaded the bull up in Roy’s truck and as Mike and Harold arrived back on the hill, Harold said he practically watched the whole thing unfold. He saw the elk skirt us on the hill and, although he didn’t see the one I shot, he got to witness everything else and I am truly thankful that he was there with me.

We made our way back to town and dropped the elk off at the butcher. The lodge never looked so good as it did right now. After a long couple of days and an extremely long night, some warm food and a shower were exactly what we needed. After a quick meal and a hot shower, Harold decided he was ready for a well-deserved nap.

Bull elk antler up close from Montana
I, on the other hand, was still redlining with adrenaline and couldn’t sleep if my life depended on it. Mike and I decided to go out that evening for a couple of hours and see if we could get on some mule deer since we had a mule deer tag also. While Harold recovered with a nap, we headed out for an unbelievable evening. But that’s another story.

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