We’re in the second half of September, which means that in three Montana hunting districts, rifle season has started for deer and elk.  This is, I believe, the earliest season anywhere in North America for these animals, aside from special tags.  The mystique, or more accurately malarkey, surrounding these three districts is considerable, and the surge of interest this time of year makes it a good to flesh out the myths.  Between deer, elk, and that one bison tag three years ago I’ve killed (and crucially, packed out) at least two big game animals in each district, and particularly in the Bob spent exponentially more days in each zone doing things without a rifle in hand.

Zone 316 encompasses the area north and northeast of Yellowstone.  Geographically 316 can be cut in half, with the western half being the upper drainages of Hellroaring and Slough Creek, and eastern half being the lake, forest, and alpine rock of the Beartooth Plateau.  The former is classic alpine meadow and forest terrain, and hunts accordingly.  As is the case with all three zones, deer and elk are present, but sparse.  Here especially, it is common to complain about wolves having eaten all the elk since 1995.  While it is surely true wolves have both reduced overall numbers and changed elk behavior, I get the sense that hunters have been complaining about wolves stealing prey well back towards the last ice age, when one imagines short faced bears and the like gave humans something more pressing to lament.  Elk in mountain environments tend to not form the large, easy to hunt herds they do in the plains, and as a consequence are not so vocal during the rut.  Take one valley as a whole, and 10% will be good elk habitat, and 10% of that will in turn have elk at any given time.  Deer are more widely, yet more sparsely distributed.  The stats tell the story; for over 400 hunter days, 27 deer were shot in 316 last year.  The eastern half of 316 is the most difficult place to find deer and elk I’ve yet hunted.  The forest is thick, the terrain rugged, and the deer and elk present, but sparse.  Effort, consistency, and good tactics make a difference here, but probability and luck are essential.

As is the case anywhere in these three zones, getting off the trail makes a big difference, and in turn, getting the meat back to the trail is maybe the chief difficulty.  A three mile walk through slabs and blowdown, followed by a 5-12 mile trail hike, all with 80+ pounds on your back, is not a superhuman feat, but is a product of long term investments in physical prowess and planning.  With the packout process being as difficult, and in many cases more protracted, than finding and shooting a critter, it should be given the priority in both preparation and prestige that it deserves.  On a related note, I’ve found whitetails in all three of these zones, though they are thin and geographically limited in 316.  Using an OTC regional whitetail doe tag to bring about a multiday packout is a pure inversion of typical hunting priorities.  On another related note, bikes can be used to expedite packing in and out in zone 280, and packrafts are of limited use in 150 and 316.

Zone 150 is the classic Bob Marshall Wilderness, and encompasses most of the South Fork drainage and the upper reaches of the Middle Fork.  This is a large area, with everything between river bottom willow busting (see above w/r/t whitetails) and tundra spot and stalk.  As with 316, elk are there but tough to find, and generally (but by no means exclusively) found up high on late summer feed, far from established trails.  Remarkably, only 17 deer came out of 150 last year, reflective I think of hunter interest, not the relative abundance of actual deer.  Similarly with zone 280, the upper reaches of the North Fork of the Blackfoot, with only 12 deer killed.  That these numbers are so much lower than in 316 is the biggest surprise of this whole project.

The final and most enduring myth about hunting these early rifle zones is that you will surely be eaten by a grizzly bear.  While I’ve yet to see wolves in any of the three zones during hunting season, I have seen at least one grizz in each, generally up high while glassing.  Watching a sow and three fat silver-black cubs feeding vigorously for hours from the summit of Red Mountain remains a career highlight.  And there is very concrete reason to worry while hunting in each, given that creeping through thick stuff and meadow edges at dusk and dawn are ideal ways to both kill elk and run into a bear.  Aside from balancing this inherent contradiction moment to moment, the best advice in my book is to be quick and vigilant about carcass care and meat hanging.  Get things cut up and moved quick.  When at all possible, butcher somewhere with decent visibility.  It may be wise, under certain circumstances, to pass on certain shots so as to avoid leaving a carcass unmanaged overnight.  At the very least, match your ammo, shot placement, and effective range to make darn sure a shot at dusk gets anchored fast.

Early rifle hunting in these zones is and is not what big game hunting might have been 250 years ago.  On the one hand, records suggest there was never a huge abundance of big game in the mountains, which is why tribes made long journeys past these places to hunt along the river breaks and prairies.  On the other hand, while hunt success in these areas is modest, hunt pressure is still a factor.  You might shot something off the trail across the meadow at dawn, but most animals will know well when hunting season starts, and just as do in midwestern cornfields, adjust their habits accordingly.  Nonetheless a reasonable bit of effort and more importantly, planning should guarantee a 5 day hunt during which you do not see another human, and where the interplay between your skill and animal wit is translated by nothing other than the weather and terrain.  If this is the marker of success, rather than number and quality of critters seen, the early rifle hunts are as sure a bet as exists in big game hunting.