2018 Hunting in Review

In spite of drawing a bison, which fulfilled expectations in providing what I expect to remain a top-5 lifetime hunt, I knew this year would be hard pressed to compete with last year.  I’d been thinking about hunting a bison for over a decade, but of necessity hadn’t been actually trying to do it.  Hunting is for 21st century humans the ultimate long game, with learning spread incrementally season to season providing for the best satisfaction.

But more on that later.

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With a lot of still-vivid memories and a very busy life I let expectations largely fall by the wayside, which was made easy to do after the bison hunt left freezer and soul slam full.  This was a welcome burden taken out of a high pressure autumn.  I didn’t hunt that much after, and what trips I did take were occupied at least as much with scenery and nostalgia and quiet as with finding game.  At the same time, I was a little bit disappointed in my inability to not shoot the first legal critter that walks within likely range.  More than anything this had to do with those trips adding to the bison trip, in the season having a profound lack of difficulty when it came to the process of hunting.  I did my homework, made the best guess on location, picked a good team, and had the bison hunt work out perfectly.  On two deer hunts I walked in a long ways, found deer more or less where they ought to have been, had modest difficulties getting a shot, which were resolved within hours, and carried some good meat home.  Days counted on a single hand saw no elk killed, but every single trip had close encounters which were a matter of seconds, or of different regs, from resulting in yet another heavy packout.

So before I delve into specifics, I should think about this lesson as I plan for next year.  I want to challenge myself and continue to grow as a hunter, both with respect to skills and with respect to my mindset.  Hunting reveals the paradox of luck more regularly than anything else I know, with success down to factors well beyond your control, but vastly within your power to shape.  Being only attached enough to the outcome to remain really, truly engaged in the process is something I’ve found difficult to learn.  I kill the first legal critter because I like to eat venison, I like the learning which only realism brings, enjoy the practice of actually going through with the stalk and shot and butchering, and because I feel time pressure to use my few days wisely.  But I also value difficult, personally and psychologically selective hunts, and this year I chose to walk away from those, or rather, not walk and sit longer into one.

So next year, that is what I want to do; go on a few hunts in inspiring, difficult, wild places, where finding a suitable animal will be hard.  I’ve got a few ideas left over from my list last year.

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Planning will remain the idiosyncracy of hunting, the thing which separates it from any other outdoor pursuits.  In three months I’ll need to start making decisions about what I might want my hunting next year to be, but I won’t know for a further 3-5 months what the system will actually permit me to go do.  This year an unlimited sheep tag was my safety option, in the likely case that moose, goat, and bison tags passed me by.  The sheep unit I selected closed (with two rams shot) several days after I shot my bison, something that highlights the occasionally elaborate series of options a hunting season requires.

The unlimited hunts still intimidate, because what they require is exactly the sort of hunting I try most often to avoid.  So one of those should again be in my plans next year, with draw tags (moose and goat in the Bob) set to take precedence if luck provides.

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And speaking of luck, the biggest lesson this year is the obvious one: Apply!  Someone has to be the 5% or 1% or .03% who draw, but luck can’t happen if you aren’t there.  The second lesson, of doing your homework, applies to both drawing and to planning a hunt once you get a tag.  You should be working towards hunts you want, that are compelling and a bit scary, in short that demand enough interest for your knowledge base to be well on it’s way before you might ever learn you are for sure going hunting.  This is as good a research policy as it is a metaphysical one.  I’ve coming to see that the majority of the time, landmark achievements and successes are locked in an easily visible well before they’re done, which does not provide for much leisure, nor necessarily set up well for big celebrations at the end.  In this, the bison hunt was as big a jump forward in personal development as I’ve had in the outdoor realm in a number of years.

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More routinely, I learned this year that fragile game bags don’t work.  Every one of the light ones I made for the bison hunt failed while in use, though the smaller size (18″ by 16″ flat) was dead on.  I also learned that erring on the side of lots of cord for meat hanging is a good idea, something like starting with one foot per pound of animal and decreasing logrithmically.  This year I also came back full circle to using a Havalon knife.  The replacement blades remain distinctly unperfect, in that swapping them in the field is a bit sketchy, and that the knee on the bottom of the blades catches and often causes blades to release under use.  And trying to find a loose razor in the brisket of a bloody carcass at night is not enjoyable.

I did a lot, indeed only, long packouts this year.  6 miles for the bison, and 7 and 17 for two deer.  I intentionally tried both of the packs mentioned here, neatly and definitively confirming my previous suspicions.  For big loads (i.e. critters larger than deer/sheep), and for any packout which will last multiple days due to either distance or multiple trips, a meat shelf system is vastly preferable.  Being able to keep gore off your gear in one step makes a big difference, and if you’re going to have the extensive compression necessary for something like a bison hide or a 100 pound bag of boneless meat, weight wise there is little penalty to adding a meat shelf.  Hanging the equivalent of a boned out deer internally, from tabs at the top of the frame structure, is a lighter, simpler, and if done right even more effective way to carry weight than a meatshelf.  The forceful compression necessary to stabilize the load in a meatshelf demands frame structure to resist barreling, with the two going deep down the weight and complexity rabbit hole in tandem.  The downside of having meat mixed with your gear is blood and scent control, something which in grizzly country worries me.  This is a design problem I’ll be putting some thought into, so perhaps my mind isn’t made up after all.

Lastly, I found the 168 gram factory TSX loads I shot out of my Kimber .308 to be satisfactory, if very different in the specifics of terminal performance from the Federal Fusion I had relied on in previous seasons.  I looked beyond the Fusion chiefly due to health concerns with our kids and lead, but also because of a few instances in which longer or less then direct shot angles had not resulted in the destruction I would prefer.  I’m not sure the TSXs are the answer to this.  With the bison, I put two rounds cleanly into the lungs, and two more into the head, all at 60-70 yards, with the bull going ~50 yards and dying within about 2 minutes.  There was no external bleeding from any of the shots, all of which were complete pass throughs with modest expansion.  Having read plenty since, this seems to be very average and satisfactory performance, with bison generally taking astonishing long to die from a lung shot compared to the various deer species.  I do wonder about the results had shots 3 and 4 been put into the shoulder, rather than the head.  Based on my experience later in the season this probably would have been the more rational way to ensure the bull did not wander and die in some less convenient place.

My first deer this fall was a sizeable whitetail, shot at around 110 yards, ideal double lung.  It shuddered but did not fall, so I shot it again, a quartering-towards shot at 70 yards which hit lungs and nicked the guts.  The deer died within 10 yards of where it had been standing when first shot, but with very little external bleeding.  I cut into the abdominal cavity out of curiosity, and the internal damage was vast.  Deer two was a large mule deer at 200 yards, a full broadside double shoulder hit (lungs being behind a tree) which dropped the deer instantly.  After 10 seconds the head was still up, so I shot it again in the shoulders to be sure.  Exit wounds were each ~1.5 inches in diameter, and muscle damage was fairly localized but in the immediate vicinity, considerable.

American convention has long held to broadside double lung shots to avoid meat damage and maximize the effective target area.  One example is hardly compelling, but in .308 I have reservations about the TSX.  Similar ranges with the 165 grain Fusions would in deer result in massive exit wounds.  But in light of 4 out of 5 critters last year going further than I’d have liked, maybe there is something to be said for the tough TSX, and shot placement favoring skeletal damage.  As with packs, more though is needed.  Both rounds are at least as accurate as I am, so I’m in good shape there.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I did some small game hunting with a variety of weapons.  The barstool consensus seems to be that grouse in western Montana are thin on the ground this year, so I’m glad to have eaten a few.  One snowshoe hair (thus far) was added to the pot, something I always enjoy, along with a few squirrels.  It will be a number of years until Little Bear can pick up a weapon, put I’m hoping to shape his interest in literally chasing squirrels into something more observant and tactical.

Until next year.

Thanks

In Montana the last day of the general/rifle deer, elk, and black bear season is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, which provides many folks with a last extended weekend and psyche-up.  This year I was among them, and in the early afternoon Sunday trailed confused deer tracks across an open face; burnt sticks spaced across the hill below, sentinels to a decade old fire, the ground here at 6000 feet packed with a foot of snow.  Out of the sight, north and curved around the hill, was the meadow I had slept in last night, where a spruce tree two feet in diameter kept my fresh mind safe from the single digit night.  Also out of sight, and directly in front, was the canyon I had ascended to that meadow.  Directly level this bottom was tight and rocky, narrow dampness had kept that fire out, and the dark green mat hid cliff bands which forced you out of the bottom every hundred yards.  There snow was lesser, but unchanged by sun and wind, and I saw everything in the six inches of fluff: grouse feeding delicately back and forth across the wash, deer moving east to west, a pair of bobcat ascending and showing me the best lines across stacks of boulders and pools thin with ice.

Hiking and then climbing a canyon bottom from road to peak isn’t the most proactive way to hunt anything, my gambits were limited to bumping something just unawares enough to get a shot, or tracking something fast and fresh enough to do the same.  Neither worked, though in the upper reaches deer and elk tracks were in enough abundance that neither seemed naive strategies.  And this year I decided I’m willing to sacrifice probability for aesthetics.

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I’ve had a post entitled “35%” in the drafts cue for 4 months now.  Littler Bear, aka Little Cloud, was born in April, and like his brother became fat and happy and needy quickly, the later no more than most babies, the first two rather more than average.   By four months the Cloud was precisely half the weight of the Bear, who remains a not-small toddler.  The weight of a summer overnight pack is not welcome in a creature which cannot yet hold tight its own head.  My thought at that point, as the Cloud settled into a peaceable sleep pattern and the Bear continued to fail to express much jealously, was that we were, from a functional perspective, a hair over one third done with child number one.  Chronologically inaccurate as this thought was, it injected optimism into a time of quiet desperation.

That I never finished those thoughts was not a coincidence, insofar as that vowel-replete word is always a proxy for one’s world, unexamined.  My adult world has closed in tightly since, with to little space between joy, profundity, and despair for anything but the thin ends of the bell curve.  Neurologically and developmentally the Bear is at least a third finished; we spent three year maximizing his potential and will only now watch his brain prune itself back.  But increasingly that’s a source of anxiety rather than satisfaction.  Time reveals flaws in essays, carpentry, and children, equally.

I can’t take time in the woods as just itself this year.  Each day is freighted as a trade off, with hours being the least concern.  9 days of 10 I run out of will and attention before bedtime, the lack of space echoing no other time except college in wondering how many months, and perhaps years, it will take for my brain to be able to catch back up with the rest of me.  And that is why those days are so precious; if all I need worry about is keeping my feet warm glassing, and picking out the freshest path from a miasma of tracks and beds on a sunny hillside, things like the clarity to string these words together can at last find me.

So I’m thankful we’re here, in Montana, where deer tags are dirt cheap and doe tags easy to get, and for all sorts of interesting areas where you can hunt antlerless deer in wild corners management did likely, strictly, intend.  I like eating fresh meat, but even more I like having the whole experience of walking back, looking, tracking, puzzling, sneaking, planning, shooting, cutting, and packing.  I learn things by force when meat is on the line, and time and circumstances limited.  In this case, the deer were below me, feeding, predictably, on the three hundred yard swath of ponderosa park almost melted bare by just enough hours of sun.  I rushed the downhill scoot, leaning up from sitting so that just my eyes went above the horizon, and the small herd got spooked and moved off, slowly enough that I was sure they just knew something was off.  They gave me a shot and I took it, but I hadn’t brought belief enough along, and committed the generic sin of shooting over its back, mistaking the range for longer than it was.  That got them moving, and on the last day, with nothing better to do, I follow them.

Snow makes tracks easy, as does a half dozen critters running towards one place.  Persistence brought me luck the second time I bumped them, something I could only appreciate when I stood over the carcass and looked back.  The deer had first run into a grove of small, tight, ponderosa regrowth, and when I busted them out of it and took their place had a dark backdrop, which gave me enough seconds, ticking against the clock of their prying eyes, to thread a bullet into a shoulder from 200 yards.

For Thanksgiving we recreated this recipe, with the other rear leg of the same deer I shot near Whitefish, when Little Bear was 3 months old.  That was a long time ago.  The Bear gobbled rich red venison chunks and ignored everything else, while the Cloud gummed biscuits and forged his way slowly towards the polysyllabic world.  I was tired most of the day, not because of strained muscles, but from a minds eye which had been obliged, out of desire and necessity, to see just too broadly for too long.  Three years ago, and in the third season of my hunting career, I was just learning to see properly.  I saw that whitetail at dusk, 80 yards out, at the far range of my right eyes edge, and shot it before it saw me.  The latest November deer was remarkable for the punishing packout, side hilling through the snow to the nearest trail, as well as the lofty perch in a timber island just off a ridgecrest, looking down at nearly the full course the eventual snowmelt would take to the ocean.  It was even more remarkable because that deer saw me, at least four separate times, and yet had not vanished into the miles.

The sun was finally warm, so I took my time butchering, built a fire, and roasted a chunk of loin seasoned with a ramen packet.  Stretched a little and stuck twice on a stick the purple meat faded slowly and almost indistinguishably into red with black edges, the old dried lodgepole twigs providing less heat to the meat than they did to my hands and face.  Eating it was imbibing of success, of the moment, and on the terms the world had offered.  The brilliance of hunting is in the way seasons restrain imagination, human rules compressing the coal of thought into the diamond of opportunity.  Utterly predictable in form, unlike ski or river season, if infinitely less predictable in particular and content.  My previous hunts this year had been overwhelming in their beauty and success, but the days and months had stood out the way memories, packed in and peaking, too much water flowing through too little space, the wave crests unknowable in their patterns.  Every few weeks, I wonder just how much of the sediment that forms my being will be eroded away, but for an hour now I can eat fresh venison in a bright place in the snow and be content.

Porcelain crash

The reason why writers fail when they attempt to evoke horror is that horror is something invented after the fact, when one is re-creating the experience over again in the memory.  Horror does not manifest itself in the world of reality. 

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars

The wind came out of the north, rattling what aspen leaves were left, tin rigid, along the creek down the hill.  It had grown dark, and if I couldn’t see the deer they couldn’t see me, so I moved quickly uphill to build heat, settling on the flat knuckle of a nub in the middle of the hill to pitch my tarp.  With the forecast good and in the middle of a long island of autumnal high pressure I had brought a small one, along with a light sleeping bag, to make for a small pack that would let me go far and fast for three days at the beginning of the general rifle season, for deer and elk and maybe a bear.

How do deer experience cold?  We know they get cold, though they have a range of physiological and structural tools to fight it, which are quite beyond us as humans to comprehend.  In some years, in some places, winter can take a third of the herd in a given place, though is that due to cold, or thick snow covering what little is around to eat, or both?  I did wonder what the deer I had watched last night were now doing as I woke shivering at 4 am, the distraction of a blindingly full moon still above the horizon.  Sit ups gave me only temporary reprieve in my sleeping bag, rated for easily 10 degrees above what the air now was, so I made the adult choice and walked over to pull my bear bag, heat 20 ounces of water, and bury that bottle in a sock between my thighs.  Warm blood quickly took comfort throughout my body, and I easily went back to sleep, waking too late.

The next day I was making my way south and out, sweating along flat and now windless sage flats, bright sun pushing 70 degrees hard into my early afternoon face, a boned out deer in my pack.  Knowing the area well, but having never hunted there, in this season, I had walked in with four separate plans.  The first, combined with my difficulty in not shooting the first legal animal, had worked out well, but I couldn’t help but give in to temptation, and shade, by dropping down into the willow and pine flats to hunt along the abandoned meanders and river bends.  I passed several past camps, observed the river level, and was into new territory, thick woods stratified into swampy gaps between old gravel bars, when I spooked the bull.  Eight yards away it rose like a leviathan, snapping deadfall like wooden ships, stopping at thirty deep behind a juniper to stare at me.  Tines stood clear, and very tall, against harsh light that shone full at me.  Glare in the scope made a direct view impossible, but I could extrapolate off straight antlers and curved branches and seemingly snake one in to the shoulder.

All for naught, as this unit was antlerless elk only.  I experimented with hypotheticals for another minute until the elk grew bored with ambiguity and crashed off.  I followed him through 8 foot brush to the water, where he stood on the far bank, broadside, dripping and magnificent and 40 yards away.  Where did the bull go after his stiff-walk disappearance through the sage?  The tall hill behind rose carpeted in evergreen, a couple thousand feet, before sighing into swales and valleys whose very tops had been eroded into bare limestone, now dusted with snow, mountain teeth just clearing the gums after 20 million years of infancy.  How many trees could I see, behind me and across the valley?  How many just between one small draw and another, and only as far up as the bull could doubtless walk in 3 minutes?

That seething green monolithic was broken once, every 40 acres or so, regularly but at random, by a single western larch, which at three miles was always taller than the sea of fir and pine, and in October fitting into a riot of pure yellow, just the near and precious side of golden.  I’d have had more time to question yet again the low country, dry side distribution of this tree, which 50 miles west and on the Pacific side is at the same altitude so numerous as to form it’s own marching majority, if it weren’t so damn hot.  This creek has some old and gnarled representatives of my other first choice for favorite tree, aspens, growing just along the ditch, which is itself woven over with willows that make it hard to reach the water.  The evening before I had slowly danced down the bank, heavy legs carrying 15 urgent miles, almost sitting down in panic when a ruffed grouse burst away.  Even on this, what is 30 minutes short of being the last hot afternoon of the year, the water is bitingly cold, and lets the aura of the previous night suffuse out for yards right, left, and up.  I drink, lots, and as fast as aching teeth will allow, and sit on the shady side against the largest aspen, while the illuminated fingers either side grow hotter.  My meat bags hang at head height in branches, the wind drying last vestiges of their past bloody life.

Science recognizes two species of common, or medium sized, deer in North America, though hunters in their hair splitting like to talk about at least two more sub-species.  One cannot blame them, or us, as from my perch halfway up the hill, 10 feet from my tarp, wrapped in my sleeping bag and all my clothes as light comes to the valley I’d be hard pressed to design better deer habitat.  White-tail habitat, specifically.  Steep mountains behind me, whose taller, steeper, balder, rockier, and more jagged fangs contrast uneasily with their just western cousins, put lots of water down into the valley, with little creeks every mile or so adding up to the perennial river I can hear hidden off a ways in the final treed gorge.  The lesser of these creeks, due to circumstance, dry up by autumn and maintain a healthy aspen and brush population, with a few islands of ponderosa (my other other favorite tree) at a respectful distance.  The greater of the creeks stay cold and full even in this, the shortest unfrozen month, and this pays for a band of pine and spruce which varies between 50 and 200 yards thick, and in flatter stretches hides willow bogs which will, in 20 minutes, threaten to overtop my boots as I let deer tracking take me to places previous experience ought to have well warned off.

This should be mule deer country.  It is big and wild, almost 20 trail miles and 10 straight line miles from the nearest road.  But white-tails like edge habitat and mixed terrain, and the creek bands and sage flats I’m glassing are the wild, 5000 foot functional answer to 20 acre, landscaped mcMansions.  I’ve spent some magical days past in almost this exact spot, the same number of weeks out of winter as I am now preceeding it, when grouse and elk were dense enough that dreams heavy and light could jump from back to back the whole breadth of the valley, never sullied in snow or mud.

I could hear some faint bugels last night, as first the moon and then the grasping cold woke me up, but no elk are visible, and I walked in here yesterday with deer on the mind.  I glassed a wandering trio last night, for over an hour, as they fed and bedded and fed again, and I watched and lost and then found them again.  This morning the trio isn’t here yet, or they picked up a fourth, and are feeding up towards the edge of the thicker creek-spawned spruce.  By rights I ought to wait, as the odds of getting within rifle range across the flats before I’m seen is small, but my hands and feet and mind are blurred by cold, lagging between past and present like an LCD out below zero.

An hour later I’m caught in the fog of the moment, two deer canted away on the next side of a draw, cutting between two creeks.  Their feet are virtually brushed by the pines which crowd the bottom, hidden in its transversity by steeply rising hillsides.  The deer see me and bound off, a sense of urgency which barely respects the essence of white-tails, stopping at 70 yards for an extended stare.  Tracks had led through swamp into the short band of old growth along the creek, a hidden low cathedral with blank needle floors and foot ceilings.  A skiff of 3 day old snow, unviolate with wind, circumscribed the halo of each spruce, and let me string together the deers path.  It went back out into the swamp, twin slashes filling with water, and cutting frost from matted grass.  Springs ago I’d see deer there, up right in the meadow where I ought to be for dry boots, blue grouse thumping out their April of sexual frenzy up on that hillside, and elk back there, behind the wall of spruce.

The wind again came out of the north, wrapping around the hill we knew by proxy as it rose off to our left, through the trees.  Aspens stood stripped, all traces of leaves buried in eight inches of snow.  It had taken an hour to go from almost to fully light, gradations I had been prepped to appreciate by a long drive and hefty walk uphill, all in the dark, all places I had never before been.  What would in summer have been a mere breeze cut, and I pulled on a second hood.  With the forecast cold, yet mild for November, I had dressed lightly for the long walk in, and now, as our paced slowed to trace elk tracks, I had only just the layers to stay in that narrow period between safe and warm.

I know how elk stay warm, even if the evidence is more spiritual than physiological.  I’ve plucked their hollow, stiff hairs from hostile trees and barbed wire, impressed by something closer to a porcupine quill than what is left behind inside my toque.  I’ve cut through the same fur, and the mass of leather armor behind it, opening one along the backbone from tail to neck to get the meat out at take it home.  That meat is compelling of itself, and trying to wrestle single, slippery muscle groups, made boneless by my knife and still bigger than my thigh, solidifies distant and furtive glimpses which had over the years made elk seem very large indeed, first in the imagination and now in fact.  Their relationship with the land and the weather plays by rules which I, as a human, cannot at their base grasp.

Deer cling to the landscape like fleas, bounding away at the first sign of trouble, or like ticks, burrowing into promising pockets and not moving unless obliged.  Elk move from one place to another in clean arcs, stately in their efficiency, and hold the particulars and preferences as equally self-evident and removed from human contemplation.  Knowing the mind of an elk is precious, fleeting, and perhaps illusory.  In good moments hunters like to see coincidence as less weighty than skill.

And this is why snow is such a blessing, and tracking fresh sign the most indulgent form of hunting, with gratification masking the need to evaluate probability.  Our plan had been to sneak meadows at dawn, a project made possible by a long walk and early start.  Shooting light didn’t find us elk, but it did find stripes of sign, horizontally and every 40 yards.  With the meadows cleared we traced strings of sign back, a few hundred yards higher than our furtive path in.  For a half hour sign led in irregular rombi up and across and back again, fresh beds melted icey interspersed with patched of beargrass, swept clear to the ground, the best parts nibbled.  Further on our group consolidated, and seemed to become four animals moving in a line, with little doubt or shortage of purpose.  Occasionally one would divert 10 yards further down hill and pause, before inevitably rejoining its fellows.  Occasionally the tracks would lead under the through a downed tree whose sticky jagged branches ill fit our human dimensions, and we would loop around.

The wind stayed in our face as we swung 180 degrees, ambulating the hillside whose summit was less ethereal, now that we were lower and on a steep slope.  The elk did not pause, and followed a steep game trail through several small side drainages, not yet cut headward enough to be flat, and then down a gentler ridge towards a side drainage mature enough to be a stable creek of its own, yet still steep and lively enough to have no trace of freezing.  I filled my bottle from a foot deep pool that could be crossed in one step.  5 minutes from then we’d crest a small ridge and I’d see two elk backs at 70 yards, 5 quarter second flits between trees all the evidence between me and their disappearance.  30 more minutes and we’d follow them, and eventually one of them, uphill through doghair regrowth, the kind of lodgepole thicket that takes fur from elk at 20 second intervals, and whose track revealed no routine path of travel.

We were pushing the elk now, and could in the snow plainly see it pause, look back, revaluate, and continue in an adjusted direction.  Where previous the psychic string between hunter and prey had been flacid, with us reeling from one direction only, it was now a livened band whose modest elastic threatened to burst minute to minute, but from which end first?  When the tracks led out across a shoulder whose floor of embedded granite spaced trees into elegant halls the stride opened, and my mind tugged me forward roughly.  The elk was pushing, and it was making mistakes, peeling down off the ridge, connecting islands of trees and soil before ending at the top of a steep talus field, slick and hidden by snow, and more than longer enough in each direction to argue against turning back.  As I approached the lip I kept eyes up and slowed my breathing anticipating a quick shot on a bull, struggling against fate and bad footing to make the shelter of trees.

The two deer, uphill and across a bit of rough terrain, didn’t see fleeing me with catastrophic urgency, even though I had bumped them twice in the last 25 minutes.  I loved them for their wilderness naivete, cursed the sun for glaring into my scope, and sent two offhand shots through the ribs of the larger animal.  It did not as expected roll, and instead settled at once in the shade of a small tree, limp as a burnt pancake dropped on the floor.

The shot down the talus never came, and in binoculars I could see tracks skidding from block to block and then taking a straight line away.  We retreated, found flat ground, ate something, and looked at maps to figure exactly how far and in what direction from the truck we had gone.  90 minutes from when we decided on a direction we’d be low enough for the snow to fade into a matter of inches, at which point I saw a snowshoe hair under a spruce and shot its head off.  A task, which was never anything but unlikely but which we had gotten acceptably close to, kept us warm on the long walk, along with the promise of hare stew.

There is a kind of law of the shortest distance to the image, a psychological law by which the event to which one is subjected is visualized in a symbol that represents its swiftest summing up: I was a man who, carrying a pile of plates, had slipped on a waxed floor and let his scaffolding of porcelain crash.

-Wind, Sand and Stars

 

Cold

There’s the cold of walking downstairs, barefooted into the crosswinds of baseboard heaters just turned on.  A head fuzzy with sleep and the unguardedness of pajamas that has you wanting an extra sweater.

There’s the creeping cold; a headwind soaking into your layers and sublimating back and down your spine.  After one hour you’re chilled, after another you’re cold, after a third you’re either gibbering or in dire need of a fire.

And then there’s packrafting cold; old school in an open boat and raingear on a fall morning, with wet feet and butt and one damp elbow and armpit from that paddle stroke timed exactly wrong into a wave.  Cold settles in globally under every coat you brought, and flushing it from all your folds takes a solid hour, be it drinking tea in the smoke of a fire or walking hard uphill.  Your torso comes to neutral, but sweat takes a long time to come as digits and nose linger just beyond sensation.

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It had been two years since I’d been to the South Fork of the Flathead, and just like last time this was a short, hike in and float out hunting trip.  Unlike last time I did not shoot a deer, and for some unjustifiable reason I grabbed our Double Duck rather than the Yukon Yak (and it’s deck).

What I recalled from last time was the clear water, rocks even more plain than usual just below you, slowly arriving and passing under.  What I did not recall was the trees, sprigs of color erupting through the distance near and far.

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At base flows of 350 cfs, which you’ll generally find in September, I don’t recommend going upstream from Big Salmon Creek, and most of the terrain between that point and Meadow Creek Gorge burned in the big fire three summers ago.  Perhaps the various yellows and reds have grown more potent with the resultant fertalization.  They’re certainly more obvious, but in my memory they didn’t exist before.  The harsh, light, green bursts of new pine sprouts certainly didn’t.

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I’ve written a lot trying to invoke this river well enough that memories match memories of memories.  Hopefully if that all lines up together I’ll know what I’m seeing in 1 and 5 and 30 years when I go back.  Better frozen in time, as good a reason as speculation will ever give for bringing an open boat.

Intimacy of looking

A little over eight years ago I had most of a day of what remain the worst conditions through which I’ve ever traveled.  The high valleys and gentle passes of the Greater Yellowstone gave me a dozen straight miles of travel above 8000 feet, which in May made for over a dozen miles on six or more feet of snow, which the heavy rain the night before and suffused and underlaid with water.  My skis regularly sunk me deeper than my knees into whole meadows of slurpee consistency, and streams running unseen into the creek down which I was traveling made for multiple hundred yard stretches where feet of flowing water off the ground was in the process of erasing snow, bottom to top.  I felt my feet tugged downstream as I extracted skis, step to step, and my shoe tops froze solid just beyond the reach of my body heat.  That day ended in a vast, north-south valley with enough sun to bring things down to dirt, and while miles of postholing in timbered stretches remained, along with two creek crossings which remains amongst the most difficult I’ve done, my time out of the land of the living was thankfully limited to that one snowy day.  A good thing, as my legs, spirit, and skis where all on the verge of breaking.

In the final ten miles of that trip I was crawling through deadfall between meadowed stretches, the night having been cold enough for me to walk atop the drifts, and began to notice thick tufts of middle-brown fur wedged into the flaky bark of old growth spruce deadfall.  A few clearings in I saw one, an old, lone, bull bison, knee deep in barely thawed marsh, eating fresh growth, an aura of impurterbibility making it look eternal, as if another forest fire could burn through, engendering a centuries of erosion, all of which would leave the landscape unrecognizable and that bull unaltered and unmoved and in the same spot, facing south, as uninterested in a single human hiker as he was in a freezing spring morning.

Much has happened since, though releasing uphill fog into a cold morning through the zipper of a fleece coat is not one of them.  Today internal temperature rose quickly because my second son, all 19 pounds and 5 months of him, was on my back, in a carrier strapped to a frame pack.  A mile into our two mile walk home from the bakery human and ambient heat released bison from that pack fabric, a musty and durable funk which gives an ineffable, wild spin to the combination of used shoes and barnyard.  For a rainy week after we came home and put a coda on the endless four days of bison hunt with a dark, 830pm meat sort, 600 pounds spread along 12 feet of table.  The hide sat salted in a bin, 5-6 inches of fur along the shoulder, piled on the pavers.  The smell lingered for a rainy week.

 

I’ve been obsessed with bison ever since.

I’ve seen them belly deep, islands twice the radius of their body leewards in a mid-winter valley.  I’ve heard a hundred panic through the sage from 80 yards away, bushes seeming to vibrate in my peripheral vision.  I’ve read about Ed Howell being stalked through a ground blizzard by a soldier armed with a revolver, how bison were 300 years ago perhaps the most numerous large mammal to ever grace earth, and how by 1902 the wild core had in Yellowstone shrunk to 23 animals.  Today plenty of beefalo, and bison which are at least a little bit cow, exist on private ranches in every state and territory in North America, but the handful of genuinely free-ranging herds all have their origin in either those 23 animals, or in the couple hundred which spent a few generations as pets to the founder of Kalispell, before being used to seed the National Bison Range.

Our hunt started with a necessarily leisurely drive through the busy roads of Montana and Yellowstone, and the bison hewed to my previous experience; we saw a few scattered in low points above Garnet Hill, a few more in the flats near Slough Creek, and seemingly countless groups of a hundred or so once in the gut of the Lamar Valley.  We didn’t stop, but of the numerous bulls visible from the road none had the rotund, stolid look of the bulls I had seen alone and in pairs on their way up into the high country back in July.  Or those I saw in those meadows along the shores of Yellowstone Lake in May, or napping in the shade of Canyon Village in July, or back along the very headwaters of Shoshone Creek in a yet snowless October.  Some are just off matte black tail to nose, while others let the mat of fur atop the shoulder jump to wet dirt brown before seguing back to black in time to meld with the black eyes and  drop as lacunae into that head.

That head, as I learned once I shot just such a bull in just such a remote, small, calm place, is every bit the blurred stub of inhumanity it seems from a safe distance.  The ears, barely visible save in the hand, are in fact six inches long, hidden in fur.  The eyes remain to humans as blank in death as in life, glassy and subtle.  Like us, a bison is covered with skin, and the band which spreads across the shoulders and spreads down the sides of the neck to the chin and dangling beard is over an inch of a pliant yet unyielding dirty white that dulls knives in inches and has me recalling scrapes and gobis from bike wrecks and rock climbing battles and the nick from that errant knife blade just now, as full darkness descends and the task numbness of the third straight hour of cutting meat comes and goes.  Cutting the hide back from over the eyes takes 10 minutes a side, hacking the horns out of the finally bare skull 45.

Bison carry brucellosis, a bacteria which can cause miscarriage in cattle, and is rarely spread to humans, these days via raw dairy products.  The government reports 112 human cases in 2015, symptoms include swelling of the heart and liver, and recovery can reportedly take many months.  These specifics linger in my head as I stand back from the carcass into the fire light and watch my blood lingering, via fresh hole, with the lurid smears of bison fluid which have over the past hour grown on my latex glove.  That morning we’d followed the Yellowstone River upstream for hours, truck covering in two hours what bison would have, two centuries ago, covered in a season.  Closing in on the park boundary the highway takes river right along a rocky canyon, and if you’ve come this way often enough you might steal eyes away from the hint of rapid below, or the bighorn winter range above, or the erratic rental RV just ahead, to see the fence and road stripes which connect cliff wall to river in the narrowest spot.  If you’re looking even more closely, and driving the other way, you’ll see the metal grates stacked in the ditch; those paint stripes can be replaced, made into a genuine cattle guard, and with the fence and cliff wall form the barrier against which bison ram and mill during winters deep enough to send their instincts downstream.

Like all the rest of the megafauna who bedrock as icons of the American west, the mountains were likely peripheral niches in the bisons world.  The big plains hundreds of miles downstream were low and windswept and sunny enough to make good winter territory, and close enough to the mountains to enjoy the summer fruits of snowmelt.  Today bison, like elk, are presumed to carry brucellosis, and unlike elk they calve in places cattle also like to eat.  This is the primary reason they are embargoed in a way no other wild herbivore is, though the way in which they trample fences and indifferently stare down cars who would also like to use the road has at least as much to do with their high status as ingrates, in ways more profound than the calf and lamb and occasionally people eating Grizzly.

The hunt had taken 3 hours, if you count trailhead to dead animal, though the hours of driving, emails of planning, days spent scouting and researching, and years accumulating experience are as relevant as they are hard to add together.  Taking the relevant parts back to the edge of the Wilderness took a further two days.  Meat wise a bison might be described as thrice the equivalent vintage of elk, but the work scaled exponentially.  The rear legs, once separated, could not be lifted by one man, so we skidded them clear on garbage bags and removed the meat, muscle group by 50 pound muscle group.  Working the hide clear required one to two assistants yarding handfuls of bloody fur back for minutes at a time, while a person with a knife and headlamp knelt to understand where skin and flesh distinguished themselves.  That hide spread beyond a 10 foot square once free for the flat grassy meadow, and it took at least three of us to skid it away to somewhere the assumed, scavenging Grizzly would hopefully not find it.

That bear never did appear.  We hung the meat in trees with a maze of cord, snapping limbs and ripping game bags on limb stubs frequently.  Each trip we approached the trees, selected for both their size and separateness from surrounding brush, with cautious weapons drawn.  Each time nothing had come in interest to them, and remarkably, not to the carcass, even on the second morning after.  I shot the bison four times before it had enough cause to decide it was dead, the first two shots given to the heart and lungs in visualized deliberation, the last two to the head as past precedent was bucked away by a ever more wounded animal rebounding off the ground, threatening to saunter away in immortality and die somewhere less convenient.  Between the third and fourth bullets the bison, seemingly blinded by impending death, rammed full into a 70 foot spruce.  A few newly loose pinecones, which squirrels had not in their autumnal frenzy yet attended to, fell free, and sprigs and loose needles clung to the fur through the dragging and packing and driving and salting, and were delivered to the taxidermist along with all the hurried memories.  Which will return to endure, hung on the wall or thrown across the floor?

The bison did die for us, and it died no more than 40 yards from where it had been eating grass when I crouched close enough and shot it.  Unchewed grass stayed between teeth streaked brown as we worked, 28 person/hours from first knife stroke to meat in the trees and us headed off to make camp.  The flank of black, close and tight fur began thigh height, and the dead belly swelled to our navels as that 2000 pound body began to quickly and at last, change into something other than a sentinel of green edges.  After minutes of swelling the bull began to deflate, a low and unchanging grunt and sigh which left the hidden throat, unchangingly beyond the scales of human orchestration, for over an hour, continuously, and began again when having dealt with two legs and one side of the hide, we five all pitched in to roll the bison over.  Those who have sat along the road in the Lamar, Hayden, or Madison, or Firehole in early summer have heard the bellow this approximated in disembodied monotone.

Only a few years ago my time had built, far enough and in the right way, to be able to imagine killing a bison like I wanted to.  I had specific ideas, which turned into deliberate visualizations once I drew this Absaroka-Beartooth tag.  They concerned what the bull would look like, where he would be standing, the circumstances under which I’d first see him, and how I would approach and make the shot.  All these things hewed to dreams with a precision that still remains ethereal.  I also envisioned walking up to the dead bison, relief and gratitude spilling into being overwhelmed with tears and grand gestures.  This did not happen.  Even after throwing a trekking pole at the carcass, and then poking the eye first with another pole and then my rifle barrel, it took a further quarter hour to stop worrying that the bull might spring back up, as he had three times already, and this time gore us all.  When the fear subsided photos were over and light was fading and pre-planning flooded back.  Wood, for a fire.  Trees, strong enough, found and cord hung.  Water gathered and drank.  The occasional snack.  Back, stretched, and hands warmed as needed.  Soon enough evidence of the bison had been erased as far as we were able, his animalhood left to feed the birds and burden our packs, the abstraction of memory all that would be left of the intimacy of looking at such a thing, so up close.

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How to hunt bison in the backcountry

Photo: Mike Moore

Or; how we did our recent hunt, and what I might consider doing differently next time.

First, you have to get a tag.  I explained the particular appeal of the Absaroka-Beartooth tag in this post, and was beyond pleased that my thesis about this hunt was borne out on the ground.  We found a very large, obviously quite old, lone bull in the first likely (flat, grassy, abundant water) spot.  Presumably there were more further down towards the main meadows, but in look and setting he gave me no cause for second thoughts, and as I “snuck” perfunctorily to 60 yards the bison gave me neither a first nor second glance.  What will be of interest as this hunt matures is how long the bison remain so unmoved by humans.  We ran into another party hunting bison, and heard rumors of a third, which accounts for over half the five tags.  Access and terrain seem to suggest that this side of the unit will be the most popular.  How many more years of getting shot will their ancestral memory permit?  And how much harder will this hunt get when that happens?  Montana has given out 5 tags each for three years now.  Around 350 folks applied in 2016, over 500 in 2017, and 406 in 2018.  Many people, including switched on resident hunters, haven’t yet heard of this hunt.  When that emphatically changes, how much will the odds change with it?

Second, you need a good crew of folks.  In this I give myself a large amount of credit, for knowing the right people, and them a lot of credit too, for being as generous with their time, money, and sweat as everyone was.  Jack flew from Fairbanks, and his moose experience and very strong back proved invaluable.  Craig drove (!!) from Los Angeles, and though he had never packed out big game his willingness to suffer and ability to always be attentive and optimistic were essential.  Mike was the elder statesman, in age and experience with big game, as well as with four letter words.  Skinning a bison is not a simple thing, even if you’ve been through a bunch of smaller critters before, and I like to think that he and I tackled that daunting job as efficiently as was reasonable.   Tim, born and raised Montanan, had never been hunting before, which didn’t hold him back from hauling the kind of packs any seasoned hunter would find worthy of bragging rights.  And Norm appeared, magic, at just the right moment Monday, buoying spirits and rallying us all to grab the last bits of meat and get everything out in two total trips.

There is a certain sense to which the whole affair was an anticlimactic, anti-adventure, insofar as everything that could be planned for hewed to course, and absolutely no drama or shenanigans ensued.  I can’t overemphasize just how likely, in the course of a five+ hour night-time butchering session and two day, 700+ pound packing session, minor injuries which could quickly turn major should have been.  The worst thing we had were a few hand nicks from knives, sore shoulders, and in a few cases, trashed feet.  Even the drive in and out, rowdier than anyone anticipated and ripe for cut tires, saw no hazards beyond scrapped running boards.  This is entirely due to an excellent platoon of troops who were attentive and cohesive.

Third, you need to be efficient.  I pulled the trigger a few minutes after 6pm Saturday night.  We had all the meat off, deboned and hung, the hide crudely fleshed and salted and drug a ways away, and the kill site cleaned up and water bottles full by 2330.  Everyone was quite tired, and for my own part I had gotten dehydrated enough that it took most of the next day to get back on an even keel, but through the whole course everyone took and gave orders and did their best.  Jack and Tim gathered fire wood and hung rope while Mike and I skinned, with Craig around to hold legs and hide as needed (an essential job).  Jack then transitioned to boning quarters, Craig to fetching water, Tim to holding limbs and hide, and everyone got their turn to rest around the fire and keep an eye up and down valley for bears.  When the time came it took Jack, Mike, myself, and eventually Craig to move the hide away from the carcass, and we gave up short of our goal due to exhaustion.  None of us are tire-flipping meatheads, but none of us are particularly unfit either, suggesting that the wet hide was both awkward to move and well over 200 pounds.

Fourth, you need a lot of game bags, and a means to safeguard a lot of meat.  In the six miles between the kill and the trailhead there were exactly two places with trees large enough of limb to hold 100+ pound hangs.  One was conveniently on the edge of the meadow in which I shot the bison, the other was almost exactly halfway back to the trucks.  300 feet of cord was well short of what would have been ideal, and forced us into hangs which were too heavy.  They broke limbs, grooved limbs, and often required 3 people to heft into the air.  500 feet would have been more like it.  Also, the bigger game bags I made were too big, and ended up being too heavy.  The smaller ones (18×26″) were ideal, but the material was a bit on the light side.  Two bags ripped on limbs, one failing such that it had to be replaced.  12-14 smaller game bags would have been better.  An electric bear fence would have saved a lot of time and energy, and if/when I get to help out on this hunt in the future one would be highly recommended, and open up more possibilities for meat storage.  A crude estimate is that we had between 600 and 650 pounds of boned out meat to handle.

Fifth, you need a lot of knife blades.  Seeing a bison on the ground is impressive, and getting into the butchering only reinforces this.  The hide on the back of the shoulder and through the whole neck is over an inch thick, and everything from the tissue around the eyes to the silver skin and tendons are proportionally tougher.  We had three scapel-blade knives, and went through something on the order of 16 blades.  We also had a few premium fixed blade knives, which dulled very fast.  Had we relied solely on those someone would have been on almost full time sharpening duty.

My intention was to use a light hatchet to skullcap the horns, like one would on an elk, and this did not work.  The horns are attached with a lot of very thick bone, and it took about 45 minutes of chopping, while most of the team hung meat, to separate both horns separately.  The whole skull, even without the hide, would have been very heavy.  As mentioned the hide itself exceeded all expectations when it came to weight.  I brought in 12 pounds of salt, and spread that after getting the biggest patches of flesh and fat off.  We moved it as far as we could and spread it up on a log, fur up, to promote air circulation.  Both nights were in the low 40s or colder, which kept the meat and hide in good condition.  The hide got a good dose of rain the second night, which added a bit of weight.  Triaging and everyone being tired had me cut the head and back half off, and take out the 1/3 covering the shoulders and a bit on either side.  This piece was easily 80 pounds wet.

img_6578Monday night meat sort, minus the 1/6 already headed to Norm’s house.

Sixth, and most importantly, you need some time and space to appreciate it all.  It seems the exception that hunting trips allow much space for appreciation, with conditions often requiring you dive straight into butchering and then packing.  With a 2000 pound animal this is even more the case, and my level of exhaustion was such that even today, almost six days after pulling the trigger, I’ve only just begun to have the experience catch up with the rest of me.  Surprisingly fancy burgers at the Miner’s Saloon in Cooke City helped a bit, at least giving us all a chance to sit unmoving and try to put a few words down before we all parted ways.  I’m not sure many people, including all of us, have the perspective needed to appreciate what we did over those three days.  Getting it might take a few more years.

Bison meat storage

The only difference between meat storage for the upcoming bison hunt and any other hunt is needing to store a lot more meat, and the need to keep it away from bears.  Which explains the pile of meat care equipment shown below: eight game bags, and 300 feet of paracord.

img_6571.jpgParacord isn’t the lightest or smallest, but it is economical and a good balance between weight/bulk on one side and easy gripping and not grooving limbs on the other.  Fortunately treeline in the GYE goes way up to 9000+ feet, and the spruce are surprisingly robust, presumably due to the abundant water and long summer days.  Hanging meat at a comparable altitude even as close as the Bob would not be so practical.

I’ve been using some basic game bags I sewed from cotton muslin for 4+ years now.  They use one rectangular piece of fabric, french seams on the sides (to prevent seam hole elongation and eventual failure), and a simple paracord drawstring with a reinforced grommet.  Those bags are quite bulky, and while the slow drying properties of cotton is actually handy for hot and dry hunts like New Zealand in summer, it doesn’t make sense for Montana in the fall, so did what I’ve intended to do for a long time and made a pile of new ones out of light polyester.

Joanne’s has a decent range of light polys, but finding one which is both tightly woven and has no stretch takes some doing.  A light color with some flair is a bonus.

I’m packing eight bags for this hunt, five smaller ones (18″ by 26″) and three bigger ones (24″ by 30″).  As can be seen above, my assembly line approach and generally packed schedule lately did not make for neat sewing, but with a stitch length around 1mm and burly nylon thread, I’m confident they’ll last many years, and I’ll never lack for extras in the future, even when I have one animal aging in the fridge when another hunt comes along.

img_6574.jpgAll those games bags, all that cord, and a good stash of latex gloves (Brucellosis is common in Yellowstone bison) fill the above stuff sack.  Not bad for the job at hand.

Bison packs

Beyond rifles (maybe) and a whole lot of gamebags (to be discussed soon) there’s not much bison hunting demands beyond the pursuit of deer or elk, save perhaps when it comes to your backpack.  In a few weeks we can expect to carry out the equivalent of between 3 and 4 mature elk, which will demand unusual measures at the kill site and to store the meat, and multiple trips to get it out.  Multiple trips, especially over multiple days, vastly complicates scent management, which in Grizz country is a big deal.  While hunting, and while carrying lots of meat, you’re already inherently doing a lot wrong insofar as bear management is concerned.  There’s no reason to make things worse.

The two packs pictured here are similar, with almost identical dimensions, very similar construction methods, and fairly similar feature sets.  The black multicam bag is built for the Seek Outside Revolution frame, and optimized not only for hunting, but for use while in meat shelf hauling mode.  Abundant compression (three each side, three front, two each top and bottom) is necessary here, as is lateral stiffness in the frame complex, to avoid barreling the load into your back.  The tan pack is built on an integrated Seek Outside frame, built to hold gear for backpacking, as well as haul boned out meat bagged and hung from internal loops at the top of the frame.  Because of that, it has much less compression, as the demands for load control won’t be that high.

All this (as well as lighter materials) makes the tan pack almost 1.5 pounds lighter, as well as giving it a cleanness and simplicity which are appealing.

The center zip works very well for on the fly accessibility, both in conventional backpacking mode, and while meat shelfing.  The zip opens all the way to the top of the shroud, allowing the pack to splay open, which making loading meat and then gear nice and quick.  I close the final 4-5 inches with velcro, so that with the role top done down three times the zipper is just free (pull can be seen on both packs, above), allowing gear to be loaded and unloaded with the roll top fastened.

The black appears a lot wider than the tan one, which is partly a result of much less stiffer fabric and how they’re easy stuffed for photos, and partly the shape of the base panel.  Each bag is 42-43 inches in circumference at the base, but the black bag is an inch wider against the user, and 2 inches wider along the back, which makes it 1.5 inches shallower.

I’ve been experimenting extensively with shoulder strap and hipbelt padding over the past year, and the current state of my thought is well represented in the tan pack, whose shoulder straps are a single 1/4″ layer of 5 pound EVA, with a layer of 5mm 3D mesh against the user.  The hipbelt uses the same foam and mesh in the lumbar, and softer 2 pound foam in the sides.  Thin shoulder straps are lighter and cleaner, absorb less water, and don’t interfere as much with things like shouldering a rifle.  I’ve not been able to go this thin with any softer foam without having the straps roll and deform under heavy loads.  The thicker 3D mesh has downsides, mainly in the way it collects pine needles, but it pads and wicks and generally prevents chafing better than anything else, though research in this area is ongoing.

I’ve also been experimenting with how possible it is to make pack side pockets which are too big, and to that end the tan pack has pockets which are 5 inches deep, and over 15 inches tall on the front side of the side panel.  Attaching cubic inch measurements to open pockets is a bit silly, so by way of reference I’ll say that you can cram this pack full of gear for a 10 day whitewater, have it absolutely bursting, and fit two two liter soda bottles in each pocket.  Which is overkill without extensive shaping, as a mere nalgene flops around quite a bit.

I had side pockets on the black pack, but cut them off as the design wasn’t that good, and meat shelf loads make conventional side pockets less than ideally useful.  The theory is to have a pocket which attaches to belt and frame, in this case a hacked Mystery Ranch wet rib, which seems promising.  Other meaty details I leave for those with a keen eye.

In keeping with the theme this week, I’ll probably bring the black pack, as it carried out an elk last year, and the meat shelf option makes keeping blood off your gear so simple.  It doesn’t keep blood from staining the pack, or from potentially dripping on to your clothes, opening the possibility that such items might need to be hung.  The Cordura used in the Revolution frame is particularly absorbant, and after a half dozen critters mine is permanently reddish.  Next on the list is making this from laminate fabric, slick side towards the meat.

Bison rifles

This afternoon I ticked one of 2018s hunting goals off the list; putting grouse (ruffed, in this case) back on the menu.

The schnitzel was on the chewy side, due to an old and big bird and more likely to a pan to table time under 2 hours, but with plenty of lemon still reminded why it is a favorite.

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Last fall I shot zero grouse, and put no time into small game hunting.  Grouse, squirrels and rabbits don’t requires visits to marquee locations, but in terms of skill building, taste, and fun are all but the equal of deer and sheep.  (Except our Red Squirrels, still haven’t found a way to cook them into a genuinely good dish.)  Small game hunting is also an easy fit with kids.  Now, we’re two weekends into September, and have put a grouse and a squirrel in the bag, with many more days chasing both to come.

One of my favorite things about Montana is that for the last third of the year you can shoot grouse with just about any firearm you please, including rifles.  Careful shot placement is obviously the order of the day, or the use of light loads and bullets.  The later was at play today, and I shot the ruffed off her log at 30 yards, making for the .350 rem mags first kill in my hands.

Hunting is no different than any outdoor pursuit, in that a name-brand trip is often the impetus to buy new things.  A bison tag would seem to be better reason than most of a new gun, just like a trip down the Nahanni would good reason for a new boat, or a trip to the Alps reason for new skis or ice tools.  The flaw in this thinking is that outings with higher consequences, or at least places where second chances will be harder than usual to come by, would seem to put a premium on gear whose function has become second nature.  And this is the exact problem I currently have with bison rifles.

At top is my Kimber .308, which I’ve carried for hundreds of miles and with which I’ve shot over a dozen big game animals (and over a dozen grouse).  It’s light, shoulders instantly, and I trust it totally.  In the search for more consistent terminal performance and no concerns with lead in meat I’ve been using Barnes TSX bullets, 168 grain.  The bottom rifle is my grandfathers, on long-term loan from my cousin, a Remington 660 in .350 rem mag.  The 660 is a bit heavier, kicks more, and holds fewer rounds in the magazine, but otherwise the guns feel similar, close to identical.  The older 3x M8 on the 660 is even darn close to the FX 4x I’ve had on the Kimber since the beginning.

The question is, which to take?  The heavier, fatter bullet out of the 660 would seem like the obvious choice, but the Kimber goes a hair faster, and I’m shooting a bullet with better sectional density.  But the main factor is that I just haven’t had much field time with the 660, my fault, and something that lingers in the back of my head as less than ideal.

Thoughts?