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At midday on the 17 November the jet began to rev its engines before takeoff. It was the beginning of a lifelong dream to chase the elusive Wapiti of North America. Although it had been an ambition of mine since I first hunted deer over fifty years ago, it had only looked achievable since early January 2017. At that time I had an argument with a horse and the horse won. It left me with a severely damaged right shoulder that would require surgery and a long period of physiotherapy. Being a right handed shooter the 2017 upcoming deer season had ended before it had started!
During this rehabilitation stage I drove my wife mad whingeing about not being able to hunt. I filled in my time on the computer following the Safari Club International hunt auction that takes place at their annual convention. I came across a Montana rifle elk hunt which was eight days on horseback in the remote Absoroka Mountains. Well, ‘she who must be obeyed’ eventually got sick of me saying “gee I’d like to do that” and decreed “make it happen before your too bloody old to do it”.
I didn’t need any further prompting so I contacted Mike Colpo from Lazy J Bar O outfitters. The guy went out of his way to make it easy for me. Mike’s an ex-military sniper who also runs long range shooting schools. He said “don’t go to the hassle of bringing your own rifle, there’s enough here for World War 3. And don’t lump a sleeping bag all that way, plenty here you can borrow”. By now I had a good mate lined up to join me and Mike helped us fill out applications to Montana Fish and Wildlife for game permits for elk and deer combo licences. By April we were successful in getting these.
Mike suggested a post rut hunt in the last two weeks of November. His theory was that at this time of the season the cold weather would force the older and bigger bulls out of the higher mountains down to seven to eight thousand feet. The conversation that followed went a little like this:
Me: “Hang on, I’ve hardly been out of NSW, never seen snow, so how bloody cold does it get?”
Mike’s answer frightened me somewhat, “Might be minus one to two degrees but if it blows could drop to minus ten to fifteen”.
Me: “Hang on, hang on, I live in the tropics and this sounds like serious shit”.
John, my shooting mate, assured me we’d be okay with lots of merino woollen underwear, wool midlayer and gortex outerlayer, and footwear that was top of the range.
With plenty of time until November we started buying suitable clothing by chasing up post snow season sales. We also started to accept that our physical preparation would have to be greater than our previous hunts in Australia so we started an exercise program to help. This was to prove ineffective as nothing done at sea level could prepare us for the altitudes that we would hunt at.
By the time of departure my mate was gravely ill in hospital and unable to come. The panic among my family and friends about me wandering around in international airports alone indicated that they considered me a complete country ‘hick’, but having hardly fired a shot for twelve months I was not going to be stopped. The dream had to be lived!
It was a three sector trip. Brisbane to LAX. LAX to Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City to Bozeman Montana. I spent 2 days in Bozeman sleeping and getting the last of my gear purchased. The people of Bozeman are hunter friendly and willing to help in any way they can (totally opposite to Australia). It appears that Political Correctness has bypassed Montana.
On the Sunday afternoon my chaperone from Lazy J Bar O picked me up and drove me to Big Timber Montana where I met up with Mike and his wife JoJo and three other hunters that were scheduled to hunt that week. After the obligatory shot at the range I was to meet up with my guide for the next eight days. ’Stretch’, as he was known, was 6 foot 6, lean with handlebar moustache, and didn’t talk much. The other hunter that was to go to my camp was Chris, a wounded ex-warrior from the Iraq War who was now a New York Sargent of police. His guide was another Iraq veteran, Austin, again about 6 foot 6, bearded and closely resembling Mick Jagger when he played Ned Kelly in the Australian movie. Actually the description matches his character, as I was to find out in our forthcoming campfire discussions.
We loaded four saddle horses and six packhorses/mules into two trailers and headed out to the trail head. During this 28 mile trip I saw at least sixty mule and whitetail deer. Every farm had half a dozen or more hanging about the hay stacks. ‘This is going to be a turkey shoot’ I thought. How wrong I was going to be!
Once the pack animals were loaded the snow began to fall and we were to mount up and follow our guide who was leading the pack string. This is where my first problem started. The horse they gave me to ride was a ‘clumper’ over 16 hands high. I had to mount off the mudguard of the horse float which was a real embarrassment to me as I’ve ridden all my life and now felt like a city slicker. During the ride in we had to dismount in a steep greasy section which was no problem – but getting back on might be! I took Stretch aside and explained that several years ago I’d had a dose of the “Spanish Dancer” followed by pelvic radiation and that that had left my pelvic muscles weaker than they should be. Stretch replied with ”Paul my Dad’s got that and I’ve had bowel cancer, so don’t worry you’re amongst friends here”. From then on whenever we had to re-mount Stretch always stopped where there was a handy stump or log to use.
Our first days hunt it was relatively fine with the temperature in single digits. In the first hour Stretch had me lined up on a mule deer, but called for me to wait as he was sure he could find me a bigger one. We were to ‘bump’ a few does later in the day, but no bucks and not a sign of elk. Millions of hectares of this wilderness were burnt out over 20 years ago. As the landscape slowly regenerates the amount of “deadfall” is unbelievable. You can hear trees falling most days but when the wind really blows its quite dangerous to be in. It looks a bit like the game “pick up sticks” – the guides all carry an axe and a hand saw on their saddles to cut deadfall off the trails.
Day 2 it was decided to go higher (base camp is at 6500ft) and we were going to about 8000ft of Mt. Ray. We rode until the snow got to knee level of the horses then dismounted and tied the horses up and walked the rest of the way. Now, I’m 66 years old and reasonably fit, but I’d only go 50 meters and need to catch my breath, then go again and do the same. I must admit that I frequently questioned my sanity for inflicting this upon myself. During these moments Stretch would wait for me, grin, then light another Marlboro and plough off like a mountain goat leaving me cursing my short legs. We were in extremely picturesque country, and its beauty had to be admired. Stretch would often stop and look at the mountains and I’d enquire, “What do you see?“ He’d reply with “Just God’s creation” He truly was a mountain man!
Day 3 and 4 were very similar except for the howling wind that was blowing up from the valley floor. There had been no further snow since our entry into the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness and if you managed to get out of the wind it was very pleasant. Game or game sign was absent and that was starting to concern me. I really hadn’t come this far to look at picture postcard views but I consoled myself by remembering that this was what hunting can be.
By Day 5 I’d not seen any elk. The closest we got to them was seeing tracks across the frozen Muddy Lake with no hope of following due to 2 to 3 feet of snow. You’d never get close as the noise of sloshing through the snow would alert them. We returned to the alpine meadow above an area known as Lost Creek Basin with the intention of glassing down over the basin to try and find some mule deer. I took the western slope to glass and Stretch took the eastern fall. We’d arranged to meet back at where the horses were tethered at lunch time. Just before our arranged meeting time Stretch appeared enquiring if I’d seen anything. “Nope, what about you”? He said, “I think I might have found you an elk to chase”. He grinned and we hurried back to his glassing spot atop of a large rock that he called haemorrhoid rock, so named he said ‘’ because if you sit on the cold damn thing long enough it’ll kill your piles‘’.
He pointed the landmarks out where he said it was bedded, just 980 meters away. I was looking at it through my 10×50’s and couldn’t see a thing. With his naked eye he was telling me that it just moved its ear. Now, I don’t mind practical jokes but on day 5 of a non- productive hunt I didn’t appreciate this humour. After quite a while I asked what he intended to do. He said we had to wait for him to move so that we can plan an ambush on him. I suggested that we drop down on the spur on the opposite ridge to his bedding spot and set up and wait. Stretch was of the opinion that if he got up and walked away from us we’d never see him again (that’s okay but I hadn’t seen him at all!)
We quietly descended about 500 meters, thereby being slightly above him and 428 meters away. At this point it was 1.45pm and I could see his antler tips just above the pine regrowth. 6×6 with a fairly wide spread was Stretches call. I lay down in the snow with the 270 Weatherby across Stretch’s backpack, found the target then waited; and waited.
By 4.30pm I was cold and stood up, “What if he doesn’t get up until after dark?” I asked. “Well we‘ll come back first thing tomorrow morning,” said Stretch.
“Bullshit – he may be 20 miles away by then. We’ll make it happen before that, anyway I need to take a leak”. I’d no sooner dropped my fly when Stretch called “He’s up”. The distance was 428 meters but Stretch called it at 400 to compensate for the angle and allow left to right 4 inches for the wind. On the first shot he humped up but didn’t move. “Hit him again” Stretch called. The second shot hit hard through the ribs. He raced away from us then fell over the timber and was struggling to get up. “Hit him again” Stretch bellowed, but by this time he was down and out.
“That was a good shot with a 270” Stretch said. “Not really, I’ve been practising for 50 years”, but I was extremely relieved that I hadn’t muffed it with a strange rifle that I’d only fired 2 shots out of at the range. I was entitled to be a bit cocky, I’d just taken my largest trophy ever!
It was 5.15pm by the time we managed to climb over the 400 odd meters of deadfall to put our hands on him. We managed to roll him off his funeral pyre and then photograph him in the failing light. Stretch gutted him and propped the abdominal cavity open to let it cool then he covered the carcass with pine sapling to protect it from predators. At about 6pm we were back at the spot where I’d shot from, now in total darkness. We had to climb a 70 degree slope and go back to haemorrhoid rock where we left the bulk of our gear. The Marlboro man gave me his headlamp and bounded off with his long legs empowering his vertical climb. I had two hiking poles and the rifle. I should have been running on adrenaline but I think the injectors must have been blocked. Eventually I reached the rock and by then Stretch had smoked 4 cigarettes while waiting for me to catch up. We then had a mile walk back to the horses and an hour’s ride back to camp. The boys cracked open a bottle of whiskey before tea, but I passed up on tea and crashed onto my bunk.
Day 6 was to be harder than the previous one. By breakfast call the guides had horses and mules saddled and we set sail to retrieve my elk. Our plan was to descend down a log spur about a mile and a half long, drop down off it by zig-zagging across the slope, cross the creek and then rise up to the bench that the elk was on. A good plan: BUT; the deadfall was so entangled that Stretch went ahead of me with an axe and saw, and I followed leading 2 horses and 2 mules. This forward journey took five and a half hours before we reached the elk. We caped him and butchered him, loaded the pack mules then turned to head out. The return trip up the spur only took 45 minutes as Stretch had cleared the trail on the way in. The places where Stretch’s horses and mules can go have to be seen to be believed. I’ve been riding all my life (and breeding horses just as long) and I could only marvel at their ability. This is no doubt a product of being reared in that environment.
Day 7 was designated to finding a mule deer buck. At 8am while ascending a mountain above Sheep Creek, we got a call from Chris, the other hunter in our camp, saying he’d just shot a raghorn bull mixed up in a mob of 60 elk cows on Bakers Hill. Stretch asked what I wanted to do. I said “I’m an Aussie we’ll go and help a mate“, so we diverted towards Bakers Hill to help pack Chris’s elk out.
By the time we’d got Chris’s elk back to camp we only had 4 hours left of daylight and it was the last day of the season. We had a quick bite to eat then headed out, but as hard as we tried we could not find another mule deer. It was after dark as we rode back to camp and unbelievably we ran into a whitetail buck on the trail back. That night the weather turned bad and it blew a gale. By dawn snow was falling.
The last day’s pack out was slow as Stretch had to go ahead of the horses and clear the trail due to the previous night’s wind. The vehicles that we’d left at the trailhead were covered in snow so by the time the packs were unloaded and the horses and mules loaded onto the floats our hunt was well and truly over. I gave the highly prized elk meat to Stretch and he forwarded it on to the Wounded Warriors Association for distribution amongst their less fortunate members. The antlers and cape were taken to the local taxidermist to be processed and forwarded to my taxidermist in Australia.
On the long flight home I had time to reflect on how lucky I had been. I only saw one elk during my time in the wilderness and was fortunate enough to harvest him. It all occurred due to the skill of my guide and his understanding of their behaviour. I found the hunt to be physically challenging, and wish that I’d done it 10 years ago, but would I go back?
Mike Colpo generously offered my ill friend a transfer of his 2017 hunt deposit to the 2018 season. If he takes this up, I’d feel obligated to go. I don’t know if “she who must be obeyed” would share the same sentiment, but there’s always the view that the next one might be bigger than the 310 inch bull from 2017 hunt!
Mike Colpo’s web address is www.lazyjbaro.com and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
They love Australian hunters because of our easy going attitude, and their prices are cheaper than you would expect for days jammed full of hunting adventure. They provided me with an experience of a lifetime.