To be most accurate, my reference to the Bob Marshall Wilderness refers to a complex of wilderness areas. Wilderness designation is created by an act of Congress making it about as permanent as possible for land use. We were situated in a portion of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex most likely named after Scapegoat Mountain – The Scapegoat Wilderness.
Our guide was Rocky Heckman, owner of Montana Safaris. Rocky has all the qualities you want in an outfitter – things like horses, mules, personality and experience.
Self reliance and good sense are two of the qualities he and his staff possess, with enough “balls” to make things interesting. Six of the seven hunters on this trip (including me at 63) were over the age of sixty, but you would hardly have known it. Rocky and his staff had enough respect for our seniority to leave us alone until we cried for help which didn’t happen very often. However, there were moments when all of us hit some type of limit. That’s why we were there, to find out what we could still do on an adventure that required just enough effort to fulfill our desire for a challenge. And, have a chance to bag a bull or buck with the knowledge that we had done it the right way.
Each day Rocky, his son Coulter, nephew Taylor or rising star KD led us along mountain trails mostly covered with snow and ice. Then, we went a little further, traveling in areas with minimal or no trail at all. Each time it was done on the backs of strong gelding horses with skilled experts who were willing to go to great effort to give us a thrill, but keep us safe.
On the first day of hunting, I managed to make a graceful shoulder-first dismount off my horse, Banana. Fortunately there was plenty of snow to soften my landing. It was good humor. Rocky positioned our group of seven in various positions around one of his best elk areas. As we each followed the plan, three bull elk jumped from their beds and exploded through thick timber, but eventually they exposed themselves. Two of the bulls headed in my direction and another did a U-turn towards my friend Scott.
Immediately, a buck exited the timber below me, but it wasn’t one I was after. After a brief wait, the two elk appeared below me along the timber’s edge. I had already told Rocky that I intended to shoot the first elk I had a crack at. At the sound of Rocky’s cow call, the bulls stopped and the larger of the two gave me a shot at about 200 yards. The shot felt like it was on target and the bull was thumped hard. He did a three sixty and crashed headlong into the timber.
A moment later, another shot rang out. Rocky and I held position for a while to let things settle out. We acknowledged to each other that we believed my bull was finished. Later we learned that Scott had missed a bull similar to mine. The spike that was traveling with my bull, disappeared over the mountain and ran into another of our hunters, “Papa” Dave, but Dave elected to pass and hope for a chance at a larger bull.
The first day was a warm-up for a longer ride on day two. The goal was to find deer near the ridge-tops in an old burn. Although we didn’t find a herd of deer, one good buck was located and dispatched by “Mac” Dave, of Buffalo, NY. (We had so many Dave’s on the trip that Rocky created nicknames for them.)
( Note: If you single click on the photos they will enlarge.)
The buck’s location required some serious mountain climbing on a steep slope.
That night, I awoke to the sound of wolves howling. Wolves have a mournful howl – unmistakable. And, the next day we found several sets of wolf tracks as we searched unsuccessfully for deer and elk. No wonder they were hard to find.
My guide on day three was Taylor Heckman, continuing the Heckman legacy. Fresh out of college, Taylor is a serious elk hunter. But on this day, the howling winds and cold temperatures did not facilitate hunting. Our scoping session and hiking produced one cow moose, but nothing we were looking for.
We didn’t spot any wolves, but everybody saw their tracks. Grizzly and lion tracks were also found by the others on this day. Seems like everything was hungry and searching for food in the fridged weather.
Although we found no game on day four, our trip to the continental divide gave us all a chance to appreciate our horses. The top of the ridge was covered in snow three feet deep and it kept coming down all day. On the return trip our trail had nearly filled over with fresh snow. At one point, while following Coulter, and leading my horse Banana, I stepped into snow that was waist deep. I nearly had to swim out of the hole. I surprised myself by escaping without help.
After Scott and “KD” (yes another Dave) turned their horses over to Coulter, they took off down the ridge on foot looking for elk.
Coulter then proceeded to create openings in the fir trees with his saw, so he, Rick Leas (VA) and I could get down off the ridge and onto a connecting trail.
On day five, since I already had my bull, Coulter let me off on my own to pursuit deer while the others went after elk. I climbed a steep hill and found a clearing that looked good. In less than an hour, a young four-point buck stepped out of the timber 70 yards away. Although he would have been a shooter buck on many occasions, not this day. I’d committed myself to a heavy-horned mature buck or nothing. You can’t kill a big buck unless you have a tag.
But day 5 did produce the most significant trophy of the trip. After Rocky spotted a huge bull on a steep knob. Taylor led Rick to a 356 inch monster bull that he dropped with one shot from about 200 yards. Rick still maintains that he never looked at the elk’s horns before the shot.
On the last day of hunting, Rocky took Rick and I to locations where the deer should have been, but it seems that the rut was coming on late and the deer had just not reached the lower reaches of the drainage. Neither of us saw a mule deer, but a big animal did walk up to me and get my sent form directly down wind. Judging from the crashing and the sound of his gait, it was likely a big gull moose. I didn’t leave my post to go verify because I didn’t want to waist any of my hunting time.
The hunt ended with all hands well-tested, a lot of sore muscles and a bunch of new friends. This was a lot more than a hunt and I’d highly recommend Montana Safaris to anybody who wants to have a primitive wilderness hunt. It’s not for everybody, especially not for somebody who want’s an easy trophy. But this is reality in the BOB.
The sun shone on our trip out along the Dearborn River – a limestone stream with very clear water and little vegetation. I’m told that the fishing can be excellent and that makes sense, but not in November.