Ode to Rocky

Just one of many standing in a booth selling his wares. Rocky couldn’t have been more comfortable.

It was as if he’d known you all his life and he had.

Nothing to sell, but plenty to talk about without saying much Rocky had nothing to prove even though his living depended upon it.

My first day of hunting with Rocky seemed routine. We dismounted at a spot new to me and known to him.

We climbed a hill in a foot of snow. I placed my boots in his tracks. We sat against a ten foot tall spruce in a  two foot snow drift. I sat on my coat.

Rocky told me where to look. Then he told me not to shoot at a medium-size buck that trotted out below us.

“There may be elk coming.” he said.

We sat in windless silence and watched.

Finally two rag-horn bulls stepped out of the timber about 200 yards below us. I placed the cross hairs of my scope on the bigger of the two and it seemed to fall into the timber out of sight. Rocky said it looked like a hit.

We climbed down through drifts that were deeper than they looked and came upon the bull.

“I’ll help,” I said.

“No, sit down over there in case a buck comes by,” said Rocky.

So I sat, until another hunter appeared on his hike from below. When I returned to Rocky and the bull, it was quartered and ready to be dragged down the hill.

I couldn’t imagine that anybody could quarter a bull so fast.

Now, after a few more hunts in the Bob, Rocky Heckman is gone. But, like all special people, he cannot and will not be forgotten.

Rocky Heckman

Rocky was standing  next to where I shot my Montana bull when I snapped this photo.

Planning Your Big Game Hunt

Obtaining a big game tag was once guaranteed. That is no longer the case, but it is still the first important step towards going on a hunt for deer, elk or other big game animals.

For a small minority, tags are still easy to obtain as every year there are big game tags sold at auction to the highest bidder. Earlier this month, two deer tags sold for $400,000 or more. However, there are still deer tags available to resident hunters in every state I know of. And, those tags sell for in the neighborhood of $25.

Take my home state of California. In California, the northwestern portion of California (B Zone) and some of the Western slope deer zones (D Zones) are managed for maximum harvest and availability.

On the other hand, “X” zones are managed for buck quality and have limited availability. This system was designed to  provide enough opportunity to keep everybody in the game and also provide a special opportunity for those who want to hunt for mule deer, which are primarily found on California’s Eastern slopes.

Each state has its own criteria for the sale of tags. Most have some “fundraising” tags which are sold at auction or raffle in order to raise funds for habitat management. Remaining tags are sold either over-the-0counter or by use of some type of rationing mechanism.

Rationing mechanisms can be random draw, preference point draw or bonus point draw. The state which is the most aggressive proponent of big game management, Utah,  uses several types of draw and also has many fundraising tags.

Hiring an outfitter or purchasing landowner tags simplify acquisition of tags, but raise the cost. One of my biggest mule deer bucks was taken in Nevada by purchasing a landowner tag. Finding a landowner tag at a fair price requires either inside help or a lot of searching.

Rich with buck

I hired a guide to assist me on the Colorado antelope hunt that resulted in the take of this buck.

Idaho, which believes in making over-the-counter tags available, is probably the easiest state for tag planning. That’s why my first 20 years of out of state hunting took place mostly in Idaho. In those days I had more time to plan, a dedicated hunting partner and less money to spend.

Most years we returned to familiar sites where we learned where the game went as the hunting pressure increased.

Idaho 2004 Rob's bull

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to kill a nice bull elk. My brother, Rob, arrowed this bull in 2004 and tagged it with an Idaho over the counter tag.

At my current age of 66, my hunting partner is now fishing more, my time is less my own and I can afford to take a different path. Which brings us to the next important part of planning a hunt.

Once you have figured out how to get your tag, you need to figure out where you’re going to hunt. This is where your ability to find resources determines your success.

Resources are, State agencies, friends, acquaintances, the internet, maps, books and clubs – of which there are many. Some might be conservation organizations and other may be hunting clubs like  California’s Wilderness Unlimited. Hunting periodicals provide good information as well.

After you determine where and when you plan to hunt, you need to figure out where you will reside during your hunt, what you will eat, how you will travel etc.

Staying in decent physical shape is an important asset for hunting. A regular exercise routine will allow you to do more hunting once you’re in the field.

These days I hunt more often with a guide who takes care of the many hunt details, freeing me up to focus on other things, like writing this post.

The great thing about hunting is that the anticipation of the hunt and memories of the hunt become as big a part of the hunt as the hunt itself.

001

This whitetail buck was killed behind a friend’s home in Idaho. He invited me to visit him after we reunited at a high school reunion. He had a tree stand set up when I arrived and this buck was shot with my muzzle-loader at 65 yards.

 

Great County – Few Goats

I flew into a remote lake in the Northern Rockies expecting to find mountain goats within my reach. After a week of searching, we found none. And, my butt was sore, as were my legs and bad ankle.

However there were many redeeming factors. Among those was the fact that I saw some of the most scenic and remote country I’ve ever seen in my life.

The habitat was not densely inhabited by mammals and I have to admit that I saw very few. It was clear that grizzly bears were present, but they managed to stay out of sight while leaving plenty of sign.

While searching for goats in a remote canyon, my guide came upon a woodland caribou, but I didn’t get a chance to see it. Moose tracks were present, and one of our party saw a cow at one of the small lakes near camp. Our group saw goats, but I observed only one and he stayed in site for only a minute or two. The mammal list topped out with a tree squirrel, meadow vole and porcupine.

Turns out that as remote as the territory was, a pair of hunters flew into the same lake as I, but a week earlier and they each bagged a billy-goat. Unfortunately their success was counter to my own.

Here are a few photos of the terrific scenery.

A terrific early morning photo of a peak we observed from camp.

A terrific early morning photo of a peak we observed from camp.

The country was as pristine as any.

The country was as pristine as any.

Ranger was a trusty steed. I covered about 30 miles on his back.

Ranger was a trusty steed. I covered about 30 miles on his back.

Goat county can be intimidating.

Goat county can be intimidating.

 

 

 

Pumped About Next Fall

Set up some great hunts for next fall. With the day approaching  when I’ll no longer be able to climb mountains and ride horses, I look forward to the fall with impatience.

Last hunting season wore me down, especially the eight day hunt in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. But now my enthusiasm is renewed and I’m ready for another go-round. One of the keys is to keep climbing my local hill on a regular basis.

This is the area where I missed a big buck last Novermber.

This is the area where I missed a big buck last Novermber.

I’ll be back in the BOB again next November, hunting with Montana Safaris and looking for the big wilderness buck that has eluded me the last two years.

I’ve put in for a Shiras moose tag in Idaho and if I get drawn, I’ll be packing into the Lolo Wilderness during September. That’s the time when the moose will be rutting, it’s also archery deer and elk season. If I get drawn, I’ll also be looking to hunt deer with my bow and I’ll also be looking into whether I can purchase an elk tag as well. May have to go for two weeks.

I paid $4,500 for a Nevada landowner tag the year I shot this buck. It's still my biggest muley buck.

I paid $4,500 for a Nevada landowner tag the year I shot this buck. It’s still my biggest muley buck.

However, just in case I don’t get drawn, I’ve got a back-up plan to hunt mountain goats with Kiff Covert in BC. If that happens it will be with rifle and I’ll also have a deer tag in case we come upon a worthy mule deer.

The usual smorgasbord of draw tags has also been applied for in Nevada and California. That is another unknown, but something good could happen and if it does, I’ll be hunting closer to home as well.

Who knows what the duck season will be bring this year, but whatever it is, I plan to be there. Even bought a new O/U shotgun. Can’t wait to test it out on the pond.

At the end of the month, the schedule will begin to clarify and my excitement continue to build. Anticipation is one of the key elements why hunting is such a great pastime.

Hunting the Bob Marshall Wilderness 2014

Hunted again with Rocky and Lorell Heckman of Montana Safaris. Modified the hunt this season. Spent most of the time camped in a spike camp on the continental divide, guided by Rocky and Lorell’s son Coulter.

The change put us in the middle of our hunting territory at the start of each day. We used our horses to get around for the most part, but hunted out of camp on day two.

Here’s the gist of the story.

Day one, Rich misses a cow elk at 200 yards. With a herd of 30 elk, no bulls, passing through a burn at 200 yards, I got prone and shot at one of the herd. Looks like I never touched any of them leading my guide, Coulter, to theorize that I must have hit a tree. In any event, it was a clean miss.

On day two we hunted out of camp and saw no legal game animals, but we did find two grizzly bears about 160 yards from the trail and 200 yards from camp. Got a couple pretty good pics.

These look-alike grizzlies were searching for berries on an open ridge about 200 yards from our camp site. Fortunately they never came for a visit.

These look-alike grizzlies were searching for berries on an open ridge about 200 yards from our camp site. Fortunately they never came for a visit.

Day three produced one of the most exciting days of deer hunting ever. After I missed three times, we followed a buck estimated by Coulter to be about 27 inches wide. We caught up with him twice during the day. The first time we caught up with him I buried a bullet in a tree on my fourth shot and plain missed him running on my fifth.

When we caught up him and his doe companion, the 320 yard shot was nearly impossible in fifty mile an hour winds, so we tried to get closer, but failed. By then it was getting dark. We rode to camp in twilight.

On day four we found the herd of cow elk again, but couldn’t find a way to get close enough for a shot.

The crew brought us feed for our horses on day four and then they hunted near our camp where they came upon two wolves, but were unable to get a shot.

The crew brought us feed for our horses on day four and then they hunted near our camp where they came upon two wolves, but were unable to get a shot.

Day five and six produced some opportunities at deer, but nothing that we were looking for. That’s hunting.

This is the area where we found the big buck.

This is the area where we found the big buck. It was a burn created in the fires of 1988.

In all, the group had sightings of wolf, grizzly, black bear, elk, moose and mule deer. We observed many tracks of these species and also the track of a wolverine. This wilderness area is about as wild as it gets in the lower 48.

As a large winter storm approached at the end of the hunt, large flocks of migrating geese and swans could be heard above us. Winter came in as we departed.

When I climbed into my cab to head to the airport on my last morning in Montana, the temperature was nine below zero, Fahrenheit.

2014 Hunting Season Taking Shape

Applied for California tags yesterday, at the deadline. I was feeling so satisfied with my projected hunting season, that I didn’t apply for a deer tag other that buying two tags for the local blacktail deer zone. (A Zone)

With an antelope archery hunt in August, archery and rifle blacktail hunts this summer, a muzzleloader mule deer hunt in September and a deer/elk Montana hunt in November, I’ll be busy enough with hunting to keep my wife up at night. She’s not that excited about it.

When duck hunting is taken into account, it will be a very busy fall and winter.

Decided to set up guides for all three of my out-of-state hunts this fall. Since I’ll be traveling alone, it will be nice to have company. The Nevada desert is a lonely place for the solo hunters as I found out last year on my antelope hunt. And, having a guide will get me onto animals sooner with less trouble and packing less gear.

I just sent my deposit for the deer hunt to Hidden Lake Outfitters. The deer hunt will last for about 5 days and we’ll be up high in the Ruby Mountains.

In contrast, the antelope will start on August 1 and take place in the desert heat. I’ve not put down my deposit on that yet, but it will happen soon.

The Montana deer/elk hunt has been scheduled for a while and it will happen on ridge tops in the Bob Marshall Wilderness with  Montana Safaris.

Now it’s time to shoot my bow, clean the muzzleloader and put up my new tree stand at the ranch.

Applying for elk, antelope and bighorn sheep in California was an afterthought. What will I do if I draw one of those tags? Not thinking about that and the odds are extremely low.

Anticipation is key to the enjoyment of hunting. I’m sure glad I retired last month.

November Deer and Elk Hunt in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

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.

Rocky was standing on the spot next to where I shot my bull when I snapped this photo.

Rocky, standing on the spot next to where I shot my bull.

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.

At 29, Coulter can do it all, but doesn't have a lot to say. He's reserved.

At 29, Coulter can do it all, but doesn’t have a lot to say. He’s reserved.

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.

My good friend Scott Stouder, who resides in Idaho, has a long history of elk hunting and writing.  We first met at an outdoor writer's conference in Duluth, Minnesota.

My good friend Scott Stouder, who resides in Idaho, has a long history of elk hunting and writing. We first met at an outdoor writer’s conference in Duluth, Minnesota.

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 ridge was windswept on top, but the lee side had some deep drifts and that's where we parked the horses.

The ridge was windswept on top, but the lee side had some deep drifts and that’s where we parked the horses.

The buck’s location required some serious mountain climbing on a steep slope.

The hill was so steep and slippery that the hunter and guides had to climb on all fours while retrieving the deer meat. I took this photo from afar, but you can see them and the horses if you look close.

The hill was so steep and slippery that the hunter and guides had to climb on all fours while retrieving the deer meat. I took this photo from afar, but you can see them and the horses.

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.

Photographed this wolf track as we climbed a ridge-line on day three.

Photographed this wolf track as we climbed a ridge-line on day three.

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.

It's still early on for Taylor, but he's convinced guiding is meant for him.

It’s still early on for Taylor, but he’s convinced guiding is meant for him.

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.

Snapped this photo early on day five.

Snapped this photo early on day five.

After Scott and “KD” (yes another Dave) turned their horses over to Coulter, they took off down the ridge on foot looking for elk.

KD was hired out of Outfitter School. Based upon my observstions, I'd say he must have been at the top of his class.

KD was hired out of Outfitter School. Based upon my observations, I’d say he must have been at the top of his class.

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.

I snapped a photo of the  four-point buck just before he stepped out of sight.

I snapped a photo of the four-point buck just before he stepped out of sight.

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.

Scott Stouder provided me with this photo of the crew hauling Rick Leas' bull off the mountain.

Scott Stouder provided me with this photo of the crew hauling Rick Leas’ bull off the mountain.

Now this is an elk.

Now this is an elk.

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.

Rick and I hunted back to camp and came upon this cow moose. We expected to see it's calf, but it didn't show.

Rick and I hunted back to camp and came upon this cow moose. We expected to see it’s calf, but it didn’t show.

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.

Our hostess and cook for the week was Liz, who knows what she's doing at the camp stove. She can also play Cribbage and create great notes on your lunch bag. She's also KD's sister.

Our hostess and camp cook for the week was Liz, who knows what she’s doing at the wood stove. She can also play cribbage and create great notes on your lunch bag. And, she’s also KD’s sister.

I took this selfie as we left camp on the last day.

I took this selfie as we left camp on the last day.

Dave McKeller, Rick Leas and I posed with our antlers in Rocky's barn.

Dave McKeller, Rick Leas and I posed with our antlers in Rocky’s barn.