For many years, Garth Sessions couldn’t understand what his grandfather was talking about when he told him that to be a good hunter, “You just have to be in the right place at the right time.”
“What?” Sessions remembers thinking. “That makes no sense.”
Last hunting season, however, those words of grandpa Thurman rang especially true for his grandson. During the rifle season Sessions shot what has become Montana’s new state record nontypical bull elk, a massive animal that scored 431 7/8.
Sessions’ success went largely unnoticed by the public, possibly overshadowed by Missoula hunter Steve Felix bagging a new world record bull elk with his bow. That elk’s 7x8 rack scored 430. Like Felix, though, Sessions shot his bull on public land in southeastern Montana.
“I guess I don’t have a large social circle on Facebook,” Sessions said. “I posted a picture of me with the score,” along with a blurb about how grateful he was to be able to hunt such great public land.
Sessions, who works as a coal production superintendent at the Colstrip mine, is typically what he calls an “opportunity hunter,” willing to bag a cow or spike bull to put meat in the freezer. He had to admit, though, that he’d “be lying” if the idea of bagging a big bull doesn’t always lurk in the back of his mind. That sounds contradictory to what his grandfather taught him.
“I’ll tell you this about grandpa,” he said. “If you had the world’s biggest bull standing side by side with a cow, he’d probably take the cow.”
It was in his grandfather’s hunting camp in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming that Sessions, now 51, got hooked on the sport and listening to the tales of fellow hunters. Now he has a yarn of his own to spin in camp.
On Veterans Day 2016, he and his younger brother, Scott, set up hunting camp on public land near where his grandmother’s parents homesteaded in Powder River County. Ethel Ross’ parents had a ranch and ran a small store in the region.
Soon after setting up camp, his father, Mike, filled his cow elk tag and his brother ran into a branch-antlered bull. Sessions got close to a big bull and blew it. He was in the right place at the wrong time.
“Then I had to come back to work, which always gets in the way of a good hunt,” he said.
Lucky for him, he ran into friend Russ Anzalone, who told him he had seen a “really big bull.”
Anzalone had crept to within 30 yards of the elk, close enough to appreciate just how big it really was.
“That’s probably one of the bigger bulls I’ve seen,” Anzalone said. “Not a lot of people knew about it. A few locals had seen it.”
Anzalone kept tabs on the animal while Sessions was working, and kept texting him to hurry up and return to the hunting spot.
“I was kind of surprised to see that one where it was,” Anzalone said. “The funny thing about it was there were other people up there hunting the wrong side of the road” for the same animal.
It was about two to four miles from where Sessions had earlier bumped a bull, so he thought maybe it was the same elk.
“I thought, ‘Cool. That’s my guy,’” Sessions said.
As soon as he could get out to hunt again, Sessions used his binoculars to survey the area suggested by Anzalone. He saw nothing, not even any birds.
“But as I was going out to the truck at dark, I saw a pile of elk droppings in my tracks.”
At first he thought he’d just missed them on the walk in, but the pile was so large and fresh he figured there was no way he would have walked past the droppings without noticing.
“I went back to camp and sacked out with sugar plums dancing in my head,” Sessions said. “I woke up and knew how I wanted to hunt (the area). I’ll have my dad pick me up three to four miles from the drop-off point.”
Unfortunately, the morning didn’t go smoothly and he left camp an hour later than planned. Hiking into the timber, Sessions got to a point where he wanted to look ahead with his binoculars and realized he had left them in the truck. Frustrated and a bit disappointed, he hiked to a place where he could see his father sitting in the truck about three-quarters of a mile away.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I should go get them.’”
Sessions began hiking in that direction when something caught his eye. He figured he’d check it out, but the country was very broken, lots of ups and downs that limited how far he could see.
“I broke over a draw with just my chest and head. He was probably within a couple of hundred yards, grazing along in the shadow of the trees.”
Easing up over the draw, Sessions watched the bull elk for a minute before it lifted its head up.
“I thought, ‘That’s a big bull.’ But I’m no field judge.”
Firing one round from his .300 Winchester Magnum rifle, Sessions said the bull didn’t even flinch. When the bull threw its head up Sessions fired again. The bull looked around once more, giving Sessions the first good view of its antlers.
“Which is probably good, because it would have been hard to keep my composure” if he had gotten a better view of the elk’s rack before the shots.
The bull dropped where he stood, and when Sessions began closing the distance he said there “was no ground shrinkage,” a phrase used to indicate when a supposedly larger rack gets smaller as the hunter approaches.
“I had to compose myself,” he said, thinking to himself, “Wow! That is one heck of a good bull.”
Luckily, Sessions had cellphone service and was able to text a photo of the bull to his father and his brother because, “I’ve been known to embellish” in the past.
“I thought, ‘It’s unbelievable,’” his father, Mike Sessions, said when he saw the photo. “That’s the biggest elk I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been hunting 57 years. It’s just in a different class of its own.”
When his brother asked if Sessions needed help packing out the animal, his response was, “Duh! Yeah!”
Anzalone got a message from Sessions asking him if the photo showed the bull he had seen, but the photo didn’t arrive with the text, frustrating Anzalone. So he described the animal to Sessions who confirmed it had the same antler oddities. When Anzalone finally did receive the photo, he said the picture didn’t do the bull justice.
By the time Sessions’ father, friend Chris Watson, brother and nephews Nate and Henry arrived, Sessions had the bull caped and quartered. Within a couple of hours the animal was loaded on to a game cart and hauled out in two trips.
It was his other brother, Duane, who lives in Colorado who encouraged Sessions to get the bull officially scored for the record book. Sessions had once met Fred King, a noted Boone and Crockett Club scorer who lives in Bozeman. During a visit to see his son Jake, a student at Montana State University in Bozeman, Sessions took the rack along. He invited his son-in-law, Johnny Dilworth, to join him for what he thought would be a quick trip to see Fred King and have the antlers scored.
Two-and-a-half hours later, King added up all of the measurements and told him, “Congratulations, you’ve got a trophy.” Then King walked Sessions through where the bull stood in relation to other elk that had been taken in the state.
This year, only Session’s son-in-law drew the coveted either-sex tag for the hunting district.
“He’s going to have a tough time beating that one,” Mike Sessions said.
Anzalone has no regrets about putting Sessions on to the record bull, and rejected the suggestion that he should be mentioned in a footnote in the record book.
“He’s a good guy,” Anzalone said. “It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
But he does have to admit, “That’s a once-in-a-lifetime bull, obviously, for anybody."
Looking back, Sessions said the hunt turned almost dream-like when he approached the bull and knelt down beside it, finally realizing how huge the antlers were. He had killed a 340 bull a few years earlier, no slouch by any means, but this animal made that one seem almost puny.
The inside spread of the Sessions bull is almost 4 feet. The outside measurement is 56 inches.
“The mass on it is unbelievable,” almost palmated like a moose in one place. The main beams are 55 inches long. A taxidermist estimated the bull’s age at 8 to 9 years old.
“I didn’t spend $10,000. I didn’t have a guide or pay a trespass fee. I’m just a regular Joe Montana. A guy who was in the right place at the right time.
It wasn’t until he was about 20 that the wisdom of his grandfather’s statement made sense, Sessions said. “I don’t care who you are, there’s always a little element of luck. I don’t care who you are.”
Montana's top entries in the record books
An examination of the Boone and Crockett Club’s record book entries for Montana wildlife reveals some interesting tales.
One is that large sporting goods companies, like Bass Pro Shops or Cabela’s, have purchased four of the state’s top mounts for their in-house displays. The antlers are copied and placed on taxidermy animals to represent some of the state’s top wildlife.
Here are the top species ever entered into Boone and Crockett’s record books for Montana.
Also taken in Powder River County, this bull scored 431-7/8. It, too, was shot in 2016. Garth W. Sessions was the lucky hunter. His bull ranks 20th overall. It’s interesting to note that many record entries are decades old, but not when it comes to elk.
The No. 1 mule deer in the state, which is owned by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, has an unusual tale to tell. The rack was confiscated by FWP wardens after an investigation into an alleged kidnapping plot tied to celebrity David Letterman led them to a Simms resident. The buck scores 207 7/8 and was reportedly taken in Teton County in 2004. The rack ranks 54th overall. Although B&C doesn’t usually recognize illegally shot game, they made an exception in this case in honor of the animal. The top hunted animals scored 203 5/8 and was taken by Keith Balfourd in 2005 in Ravalli County.
Mule deer nontypical
The top Montana mountain lion is in B&C’s own collection. The tomcat had a skull measuring 15 12/16 and was shot by Stan D. Stamey in 1994 in Lincoln County. The cat ranks 16th overall.