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It was one of those hunting trips that, in the planning stages, seemed like a good idea. I’d start high at first light,

walking down a ridge in the Elkhorn Mountains as the day wore on, hoping to ambush an elk along the way.

The plan was based on the idea that elk tend to look for danger — that is hunters — walking up the mountain. By coming from above, I’d more easily evade detection.

The tactic was also formed around the idea that day hunters will penetrate into the woods only so far, since they have to turn around and hike back out to their vehicle by nightfall. That meant, in my mind, that there should be a generous swath of country between the upper and lower access points that wasn’t getting much hunter pressure, an interior safe zone.

In part, the plan did work. After crashing noisily down a steep, north-facing slope littered with dense lodgepole pine trees, I did spot two bull elk at close range below. My problem was that the hunting regulations allowed me to take only a spike bull. As I knelt, eyeing the bulls through the scope of my rifle, I decided to flick the safety off just in case a spike was with them and would soon step into view.

The tiny sound of that metallic click — despite all the noise I’d made galumphing down the mountain beforehand — sent the bulls crashing downhill through the timber. There was no spike with them.

Dreaming big

Nothing leaves an empty pit in a hunter’s stomach quite like an unfilled tag. Once again that season, like several before and since, I dined on my tag over the long, weary winter that followed rather than barbecuing elk backstrap.

That’s why in 2010 my resolution is to learn all I can about Montana’s elk from biologists, hunters and anyone else willing to share some tips as I humbly attempt to fulfill a lifelong dream of bagging a bull elk. I say this despite the fact that I am not a horn hunter; meat in the freezer is my main concern. So if given the opportunity to shoot a cow elk, I’d readily take it. But a bull, big and brassy, is my desired target.

As I learn new information, I’ll pass it along to Gazette readers in the hope that they may also benefit from the knowledge. In turn, if you would like to pass along information or ideas on who to talk to, send them to me at 401 N. Broadway, Billings, MT, 59101; e-mail them to french@billingsgazette.com; or phone me at 406-657-1387.

Elk excursion

I set off on this months-long odyssey realizing there is a diversity of experiences elk hunters can encounter in Montana.

Hunters may pursue a bull in the high mountains by toting gear in a backpack, staying mobile and traveling light in hopes of filling an elk tag. If successful, the hunter will have to pack the animal out of the timber in hunks, requiring several trips over steep, uneven ground.

For a lucky few hunters with access to private land, a bull elk can be a near guarantee. A trophy may even be avoided in favor of a tastier, tender young cow elk. Rather than carrying the elk out on a pack frame or game cart, a landowner may load the bulky carcass into the hunter’s truck with his tractor.

For those with more money than time, an outfitter can be hired to pack them by horseback into a canvas-tent camp. This allows a hunter unfamiliar with an area to rely on the expertise of the guide to increase their odds of success. The guide or outfitter also takes care of quartering and packing the animal out, a capability few of us now possess.

Also diverse are the means of taking the animal, everything from high-powered, far-shooting rifles topped with expensive optical sights to handmade traditional bows and arrows.

Luck be an elk

To me, a large-antlered bull elk is the epitome of trophy hunting in Montana. Standing up to 5 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing around 700 pounds, a bull elk is a formidably sized foe. From nose tip to rump, they can measure 8 feet long. With eyesight geared to detecting movement as well as keen hearing, a bull elk is not an easy animal to ambush.

But with a bit of luck, help from experts, some hard work and time spent afield, maybe I’ll be dining on elk backstrap by this time next year instead of eating another tasteless tag.

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