Moment of Truth

2015 Montana Elk - Late Shoulder Season

Feb 8 2016 - Feb 9 2016

Ben Coulter

First posted Mar 22 2016 Last updated Apr 13 2016

<i>That moment - that single place in time where it all comes together, and all the varying factors align perfectly. Its happening right before my eyes... and it feels like the world around me slows to a standstill as Gary's gun drags across my target...</i>

My 2015 Montana big game general season went by in the blink of an eye - literally every day but one was spent behind the camera working with the GuidefitterTV crew in the field. I didnt fire my gun - my good friend Gary loaned me his 30-06 the one day we went out together this fall. As Thanksgiving weekend came and went so did my big game season - or so I thought.

Gary and I started hanging out last summer - our wives are best friends - and right away we started talking about getting out in the field together. Gary is the head fishing guide for a well established local outfitter here in Bozeman, and he's sort of a badass. Tall and lean from spending 120 plus days a year on nearby rivers, his intimidating appearance matches his genuine personality and old school code of ethics when it comes to hunting, fishing and life in general. So when he told me he would help me fill my tags this year, I took him up on it.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks extended the hunting season into February in certain units this year, with the goal of pushing large herds off private property and onto public land. While the "shoulder season" hunt remains a controversial subject between private landowners and conservationists, it gave me the last minute opportunity to fill my tag.

We were lucky enough to get access to private land just outside White Sulphur Springs, MT for the Monday after the Super Bowl this year. Gary and I left Bozeman at 4:30 to check in with the ranch manager at the Castle Mountain Cattle Company before sunrise. By dawn, we were driving the highway establishing our boundaries and scratching our heads.

When Gary told me about the late-season cow hunt, part of the shoulder season, for some reason I assumed we would be driving the edge of an alfalfa field and trying not to hit the center pivot with my shot. What we actually encountered was mountainous ranch land. Gary and I laughed as we left the trucks - crunching over the frozen top layer of snow and wondering how we could find elk without having scouted the property. We climbed straight up a ridge before breaking out into gently rolling parks and meadows on top.

At first I noticed the sign. Tracks were tough to judge because the snow was crusted and wind packed, but I started seeing elk shit everywhere. I didn't say anything to Gary right away because it looked fresh enough to have melted the snow under it. We walked though a saddle and up around a bench that opened into a meadow. By now there is elk sign everywhere. Atop the skyline was a fence and we stopped to get our bearings and make sure we were still on ranch property.

The wind was in our face as we looked across the open ground. This gently rolling field was the very top of the mountain we climbed up - by this point over a mile straight up from the truck we left in the canyon on the backside of the ridge below. As we looked at tracks Gary looked up and saw two heads on the far side of the fence - just below skyline. Within a minute, there were six heads, then seven and eight.

While I was gazing at the slowly developing group of cows, Gary snapped into action. We hustled down to the bottom of the draw, keeping a low profile and staying out of sight as we started to climb back up. We closed over 300 yards distance until we were approximately 200 yards to the herd. By now there were a dozen cows in sight, with more seeming to come out of nowhere. We took the last twenty minutes crawling forty yards to get into a pile of rocks from where I would be able to shoot.

Gary had offered me his .270 for the day because the scope on my .300 WinMag was out of commission. He had mounted and sighted the gun the previous week, and told me to hold dead on out to 300 yards. I wont say which brand the optics were, but watching the herd through the rifle scope was mesmerizing. One cow would step out in front for a shot, only to lay down and have others follow into the sight picture.

For what felt like an eternity we lay prone in a pile of rocks peeking up and watching the elk graze through. As the crosshair of Gary's rifle traced through the mass of brown hide, I felt a weird sense of calm. I didnt feel the wind biting at my exposed skin, or the damp cold against my hands from crawling through the snow drifts. I didnt notice the sharp, jagged edges of the rocks I was lying in. While I had been winded most of the morning, my heart rate was just barely above a nap.

As the lead cow stepped away from the group, I heard myself whisper "back from the shoulder..." to nobody in particular. Gary said something back, as if confirm my direction. Seconds ticked away before I again asked Gary, who was spotting my shot through his own rifle scope, if he was ready. My attention back to the target, I embraced the next few seconds, guessing when the firing pin would touch the primer and where my shot...

Gary heard the impact, while that sound was masked to me by the guns recoil. I didn't feel the kick of the rifle, and the shot was muffled to my ears as my entire focus was on the cow as she simply fell flat on her face where she stood. It took me a second to register that my shot had dumped her dead in her tracks.

As we stood up to see how the rest of the group would react, what had looked like twenty elk suddenly grew into a herd of more than 300. Their thundering hooves stalled momentarily, unsure of what happened or which direction to turn, before they began to take off running downhill, away from us and into the timber. My cow lay dead at what might as well have been the highest point on the mountain.

We had her dressed and ready to drag by ten o'clock in the morning. The ranch manager requested that we walk in/out from the road, and that we take the whole carcass - so this meant a lot of work for Gary and I. By noon it was obvious that neither us were well prepared for this pack out. While we had tried to stay high on the hillside, the cow inevitably drifted into the drainage and sunk into waist deep snow drifts.

We made the unanimous decision to get out, get home and get together a better game plan for the next morning. We came back with snow shoes and a calf sled to fight against three hundred pounds of dead weight. It took us six hours to move two and a half miles downhill and back to the truck. By the end I was totally spent - Gary's experience as both a guide and a hunter are what got us back to the truck that second day. The ranch manager met us there with a somewhat bewildered look in her eye. She told us that we had gone farther into the backcountry than anyone else who had hunted that property. Barely able to walk, we winched my elk into the truck and took her to Rawhide Meats for processing.

Making a clean kill on my first elk was a pretty surreal experience. Being with a good friend like Gary to endure the struggle of packing my animal out will be a lifelong memory to look back on, and putting the wild game meat in the freezer for family and friends makes this adventure all the more rewarding.

Not having antlers doesn't mean I'm not overjoyed by the opportunity to harvest this mature cow elk.

No matter how she was configured we could not keep the weight balanced on the sled as we dragged her off the mountain.

Game over, baby. Eating lean until next season comes around !


  • Roy Reiff

    Roy Reiff

    Way to go Ben.congratulations 👍

  • Tyler Hock

    Tyler Hock

    Awesome Story Ben. Great to see you put one on the ground!

  • Lenny Miller

    Lenny Miller

    Great story Ben. I'm glad you finally got the opportunity to fill the freezer.