Welcome to Part 2 of our Montana 2017 Elk Hunt. In Part 1, we enjoyed some family time with my brother’s family. Arriving early (prior to hunting time) allowed me to spend some quality time with his family. You gotta read the stories.
Heading Out… Ruby Valley Here We Come!
Now…it was time to hunt. Woo hoo!! When I am in Montana, hunting is what I live for. Originally, we had planned to head to an area outside of the Yellowstone National Park buffer. This area is very rugged country and very rogue grizzly country. Preliminary scouting had indicated that the herds and elk in the area were thin. With this information and the massive snow that had arrived, we decided to go to plan “B” and head to the Ruby Valley. We had reserved some block management land in a prime ranching area.
Ruby Valley…here we come!
On our previous hunting trip, we had spent some time in the Ruby Valley. Personally, I felt like it was a perfect place to find and hunt elk. Yet there was a downside – we knew very little about the area nor how to hunt it.
Previously, we had hunted in the Madison Valley. The “valley” parts of the Madison and Ruby were very different. The Madison Valley was very wide with plateaus that abutted steep mountains along each side. The Ruby Valley was considerably narrower and had a myriad of deep ravines/gullies that ran into the mountains on either side. The Madison Valley had long runs of farmlands, while small towns interrupted the farmlands in the Ruby Valley.
On the surface, these differences did not look so stark. In reality, after my time there, I think it created a totally different nature in the elk herds and with hunting. We did not realize these differences until after the fact. We know them now!
Tiny, Tiny Cabin
Our original plans had included to pull my brother’s camper and camp out. But, fourteen inches of snow had been dumped in the area the 2 days prior to our leaving. We made the executive decision not to brave the snow/icy pass with a camper in tow and opted to rent a small cabin in the Ruby Valley area.
Let me clarify that statement. It was a TINY cabin. I have a shed in my backyard that is bigger than this cabin. I literally had to stand against one wall for my brother to get dressed in the morning. The cabin held two bunk beds with barely (turned sideways) any walking room between them with a 3×6 front area to the room.
Welcome to “roughing it” in the Ruby Valley. We’re elk hunting now!
After dropping off our gear, we had a few hours before night-time. We headed out to the ranch that we had booked and checked-in. We then drove the main roads of the block management area to get a feel for the areas and what they looked like. There were 3 roads which roughly formed a “U” around the bulk of the block area. There was a chunk to the north and east outside the “U” formed by the roads – if you consider the opening in the “U” to be north. Due north of the block land was a large national forest.
Here is the “skinny” on the land. The cup and base area of the “U” were fields (typically hay) that lay at the base where the mountain ravines and gullies came down. The west/east sides of the “U” ran along high lands that straddle major ravines/gullies going into the mountains. Many were over smaller and larger ravines/gullies that snaked up between them. My guess, between the west/east boundary, was that there were at least 13-16 major ravines/gullies.
This was steep, tough land to hunt.
So Close… The Mantra For Elk Hunting
As we came back down the western side of the area in the evening, we noticed a blood trail coming down the mountain. Up the mountainside, we saw the gut pile of a nice bull elk that was freshly killed. We hiked up to see how fresh – it must have been killed shortly after we had passed the area earlier. Wow! So close, yet so far.
We didn’t know it, but this would become our mantra for elk hunting this year.
Our evening in the tiny cabin was mostly uneventful, other than it being cramped. Note: you won’t see me doing the tiny house thing like you see on TV after this experience! Waking up the next morning, we were ready to hunt and refreshed (mostly). We decided to go in early to one of the base area hay fields to see if we could catch the elk before they left for the day.
We were going to put in close to the intersection of the base and western-most road. As we drove in, I stopped my brother. I saw what appeared to be a large bull rack outlined by the hints of first light. It was so faint with so little light, that it was mind numbing trying to make out the image. As we sat there, a little more light revealed the silhouette of a nice bull elk. We moved down to a position where we hoped we could find a way to ambush the elk.
Moving along a shallow irrigation ditch, we thought we could get behind the elk. At this point, we did not realize just how many ravines there were feeding off from these fields. As we played chess with this elk, it must have ducked up one of them before we could get into position. At least 4 ravines fed down into this field. Which one did he take?
During our stalk in, we saw multiple small groups of mule deer. Most were does, although one appeared to be a nice muley buck – albeit I was out of position to get a decent shot. Plus, I still thought I was stalking my elusive elk.
Ruby Valley Ebola
When we got back to the truck and drove off, I realized I was getting sick. As we scouted for other areas to hunt over the next few hours, sick turned into a fever with full-blown symptoms. By lunch, I was calling my doctor’s office and having them to call me in some medicine.
One thing was for sure, I was not quitting hunting!
After lunch, we drove into a local town and I picked up my meds. While we were there, we scouted a hotel and decided to ditch our cabin and get a room for the night. We checked out of our tiny cabin and moved our gear to the hotel. Then, we headed out again for our evening hunt.
Behind the main ranch house off from the eastern road, there was a nice set of 3 hay fields with a “hill” that overlooked the fields. We decided that I would hike in and set up on the back side of the fields to watch the ingress/egress into the ravines. My brother would hike to the top of the hill that overlooked 2-3 of the major ravine entrances.
Our Garmin Rhino 650t’s have radio capabilities and we used them to keep in touch. Although once my brother moved up on the hill, a major power line interfered with most of our communication.
Breathing Through One Lung
My hike in was painful – I was breathing through only 1 lung at this point in my illness. The “flat” field was anything but flat – it was NOT just a tall hill. All the way to the back side, I watched mule deer does move out of the fields and into the ravines. They quickly disappeared as they moved.
I watched for several hours as the mule deer kept coming along a very distinct path. So, I decided to shadow that path and see if there was a hidden source of the area from where they were coming. I had moved about 3 miles from my original position, putting me about 5 miles from my brother’s position. Then, I heard a shot from the hill-top and over the radio a crackling “…zzzz crack… I …zzzz crack… he’s down…”. It was nearly dusk when I stripped down to as “cool” as I could go and started “snow humping” to the hill.
As I came nearer to the base, I attempted to get into radio contact with my brother. I started up the hill and was about a quarter of the way up when I realized it was 10 minutes from the darkness. Not knowing my brother’s location, I decided to backtrack to my original drop-off position and walk the road to where he said he would park the truck.
Before I got back down the hill, it was pitch black. In the darkness, I humped back across the fields to the drop-off point as a triplet of muleys nearly walked right into me. I headed down to the road and started walking to where the truck should be parked. It looked like it was about a mile and a half away. I was nearly there when I saw the headlights on my brother’s truck coming towards me.
When he stopped the truck, he hopped out and showed me a nice muley rack. He had taken a snapshot of a nice, 130 class mule deer that had been sneaking up behind him. He had “gutless dressed” the meat and dragged it down the mountain away from the carcass. But, we were going to have to go back in and retrieve it the next day.
Little did we know how close we had been to elk…we would find out the next day. Our mantra… So close, yet so far.
We were both beat. My brother from killing the deer and me from the hike and illness. We were going to enjoy our hotel room accommodations this evening. By the time we got back to the town, the only restaurant available was at a bar. Lucky us!!
Earlier In the Day…
Earlier in the day, we had driven up into the national forest areas at the top of the mountain. When we got up there, it was snowing hard and the roads were deep with snow. The lands were classic elk woods and just gorgeous for hunting. We pushed deep into the forest. Someone had already been up there, so we had some tracks to drive in.
As we approached a small mining camp, I noticed a thick heavy bodied animal plowing through the snow. I realized it was a moose, a cow moose to be exact. It was the first moose I had ever seen in the wild. Startled by our presence, the moose slightly turned back. Wow, what a massively muscled creature! It trotted off, pushing through the snow as it headed up the mountain and into the woods.
We pushed on further. Not far beyond the camp, the snow got deeper and deeper. We were heading up a hill when we noticed where it looked like a truck had gotten stuck. We go there…and we got stuck! The snow was probably 20″ here and it was tricky driving. The slope of the hill and depth of the snow made it difficult to keep the car from “just sliding” out of control, bottoming out and being stuck.
Thank Gawd we got out of there! It was probably a 15-mile walk down the mountain with 7 miles of it being a national forest. We appeared to be the only people up there and the temperature was a brisk 0 degrees!
Back At the Bar
Back at the bar, while we were eating dinner, we ran into the guy who had gotten stuck at the top of the mountain. Odd how these things happen. He was a wealth of knowledge on understanding the Ruby Valley and how to hunt it.
The next morning, we headed back to my brother’s kill site. I was still pretty sick but I was feeling much better. He had killed the mule deer near the top of the peak where he had been. But, he had field dressed and dragged it down only about halfway. It was a pretty significant hike in to just get to the base. We both decided to hike back to the top just to see what we could do. We wanted to do some scouting before recovering his meat.
As we were standing on the peak, we saw a lot of mule deer and antelope moving, but no elk. It was a picturesque sight enjoying the sun coming up while we were standing on the peak. We could see several major ravines and all of the farmlands below us. My brother headed down to get his meat. We had brought a sled and he was going to drag it down on the sled.
I decided to work my way around the back side of the peak and up one of the ravines. After about an hour of working my way around (and not seeing anything) I started back down. I followed the ravine where my brother had killed his deer. Near the bottom, I found a nice shed in the drainage gully of the ravine.
Like I Said, So Close Yet So Far…
With the meat recovered, we decided to drive further up the road and do some more scouting. There was not an elk in sight – we were beginning to become a little “down” about this area. Yet, both of us felt like it was a perfect place to find elk.
Up the road, we saw an ATV heading down the ravine that ran along the road. We stopped and watched two hunters climb up the side, As they did, we spotted the elk they had killed – less than a quarter of a mile from where my brother had killed his mule deer! We drove on up the road and did some more scouting… Nothing… nada.
On the way down, the hunters were pulling back on the road. We stopped and admired their elk. The guy who had killed it was one of the local farmers. He explained how the elk were moving in small pods and deep in the ravines. Basically, we should have been walking these ravines and finding the paths they were taking. The options were numerous!
So…Ruby Valley elk hunting lessons learned. We would have to approach elk hunting here totally different from how we would in the Madison Valley.
It was our last day in the valley. A theater troupe arrived in the small town and had booked up all the hotel rooms where we were staying. We were getting kicked out! Lacking a place to sleep, and still scratching our heads from Ruby Valley elk hunting, we decided to move back to the Madison Valley
As we drove off, I made a personal promise to return to this beautiful place and take a nice elk…next time! I would eventually figure this place out!
Read all the Montana 2017 Elk Hunt articles: