Big Sky Dreams
I grew up elk hunting with my dad, Lonny Gabrio, and friends John Davis, Jason Phelps, Charlie Smith, Nick Schmit, and others; hunting camp with “the guys”. For this hunt, I had my other half, Kylee Kjar by my side in pursuit of her first bull with a bow.
This season we were taking our elk hunting venture to Montana, a state I have grown to love for elk hunting. This meant big sky country with endless possibilities for the public land hunter. My dad, Kylee, and I had made a trip in July to scout the area we would go back to in September. We covered a ton of country, spotted a lot of elk, and a few good bulls that I wouldn’t mind seeing during archery season.
As opening day broke, we woke to pouring rain beating down on our tents after temps had been in the 80s the previous days. If you’ve ever hunted anywhere in Montana with “gumbo mud,” you know what a pain that can be to walk in. Soaked, covered in mud, and tired, we ended the first day feeling a bit defeated. The next two days were much of the same, although we did finally see a bull with some cows rutting pretty good and bugling on his own. With him out of reach, I decided to not waste any more days and head back home until things picked up a bit more.
The next week I had a trip planned to New Mexico to call and film for Ryan Callaghan with MeatEater and Brian Broderick of Day Six arrows. As soon as I returned from that hunt, it was a quick 24-hour turn-around. After washing clothes, cleaning up messes, and restocking on food, Kylee and I were on our way back to Montana to meet my dad for 10 more days of solid elk hunting. When we heard from my dad who had been there for about six days already, we found out that he had spotted some awesome bulls and almost released a few arrows himself.
We woke up the next morning plenty early before daylight, had coffee and breakfast and took off from the initial camp spot where I had stayed several weeks earlier. As soon as daylight approached, we heard a faint single bugle. Moving in closer to get a better idea of where the bull was, we realized he was by himself in a meadow down below. I tried to get my dad and Kylee to move off to my left towards the bull. I wanted to stay on or just below the top of a little knife ridge and call the bull past them. As happens all too often, the bull spotted them, and the jig was up.
Back at camp that evening, we felt a faint trickle of a raindrop. Before we could get dinner going, it was pouring rain; just what we needed on our first day of a 10-day hunt. Before we knew it, we were soaked and trapped by the gumbo mud where we were camped. Several days passed as we pounded the same area around camp, making big loops in hopes that some elk had moved in. The rain had quieted things down and we hadn’t heard much more than a few birds and some squirrels. Kylee and I decided to get on the side-by-side and go for a drive on the evening of our third day. Barely able to even travel around because of the gumbo, we managed to find a vantage point on a side road that we could glass from. The sun finally broke through the clouds and lit up the hillsides down the valley like something you would see in a painting or movie. I glassed as far as I could down the valley and glistening in the sun, I swore I had spotted some elk. They had to be over six miles away. I grabbed my Leupold spotting scope and cranked it to 60 power. They looked like ants moving around on the hillside, but I had just spotted a giant herd of elk.
Stuck In The Mud
Now here was the issue… We were stuck in where we were camped. There was no way to get our trucks out as we had to drive completely around the area to get to where they were. We couldn’t find a way to hunt them from where we were, as it was a 30-mile loop around. Wasting another day stuck at camp hoping those elk were still over there, we figured things had dried up just enough to get out. Chaining up all four wheels, we went for it. About 30 minutes later we were out of the gumbo and onto a semi-travelable road. We raced around and found a place to camp without a clue whether the elk were still there, but I felt like they shouldn’t be far.
As the next morning approached, we took off on the four-mile walk in the dark on little sleep. As we crowned the ridge at daylight, we could hear faint bugles which turned into deeper, more aggressive bugles all around us. We didn’t know it, but we had walked right into the middle of several hundred head of elk. We had bulls running all over the place, screaming back and forth at each other. It was something an elk hunter could only dream of, like watching an old Primos private ranch film, except we were on public land that’s accessible to anyone.
As we snuck forward, a nearby cow must have been hot, and things broke loose. We peeked over a little ridge only to see seven bulls right in front of us and one nice six-point walking right at us. I told Kylee to draw back quickly. As soon as I whispered that, the bull moved within 10 yards, popped over, and witnessed her coming to full draw. He spooked and ran back to the other bulls about 70 yards away. I made a few soft cow calls and there came another bull, right at us. Kylee readied for the shot as the bull got distracted by several other bulls and changed course. The entire afternoon went on like this, and we never got a shot opportunity.
The next morning was a repeat of the previous day. We hiked in, heard elk screaming all over, and made it to the point where Kylee almost had a shot the day before. My dad stayed back, waiting for some other elk behind us. As the elk fed up past us, I knew it was going to happen. Just as we had thought would happen, there came the herd. We had two different 6x7 bulls walk by. I thought the first would be at 20 yards, perfect for Kylee. As she was at full draw, the bull turned and walked by on my side at 10 yards with my bow on the ground, arrow nocked, and with no shot for Kylee. I couldn’t believe it.
As I wondered how to get her a shot, there came another 6x7 walking right in to 25 yards. He stopped, raking a tree. I told Kylee to draw back and step out to the right of the tree she was behind. Everything went perfectly and the arrow released, only to sail high. I couldn’t believe it and thought, “How did that just happen?!” I looked at her sight, instantly thinking of her single-pin setup. It was set to 40 yards. It was a simple mistake made while caught up in all the excitement of everything going on.
“Grab another arrow. We have elk all over. You’ll get another shot,” I told her. We had about 30 head walk up and bed within 80 yards. As several hours passed, we had three or four different bulls running around chasing each other off the herd. Each time thinking that one would come by close enough for her to get a shot. My dad came sneaking up behind us and said there was a bull with big tops bedded around the hill, 150 yards below a big rock face. He told me to sneak over there and try and shoot it while he stayed with Kylee, hoping one of those bulls would slip up.
A Hot Tip
I snuck around the hill through the tangled junipers one step at a time. With the big rock face in sight, I had no vision of the bull he spoke of. I started to wonder if it had gotten up and walked off. Just as I thought that I noticed the fifth and sixth points laying over 35 yards away. I had walked right on top of the bull! Wind blowing in my face hard, I quickly gathered my surroundings, looking for any other elk. I noticed two other bulls behind him, 20-30 yards back. All I could see were antler tips, so I knew I was okay to move forward. The bull I wanted was facing me head-on. Just as I got ready to move, his head popped up. I froze. I sat there for 5-10 minutes; arrow knocked, waiting for him to jump up. All of a sudden, he put his head down behind a basketball-sized rock and his antlers tipped over resting on the ground. I couldn’t believe it. He had gone to sleep…
There were two more trees between him and I. They made a perfect split about two feet off the ground where I could sneak behind and shoot through the V. Making it to the trees, I pulled out my rangefinder. 19.2 yards. I couldn’t believe I had made it that close. Now the waiting game began. My feet went to sleep from switching legs back and forth, shifting weight. I knew it was a matter of time before the wind would shift and he would jump to his feet. After about 45 minutes, it finally happened. I felt the wind hit the back of my neck. I immediately drew back and like clockwork, the bull’s head whipped upright. He jumped to his feet and began to turn to run, and I released.
My arrow disappeared and I knew it was a fatal hit. As he ran down through the rocks, the other two bulls jumped to their feet. One followed off to the other side and the other just stood there trying to figure out what was going on. I didn’t want to spook him, so we had a staredown which lasted about 30 minutes until he calmed down. To my surprise, he went back and bedded down in the same spot. I snuck out, got my dad and Kylee, and we snuck back up there. I told Kylee, “We are going to go over the top of this rock and you’ll shoot him in his bed on the other side.” She was ready. She got to the top, drew back and inched forward. Just as the top of her bow came into his sight, he jumped up and took off. Killing two bulls right there would have been too good to be true anyways.
As the afternoon approached, we got to work on my bull. All the elk fed off the other direction that evening as I think we had plenty of scent in that area after the last two days. We quartered and hung some of the meat while packing out what we could that night. Coming back the next morning, we played the hunt as we had the previous few days. We found nothing there the next morning and not a bugle around. We had blown the herd out. We quickly gathered up the rest of the meat and packed it back to the truck and went to a nearby town for lunch and to regroup.
With temperatures dropping into the teens and a strong wind blowing, we hunted another few days without any luck. All of the elk we were hunting had vanished like they never existed. The elk woods can go from the most unbelievable hunting you’ve ever experienced to so quiet you can hear a mouse all within 24 hours. This was a hunt I’ll never forget. Kylee was able to harvest both a buck and bull within two days in Montana’s late season with a rifle. Until next fall, the dreams and memories of this season will continue to fill my mind.
By: Jon Gabrio - Montana Elk