A Successful Goat Hunt with a Trusty Weapon
“It wasn’t a buffalo or a deer or a goat. It wasn’t a creature at all. It was something grown out of the snow; it was something a crazy mind made up; it was an old spirit man from the top of the world and a bullet wouldn’t hurt it and it would fade from sight directly like a puff of smoke.”
These words are from A.B. Guthrie’s classic historical novel The Big Sky. The freedom, beauty and adventure that the mountain men found in the rockies two hundred years ago captured my imagination as a child and have held it all of my life. Heck, the heyday of the mountain men was only 150 years ago when I first read The Big Sky!
Close To Home
In the spring of 2018 I learned I had drawn a mountain goat license for an area near my home in western Colorado. It was very exciting to have a goat tag. The best part was that the unit is a spectacularly beautiful area that is close enough to home that I would be able to make many scouting trips through the summer. I wanted to hunt a part of the unit that according to previous statistics had received little or no hunting pressure. It was great habitat and I had a hunch there would be some goats there. The tag was good for any weapon, so I decided I would only bring my old sidelock muzzleloader.
Promising Recon Missions
On my very first scouting trip, I went up on the evening of June 11th. An hour’s hike brought me to a meadow where I could glass the peaks from long range. I quickly spotted two mature billies feeding across a rocky south facing slope. Mountain goat trophy quality is hard to judge. These goats were much too far away for that. I was very happy to see these two billies but I wanted a closer look.
Over the next few weeks, I made some trips back up to the same area but saw no goats. It appeared that I had caught them on their winter range just before they left for the summer. The mountain range I had seen them on faces mainly south on the semi-accessible side. The other side of those mountains is an incredibly rugged and trail-less area of glacial cirques, alpine lakes and enormous cliffs.
Making a Plan
I spent the rest of the summer trying to figure out the best way to hunt those cirques. I figured I could pack in on the south side with horses and set up a base camp. From there a two-hour climb would put me at the top of the range. On top I could probably look down and spot goats.
The only other option was to backpack up the drainage on the north side and hunt the goats from below. The problem with that was that there is no trail and the route is choked with obstacles. I have horses so I don’t backpack much. I like a comfortable camp with plenty of real food. I decided to use every possible way to reduce the difficulty of getting my camp far up the drainage. This meant using horses, boats and backpacks!
Cutting a Path
The first several miles of the drainage did have a trail but it was impassable to horses due to hundreds of saplings having grown up on the sides of the trail making it too narrow for a loaded pack animal. I spent a couple of long days cutting these out to make the trail useable. A few days before I was going in for good I took my horse and mule up the trail to where the trail ended at a lake. In the mule’s pack I had an inflatable raft and an inflatable kayak. I worked really hard to hang the 100 pound duffel containing the boats from a giant rock. I didn’t want a bear or even a squirrel messing up my boats!
A Head Start
I returned two days before opening day on horseback with my friend Rick. He dropped me off at the lake with all of my food and camping gear for a week. I inflated the boats and packed the raft with my gear. I slipped into the kayak and towed the raft to the upper end of the lake. Using the boats saved me about a mile of backpacking. It doesn’t sound like much but that mile around the lake is one of the most difficult stretches for a backpacker with no trail and a whole bunch of ups and downs through the ledges around the lake.
I spent the first night at the upper end of the lake. In the morning, I shouldered my 100 pound pack and very slowly made my way up the drainage. The obstacles of deadfall and ledges were seemingly endless. I had trimmed the load to only what I thought essential but with rifle, optics, tent, bag, pad and food for a week it was heavy. It took most of the day but I finally arrived at my pre-selected campsite located at a lake high in the drainage.
Having not seen anyone there in multiple summer trips, I was surprised to find the campsite occupied. The campers were two beautiful women from Aspen. They were incredibly nice and helped me pick another site. They were leaving in the morning and had some extra food and fuel which they generously offered to me.
I set up my tent and got to work catching fish. The lake was overpopulated with small brook trout. Part of my food budget was to eat as much trout as possible. I soon had a limit of 16 brookies and started cooking them up. The plan was to use them to make trout salad; a homemade concoction of trout, noodles and dried vegetables all liberally mixed with horseradish sauce. I ate this for dinner most nights of the trip. It proved to be a very satisfying and tasty source of calories and protein.
My friend Kevin Jones arrived at camp that evening. I had left him some gear at the lower lake so that he didn’t have to carry it all the way up from the trailhead. Even so, he was exhausted when he got to camp. He was also very cold and wet as it was raining heavily by then. We got his tent up and he crawled into his bag to warm up.
An Old Warrior and a Worthy Target
The next day was the day before the season. This was to be the serious scouting day. I left camp at daylight and spent the whole day hiking and glassing for goats. What a glorious day it was! The weather was perfect all day and the goats were there. I spotted goats from morning to night and most were billies.
I glassed nine different mature billies that day. This was goat Shangri-La! One huge old goat was very tempting. He had a great set of horns but one whole side of his face was black scar tissue and he was missing his eye on that side. I called him Scarface and tried to imagine what had happened to him. I assumed a horrific fall. I was very impressed that he was alive and well. I decided to leave him alone and keep looking. By late evening, I had a great billy selected. I watched him until he bedded for the night at dark.
High Altitude Chase
At first light, we were about 400 yards from my selected billy and his companion. We were directly across from them across the canyon. I needed to see where they were going before I made a stalk. The goats soon got up and started moving quickly up the chute above their bedding ledge.
I took off to try and intercept them. Kevin stayed behind to watch. It was slow getting up there since it was almost straight up from the canyon bottom with lots of hanging on required to climb the slope. When I got to where I hoped the goats would be, they were not there. I could see fresh tracks so I continued up the chute all the way to the top of it at a saddle.
I expected to encounter the goats at any moment but I never saw them on the way up. I carefully peeked over the little saddle only to view a vast basin with countless hiding spots. I decided to angle down to my right towards some benches that were currently out of sight. I hadn’t gone far when suddenly there they were. I had stumbled into them at about 30 yards and spooked them badly. I ran to the next little ridge and saw them running around the mountain about 100 yards away.
Back on the Trail
We decided to continue up the main valley. By mid-afternoon, we spotted a lone billy bedded on a ledge far up in the same big basin that the other goats had disappeared into. We started up into the basin with the goal of getting a good look at this bedded billy. We were about halfway up when we spotted another billy in a rock pile not far from where I had lost track of the goats in the morning. He looked pretty good and we concluded that he was one of the two I had chased in the morning.
We immediately switched focus to this goat. We climbed as high as we could while staying on the back side of a ridge and out of sight from the goat. By then he had come out of the rocks and started feeding on a steep patch of grass.
The plan I had for the stalk was to cross about 300 yards of open boulder field to get to the base of the slope the goat was feeding on. There the steepness of the slope would hide me from his view. I could then climb straight up until I topped out on the slight bench just below him, which would put me in muzzleloader range.
I crossed the boulder field using my tried-and-true slow motion. The trick is to never move any part of your body fast enough to attract attention. I liken it to the movement of the minute hand on a clock. It’s always moving but you can’t see it move.
Busted, Not Beaten
It took a couple of hours but I made it across the boulders and just as I had hoped, I could no longer see the goat above me. I had been in plain view of the goat the whole way across the boulders. The slow motion had worked and he never noticed me. I quickly climbed the slope to the edge of the bench. I rested a minute to catch my breath and started to ease up over the lip. Suddenly a big goat appeared in the rocks above me. He was about 50 yards away and had me pegged. He took off running. He was having to pick through the rocks and wasn’t moving super-fast. He disappeared behind a rock pile as I shouldered my rifle.
I could see he was likely to reappear for mere seconds at a gap in the rocks before he would be out of sight and gone again. I took aim at the gap just as the goat came running through at 70 yards. I squinted through the peep sight, swung with the moving goat and dropped the hammer. To my amazement, the goat dropped in his tracks. My old .54 caliber rifle, “Bullwhacker” had struck again. I’ve taken literally tons of game with this gun. This was the third goat taken with it; two by me and one by a friend.
It was late in the day. By the time the pictures were taken and the skinning and butchering was done it was getting very dark. I buried the quarters deep under a big pile of heavy rocks. This is a crucial step if you need to leave meat above timberline for any length of time. If you don’t do this properly you will very likely lose a lot of meat or all of it to eagles or other scavengers. At this elevation, the rock pile doubles as shade that keeps the meat chilled even on a sunny slope.
The Long Way Home
The following day I took the head and cape and all the meat and loaded it into my pack. Now I had a 100-pound pack again and I had to walk all the way back to the truck except for the 1-mile boat ride on the lake. It was mostly downhill but it was a mighty struggle that seemed to never end. Finally reaching the trailhead, I remembered that my truck key was safely in a pocket of my tent all the way back at camp. No problem I thought, there should be a spare somewhere underneath the truck. A careful search did not reveal any spare key. There was one other vehicle at the trailhead. Soon a man and his adult daughter appeared. I asked if they could give me a ride to my house. They were nice enough to do just that.
Gratitude and Goats
I feel very fortunate to have completed another successful goat hunt. I have taken three goats myself; two with the muzzleloader and one with a bow. I have helped friends and family on four other goat hunts. All were successful and all but one were taken with muzzleloaders. I have been able to live out my fantasy of hunting goats like a mountain man many times. I don’t know if I have any more goat hunts in store for the future but I will try to go as long as I am able.
Many thanks to the friends that helped out on this hunt Kevin, Rick, Shawn and Rich. Also thanks to my wife Christy for her help and support. And thanks too for the strangers I met in the backcountry and at the trailhead that were kind enough to help some too.