F&S Classics: Bulls at 30 Below Zero


PERHAPS I AM ODD, but I like storms. They fascinate me. My favorites are Western blizzards. I like to hear the frigid winds howl and see them pile the swirling snow into artistically sculptured drifts. Like all Montana blizzards, the one that was now spreading a thick blanket of white over the plains and mountains had been spawned in the Arctic and had grown as it plunged down in full force along the east slopes of the Rockies, across Canada and into the states.

For several days a warm southwest wind, locally known as a chinook, had been blowing down off the mountains and temperatures had ranged up into the 50s. The first word of the storm came from the weather bureau as a warning to motorists and stockmen to expect blizzard conditions. 

I first saw it in the morning as a band of low clouds stretched across the horizon near the Canadian border, almost 100 miles away. About noon, the southwest wind ceased, and half an hour later the front hit with full force. In minutes, the temperature dropped 30 degrees and by nightfall it was below zero. For two days, the blizzard raged before it blew itself out, leaving behind it a mass of frigid arctic air and a foot of new snow on the plains, 18 inches in the foothills, and as much as 3 feet at some of the higher elevations.

It was Saturday, December 2, when the storm subsided, and as extreme good fortune would have it, two buddies, Elroy Nelsen and Roy Brewer, and I had planned to hunt elk in Montana’s Sun River area the following week. With the deep snow and the promised 20- to 40-below-zero temperatures, elk in great numbers would be migrating out of the mountains toward their winter range.

Winter Wapiti Wonderland

Elk are extremely hardy animals—they can make it when deer would starve to death—and if there is hunting pressure to hold them back they won’t migrate until they absolutely have to, and even then if the weather isn’t severe they often move in small groups. But after a storm like the one we’d just had, a mass migration can be counted on; the result of which is some of America’s best, though in terms of physical hardship, toughest, elk hunting.

It was 6 A.M. when we left our four-wheel drive at the confluence of the West and Middle Forks of Beaver Creek and started to climb. Our plan was to be up where we expected to find elk by daylight. Elroy went to check one set of parks, and Roy and I went to look at another.

I had a clear view of his chest, and figuring that by now he was at least 450 yards away, I held about a foot above his back and very gently pulled the trigger. He went down as if the ground had been jerked from under him.

It was 22 below zero on the plains when we left my home in Fairfield, and now in the mountains it must have been at least a minus 30 degrees. The snow crunched with each step we took, and the cold stung our faces and sought out and penetrated even the smallest openings in our clothing.

We had gone about a mile and a half when the first light began to show on jagged peaks to the west. I took out the binoculars that I had been keeping warm under my coat. There were no elk, but I saw the next best thing: A sinuous trail in the snow led down from a high pass into the timber-elk had come over the escarpment during the night and they were headed for the same general area as Roy and I. There was, of course, no way of telling how many there were; migrating elk travel single file through deep snow, and at times several hundred animals may use the same trail. Invariably, a herd will be led by an old cow.

By the time it was light enough to shoot we had gone another half-mile and worked our way up onto a partially timbered bench that afforded a good view of parks both below and above us. I figured it was a likely place for the elk to stop and eat, and I was right. There were tracks everywhere and spots where they had pawed the snow away to feed on bunch grass and on mountain mahogany. Roy whispered, “There’s a good chance they’re still here, maybe in that band of timber just below where the mountain starts up again.” Just then a shot rang out a couple of hundred yards on down the mountain. We moved a few yards up onto a knoll where we had a better view and waited.

First a cow appeared above the trees, then another and another. I lay down in the snow and, by using the duplex reticle in my 2×7 power scope as a range finder, I was able to estimate the range at about 400 yards. The cows kept coming into view, and then there were antlers. First a spike bull, followed by a couple that I judged to be five-pointers. It was time for action. Holding the crosshair on top of the largest bull’s back, I squeezed the trigger. An instant after the 7mm magnum roared, I was able to hear the bullet hit, but the bull just flinched and kept on going up the mountain. As I chambered another round, I was aware of Roy shooting about 10 yards off to my right. I later learned that, from where he was, he couldn’t see the larger bulls and was firing at the spike. I shot once more at my elk when he was moving and then he stopped in some trees above a small cliff. I had a clear view of his chest, and figuring that by now he was at least 450 yards away, I held about a foot above his back and very gently pulled the trigger. He went down as if the ground had been jerked from under him. While I was putting my bull away Roy had anchored the spike.

Cold Hard Truths

We dragged them down off the steep hillside onto the bench and then dressed them. Butchering a bull elk is hard work anytime, but with temperatures as cold as they were it was just plain torture. As long as we kept our hands inside the body cavities they were all right, but we found we couldn’t keep them out in the air long before they would start to freeze.

Hunting in subzero temperatures offers the nearest thing I know of to a cinch on elk, but it also makes problems that are unknown in usual elk-hunting situations. A wet handkerchief—you’re bound to have one—will freeze solid in the pocket of wool pants. Frost will gather on your eyebrows and lashes, and as I learned, a mustache is a real problem. I found that my windbreaker, and at times even my down shirt, would frost up on the inside. If there is the slightest breeze, exposed skin will freeze in minutes. We had to watch each other’s faces for frozen spots that would usually first appear on the tips of our noses. We found that the best way to thaw them out was to cover them for a few minutes with a mitten. Never rub frozen skin as you may unwittingly peel it off or risk gangrene.

Equipment can also cause problems in extreme cold. One unhappy hunter that Elroy met on a trail greeted him with this comment, “What kind of lubrication can I put on this damn gun to make it fire?”

It seems that 22 elk, both cows and bulls, had filed by in front of him and his gun wouldn’t go off. Elroy’s answer was, “Nothing—take everything off.”

While some manufacturers boast that their lubricant doesn’t thicken, the best policy is to remove all traces of oil and grease from the firing mechanism. A little powdered graphite can be used for lubrication, but it isn’t necessary.

The hunter also learns that if he breathes on cold optical equipment the lenses frost instantly and the frost is hard to get off. I keep my binoculars and camera warm—warm glass won’t fog—by keeping them under my coat. There is no way to keep a telescopic sight warm, so the only solution is just not to breath on it. I have formed a habit, whenever I am using an optical instrument in the cold, of extending my upper lip slightly and blowing my breath downward with considerable force. If a man exhales normally, his warm breath will rise and coat the optics. Scope caps will keep snow off the lenses.

After we’d dressed our elk, we were able to drag Roy’s out whole, but since my bull was much heavier, Elroy insisted that we use a couple of his horses to pack it out. I learned another lesson here—an elk that is to be packed out in pieces should be quartered while it is still warm. After being out for 48 hours in temperatures no warmer than 20 below zero, the bull was as hard as a rock. It was no small job quartering him.

When field dressing elk, you must open them up full length or the meat will sour even in the coldest weather. Spoilage usually begins in the neck and shoulders, so it is doubly important to open the neck and get the windpipe out. The hair on an elk’s neck is amazingly good insulation; there was still a spot in the shoulder area of my bull that wasn’t frozen solid. Another bull that I saw had lain opened up for twenty-four hours and it still steamed when it was quartered. The meat, however, was good. My observation has been that, regardless of the weather, an elk that hasn’t been opened full length will sour, and one that has been, won’t.

While I don’t subscribe to the idea that a man shouldn’t venture afield in subzero weather, a certain amount of caution is called for. A healthy, well-dressed, well-fed human being can cope with a lot of cold as long as he keeps moving, but if immobilized for some reason he will freeze to death in a hurry.

One day, Elroy and I went over a mountain. We rode horses as far as we could, but still had a hard climb of about 1,500 feet to the top. On the other side we found that the snow in the timber was 3 feet deep. I had hunted the area before and knew of some beautiful parks where we might catch elk feeding, so we started out, alternately breaking trail. When we had gone about half a mile, I realized that I was running out of gas. I told Elroy, “I’m afraid that if we see elk very far away, we will be crazy enough to go after them and we just might not have strength enough to get back.” He agreed and we turned around. It was much easier going back on the trail that we had broken, but when we got to where we had to cross a wide, open area on top of the mountain, we found that a light breeze had come up. It was all we could do to keep our faces from freezing as we crossed it.

I am not trying to dramatize the situation, but if the wind had been 30 or 40 mph, the chill factor would have been close to 100 below zero and we probably wouldn’t have made it down off the mountain. When we got back to where we had left the horses tied in the timber, they were covered with frost and shivering. We didn’t use them again for hunting.

Out With a Bang

On a hunt of this type, proper clothing makes a big difference. The best boots are those insulated with half-inch thick, removable felt liners. Wool stockings are in order, as is wool or heavy thermal underwear. Wool pants are a must and the shirt can be either wool or cotton flannel. Instead of a single coat, I use a down vest, a down shirt, and a nylon shell windbreaker. To keep from getting overheated, I wear only the vest and windbreaker while climbing, and put the down shirt on when I stop. Mittens of some sort are necessary, as it is impossible to keep one’s hands warm with gloves. The best headgear is a cap with ear flaps and a bill in front to shade the eyes.

By the sixth day of our hunt, Roy had gone home, so there were just two of us. Elroy was holding out for a bull, but he just never seemed to be in the right place at the right time. With hunting pressure building up at Beaver Creek, we figured that most of the elk might be using an alternate route through Willow Creek; we decided to hunt there. Actually the migration corridor used by the Sun River elk herd is roughly twenty miles wide. They can and do come through almost everywhere, but because the mountains are high and extremely rough, most of them tend to funnel through places like these.

By daylight we had hiked a couple of miles up through the Willow Creek Gorge and onto the Fairview Plateau. I don’t believe I have ever seen so many tracks. At many places it looked as if several hundred elk had spread out and fed. It was also the coldest morning that we had seen—it must have been close to 50 below zero. I spotted a cow feeding in an opening on a hillside about 400 yards away. Elroy didn’t want her so we kept going, sticking to the open, rolling hills of the plateau. We had just topped a ridge when Elroy whispered, “Elk.”

He sat down and got ready to shoot and I watched over his shoulder as 25 elk came single file up out of a draw into view; it was a beautiful sight, but there weren’t antlers on any of them.

“I won’t hold it against you if you want to shoot a fat cow,” I said.

“No, not yet,” he said. “Let’s look around some more.”

We saw more cows but still no bulls, and about 10 o’clock we headed back. When we were almost to the truck we saw another small herd of cows and calves feeding on a mountainside about 400 yards above it. Elk generally don’t feed during the day but apparently they needed more food because of the weather.

Elroy thought a minute, then said, “I’ll never get an elk where it is easier to get it out—I’d better take one of them.”

Two hours later we had his elk loaded and were on our way home. It had been a great hunt, but after six days of record breaking cold we were glad it was over.

One comment that I heard several hunters make was, “One thing is certain; this year we won’t have to worry about a white Christmas.” They were wrong. The next week another chinook wind started to blow, temperatures again reached 50 above, and the ground was bare at Christmas time. But no matter—I’ll take snow and cold for elk hunting to a white Christmas any time. 

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