Big Sky Double Down

Visiting Big Sky Country is an exhilarating experience. For a hunter, going there with a pair of big game tags in your wallet is pure nirvana.

Big Sky Double Down

The mid-November winter storm sweeping through the Dakotas had my white knuckles locked to the steering wheel in the 10 and 2 o’clock positions. Scattered patches of ice covered I-94, and wreckers were clearing out several tractor-trailers that had overturned due to the heavy winds and slick conditions. I was on the tail end of the storm, but the weather report was dismal: The first winter storm of the season to blast off from the Rockies is unloading its energy primarily in North Dakota, where it could dump up to 18 inches of snow and kick up winds as high as 50 mph. The system started with a round of freezing drizzle that made driving tricky in the Dakotas. It led to a chain reaction crash that totaled a state trooper’s vehicle and closed Interstate 94 in eastern North Dakota for several hours.

It was 25 degrees when I left Minnesota an hour before daylight, but the mercury had dropped to 0 as I plodded across North Dakota. Luckily, the wind had dropped to a 20-mph North Dakota “breeze.” As I passed another tangled 18-wheeler wreck, I eased up on the gas and dropped the FJ Cruiser 25 mph below the 75-mph speed limit, knowing the 10-hour drive to Miles City, Montana, where I hoped to overnight, had just gotten a whole lot longer.

I was en route to the 9,000-acre Jumping Horse Ranch near Ennis, Montana, a sportsman’s paradise surrounded by three picturesque mountain ranges: the Madison Range, Gravelly Range and Tobacco Root Mountains. In addition to hunting opportunities that are off the charts, local shops and numerous resorts in Ennis cater to fly fishing anglers, with guided trips on the Madison and in nearby Yellowstone National Park. I would pass on the fishing but had a couple of nonresident tags in my wallet — one for elk and another for deer. I was meeting up with some industry buddies for 4 days of pure hunting bliss.

Thankfully, I made it to Miles City shortly after dark and pulled over for the night, where I grabbed a bite and a beer and turned in early. Another 6 or so hours of driving the next day would see me to the ranch — if the roads improved.

As I pulled into Ennis, just 15 minutes from the ranch, I was white knuckled once again — but for an entirely different reason. I had been listening to my Minnesota Vikings for the past 3 hours and they were locked in an overtime battle with the Buffalo Bills. Behind by four points, the Vikings almost reached the endzone three times during the final minute of the game: failing to score each time. All was lost, it seemed — until the Vikes recovered a Josh Allen fumble in his own endzone to take a 30-27 lead. Tyler Bass converted a field goal on the Bill’s final drive to take the game to overtime. After an unsuccessful Vikings drive, Allen made several impressive scrambles to get inside field goal range and take a few shots at a touchdown to win the game. Then Allen threw his second interception of the game, handing the Vikings the win. Skol!

I arrived at camp (in an elated mood) with just enough daylight left to check the zero on my rifle and take a quick cruise around the property to get a feel for what the morning might bring. Glassing the surrounding slopes that extended down from the mountains to the ranch, we spotted several decent-size bull elk working their way down to the field where they would feed at night. And it was the visions of those elk that I played back in my mind over and over when my head hit the pillow that night, the alarm set for 4:30 a.m.

It was cold and calm when I woke up the next morning, got my stuff together and climbed into Jeff Klein’s F350. Jeff is the ranch manager at Jumping Horse and my guide for the hunt — I figured I was in good hands. After a short ride he pulled the truck through a gate leading into a hilly pasture and eased it down into a shallow gravel pit. “Good place to stash the truck,” he said as he killed the engine.

Jeff told me he had been keeping an eye on this area. “I’ve seen some elk coming down late at night and going back up in the morning,” he said. “I just thought it was a good place to see if we could get the wind right and catch them in that transition zone. The elk should be coming off that ridge to the left and from out in the crops behind us,” he pointed to the dim skyline. “Let’s hike up the hill a bit and wait for it to get light.”

A gentle snow was falling as we gained elevation, just enough to mess with visibility. “Up there on the closest ridge,” Jeff pointed up the hill. “Can you make out those elk just to the left of that farthest juniper? There are three of them.” It was still about 20 minutes till legal shooting light, but with the snow I could barely make out the dark forms walking up the ridge.

As I watched the elk disappear over hill crest, Jeff tapped me on the shoulder. “There’s another bull coming in behind us, looks like a decent five by five,” he whispered. Being a bird in the hand kind of guy, I pivoted to my right and got on the shooting sticks. The elk was striking a pose at 200 yards, quartered toward us, and I thumbed the safety.

“He’s not spooked,” Jeff whispered. “Hold off till he turns broadside.”

The standoff lasted about 10 minutes. Then the bull turned and started walking parallel to us. Jeff gave a cow call and it pulled to a stop and looked up at us. A shot through the lungs ended the drama, and we walked over to check out our early morning prize.

The author with his first-morning Montana bull, taken from a range of 200 yards.
The author with his first-morning Montana bull, taken from a range of 200 yards.

I often experience an odd combination of elation and emotional letdown when a hunt wraps up so quickly, but I immediately got over it. I still had a deer tag in my wallet — good for a muley or whitetail — and Jeff told me they’d been seeing an impressive whitetail buck hanging out close to the ranch house. “I got some pictures of him in the middle of September, and he’s one of the nicest bucks I’ve seen here on the ranch,” he said. “There’s all those pockets of does around here and a couple of little shelterbelts with a lot of cover where I think he’s been bedding.”

The thing was, I wasn’t the only one with my sights on the buck.

That night after dinner and a few adult beverages, we came to a decision. We would draw straws for a chance at the stud buck. I drew the short straw — but in this case it was a good thing, and Jeff and I would try to locate the buck in the morning and put a sneak on it.

In mid-September, Jumping Horse’s Jeff Klein captured this trail cam image of a tall-tined whitetail that was feeding on a field near the ranch.
In mid-September, Jumping Horse’s Jeff Klein captured this trail cam image of a tall-tined whitetail that was feeding on a field near the ranch.

We drove around at first light glassing for the short-straw buck . . . to no avail. We spotted several does and smallish bucks, but the big guy was nowhere to be found. We took a short break for lunch and headed back out at 3 p.m. and almost immediately spotted him in the middle of a wide-open field; he was bedded with a single doe. Jeff quickly came up with a game plan. “See that pop-up blind on the fence line? If we can put it between us and the deer and get to the fence line, we might have a shot.”

Hunkered over, I followed Jeff as we sneaked to the blind without spooking the deer from their beds. Jeff eased the tripod around the edge of the blind and I inched into position and slowly placed the rifle up on its cradle and settled in for the waiting game. 

I was shifting positions to restore feeling in my legs about 20 minutes later when the buck stood and stretched, and I quickly planted the crosshairs on center mass and squeezed the trigger. I stood and shook the snow from my pants and walked the 200 yards to where the buck had piled up, taking a deep breath to drink it all in. The crisp mountain air. The postcard perfect backdrop. The exhilaration and fading adrenaline rush. The perfect end to a perfect day.

With another 200-yard shot, the author doubled down on Montana big game, tagging an elk on morning No. 1 and then this outstanding whitetail on afternoon No. 2.
With another 200-yard shot, the author doubled down on Montana big game, tagging an elk on morning No. 1 and then this outstanding whitetail on afternoon No. 2.

Sidebar: Epic Elk Optics

When it comes to riflescopes, there is no one size fits all. Hunters must match optics to rifle and cartridge selection to obtain optimal performance on the game they are hunting, in the terrain and weather in which they’re hunting — settling on the best combo to finish what they started when they put their bino to the landscape in search of their quarry and boots to turf once a buck or bull is spotted. When the pursuit is done, the outcome of the hunt depends on a well-placed bullet, and it’s a top-notch riflescope that guides that bullet to the promised land.

Hunters looking for an optics edge will undoubtedly be familiar with the adage: Buy the best optics you can afford. It doesn’t make sense to invest hard-earned cash in a rifle capable of punching minute-of-angle groups and then equip it with substandard glass that inhibits that capability. There are several factors to consider when purchasing a scope: the type of firearm on which it will sit; the animals you will be hunting; and the type of terrain where you will be hunting. It’s important to carefully consider those qualities that make sense for the type of rifle you own and the type of hunting you do.

The author’s Vudu 1-10x28mm FFP scope performed flawlessly during his 2022 late-season Montana hunt for elk and deer.
The author’s Vudu 1-10x28mm FFP scope performed flawlessly during his 2022 late-season Montana hunt for elk and deer.

I wanted a versatile scope for my elk/deer hunt that would stand up to rugged terrain and winter weather conditions but wouldn’t add a lot of bulk to my T/C Icon chambered in .300 Win. Mag. Knowing that my host, EOTech’s John Bailey, had hunted the Jumping Horse Ranch for nearly a decade, I asked his advice. His recommendation was spot on — the 1-10x28mm first focal plane riflescope from the company’s relatively new Vudu line.

For EOTech the addition of the Vudu line of riflescopes marked the company’s expansion into the hunting market. “We wanted to diversify our product line from our holographic one trick pony product line,” Bailey said of the Vudu launch. “We knew they had to be high-quality, high-precision optics, so we designed a high-end line of scopes to start off — a 1-6X, 2.5-10X and 3.5-18X. The 1-6X did really well because it still had our circle/dot reticle like you see in our holographic sights. But as you dial it up, the circle expands out of the picture, and you have a very clean reticle for medium- to long-range shooting.”

EOTech’s Vudu 1-10x28mm FFP riflescope features a robust 34mm, single-piece aircraft aluminum tube with an anodized finish for extreme durability, with laser-etched adjustment indicators and push-button illumination controls for simple manipulation. It has a single-piece eyepiece that includes a removable throw-lever for fast changes in magnification and its low-profile elevation turret has a push/pull locking system and a capped windage turret for a secure zero, and the first focal plane illuminated, glass-etched reticle allows for distance estimation at any magnification and lighting condition. The nitrogen gas purged Vudu 1-10x28mm FFP riflescope is fog-, shock- and water-resistant, and XC high-density, low-dispersion glass with anti-reflective coated lenses provide efficient light transmission and edge-to-edge clarity.

“We’ve been coming out here for 10 years, and I think we’ve had only one or two hunters who shot past 400 yards,” John told me. “So, the 10X is good for those longer shots, but you can also dial it down to 1X if you get up in the mountains where there’s a lot of brush and trees. Now, if we had to shoot 600 or 700 yards, I’d probably recommend something different, but I think this scope is a perfect fit for this hunt.”


Sidebar: Formidable Footwear

Elk hunting is synonymous with difficult terrain and harsh weather conditions, and having good footwear that keeps feet warm and dry, built to handle the toughest terrain should be every hunter’s No. 1 priority. And that means investing in high-quality boots that stand up to the rigors of the hunt — in any kind of weather in any landscape. The best boots you can own are those you rarely think about — those that quietly go about the business by keeping your feet dry, blister-free and toasty warm. Top-notch boots provide the impetus to keep you going — one step at a time — when the going gets tough, whether it’s a sub-zero all-day sit waiting in ambush or a long backcountry trek to the horizon and back.

For my Montana elk/deer hunt, I enlisted the Irish Setter VaprTrek waterproof hunting boot, with 1,200 grams of insulation to keep my feet toasty warm and made with full-grain leather and abrasion-resistant materials to ensure durability. I had worn them on several upland bird hunts during the fall to make sure they were well broken in before heading west, and they performed to expectations and beyond. I was confident they would serve me well in my pursuit of antlers and meat.

Knowing he needed an insulated and waterproof boot for his November Montana combo hunt, the author chose the Irish Setter VaprTrek, specifically style 3817 with 1,200 grams of PrimaLoft insulation.
Knowing he needed an insulated and waterproof boot for his November Montana combo hunt, the author chose the Irish Setter VaprTrek, specifically style 3817 with 1,200 grams of PrimaLoft insulation.

The VaprTrek’s  PrimaLoft insulation keeps feet warm, while an UltraDry waterproof membrane keeps them dry. The company’s exclusive ScentBan odor control technology kills bacteria and eliminates odor. The VaprTrek’s Memory Foam insole provides under-foot comfort, and Armatec XT technology adds durability and abrasion-resistance in high-wear areas of the heel and toe while leather reinforcement is strategically placed to protect flex points. A lightweight, nylon shank adds arch support, and EnerG technology within the dual density midsole delivers extra comfort in the heel and forefoot impact zones.


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