A “Sidecountry” Hunt

It’s late November, and again I find myself in the far northeastern corner of Montana visiting relatives for Thanksgiving. When the weather cooperates, my family and I make the long haul from our home in southwestern Montana to the wide horizons and C.M. Russell scenes of undulating prairie, a dichotomy of landscapes compared to the snowy peaks and timbered canyons of home. Western wheatgrass crunches underfoot, with pungent sagebrush dotting the view. When hunting here I envision cagey mule deer bucks dying of old age among the deep coulees and barren plains, and I’ll spend my time covering ground with binoculars and boots, hoping to cross paths with one of those ghosts.

Hunting on foot is not the favored method here, as this area has a bit of a road hunting culture. The appeal is understandable – bitter November winds pour out of Canada buffing the snow to Styrofoam-like firmness, and the temperatures routinely hover in the single digits at high noon. Being wrapped in the cab of an old ranch truck, heater blasting away with a thermos of coffee in your lap is not a bad way to escape the weather and do a little hunting. Stopping to glass a brushy draw or coulee for a deer (any deer) then motoring on, works if you want to punch a tag. But, like seeing a concert on TV contrasted with the live performance, it is not the same thing. I want to get out in the field and do it for myself. It is what brings me closer to the hunt – the sights, sounds, smells and feeling. Frozen eyelids and numb toes as well.

This is a land well suited to the hunter with a good pair of boots and optics. The terrain is moderate with just the right dose of steep in the form of deep coulees and rolling ridgelines. The amount of public land is expansive, and one can with a good dose of grit and hard work get themselves and a nice deer out of the field without too much trouble. It may not be as “backcountry” as some parts of the world in the truest sense of the word, but it is no less wild and liberating.

I equate it to a phrase that originated in the skiing world – sidecountry. From a skier’s perspective, the term “sidecountry” basically refers to backcountry terrain that’s easily accessed from a resort.  Fairly straightforward to get to, yet still has that “backcountry” appeal. The issue with sidecountry is you can still get yourself into trouble if you head out unprepared – avalanches don’t care if the ski area boundary is 200 yards away, and wrenching a knee in a tree well is serious business when out of sight of the roped safety of the resort. The same can be said for “sidecountry hunting” in areas that at first glance seem like the proverbial walk in the park. The scenario in these wide open plains can easily play out like this:

‘That gravel road is just a mile and a half from where I shot my deer. Should be pretty straightforward to get him out of here. I wonder if I could drag him. Nah, better pack him out. The wind is getting pretty gnarly though…and now the snow… Feels like I am sitting in a snow globe. I hope I can get the truck out of there and the gumbo. Damn, why didn’t I pack my big down jacket…sunny and 35°? Did they throw that forecast out from a week ago? Should’ve packed a bit more gear. Did I only bring one Snickers bar? So much for just walking a bit to look at some country…this just got interesting…man, it is cold when the sun dips behind the hill…’

Like anywhere, the good weather can turn nasty, a tagged deer at your feet is still a lot of work and a mild injury can turn serious in a second. Treat any “country” hunt (side, front, back, you name it) with respect – bring the gear that will keep you safe, alive and comfortable so you can hunt from dawn till dusk.


The icy top strand of the barbed wire fence protested as I swung a leg over, noisily announcing my presence as I set foot on miles of  public land. I was geared up for a full day out, and the forecast was surprisingly mild – sun anticipated, high of 39° with a little wind. Perfect. The last time I was here it was snowy and -11° in the morning. This was shaping up to be a great day hiking and glassing for deer.

I strode out across a wide plain better suited for antelope than mule deer, but the map on my phone told me what I would find about a mile to the west — steeper topography, brush-choked coulees and good browse was just over the horizon. My morning plan consisted of steady hiking to glassing points, breaking out the optics to pick apart everything in sight and repeat as necessary. After a few hours I turned up very few mule deer, save for a few does without a buck and a smallish buck in the distance that was off my list once I put the spotting scope on him. Knowing the clock was ticking on my one day hunt, I boogied back to the truck, shaking off the infamous gumbo mud from my boots with every step.

Wheels rolling with turkey sandwich in hand and coffee mug wedged between the seats, I navigated to my next spot via GPS, a giant swath of stubble field bisected by a nearly mile long coulee that doglegged to the south; it had the look of a poorly played Tetris game on my phone screen, but I knew it was a considerable amount of land, and it was textbook prairie whitetail country. I parked next to an empty Quonset, and stepping out discovered the wind was awful – directly at my back out of the west. I couldn’t access the area from the east, so I had to change tactics. I hiked due south across the stubble for about 700 yards, keeping out of sight of the coulee, then hung a left to the east. My scent was now blowing parallel to the coulee but well away from it, and I was making good time towards a low rise where I would hook back and drop over the edge to glass and carefully hunt my way back into the wind, hoping to catch sight of a good buck in the process chasing does.

As many plans go, mine was interrupted by the sight of three does and one large bodied buck rising out of a patch of grass I had ignored on my approach. I was so focused on staying out of sight of the coulee and covering ground that I didn’t even think four deer could hide in a pocket of knee high brush the size of a Prius in the middle of a stubble field. I froze mid-stride like someone hit pause. I watched the deer watch me. They were as still as statues and I was out in the open like a sore thumb. Busted.

Their next moves were not what I expected from whitetails during rifle season, but it worked to my advantage. I slowly brought up the binos to check out the buck. He was a big bodied, mature deer with five points on his right side, and oddly just one very long brow tine on the left. I thought I could see the bump where his main beam must have been broken off earlier in the season, or through scrapping it out with other bucks. His swollen neck gave him a Russian power-lifter look, and in completely non-whitetail fashion, they all stood still, watching me slowly sink to all fours, and bear crawl towards a better shot angle. Before I knew it, I was nearly 20 yards closer, and the deer slowly began to trot to my right. As they drifted to a stop and fanned out, I ranged the buck at 167 yards. I made the decision to take him once the doe behind him cleared out of the way. It was high noon, and I had a big deer with one crazy antler well within range. This was my ‘bird in the hand’ opportunity and with remaining daylight not on my side, I settled into a seated position, snugged the rifle and sling up tight and slipped off the safety. The crosshairs hovered behind his shoulder. Now or never.

After the shot, the buck was down in seconds. The does bolted after the shot, their namesake tails flagging over the rise and out of sight. Walking up on him, I felt deeply satisfied, as well as a twinge of remorse. I always feel a jumbled mix of emotions each time I kill an animal. Knowing this deer was coming home in a big cooler, I took the time to carefully break him down into quarters, backstraps, tenderloins and trim meat. It was a welcome change to have a flat stubble field as my work area. I seem to usually find the animal  in the most awkward or steep spots, usually lodged between two trees. Time to get to work.

An hour of lifting, cutting and bagging left me with a tidy pile of gamebags, one cleaned up set of antlers (I was right — his left beam had broken off earlier in the season, and now was a smoothed over stump) and a laughable ‘pack out’ in front of me. This was not the “there I was, five miles deep, fighting off grizzlies in a downpour as the 100 pounds of boned out elk pulled me down at every step” kind of backcountry pack out. I was frankly pretty pleased with the situation, and enjoyed the trip out. Heavy, cumbersome, but short. Once loaded up in the truck I peeled off sweaty layers, chugged the rest of my water and headed for the house. My season was officially over, with a day to spare.

There it is. My “sidecountry” hunt was in the bag.





Home Is Where You Carry It

There is a lot of interest in the concept of home is where you “park it” with regards to vans, campers, etc. and the idea of being mobile and wherever you find yourself at the end of a day road-tripping or traveling, you put the rig in park, and you are, effectively, “home”.

For backcountry hunters, this concept is more personal, as we typically carry our “home” on our backs; this may be tents, tarps or bivis, but the shelter and assorted gear we carry had to arrive via our own horsepower, some serious effort, and all of it stowed away in our backpacks. I for one, put considerable thought into what I will carry based on the season, weather and conditions, but regardless of what I am carrying, and where I will eventually stop for the day and call a flat spot in the timber or near a ridge “home”, my backpack is one of the most critical pieces of gear I own. It stores my food, water and warm layers. It keeps all of it clean and dry, and if everything goes right, it will help me carry out an elk or deer, the heavy quarters and rack loaded securely in my pack for the long haul out.

After the season has come to a close, and I clean and organize the gear used and abused, take stock of what needs to be fixed or replaced, I always make sure the pack gets a good dose of scrutiny; that thing needs to be clean and dry, and ready to roll for next season. It is interesting how I can look at it and recall certain hunts because of a specific blood stain or bit of pine sap or smudges of charred timber from a decade old burn. I put my pack through a fair bit of abuse, and whenever I pull it out for a scouting day or training with some sandbags, it gets my excited for the excursions ahead. I know that thing will be with me every step of the way, as important as my binoculars or bow, boots or rain gear. The pack evokes travel, effort and adventure. It is safety and efficiency, and a way for me to be prepared and fully mobile. At the end of the day, it is just a pack. And that pack has allowed me to experience some amazing country, soul-crushing loads and adventures.

2013 whitetail buck-Pack Out


Keeping Conservation Relevant in a Changing World – TRCP

Here is a great article on the need to “maintain hunting, angling, and outdoor recreation in a rapidly changing America”, as per TRCP’s CEO, Whit Fosburgh.

Several stats from the article:
According to a 2011 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), more than 37 million U.S. residents age 16 and older participated in hunting and/or fishing. Almost 12 million children from ages 6 to 15 also hunted and/or fished, making the overall number of hunters and anglers about 49 million. Collectively, sportsmen and women spent almost $90 billion to pursue those passions.

As a lifelong hunter and angler, we rely on solid, conservation-minded individuals to continue to fight the good fight when it comes to ensuring wild, public lands and waters are enjoyed and accessible for years to come. My five year old son is a perfect example of the next generation who will grow up in an area (we live in Bozeman, Montana) where the outdoors is literally out our backdoor – mountains and rivers, trails and paths and wide open wildness – require only a 10-minute drive to dive into. I cannot wait for the day when he joins me on his first hunt, or studies a rising trout with intent; but, all of it hinges on those opportunities and wide open spaces being there for him, and countless others, to enjoy and cherish.


Make Your Dinner (You Killed It)

steak au poivre

There is no shortage of articles, commentary and opinions around the whole “field to plate” movement, and knowing where your food comes from. While at times it can be tiredly viewed as the domain only of hipsters shopping at a Co-Op who drive bio-diesel vans and churn their own butter, it is frankly, the right way to go about viewing food. I for one am a big proponent of it, primarily because I thoroughly enjoy the entire process of hunting, from scouting to training, practicing to the actual hunt, and ultimately, if everything goes according to plan, a cleanly killed big game animal on the ground. Then, the secondary phase of what I consider to be a three-part process begins — getting the animal broken down into manageable cargo, off the mountain and into a freezer, pronto.

Troves of content has been written about how to field dress, quarter, de-bone, trim, gut and skin every kind of animal that walks, flies or swims, and I doubt I will pass along any earth-shattering bits of knowledge. I am a competent “field butcher”, and frankly, enjoy the very visceral, real act of handling game once down, and know that as I work to cut away hide, sinew and fat, the recognizable shapes and forms begin to appear: loins, steaks, chops and roasts. Last fall, I helped haul a few hundred pounds of elk off the mountain as well as an antelope of my own, both of which reside in a chest freezer in my garage. The prime cuts are rapidly disappearing, frequently taking center stage during dinner at my home. I understand that not everyone has the ability, desire nor means to go out and spend days in the mountains and kill an elk or stalk within bow range of a bedded antelope, but each of us can play a small role in gathering, butchering, creating or growing some component of their dinner.

breadMy most recent “Aha”moment was trying my hand at baking bread. I wanted to keep it simple, but hopefully create something worthy of accompanying an elk roast or antelope tenderloin. What I found was a straightforward recipe for Dutch oven bread, that takes very little time and ingredients to make. I am still working on a few details, as the two loaves I have made did not turn out quite as airy and chewy as I would like, but it is pretty damn tasty. Paired with wild game steak au poivre, grilled vegetables and a big red wine, and you have a fine dinner. Here is the recipe:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon Red Star active dry yeast
  • 1½ cups warm water (about 110 to 115 degrees F)
  1. In a large bowl, whisk flour, salt and yeast until well mixed. Pour in warm water and use a wooden spoon to stir until a shaggy dough forms. The mixture will be wet and very sticky to the touch.
  2. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place 8 to 18 hours until dough rises, bubbles and flattens on top.
  3. Heat oven to 450 degrees F. Once oven is preheated, place a 6-quart Dutch oven (with cover) in oven 30 minutes before baking.
  4. Punch down dough. Generously flour a sheet of parchment paper; transfer dough to parchment and, with floured hands, quickly shape into a ball. Place dough on parchment paper and sprinkle top lightly with flour. Top with a sheet of plastic wrap and let rest 30 minutes.
  5. Remove Dutch oven from oven. Uncover dough and carefully transfer to Dutch oven, with or without parchment paper beneath (if bottom of Dutch oven is not coated with enamel, keep parchment paper beneath dough). Cover Dutch oven and return to oven.
  6. Bake bread 45 minutes covered, then another 10 to 15 minutes uncovered until dough is baked through and golden brown on top. Cool slightly before slicing.

And last but not least, the steak au poivre recipe. I have found antelope loin to be the best meat for this dish, but elk, deer, buffalo or moose would work also.

Antelope Steak Au Poivre (serves 2, double for larger groups)

  • 1 lb. of antelope loin (backstrap) cut into 1″ thick steaks
  • 1 tsp. each black, green and white peppercorns
  • Heavy tablespoon butter
  • Splash of olive oil
  • 1 ½ oz. brandy (good bourbon works too)
  • 2 tsp. red currant jelly
  • 1 ½ tablespoon heavy cream
  • Salt

To prepare, first roughly grind the peppercorns and spread them out on a plate. Press the steaks on both sides into the pepper so they are evenly coated, but not a thick crust. Too much creates an overwhelming pepper taste. Shoot for a random sprinkling.
Break out your biggest, most well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Melt the butter and the oil, bringing it up to medium-high heat. Fry the steaks for about 1 ½ minutes each side for medium rare, and season with a bit of salt. Right before they are done, pour in the brandy and either use a match or the flame from a gas range to flambé the steaks (watch your eyebrows during this part.) When the flames die down, move the steaks to a warm plate and cover with foil while you work on the sauce.

Scrape loose all of the browned bits in the pan and then add the red currant jelly. When the jelly has melted and the liquid reduces down to the consistency of syrup, add in the heavy cream. Stir and allow it all to reduce a bit more, and remove from heat. Place the steaks on a plate and pour the sauce directly from the skillet onto the steaks. Mashed potatoes go exceptionally well with this dish and a good red wine.

There you go. Two recipes to make and enjoy prior to the hunting season, which will just make you even more eager to get outside come fall. Raise a glass to good eating, successful hunting and full freezers.

2015 speed goatNE MT Mule Deer 2015



職人 Shokunin

I recently came across the Japanese word Shokunin in an article. Further digging uncovered how it is also understood as the spirit of Shokunin. It means craftsmanship, however it is much more than that; one of the essential components of it is to make something for the joy of making it, and to do it carefully, beautifully, and to the best of your ability.

I have pondered this concise, succinct mindset and “spirit” of how things are done, and done well, with examination and purpose. While perhaps a bit of a stretch, I think this idea has a place in hunting, or perhaps a different way we approach the hunt.

An obvious place for Shokunin is practice. Whether at the range with a bow or on the bench with rifle in hand, the work that goes into practice requires care, examination and frankly, spirit. Some may scoff at that, but when I finally get in the groove with my bow, and have attained that perfect level of focus and awareness, it literally feels like I cannot miss the bullseye. The concentration, the drawing of the bow and that anticipation of finding the target and settling the pin on it is a very real thing. Breathe. Focus. Relax your bow hand. Squeeze the trigger. The opposite is also very true – when I rush the shot, or am distracted and scattered, I am not working in the spirit of Shokunin. Frustration builds and a cascade of micro-errors occur, compounding with each shot, and the result is poor shooting. Perfect practice makes perfect…

The other area that for me resonates loudly is after the shot on a successful hunt. The process of “field dressing” (I have always found that phrase odd) is something that requires a high level of mastery and discipline and attention to detail. I recall one of my first solo hunts, staring down at a large whitetail buck in the snow. With the sun fading fast, I had to get to work and quickly get this animal broken down and off the mountain. The challenge with this is you are not in a kitchen, you don’t have good lighting or a set of knives and steels at your disposal. It is usually cold, messy work with poor light, and a very unruly load rolling around on a slippery or steep slope. When all of that is factored in, I am always very impressed to see hunters deftly turn that animal into clean portions, bagged and ready for the pack out.

I sincerely enjoy this process, and gain valuable bits of knowledge each time I tag an animal and break out the knife and game bags. The long, linear cuts required to free the backstraps or the more straightforward actions of butchery to de-bone a large hind quarter all demand focus and skill, detail and strength. Hoisting an 80-pound rear quarter from an elk is hard work, no matter who you are. Along with clean technique, a hunter must work with speed in mind; heat, predators or the dread of a storm looming keeps the clock ticking. But with speed one must maintain their focus – it is not a time to hack and slash, cutting away anything that looks like meat, and stuffing it into gamebags like harried bank robbers on a heist.

The next step, and one that perfectly aligns with Shokunin is when the heavy packs are shrugged off at the trailhead and the large chunks and loins are turned into those recognizable and delectable cuts – roasts, steaks of all kinds, burger. My favorite ritual is prepping the backstraps of an elk, and removing every bit of silverskin and fat or gristle. What is left is a deep ruby-red cylinder of meat, one that takes the blade easily, with thick medallions an inch or more thick falling away. With four to a pack and wrapped tightly in plastic and butcher’s paper, they stack like gold bricks in the freezer. I always save one medallion to prepare after I am finished, washing up cutting boards and knives, putting away the tools of the trade. A dollop of butter in a cast-iron skillet bubbles and heats through, shimmering from the flame. A bit of sea salt, pepper and a minute each side delivers a piece of meat unlike anything that could ever come from a feed lot or farm – it is tender, earthy and so flavorful. Some will say “gamy” and I call BS on that. It tastes like an elk. It tastes wild and familiar at the same time. It is something that must be experienced to truly enjoy. And to get to that experience it can be broken down into  these steps, hopefully aligning as best as I can with Shokunin:
– Perfect Practice
– Perfect Shot
– Skillfully Quartering and De-Boning
– Thoughtful Prep at Home
– Cooking with Care and Passion

“For the joy of making it, and to do it carefully, beautifully, and to the best of your ability.”

That is the goal.




Quotes to Ponder…A Few More

“The hunter is the alert man. But this itself—life as complete alertness—is the attitude in which the animal exists in the jungle.”
– Jose Ortega y Gasset
“When you are fed up with the troublesome present, take your gun, whistle for your dog, and go out to the mountain.”  – Jose Ortega y Gasset

The Right Place, The Right Time

Swinging my leg over the endless downed logs that crossed our path at every turn had quickly become a cruel joke. It was midnight, maybe later, maybe earlier. I was too exhausted to care or be sure. The 85 pound backpack loaded with fresh elk meat tried to pull me over with every misstep, and my world was limited to the shallow cone of pale light cast from my headlamp — blown-down timber, branches, stars and endless darkness beyond. We were still two hours from the vehicle. I cinched the waist belt down hard and staggered on.

Rewinding the clock roughly 36 hours earlier found Josh and I hiking in to a spot on the map, our destination a flat spot for camp where we would hunt elk and deer for the next few days. Several hours later found us pounding in the last pegs on the shelter, hanging the bear bag and organizing our gear for the early morning start. As darkness settled in around us and we dug into our freeze dried dinners, a single rising bugle broke the silence not 200 yards away. Along with the two diminutive owls that kept us company from the upper branches of a pine tree, we took the lone bugle so close to camp as a good omen. Opening day could not come soon enough.

My good friend and hunting partner Josh had rolled a lucky 7 on this hunt, and drawn a bull tag for archery or rifle season. I was still able to hunt elk but limited to a cow only, which according to the biologists were numerous. Josh had already enjoyed success in the prior week during the Idaho opener, taking a nice healthy cow elk at 42 yards with his bow. With a head-start on filling the freezer, Josh was understandably going to be selective and hold out for a very good bull.

The opening day weather prediction was for rain, cooler temps and fog. Thankfully the rain never showed up in full force, but the fog settled in like wet smoke — we could barely see 50 yards, and everything beyond was like looking through gauze. The day started as slow as the fog moving from one canyon to the next, with no bugles to be heard or elk spotted. Setting up and cow calling produced zero results, and the entire mountainside was eerily quiet considering the massive amount of sign surrounding us; it was like showing up an hour after the party had ended. We knew the elk had been there, but they were ghosts now.

We scanned maps and the GPS seeking out areas that would hold elk, all the while very aware of the fact that while we had brought in more water with us than usual, our searches for seeps and small springs in likely areas had come up  bone dry. Only damp, mossy bottoms and the white-washed stones of once running streams were all that remained. We might run out of water before we ran out of hunting days. The fact of it weighed on us, and that we may slog back out to the truck to restock on water, burning our hunt time rapidly. Such are the risks when hunting a new area for the first time, with only limited scouting opportunities.

Checking the map one last time, we turned our attention from the brushy creek bottoms to the steep hill in front of us, where we would climb up and top out on a long, wide ridgeline, covered with elk sign. Rubs and droppings were numerous. The elk themselves, were mysteriously not. Josh and I still-hunted our way through the timber, glassing as we went. Settling in to the fact that we may end this day, and frankly, the entire hunt without seeing an elk, I began to hike more than hunt. And as  happens so quickly, the hunt went from dejection to opportunity in the blink of an eye.

At the moment the arrow made contact, the massive bull exploded away, with beating hooves and breaking brush left in his wake. Josh’s face said it all — he couldn’t believe what had happened, and it happened in an instant…

Not a minute prior as we were slowly walking through the timber, a tall, heavy rack appeared just over the curve of the hillside to the west. The swaggering motion told me the bull was walking, unhurried, directly parallel to our own path, just out of sight. His travel would put him within striking distance of Josh in the next 10 seconds. I watched as Josh knocked an arrow, slowly gained a few critical yards closer and drew his bow, waiting for an opening. The bull continued on his path, unaware. At 40 yards, the bull eased into a small gap between several trees, hesitating at Josh’s cow call. With my eyes glued to the bull, I heard the release of the bow and the unmistakable thwack as the arrow found its mark.


The blood trailing ended up being a bit nerve-wracking, with long gaps of little or no blood, but in the end, a large tan shape emerged through the timber, putting our fears to rest. Walking up on the bull, his body size and rack did nothing but grow. In a word, he was massive. Easily the largest bull Josh had taken, and one of the biggest bulls either of us had seen up close, it was a once in a lifetime hunting experience and riding ‘co-pilot’ on the hunt, I was glad to have seen it firsthand.

All of the day’s frustrations, concerns and hopes culminated in a minute-long opportunity that could have so easily been missed. We could have taken longer to get to the top, or stopped to tie a bootlace or grab a quick bite to eat, the moment vanishing along with the massive bull into the timber. I have always been a believer that hunting is as much about luck as it is about skill, and today cemented that belief.

With photos out of the way, Josh and I began working on breaking the bull down into manageable loads. Nothing about handling this bull was going to be easy, and it took both of us pushing and pulling to get him into position on the steep hillside so we could carve out backstraps and remove quarters, his enormity pinned against a cluster of small, spindly pine trees. Darkness fell quickly, and with everything hung in the trees, we slowly headed out with the first of several heavy loads, exhausted. The hike out was a blur for me, and by the end, I was operating solely on auto-pilot putting one boot in front of the other, navigating by GPS, compass and the stars to the truck. As all backcountry elk hunters can attest to, nothing prepares you fully for that kind of fatigue, where you are worn down to your core. Shrugging off the pack on the tailgate, I looked at my watch — 2:20am. From the time the arrow hit until now, nearly 12 hours.

Even though I didn’t have a bull tag or a shot opportunity at a cow, it was still a very rewarding hunt; what started out as a 4-day adventure with high hopes ended up being one of  the longest, hardest “day hunts” either of us had endured, with a once in a lifetime bull at the end of it all.

JK 2015 Bull