Chasing Elk & Mule Deer in Montana

Chasing Elk & Mule Deer in Montana

The digital readout on the truck’s dash warned 17 degrees. I struggled to grasp that number, the blue LED light needling into my eyes. It surely warred with the last sips of the black coffee fighting to bring me to life. Only a hint of the coming sun had begun to slightly smudge the complete darkness on the horizon. “Alright, let’s go,” whispered our guide, John Way, jarring me from that place early hunt mornings can take us all sometimes. It was then that we left the fogged and iced-up vehicle, stepping in time for that first kiss of wind that so often comes married to the light.

A Tale of 2 Hunts

Today we’d be climbing the mountain. And in such conditions, you dress lighter for the hike, sweat another enemy of the hunt, and surely an ally to the steep terrain and snow we’d have to trek through.

But it was so cold when I first stepped outside earlier at camp, my coffee violently protesting the air with seemingly a hiss and plume of steam. I sipped and watched it curl into the blackness, a heavy cloud cover blocking away the usual stars of the Montana sky. “Screw it, I’m wearing all the clothes.” And I chose to sweat rather than shiver at the start. Hopefully, we’d keep it moving.

Still Hunting the Silence

John led Luke Hartle, of Gun Digest, and me over the first rise away from the truck. We paralleled the mountain, this jolting, snow-capped barrier jutting out of the valley outside of Ennis. The tops of the Madison Range remained obscured, surely enveloped by the hunting Gods and some heavenly plane, as snow fell from the brushed white ceiling ever so softly. Large, light snowflakes fluttered straight down and all around. I found myself trying to see them all at times, all at once, tracking their soft, elegant descent. The wind had evaporated into a whisper; the earth now a captured, still snow globe. We set up behind some trees, waiting in the absolute silence of the morning. Yet, somehow, the weight of the snow was nearly deafening as one craned to pick up some sign of life.

It was unlike any moment I’ve ever experienced anywhere else on earth. Like a snowflake, this moment in time left a fingerprint upon me–singular and unique. For nearly an hour, we all just lived in that moment. We rarely spoke. Just three hunters who somehow, in their own way, each understood. We didn’t pull out our phones; no selfies will ever be posted. We just were. And it was perfect and beautiful.

Blood Starts Pumping

The fog burned off slowly, seemingly holding to the darkness retreating from the coming day. And in an instant, the mountain revealed herself, as did a wide swath of hunting area—a magnificent corner of the famed Jumping Horse Ranch. It was then that we spotted a small herd of bulls making the climb.

In that same instant, the snow globe seemed to break open as well. The soft snow became heavier, wetter. It suddenly angled in, crashing into our faces as we climbed and climbed to get a better vantage point. Meanwhile, five finger ridges away, the elk steadily gained ground. They covered it effortlessly, neither hurried nor encumbered.

Time to Move

As we watched them, you could see the wheels turning, a calculation forming—part science, part art—in John’s head. The art of his experience plotted their likely route. The experience in his blood and bones, the miles logged, told him the angle and time. And in short order, we set out on a grueling, up-and-down, slanting approach across the remaining three finger ridges. But we’d need to step it up to make it work.

I’m not gonna lie here. I got my ass kicked. Straight handed to me by a dude nearly 10 years older, a snow-covered mountain, the elevation and a breakneck pace. Ice crusted over my beard; my beanie wet and frozen from snow on the outside, sweat from within. Halfway up the final ridge, I felt my quads and calves burn like they haven’t in some time. So, when we finally got into place, I dropped to my butt, fumbled with a tripod repeatedly, my brain a frozen bowl of mush. And I straight up missed my window to shoot as the fourth and final bull disappeared from the clearing, moving right to left into the tree line, up the mountain. For a few hard moments, I thought being so smoked had just cost me my first shot at an elk, one of my ultimate bucket list hunts.

A Second Chance

But I got lucky. We could see their route most likely presented one more clearing. It gave me the time I needed to catch my breath. I eased the old Savage 110 into the tripod, and I worked on my breathing. I had exactly what I needed—time. And I went full Zen, ready to make the shot.

I saw the first bull break clear of the tree, then the second. My crosshairs settled on number two, and I found my aiming point, slightly walking with him through some short brush. Finally, the full clearing presented the perfect shot. I let out a breath, I squeezed… “Click.”

“What the f*$#?” John growled. He carried serious hate and discontent in his eyes. I knew his look in an instant.

For a brief nanosecond, I think I was about to throw up. I worked the bolt, saw a light strike and made my defense. Then I actually threw the round to John before I jacked in another. “I had it loaded!”

As I worked the bolt to chamber another round, John got back into his bino, “You still got a shot.”

“Yep.” Crack.

In real time, Click to Crack sizzled like electric current down a fence. It was one flowing moment, unbroken, without thought. But inside my head, the metronome slowed considerably. Every split second carried like minutes in my brain, a race to break a well-aimed shot before the last grain of sand slipped through the hourglass. Only a shot clock replaced the hourglass. And the countdown was on.

Condition White Noise

The chaos in my brain, the sheer white noise of the moment, it blocked the sound of the shot. I made no actual call, nor could I tell you about my follow-through. We all thought we heard the impact, but I was scared shitless I had hit it poorly. I honestly had no clue. It was pure madness, and I just reacted and pulled the trigger. John ranged the shot at just over 330 yards.

Though he didn’t go beyond 50 yards, it took a few panic-laced moments to find the bull. He ran off the far side of the ridge and piled up nicely in some nastiness of bush, snow and rock. We all knew this one was going to be an equally brutal pack out. But I didn’t care in the least.

It all hit me at once. The big, beautiful 5×5 represented everything I love about hunting. It started with a watercolor sky, where prairie meets mountain, in every way we outsiders imagine Montana to be. The hunt called for strategy, and then it demanded some will. Finally, it spiced the sauce up with some madness for good measure. I felt tested in every way. It felt earned. And I knew it would feed my family and me for a year, and for that, all of that, I was truly thankful.

It took the three of us an hour to drag the elk in two halves down the mountain. We pulled the beast over trees and rocks. We literally belly-crawled at times, dragging the carcass halves under the pines. Finally at the bottom, wet and shivering, I laughed to myself at the extra clothes, the layers plastered to my skin and slowly beginning to freeze. Excruciatingly exquisite this proved to be. This is what hunting, in every way, is all about.

Hunting Gods Giveth

The very next day, I stepped out of the truck and smoked the mule deer of a lifetime at about 130 yards. I killed that sucker in an instant. The guide drove me right to him, and I simply stepped out and smoked his ass. The .300 Win Mag absolutely devastated the buck. It dropped immediately, managed one courageous final flurry of movement and expired in a plume of blood trail and lung a few yards away. And it was glorious.

Now, I know that second hunt will offend some hunters. But I’ll tell you this my friends, I’d shoot that deer, the exact same way, again and again. And I don’t care at all about what anyone might have to say about it. In fact, if you’re gonna tell me you’d pass on that deer, then I probably don’t want to share a hunting camp with you anyway.

And that’s hunting. To me, great trophies nor grand slams define this sport. And sport, that’s always been not quite the right word. Hunting defines us beyond playing golf or shooting hoops. Hunting calls to us; it whispers in our ear. She searches our memories; invades our dreams. Shadows dance from the campfires of our imaginations, fueling a passion painted across muddy boots and bloody knives, tall tales and good Kentucky bourbon. And no one can paint those canvasses for you. They belong to you; they belong to us all.

Honor the Hunting Gods

So, when the hunting Gods finally bestow upon you a monster deer of a lifetime, you kill him by any legal means necessary. Because on this day, you have been chosen. Through some unknown, primal, ancient—hell, maybe even cosmic—force, whether you scouted and hunted your ridge a full lifetime or plopped down the money to pay for someone else’s ridge, it’s finally happened. Maybe you truly deserve it. I know I probably didn’t. But on this day, I knew I wasn’t going to let that mule deer walk.

Yes, I’d checked all of those fair chase/ethos boxes the day before. I’d sweat and spasmed my way up the mountain. I’d even bled a little, crashing through the timber, torn up by some unseen object, blood on my rifle before I ever touched the elk it vanquished.

And maybe I’d never have shot that mule deer had I not worked so hard on that elk. Maybe? Probably. I know I’ve spent a lifetime in ground blinds and treestands, never to kill a trophy remotely close to this one. So no, I don’t think I’d ever be so spiteful, so vain, to refuse this bounty bestowed upon me. I may not deserve these earthly spoils. But I’ll be damned at this point in my life to refuse them.


Savage Model 110 topped with an EOTech Vudu 1-10x28mm.

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to make the trip to Savage Arms to “build a rifle.” The company used to invite in writers now and then, and you would go in and crank on a few screws to get a better understanding of Savage’s build process. A cool experience to be sure—even cooler, I got to pick the build.

So, 15 years ago, I chose to build a rifle I didn’t have in the stable, to take on a hunt I wasn’t quite sure I’d ever get. Though their lineup has changed a bit since then, the rifle build pretty much replicates the Savage 110 Classic of today, chambered in .300 Win Mag. Wood and blued with a walnut stock and timeless look, it incorporates an early AccuTrigger and flat-out shoots.

It went afield only once before on a cow elk draw in Kentucky. Over five days of hunting, only two bulls were spotted, as ice storms pelted the hunting camp throughout the week. It finally drew blood for the first time in Montana, finally realizing a dream I’ve carried half of my life.

Both the elk and the mule deer fell to Remington 180-grain Core-Lokt PSP ammo. The bullet did equally devastating work, making one-shot kills on the elk at around 330 yards and the mule deer at 134 yards.

EOTech Vudu 1-10×28 FFP

For this hunt, EOTech’s John Bailey sent me the Vudu 1-10×28 FFP. And it is, without a doubt, one of the best do-it-all optics I have ever used. With all the cold weather gear, the expansive eye relief made an impact. I made shots at both 1X and around 8X, cranking up and down several times, especially on the elk. I never lost the reticle in all that chaos.

The do-it-all, versatile EOTech Vudu 1-10x28mm riflescope.

The 1-10x scope features 1/4-MOA click adjustments that proved extremely true during range sessions and zero. After the hunt, I switched this scope over to a heavy-barreled DPMS and rung steel out past 500, both dialing and utilizing the subtensions on the illuminated SR4 MOA reticle. I’ve fired a lot of rounds using the 1-10×28 at this point, and my biggest problem is deciding which gun to keep it on. The magnification range over delivers on most any need I’ll typically see in deer camp. With a true 1X and throw lever, it’s wonderfully capable on anything short- to medium-range, making it well-suited for 3-Gun, tactical rifle or even varmint shooting. It’s so good, I’m seriously contemplating getting the Vudu 5-25×50 for long-range use. For more, check out

This article originally appeared in the October-November 2023 issue of Ballistic Magazine. Get your print or digital copy or subscription at

Dual covers for Ballistic and Skillset Oct-Nov 2023.

Didn’t find what you were looking for?

Source link: by Chad Adams at