Elk Hunting, Pronghorn-Style

Snaking behind sage, worming through foot-high grass, it was the only way to get close enough for a shot.

A herd from afar. (Photo by Ron Spomer)

 

I was going to title this “Poppleton Topples a Bull,” which is true because he did, but it’s even more true because Chad “Zee Arteest” Poppleton is the kind of eager, self-deprecating hunter/artist confident enough to share his joy openly, even if that entails getting a little silly with this title.

“I like to goof around, so don’t take me too seriously,” he says. But the wildlife art world does take him seriously. So does his family and so should the elk he hunts. This big, light-hearted man might act silly while enjoying his freedom in the wilds, but once he gets behind an easel or a rifle, he’s no joke.

“Where ya at?” It’s Poppleton, as yet still just a voice on the phone, a voice I’ve been hearing off and on for a year. I’ve met Poppleton’s art, but never the man. I’m about to. We’re rendezvousing at the Sun Ranch along the upper Madison River in south-central Montana to hunt whitetails and elk.

“Idaho Falls,” I said. “Supermarket. Do we need meat or are you going to shoot the first venison you see so we can eat tenderloins?”

“Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. Do you cook? I’ve got lots of stuff. You don’t need to bring much. Get some orange juice if you think of it. You got any eggs? We can run into Ennis if we have to. You’re still three hours out. What time do you think you’ll get here?”

“Uh . . . in three hours?”

“As you’re coming down the highway watch for the mile markers and don’t go past mile …”

Fortunately phones have limited battery life. I recharged mine on the drive over the Continental Divide and turned it on again at the ranch gate. It seemed Chad was still talking.

“Just come up past the first house, then stay to the right. Always to the right. Watch for deer and elk on the road. Drive about three miles. Did you get any meat? I forgot I brought some sausages. Go just past the barn and you’ll see the cabin. It’s a log cabin on the west side of the road. Geez, I saw a big moose there this morning. Don’t drive to the big house farther up. If you see that you’ve gone too far … Hold on, there’s somebody at the door. Oh. It’s you. Never mind.”

Chad Poppleton turned out to be a big teddy bear of a cowboy. I suspect many folks would find him to be an enigma wrapped up in a cowboy hat covering the unbridled enthusiasm of a 6th grader. The man is a real mess of inconsistencies: loving husband (based on the unabashed phone calls he made to his wife,) doting daddy (based on similar phone calls to his children,) wildlife killer, sensitive wildlife artist, macho horse-wrangler, and — best known to the world at large — inspiring interpreter of nature’s visual and spiritual mysteries.

“This place is covered up in elk,” Poppleton practically giggled as we carried my luggage into the cabin. “We might have trouble finding whitetails, but there’s elk everywhere. You don’t mind if Clark comes with us, do you?”

Clark Adkerson was the 40-something ramrod of the ranch we were hunting, another fresh face and another pleasant, polite, easy-going, energetic, fun-loving kid. He and his even fresher faced girlfriend, Yanera, made us feel instantly at ease as they welcomed us to their slice of paradise.

“You guys need anything? Just come up to the house. Anytime, day or night. Don’t hesitate …”

That kind of welcome. It matched perfectly with the arms-wide welcome Montana herself gave us the next morning.

 

Dawn. We’re on a high sagebrush hill, binoculars in hand, sitting against our packs and a stiff north wind funneling between the Madison and Gravely Ranges.

“Those are elk?” My question was rhetorical. I knew they were elk. I just couldn’t believe I was seeing them. We agreed on 500, but the herd might have contained 400 or 600. It hardly mattered. We were witnessing a modern phenomenon unimaginable the last time I hunted this area in 1976. Back then, mid-season elk hid in doghair timber until snow piled deep enough to push them to the valley floor, usually in December. Here they were in early November, before snowfall, congregated by the hundreds in open sage-steppe habitat. On private land. Welcome to the new West.

Local conjecture is that newly established wolves have pushed elk off the mountains, but it’s just as likely they are nudged by human hunters working the National Forest lands. Of course, we were doing that in 1976, too, and the elk stayed high. The difference now is that hunting pressure on many valley ranches is lessened, in many cases forbidden. Cattlemen are being bought out by “hobby” ranchers who breed No Trespassing signs. Other ranches are carefully controlling access and hunting pressure to encourage large bulls to stay. Trespass fees then fetch higher bids than cattle.

The Sun Ranch appeared to be in the latter camp—fewer cattle, more elk. There was an outfitter working the north end with a couple of clients. We were four miles south with just two hunters. Elk were everywhere. We hunted cautiously. Our plan was to sneak in, bag a couple of bulls, and back out again so as not to blow the herds out of there. But the terrain was so gently rolling and open, the elk so bunched and numerous, that a successful stalk seemed unlikely.

“You suppose it was like this when the mountain men were working this country?” I asked.

“I suppose,” Clark answered, “but wouldn’t it have been more bison then?”

“Chad?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve got to paint this ’cause it’s happening now. I mean look at this! Look at the light on those mountains, the purples in those shadows, the mosaic of sage green and yellow grass. And look at all those elk!”

We did look. And we saw an opportunity.

“They’re going to be out of sight behind that hill in a few minutes,” Clark noted. If we slip down this draw and across that valley  . . . ”

Elk hunting, pronghorn-style. We hunched, we crawled, we bellied through the grass and sage, constantly alert, constantly watching for the next elk head to break the horizon. By moving slowly, like arthritic coyotes, we made gradual progress toward our herd. Several dozen cows were feeding up the hill. They were chaperoned by three good bulls, racks protruding over the knob whenever they lifted their heads.
And then we heard them—a chirping, mewing, whining feedlot of elk, elk like snow geese, elk in a swarm, a swirling cacophony of elk. Chad and I chambered rounds and eased forward, topped the hill, saw the first cows. Heads and necks. Antlers a hundred yards beyond. We needed to get closer, over the roll of ground for a clear shot. The leading edge of the herd was already running, pulling those next in line like a swarm of blackbirds.  The herd swirled and wheeled back on itself. Too bunched to risk a shot.

The next morning we came up from the bottom, pushing hard, gasping, but just missing the herd as it thundered in from the north, spooked by something. We again hunched and crawled, smelling them this time, breaking the curve of a hill, expecting to be on them, but they’d already crossed the valley.

“We can drop off the backside here, swing up that hill, and try to come in from the north. Looks like enough cover.”

As soon as we started we were stopped by an oncoming horde of elk. Another herd, another few hundred big deer pouring over the skyline like lemmings. We dropped where we stood. They were on a collision course.

Head after head popped over the horizon. Cows, calves, spikes, raghorns, and mature bulls. Several towering six-point bulls. But they never reached us. The lead cows stopped, stared, milled, began to settle. Within an hour the entire massive herd of hundreds, one after another, lay down across the valley, right on top of the ridge, right in the open.
Two hours later Poppleton and I were crawling out of a big draw, snaking behind sage, then worming behind foot-high grass. More elk spread before us than most hunters see in several long seasons. When we finally pulled out the rangefinder, it glared 105 yds to the closest elk, a spike bull contentedly ruminating. By cautious, molasses moves we shifted and focused though the grass until we’d identified the biggest bull. It wasn’t the one Poppleton wanted. Did I?

“Cows in the way,” I barely whispered directly into Chad’s ear. “I’ll wait ’till he stands.”
An hour later we were tired of waiting. We slowly sat up, figuring the sleepy animals would rise a bit befuddled, giving us several seconds to clear a shot and make it. Instead they did nothing.

“Let’s cow call,” Chad mouthed. I slowly nodded yes and got behind the scope. Ears flicked at Chad’s first mew. Heads turned at the second. Cows stood at the third. My bull rose at the fourth, 167 yards away. Two beats later the cow behind him stepped out to see what was going on. He was clear.

The first 130-grain .270 Winchester bullet took him behind the shoulder, but I’m not sure he knew it. The herd rushed forward. He went 20 yards and stopped, wobbling. Taking no chances, I held for the spine and launched my insurance round, a stout XP3 bullet designed to penetrate deeply. It did. The bull collapsed as if unplugged.
It was full dark by the time we got him hung in the barn. I’d never stood beside a hanging elk that hadn’t been quartered. The carcass towered over us.

 

The next morning, after some hard searching, we finally found a few elk, about 500 right where I’d shot mine.

“I can crawl up that same draw!” Chad said. “It’s the same stalk.”

Only it wasn’t. This time the herd bedded a quarter-mile farther north in grass so short a bull snake couldn’t have hidden in it. We crawled anyway, our packs in front until we’d clear enough of the ridge for a shot.

Poppleton had been plein air painting the previous day, but he wasn’t in a position to even see this tableau, so let me describe it as he continues his belly crawl. From prone we see a fringe of short, yellow grass in our foreground, but that falls away quickly as the ridge rolls down to the broad draw 300 yards out. The far side rolls up yellow and naked as a golf course littered with brown blotches. Those are elk. Several hundred. They splay off to the right, down the draw and out of sight.

As Poppleton and Clark crawl out of sight, the herd begins mewing, squealing, rising, and foraging. If Chad wants to shoot one, he’d better hurry …

 

For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of the March/April 2016 issue of Sporting Classics, on newsstands today! To have issues of classic content delivered directly to your home, subscribe to Sporting Classics today!

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