Comparing Montana's big game species.
Here in Montana, majestic ungulates occupy our imaginations—not to mention our freezers—year-round. We scour the hillsides for them while hiking, dodge them on the roads, and sometimes just stop and stare as a herd moves across the land. Hunters take it a step further, fantasizing about the hunt, the kill, the quartering, the cooking, and—perhaps best of all—the amazing wild country in which these animals live. Come fall, those hunters’ dreams become reality. But what species reigns supreme? Of the two most commonly hunted—deer and elk—which is the worthier? Let’s find out.
Rugged mountains, picturesque alpine meadows, endless forests—this is the wild and beautiful domain of the wapiti. But this selfsame high country holds mule deer, and the river-bottoms below it teem with whitetail. In the other two-thirds of Montana, among the coulees and eroded draws of the open prairie, a hunter can stalk to his heart’s delight and take home as many deer as he has tags. Timeless vistas extend in all directions, harkening to the days of Charlie Russell and Teddy “the Bear” Roosevelt. We’ll take the entirety of Montana over a single piece.
With a shrill cry, half-ton frame, and massive rack—we’re talking about bull elk here, not your mother-in-law—nothing else approaches the intensity of the elk-hunting experience. But creeping ninja-like through a cottonwood forest in search of whitetail, scanning for the slightest movement: a tail-twitch here, an ear-flick there—that’s pretty cool, too. So is sitting on a bluff with a friend or family member, scanning distant hillsides for mule deer, plotting your approach over cowboy coffee and dutch-oven biscuits. To each his own.
There’s something undeniably special about hearing the calls of a sexed-up deer or elk. But the bleats, grunts, and groans of a rutting deer sound like flatulence compared to the haunting bugle of a bull elk. It’s Weird Al vs. Metallica.
No, not that rack, you perv, but the rack of antlers that will adorn your living room, man cave, or fencepost. A big muley rack is impressive indeed, and if you’re using antlers to decorate your yard or make home-wares, the smaller, rounder whitetail racks are the way to go. Which makes sense, as it’s not the size of the rack, it’s how you use it. But the massive expanse of a six-point bull’s antlers—this indelible icon of Montana touches something primal and impresses all who behold it.
When properly handled, from field to table, deer and elk meat is clean, lean, and delicious. It’s also just as healthy and eco-friendly as any overpriced free-range, organic, all-natural, cellophane-wrapped hunk of beef you’d pick up, with a side of pretense, at the Co-op. Plus, you get the satisfaction of securing your own sustenance, binding you to the land and to the ancient dynamic of predator and prey. But mule-deer meat is unforgiving, with the slightest mistake leading to a gamey taste that can turn a person off forever. Elk meat, on the other hand, has converted more vegetarians than bacon. A cabernet-colored elk backstrap the size of your arm grilled over an open fire? Nothing compares. Nothing at all.
“Git yer elk?” may be the most common phrase uttered in western Montana between Labor Day and Christmas—assent means a full freezer and a proud, happy hunter, and is usually followed by an animated narration of the chase. But a kid’s first deer hunt, walking the woods with Dad (or Mom, of course), resting his rifle on a log and squeezing off that shaky first shot—that’s pretty special, too. Either way, these moments are passed down through the generations, making for unique and timeless Montana traditions. Youth or adult, Montana native or East Coast transplant; it’s the experience, not the species, that counts.
Elk-hunting stories are the stuff of legend: days-long stalks through huge mountains; that wily bull disappearing like a ghost; grizzlies circling your kill in the twilight; the backbreaking effort of hauling the meat out, quarter by quarter. But following a huge and spooky Missouri Breaks muley for hours through a labyrinth of rough draws, anticipating where he’ll come broadside, and taking the long shot—that’s pretty darn exciting, too. Hunting is fun, and fun to tell others about, no matter what.
As expected, the mighty wapiti takes the title. It seems that size does matter after all.