Two unwitting hunters reap the rewards of an early-morning massacre in Gallatin Canyon.
I knew nothing about hunting elk. Still don’t, except the meat that comes from the hunt is usually pretty good—and not just the backstraps, which I’ve been fortunate enough to sample a few times. I’ve eaten my share of elk roasts, elk burgers (add some pork fat, thank you very much), and most everything else elk. Just because I’m not a hunter doesn’t mean I’m ignorant of how that elk came from a sprawling ranch up Gallatin Canyon to my dinner plate. I know, because I was there. Let me tell you about it.
In an effort to protect the innocent, not that any come to mind, no real names will be given. Jim will thank me later. This whole thing is as much Jim’s fault as mine, so if anyone’s innocent, it may as well be me. Oh, the guy who actually pulled the trigger? He might not be so innocent, but Jim and I never complained because we got fed.
It all started with that phone call from Jim’s rotary phone to mine. Jim asked me if I wanted to go elk hunting. Sure, I said, I’m game for game of any sort. Jim knew I didn’t even own a gun, and if I had, I probably wouldn’t know which end to hold. But he said he needed a grunt, whatever that meant. To this day, I’m still not sure what grunting and elk hunting have in common. Not much, as far as I can tell.
Jim said he got special permission to access some special land and it should be pretty good hunting up there since it was private. Seems the landowner needed to thin the herd that particular year, so he invited some folks who knew some folks who had guns and elk tags and who might be eager to fill their chest freezers sitting mostly empty in the garage. None of that applied to me. I don’t know some folks nor do I have a gun nor an elk tag and I don’t even have a chest freezer sitting out in the garage; you can call home and ask my wife, or so says Charlie Daniels, who probably never shot an elk, either.
'I’ve never been a hunting widow and after being married to you since the Civil War, I wouldn’t mind being a hunting widow for a day; I’ve earned it.'
Jim didn’t care about my various limitations, of which there are too many to list. Come on, he said, it’ll be fun. Yeah, go on, said my wife, it’ll be fun and just because you don’t have a gun or an elk tag, that shouldn’t keep you home. Then she added, I’ve never been a hunting widow and after being married to you since the Civil War, I wouldn’t mind being a hunting widow for a day; I’ve earned it.
Jim said he’d come over at around five in the morning on the upcoming Saturday. Did he know it was still dark at 5am in November? He said he knew that, but I should wear something orange anyway. Orange? Like what? I didn’t have any orange clothes. Oh, all right, Jim sighed, I’ll rummage around for a vest and a hat for you to wear. Jim didn’t want to take the hunting-widow stuff literally, no matter how bad things were between me and my wife.
So off we went, south on Hwy. 191 past Gallatin Gateway and headed toward Big Sky. Of course, we turned off long before Big Sky. There’s a Forest Service road that heads up into the Spanish Peaks that I’m familiar with, only Jim and I went straight where the main road crossed the creek. I’d never gone straight at this particular junction before, but Jim just said, “Get out and open that gate.” So I did, thinking that’s what grunts do.
He seemed pretty confident that what we were doing was kosher. He didn’t actually know the landowner, but like a lot of elk hunters, Jim knew someone who knew someone and on this particular Saturday, that someone sure had a lot of pals headed in the same direction up the same dirt road past the same No Trespassing sign.
See, despite the darkness, Jim and I knew we weren’t the only ones headed up this lonely road because there were truck headlights shining bright all over the place. I was beginning to realize that my first elk-hunting expedition was not going to involve solitude.
When I heard her whisper, Shhh, they’re coming, I sorta got the willies, not really sure if she was real or not and it being awfully quiet otherwise and the lack of daylight making it a little hard to see and the hills filled with gun-toting Americans.
We meandered up this dusty road seeing a whole lot of darkness interspersed by headlights here and there. Finally we came around a bend as dawn was breaking and there was a crowd of trucks and folks milling about all loaded for bear. Jim had his window down and asked this woman standing ghost-like on the side of the road what was going on. She gave us this odd look and said, Shhh, they’re coming. That’s all she said, and then she drifted back into the semi-darkness, still holding her rifle with both hands.
If it had been the 2020s, I might have been a little more spooked, since these days you never know about the intentions of gun-owners. But at the time, Americans were mostly shooting their guns at anything other than people—No Trespassing or Road Narrows signs, Budweiser beer cans, and, as it turns out, large ungulates that call Montana home.
Nonetheless, when I heard her whisper, Shhh, they’re coming, I sorta got the willies, not really sure if she was real or not and it being awfully quiet otherwise and the lack of daylight making it a little hard to see and the hills filled with gun-toting Americans.
So we got out of Jim’s truck and I hastily put on Jim’s hand-me-down orange outfit. Not really knowing where else to go, we headed up the steep cut that was created when the road was put in. We’d just crested that rise of about 200 feet when suddenly: BLAM, BLAM, BLAM-BLAM. An endless barrage of gunshots came out of the gloaming. Then it all stopped and the yelling and cursing commenced. Jim and I just sort of stood there, taking it all in. That’s when someone came running up to us and asked if we got one. Jim was still cradling his gun and we hadn’t seen anything anyway, having arrived just a hair too late for the carnage that now appeared before us as dawn became day. There were a whole bunch of dead elk, cows and bulls.
The fellow didn’t mind shooting before the sun came up over the far rise, but by golly, he wasn’t going to claim two animals—he had his ethics, he did.
The fellow who came running up was relieved to know that Jim hadn’t even released the safety, much less pulled the trigger. It turned out this guy happened to shoot two elk. Imagine that, with all that blasting away in the semi darkness, he brought down two. Who knows how many other folks were in the same boat. The fellow didn’t mind shooting before the sun came up over the far rise, but by golly, he wasn’t going to claim two animals—he had his ethics, he did. So he happily offered one to us. I looked at Jim and he looked at me with a look that said, Yeah, this is how you hunt elk. So we gutted the cow right then and there before proceeding to let gravity do its thing as we dragged the carcass down that cut and back to Jim’s truck, all of a couple hundred feet. Then we tossed it onto the utility trailer that we’d towed all the way up there. Jim had let on at one point in our drive out of town an hour earlier that he’d hoped that trailer was big enough for one of those big elks we were going to haul home. That small cow sure made that trailer look big, but we didn’t care. We just turned around and headed home. Never broke a sweat, no grunting needed.
So a handful of hours after leaving for the mountains on my maiden elk hunt, there I was walking back through the front door. My wife was less than thrilled. What are you doing here? she demanded. You were supposed to be gone all day and I was going to really enjoy a full day of being a hunting widow. Not this time, I informed her.
A few weeks later, Jim got a bunch of elk packages from the processor over the hill, the one he goes to all the time. He graciously handed over some meat to me, and luckily it all fit in the freezer that’s part of the refrigerator in the kitchen, so I didn’t need to rush out and buy a chest freezer and then find a remote place in the garage to shove it.
I haven’t been elk hunting since, and Jim’s smart enough to know how to get his elk without pulling his trigger and without needing any assistance hauling it out, so he hasn’t asked a grunt like me back. If he did, I wouldn’t expect the results to be any different now that I’m a veteran elk hunter. One who’s having backstraps for dinner and grunting with pleasure.