Harvest in Hyalite
Refining the focus of the spotting scope, my jaw drops. The largest mountain goat I’ve ever seen is standing on the same damn cliff as the previous morning. After half an hour of making mental notes of his position in the uninviting winter landscape, I tighten my gators, chug some water, and take a few slow, deep breaths of painfully cold air before I leave the comfort of the valley floor.
I take it slow, slipping through the timber, a total predator. In an hour and a half, I’m 500 yards below the herd. They’re oblivious to my ambush. 400 yards. I poke out into a clearing to confirm their presence and quickly retreat into the frozen maze of trees. 200 yards. It’s time for my final approach. With only a wide-open scree field separating us, I go for it.
It was a situation I’d dreamed of for years. After scoring one of only 14 mountain goat tags for the entire Gallatin Range, I’d trained, scouted, and done my homework for months. After the season opened, I’d hiked countless miles, endured bracing winds, faced brutal snowstorms, and shivered all night in the bitter cold. But with the hunting season winding down and the tag still burning a hole in my pocket, I was getting desperate.
I got in touch with Karen Loveless, a Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist who conducts the summer counts of local big-game populations from her airplane. As we discussed my closing window of opportunity, one word from Karen changed my hunting season: “Hyalite.” Huh. I’d always thought that to bag a mountain goat, one had to go deep or go home—which is why I’d suffered so many high-country setbacks up to this point. But Hyalite offered a plowed road into the heart of the Gallatin Range. There was no way it could be that easy. Or could it?
As the sun rose over Hyalite Reservoir on November 24, I glassed the surrounding snow-covered peaks in search of a white animal. After an hour of nothing, I rounded the reservoir and headed toward Hyalite Creek. A half-mile later, just before reaching the trailhead, I looked east. Fifteen-hundred feet above and less than a mile away, I spotted a group of goats with my naked eye—the first I’d seen in almost a month. I set up my spotting scope and found four nannies and one massive, cream-colored beast of a billy—the likes of which I’d only seen on the covers of hunting magazines.
I grabbed my pack and charged up the steep slope. The snow was deep and I used every tree on the hillside to pull myself up. It began to snow. The wind was deafening and I was losing my bearings. As a total whiteout engulfed me, I knew it was over. I decided to turn back, regroup, and try again the next day.
Now I’m staring at the same massive billy, across the same scree field as the day before. I keep moving. The goats climb higher and peek their heads over the edge of a cliff. Eighty yards. My stalk is over. I flop down and rest the rifle on my pack. From left to right, I call them off: “Yearling… nanny… BOSS.” With a straight-on view of his vitals, I aim for the center of his chest. I take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and squeeze the trigger so softly that the gun blast comes as a surprise. The unmistakable thud of lead embedding itself deep into tissue resonates in my ears as the billy’s front legs rear up into the air.
Months of mountain climbing, winter camping, and backpacking through the snow have just paid off in a place I was too headstrong to even consider hunting. Running my fingers through the goat’s thick winter coat is an amazing feeling. I’ve succeeded, after much adversity and against all odds: 3% draw rate on the tag, hunting in a heavily-used recreational area just a few miles from town, and spotting a legal animal from my car. A quick measurement reveals horns with bases of 4 7/8 inches and lengths of 9 3/4 inches, making his total score 45 inches—a trophy goat in anyone’s book.
Bringing a mountain goat home in one piece is almost unheard of—but due to the accommodating terrain, a friend’s help, and a brutal six hours of effort, my Subaru has a whole new look. And I couldn’t be any happier about it, and I have a new reason to be thankful on Thanksgiving.
Look for a life-sized mount of Peter’s Hyalite mountain goat at the Stone Glacier shop in Bozeman.