You Can't Eat the Antlers

montana, meat hunting, bozeman, elk, deer, big game

Many hunters aim for a big rack, but in the end, it's the meat that matters.

I’ve sometimes wondered how many budding Bozeman relationships hit a significant speed bump when this occurs: the guy—and it’s usually the guy—proudly proclaims, “There’s a lot more where this came from...” to his gal, who for the first time gets a whiff of the gamey odor of steak from an old mule deer frying on the stove.

Now, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t pulled the trigger based on the size of the rack in the crosshairs, but not all that often and definitely not in a while. I don’t begrudge those who do, but I’m a meat hunter. My goal is to put something delicious on the table, not something impressive on my wall.

I like the taste of cows, calves, and does. As a politically incorrect hunting buddy says, “Women and children first!” And while yes, they are smaller than bulls and bucks, and their mounted heads will probably never grace a Montana bar, I’m after quality, not quantity.

montana, bozeman, deer, hunting, meat, game

Now, if I had a big family and this was our main source of meat, it might be a different story. But I also hunt birds and waterfowl, and even a few rabbits. And I like to support my ranching friends who raise grass-fed cattle by purchasing some of their beef. I’m not going to starve if the only thing I kill is a pronghorn doe. In fact, I’d be thrilled. And I’ll even be able to serve friends with persnickety taste buds something that they’ll savor.

You’d never know from watching hunting shows on cable TV that I’m not the only hunter like this. And last time I checked, there weren’t any hunting magazines on the coffee table at Jiffy Lube featuring a cover photo of a burly guy crouched next to an elk calf.

But I’m not the only hunter like this. For many years, my hunting crew and I have embarked on our annual elk hunt with the primary goal of filling freezers with all, or a portion, of a cow or a calf. Occasionally, someone shoots a spike. But very seldom does anyone kill anything that might be described as a trophy. One of these guys, Bozemanite Ken Barrett, hosted a hunting show called Life in the Open. My favorite episode—partially because I was in it, but mainly because it reflected my perspective on hunting—featured one of these meat-hunting expeditions. It was one of the most-watched of all of his programs—and not because of my fabulous 38-second cameo.

We are blessed with an abundance of game—thus, all the out-of-state license plates during hunting season.

I’d guess that the outdoor-equipment industry and taxidermists would rather I not tout this penchant for antlerless game. But hey, you can still spend plenty of money buying plenty of hunting equipment, even if you aren’t trying to bag the biggest thing in the forest. You still need a reliable weapon, ammo, and other gear, as well as a rig that can get you out there and get your animal back home (though truth be told, more than once I have dragged a fat doe into the back seat of my Rav 4). You will most likely also need gas, shelter, and food. And unless you process your own meat, your local butcher also gets some business from your hunts. In other words, the hunting economy will not crash and burn if you shoot a cow or a doe.

butchering, elk quarter, montana, hunting, big game

But, you say, stalking and killing a big bull elk or monster buck is so exciting! Sure, I get that. But for me, perhaps because I’m also a bird hunter, size does not equate to excitement. And stalking a wily female whitetail, or an ultra-alert pronghorn doe, is no less challenging than chasing big bucks. In fact, they are often far more wary than a silly male in rut that has only one thing on his mind.

The past few autumns I’ve had the privilege of hunting a rural ranch that only allows a limited number of people to kill whitetail does. Every year they are surprised that I’m willing to use my A-tag for this purpose. Now you must be thinking, hunting whitetails on a private ranch? Boring...

But it’s consistently provided great hunts. I even get skunked from time to time. Hunting in the thick willows, I’ve been privy to natural dramas that only occur when wild creatures are unaware of anyone watching. Other times, I’ve painstakingly crept through riparian tangles or open sagebrush, only to catch the lightning-flash of a deer tail as it disappeared into the brush or over the next hill. There’s no lack of excitement. While the bucks often stand broadside for a bit, the does are gone in a heartbeat.

When I’ve been successful, admittedly, it’s not as if I’ve had to make multiple trips off-trail in the backcountry with a quartered animal on a pack frame. But I hunt this walk-in only ranch by myself. And when I have harvested a deer, it has consistently required a long pull back to my rig. It’s real hunting, and real wild game, and real good eating.

"It’s all about balance and following the science rather than emotion or dogma, and having flexible options available for managing populations creatively when necessary," one biologist says.

I know there are some who say that we should avoid shooting females in order to ensure maximum reproduction. They have a point, if indeed a population is on the skids. But with some exceptions, Montana’s ungulates are in pretty good shape. For example, in several hunting districts, elk populations are above the state biologists’ desired numbers. And Montana ranks second in the nation for wildlife-vehicle collisions. We are blessed with an abundance of game—thus, all the out-of-state license plates during hunting season.

As one biologist told me; “Most populations can sustain some level of antlerless hunting, so long as they’re being properly monitored. Regular adjustments to antlerless harvest based on population surveys and trends are often a wildlife manager’s best tool for keeping populations within sustainable ranges.” The biologist went on to say, “And, likewise, we need people to understand and accept that some populations can’t sustain antlerless harvest. It’s all about balance and following the science rather than emotion or dogma, and having flexible options available for managing populations creatively when necessary.”

As a fan of good science, that all makes sense to me. In any case, I don’t expect that we will soon see mounted heads of elk calves in the bars of Montana. Nor will we be entertained by hunters on the Outdoor Channel with thick southern accents bragging about the does they bagged at 500 yards. Or even an upsurge in Facebook posts of successful hunters smiling proudly next to a small or modest-sized ungulate lacking horns. But that’s okay. To each their own. All I know is what I like. And what I like is a memorable fair-chase hunt, and wild game on the table that is oh-so delicious.