Playing The Hand You’re Dealt

It’s not all fun and games out here in elk country.  But while we like to complain about how rough it was getting into the backcountry, about how we spent multiple days braving the mountain, and about how we trekked mile after mile in search of our elusive quarry, we secretly are having the time of our lives. As long as there are elk to chase, we’ll be toiling through the grind.

Steven Brutger from Stalking the Steam can attest to the myriad of challenges that can (and often) crop up while out chasing elk around the mountains. Though through it all, he managed to come home with fresh elk in hand and a smile on his face…


By Steven Brutger

“How many arrows did you bring?” “Five” I replied. My quiver held three.

Less than an hour into a week long hunt the dense vegetation and unrelenting terrain were already taking their toll. I checked again, newly vigilant, to make sure my remaining arrows were secure. We continued bushwhacking, set up camp and began our hunt in earnest.

North facing, steeper than the face of a cow, and with timber that limited visibility in all directions, the area is a haven for big bulls who don’t want to be messed with. A huge snow year had grown a thick layer of undergrowth that rose to my chest in most spots. Wet snow began to fall our first night. It only stopped when the temperature rose just enough to turn it to rain.

“The cold teamed up with the wet to turn our feet into pruned blocks of ice. Gore-tex was no match for the sloppy conditions. This was our reality for five days.”

Our hopes were high. The moisture made the woods quiet. No other hunters were in the valley.

Working through the undergrowth in the predawn light, we were instantly soaked. The cold teamed up with the wet to turn our feet into pruned blocks of ice. Gore-tex was no match for the sloppy conditions. This was our reality for five days.

The elk did not cooperate. Fresh sign was abundant, but they refused to talk. Bulls buggled half-heartedly when we bumped them in the dark timber — just keeping track of everyone as they moved on — but otherwise the forest was silent.

In camp we warmed our bellies with hot drinks and quesadillas. We placed wet socks on our shoulders, underneath our layers, to dry them. We experimented with foot warmers and wrapping our feet in plastic bags  before every hunt hoping that might tip the scales in our favor. Spirits were high, but our feet were still cold and the elk remained ghosts in the woods.

On day five we pulled camp.

While eating burgers at the local brew pub we realized we weren’t the only ones having a tough time. Outfitters and friends in higher country had abandoned their camps under three feet of snow. Nobody was getting into elk. We were in good company.

Less than twenty-four hours later we were headed back into the mountains, with our sights set on new country. On the way to the trailhead I checked in with my family.

“Just so you know, I’m glad you’re having a good time,” my wife said over the phone “but the kids don’t seem to care, they just want you to bring something home.”

“Everything changed. The mountains became alive with elk. I found myself face to face with a young rag bull shortly after shooting light. There were bigger bulls in the area, but the phone call with my wife stuck in my head.”

As we settled into our new camp, once again drying out our gear, the weather began to clear. A hard frost set in among a clear night sky. Our breath shone in the light of our headlamps and a lone bugle pierced the calm night. Bow season was over. We had two days to hunt with a rifle before needing to get back to work and families.

Everything changed. The mountains became alive with elk. I found myself face to face with a young rag bull shortly after shooting light. There were bigger bulls in the area, but the phone call with my wife stuck in my head. One well placed shot ensured that we would have a freezer full of meat for the year.

At home my kids examined the quarters, admired the ivories, and scolded me for not packing out the small rack. They had been fighting over who would get to keep the antlers in their room.

We lightly salt and peppered the tenderloins and pan seared them in butter. They were delicious. My wife is particularly thankful I did not hold out for a larger bull, the taste of which which she historically equates to something akin to shoe leather.

A week of 30 degree temps and a constant mixture of rain and snow appeared to have lowered my core body temperature. After two days at home I’m still shivering. As my body temp slowly increased, aided by the nutrients from fresh elk, I’m glowing knowing that the toughest part of my hunting season is over. Now I can simply enjoy chasing deer with my son and birds with my dogs.


About Steven: With a tendency to dive in with gusto,
Steven puts the same energy into raising his two kids
as he does into fishing, training gun dogs, or chasing
elk (although he recognizes children are ultimately a
bigger commitment).  Raised on a family owned guest
ranch in Montana, Steven is a Westerner who has been
criticized for having terrible East coast geography. He
calls Bozeman, Montana home and blogs over at
stalkingtheseam.com.