The wait is just about over. At least it is for those Montanans who look at you cross-eyed when you talk about hunting and ramble on about walking through the woods in search of a one-pound ruffed grouse, and snort, “I mean real huntin.’ Elk and deer, with my good ol’ ought-six.”
The general big game season for deer and elk begins bright and early on Saturday morning and goes to sunset on November 25, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This is the season when there’s the possibility of filling the freezer after a successful hunt with wholesome, nutritious, organically grown venison.
One of the best times of the year to be in Montana is during those five weeks in late October through most of November when going hunting has so many possibilities. If you pack along a shotgun as well as a rifle when you head to the great outdoors, it’s entirely possible to bring home a deer or elk or antelope, along with ducks or pheasants, or mountain grouse. I fondly remember a day ending with a brief stop at the old Deluxe bar and being able to modestly brag about coming home with “a buck and a duck.”
If your hunting plans are for whitetail deer or elk, these are the good old days. I recall a season-setting meeting last winter with Butte-based wildlife biologist Vanna Boccadori reviewing the many Region 3 hunting districts and commenting that elk populations are above management goals in most of them. As for those whitetails, they weren’t even worth mentioning, as whitetails seem to be thriving just about everywhere.
We do have problems with that iconic deer of the west, the mule deer. At last spring’s season setting meeting, mule deer were a frequent topic of concern. Recently I sat in on an early meeting of leaders of the local chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation, and a conversation topic was the need for better habitat in mule deer areas.
Chad Klinkenborg, the Montana Regional Director of the Mule Deer Foundation, supplied me with information on work his organization has been doing on some of Montana’s Wildlife Management Areas.
A big issue with mule deer is that they’re being squeezed by changes in habitat that are good for elk and whitetails, but not for mulies. While mule deer are a big deer, they don’t compete well against the bigger elk or the more adaptable white-tailed deer.
A common issue is conifers spreading out in the open sagebrush/grassland habitat that mule deer need. Some solutions include controlled burns, or simply cutting down conifers. Much of their work, in coordination with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, or Federal agencies such as BLM, has been on areas such as the Robb-Ledford and Blacktail WMAs. This also benefits sage grouse and pronghorns.
Still, there is no doubt that Montana is a great place to be during our long and varied hunting seasons.
As always, there are some reminders about the big game season.
Respect private land. Montana law requires hunters to have permission to hunt private land. That might include appropriate sign-in procedures on Block Management Areas, knocking on a door and getting verbal permission, or finding a designated walk-in hunting area.
Wear hunter orange. Montana law requires hunters and anyone accompanying a hunter as an outfitter or guide to wear 400 square inches of hunter orange above the waist. It’s a requirement, even for archery hunters, unless they’re hunting in a designated archery-only area. I advocate that anyone out in the countryside this time of year should be wearing orange for safety’s sake.
If you have a successful hunt, take good care of your game, especially if the weather is unseasonably warm. Do whatever it takes to get that carcass cooled off.
Exercise caution with firearms. Don’t let a fun outing turn into a tragedy.
Above all, enjoy this wonderful time of the year. Montana is a great place to be, out among wildlife and wild places. Remember to take a camera along to record those special memories.