Field Guide: Montana's Hidden Gem for Elk and Deer Hunting

Field Guide: Montana's Hidden Gem for Elk and Deer Hunting

The journals of Meriwether Lewis, co-captain of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, contain detailed descriptions of the country through which they passed new lands teaming with elk, deer and antelope. Some of Lewis' most poetic lines were reserved for their surroundings in Montana where he wrote, "As we passed on it seemed as if those scenes of visionary enchantment would never have an end."

This fervent praise for the landscape occurred not in the mountains but on the eastern plains, along the banks of the Missouri River. Along with the sheer expanse of the landscape, the expedition was awed with the abundant wildlife in the area, especially those game animals that provided them with food: elk, mule and whitetail deer, bighorn sheep, bison, and pronghorn (antelope). Today, all of these species (except bison) are still found in robust numbers in Missouri River Country and provide modern-day hunters with the same challenges for making meat and memories as they did members of the famed expedition.

brown deer lying on green grass field during daytime

The rugged "breaks" along the Missouri contain dense stands of ponderosa pines and junipers. Elk thrive amidst this cover. The plants and soils of the region offer excellent nutrition, allowing mature bulls to grow exceptionally large antlers. Hunting these trophy bulls with a rifle requires a long-odds lottery permit, but those who do draw have the chance to take amazing animals. Archery hunting is also conducted on a "draw-only" basis, but the odds are better.

Abundant access to public land is one of the major attractions of elk hunting in Montana's Missouri River Country (there are more than a million acres of land open to public hunting in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge alone). Both state and federally managed public lands sprawl across thousands upon thousands of acres of prime habitat. Some areas are easily accessed by roads, while others offer a wilderness experience for those willing to hike a distance from their vehicle. Professional outfitters' and guides' services are also available throughout the region, providing expert services to out-of-state hunters. For the most part, hunters should be prepared to hunt at least a mile from vehicle access, as elk usually keep a buffer of about that distance from motorized activity.

Archers typically find the best success in the cool hours around daylight and sunset. Temperatures can be quite warm in September and early October, rendering elk inactive during the day, however, hunters seeking a varied experience find plenty to do at midday. Along with exceptional big-game hunting the Montana's Missouri River Country boasts robust populations of sharp-tailed and sage grouse, and gray (Hungarian) partridges. The hunting season for these species coincides with the archery season for big game.

Elk may be the marquee quarry in the mind of many visiting hunters, but northeastern Montana also boasts outstanding opportunities for mule and whitetail deer. Mule deer are widely distributed throughout the region but most heavily concentrated in the Missouri Breaks and adjacent prairie habitat. The deep, contorted coulees of the breaks provide superb cover, allowing some bucks to achieve trophy status. Mule deer can also be found on more open prairie and agricultural areas, especially in places offering patches of bedding cover.

herd of deer on brown grass field during daytime

With such a variety in habitat and easy access to abundant public land, a mule deer hunt can be as challenging as you want to make it. Muleys can be spotted from roads (very early morning is the best time to glass) and stalked, offering a relatively easy hunt. Hard-charging hunters, however, can take to the Missouri Breaks, hiking for miles in wild country in search of a trophy buck.

Whitetail deer are also native to Missouri River Country. In some places their range overlaps with mule deer, in others they are mostly separate from their long-eared cousins. One of the region's prime whitetail grounds is the Milk River drainage, a tributary to the Missouri River. The Milk joins the Missouri just below Fort Peck Dam. The river winds northwest from its confluence with the Missouri, roughly following the course of U. S. Highway 2. Lodging, groceries and other services are found in towns such as Glasgow and Malta. There is some public land along the Milk River with deer hunting also available on Block Management Areas, a Montana program that facilitates public access to private land. More than 295 ranches are enrolled in the Block Management Program here, which provides licensed sportsmen with free access to about 1.3 million acres of mule and whitetail deer, antelope, and elk habitat.

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