January 16, 2017
By Jack Ballard
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.
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. The deadline for nonresident applications for archery and rifle elk licenses is March 15. For more information when and how to apply call toll-free: 1-800-653-1319.
Core habitat for elk in northeastern Montana is found adjacent to the Missouri River and tributary creeks. Elk are found in other areas, but most are located within a few miles of these prime locations. As a general rule, elk density also increases from east to west. For example, fewer animals are found in the region around Fork Peck Dam as opposed to areas at the western end of the reservoir.
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.
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.
The Missouri Breaks also hold modest numbers of whitetails, particularly in creek bottoms containing deciduous cover. On the south side of the reservoir, whitetails are found along the Musselshell River as it meanders toward the Missouri. Though relatively few in number, Missouri Breaks bucks can achieve notable size. The northeastern portion of Montana west of Scobey has copious amounts of state land open to public hunting. Much of this acreage is leased for crops, making it excellent habitat for whitetails.
Deer hunting can be good at any time during the season, but the last half of November is favored by many resident hunters. Snow cover is more likely at this time, making deer more visible. Both the mule and whitetail deer breeding seasons occur during this time as well, giving hunters higher odds of spotting a trophy buck. For those interested in doubling up their hunting pursuits, most of the good whitetail habitat in Missouri River Country also harbors healthy populations of pheasants. Pheasant season spans the entire general rifle season for deer and elk.
Lewis and Clark noted the presence of huge herds of antelope mingled with the bison, elk and deer they saw along the Missouri River. Today, antelope are a perennial favorite among big-game hunters who stalk the prairie speedsters on the open plains on both the north and south sides of the Mighty Mo. All antelope hunting in Montana is conducted on a draw-only basis. Hunting districts south of the Missouri offer the best drawing odds. Although the region is not heralded as a trophy destination for pronghorn, lucky hunters may encounter outsized bucks. The largest antelope the author has seen taken by a hunter was downed a couple miles north of Fort Peck Reservoir. It sported horns measuring more than 17 inches. The application for antelope licenses is June 1.
Solitude, exceptional scenery and superb access to public lands make Montana's Missouri River Country a true hidden gem and one of the most hunter-friendly destinations in America. No matter what quarry is pursued, modern-day hunters are sure to echo the sentiments of Meriwether Lewis who concluded Missouri River Country includes "one of the fairest portions of the globe." Complete trip planning materials are available on the Missouri River Country website.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.