Switching Camo: Hunting, Service and Coming Home

November 11, 2019 | Hunt

Army veteran and onX Customer Success Technician Zach Condon shares his experiences growing up in Montana, serving for nine years in the U.S. Army and working with Switching Camo to help a friend and fellow veteran undertake his first Western hunt.

Throughout my life, there have been two things that have gone hand in hand for me: hunting and service to my country. For as long as I can remember, I have been around hunting. I have vivid memories from a young age, from my dad and friends coming home with a truck bed full of deer in the Black Hills to my dad testing me by having me lead us back to the truck after walking for miles. Hunting with my dad taught me many lessons about the outdoors. Little did I know at the time that the majority of the lessons my dad taught me were preparing me for a future in the Army. Through hunting, I learned how to navigate in the woods by terrain association, how to shoot a rifle and even how to handle the harsh realities of being cold and hungry.

When I joined the Army at 19, many things came naturally to me. My success can all be related directly to lessons learned hunting in Montana. While at Basic Training in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, during a shooting exercise, a drill sergeant asked me, “Private Condon, where are you from?” I replied, “Montana, drill sergeant.” He said, “Goddamn, you’ve been out there in Montana shooting grand-pappy’s 30-06 since you were five, haven’t you?” That was the first time I realized my experiences in Montana were going to help me in my military career. A common saying in combat Military Occupation Specialties (MOS) in the military is “Embrace the Suck.” The easiest way to do this is to think of a time in the past that was harder than what you’re currently experiencing to make light of the present situation. More often than not, I was able to think of backcountry hunting trips in Montana and “Embrace the Suck.”

Even though I drew upon my hunting experiences to help me throughout my nine-year career in the Army, my service to my country and my passion for hunting were forced to be separate. It seemed that during hunting season I was either deployed, in a specialty school or participating in some major training exercise. Ironically, the only time I shot a deer during my nine years in the Army was while I was deployed; I was the only hunter in my platoon, so getting block leave or vacation during hunting season was easy.

My time in the Army ended in 2018 when I was medically retired. I have been fortunate to hunt more since my service ended than in the previous 10 years combined. In the spring of this year, I got in touch with a non-profit called Switching Camo, which is run by active duty soldiers stationed in Idaho with the goal getting military service members into the field hunting and fishing. Switching Camo was looking for people to help accomplish this mission, and with my wife being an Air Force Veteran, we were eager to join. I finally saw a chance to intertwine my passion for hunting and my service to my country.

When I was deployed, I became friends with a fellow soldier named Matt. When I first linked up with Switching Camo, Matt was in a five-month inpatient program for PTSD in New York. Matt was always the model soldier in the Army, and during our service we did everything together—we trained for and attended the Best Sapper Competition and Sapper School, we lead our company in all forms of physical training and weapons qualifications and we taught a battalion’s worth of soldiers almost everything there is to know about demolitions. Occasionally, the three of us (Matt, my wife Jessi and I) were able to sneak away to the mountains of Colorado to fly fish and snowboard. It was Jessi’s idea to ask Switching Camo if they wanted to help get Matt to Montana for a hunting and fishing trip later in the year. After some logistical hiccups and scheduling conflicts, Switching Camo got a flight booked for Matt from New York to Montana in the last week of August. Matt recently got into archery hunting himself and even killed a whitetail buck in New York with his bow last year. We were both excited to get him on the raft to fly fish and in the field to chase some antelope with a bow.

Army veteran and onX staffer Zach Condon fishing in his raft with a friend.

Our first day, a Sunday, we planned a 10-mile float on Montana’s Blackfoot River. It was a great day for fly fishing but a terrible day for floating. Fly fishing from a raft can be tricky, especially if you’ve never done it before. If you throw in a strong headwind and low water, it can be nearly impossible. As a group, we were able to get a bunch of fish to the boat but weren’t able to get Matt on any. Even though a large part of the day was spent pointing the raft downstream and rowing hard to fight the wind, it was still fun to have our old crew together and enjoying Montana.

That Tuesday after work, we loaded up the raft, our hunting and fishing gear and my two boys that are both under three and headed to a VRBO in Sheridan, Montana. We got in pretty late, so we intentionally woke up late the next day then headed to the Beaverhead River around midday. The weather and water were perfect. Having our boys with us meant that the pressure was on for Matt to get a fish since he was the only one fishing. The Beaverhead zigzags a lot and can be tough to fish if you’re new to it. Regardless, Matt caught a couple of fish—one a really nice brown trout.

The next day, Matt and I were up at 5 AM, and we headed to some BLM that I had scouted using the onX Hunt App. Matt did not have a tag since he is not a resident but was excited to come along and see a true western hunt. On the way we ran into a herd of more than 100 elk crossing the road from the river bottom to the mountains. It was a great way to start the day, and seeing Matt react to them was awesome. When we finally made it to the area, we immediately saw antelope in an alfalfa field just off the road. Like the elk, they crossed the road to head into the hills for the day. I used onX Hunt to see that the antelope were crossing through private property, but the far side of the property was state land and I assumed they would head there. Using the App, I was able to find BLM land that connected the road to the State Land, so we drove down the road and started the hike in to try and cut the herd off. Almost eight miles, four hours and two blown stalks later we found ourselves back at the truck. It was fun showing Matt how to use the Hunt App to navigate and ensure that we stayed on public land.

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After that, we drove back to the house, ate some lunch and grabbed Jessi and the boys to go scout some new areas. We checked out an area a friend from work told me about and immediately found a buck bedded in a very stalkable location. Matt and I were able to low crawl 300 yards to get the wind in our favor and get to within 200 yards of the buck. Matt stayed behind for the final push with the decoy while I tried to crawl closer. While trying to close the distance, a group of does appeared out of nowhere and busted me. Matt threw up the decoy, and at first I thought the buck may come in for a closer look but he eventually spooked.

Frustrated but not defeated, we headed back to the truck to look for more. We took a back road to get back to the house, and on the way we spotted a large group of antelope in a private alfalfa field. Fortunately, I had more than 20 Offline Maps saved in the onX Hunt App so I was able to check who the owner was on my phone even though I did not have service. I am not typically the type to knock on someone’s door and ask permission, but luckily Jessi was driving and she went right up to the house so I didn’t have much choice. Matt went to the door with me and we explained what we were doing and that he was a disabled Veteran that had flown in from New York. They very generously gave us permission to hunt, but since the day was winding down and the boys were getting cranky, we headed back to the house and planned to return the next morning.

We decided to get up an hour earlier and were out the door by 4:30 AM. We made it to the field and walked to a high point with cover before sunrise. As the sun came up, we saw the field was full of mule deer. This was a week before deer season opened so it was nice to see there were a bunch of deer there too. I turned my focus to the field behind me where we did not have permission to hunt and glassed up the group of antelope working their way towards our field. It appeared that they were going to walk right to us, but 150 yards before reaching us they turned 90 degrees and went to the corner of the field and crossed the fence into the field we were in. It turned out there was only one spot that the fence was high enough for them to get under which we did not know at the time. After an hour the antelope were finally about a 100 yards from us and continuing to feed in our direction. Just as I was starting to think our plan might actually work, the rancher pulled into the far side of the field on his dirt bike to check his sprinklers—immediately the antelope ran to their crossing and were gone.

We had to be back to Missoula that evening since Matt’s flight back to New York was early the next morning. We had a couple more opportunities that day but nothing serious. This was my first year archery hunting antelope and I learned many lessons and was even able to let loose a couple arrows, although they didn’t find their mark. I am eternally grateful to both Switching Camo and onX for helping Jessi and me get Matt to Montana. At times when we were low crawling or hiking for miles it was almost like being in the Army, suffering together again. Even though we did not get an antelope, it was an experience I won’t soon forget. I hope Matt won’t either. It was a valuable lesson in cherishing the moments that hunting can bring us and a great reminder that it is not always about killing something.

Army veteran and onX staffer Zach Condon's wife, Jessi, harvested this mule deer on opening day in Montana.

Since our hunt, between the three of us (Matt, Jessi and I), we’ve had some success in the field. Matt was able to harvest his second archery buck in two years in Connecticut, and Jessi got her first big game animal, a mule deer buck, on opening day in Montana.

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