Behind the Scenes of MeatEater Hunts

“If it’s not once in a lifetime, it’s, you know, a couple of times in your life if you’re lucky,” says onX Hunt Marketing’s Zach S. as he describes the kind of elk tag MeatEater’s Janis Putelis drew for a Montana hunt. It was a tag Montana hunters put their bonus points toward drawing because of the “really, really big elk that come out of the area,” as Zach puts it. 

This rifle hunt was filmed for a recent episode of MeatEater Hunts (watch it below) and put Putelis in the field for 10 days straight, stretching from the opener of the general season and through the following week. Zach joined Putelis for eight days of the 10 and brought with him a deer tag, a Weatherby rifle, too many packages of Sour Patch Kids to count, and an eagerness to spot, stalk, and kick mud off tires—all of which would be needed.

Montana Hunts with Zach - onX

Like any good hunt, this hunt needed to be planned out. “We had a lot of good resources from people we knew who hunted the area. They were super helpful for giving us areas to check out,” says Zach. “But it was almost like information paralysis because we had so many different areas that we wanted to check out.” 

One of Zach’s best practices for hunting with the onX Hunt App is to download the entire hunting district he’s hunting in to Offline Maps at the 150-mile-wide, low-resolution scale, and then download the specific areas he’ll be hiking around at the 10-mile, medium-resolution scale. 

Then when he’s in the field he relies on a couple of easy-to-use features for his stalks. “I love using the Line Tool and Waypoints to plan out my stalks,” says Zach. “I will use the topography on the map to mark the location of where the animal is and then use my rangefinder and the Line Tool to validate the location and plan my route. Then I am able to confidently stalk into a shot opportunity even if the animal is out of sight. This was a ‘hot tip’ that Janis showed me from how he uses onX Hunt.”

With all the planning and e-scouting, and then the ability to check out areas they had saved, Zach and Putelis found elk. “We’d see good bulls every day,” he says, “and I mean seeing lots of bulls every single day. A couple were very enticing.” But they weren’t finding the trophy class bull that Putelis was looking for. 

“Janis was looking for a bull elk he could ‘get fired up about,’ as he put it,” says Zach “Janis was being super disciplined by passing on some very mature bulls. He wanted to put the effort in to find one of the giants that tend to come out of this area.” So when they saw a nice 320-class bull (with a broken tine) on day two of their hunt, it made sense to pass on it. “It was a really nice bull, and there were some guys there who were surprised that he was passing it up, and we were staring at it from only 250 yards away,” says Zach, “but with more days to hunt, I see why it made sense to pass him up.” 

At times, the decision on which elk to shoot took a back seat to the reality of hunting in late-October in a part of Montana that was notorious for its “gumbo.” If you haven’t heard of this term used to describe a version of mud that is both slick and sticky, it’s about time you do. 

Ideal soil contains equal amounts of sand, silt, and clay. “Gumbo” is pretty much all clay, and it has a remarkable ability to hold water. When it rains, water fills the pores in the soil making the surface slick, and then like adding water to flour to make dough, that moisture also brings out all the adhesive properties in the clay. Tack on the scientific fact that soil, in general, has a negative electrical charge and wants to stick to things that have a positive charge, and you have a recipe for “gumbo.” 

During the 10-day hunt, the weather changed from -11 degrees in the morning to the mid-50s by afternoon. “When we hiked in the mornings I had every layer on I brought with me,” says Zach, “and anytime we stopped to glass we had to build a fire to keep warm. But when it got warm, residual snow melted and turned everything to ‘gumbo.’ Then that would freeze.” 

The team had a side-by-side to access most places they wanted to get to, but more than once they found themselves “in a couple rodeos trying to get back to camp,” says Zach, because the roads were frozen in the morning but thawed and slick by the afternoon, and then it would freeze again. It got to the point that Zach and Putelis had to stop to kick bricks of frozen clay off the tires because they could hardly steer the vehicle. “At one point Janis kicked off a piece that must have weighed 15 pounds.” 

Even with the miles and the mud and all the elk-chasing, the days went by in a blur.

“We hunted a few different areas and didn’t see what we’re looking for, and decide to come back because there’s so many elk,” says Zach. “We came back in the afternoon and as we start walking down this ridge we stumbled on some elk with a bull bugling that we hadn’t seen before. He was chasing cows around, showing good rutting activity.” Hearing and seeing late-rut activity in elk on public land is rare in late October. Peak elk rut in Montana typically occurs during bow season around the Fall Equinox. 

This bull was beautiful, a 6×6 with long, sweeping tines that bent back as if they were water flowing over a submerged rock in a gentle river. The “problem,” as if it could even be considered as such, was “it wasn’t quite the class of bull we were looking for,” says Zach. 

After watching this bull and its herd of cows for a long while, the elk moved over a hillside. The party of hunters followed. “As we got over the top of the hill, we saw elk everywhere,” says Zach. “And that older bull with the broken tine we’d seen a couple of days earlier had just taken the cows back from the new 6×6 we were just watching. There was no fight or anything. He just postured up and took them.” 

As the days of the hunt dwindled, thoughts of taking one of these lesser bulls started popping up, but Janis remained vigilant and the group kept hunting, from sun-up to sundown until it rose on the last day of the trip. 

The strategy for the last day was to get back to where they had seen the most elk with the most bulls. Putelis was now at the point that he wanted one last look at some of those great-looking 6×6’s they’d seen all week, toying with the idea of taking one. The spot they picked was low country, accessible after a one-mile hike, and the pack out would be a breeze. A perfect way to end the last day. 

“We got there and they’re weren’t where we left them the night before,” says Zach. “We started laughing. I looked up and they were all at the top of the hill, two to three miles straight up from where we were, where we had come in from on a different day. Had we taken that route that day we would have been within 500 yards of all these elk.”

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They got close enough to get out the spotting scope for a closer look. “I saw the beautiful 6×6 that had the cows taken from him the previous day,” says Zach, “but that was two miles from where we had seen him last and now he had all the cows back. He’d taken them back from the bigger bull with the broken tine.”

“When I looked at him, though, I saw he was now missing half of his main beam,” says Zach, “he must have gotten into a knock-down, drag-out fight and busted off 25 inches of his antler and two tines. There’s no way Janis wanted to shoot him at this point.”

So in the end, no shot was ever fired. 

“Janis has been one of the guys I looked up to for a long time,” says Zach, “and I really respect everything he does and how he hunts in the process. This hunt was super fun and I learned so much. We have very similar hunting strategies, and we’re able to, by day two, know what each other was thinking.”

“When you spend a week with someone in hunting camp,” Zach continues, “You really get to know each other better. You get to be part of a week-long trip, sleeping in a wall tent together, and you really get to know people. And that’s what I love about those kinds of trips.”

Watch the full episode here:

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Ryan Newhouse

Though raised hunting squirrels and whitetails in the South, Ryan Newhouse has spent nearly the last two decades chasing Western big game in Montana and writing professionally about his travels and the craft beers he’s consumed along the way. He loves camping, fishing, boating, and teaching his two kids the art of building campfires and playing the ukulele. And yes, he's related to Sewell Newhouse, inventor of the steel animal traps.