Shortly after Montana's big game hunting season came to a close in the fall of 2021, I attended a gathering of women hunters. As we gathered over cocktails and appetizers, we swapped tales of triumphs, lessons learned, and moments that had us bursting with laughter from the past season. Amidst these inspiring tales emerged the question: "What was everyone's greatest accomplishment of the season?"
In 2021, my hunting season proved to be my most successful yet. I harvested a nearly trophy-sized Pronghorn and even managed my first solo hunt. Yet, strangely, these personal victories didn't stand out as my most significant achievement. Instead, it was a weekend spent in the company of my friend, Elaine Westbrook, and her 13-year-old stepdaughter, Rachel, during an unsuccessful hunt that left an indelible impression on my heart.
Rachel is a bright, soft-spoken young woman raised by a true Montana hunting family. However, as the 2021 hunting season approached, she remained uncertain whether she was interested in hunting. So, Elaine and I decided to extend an invitation to tag along and accompany us on an elk hunt in the majestic mountains of southwest Montana.
On a crisp Saturday morning, well before the sun painted the sky, we loaded the truck up and embarked on our journey into the rugged mountains. The road was treacherously rutted and icy, but Rachel, sitting in the back seat, greeted every slip and skid with an infectious laugh as we inched forward to our destination. We finally arrived at our chosen spot, a ridge high in the mountains where elk had been frequently passing through. As we scanned the terrain, we spotted a striking herd of elk. I turned around to see Rachel lit up with an enormous smile spread across her face; it was her first time spotting an elk herd while on a hunt.
Yet, there was a hitch: the herd was situated half a mile into private land with no sign of moving anytime soon. Undeterred, we continued moving and glassing different drainages, our spirits undiminished. Finally, in the later afternoon, we spotted something in a small draw full of willows: a mature mule buck with a white face and small, malformed antlers. Rachel was giddy with excitement as Elaine passed her the rifle. But another challenge presented itself: we were perched on a steep, open hillside, and the buck rested in the bottom of the draw about 150 yards away. Rachel had only practiced shooting on flat terrain, making this an entirely new test of her skills, compounded by the surge of adrenaline from buck fever.