How to Lose a Staring Contest with an Elk


Montana’s rifle hunting season is over, my freezer sits empty, but I’m more grateful than ever for this place where I live.

Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, following a short drive from my home in East Missoula and a long climb in the dark, I stood stock-still and eyes agape. A spike elk was eating lichen off a pine less than 50 yards away, oblivious to me in all my orange, perfectly safe from my rifle without the requisite brow-tines on its antlers. The yearling bull will grow those on its next set, making him legal to hunt with a general tag.

The lad was in the company of several cow elk. Somehow I’d walked right into the herd mere minutes after I’d decided the day was to be more of a hike than a hunt, courtesy of the graham cracker crust on the calf-deep snow. It made the going anything but silent.

Yet here I stood in the amber morning light, watching steam rising from their nostrils mix with the glittering crystals of ice descending from the trees. I stood still as a post for perhaps 20 minutes as my sweat-soaked wool shirt began to freeze. I was holding out hope that an older bull might step from the shadows and join the party. Big bulls tend to stay higher and lonelier than the cows and spikes, but you never know.

Then I heard a crunch behind me. I turned to see a second spike, this time barely 20 yards away. More minutes passed as I focused on the zen of not shivering. Eventually I knew I had to get another layer of clothing on. It was miraculous enough that these elk hadn’t smelled me. Maybe my luck would hold out a little longer.

As soon as I unbuckled my pack’s sternum strap, the bull lifted his head and gave me the hairy stink-eye. I had a staring contest with him another minute, then I eased my pack off as slowly as I could and set it on the snow. A moment later, I looked up and the bull was gone, somehow making a silent departure despite the crunchy snow. The only sound that remained was the moan of a train in the Missoula valley far below and a thumping in my chest.

I later caught up to my good friend and hunting partner, Don Burgess, busy building a fire. We warmed up and ate some lunch, then climbed higher and eventually cut a pair of large tracks we figured to be two older bulls. At that point, though, the shadows were growing long and our quads had had enough fun, so we began our decent.

On the way Don spotted a butterball of black bear waddling between the same cliffs we’d circumscribed in our dark morning climb. We wished the bear a good winter’s slumber, and lay another good hunting season to rest.


Want another dose of Montana’s great outdoors? Check out Paul’s other posts: Winter Begins in Montana, Photo Gallery: Dreams of Another Monster Winter, and Missoula Fall Foliage Photo Gallery.


Paul Queneau is an avid outdoor recreationist, naturalist, and hunter. He works as conservation editor of Bugle Magazine at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, where he writes about, photographs, edits, and films wildlife. See and read more of his work on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s website and Paul’s photo portfolio.