Hunting is as much a part of the Montana lifestyle as cowboy boots and buffalo. It is a fundamental weave in our social fabric and considered a rite of passage by most Montanans. Imagine businesses closing to accommodate their employees’ hunting hysteria, and schools being more lenient about tardies and absences during hunting season.
Yes, a quick glance at the bumper stickers and license plates on the trucks in Montana will quickly illuminate the place of reverence that hunting enjoys in this state of, as one of my friends so aptly calls it, “Huntana”. And in fact, one of my favorite restaurants proudly serves the ‘Montana Surf n Turf’ which is a meal of rainbow trout and buffalo.
Not being limited to merely deer hunting, stalking the wily game in Montana offers a nearly unending supply of choices, and encompasses a wide variety of animals such as moose, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, buffalo, Canada goose, pheasant, brook trout, wild turkey, grouse; the list goes on and on.
Those who plan it right can legitimately hunt from September through November. They take advantage of this option by taking up bow hunting in addition to the traditional rifle or shotgun method of hunting. There is an added appeal to bow hunting because it starts in early September when the weather is usually a little more bearable. The rifle hunters will generally have to brave below freezing temperatures and fresh snow to land their kill. But, in fact, the snow gives them an added advantage in tracking. So those souls asking for an early snowfall in Montana are undoubtedly hunters or skiers.
When I came to Montana, I noticed horizontal boards across many thresholds and garages. “It’s to hang the deer from,” was my husband’s casual reply. I was appalled. The thought of animal carcasses hanging randomly around the neighborhood made me nervous. Sure enough, in October and November there they were; the big game carcasses, acting as hunters’ “trophies” hanging in a proud and defiant display. Many big game hunters let them hang for up to five days to cure the meat and reduce the ‘gamey’ taste. In Montana, many garages and sheds double as super-size refrigerators during hunting season: that time of the year the temperatures usually stay below 40 degrees.
A friend of mine is strictly committed to bird hunting. He will shoot any kind of fowl he can get his sights on, be it duck, Canada goose, pheasant, grouse or wild turkey. He is, however, more discriminating in what he will eat. He prefers pheasant over anything else. When I asked what he does with the birds he kills and does not care to eat, he so eloquently stated, “I make sure they get eaten by something.” This meant primarily friends, family, neighbors and their pets. How noble. His wife doesn’t care for eating any kind of wild fowl, so that presents its own brand of discord among his household. Still, most Saturday mornings he is guarding the banks of the river, shotgun in hand, waiting for the unwary bird to wander by.
Big game hunting seems to be more all-consuming for the big game hunter. Early in the season, many hunters will pass on perfectly good kills, waiting for the ‘big kill’. I have my suspicions as to whether they are actually holding off for the ‘big kill’ or simply milking the hunting excursions for all they’re worth. The spouses at home are referred to as ‘hunting widows’ while they patiently wait for their other half to get it out of their system. As soon as the magical phrase is uttered, “This is your last weekend! Don’t come home until you get something,” they somehow, quite miraculously I’d say, bring home an animal, be it elk or deer or moose or whatever is required to fill their hunting tag. The animals are probably more nervous towards the end of the season when the hunters who haven’t filled their tag yet will shoot at anything that crosses their path.
Everyone has their meat preferences. Most of my friends do not care for venison, preferring elk or buffalo to deer. They have different ways of preparing game meat, and interesting ways of disguising the taste of the more gamey-tasting meat that they dislike. When my father came for a visit, I made him a genuine Montana Moose Meatloaf, which he touts as one of the highlights of his trip. Some of my friends even brag that they have not had to buy red meat at the store for years.
I made my first kill last fall in the Lolo National Forest. My rite of passage was courtesy of a small doe that played her part in the cycle of life to feed my friend’s family. As I’m not a big fan of venison, my particular freezer contains elk, buffalo and moose courtesy of other friend’s generosity, as I didn’t kill any of them.
The Lolo National Forest is a two-million-acre recreational playground, with over 700 miles of hiking trails, over 100 named lakes and five rivers, and more than 60 species of large mammals, so when we say that western Montana is truly your outdoor recreational paradise, we mean it! For those of us that have the privilege of living here, we have the luxury of simply wandering out into our 145,552 square mile ‘backyard’ to enjoy this recreation any time we want. You simply can’t put a price on it, that’s for sure!