COLUMN: Deer, antelope populations looking healthy

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Here is some good news for hunters. Last week my wife and I had to make a quick trip back to Wisconsin to attend a funeral. On the way, I planned to stop at my farm near Malta to see how the farm had wintered. But prior to turning off U.S. 2, we experienced three hours of steady rain.

Upon reaching the county road leading to the farm, we saw the rain had converted the county road into a strip of gumbo mud.

For those of you from Eastern Montana or hunters who venture to the east side during hunting season, you well know that gumbo mud makes roads impassable even with four-wheel drive. All four-wheel drive does is get you stuck worse.

Rain in Eastern Montana is almost always in short supply, so rain is usually welcome, but occasionally it comes at a very inconvenient time. Our farm stop was delayed until our return trip to Kalispell. By then, the abundant spring rains had turned the local prairies into lush green habitat.

That, along with an easy winter with minimum snow cover and few subzero days, means a good fawn crop for deer and antelope.

This is the third easy winter in a row, so deer and antelope populations are rebounding nicely from the horrendous winter several years ago when thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of deer and antelope perished.

Hunters, it looks like a dandy season for deer and antelope hunting this fall. There should be lots of game in prime condition. Professional game managers like to take credit for abundant game, but I think the real manager of game abundance in Montana is old Mother Nature.

On a couple of hikes and drives around my farm and adjacent public land where I hunt, I saw lots of whitetails and mule deer. We also saw more antelope than in the last two years. There were ducks on every pond and sheet water in fields. We also saw lots of sharptail grouse. The sharptail lek on my farm has the normal two dozen sharpies doing their spring mating dance. The prairie was alive with abundant game.

Speaking of fall hunting, hunters are reminded that special deer, elk and antelope license applications are due by June 1. This year, after several easy winters, there are many opportunities to apply for extra elk, deer and antelope tags. Carefully read the 2016 game regulations and apply for those extra tags by June 1.

Keep in mind the difference between a license and permit. A special license allows the hunter to harvest a second elk, deer or antelope. A special permit generally doesn’t allow the hunter to take an extra animal, but allows the hunter to have the opportunity to take a broader range of animals that can be taken in a hunting district, such as being able to take a cow elk in a hunting district where other hunters can only take a bull elk.

My hunting season is already pretty well laid out. I was lucky enough to draw a coveted either-sex elk tag in Hunting District 700. That is world-class bull elk country south of Fort Peck Reservoir. While there is lots of public land to hunt, much of the public land along the reservoir is blocked by large ranches that lease their land to commercial outfitters and guides. These outfitters allow only their clients to access elk hunting on these private lands as well as the adjacent public land.

With limited public access to public land, hunters have to be innovative.

My plan is to access this great elk hunting using my boat. I plan to launch at one of several public boat launches on Fort Peck Reservoir, then motor 10 to 20 miles up the reservoir to a campsite and high quality elk hunting. This special tag for bull elk is valid during both the archery and rifle seasons. This will be a great fall hunt with a great opportunity for a world class bull elk.

During the current special application season, I will also apply for an additional cow elk tag in this area. Since there is great fishing of Fort Peck Reservoir, I will bring my fishing gear on this hunting trip. Overall, a great fall of hunting is just ahead. Lucky are we who live in Montana.

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