This is a story from Montana Hunter Education instructor Bill Smith. He is a relatively new instructor, having joined in spring 2016, but brings a great deal of enthusiasm to his classroom. This is his story.

I became an apprentice Montana Hunter Education Instructor in the spring of 2016.  I’ve enjoyed observing the passion of my fellow instructors, and the enthusiasm of the students beginning their journey as hunters and conservationists.  I’m always very interested in why the students, young and old, are interested in becoming Montana hunters.  The 2015 season repeatedly exemplified how unique hunting in Montana is, and reinforced why I hunt.

Filling the Moose License

As I normally do, I applied for every species and every license Montana has to offer.  In poring over the draw odds for each species, I noticed an area near my home offered a higher success rate for moose than the area I normally put in.  In fact, the area offered nearly three times the odds of my traditional application area!  

I was tired of accumulating bonus points.  Out of frustration, and after a little research, I applied for the new area.  When the draw results came out in June,  there it was—I had drawn the moose license!

I did my homework, and travelled to the hunting area every time I had days off from work.  I was surprised how dense the forests were.  I found moose sign every trip, but never saw a moose.  I was confident, though, that my opportunity would come, so long as I continued to put forth the effort.

My brother, Dan, joined me in moose camp during the opening week.  We continued to see moose sign, and the first night we had a bull come in to the sound of me raking brush with a scapula.  We exchanged grunts back and forth.  The bull closed in to approximately 50 yards, but remained out of sight due to the dense forest.  As daylight faded on that first night, the bull walked away without ever revealing himself. 

A couple days later, Dan and I picked up my 11-year-old son, Andrew.  I can’t express how much I enjoy hunting with my son.  

The three of us continued the hunt the next day, and again found fresh moose sign.  We decided for the evening hunt we would return to the area where the bull moose had responded to me raking the brush. 

As we closed in, I spotted a moose on the hillside.  It was a smaller bull than I was hoping for, but it was a moose.  The three of us watched the bull, who was with a cow, for a considerable time.  I could tell by the look on Andrew’s face that he would love for me to take this bull.  I had to take Andrew home the next morning, and he would be in school as I continued to hunt. 

I may never be able to articulate the significance of having my son with me when I filled this tag. After seeing the excitement on his face, and hearing it in his voice, I pulled the trigger, and with one shot the moose license I had waited so long for was filled.

bob-smith-with-son-buckHunter Apprenticeship

A nasty cold was having its impact on our family, and kept me from hunting for weeks.  I did manage to get out about 10 days after the moose hunt, and filled my 2015 bear license on a big black bear.  I got out for a couple half days of bowhunting for elk, but I just didn’t have the energy to give it an honest effort.  

With the enactment of the hunter apprentice program in Montana, Andrew was able to pursue a deer of his own.  Montana sets aside two days a week before the opening of the general rifle season for youth to hunt without the added pressure of the general season hunters. Andrew and I were able to take advantage of this opportunity by camping out both days; he filled his license on a buck the morning of the second day.

I was very proud of him, as he made many competent decisions on his own that reinforced my faith that he has been listening and learning through the years, and that he is committed to being a responsible, ethical sportsman.

Surprise Buck

With the hours spent on the moose hunt, Andrew’s hunt, and work, I really had no time to scout for the upcoming rifle season for deer and elk.  I was at a loss as to where to begin when opening day rolled around.  Traditionally, Dan and I hunt a specific area opening day.  After that, where I hunt largely depends on the clues I notice about big game activity and how they are using their respective environments.  I decided this year I would just have to put forth extra effort and learn as I went.

I hunted the season opener, and then took the second day off.  I returned to work for two days, and then had scheduled days off.  Early in the season, the days are long.  I decided I would hunt 3 different areas that first day off, in an effort to cover as much ground as possible, in hope that I could figure some things out.  Two of the hunting areas were close together, which saved me some time.  It didn’t save me any effort, though, as I hiked in and out of both areas, gaining elevation just to give it up to get back to my truck and on to the next area.

When I arrived at the third hunting spot, I figured I was about 30 minutes earlier than I wanted to be.  I was exhausted, and my legs hurt from the earlier hikes.  I wanted to take a nap in my truck, but knew I’d be even less motivated for an evening hunt if I did.  After nodding off several times and some soul searching, I reluctantly left the warm truck for the final hunt of the day.

As I worked my way into the hunting area, I checked the wind and my watch several times, forming a strategy on how to pick the area apart and give myself the best chance at success.  It was still early, and I really wasn’t expecting to see much yet. 

About a mile in, I saw a buck standing at the end of an old skid trail.  The buck’s body was partially hidden by a small pine tree.  He was standing broadside to me, motionless.  I’m still not sure what he was doing.  I glassed what I could see of his antlers, and noticed his main beams extended past his nose.  I noticed he had good mass, and at least average tine length.  Because of this, I thought he was a big 4 point and was intent on passing him up.  I watched him for at least 10 minutes.  Finally, he turned his head away from me briefly, and I saw what I couldn’t see before; he had 3 points coming off the main beam, which would make him a 5 point. This buck had an inside spread of 20 inches and good mass at the bases.bob-smith-buck

The decision to shoot was easy.  Walking up to the buck afterwards, I noticed he was a 5 point with extra points off both bases, and a small extra point between his left G2 and G3.  This buck had all kinds of character.  I actually had cellphone coverage, and quickly texted my brother a photo.  I also texted my wife, my mom, and a couple of friends.  After that, I walked out to get my game cart, then went back in to get the buck.  Somehow, this fourth hike of the day was easier than the other three!

Respect for the Hunt

I don’t use social media accounts, but gave my wife the go ahead to post a photo of the buck on hers.  We did receive one response from a friend who respectfully expressed opposition to hunting.  I truly respect her courage to do so, and her views.  Still, I wish people could see the respect hunters have for the game they pursue, and the amount of time and effort that goes into a hunt.  I wish they could experience the long hours after the shot getting the animal out and processed for the freezer.  Somehow, I think a good number of us hunters would earn a fair amount of respect if our opposition could see what they don’t see.

This year was special in a number of ways, and reinforced the passion I have for big game hunting and the respect I have for the many big game animals that call Montana home.  My wife, kids, family and friends all supported me and made sacrifices so that I could enjoy another memorable hunting season.  Once again, I am truly grateful.

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jim-taylor-deerThe following is an excerpt from a thank you letter written to a landowner by hunter Jim Taylor, after he successfully harvested his first elk. He shared this with Hunter Ed; it’s an excellent example of how hunters can best treat landowners to continue the sport.

“I am writing to thank you for letting my brother Flint and I hunt on your ranch last fall.  I have been hunting since I was a boy, but only hunting elk for the past fifteen years.  Until my hunt on your ranch, I had only had one clear shot at an elk, which I missed.  The one day of hunting elk on your ranch was a better day than the past fifteen years put together.
My brother and I were hunting on foot, and there were two hunters hunting horseback.  The two horseback hunters start shooting right about noon (the elk came out just when you told us they would).  We were along one side of a big draw, and headed up through the timber to work our way in position to sit and look.   I went up one side, and my brother went up the other.  I found a spot to sit and watch in the edge of the timber, and had a good view of the hillside.  I waited and waited, but didn’t see or hear any animals.  The wind was blowing hard, gusting 20 to 30 miles an hour.
Just as I was ready to move on (and to give up elk hunting for good) I heard a large animal right below me.  It was no more than ten or fifteen feet away, snorting and farting and moving around.  I was on top of a cutbank and couldn’t see directly below me, although I could see all the approaches to the cutbank.  Eventually the noises stopped, but nothing came out.  After waiting several minutes, I tossed a branch over the edge of the cutbank, but nothing came out.  I threw a bigger branch over the cutbank, but still nothing came out.  I finally walked down to see why the animal wouldn’t come out, and found that there was nothing there.  No elk, no deer, no tracks, no animal sign of any kind.  I walked back up to where I had been sitting and bent over to pick up my hat.  Just as I did fifteen head of elk walked out on the top of hillside across the draw, about 250 yards away.

Jim Taylor with his father.

Jim Taylor with his father.

When I saw the lead cow, I knew she was coming home with me.   I only had time for an offhand shot, and was most fortunate to shoot her eye out.  I have convinced my brother that it was skill on my part and not luck, and I hope you will not disabuse him of this notion.
I don’t believe you ever had the opportunity to meet my father, Park Taylor, but he was an old time Montana cowboy who loved elk hunting above all things.  He died thirteen years ago.  My brother Flint and I have hunted together each fall since then.  I often sense my father’s presence when Flint and I are hunting, and I am convinced it was my father who was making those noises in the cutbank below me to keep me in position for my shot at my first elk.
After I sprinted up the hillside to my elk, the riders came down to see how we had done. Their horses were too spooky to drag the elk.  I had no idea how large and heavy elk were, but was most happy to become acquainted with the problems of dragging them out.
I do not know if we will ever have the opportunity to hunt your ranch again as I am sure you are besieged with requests from hunters.  If we ever do have that opportunity I would be most grateful.  If we do not, I will always be thankful for one of the best days I have ever had.”

Jim has been a hunter education instructor in Montana for 15 years. Though he didn’t return to that ranch to hunt again, the experience has stayed with him as one of his most incredible hunts.

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Eric Mongar is a Montana hunter education instructor who started teaching in 1989. Despite knowing how to be safe in the field, he still made a very dangerous mistake. Learn how he made it out safely with his story below.

During the 2015 rifle season, my hunting partner and I hunted here and there, and I came to notice no matter where I headed off to hunt, my partner was there in sight. I have never been lost, knock on my hollow head, so I like to make my own trail—for goodness sake, we have radios for safety and I have done my share of rescues, so I thought to myself “go get lost!”
Well, day after day, the same thing—no deer—and on our last day of the week’s hunt I asked my partner why he doesn’t get any further away than where he could see me. He replied, “I have been turned around once, and you always seem to know where the truck is, so I stay where I can see you!”
I laughed and said, “okay, I can work with that.”
So I dropped him off at his house with plans to head out again on Monday, after the weekend. I drop him off and head down to my camper down the next block. I was sitting there, and I said to myself, “self, you should get up early Saturday morning and go hunting your way.”
I had the best sleep all week. I got up at 4 a.m., made coffee, and out the door I went. It’s a 50-mile drive to the spot. It had been snowing since I went to bed, and that is a good thing—you know what I mean, good tracks in fresh snow make it easier to track the deer you want to harvest.
I told my wife where I was going and she was staying at the camper with the home base radio on in case I needed something.  So I put the truck in four-wheel drive and chained up all four tires. Up the road I go—blazing a trail is another good sign, no other hunters up this high yet, maybe they are thinking the snow pushed the deer to lower valleys. They could be right, but this felt right also.
I got to the top and parked; it looked like about a half-mile hike to the peak with about eight inches of fresh powder snow covering a rocky terrain. I sat in my truck waiting for the sun to rise enough so I wouldn’t have to use a head lamp to see with—for me that’s a good safe time for me to hunt, because orange is very bright at this time of morning.
I headed down the road about 500 yards and turned straight up the mountain. Steep is a poor word for how steep this was and the loose square rocks under eight inches of snow was very slick, but I kept moving. I came to a game trail going horizontal to the peak and it looked like a freeway at rush hour in Seattle, so I followed slowly south along the mountain.
I came to an old barbed wire fence, four stands with no posts in sight, lying on the ground at the same point where another game trail headed up, and so did I, stepping over the barbed wire. I know I am on state land, so how old is this fence, I wondered.
I got to the bottom of a rim rock like a castle wall, towering sixty feet above me, and deer tracks—only one set. Now moving west up and around the rim rock, my heart is beating hard, only one track and it’s heading up, just like granddad said. It’s steep and slow going, but I got on top—I do not like heights where I can fall, so on top of the excitement I had the fear of sliding off the rim rock. I climbed about 20 feet above the rim rock and was taking a break behind this snow-covered bush. I was mouth breathing to be quiet and looking up at the peak, thinking I was only halfway there.
Once I relaxed, I looked up for my next place to move and hide, and I see what I think are antlers—yes, antlers! They must be sheds because they are very close to me, I thought, and then they moved—yes, the antlers started to move up, and I was freaking inside. Granddad was spot on!
So I slid my rifle out and up to my shoulder and I quickly looked through the scope, and I cannot see anything; he is too close for the scope. Good gookamoo, what can I do?
The antlers are still moving up and it’s a whole mule deer head, right there. As our eyes met, I pushed my rifle forward, hitting him in the chest, and I pulled the trigger—there was no sound from the rifle but I felt the recoil. The buck jumped to my left, then to his right for one step, and his face and antlers crashed into the ground. He plowed a path parallel down the hill along my track coming up. His antlers got snagged in a bush and he flipped over and came to rest against the bush, about 10 feet above the rim rock edge.
I sat there shaking like a leaf, trying to hang on in a 30 mile per hour wind in the WSS valley floor. He was right there, I tell you, my rifle made contact! Good gookamoo, he could have killed me. As it sank in, I came to realize I had caught him in bed. I quickly looked at my cell phone and it read 9 a.m. on the dot. Holy Toledo, I snuck up on him in bed!
Once I regained my composure, I worked my way down to him and I made sure he was dead and then I tagged him. So I opened him up to start the cooling process and I grabbed my camera and took a few shots.

Going Downhill

I field dressed the buck and tied a rope to his antlers, and used the rope to guide him around the rim rock and down to the truck. Well, the buck had other plans for us—I slipped on a loose rock and he dragged me down the hill at what felt like warp speed.
We came to a sudden stop and my glasses and hat were gone, I had places on my face that felt warm—you know, the kind of warm when blood is leaking out; yes, that is the feeling!
My left arm was stretched down with the deer tied to my wrist and my right hand was holding onto the last strand of barbed wire fence that I had stepped over on my way up. Good gookamoo, we went under the fence.
I planted my feet and slid my right hand out of the glove, leaving it on the barbed wire, and then I pulled out my knife and cut the rope, releasing the buck, and boy, did it make it to the road, all on its own. I removed my left glove and turned around to find my hat and glasses; once I recovered them, I felt the warm spots with my bare hand and, yup, I was bleeding, and had no hunting partner to help and my wife would not be able to get someone there if it’s bad.
So I sat there, calming myself and using my knowledge to figure out that that none of the scratches were life-threatening. I collected my gloves and worked my way down the mountain to the buck that is right beside the road, ready to load himself. I called my wife and I told her I had scratched my face but I was okay.
I drove the truck down and slid the buck into the truck, and back to WSS I headed. By now it’s 11 a.m. I woke my hunting partner up and told him I had a deer to hang in his garage. After we hung, skin, and wrapped the deer, I headed to the clinic.
At the clinic they gave me a tetanus booster shot and wanted to stitch up the scratch—okay, gash—along my chin bone. I asked them if they can stitch it up without shaving my beard and the doctor said no. I asked them not to stitch it then, for two reasons; one, I still needed to help my hunting partner get his deer, because, you know, he does not like to hunt alone. So I can hike with him, but not without my beard to keep my face warm! And the second, and most important, reason is it will always be a reminder to me to never hunt alone.
The ER released me and I headed to the camper. I opened the door and my wife came unglued, telling me I needed to go to the clinic. I said, “Been there, done that!” She laughed, and said, “Where was Don?”

Lesson Learned

I explained to her all that had happened and she agreed it was a good hunt but asked me not to hunt alone again. I agreed.  I took Sunday off to recover a bit and eat the tenderloins from my deer with my wife and Don. We made plans to get his deer, and Monday morning Don and I headed to the river. He wanted a white tail since I got a mule deer; see, we share our harvest. We arrived at the river early and sat on the edge of a bluff and this nice three-point white tailed buck walked out of the brush and Don harvested him without any event.
This year we won and nature lost, but every year is different. A year later, I am all healed up and my wife loves my scarred, bearded face.
Lesson learned: do not hunt alone.

Eric Mongar, after a less dangerous hunt.

Eric Mongar, after a less dangerous hunt.

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Theresa Vail, star of the Outdoor Channel show “Limitless With Theresa Vail,” accidentally shot a bear while hunting in Alaska and then conspired with her Alaska guides to cover it up by improperly tagging the animal, Alaska State Troopers said.

Vail was charged with two misdemeanor offenses in December: taking a brown or grizzly bear without a tag, and second-degree unsworn falsification. Her guides were also charged with failing to report a hunting violation and committing, aiding, or allowing a violation, according to the Alaska Dispatch News. The newspaper reported that one of the guides was also charged with second-degree unsworn falsification.

Vail pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to a year of probation and a $750 fine, according to a report from The Associated Press. The charges against the guides are still pending.

On Facebook, Vail wrote: “This May, during an Alaskan guided bear hunt, I unintentionally harvested a second bear while attempting a follow-up shot. I then followed poor advice and allowed the second bear to be improperly tagged. A few days later, the film crew and I reported the incident and have since fully cooperated with the proper authorities. I am deeply sorry for my mistakes.” (As of the time of this writing, Vail has removed her Facebook account.)

According to show producers, that hunt never aired on the Outdoor Channel.

It is the responsibility of an ethical hunter to report any infraction that he or she observes, including his or her own.

What Should You Do?

Vail’s case has brought game tagging and proper reporting to the forefront. What should you do in a similar situation?

First, you should always be certain of your target, which can help avoid an accidental kill in the first place. Remember, you should only shoot when you know the target is legal and you have a safe backdrop, with no people, animals, or buildings in the zone-of-fire.

Accidents do happen, however. So what is your next step?

Ethical hunters report game violations and abide by game laws and regulations. By Alaska state hunting regulations, no hunter may harvest game without previously having the appropriate license and tags, permits, or harvest tickets for that hunt. Out-of-state hunters like Vail must purchase a locking-tag when hunting big game, such as grizzlies, in Alaska. This type of tag is locked onto the animal immediately after a kill and must remain there until the animal is processed or exported. A tag needs to include the date of the kill and can only be used by the hunter who bought it.

In Vail’s case, one of her guides contacted someone to buy a grizzly tag and flew it by plane out to the site of the hunt, where the bear was tagged. Later, Vail signed the tag and back-dated it to make it appear that it had been purchased the day the bears were killed. However, Vail’s film crew had the second shooting on camera.

The Alaska Dispatch News reported that the Alaska State Troopers released a dispatch about the incident: “(I)nvestigation showed that Theresa Vail had taken a brown/grizzly bear without a tag, and that registered guide (Michael “Wade”) Renfro obtained a locking-tag under false pretense and then falsified paperwork to support and claim that the animal was taken lawfully. Guide (Joseph Andrew) Miller and client Vail were accomplice to these actions.”

The Alaska Hunter’s Ed Course teaches: “It is the responsibility of an ethical hunter to report any infraction that he or she observes, including his or her own. The penalties for violations that are self-reported are often less than they would be if the person tried to hide the violation and was later discovered by authorities. Hunters who report errors will have peace of mind that they are honest and acted responsibly, even if no one observed their violation.”

What’s Next?

Vail’s violation was brought to authorities’ attention on June 3, after the hunt that took place from May 18 to 27, according to the Alaska Dispatch News. While it is good that Vail and her film crew were honest about the situation, a better approach would have been to tell authorities immediately after the accident—it could have saved her both money as well as her reputation.

Vail is hosting the fifth season of “NRA All Access.” It is unclear whether “Limitless” will be shown or what the sentence for the two guides may be.