COLUMBIA FALLS – Al Paine smiles so much it’s hard to tell he’s in pain. But old World War II injuries in his feet are haunting him. These days he walks with a cane or cruises around on his Golden Companion scooter. The grocery store seems a lot farther from home than it used to. And the woods seem even farther, which is more painful than anything for the 86-year-old. He loves elk hunting.
But on two memorable October days over the past two years, Paine mustered up the mobility to take his .35 Whelen rifle into the woods in search of the wild wapiti. Both times, he shot a large bull. And both times, Mike Robison was there, including last Monday when Robison and Chad Taber helped call in a 5-by-5 bull that Paine promptly took down.
For Paine, a tough old-timer facing the dreary prospect of immobility after seven decades of hunting, it was an emotional moment. For Robison, it was worth every cent lost from closing down his All About Sports and Tool Shed shops in Columbia Falls for the day. Money can’t buy moments like those.
“He was in tears,” Robison said of Paine. “It was so cool. It was something else.”
It was the second year in a row Robison has accompanied Paine on a hunting trip, serving as a sort of guide for his elder. Last fall, Robison and two acquaintances helped Paine get a massive 7-by-8 bull.
This year, Robison and Paine, along with Taber, returned to the same area, a Block Management chunk of land owned by Columbia Falls Aluminum Company and reserved for hunters with disabilities and youth. Paine, disabled from World War II injuries, has drawn a permit each of the last two years.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks entered into the Block Management partnership with CFAC three years ago. Lee Anderson, FWP’s regional game warden captain, said the property is the only hunting area he’s aware of in Montana that’s open exclusively to the disabled and youth. Anderson said game warden Perry Brown deserves much of the credit for starting up the program.
“It’s very unique,” Anderson said.
The CFAC land is divided into a 900-acre southern section located east of Columbia Falls and a 1,000-acre northern section situated below the base of Teakettle Mountain. The southerly portion has roads from which disabled hunters with proper permits can shoot from their vehicles. The northern part is walk-in. FWP wardens patrol and enforce regulations on the full 1,900 acres.
Hopeful hunters enter into drawings for one-day permits. A hunter who draws a tag gets the entire northerly or southerly section to his or herself for a full day during the season, and is allowed to bring companions. In Paine’s case, Robison and the other companions aided with field dressing and transporting the animal, in addition to helping Paine get in the position to make a kill.
Allowing only one hunting party each day, Anderson said, gives the permit holder the best possible chance at shooting an animal. And closing off the property for three days a week prevents overhunting.
“It’s not a huge area,” Anderson said. “We wanted to provide maximum opportunity and maintain a quality hunt. We want to make sure hunters aren’t just crawling all over each other.”
Paine frequents Robison’s stores in Columbia Falls and over the years the two have gotten to know each other well. Last year, Paine mentioned that “he didn’t have anybody to go hunting with him,” Robison said.
“I said, ‘Shoot, I have a lot of buddies who would like to help,’” Robison said. “I never thought we’d get two elk in two years.”
Any elk hunter knows how difficult it is harvest an animal, let alone a trophy. Paine is a sure shot with his trusty .35 Whelen, but his success can also likely be attributed to a combination of good fortune, good hunting buddies and good things happening to a deserving guy.
“Al, he’s a heck of a good guy,” Robison said.
Paine has put in many years of tromping through the high mountains in freezing weather, searching for that elusive bull. Perhaps he is being rewarded for all of those years. He said his bull last year was either the largest he’s ever shot or at least in the top two, rivaled only by one he shot 20 years ago in Canada.
This year’s bull, harvested on Oct. 24, was divvied up between Paine, Robison and Taber. Paine said he gave the nicest cuts away, partly because “I can only eat burger these days with my teeth the way they are” but mostly to show his gratitude for his younger hunting pals.
“They worked so hard to help me,” Paine said. “Mike closed down his business and Chad took the day off work.”
Robison said his two hunting trips with Paine are the only two times he has shut down his stores for reasons other than family. And he will gladly do it again next year. When customers come to Robison’s door, instead of finding an open store they find a sign: “Happy Hunting.”
And if those customers could see Paine, they would understand that the sign is more than a well-worn, old saying. Rather, it’s a fitting description of what it’s like to spend an October day in the woods with an 86-year-old man who, on that day, has walked away from his pain.
“I’ve been hunting my whole life,” Paine said. “I love it. I just love being able to get out. The way it is now, I’m cooped enough.
“I’m already making plans for next year.”
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