Out of Bounds

Happy Holiday Hunting

Montana’s rifle season might be the greatest public land, general hunting season in the known universe.

By Rob Breeding

Confession. I’ve never hunted on Thanksgiving Day, at least not as hunting is generally defined in Montana. In other words, I’ve never hunted “big game” on Thanksgiving Day.

People in Montana enjoy other types of hunting, obviously, but when I think of the Montana Thanksgiving tradition, it’s big game. I did some big game hunting in Montana, but my exploits came later, killing two elk, both following a move to Arizona.

After that, I formed a pack with my first English setter and I’ve been a bird hunter ever since. I don’t even hunt waterfowl. I’ve seen my setters try to swim. It’s not pretty. 

The Montana big game holiday tradition makes sense, of course, especially in the western part of the state. Montana’s rifle season might be the greatest public land, general hunting season in the known universe. And it closes three days after the holiday, so yeah, hunters are gonna hunt.

But if your morning hunt is successful, and you have an elk to deal with, the holiday festivities are pretty much shot. That’s a pretty significant shortcoming for me. I like the Thanksgiving feast and want to participate. I don’t want to spend the day up to my elbows in elk.

Also, once I caught up to my mom in the culinary skills department, I’ve pretty much been the best cook in whatever family arrangement I’ve since organized. That usually means I’m cooking.

Bird hunting allows me to do both. Especially unsuccessful bird hunting. The Flathead is usually a good provider in this regard.

I’m often a guest for Thanksgiving these days, which means a morning bird hunt is much simpler to execute. Instead of prepping the whole affair, I’ve only one item to make, and again this year it’s sourdough dinner rolls. Since 2020 and the birth of Sis, my starter, that’s pretty much my Thanksgiving game.

Since the prep is mostly the day before, sourdough is the ideal potluck Thanksgiving dish. The rolls proof while I hunt, then go in the oven at the last minute. Some folks are intimidated by a turkey, so rolls give me time to assume carving duties. That’s the best way to commandeer the oysters.

This year I’ll squeeze in a short hunt. I might purposely avoid those places more likely to produce a pheasant. Instead, I’ll make it a purist’s morning. Quail or nothing. 

A while back, out in Billings, The Track Coach and I took advantage of a low-entanglement Thanksgiving to head south for pre-dinner festivities in the chukar grounds south of Bridger. Well, I hunted. Coach spent the morning getting his exercise out of the way, running on the two tracks in the valley while I climbed the hills looking for birds. 

I didn’t find any. There were tracks, however, in dried mud, so I couldn’t be certain how long ago they’d been there. That turned out to be the perfect Thanksgiving pre-hunt of all time. I had four chukars, plucked, brined and waiting to be roasted back in Billings.

I whipped up a few sides and we were in business.

There’s no getting around the mammoth chore that awaits a successful Thanksgiving Day elk hunter, however. So you better have pre-clearance for such activities.

The most important thing is that whatever you decide, make sure someone else is taking care of the bird. Never, under any circumstances, agree to a morning hunt in which you are committed to providing the bird for Thanksgiving dinner. There’s almost no better guarantee of failure than raising the stakes like that. In any event, the theme of the Thanksgiving hunt should be about giving thanks for living in a place where you can go out and do something like hunting. That sort of freedom is a rarity on this planet.

Embrace the freedom of your holiday walk carrying a firearm. Just don’t spoil it by shooting something.

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