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For the ultimate trophy trip, go after a Montana bull.

For any road trip, it’s good to have a detailed plan. But it’s equally important to leave a little room for luck. Even the best-laid plans are prone to going off track now and then, but a willingness to go with the flow just might lead to the biggest bull of your life, as it did for me on what was supposed to be a backcountry elk hunt in Montana.

Road Trip Checklist: Days required; 7-10: Necessary Paperwork: Combination license ($809); elk permit for draw unit ($9): Must-Have Gear: Bear spray; Before You Go: Get into “elk shape” by hiking local hills, carrying a loaded pack; Last-Resort Guide: Montana Hunting Co.

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Photos by Tom Fowlks

My drive from Nebraska to Bozeman zigzagged from I-80 to I-25 through Wyoming’s Great Basin before hanging a left at Billings to follow the Yellowstone River into some of Montana’s best elk country. I arrived at my friend Bill’s house late, anxious to pack into the Gallatin National Forest for tomorrow’s hunt. Bill, on the other hand, was far from ready. He hadn’t packed, and his bow wasn’t shooting up to his standards. We spent hours on the range and before we knew it, evening was approaching.

I tried not to show my frustration, but Bill could sense it and suggested a quick hike in the hills near town. “Let’s go stretch our legs before tomorrow,” he said. “Take your bow–just in case.” I didn’t plan on running into any elk, let alone the kind of bull I’d driven more than 10 hours to hunt, but that’s when serendipity struck.

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We weren’t but a few hundred yards from the truck parked just off State Route 86 when I caught the flash of a white rump through the brush. Bill’s bugle was cut off by the guttural grunts of a big bull, and our leisurely hike turned into a mad scramble as I shoved myself against the nearest pine. Bill made a few mewing cow calls, and seconds later, the bull trotted over the ridge above me.

When the bull stopped to violently thrash a small tree just 30 yards to my right, my knees turned to jelly. I willed myself into action, simultaneously stepping from the brush and drawing my bow. And just like that, my long-awaited hunt was literally over before it started.

I killed my bull north of Bozeman in the Bridger Range. The hunting there, in units 312 and 393, can be good with plenty of access off Bridger Canyon Road, but the flip side of easy access is more pressure. The farther north you go, the better the chance of escaping Bozeman residents sneaking in a “quick hike” after work.

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Hunting/Camping location: Rocking Y Grass Fed Beef Ranch

The units south of town, where we’d planned to hunt, offer plenty of rugged country in which to lose the crowds if you’re willing to venture off the trailhead. For years, this was Montana’s traditional elk hunting hotspot, but depredation from both wolves and grizzlies has had a significant effect on elk numbers in the areas surrounding Yellowstone National Park. Several of the units here, including 310 and 313, only allow for the harvest of a brow-tined bull through a special elk permit, but permit numbers are unlimited in a few units.

Cold, wet weather increases the chances of punching your tag, as heavy snows will push elk out of the high country and into the valleys bordering Gallatin Canyon. No matter the forecast, come prepared to hunt hard. There’s no such thing as an easy elk hunt out here.

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My Montana road trip didn’t go quite like I’d planned, but it ended exactly as I’d hoped–with the bed of my truck loaded down with elk meat and a 6×7 rack, as I drove home heavy.

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