The clank and clatter of my old mule trailer delivered a metaphorical message to those we passed on the interstate as we traveled north at a steady pace of 68 mph. If the trailer could speak, it would be talking about perseverance and a deep love of chasing critters in the Rockies on muleback. The 24-hour road trip is taxing, but you can’t put mules on an airplane. I bet the passersby wondered what the heck I was doing so far from home. An Arkansas license plate traveling through Montana with a pair of mules would pique my curiosity – but I’m a mule guy. I bet they wouldn’t guess my business was with bears, turkeys and Steve Rinella.
I’d be meeting up with Steve in western Montana to execute our plan of trying to kill a turkey and a bear in a five-day, do-it-yourself hunt. At first, the proposition seemed simple and even doable. As the time approached, the difficulty of the hunt loomed over us. “Usually when you have multiple tags in your pockets, you end up coming home with both of them,” Steve says. Having options can reduce your focus on both species and you end delivering half-hearted efforts. Hunters don’t do this on purpose, but it’s hard not to fall into the trap. Luckily, this was my fourth-year hunting bears in Montana, and I felt like I had a legit game plan. Secondly, I had some intel from my friends, Justin and Rebecca Spring, who live in western Montana and always offer insight only locals have.
The spring black bear season opens up in Montana on April 15th and runs through the first part of June. The turkey season opens in early April and runs the middle of May. Non-residents can buy both of these tags over the counter. Bears and turkeys occupy the same general areas of the state, but don’t live in the same places. Bears are generally deeper in the mountains and at higher elevations, while the turkeys are concentrated near areas of human civilization. Steve explained to me that the introduced population of Montana turkeys thrives on the edges of cities. He doubted we’d find any long beards deep in the mountains where we’d be hunting bears. We’d have to divide our time in different areas, which is a recipe for trouble.
The first morning of our hunt found us on public land but listening to “yard turkeys” gobble out of people’s backyards. Montana is an incredible place and public land often abuts residential areas. I didn’t come to the wilds of Montana to hunt suburbia, but legally chasing gobblers is fun anywhere you can do it. It’s unclear if the turkeys prefer the civilized areas because of fewer predator problems or because people are feeding them. It’s probably both. Regardless, we listened to gobblers sound off all morning. We even saw a few from a distance, but couldn’t close the deal. About midday, after the gobblers went quiet, we loaded up the mules headed for the backcountry to look for bears.
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