What Is the Best Caliber For…

One of the most overused enticements in hunting literature is the ever popular "What is the best caliber for?..." Before we get too far into this article, I will assure you that there is not a definitive answer to that question. We are not here to argue that the 30.06 is the most popular caliber ever, or that the 7mm-08 is the ideal whitetail whacker, or that it takes a 338 Lapua to kill a big buck at 600 yards. We are here because I am looking for a new rifle. In particular, a new elk rifle for grizzly country.

grizzly1I may dampen your adrenaline rush a bit by telling you that I favor the 7-08 for deer. I also think the 7mm Mag is a great choice for elk. Both 7mm calibers can do the job well out to 300 yards and, in the right hands, beyond. Since I already have these calibers, it is obvious that I am itching for a new shooting stick. If I am so sure that a 7mm Remington mag is a good elk rifle, why am I eying a possible replacement? The twist in this mix is defense. I can assure you of 2 things. First, an attack by a large predator would most likely be unexpected. Second, I would not throw down my rifle and attempt to outdraw a charging mama Grizzly with a six-shooter. If I am carrying a rifle, I intend to use it.

I hate to break this to the "Quick Draw McGraws" out there, but it a head-to-head dual with a furry carnivore, even the mild-mannered 7mm-08 can overpower the mighty 500 Smith & Wesson when it comes to close-range lethality. This is not a video game, and you cannot press the space bar to cycle through weapons. I have looked at, and lifted, both the Smith 500 and Ruger 460 wheel guns. They are impressive. They are also inherently heavy. Carrying a pack, a rifle, and a heavy pistol (even in a chest holster) is cumbersome. I did not say impossible. I recommend the chest holster from the great folks at Guides Choice if that is the approach you are looking for. The obvious choice for more defensive power in a single firearm is a large bullet at a velocity that only a long-gun can deliver.

Unlike many riflemen, Icartridge30 am not ashamed to admit that recoil becomes a factor when discussing rifles above the 300 Win mag range. The 300 Mag is a definite improvement over the 7 Mag for dangerous animals at the ranges we are discussing. The question is, how much shoulder punishment can a hunter absorb and still maintain long-range accuracy? Unless you are Superman, you have limits in this area as well. If you are Superman, I apologize. Just let the bear gnaw at you for a while, then toss it back into the woods. For the rest of us, there is a trade-off between the long-range accuracy needed for elk in open country, and the loss of precision that comes from recoil anticipation while yanking the bang switch on a fire-belching, lead foundry. A fellow hunter suggested a Browning lever action in a 358 Win. I do not disagree that this is a fine defensive caliber. Much like my 45-70 lever gun, it lacks the long-range performance I am looking for.

Let's look at two options. Both are documented performers, and have a well-earned respect in the shooting industry. First, the Weatherby 30-378. Yes, there are larger Weatherby calibers that are more bear-worthy, but the Accumark line with a muzzle break brings the recoil down to a level that is manageable in a long range rifle. The other option is the venerable 338 Win Mag. This is the go to caliber for many Alaskan guides. The performance of the 338 Win is admirable at mid to fairly long range trajectories. Once again, there are options for a muzzle brake if the recoil is above manageable levels. In case you were wondering... The recoil on these 2 calibers is very similar.

The next step in the selection process is to search the availability of rifles in these calibers. The 30-378 is simple. There are Sako,and Weatherby rifles chambered for the long range cartridge. The Weatherby options vary from the new $2600 Terra-mark, to the new Accu-guard at $950. For the 338 Win, the possibilities are huge. It seems that almost every arms manufacturer still in business has, at one time or another, chambered a rifle in the 338 Win Mag. Since I have my fair share of Winchesters and Remingtons, I would lean towards a Sako Classic, or a very reasonable Savage. So, the guns are out there. Let's get to a very real factor... the cost of ammo.

Does a hundred bucks for 20 factory cartridges seem a little high? I am being generous.The difference between a box of factory ammo for the 30-378 and the 338 is around $100, with the Winchester cartridge hovering between $35 and $50. I have no issues paying for a quality rifle that will hold its value. I do have issues with $7 flying out the barrel with every practice shot.

elk4Now for the bad news, I have not made my decision yet. Seem like a bait and switch story? Not really. As I said in the beginning, there is no perfect option. That is especially true when this decision is applied to other hunters with different abilities. The problem with my scenario is that there is a trade-off between the best long range calibers and the short range defensive varieties. If I were hunting on Kodiak Island, I would lean heavily towards a short barreled 338. If I stalked a 6x6 bull all day and never got closer than 500 yards, I would curse my choice. The opposite would hold true as well. In the unlikely event of a bear charge, my brain would be screaming, "45-70 lever!" as I attempted to swing the 26 in barrel and high magnification scope at a furry, blurry target.

There are other reasons I chose the 2 calibers above. At some point I intend to hunt for moose and bear... 338 territory. I would also like to customize a long ranger... 30-378, possibly 300 RUM. I have been debating this since the spring thaw. I have also been wearing out the "Watch This" icon over at GunBroker. Whichever I choose first, it will go in the safe for this year. It is time for some range practice, and my 7 Rem Mag is looking mighty comfy as my elk rifle again this year. I can still strap on the old 44 Mag for camp duty. There is a lot to be said for being familiar with your firearm. A wise man once said that a bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush. That thought applies well when comparing new rifles to your trusted favorites.

Bursting Some Elk?

Montana or burst! OK, not my best intro. Let me explain. My wife is probably not too thrilled with the idea of my travelling to Montana to chase elk and the like. As an english major, she would be even less impressed if I had led off this article by incorrectly using the word “bust.” Let’s just accept that the intro is grammatically correct, and move on to the good stuff.montana1895
After several years of great hunting excursions in the mountains of Colorado, it is time for some different scenery. I have applied for an open elk tag in “big sky country.” Those familiar with big game license draws will understand that I am not sure if I will get a Montana hunt or not. Every state has different rules when it comes to hunting. Specific areas have limited draws every year. In some areas where management is stringent, the number of hunters drawn is in the single digits. By applying for an open area, I am hoping for a tag that allows me to at least get a chance at hunting my first year in Montana.
Since I intend to document this entire experience here for the reader’s benefit, let me explain a few things about Montana’s elk regulations. Unlike Colorado, there is only one elk season. You heard me! Much like whitetail hunting in the Midwest, the season is open for a few weeks. Also, like the Midwest, there are different rules for each hunting area. This is where it gets confusing. An elk hunting license will allow you to hunt elk in Montana… in the correct areas. If you have specific armontanaelkea in mind, you may also need a permit. Both must be applied for.
Big game licenses cost a bit more in Montana than Colorado. Often, one of the deciding factors for a Montana hunt is that an issued license includes both elk and deer. Hold It! You need to be aware that deer populations are managed separately from elk. An area where a permit is not required for elk, may require a deer permit in addition to the license. Yes, it seems confusing. It is not quite as befuddling as the multi-season-soduko form you have to fill out for Colorado, but a good plan is still needed.
I should learn of my draw success (or failure) in mid-April. Win-lose-or-draw, I intend to continue this discussion about western hunting. Guides and those experienced with hunting north of Yellowstone and along the Idaho border are encouraged to comment or contact me. Any advice is appreciated, and experienced hunters/guides may be on future podcasts. For those who are curious how a western big game hunt comes together, continue to check back. I will chronicle the journey here.

Dove Hunting

dove1Of all the crazy things that sportsmen do, dove hunting has to be one of the most idiotic. Dove hunters get up too early, and hunt when its too hot. They buy guns that are too expensive, and blast too many shells at birds that are too fast. They sit in fence rows, brush piles, corn fields, lawn chairs, deer stands, and stickery trickery berry patches. This is all in an attempt to bag a bird with a breast the size of a walnut. To make matters worse, this year Missouri's dove season started on the last day of a 3 day weekend. You would be a fool to give up sleep to pursue such trivial creatures on a holiday.

muddybootsMy friend and I skooched (that is correct English in Missouri) our way up the dirt path that farm equipment had left through the bean field towards some old grain bins. Our footprints grew larger as the brownish clay soil gathered on our boots. We had started at daybreak next to the grain bins along the edge of the field. Another farmer had cut silage in the next field over. We knew the doves would be meeting there for breakfast. What we didn't realize was mosquitoes eat breakfast long before doves do.

Looking straight up into the gray morning sky, I could see the mosquitoes had entered a holding pattern over my head. The smaller ones would dive-bomb me in the shoulder every now and then to distract me as the big ones were cleared for descent to aim for my face and neck. I tried to focus on the doves flying a route along a power line an eighth of a mile from us. "Holy crap!" says my hunting partner, "You have a huge mosquito on your hat". As a kid, I don't know how many times I saw Alan Hale - "The Skipper" hit Bob Denver - "Gilligan" with his skipper's hat, but I agreed to play Gilligan's role if it would stop the attack. Since the mosquitoes and my buddy were having all the fun, a relocation down the slick path to the power lines seemed like a good distraction.

Once we got situated closer to the power lines the doves decided to change course, and fly an eighth mile to either side of our new location. We discussed camo, and why the doves kept avoiding our area. I sometimes laugh at our inability to think as wild animals. If I can pick out a hunter in camo at a quarter mile, I am sure that it is much more simple for a dove flying overhead. Our new location was a bust. At least the mosquitoes didn't follow us. They were probably just too heavy at that point to fly.

Skootch - to sneak as quietly as possible from on spot to another. We skootched through the clay back toward the grain bins. As we approached our previous location, we noticed doves gathering in a dead tree just beyond the bins. A plan was quickly formed where my hunting buddy would sneak along one side of the bins, then I would walk out the other side, spooking the wary quarry towards him. I gave him about a minute before I walked out nonchalantly singing, "The movie star, the professor and Marie Ann"... Blam Blam Blam! The doves had acted as I predicted. As they passed my hunting buddy, he slung $5 down the barrel and successfully knocked one down. As he returned victorious, he tossed the bird into the bed of my truck. "You can have him", he said.

I headed for home. It felt like my truck had lost power, or that I had a greater load than when I had arrived to hunt,  A mysterious object had caused a rapid decompression in a rear tire on my toy hauler. That, combined with the weight of the dove in the bed of my truck, caused my fuel gauge to drop a little as I lumbered the 3 miles home. I would need to fix that tire tomorrow... and refill the LP tanks... and put more diesel in the truck. As the calculations went through my head, I determined that dove hunting must be the most expensive way to satisfy ones desire to put meat on the table.

I remember a humorous piece by Jeff Foxworthy where he explained that his wife should be more appreciative of venison. With all of the expenses figured in, he calculated that deer meat was the most expensive meat on the planet.  I beg to differ. The same 4-wheeler, trailer, pickup, an other accoutrements that were used on Jeff's deer hunt were employed on our dove outing. The difference is in the return on investment. Since I was shooting a 20 gauge, I was only throwing an ounce of shot bear6down the barrel at a time. This was done with the hopes of earning a one ounce dove breast per shot. That is close to a one-to-one ratio. With that calculation in mind, Jeff would have had to fire a round from a battleship to knock down a 250 pound buck to be in the same ballpark. Larger game / more meat can be obtained with a comparatively teeny bullet.

So, there you have it. This article is not intended to make light of those who take their dove hunting seriously. Consider it instead as a plea for my wife to exult in my value-mindedness when I discuss another elk hunting trip to Colorado, or bear hunting expedition to Minnesota. After all, i am just trying to save us some money... comparatively.

An Early Taste of Hunting Season (hashtag new gun)

Play

We see it every year.  Some overanxious manager has to propose a Christmas in July sales event.  Obviously, the idea is to make money.  I'm all for making some moola, but my early event is based more on emotion than bringing in some greenbacks.  This week my Colorado elk tag came in the mail!  This simple event has my brain thinking of cooler weather, shimmering aspens, flagging white tails, and geese honking overhead.  These are 444Marlinwishful thoughts as hay dust seeps into my cab tractor with no A/C in 90 degree temps and 90 percent humidity.  I say we think cooler weather, and go with it.

There are things that need attention throughout the year to assure a truly good hunting season.  Food plots, salt licks, stand maintenance, new gun, lane clearing, and bow practice are all things that must be addressed.  (did you notice how I nonchalantly placed "new gun" in the middle of that sentence?)  Deer archery season is not so far away.  If I started practicing now, I would have Popeye-like arms by the time the season started.  It is just too hot out for bow practice.  A lot of things on my list fall into the "too hot right now" category.   Wait a minute... I could address that new gun thing without sweating much!  (I am not as subtle as I once was.)

I have pistols, long range rifles, deer guns, black powder rifles and so on, but one thing is missing from my arsenal.  I don't have a good, get close, honest to goodness, big bore timber gun.  I have been perusing gun sites on the internet, scouring ballistics charts, and hiding from my wife.  All of these are signs that a new gun may magically appear soon.  I have narrowed my choice to the tried and true 444 Marlin lever action.  I can still buy these new, or find a good used one.  Ammo for the 444 is not cheap, but has not yet been added to the endangered list like .22 shells and 223 ammo.  Knockdown power is similar to the 450 Marlin, and the range is a touch better than the 45-70.

I can already see myself Elmer Fuddin through the deep, dark timber at 9,000 feet.  Before I get ahead of myself, I have to find the gun.  That said, consider this an update, and a chance for me to make readers jealous.  I will post more info as project "Big Bore" progresses.

 

Elk Hunting Trip (pt 3)

Three of us had driven out to Gunnison Colorado from Missouri.  Jimmy the jet-setter (also from Missouri) avoided the tedium by flying in to the local airport.  We hauled my 4 wheeler,  Jimmy's Ranger, and a some boxes full of HoHo's and Bear Paws (known as jimmy food) out in a 24 foot enclosed trailer.  On the 3rd day, Jimmy arrived at the airport, so we took a break from hunting and went to pick him up.  He was lucky he flew in when he did.  A storm blew in and we had 10 inches of snow up on Red Mountain.  We had seen nothing up to this point, and were hopeful the snow would give us a clue.  Jimmy drove us around to look for tracks, all the while poking at his cell phone and admiring his new sunglasses.  (please note that the black things around Jimmy's bibs are "gators" for keeping snow out of his boots, not for making his calves look slimmer)

Even with Jimmy's help, we were unable to locate a single sign of any elk.  After returning to the cabin, we decided to split up.  Several of the hunters headed down toward the sage brush and I was going to make a loop around the top of the mountain.  After a 3 mile loop I saw it,  the only actual elk evidence we had seen in four days.  Between 2 stretches of pines was a lone set of bull elk tracks.  Three hunters pushed the timber while the rest set up in strategic spots to wait for the elk.  An hour later, we all met up at the bottom of the wooded area, no elk!  We soon found the tracks leading onto a neighbor's property.  The bull had passed through during the night as we slept.

That was pretty much the story for the rest of the trip.  Eat, sleep, freeze your butt off in that dang outhouse, and stomp around looking for some sign that elk were present.  We never found another track.  It grew quite monotonous over the next few days.  We were lucky to have good folks on the trip.  We talked about previous hunts, our jobs, lives, and that stupid leaning outhouse!  It seems the previous party had threatened to burn the thing down.  We ate lots of steak, taters, burgers with roostershire sauce, and plenty of Jimmy Snacks.  Of course, that just meant more time in the outhouse!

By the seventh evening, we had thrown in the proverbial towel.  The season would be over the next day, and we had exhausted all hope of finding an elk on this portion of Red Mountain.  The next morning was familiar.  We crumpled papers to light the wood stoves and lit the lanterns, but it felt a little surreal.  We were not hunting this day, it was time for packing up.  As I rolled up my sleeping bag, a commotion started in the back of the cabin.  BOOM!  "Shoot it again" someone yelled.  BOOM, BOOM, we all headed to the rear of the cabin.  When I arrived I saw Jimmy, pistol leveled and aiming at his target.  I drew my Ruger 44 and assisted him in finishing off his trophy.  This may sound a little un-sportsman-like, but we left it there at the top of that mountain.  No time to pack it out.  We high-fived each other and with our ATVs loaded, we headed down.

We reached the bottom of the mountain and said goodbye to our hosts.  Pictures were taken, and a lot of apologies were directed at us about the lack of game.  We kept our mouths shut and headed back East over the mountain passes towards Missouri.  I don't know who is hunting 3rd season there, but if you are on private property 3 miles up Red Mountain in a cabin with one awesome view, you may find our trophy.  About 30 yards behind the cabin is an outhouse.  It will be easy to find.  It has lots of splinters on the seat, and 12 bullet holes in the side of it.

 

Elk Hunting Trip (pt 2)

I awoke about 5 in the morning.  Someone was trying to get the fire going in the kitchen.  My sleeping bag was toasty, but my face was cold.  I heard newspapers being crumpled and logs being loaded into the old wood stove below me.  Burt began to thrash around on the other side of the loft.  "Damn it's cold!" he said, "I's freezin' my baws off!".  Being from the midwest, Burt's Louisiana accent was sometimes hard for me to follow, but I knew what "baws" were and was glad mine were not frozen.  Burt scrambled down to help with the stove.  His hasty and clumsy run down the stairs woke the ground floor residents, and began what would become a recurring morning ritual.  One by one the complaints rolled out.  "Man, your feet stink!", "Well, at least I don't snore", "Yeah, ain't your nose sore after all that racket?", "Shut up sleep talker!".  Knowing my tendency for snoring, I relished in the fact that they were downstairs and I was almost out of hearing distance.  The heat was now building in the loft, and I slipped on my long johns, flannels, outer layers, and headed down to meet the sleepy eyed hunters.

The boys from Vegas were world class hunters.  Having hunted in Africa, New Zealand, and other imaginary places, you had to respect their experience.  They were from Vegas however, and soon the generator was whirring, and the electric coffee pot puttered.  These guys had brought a 3 burner camp stove and balanced it on top of the original wood fired model.  I filled my stainless percolator and cranked the burner knob.  The percolator took a long time to boil, but my coffee was done about the same time the electric pot was full.  It was an interesting combination of solar powered lights, LP gas stoves, wood heat, fuel oil lanterns, and battery power that became very familiar to us for the next 8 days.  We talked hunting and drank coffee until we heard an old truck rumble to a stop outside.  "Dale's here", somebody said.

The location we were hunting was a mix of BLM property and land owned by Dale's family.  He entered the cabin followed by his less coherent sidekick Jack.  Dale was going to place us in promising spots on the mountain and after an elk pep rally, we climbed into the slick and frozen truck bed.  "Here we go", said my buddy "Rooster".  As the truck bounced over rocks down the 10 percent grade, we slid around in the bed and struggled to keep a grip on anything handy.  There were lots of raised eyebrows, but other than Jack's constant muttering, nothing was said.  We jerked to a stop and a lump of camouflage mumbling "Oh Lawd" slid into me.  "Morning Burt", I said jokingly.  Dale asked for the first volunteer to watch a large clearing.  I was happy to egress the truck and was over the side before anyone else had the chance.  I watched and listened as the taillights weaved on down the mountain.

As morning light began to take over, I found myself on a pond bank overlooking a 400 yard meadow between the aspens.  Settling in, I placed my pack on the ground, positioned my rifle on top and I behind it.  Some mulie does grazed 300 yards downrange.  Slowly, I became aware of some noise in the trees 100 yards to my right.  "It can't be this easy", I thought to myself.  Since I was already well camouflaged, I just watched the tree line, waiting for an elk to come out.  The crunching footsteps and cracking of limbs got louder until he broke through the brush.  There he stood...  It was Jack with a beer and cigarette in one hand and his rifle in the other.  He seemed a little startled when he saw my hunter orange clad figure on the ground in front of him.  Shrugging his shoulders, he turned and headed back into the timber.  The sun was finally hitting my hunting spot, but before I could enjoy any of the warmth, I heard the truck coming back to pick us up.  I glanced at my watch.  40 minutes?  I had only been there 40 minutes?!?  As you can guess, this was not turning out to be the type of elk hunt I had hoped for.

Elk Hunting Trip (pt 1)

If you have ever been on an elk hunting trip, you know it requires a lot of preparation.  I spent countless hours going over what I would need on my 9 days away from home.  The biggest problem was I had never been to this location before and was unsure of what I needed to bring.  Would I be out on my own in the mountains?  Survival gear?  Emergency food?  So, I started with the basics.

One thing I knew I would need was my gun!  I made several trips to my home-made gun range slinging magnum caliber bullets downrange until I was happy with the results.  What you see in the picture holding the gun is known as a "Lead Sled".  It is used when overzealous folks like myself begin slinging so many magnum caliber bullets downrange that their shoulder hurts!  There should be a couple of bags of bird shot weighing it down.  For some reason my brother-in-law took off with those, so I had to make do with anything heavy I could pile on there.  To avoid any family tension, brother-in-law claims the bags of bird shot were his to start with.

Soon it was time to load all my gear into as small a space as possible and get on the road.  Gear boxes and duffle bags were crammed with items as I checked them off the list.  Toilet paper was second on the list and took up some space.  Cell phone, dried and canned food, cooking pots, expensive flashlights, cot and pad, new lantern, and about everything I was used to at home was crammed onto my recently re-purposed 4 wheeler trailer.  This, along with my 4 wheeler was loaded onto a flatbed trailer and I was off to meet some hunting buddies.

A short 4 hour drive later and I was at my buddies house.  Everything was unloaded from my trailer and reloaded into his.  It is a good thing we packed light, or we could never have crammed our gear into the 4 door long bed pickup and 24 foot cargo trailer!  Once we had exceeded to trailer's weight limitation, we decided we had enough stuff and headed for Colorado.  The 16 hour drive was long, but was interrupted every few hundred miles by stops to refuel the truck with diesel from a tank we carried in the bed.  Determined to make good time, we vowed not to stop anymore than needed.  The sun rose the next morning to find us busily sleeping in a parking lot 3 hours from our destination.  We weren't tired when we stopped.  We had calculated 2 hours of rest would give us the strength required to hold onto the "Oh Shit" handles in the truck as we pulled the trailer up and over the 11,000' Monarch Pass.  Our calculations proved to be correct.

By mid-morning the second day we arrived at our chosen hunting spot.  Everything was unloaded and reloaded onto 4 wheelers, UTVs, and trailers.  We scratched and clawed our way 3 miles up the mountain to the cabin.  The cabin was perched close to the top of the mountain and was fashioned from milled D-logs, imagination, and old car parts.  Do not attempt to copy this plan unless you have a '64 Chevy station wagon from which to procure the upper windows.  Two wood stoves kept the cabin somewhat comfortable.  That is more than I can say for the outhouse.  It was also crafted from milled lumber, but leaned back far enough that one was required to make full contact with the seat on 10 degree mornings.  It made for short outhouse visits, but the view from the throne was amazing.

We met our fellow hunters.  Two were from Las Vegas, a couple guys from Louisiana, some of us from Missouri, all guided by 2 Colorado rednecks (who knew?) in an old pickup that was used to shuttle us around the mountains.  We set up our cots and got acquainted with our fellow hunters.  I volunteered for the loft and was curious as to why the veterans of this group shunned the lofty sleeping quarters.  Burt, a true Louisiana coon-ass, decided to move in with me due to a lack of downstairs space.  He had no cot, so he arranged his sleeping bag and blankets on the floor.  Someone stoked up the wood stoves and we were off to bed.    As the heat from the stoves kicked in, I felt a bead of sweat forming on my forehead.  "Oh Lawd it's hot!" complained Burt, as he stripped down to his skivvies in the dark.  Despite the snoring, passing of gas, and giggling downstairs, I held confidence in our newly formed hunting group.  I mean...  What could go wrong?   cont...