Central Montana Elk Hunting: Part 1

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As we transition into North Central Montana’s Region 4, we have far less contiguous elk habitat than we had in Western Montana’s Regions 1, 2 and 3.  Many of the units are nearly devoid of elk and/or public land, so I’ll also include South Central Montana’s Region 5 in this article.  Region 5 seems a good fit with Region 4, as it too suffers from access issues in many of its units, and the elk populations are thinly distributed throughout the region.  I’ll just focus on the major public land areas.  I’m still waiting on a current copy of the Block Management properties, which may change my assessment of a few of these places.  But until then, all I can address is public land hunting.  Region’s 4 and 5 are excellent deer country, so I’ll also try to make a point of pointing out some of the hot spots here if you’re after a combo.

Significant mountainous areas with public land include some of the Continental Divide Country and portions of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas southeast of Glacier National Park, the east side of the Big Belts, the Little Belts, the Big Snowys, the Judith Mountains, portions of the Beartooths and Absarokas, the Pryor Mountains and the east side of the Crazy Mountains.  Of these mountain ranges, the Big and Little Belts, Big Snowys, Judith Mountains, and Pryor Mountains do not have much in the way of backcountry, and are better suited to a truck based hunt.

On average, the success rates are slightly higher here than in Western Montana.  Most units with legitimate elk populations average in the mid to upper 20s and lower 30s.  This is probably a combination of easier access, a few limited draw areas and more private land hunting.  Limited permit hunting severely restricts the opportunities for those trying to use a general permit.  Basically, the only general permit areas with both elk and public land are: 415, 416, 422, 424, 425, 432, 442, 446, 449, 452, 454, 540, and 560.

If we stay within the general units for right now, the top harvests come from Hunting Districts 416, 446, and 560.  416 is a popular, but productive area on the west side of the Little Belt Mountains, much of which is part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest.  There are quite a few roads through the area, which is both good and bad.  Hunting pressure is nicely distributed, and though there aren’t nearly as many hunters as most of the National Forests in Western Montana, you’re still not likely to completely escape it.  There’s just not much point in backpacking in this area because you’ll come to another road on the backside of nearly every hill.  So, while 416 isn’t for everyone, it should appeal to those who’d like a more casual hunt and don’t want to be far from camp, yet still be able to hunt in productive elk country.  The country here, while far from flat, is also relatively gentle as far as elk country goes.

Unit 446 borders 416 to the west, but has far less contiguous public land to hunt.  If you’re ok with that, it can also be very productive in a few little pockets on the eastern half of the Big Belts.  The limited number of roads up in the Rock Creek, Jim Ball Basin and Snedaker Basin always appealed to me.  As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, inconvenient places to hunt near the borders of limited units turns away a lot of casual hunters, and this portion of 446 pretty much defines that.  There are far more hunters in 446 down near Watson and Duck Creek Pass.

560 is another one of my old haunts, and where I made a huge mistake by not checking my equipment before heading out for the weekend.  I had received a tent for Christmas from my grandmother the year before and when we were assigning gear to bring, I volunteered this new tent.  I said it was a two man tent, and we planned accordingly with one of the other guys bringing a 3 man tent, which should have left plenty of room between the two for the four of us.  Turns out, I never noticed that the tent Grandma gave me was designed for children aged 6-12, and was only 5 feet long.  It also had no separate fly, just little flaps that could be deployed above the vents.  The tiny tent and the snowstorm that blew in after a long night of playing cards and imbibing warming liquids made for one of the most miserable nights I’ve ever spent in the woods.  My joints were awfully stiff the next morning for the hike up Contact Mountain.  In the following weeks and years, we had several successful hunts here, but that awful night is what will always stick out in my mind.  560, which straddles the Boulder River drainage south of Big Timber and all the way down into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is some extremely steep and rugged country, which is probably what deters so many from hunting here.  While we never backpacked in this unit, we probably should have.  The 2,000 foot plus climbs out of the river drainage where the campgrounds are located makes for some miserable days after day 2. 

There are some other pretty cool options amongst the general tag areas in Central Montana.  If you like the really out of the way places, but still with decent road access, consider 415, sandwiched between the Blackfoot Reservation, Glacier National Park and the Continental Divide.  Nobody ends up here on accident, as this is rugged country on the way to nowhere from nowhere.  The elk density isn’t great, as is the case with most of Northern Montana, of all the general units, this is the one where you’d have the most room to roam without seeing another hunter.  Though there is no designated wilderness here, this is another place that a backpacker or horseman could get at some very lightly pressured elk.

So those are some of your better options in Central Montana with a general elk tag.  I know it’s too late in the year to be able to do change anything up, but I’ll address some of the limited units with public land next time.

Photos by Marie Richman


numbnutz's picture

Great article here Mark.

Great article here Mark. These areas sound like they're ok to hunt if you can find access to some public land. They also sound like you have to work a bit harder to find an elk. But if you do it would be worth shooting. It seems like a lot of private land. Might not be the best option for a non-resident to pick to hunt unless you want some wilderness style hunting. I really like the break down of the different regions in Montana that your putting together here. Montana has been a state that I would like to hunt. It seems to be a lot like my home state. I have 2 uncle that live in Montana near Helena so I'm sure I could get one of them to show me the ropes and find me a pretty good place to get into some elk. The only thing holding me back now is the non-resident price hike. Like I said it seems like my home state and it would be pretty mediocre hunting compared to some other state out there. I'm not sure if the price would be worth it. I should have made plans to hunt here before the price hike.