Montana Elk Hunting: Northwest Montana
As I mentioned last week, Montana lends itself well to being broken up into several regions to dissect its elk hunting opportunities. We’ll start with Region 1, which is all of Northwest Montana outside of Glacier National Park, the Flathead Indian Reservation and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
This is big timber country. Much of the area is logged on both Forest Service and publicly accessible private lands like the Plum Creek Timber Company through the Block Management system. While mountainous, access is not overly difficult and there are numerous roads throughout the area for recreational and logging traffic. When you look at this region from the air, the first thing that stands out is the tremendous checkerboard pattern of clearcut logging so common throughout the Northwest, but rarely seen in the drier mountains south and east of there. This is probably a good thing for elk and deer hunting, but there is still a lot of dark timber that you’ll have to traverse to actually kill an elk.
Most of Region 1 is lower density elk country, closer to 1 elk per square mile throughout most of the Hunting Districts. The region does not follow all of my normal rules of thumb. Generally, the more roads and the easier the access to an area, the higher the success rates will be. This rule does not seem to hold true here in Region 1, as it appears the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area actually has the highest success rates. In fact, it’s not just a little bit better than the surrounding areas, but success is two to four times higher. The reason for this higher success is likely due to the fact that rifle hunters can hunt the rut in HDs 150 and 151, plus there are likely fewer casual hunters dragging down the success rates in a 1 million acre wilderness area. Region 1 does follow another of my rules, in that the denser the timber, the lower the success rate will be. You won’t be finding a lot of large, natural parks or aspen stands below timberline. And since most of the National Forest Lands are below 7,000 feet here, you’re a long way from timberline. Though the elevation isn’t very high, Region 1 boasts the highest precipitation rates in Montana, so snows can come early and often out here.
If you’re not willing, able or interested in hunting the Bob Marshall Wilderness in September, there are still a few areas worth mentioning here. If you don’t want to hunt the Bob, then the Cabinet Mountains, Great Bear, and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas probably wouldn’t interest you either. But they should, especially for the bowhunters willing to get up into the high country. These wilderness areas offer some of the only timberline/alpine opportunities for you to get after elk in the entire region. There are so many heavily roaded areas in Region 1, I’m most interested in the few places without roads.
Of the next best success rates, outside of the Bob Marshall units of 150 and 151, three other units have mid to low teen success rates, while the rest are single digits. Those three units are 121, 123 and 141. 121 contains portions of the Cabinet Mountains, the Bitterroot Range along the Idaho border, and many of the secondary drainages of the Clark Fork. 123 shares a border with 121, but is much smaller, encompassing just the drainages around Prospect Creek before it hits the Clark Fork. 141 is primarily the Great Bear Wilderness Area and Middle Fork of the Flathead River, along the southern border of Glacier National Park. These would be my picks if you couldn’t hunt the Bob Marshall.
Elk densities are highest in units 121 and 123, but unit 141 has the lowest hunter density of the three. You’ll be looking at considerably less than one hunter per square mile of public land (compared to twoish in the other units) and some excellent trophy potential. 141 is probably your best chance at an older bull, as it produces one of the highest percentages of 6+ point bulls in Region 1. While this is basically the entire Great Bear Wilderness, it’s not so inaccessible, nor large that it can’t be hunted by foot. Still, if you’re not a dedicated wilderness hunter, consider these next two options.
Unit 121 is where the most elk are killed in Region 1, and while a large unit, it also produces the most bull kills per square mile. I attribute some of the success to the fact that the country is quite accessible by logging and other forest service roads. But this area is also diverse, with the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area to the north, the logged Idaho border country to the south and west, and farm country in the middle of the unit outside of the Cabinet Gorge Reservoir. This would be my bet for the hunter who is having a hard time deciding whether to commit to the backcountry or a network of roads. You can either be truck based (or road hunt it with one of the few road hunting permits if you’re handicapped) in some of the drainages along the Idaho border, or you can get yourself into the higher elevation backcountry in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness if the weather holds out. If you’re dayhunting, but want to get a long way from the roads, consider the country west of Highway 56, west of the Bull River, also in the Cabinet Mountains, but outside the wilderness area.
123 is far more limited, as it contains just the Prospect Creek drainage of the Coeur d’Alene Mountains . This area works well for the day hunter as it’s tough to get more than a few miles from a road here. While the timber is quite dense, there are enough natural openings and logged areas that spot and stalk hunting can be productive too. It’s basically all public land outside of Thompson Falls, which is really the only advantage it has over 121. In 121, there are some a few places along the Clark Fork that can create a refuge situation. None of this country is about 6500 feet.
All 5 of the units I’ve mentioned here can be hunted with the general elk license. In fact, there are no limited bull elk areas in Region 1. If you’re looking for a combo elk/deer hunt, this is probably better whitetail than mule deer country, but both can be had in the mountains and the canyons. Another fun wrinkle to add to your hunt here would be for black bears, as much of Region 1 is serious bear country. But be careful, they have grizzlies too.
You’ve got a lot of options in Northwest Montana. I realize the true backcountry hunts aren’t for everybody, but there’s little doubt in my mind that you have huge leg up by being able to hunt elk in the rut with a rifle in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Still, for those who aren’t able to commit to such a hunt, you have plenty of other options. Outside of the Bob, if I were considering hunting here, I’d want to be a good still hunter in the big timber (North Woods boys would feel at home here) or someone who couldn’t handle the higher elevations in Southwest Montana. I’ll continue with Region 2, in West-Central Montana next.
Photos by Marie Richman