Raising them right--Part II: the hunting tradition is alive and well in Montana.
So now I can report on Connor's first two hunting seasons, both of which would be considered immensely successful by big game hunters of any age. Usually Morgan and Connor hunt with their mother Nicole, so avid a hunter herself that in 2008 she made her first trip to Africa. That's another story. Nicole is a cattle buyer and during the 2007 elk season she was tied up with shipping some stock. So one day Connor went with a family friend, Adam Bryant.
That's when he connected with his first big game animal, a cow elk. When l asked Connor what rifle he used, the answer surprised me because I knew Wally and Nicole start the kids out on light recoiling .243 Winchesters. Adam Bryant had along his custom .257 Ackley Improved built on a Mauser '98 action with Douglas barrel so Connor fired it that day. His first shot at about 75 yards hit the cow in the lungs and stopped her in place but another was required from about 20 yards for a finishing shot. Connor also used Bryant's .257 Ackley Improved to fill a couple of mule deer doe tags later in the 2007 season.
During this time Morgan was not idle either. She hunted elk only one day in 2007 but what a day. It started at 4:30am, was spent on horseback in the snowy Montana mountains, and they didn't get back to the trailhead until after 10pm. That was memorable enough but along the way, Morgan got her first bull elk. That wasn't all. Morgan drew two antelope tags in 2007 and then because her hunting area had a plentitude of pronghorns she was able to buy two more over the counter. Connor wasn't lucky enough to draw a single antelope tag in 2007 and had to stand aside while his sister filled all four tags in one day.
In the 2008 season he more than made up for it. Again the pronghorn season started the ball rolling. Nicole took both kids and her nephew Marshall Hahn to their assigned area north of the Missouri River. All three kids got an antelope that day. Then Connor's first elk in 2008 came in the afternoon after school was out. Nicole picked him up there in Gardiner, which is the north entrance for Yellowstone National Park. They then proceeded up to Mount Baldy where they encountered cow elk.
Connor is a big fellow for his age so his 2007 Christmas present had been a Ruger Model 77 .270 Winchester fitted with a 3-9X Leupold scope. That day he used the combination with Federal 130-grain factory loads to knock over one of those cows from about 250 yards. Even cow elk are big critters and still weigh several hundred pounds after field dressing. He and his mother dragged that cow for two hours towards their pickup truck before a local hunting guide happened by on horseback and helped him.
Hunt Before School
Things are a little different in rural Montana from most of the test of this politically correct world nowadays. How many kids get picked up after school by their moms so they can go elk hunting? Now reverse that idea. Later in the season Nicole took Connor elk hunting before school. He got there a little late but the school authorities thought bagging an elk was good enough reason to miss a couple hours of classes. Nicole's brother-in-law Matt Cunningham manages a ranch in Tom Miner Basin, an area north of Gardiner that often sees elk passing through. She delivered Connor there early one morning and Matt took him out where he dropped another cow. This time he used his uncle's Tikka .25-06 with Hornady 117-grain factory loads. Range was about 200 yards and he shot from a solid rest over a rock. Incidentally, that morning at the ranch the temperature read 36 degrees below zero! Connor was in school by 10:30am, even after helping Matt with ranch chores.
Morgan was not to be outdone. She also got a cow elk there at Tom Miner Basin before school one morning. She insisted to her mother she had to be at school by 10am due to some important function. Nicole said they arrived at the front door at 9:59am! That was Morgan's second elk for the 2008 season.
Her first came at the fabled Decker Flat's just outside the Yellowstone National Park boundary. That area was the site of the notorious "firing line" of olden days where hundreds of hunters used to show up to ambush the elk herds as they migrated out of the park due to cold weather. The Montana Fish & Game Department put a stop to such antics in a masterful manner. They close Decker Flats to hunting except by minors accompanied by an adult.
So let's do a tally here. In three hunting seasons Morgan has gotten five elk and in two seasons Connor has gotten three. An elk of either sex provides a considerable amount of meat, so I asked Nicole what they do with all of it. She said that they provide their extended family with winter meat, and also for 2008 a friend couldn't hunt due to surgery so one of the elk went to his family.
Something that pleased me immensely happened during my last visit to take notes for this column. During our talking I asked Wally if he still had the S&W Model 41 .22 pistol he bought decades ago. He said yes, and asked Connor to fetch it. When he came back carrying it the slide was back and locked so everyone could see it was unloaded.
Nicole said, "when it comes to hunting Connor is amazing. He never complains and there is no way we can leave him behind." One night in the 2008 season Connor went to bed sick with a stomach ailment but before lights out he yelled downstairs, "more, Don't leave me in the morning!"
I've known both Connor and Morgan since they were born and its immensely pleasing to watch them grow into fine teenagers. They enjoy the outdoors even outside of hunting season. In fact Morgan is building quite a name for herself as a high school runner. Wally told me Connor is so dependable that if work delays him from coming home, the boy has all the chores done without being told. Connor also works summer jobs helping other ranchers, even riding his horse to work because he's too young to drive.
Let's wrap this column up with an anecdote Nicole related to me. When Connor was 5 years old she had to take him to Denver for a heart operation. Prior to it they stood on their motel room's balcony watching the busy city traffic. After a bit Connor asked, "Mom, what do these people eat? There aren't any deer, elk or cows." That was an astute observation for a 5-year-old.
PHOTOS: YVONNE VENTURINO