Hiding out: This mule deer buck was spotted just across the highway from the Gallatin hunter check station. It stood in the brush on the other side of the fence marking the boundary for Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch. “Skunked.” That’s how a couple of hunters from Belgrade described their morning hunt on Nov. 4 up Moose Creek, just north of Big Sky. Veteran Wildlife Manager Fred King, pictured here interviewing a couple of luckless hunters from Billings, encouraged those without a kill to keep trying. Before the Billings hunters pulled away, King promised, “It’s going to get better. We’ve got some weather moving in.”

Check station story master

Why Fred King is the Gallatin’s minister of hunting information
“As far as working for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, I’m in the business to help people have fun.”—Fred King, FWP check station legend.

On the morning of Sunday, Nov. 4, Joe Braaksma ascended into some of the best wildlife habitat in the world. It’s known as “the buffer zone” and part of the area is reserved as special hunting district 310-46. Braaksma waited 24 years before finally drawing the coveted 310-46 tag permitting him to stalk elk outside the northwest corner of Yellowstone about 20 miles south of Big Sky. 

With snow falling, Braaksma and his mule named Newt looped through Wilson Draw and to the top of the Teepee Creek drainage. He eventually arrived at the divide where there’s a junction of hiking trails.

“I came back across that intersection and I ran into another guy who had the tag. I’d just tied up my mule and all of a sudden, I look back and this bear come up from the Teepee side,” remembered Braaksma. He told the story to Fred King just hours after it happened. King, a retired wildlife manager, works the Gallatin check station at the mouth of Gallatin Canyon. Anyone with a hunting license driving north toward Four Corners is required by law to stop. Braaksma is a regular, so he and King have known each other for years, trading all kinds of backwoods observations.

Braaksma continued his bear story, declaring the male grizzly he spotted that morning was the biggest he’s ever seen. 

“It’s like 400 yards across the meadow. And we’re just like, ‘Look at that thing.’ And he came up my tracks from the morning. As soon as he hit my fresh tracks, all of a sudden he…,” Braaksma paused slightly, pantomiming the grizzly’s response to the hunter’s fresh human scent. “Ever seen them do that stiff-legged thing?” he asked King, referring to the way a grizzly will straighten its front legs and lift up its nose to survey the surroundings. 

King nodded yes, he’d seen it before. As traffic whizzed by on Highway 191, Braaksma and King continued to talk shop, recalling other grizzly sightings around Lodgepole Creek and the area impacted by this summer’s Bacon Rind Fire. 

The Bacon Rind kept burning well into bow season, forcing closures on some of Braaksma’s favorite hunting grounds during late summer and early fall. 

“That was a big disappointment for me because I like fair weather better than slogging around in the snow,” laughed Braaksma, who thinks the Bacon Rind Fire improved elk habitat by clearing out openings in the forest clogged by deadfall. 

Before bow season ended, Braaksma eventually hunted around Lodge Pole Creek—also by the northwest corner of the park—where he watched elk disperse to the north following the arrival of a wolf pack. 

“Now there’s got to be some elk in Taylor Fork,” quipped Braaksma, figuring that’s where the fleeing elk headed. 

King nodded knowingly because he spent 41 years in FWP’s wildlife division, much of it focused on elk habitat around Southwest Montana.

Soon, more hunters pulled into the Gallatin check station and Braaksma hurried to get in one last story, describing the best bull he’s seen so far. He spotted it in the Sage Creek Campground, at night, hanging out with Newt.

“I had my horse and my mule in one of the little corrals there. My mule only has one eye. So when I shine my headlamp up to check on him, I can always see one eye glowing out so I know it’s my mule. And so I see one glowing at me in the corral and I see two eyes,” recalled Braaksma. “I duck back in and I grab my flashlight. And it was a bull elk and he was standing there and I don’t know if he was talking to the mule or what but he’s like a seven on one side and a five on the other. The best bull I saw all day was trying to steal my mule’s hay.”

King laughed, ribbing Braaksma about how it’s a good thing he didn’t take aim at the elk because, “We could arrest you for shooting over bait.”

With that, Braaksma wrapped up another of his roughly 15 days of hunting this year, telling King he’d probably see him again soon.

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