A Quest for Huns in Grizzly Country
Montana is an alluring paradise for any hunter, a mostly untamed wilderness with abundant game. Few places can match the vast horizons, majestic mountains, and expansive prairies of Big Sky Country. Under the guise of ambition, I traveled to Montana last year to pursue one of my favorite upland birds, the Hungarian partridge. My adventure took me through grizzly country, among the Blackfeet Tribe, and I left with a ghost of the prairie.
Travel Westward for Adventure
The drive across Montana offers intense feelings of freedom and a glimpse of years past. Away from the congestion of cityscapes, I noticed old farmsteads and aging ranch signs amid dramatic changes in topography. If I focused too much on the road, I would have missed the beauty of this incredible landscape. Herds of antelope and deer dotted the horizon as evergreens and sage grass competed for my attention, while the backdrop of each horizon got better as I continued westward.
The expansive prairies across the state could appear daunting to any newcomer, but with three English Setters and a Labrador in my truck, I assumed I was ready for any challenge. This is the land for big-running bird dogs, and I knew it was necessary to carry a retriever on my string to never miss a downed bird. Endless landscapes of prairie grasses, multiple bird dogs, and time – these are the ingredients for a successful adventure in Montana.
Hunting Encampment Outside Glacier National Park
My destination was a seasoned encampment on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park, owned by the same family for as many generations as one could count. As I drove up the driveway, I was greeted by a hyper pack of Karelian Bear Dogs. Although friendly toward guests, these vicious protectors have a unique and intense bond with their owners. This connection serves its purpose twofold, loyal companions and a line of defense against brown bear intruders. While the Karelians are formidable as a pack, a lone Red Mountain Cur named "Red" was the most feared. Red strolled confidently up to my truck, hardened from experience with visible scarring from his grizzly encounters. However, I was most drawn to the large aging hound dog that followed the group. An acclaimed hound that never missed a lion track, his big eyes and dark blue coloring was mesmerizing. Although there was adequate protection on the compound, bears regularly lurked near its boundaries.
All this dog power protected my gracious hosts, the family of Joe and Kathy Kipp. A couple that are distinguished members of the Blackfeet Tribe, skilled hunters and fly fishers, among many other talents. The walls of their home are adorned with beautiful tribal decorations, accolades, and, most eye-catching, three massive bighorn sheep mounts – Joe, Kathy, and their son Max have each had their hunt of a lifetime pursuing these impressive beasts. It is always an honor to be in their presence. While I had traveled to their lands to hunt, we gathered that evening to name my newest English Setter.
Joe began by burning sage and chanting in their native language, thanking their Creator as he held the pup in his arms. Next, Kathy took the young dog into her lap and spoke to their Creator, seeking guidance and emphasizing the pup's color, abilities, and supernatural tendencies. It was decided that the pup should be named Sta’ào (Sta-AH)– which means "ghost" or "lives with us in spirit" in the Blackfeet language. Kathy stood the pup on her feet; we chanted Sta’ào three times and pushed her out into the world – I had my Ghost of the Prairie and was ready to begin my quest for Huns.
The Grizzly Vision Quest
Although my young setter was ready for the field, I was not. Before I could begin my quest for Huns, Joe, and Kathy taught me about the dangers of grizzly bears. They told me tales about each bear claw fastened to their necklaces – all recovered while protecting their herd of cattle. They explained the bears' preferred habitat, food sources, and behaviors during the fall as they prepare for hibernation. Finally, we discussed adequate firearm protection and how to respond to specific scenarios if we encountered a brown bear while hunting. Throughout our conversation, apprehension began to take hold of me, but the healthy population of Huns in the area was what I was after. Although we had dogs, experience, and firearms on our side, a grizzly must always be respected.
My Hunt of a Lifetime
The following day, before dawn, I loaded the dogs and met Joe at a fork in the road. He rolled down his window, said a few words to his Creator, and smiled at me as Red pressed his face against the back window. The sight of Red calmed my fears; we were ready for an adventure. As we drove to the first field, the sun began to crest the horizon and shine beautiful hues of oranges, reds, and pinks across the Glacial Mountains – I was in awe of the landscape.
To begin our hunt, we stopped at the edge of a dryland wheatfield and surveyed the area. I loaded my Benelli 828U while Joe loaded his rifle. We turned the setters loose and then dropped Red and my Lab. The setters tore up that field, white blurs with tails flickering above the cut rows – a point could be seen, but then a flurry of birds would flush. With my heart pounding, I could not stop smiling – all that time spent traveling with fearful thoughts was diminished; here was my trophy bird numbering into the hundreds right before my eyes. As the birds continued to flush in all directions, Joe explained that the Huns would fly into the coulee below. Once in the coulee, our hunt would begin.
When we arrived at the edge of the field, I was amazed at the beautiful valley. The habitat was a wonderful mix of pristine tall and short grass in various colors and textures. My heart began to sink as my eyes followed the stream that flowed through the coulee. This was the exact type of foliage Joe and Kathy spoke about, the ideal habitat for brown bears.
Alas, here was the defining moment of my quest. If I wanted the Huns, I had to brave prime grizzly habitat. I looked at Joe, and he smiled again; without fear, Red set off toward the stream with the rest of the dogs. I questioned my existence with each step down the ravine's edge; any wrong movement could provoke a sleepy bear. My only solace was knowing that the dogs had covered much of the ground I walked before me.
When I reached the bottom, the collars beeped - dogs were stacked on point. I took a deep breath, and all the fears left my body. No bear was going to stand before me and a covey of Huns. Joe waved me forward as he continued walking across the side of the coulee with his rifle, looking out for the dogs and me. When I approached the point, I was startled by Red charging the covey. The birds exploded as I raised my gun and shot. Success. Sta picked up the bird, so I had to run her down to retrieve my prize. I grabbed the bird and raised it towards the heavens in celebration – we did it. While emotion began to run wild, I thought about how I had braved Grizzly territory, traveled hundreds of miles, and shot a Hun over a point from my Ghost of the Prairie.
As the days went on, Red joined us on every hunt. We found multiple coveys of Huns along with groups of sharpies and pheasants. There were a few instances where we would hear Red sound off into the distance, chasing something away from our location. Each time I would look toward Joe, he would smile and tell me to keep moving. To have the privilege to chase Huns amid a picturesque landscape is a fantastic experience. However, to hunt with a man like Joe, who is so in tune with the land and nature, is truly an honor. My quest for Huns was complete; I left with a Ghost and a new appreciation for life.
Montana is forever etched across my heart and mind. Its beauty and bounty leave me yearning for my next adventure. While I may forever marvel at the abundance of wildlife amid expansive landscapes, some of my best memories about Montana revolve around my time with Joe and Kathy. In the shadow of America's most majestic places, I learned to brave dangers through preparation and fortitude – while also soaking up the beauty of magical lands. To the Blackfeet's Creator and mine, I thank you for the opportunity.