Rocky Mountain goats have always interested me. I was hooked from my very first experience pursuing these incredible animals.
Two years before drawing my own tag, I was fortunate enough to join a friend on his Montana mountain goat hunt. By then, I’d spent plenty of time in the backcountry, mainly in pursuit of elk. His goat hunt was different, though. We were higher, the country was obviously steeper, and we got snowed in. That afternoon and evening were spent in our tents due to heavy snow and low visibility because that’s all we could do.
The challenges of that hunt were thrilling and captivating and produced a longing for more of the extreme terrain and adventure that only mountain goat hunting can provide. When we got back from the hunt, I told many friends that I would draw in the next two years. The second year came, and a good buddy, Chris, texted to remind me that Montana’s draw results were out. I logged in to my account and went to the “unsuccessful” page and saw I had not drawn sheep, moose, or bison. I took a second look and realized that mountain goat was missing from this list. Had I forgotten to apply for goat? I frantically navigated to the “successful” page, and there it was. I had drawn a Montana mountain goat tag. Ecstatic, I began planning immediately.
The months to follow were full of preparation and dreaming of what the hunt would be. I had plans of scouting in the late summer months. Due to work and family commitments, that strategy fizzled out like campfire coals heaped with snow.
Time grew nearer, the season opened, and I decided to go to the unit to hunt and scout. The plan was simple. I’d arrive the day before the opener and hike in for a look around and to scout for three or four days. If I was lucky and found the billy I wanted to harvest, great. If not, I’d go back the third week of September and spend eight days looking for the billy I wanted. I’d always admired their long winter coats anyway.
I asked two good friends, Boo and Chris, to join me on the initial scouting and hunting trip. I had zero expectations for this trip. I just wanted to cover ground and see the country. We hiked five miles and saw 13 goats before dark on the eve of the opener. My mild superstition kicked in at this point, but where most people have an aversion to that number, I carry the opposite sentiment. I was born on the 13th, and when I put this together that night, I could hardly sleep. We bivouacked tent-less under a clear and awe-inspiring sky. I watched shooting stars before drifting off for a few scant hours. We rose, made coffee, broke camp, and were partway up the mountain before the first touches of crimson silhouetted the towering peaks ahead.
Our plan was to check the first basin we came to, which is where we’d seen the lucky 13 goats the previous day, then continue over the top to inspect the backside of the mountain. As dawn grew bolder, we found a spot where the entire basin and the cliff wall behind it were visible. We began seeing goats, picking out the billies from the nannies with our glass. An hour and a half later, having seen nothing that really enticed us, we decided to sidehill around and start our way up the mountain.
More goats materialized above us as we gained elevation. These warranted another look through the spotting scope. As we gazed in awe at the strength, dexterity, and complete lack of fear possessed by these amazing cliff- dwellers, three bigger billies stood out from the rest. One in particular raised my heart rate. He kicked the other two billies out of their beds, then lay in those spots for 10 to 20 seconds each, just long enough to claim them as his own. This was his mountain, and the rent was due. Then he walked off.
I told Chris and Boo that I wanted to get a better look at him. We closed the distance to 980 yards and watched. As we did, the realization crept up that I should probably get within shooting distance. This was likely the goat I wanted to harvest. We discussed the best strategy of getting within striking distance without blowing him or his tenants out of the basin. We picked carefully through a high alpine tree line to an avalanche shoot that would put us 300-400 yards away. We made it up the avalanche shoot as quietly as possible, arriving at the bottom of the basin. I mentally confirmed that this was the billy I wanted. He was 323 yards away and headed towards the cliff wall. I settled the rifle, my body, and my nerves and squeezed the trigger. The report, which rattled throughout the basin and off the headwall, suggested a solid impact.
A few thoughts aside from gratitude crossed my mind as we climbed the remaining 200 vertical feet to recover the animal. I’d been extremely fortunate, and all I could do was thank God for that moment in the most beautiful landscape I’d ever seen. The icing on the cake was the opportunity to share it with two great friends.
The experience symbolized far more than the harvest of a goat. In roughly 24 hours, I’d gone from zero expectations to sitting on top of the world, literally and figuratively. I was as grateful as I’ve only been a few times in my life.
It was one of those rare instances where everything comes together with no hiccups along the way. Mountain goats are incredible. They whimsically traverse places humans can only dream of. With some degree of luck, I hope to once again pursue Oreamnos Americanus in the company of friends.