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Patience pays off for Northwest Montana moose hunter

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | November 15, 2022 7:00 AM

Hunters who have been in the game for any appreciable length of time know they must exercise great patience and perseverance in the pursuit of success.

As a lifelong hunter, 43-year-old Johnny Willcut is extremely familiar with both virtues.

The Flathead Valley resident filled his 2020 moose tag while repeatedly exercising patience and perseverance.

He had recovered from a bad fall he suffered in November 2019 after bagging a mountain goat while hunting in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

After snagging a rare permit for a goat and recovering from the fall in which he broke his humerus, the long bone in his upper left arm, dislocated his shoulder and tore his rotator cuff and labrum, Willcut had the great fortune to be chosen a second time for one of the extremely few moose permits in Montana. He bagged a moose in the Fisher River area when he was just 14.

“I didn’t really appreciate getting a moose tag at 14, but as I got older you know the odds aren’t great.”

The odds are extremely long to draw a moose tag in the state and some hunters never get picked.

But Willcut didn’t let the low chance of being picked stop him from applying every year.

“I found out in the middle of May I had drew a license for District 106 in Lincoln County and spent the summer focusing on three different drainages with cameras and scouting,” Willcut wrote in an email. “I spent 10 days hunting during the rut at the end of September and early October trying to call in a bull. The first hour of the hunt, I snuck into a nice bull tending a cow only to have them blow out at 30 yards in thick cover with only a neck shot.”

Willcut, who was hunting with a bow, then called in a small bull to 20 yards, but passed on him. At daylight one morning, he snuck in on a grunting bull.

“We both closed the distance quick and he was broadside at 70 yards, but I did not feel comfortable with that shot and I was out of cover to close the distance further,” Willcut wrote.

Once the rut was over, his opportunities dwindled.

“After the rut was over, the moose tended to disappear and hide to recover from days and nights of the chase,” Willcut wrote. “I bumped into many cows and calves but none with antlers.”

Willcut then exercised more patience while waiting for snow.

“If I couldn’t get it done with a bow during the rut, I knew I might have to wait and track one down in the snow,” Willcut wrote.

Then, on Nov. 15, with just two weeks remaining in the season, a blizzard dropped about two feet of snow on the region.

“It made travel difficult, but I was able to make it up a road the next day (Nov. 16),” Willcut wrote. “My plan was to hunt solo and hike into a new drainage.

“About 9 a.m., I cut a bull track and stayed with him stride for stride. I found his bed and knew he was close. He was browsing among the shrubs and I found a tree he had just raked. He was then about 75 yards above me and I knew it was now or never.”

One shot from Willcut’s 7 mm Remington Magnum was enough. The bull ran 20 yards and dropped.

“Then the work began,” Willcut wrote. “I boned out the bull myself, tying his legs to trees so I could remove the meat. The terrain is steep and wooded with occasional thinning from logging.”

Once Willcut got the meat off the animal, he met my his dad, John, and friend, Bob Black, on a gated road with a giant sled.

The trio headed back to the kill site, reaching the moose at dark. The snow had turned to rain and the snow was wet. Willcut said he left a piece of his clothing on the meat, but no predators bothered with it.

“After the sled was loaded I thought it was going to be a quick downhill to the truck even though it was six miles,” Willcut wrote. “The sled was so heavy and the snow was so wet, on each step the sled would dig into the snow.

“It felt like we were dragging it uphill, but my dad and I pulled it down. I shot the bull at about 11 a.m. and made it back to the truck at 1:42 a.m. the next morning.”

While the hunt ended successfully, Willcut wasn’t done waiting.

“I went to fish and game (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks) and had a lymph node removed to check for CWD (chronic wasting disease). I then went to my uncle’s butcher shop where we processed the meat,” Willcut wrote. “It was nearly three weeks before the test came back negative. The meat was sitting in the freezer the whole time and I knew I would have to throw it all out if it tested positive.”

Willcut said it was a huge relief in having the moose not test positive for CWD.

“I made mostly burger with a few steaks from the meat and we’re still eating it,” he said.

The bull Willcut bagged was an 8x9 with a 38-inch spread.

“He was a younger bull and I didn’t have it scored, but I had a great hunt that started on May 15 and ended on Nov. 16,” Willcut wrote. “The scouting and planning were as much fun as the hunt. I hunted 21 days total. I deer hunted a few days, too, but only saw smaller bucks and I certainly didn’t need any meat.”

Willcut said he can't wait to apply again for moose and goat.

“I have to wait seven years before I’m eligible to draw again, but I’ll be trying,” he said.