BONNER — Eli Johnson, 11, handed off his neon yellow deer tag with pride and smiled at the spoils of his hunt. Asked by Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials at the hunter check stand near Bonner what zone he harvested the deer from, he smiled and looked up at his dad, Gus.
“There was a real nice 4-by-4 he saw,” said Gus Johnson, self-described proud papa. “He was shaking too bad though. I told him, ‘Breathe! Breathe!’ and he found another one.”
It wasn’t Eli’s first deer, his second in fact, but he was still just as excited.
Saturday marked the first day of rifle season for elk and deer, and plenty of successful hunters rolled through the Bonner check station under the watchful eye of Scott Eggeman, FWP’s Blackfoot area biologist.
Eggeman said the day started off slower than usual, but picked up later, with elk “coming in good” and whitetail a little short of expected. One elk in particular stood out, not because of its size, but the arrangement of its antlers.
“This is the goofball, huh,” Eggeman said as one hunter unveiled the bull carcass in the bed of his truck. One antler looked normal, a five point, but the other grew out from the middle of its forehead like a unicorn.
The hunter who took the oddball bull asked not be named, but said he didn’t even notice the irregularity until he had already made the shot and walked up to the elk.
The unicorn elk wasn’t the biggest of the day, but rather a 6-by-6 that came through before noon. The trophy was taken by a youth hunter from the game preserve near Clearwater Junction, Eggeman said.
Nathan Parker, one of four University of Montana wildlife biology students helping at the check station, said the big bull had to be cut in half to fit in the bed of a truck.
“It’s been pretty cool being out here, a lot better than sitting in a classroom,” Parker, a junior at UM, said. “Got to see a lot of guts, got to cut cheeks. Lots of youth hunters coming through too, which is fun.”
Not all the animals that came through the check station were prey, though. Brian Parks, a hunter who came up nearly empty handed, brought a stray dog he found in the woods to the check station to try to find help for it.
“It’s a real good dog, just cold and scared,” Parks said. “I wasn’t about to leave it out there. It had no problem hopping right into my vehicle.”
Left under the care of the UM students, the dog with Washington tags was left to choose which student it wanted to go home with for the night.