CLEARWATER JUNCTION - The bull elk must be laughing.
Every year, they grow great racks of antlers. In March, they shed them in the woods. And every third Saturday in May, hundreds of humans line up to look for them.
The humans come with pop-up tents and slide-in campers, rusty Winnebagos and shiny fifth-wheelers. They haul dirt bikes and six-horse trailers, portable generators and lawn chairs and spotting scopes the size of artillery shells.
"I'm not a crowd person, except for this," said Pat Beaulieu of Missoula, gesturing at the line of trucks and campers at the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area's Woodworth Road gate. "What could be better, out here under the stars? People think we're crazy for doing this. We think they're crazy for not doing it."
Searching for elk sheds has jumped in popularity over the past decade. The most popular places are the state's wildlife management areas, where big bulls seek sanctuary in winter.
"I've been coming here since ... forever," Beaulieu said. "Since back when Looney's still had a bar at Clearwater Junction. You'd pull up at 11:30 and drive through at midnight. If you found something, that was just a bonus."
Last Friday, Beaulieu joined the line at 5:30 a.m. By 11:59 p.m., 53 vehicles had queued outside the gate for what may be the last midnight horn hunt.
Husband and wife Aaron and Brianna Satenberger of Anaconda don't look crazy, but they certainly set the bar for dedication. After several hours in the dark searching for antlers at the Blackfoot-Clearwater, they drove 110 miles over the Continental Divide to catch the noon opening of the Sun River Game Range near Augusta.
"We go every weekend," Aaron said. "I've found 70 this year."
No pun intended, but the differences between horn hunting at Sun River and Blackfoot-Clearwater are day and night. The Sun River Game Range has always been a daylight affair, with a land-rush start and a competitive vibe. Blackfoot-Clearwater regulars are more collegial, and hunt in the dark.
West of the Continental Divide, a line of headlights stabs into the night for about a mile to the base of an unnamed mountain. There everyone parks their trailers and starts combing the meadows with flashlights.
"You look for the white buttons," said 10-year-old Zoe Dugan, referring to the round knobs at the skull-end of antlers. "Sometimes you can see the white horn tips. You need batteries - lots of batteries."
Friday night was Zoe's third time on the midnight hunt, and the second year in a row that her Whitefish family scored the front of the line at the Woodworth gate. She was there with two brothers and a pack of parents, cousins, aunts and uncles. Everybody had a flashlight.
"One year somebody was on a horse with a big battery-charged light hooked up to a car battery," Lynne Gronley of Kalispell said. "We thought he was on a motorcycle because he was moving so fast, but we couldn't hear anything. It's pretty interesting to see all the flashlights waving in the dark."
Kyle Boushele figured he'd brought something better than a flashlight. His black lab, Winchester, had already found about 30 deer sheds in 2010, and was about to make her debut night elk hunt. Her collar had a flashing red bike light so her master could keep track of her.
Boushele was pretty good on his own. He found 13 fresh elk sheds in 2004, including some in the dark at the Blackfoot-Clearwater.
"You go get lost and then wait for sunrise so you can see where you are," he said. "It's different every year."
The line at Sun River started forming on Saturday of the week before. On opening morning, rigs are stretched out two miles down the road. Around 10 a.m., everyone starts heading up to the game range gate. There, they confront 20,000 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front.
For hours before the gate opens, hunters sit on picnic tables and scan the foothills with the most powerful optics they can carry. About 130 bull elk typically winter on these benches. One man's fairly certain he's spotted a whole elk carcass - a winter kill lying by a band of trees below a big rockfall.
The idea is to spot an antler beforehand, and then go as fast as your mode of transportation can take you to your prize. When the gate swings open at noon, two dozen cowboys stampede into the hills. Right behind them are about a hundred people on foot. And 10 minutes later, the second gate opens to release more than 200 motorbikes, four-wheelers, trucks, SUVs and campers.
Helena contractor John Jenko had his wardrobe, and his tactics, worked out to scientific precision. His pistol was loaded with titanium bullets, and attached to his frame backpack by a retractable lanyard. Lanyard strings also went to his GPS receiver and his two-way radio. You can't afford to drop anything when confronting a bear or lion, he said.
Jenko averages 20 miles a day on horn hunts. He sets his GPS to outline a 200-foot circle around his position, and then uses that to ensure he doesn't re-cross territory he's already searched.
The technique appears to work. Already this year, Jenko has logged 250 miles of walking and found 13 antlers. Last year, he walked about the same mileage and got 27. The year before, he covered about 300 miles, and picked up one six-point antler.
"It's like gold fever," he said. "Once you've found that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, that's what makes you walk those 20 miles a day."
Diane Lucero of Augusta and Carol Day of Great Falls came up together to try their luck, a rare all-woman team at Sun River.
"My boyfriend has horns all over the living room," Day said. "They're all over the kitchen, on the cupboards. That's why I'm here - I've got to compete and see how many I can get."
Boyfriend Mark Severson was already sleeping off his midnight run at the Blackfoot-Clearwater. No update on how the competition ended.
2010 is likely the last year for midnight openers on the Blackfoot-Clearwater and the Beartooth WMA near Helena. The state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission is expected to switch all antler hunts to noon starts.
FWP Commissioner Ron Moody of Lewistown was one of a truckload of FWP officials milling around the Sun River gate Saturday morning. He said the growing enthusiasm for shed hunting has prompted lots of debate.
"We're out here today to get an on-the-ground understanding of the activity," Mooney said. "If there are public safety issues, we need to figure that out and get in front of it. How smart is it to have a NASCAR race on a mountain road at nighttime? It all came off safely, but there was no margin for error. And the bicyclists - they've definitely figured out their technique. They're agile, mobile and aggressive."
But other matters remain on the table, like whether to ban motorized searches. That proposal isn't as simple as it sounds. Hundreds of rigs, from motorcycles to trailer-hauling pickups, charge across the gates at opening time. Many of those folks have hunted that way for decades, and would fight to keep their tradition.
But beyond that, the alternative isn't clear. Limiting the opening day to "walk-in" or "foot" traffic doesn't define the status of horses. And the antler opener coincides with black bear hunting season in many areas. Could wardens legally restrict one kind of hunter while assisting another?
And the advantages aren't what they seem. Despite literally getting left in the dust at the starting gate by horses and vehicles, it was foot hunters who came back with the first antlers of the day.
The Statenbergers reached the Sun River entrance at 11 a.m. They were the 182nd car in line.
The couple returned to the Sun River gate 90 minutes after the start, bearing a pair of 6-point sheds.
"Everybody ran right by this one," Brianna said of the antler she carried. "I didn't feel like running up the hill, and we found it on the way back."
Her fatigue was understandable. Thirteen and a half hours before, she and Aaron were at the Blackfoot-Clearwater midnight opener. They found two elk sheds there in the dark. Someone nearby found a grizzly sow with a cub, and had to fire a warning shot to make it back off.
Two more walkers checked in with antlers before the first horse team returned. Carson Davidson was walking by his horse, Cinnamon, with a 6x5 set. He found those despite getting bucked off during the stampede start.
"He was wound up and wanted to go," Davidson said. "This was my first time."
After all this effort, what's the point of shed hunting?
A few people did have plans for their finds. Jamie Novak of Missoula was going to finish making
belt buckles for all his hunting buddies. One of them, Tylar Cooney, wanted to use his stockpile in his wedding next July, as table decorations.
"Some people make chandeliers or furniture with them, or other decorations," Lynne Gronley said. "Ours are in a pile in the yard."
For guys like Jenko, it's the ultimate cure for spring fever. Just like elk hunting in the fall, horn hunting requires skill, stamina, good luck and a love for the outdoors.
"And they can get their hands on a six-point rack bigger than anything they'll ever shoot in their life," Jenko said. "That's the allure for a lot of people.
"When I started, my goal was to find enough antlers to build an elk antler chandelier. And the next house I build, it's going in my front room. Now I've got a room full of them, and I don't know what I'm going to do with them all. But I sure like looking at them."