The East Fork of the Bitterroot River in Montana covers sizable hunting grounds—more than 250,000 acres of the Sula Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. Included in the district is 41,000 acres of the 150,000+ Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. The elk herd following the migration of elk from the adjacent Big Hole Valley (to the south and east) numbers approximately 4,000 head. It is a big herd but also a very large area to get to know.
Many hunters now think the area is over-hunted. Bull elk hunting permits are unlimited, and in 2019, 3,200 permits were issued. It’s estimated that there were 4,000 or more permits issued for 2020.
In addition, the behavior of the elk seems to have shifted in the past 10 years. Elk are moving on to private land earlier—normally encouraged by an early snow. Elk also appear to moving from the back country directly onto large private ranches earlier in the season and not lingering on public lands where hunting is accessible. This is shown by the relative lack of bedding spots along the migration route.
Mule deer remain numerous and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks continues to manage the hunting district for trophy-sized mule deer. In contrast to the unlimited bull elk permit, a hunter only has a 0.6% chance of drawing a mule deer permit in the hunting district.
Promising Hunting Grounds and Access Trails
Early in the season, the Lick Creek Saddle was a good place to start a hunt. Then in 2017, the Meyers Fire burned over 60,000 acres in the Bitterroot and Deerlodge National Forests. The fire has changed the hunting calculus off of Lick Saddle. Much of the Clifford Creek drainage to the north and east has burned to the point that there are large swaths of land with no cover, nor forbs and grasses for feed. Hunting down the Clifford Creek trail has become less productive as a result. The elk still appear to come out of the backcountry, in part, at the very upper end of Clifford Creek and then down the ridge that separates Lick and Reynolds Creeks.
Hunting out the de-commissioned skid trail that runs to the north and slightly west from Lick Saddle can be productive. The skid trail ends in a small saddle on the ridge separating Lick and Reynolds Creeks. It’s a good place to go just as the migration out of the backcountry is beginning, or during archery season. Getting to the 7,066-foot-elevation knoll to the north—where much elk sign has been seen over the years—can be an adventure. However, it can be worth it you can stay quiet enough and the wind is not giving you away. From the knoll, it’s a bit easier to hike down the ridge to the Reynolds Creek gate.
In addition, from Lick Saddle you can head out on the skid trail that heads south toward Needle Creek. The skid trail will take you around the top of the Needle Creek trail (on some maps the Hole in the Wall trail) known as Needle Point—avoiding about 500 feet in elevation gain. Hunting around Needle Point was better when Clifford Creek was not nearly fully burned.
Further down the Needle Creek trail, you may find isolated animals. Once the skid trail reaches its end, you can hop up to the ridge to rejoin the Needle Creek trail. There is a prominent ridge between Needle Creek and Lick Creek. There is much elk sign up there, but it is relatively easy to get turned around or wayward on a finger ridge. Still, the going is not bad and there are open areas with large Douglas firs and ponderosa pines—with good shooting lanes.
There is a major game crossing trail before the ridge turns. The ridge turns from northwesterly to westerly about halfway down the ridge—an easy spot to get drawn off the ridge. There is a bench/nose as you get into the old tree planting terraces, and a spring that the elk use. Another skid trail can take you back to Lick Creek Road off of the terraces. That skid trail is on most maps at about 6,200 feet in elevation. The ridge drops from about 7,200 feet elevation at the top of the ridge to 6,200 feet, where you head out back to the road. To hunt the whole ridge slowly will take up a good part of the day.
Another way to hunt the Lick Creek Saddle area is to take the Hole in the Wall trail north to where you meet the ridge between Lick and Reynolds Creeks and then go down that ridge to where you meet the skid trail mentioned earlier. Some of that ridge was significantly burned, and in places there is lots of downed timber. Again, the hunting is best during archery season, or just at the beginning of the rifle season before the elk’s migration to private land has really hit its stride.