Big game season starts Saturday

Caravans of more than 100,000 hunters are departing for secret spots and the hallowed promise of a fulfilling elk and deer season opener come Saturday.

Montana’s 2012 general big game hunting season — or rifle season — for deer and elk opens Saturday, and ends Nov. 25.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks estimates that about 100,000 hunters will be out for the state’s opening weekend of deer and elk hunting.

“For so many Montanans this is one of the most important weekends of the year,” said Ron Aasheim, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks spokesman in Helena.

Friends and family return home, sleep-deprived youngsters head to hunting camps for the first time, and some seasons are marked by the realization that it might be Grandpa’s last trip to the mountains or the plains.

“Hunting in Montana isn’t just about harvesting a deer or an elk,” Aasheim said. “It’s a way of life for many and also a celebration of family traditions, friendships, sharing Montana stories and becoming reacquainted with the wild, natural grandeur of our state.”

The numbers are noteworthy. More than 100,000 resident and visiting elk hunters and about 150,000 deer hunters are expected to chart more than 2 million days afield in 2012. And if past years are an effective measure, they’ll spend more than $200 million in Montana over the course of the hunting season.

By season’s end, about two of every 10 hunters will be able to respond affirmatively when asked the fall’s customary question: “Did you get your elk?”

About six of every 10 deer hunters will similarly stock a freezer with Montana-grown venison this fall.

And, hunters annually find game on private and public lands.  About 35 percent of all elk hunters will likely harvest an elk on private land and 65 percent of deer hunters will take a deer in the same manner. FWP programs like Block Management help to facilitate such private and public partnerships by opening about 8 million acres for public hunting access.

The rest of the harvest will take place on public lands including up to 25 million acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands, seven federal wildlife refuges, thousands of acres of state school trust lands and FWP’s own unique system of more than 30 wildlife management areas.

It’s undeniable that many hunters will have their eyes peeled for bulls and bucks. In Montana, hunters with just a general license can choose from more than 160 hunting districts and nearly 1,000 different opportunities to find their “trophy” in many different shapes and sizes. Consider that in past years, 45 percent of harvested mule deer bucks had antlers with four or more points on at least one side, while 37 percent of the whitetail harvest produced bucks with four or more points on at least one side. As for elk, 58 percent of the bull elk harvest had antlers with less than six points on both sides, and 42 percent had antlers with six or more points on at least one side. More than 4,200 of the 10,102 bulls harvested in 2011 had six or more points.

For details on Montana’s fall hunting seasons, regulations, and specific season dates by hunting district, pick up a regulation book at most FWP offices and license providers, or visit for digital versions. Also be sure to visit FWP’s new and improved Hunter Planner web service. Click “For FWP Maps.”

— Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks