Fair warning, I did not notch my tag, so if you only read stories like this for the kill photos you’re in for a long hunting story without any hero shots at the end. This is a story about the billy that got away, and the lessons learned in the unforgiving classroom of the mountains.
It all started out with an 11 mile trek into an area where I’d been doing some scouting over the summer. I’d previously identified one big billy hanging out by his lonesome on these scouting trips so all I had to do was locate him during the hunting season…but as they say, best laid plans. I made it to the base of the mountain I planned on climbing by 1400 hours and, upon reaching this point took a moment and pulled out my binoculars to do some glassing before I started the climb into the alpine. Much to my surprise, the first goat I spotted was the very billy I had come for! I could not believe my luck. He was below tree line and close enough that I didn’t even have to pull out my spotter to confirm I had “my” billy dead to rights.
To say I was excited would be an understatement and my spirits were running extremely high. I sat down, composed myself and devised a plan that would place me above the goat by the end of the afternoon. As I sat there basking in my good fortune I began to believe that if my luck held, I might even have him anchored before sundown. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better start to my hunt.
A long, arduous hike to the billy ensued. I’ll be the first to admit that it was not the most enjoyable experience and as the story often goes, the alders were much thicker than they appeared from below and my chosen route far steeper than I’d accounted for. It took me longer than anticipated to break the tree line and get to a vantage point from where I could plan my final approach. By this time it had crept up on 1600 hours, leaving me four or so hours of daylight. I knew the sun would drop behind the ridge to the west sometime around 1845 hours, and that was when the chill would set in. I took a moment to bask in the afternoon glow of the exposed mountainside before I continued onward and upward.
I was more or less above where I’d last spotted the billy by 1800 hours but I’d lost him in the folds and crags of the mountains as I climbed. Before starting my long approach from the bottom, I’d roughly marked his position on my GPS and I used this waypoint to judge where I thought he would be, scouring every opening beneath me and across the drainage. The wind was out of the south at about 15-20 mph and I’d made sure to circle around to the north, probably farther than I had to, so I could work back to him with the wind in my face. This circuitous route north stole 30-45 minutes of daylight away from me, but it was easily justified — I take pride in my meticulous nature and I wanted to be dead certain I kept the wind in my favour. By this point it had closed in on 1900 hours and I desperately wanted to find the billy before dark. It was decision time. I could either continue with the stalk and try to put a round in him at last light or I could simply get close enough to put him to bed and devise a plan for the following morning.
I moved quietly through the spongy, unstable moss-covered rock outcroppings that covered the hillside. Spoiled blueberries were everywhere. I would have had one heck of an evening feast on them had they not been so soft and mushy. The sight of bear scat everywhere rightfully brought my bear awareness up a notch.
As the light faded, I started to feel the chill and was ready to climb back up to find a flat spot to make camp but decided I would suck it up and sit on a nearby ledge and glass until I could barely see. This glassing spot was perfect with a jagged ridge just behind me to keep from being sky-lined, and a steep drop off below me, so I had a wide field of view directly below and down the mountainside across the drainage.
As I was getting ready to call it a night, something caught my eye. Figuring it was my eyes playing tricks on me I pulled out the spotter to be sure. You know how it goes, as day turns to dusk, rocks turn into animals at every outcropping. And yet, there he was! The billy was 500 plus yards out and a couple hundred feet below me, utterly unaware of the nimble-footed hunter peering at him through the deepening darkness. I watched him for 20 minutes as he worked his way toward me, up and down the whole way, as if he was searching for the perfect spot to spend the night, which of course, he was. He found it 300 yards from me on a sheer cliff with escape routes up and down.
I put him to bed and headed up to make camp. I had dinner and hunkered down for a long night of restless sleep. All I could think about was the billy on that ledge below me. Would he move in the night? Would I be able to discover him before he uncovered me the next morning? Would I have company in the middle of the night? I had seen a lot of bear sign after all. Would the wind ever stop? Would it turn to rain? Or worse, freezing rain? If that happened, it would be nearly impossible to get off the mountain. Everything would turn to ice and I’d forgotten to bring the micro spikes I had at home.
My thoughts raced for a few hours before I finally nodded off. I woke up every two hours throughout the night. The wind was howling out of the south, which was good because I’d camped north of the billy. It felt like it took years for 0400 to come, but it finally did. I donned my head lamp and boiled up some coffee. I sat there devising a plan while I stuffed my pack full of everything but my Kifaru tarp and pulled out my spotter. By then I had dilly-dallied long enough that it was past 0500 and the sun was beginning to rise. I pulled the east side of my tarp up and glassed the opposite hillside up towards the peak of the mountain making sure there wasn’t another billy or a barren nanny in an easier to reach position than “my” billy.
After my search came up empty, I packed up and cautiously headed down towards where I’d put the billy to bed. During the restless night I’d decided not to move before daylight for fear he might have moved during the night and I didn’t want to mistakenly spook him. I would have been sorely disappointed if I’d chosen to move before first light and busted him off the mountain, so I played the still hunt game as I hopped from ridge to ridge.
On the way to my glassing spot, I had a slight run in with a sow black bear and her two cubs. They came into view at 15 yards and Momma Bear saw me and I her right about the same time. She thankfully let me chamber a round and slowly back away. I watched her, as she intently watched me until I had worked my way off of their ridge and out of sight. Fortunately, that was the end of the encounter. After letting my heart rate settle I refocused on the task at hand, back to the billy goat.
I eventually got to a great glassing spot across the drainage from where I’d last seen him and hunkered down and started to glass. After 10 or so minutes, I found him. He was still on the same ledge, just chewing on some foliage, peering downhill. I’d managed to get closer than I’d intended. In the darkness of the previous night I’d overestimated the distance to the billy and his ledge. In my experience everything feels farther than it is in the fading light but it was a mistake nonetheless. What I thought had been 450-600 yards had been half that distance. I was now within 300 yards of him from where I sat and the perfect ridge for an approach lay directly between us. If I snuck down to it that would put me inside of 200 yards – a chip shot.
In order to slip down to the crest between us, I had to back track and find a route onto the ridge so when he was facing the other direction I made my move. It was a solid 15 yards to get back behind cover and I did it slowly and hunched over. I made the mistake of turning my back to him, but it was the only safe way to make the maneuver on the slick mossy rock face. When I got behind cover I checked on him and he was still looking the other way. Thank God.
I scampered down to the ridge, slipped my pack off and dragged it behind me so I could use it as a rest. I peered over the ledge and saw the white-maned mountain monarch sitting on his perch. He still had his escape routes, one up and one down. It was just the beginning of the day so I figured he would work his way up, seeing as it was the shortest route to flatter earth and what I assumed was likely food and water. The escape route down was steep and narrow, even for a goat. I could have easily shot him where he was, but I would never have been able to retrieve him. It was far too steep to get down to him. Not only that, if he took a fall off his ledge, assuming I could even find him in one piece, I’d be left with nothing but goat burger at the bottom, not exactly my preference. Thus, the waiting game began. At least I had a good view.
I posted up in a position where I could see his back but a tree was blocking his head. Despite not being able to see his head, I would see him when he eventually stood up, and I had ample cover, so when he did I wouldn’t be given away. After a while, I decided to work my way down a little farther and used the trees between he and I as cover. This would make my shot flatter and provide me with greater ability to move around. A win-win.
I sat all morning. He would reach out to one side and gather a snack for half an hour or so, then he would just lie there, watching below, chewing his cud for the next hour or so. He repeated the entire process a few times. He did this from the time I got into my final position, which was around 0730, until sometime in the 10 o’clock hour, when he finally stood up. He looked uphill and I knew this was my opportunity. I lay down with my pack as my rest, found him in my scope and waited. He picked his way partway up the cliff, almost to the ledge where I could anchor him. In my mind I already had begun my route to my highly sought-after table fare.
As luck would have it, he ate there for a few minutes before eventually returning to his original spot. I could not believe it. I had waited hours. I wanted to scream at him for toying with my emotions, but instead I hunkered down for what I assumed would be a long afternoon.
He went about his day, milling around on that tiny ledge like he knew I was watching him. I had the steady south wind, so I knew he could not have smelled me. Maybe he had seen me? I was beginning to doubt myself.
I sat…and sat…and sat, hoping that patience would pay off. A few cups of coffee and some Cliff bars later, he finally stood up again. This time I knew for sure he had to move off that freaking cliff. The joke was on me. Again. This time he spun around to face the other direction. That tipped me off. Was the wind beginning to change? Had I gotten complacent and quit paying attention to the wind? I was on his level instead of above him because I wanted to be more comfortable. Stupid me. Never give in to your un-pleasantries.
I had an ideal rocky face behind me for camouflage but I had gotten so caught up with trying to predict when this guy would stand up again that I had quit paying attention to the one thing that would give me away, the wind! I poked my head up and felt the north breeze stiffen. I knew there was some weather expected to roll in, but I did not expect it this early. I had a choice to make. Wait the billy out until dark in the impending rain and hope the temps didn’t dip below freezing, or start home while I could still navigate safely. I chose to wait, at least for as long as I felt safe. If I moved at this point, I’d be spotted for certain and the jig would be up.
With the weather system looming behind me and the wind nowhere close to being in my favor, I hunkered down and hoped the goat gods would be on my side, just this once. I knew my scent was probably swirling around due to the lay of the land, but I hoped I was just elevated enough to be in the clear. Luckily my scent never made it down to him. He laid there, stoic as ever in the nasty blowing rain.
Sadly, around 1845 the rain turned to sleet, and I knew what that meant for my descent. I was cursing myself for leaving those micro spikes at home, I found a route to back out of my spot without being seen, hoping I’d be back in for another hunt before the season closed. I carefully slipped off the ridge, managing to leave the billy undisturbed while my hopes and dreams of coming out heavy faded away into the howling wind. “My” billy lived to see another day.
I made my way back down the mountain with no time or energy for regrets as it was slicker than snot and beyond dangerous. I had a few moments where I wasn’t sure if I was going to stop sliding on the icy rock faces with nothing more than devil’s club to grab onto. I am still picking the festered pieces out of my hands. I eventually made it down with a few bumps, bruises, and splinters, but in one piece.
On this hunt sadly, things did not work out in my favour. The unit closed days later due to an emergency order leaving me with no opportunity to get back in after my long lost cotton ball of a billy. Success can be defined in many ways. For me, when I decided to undertake a solo goat hunt, my number one priority was coming home in one piece, and this I thankfully achieved.
The goat gods won this round, but I will be back next year for redemption with those mountains and the big billy. God willing, he’ll survive the unforgiving Alaskan winter and I’ll stumble upon him again next fall. To those that took the time to read my humble story, thank you. Happy hunting and be safe.