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Adventures from the Archives - Fred Mercer’s Montana Elk

Montana 1958

With a .270 Winchester Model 70, this dairy farm worker cut a big set of elk tracks in October. He followed that bull for at least a dozen miles using his wits and old-school hunting wisdom. At the end of the trail was the second-largest elk in the world. 


In the fall of 1958, Fred Mercer was 39 years old. He worked on his uncle’s dairy farm south of Twin Bridges, Montana, and he lived to hunt elk. “In my book, the elk is the finest trophy in the West, and there’s none I’d rather hunt,” he wrote in the January 1960 issue of Outdoor Life. “I love the mountains, and there’s a challenge in tracking a bull elk through the rough going of his high-altitude haunts that I don’t find in following any other game.” 

Mercer was just 16 when he killed his first elk in 1935 and consistently killed big bulls. He wasn’t opposed to killing spikes or cows, either. Every fall, he joined his uncle Paul and Paul’s brother-in-law Delbert for a weeklong elk hunting trip into the Ruby River country of southwestern Montana. They liked to hunt in October at around 9,000 feet and above. On this particular hunt, Mercer had a hunch he was in for the adventure of a lifetime. He was right.



The Hunt 

When Fred Mercer shimmied out of his sleeping bag at 0445, he threw open the tent flaps to see two inches of fresh, dry snow on the ground. It was an elk hunter’s dream come true. 

By the time the three men left camp at first light, another inch of snow had fallen. Mercer was feeling lucky, vowing that if he cut any big tracks, he would stick to them until he killed a bull. 

Mercer wasn’t far from camp when he cut fresh elk sign on a steep, timbered draw. Most of the tracks he saw were medium-sized, except one. There was a true brute among the cow tracks. Mercer surmised the small herd had about an hour’s head start. “I resigned myself to a hard day,” he wrote. “Maybe it would take more than one day, but it would be the kind of elk hunting I like best—trailing on new snow and matching wits with a mountain-wise old bull that knows all the ropes.” 

The herd walked into the wind, and Mercer followed for about an hour. Then he heard an explosion of hooves running directly away from him. The old bull had circled his herd back around to position themselves downwind of anything on their tail. It worked, and Mercer knew it. He stayed on the trail, and at one point, the herd was within a mile of their camp. 

For hours Mercer tracked them until he decided to try and cut them off. He knew of a peak nearby that would afford him views of two open passes, both within range of his .270 scoped with a 4X Weaver. By 1 p.m., he was in position, ate his lunch, and drank half his coffee. He only waited half an hour before packing up and picking up their trail again. 

“I was after something special, and I had a hunch from my previous trips that I’d find it in the rough and roadless country north of camp.” 

He soon found the trail, the herd avoiding any passes and open parks. Mercer bumped a young four-point bull, but that didn’t interest him. There was one elk on his mind. Mercer slowed down when he thought the elk were about five minutes ahead. By now, he was at 10,000 feet and had trailed the elk for 12 or 15 miles. He hiked straight up the last mountain for 45 minutes, grabbing branches and trees to help pull himself up. Mercer eased his head over the rim when he was close to the top. Fifty yards away was the biggest bull that he’d ever seen. 

“He was feeding, head down, but even in that position, he was the most magnificent wild thing I had ever seen,” Mercer wrote. “His brown coat rippled over his bulky body with every move he made, his mane stood out black against the snowy mountainside, and his heavy-tined, white-tipped rack looked almost as tall as a man.” 

Just as Mercer aimed behind the bull’s ear, it threw up its head and looked down the ridge. Mercer aimed again at the same spot and sent a 150-grain bullet down the pipe. It hit the mark, but the bull didn’t go down. Mercer fired again. The bull “...crumpled and fell like a dishrag.” 

Mercer took a few minutes to admire the old 7x7, which he estimated weighed 1,200 pounds. He used ropes to move it to a spot to field dress, and a half-hour later, he was done. There was an hour of daylight left, and he was seven miles from camp—as the crow flies. Mercer finished his coffee and the last of his candy bars. He used the landmarks he noted on the way in to help him find his way back to camp. 

The next morning, the men drove 21 miles of questionable jeep roads to get close to the bull. The pack-out was the easiest part of his hunt. Mercer borrowed Records of North American Big Game from the local sporting goods store when he returned to Twin Bridges. He followed the directions on measuring, and Mercer soon realized he had something very special. He contacted a Boone and Crockett Club Official Measurer 100 miles away in Livingston. 

Mercer's bull received the Sagamore Hill Award at the 9th Competition. 

Mercer’s bull created quite a buzz. The March 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated featured the Boone and Crockett Club’s 9th Big Game Competition, dubbing Mercer’s bull the “Elk of the Century.” A year prior, the Club awarded Mercer and his bull the converted Sagamore Hill Award, its highest honor. 

At the time, Mercer’s bull was the biggest ever killed in Montana, second only to the World’s Record in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains in 1890. Today, it is the 11th largest typical of All-time and the second largest for Montana. The Mercer bull is owned by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and displayed at their visitor center in Missoula, Montana. 



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About Adventures from the Archives

The Boone and Crockett Club’s records contain more than 70,000 big game entries, from musk ox to mule deer. Among those entries are more than a few stories of adventures afield. To celebrate those trophies, their habitat, and the hunter, we’re bringing those stories back to life with each installment of Boone and Crockett’s Adventures from the Archives.


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