See the elk as Lewis and Clark likely did, in what’s now Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

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LEWISTOWN, Mont. — The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge spans more than a million acres along the Missouri River in central and northeast Montana. Each autumn, when the cottonwoods along the “Big Muddy” turn yellow in this crisp fall air, the elk of the Missouri River Breaks put on a show.

Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area, a short drive downriver from Fred Robison Bridge on the border of Fergus and Phillips counties, sees hundreds of elk during the height of the rut. Bull elk emerge from the willows along the Missouri to compete for cows, often clashing in dramatic fashion. The scene along the river looks much the same today as members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition must have found it in 1805.

Gene Erlandson, 78, grew up in Lewistown, just an hour’s drive from Slippery Ann. As the sun dipped in the afternoon he watched a stream of vehicles line up along the road below his motor home.

“All the little towns, we all come down to watch the elk,” Erlandson said. “This is kind of an annual event. I think some are hunters, but I think some people just come down to see them.”

Watching a big bull

Throughout the day we’d watched an enormous bull elk bedded down in the willows with a harem of more than 60 cows. His eight-point antlers gave a hint at his size, but it wasn’t until noon when another bull appeared in the cottonwoods that we got a clean look at him.

The cows that had been browsing the willows drew tense and focused their attention on the challenger. The big bull rose and charged the upstart. We watched through binoculars as the bulls clashed in the thicket of the cottonwood bottom. The collision of their antlers echoed through the breaks until the lesser bull withdrew toward the Missouri and the big bull strode back to his place in the cottonwoods.

For the better part of the afternoon the eight-point bull commanded Slippery Ann. Around 4 p.m., when the sun began to wane, the bull rose with the cows and faded into the willows. Around the same time cars started to line up on the roadway. The best time to view elk at Slippery Ann is between 5 and 8 p.m.

The boundary of the Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area is posted from Slippery Ann Campground on the banks of the Missouri River to Slippery Ann Creek. The area straddles both sides of Route 201 and is closed to public entry and hunting.

Elk have gathered at Slippery Ann for the rut for more than 100 years. Of the approximately 5,000 elk that inhabit the Russell refuge, “records from recent years show that nearly 500 elk may visit the elk viewing area in September,” according to the refuge. Elk numbers at Slippery Ann remain high into October. A telephone hotline offers latest elk counts at the Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area: 406-535-6904. (Though elk activity diminishes by mid-October, now’s a good time to plan a visit for next fall.)

Bugles and charges

Near 5 p.m., the cows that had vanished in the willows re-emerged. A hush came over the crowd of spectators lining the road as the bull elk followed them into the open and let out a thunderous bugle.

A number of other bulls that remained hidden along the river bottom throughout the day appeared in the cottonwoods, each bugling and raking its antlers on trees and in the dirt. Bluff charges and clashes between the bulls ensued. The biggest bull, which had spent the afternoon with the harem, looked exhausted fending off his challengers.

Erlandson said he’d heard that a bull loses 30 percent of its body weight during rutting season. “I don’t know if that is a fact or not, but they don’t get a chance to eat a lot and drink a lot.”

As evening fell over Slippery Ann the bulls continued their displays and bugling while the cows browsed on grass and sage in the fading light. Visitors snapped the last photographs the light would allow before heading to their trucks for the drive to camp.

Erlandson joined his wife in his motor home, the sound of bugles echoing across the river bottom all night.

“I like studying them a little bit, you watch how the bulls watch their little harem and keep them all together and keep the other bulls out,” Erlandson said. “It changes all the time.”