Thirty-one years ago, at age 14, Jack Schoonen shot his first elk. He has killed an elk every year since. Hunting the forested slopes of Montana’s Big Hole Valley, Schoonen specializes in tracking bulls and killing them in the timber, often with shots of less than 50 yards. He’s taken all 31 of his elk on publicly accessible land—and he’s done it hunting only on weekends. “I’d love to hunt four or five days in a row, but I’ve never had that opportunity in my life. I’m a schoolteacher,” says Schoonen. His family relies on the meat he and his 15-year-old son, Sage, bring home.
Sitting on his back patio outside of Dillon, Mont., Schoonen looks every bit like a man who ran traplines for beavers, coyotes, and bobcats when younger and helped pay for his college education by guiding fishermen. His wiry frame is corded with muscle and tendon. He has to cinch his belt to keep his jeans on his hips. Schoonen is quick to deploy a self-deprecating laugh, but a quiet intensity hums around him.
Schoonen’s family is steeped in elk. His brother, Tony Jr., worked for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and is now president of the Boone and Crockett Club. Schoonen’s father, Tony Sr., is a well-known advocate for public-lands access. On the day Jack was born, Tony was packing out an elk he’d shot the day before.