Act I: “Alpine Blunder”
“This could end up being way easier than I thought” was running through my head as I sat on the slick grassy slope next to my buddy, binoculars to both our eyes. It was the night before opening day and we were watching a herd of sixteen elk – my first herd of huntable elk! – graze diagonally through a bowl about two miles away and across a creek draw. This was a spot my buddy had in his quiver of spots as a fifteen-year veteran of the area. I had done my best to scout both on the ground and online over the summer, but as a recent addition to the area and a novice elk hunter, I was grateful for his knowledge and willingness to bring me along. He ideally wanted to take a big bull; I wanted any bull, and we both wanted meat for the year. There appeared to be a herd bull and two satellites, though it was difficult to tell for sure. Regardless, we each took a couple swigs of good-luck whiskey and hatched a plan.
After passing the frigid October night listening to the sounds of ice forming and moving in the creek bed, we awoke just after four AM, quickly breakfasted and donned our packs for a 1800ft climb. We ascended the majority of the way under cover of pines, only exposing ourselves in the treeless creek in the faintest glow of pre-dawn sunlight for the final, steepest portion of the ascent. Elk sign was everywhere – to me it seemed as if a herd of cattle had moved through the ravine given the sheer volume of tracks and imprint they had made up the mountainside. We reached the area where the elk had been the previous evening, but the only animal visible was a young mule deer buck feeding under a rocky outcropping below the crest of the bowl. We climbed another 200ft in order to gain an ideal glassing spot for the entire basin, and as happens on public land, ran into two hunters tucked away in the near- exact spot we intended to make our own. After briefly discussing plans, we set off across the open bowl away from the two hunters….and heard a bugle not two minutes later, still within view of them. We were headed in the direction of the sound, and we reflexively quickened our pace.
A few minutes and a few hundred yards of lateral movement brought us around a bend, along a well-used elk trail, and suddenly in view of antlers above some alpine grass. We dropped to the ground. Scanning the area, we spotted a cow, then another and another. The entire herd was here, and the bull was big. We quietly scrambled to gain a clear view above the grass that would give us a sub-100yd shot – my friend shooting from his shooting stick and me running backup from a resting rock. Just as my friend prepared to fire, two cows spooked and then the whole herd turned and sped as a loud shot rang out. But the bull kept running with his cows, all of them soon disappearing over a rise in the direction of the head of the basin. Unsure of a hit or not, we each dropped our packs and took off full-speed after them. Running at twelve thousand feet is punishing to the lungs, and after another three-quarters of a gut-wrenching mile, I finally gained a view of the herd moving along the perimeter of the head basin towards an escape through the otherwise impassable rocky walls. My rangefinder read 560yds – too far for my shooting – and I hurried to close the gap. I reached a rock and settled in for a shot attempt, heaving with such force that I could not keep from fogging up my scope. Suddenly there was a shot from behind me, and a few more – four in total. I could just see the bull about to cross over the escape and out of the bowl for good, and with a clear view in the eyepiece, I fired one shot and missed clearly over the big wapiti’s back. He crossed and disappeared.
We were dejected. Our plan had gone perfectly until our exuberance had led to an absence of patience when it was most needed, and as a result, we blew a chance to harvest a mature six-point bull on opening morning. We dutifully followed the herd’s path, hoping to find a blood trail but seeing none…until just 25 yards shy of the escape when small specks of bright red began to show on the exposed rock. The specks, along with our moods, increased as we neared the crest, believing the bull could actually have taken a hit and expired after a final dashing escape attempt. Then, the crest and over…and a dead female calf lying not ten feet from the edge. Turns out my friend, in his rush to down the bull, had shot when the animals were tightly grouped and hit the wrong one. We thought we felt bad when we believed they escaped, but the reality of what actually happened brought on a new low. We solemnly retrieved our packs and harvested the meat as the law requires. We hiked back down in near silence, only briefly discussing how we felt sorry for the two hunters who had planned properly and would likely have had a perfect opportunity on that bull if only we hadn’t moved excitedly ahead of them. We returned home, and the following day we made the difficult phone call to the on-call wildlife officer to report the improperly harvested calf. The meat was confiscated to be donated to needy families, we paid a fine, and my friend lost his license for the remainder of the 1st rifle season. It was the last time we hunted together for the year.
Act II: “No Cigar”
It could have been the first thermal manifestation of the sun’s rays finally penetrating the dense pine canopy that morning, or it could have (more likely) been the recent sub-ten yard encounter with a foursome of unaware cows and sub-eighty yard visual of their bellowing, fired up champion. Either way, any semblance of the chill I had felt all morning was gone as I crested the spur and began to descend the more gently inclined south-facing slope in the direction of the bull’s most recent bugle. It was day three of the season, I was in a new location – a large creek drainage system in which I had found sign during the late summer – and I was alone. My near arm’s length surprise encounter with the cows had ruined any chance of their bull following into a shooting lane, and after they sped off across the bowl, he, feeling suddenly abandoned, let rip a bellow and took off at an easy pace up and around to my left, quickly cresting the very ridge I had painstakingly tiptoed down from in order to close the distance. Now, slowly sidling east about thirty yards below the ridge, I meticulously scanned the face through the pines hoping my ears were leading me true. Suddenly, movement not one hundred yards away: a big animal and an antlered one at that. He bugled, and then amazingly, he lay down against a fallen pine log…in an orientation that gave me a visual of only the top four inches of his back and his right whale-tail. I should have waited patiently, allowing him to rest as he wished and then taking a controlled shot when he arose.
Given my total inexperience in elk hunting prior to that week, as well as the outcome of the events which occurred on opening day, I did what I imagine many backcountry elk rookies would have done — I fudged it up. I moved slightly to my right to use a pine trunk as a rest for my Model 70 30-06, but was unable to get stable. I slowly dropped my pack to attempt to shoot securely off it but found a scrubby bush in my view as I settled into position. I stood back up and willed myself to steady for a standing shot at his spine. All attempts failed to fulfill my purpose; instead, they succeeded in making the resting bull aware of nearby trouble, and as he is hard-wired to do when predators approach, he rose and took off with swiftness that left me feeling numb. Over three miles and four hours into the day, three days into the five day season, I had my chance at my first bull elk, a redemption chance at that, and I blew it. Two hundred ninety-eight FEET according to OnX and I couldn’t fill my rifle tag. I slumped to the ground, deflated.
Act III: “Redemption Song”
After a brooding lunch during which I noted the absence of any elk bugles for the first time in a few hours, I contemplated heading home to rest and return for the fourth day of the season. It had been a mentally straining morning, getting so close to so many animals, only to fail in the harvest. The quickest route home would be to retrace my steps out. But instead, I decided to complete the loop I had originally marked out on OnX – one that added a few more miles to the day’s total but that offered new country and at least the potential to get lucky. I descended the piney slope to a small rivulet of a creek at its base and then followed that to the larger creek into which it flowed. A well-used game trail paralleled this creek and I meandered along, following it for another mile and a half, napping for an hour and occasionally glassing the faces above with no views of animals given the sudden midday heat. I could turn up either of two different small tributaries and then climb to its finger ridge to complete the loop and return in the direction of the truck. I selected the second of the two tributaries, followed that for about three-quarters of a mile and then began to climb its steeper, deadfall-strewn north-facing slope.
Halfway up the 550ft incline, I heard the faintest mew. I had only heard calf mews on videos and in my own attempts at calling and it sounded the same. Then another, deeper and louder mew – a cow. Over the next few minutes, as I slowly climbed, two animals became more as an apparent herd of cows and calves were bedded somewhere east of my current position along the slope attending to their midday activities. After the emotional roller coaster that was the morning, it was extremely soothing just to hear elk sounds again. Given the loudness of the tree and branch covered terrain I did not even contemplate making an approach – they would surely hear me and depart. Plus, I couldn’t hear any bulls. So I continued and made the spur above, turning in the direction of the main ridge. It was a bluebird afternoon and at 3:30 pm the sun had just begun to throw shadows across the ridges. Atop the ridge was a recent burn and I quickly found hoofmarks imprinted in the sooty earth which I followed as they too headed to the main ridge. Suddenly, at 3:45 pm, I heard a faint bugle – I froze. Two minutes later, a more powerful and sonorous bugle from the north slope below me, in the direction of the previously heard cows and calves. That herd had its bull after all. A decision had to be made whether to try for him, but there was no doubt — the stalk was on!
I began a careful and measured descent towards the bugles, stopping every few steps to allow my ears to fine-tune my direction. The bull increased to an approximate one bugle per minute tempo and each bellow was noticeably louder as I neared. The pines were very dense and as soon as I left the soft burned ground my footfalls began to sound painfully loud on the fall leaves. I willed my feet to step delicately and prevent the near-inevitable spook as the animal’s wary ears heard my approach. Twenty minutes later and I was within earshot of clear mews and animal sounds – no more than eighty or so yards away. It sounded as if they were ascending towards me ever so slowly, though no visual confirmation could be made through the pines. I chose a tree to use as a rest for my rifle and posted up for five minutes in hopes they would present themselves, but no luck. I descended another twenty feet or so until the bull bellowed and it rung in my ears…I was right in his living room. I knelt and selected another tree for a rest, dialing my scope to 6x and peered through, searching for movement through the brush. Mews and broken branches sounded the approach. Then a cow’s head was visible through a shooting lane. She paused and cleared. A second cow appeared and through the scope, I could see her eyeing something to her rear. She cleared took a few steps beyond the shooting lane and was almost immediately followed by beautiful, hard antler. The bull! He screamed – a sound I still hear when I think about it and one I will likely never forget. A few steps and his head became visible, and I could see in his eyes the passion and excitement of the rut. Safety off, measured breath, and BANG. The bull rolled immediately, all four hooves in the air. Thirty seconds and he stopped moving, expired.
I killed a bull elk, my first ever. I felt a near surreal excitement. Holy s***! I let out an audible “whoop” for all to hear. I climbed the forty-five yards down to him and put my hands on his antlers. What an incredible animal and his meat was mine for the year! I took five minutes or so to just sit by him and reflect. Suddenly aware of the lateness of the day and the amount of work ahead, I snapped a few photos and got to work cutting him up. Three hours or so later my bull was dressed, quartered and bagged. I took one load with me that evening on the way home; the rest I shuttled out with my golden retriever as company the following day. Total pack out time: 30 hrs. Total distance: 26.6 miles, 14.2 of which was with meat on my back. I was a zombie the following day at work, but it was worth every sore muscle and missed hour of sleep. I can’t wait for next year.