Temptation at Timberline, By Justin Stark

Like many hunters, Labor Day weekend is one of the most anticipated weekends of the year for me.  It was especially so last year.

As busy as I was with work, this would likely be my only extended weekend to hunt during September.  The question was: what do I do with this precious time?

I hadn’t drawn my elk tag and the general elk units I was looking at didn’t open up until September 15th.  I could join my brother on his hunt in an elk unit that I knew would promise a good time, or I could hunt in a unit that opened up on September 1st.  As tempting as those two options were, what I really wanted to do was hunt an area I had scouted for mule deer during the summer.  I was excited for the opportunity at some high country muleys, something I really haven’t done in Wyoming.  It was time.

Even though I felt this hunt was past due, it was far from ideal.  The seven hour drive and an eight mile pack-in to camp meant I would essentially have an evening and morning to hunt while leaving enough time to pack out an animal and camp.  Any more time spent hunting and I wouldn’t be able to make it back to work on Tuesday morning.

The age-old question of hunt planning was weighing on me.  Still, these are the types of hunts I have become accustomed to, and I was confident that I could locate a buck.

I took off after work on Friday and arrived to camp around noon on Saturday.  It was a nonstop trip with the exception of a short nap I took in my bivy rolled out under my truck half way through the drive.  I decided to camp in the same spot I had while scouting during the summer.

After pitching my tent, I made the short trek to the bowl I would be concentrating on.  My only goal for the afternoon and evening was to locate a buck – I could concentrate on making a stalk the next morning.  With the terrain moving into the timberline, it wasn’t hard to pick out some elk on the opposite side of the drainage.  I pulled out my spotter to see if I could see a bull.  No luck.

I knew I really shouldn’t be looking for a bull.  I would set myself up for the challenge of a lifetime trying to pack it out of here within two days.  Yet I was still looking.

After not locating any bucks in my number one drainage, I headed to a nearby bowl I wanted to check out.  I hadn’t been able to scout it on my summer trip, but it looked good on Google Earth.  As soon as I crested the top, I heard a bugle.  That moment marked the start of my elk temptation.  I was able to creep out on a cliff above the elk and locate the bull.  He wasn’t huge – just an average six point – but big enough to attempt a stalk.  I just couldn’t pass up an opportunity on what would be my largest archery bull to date.

I only made it within a hundred yards of the bedded bull before being busted by a cow.  Even with the failed stalk, I was able to make it back to camp before an afternoon thunderstorm rolled through.

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The evening found me back at the original drainage. I located the elk again, and there was a bull with them. A big one! The elk temptation continued. Temptation is hard to resist when you have a tag in your pocket and you see a bull that rivals anything you have seen hunting before. Even so, I was able to resist the urge to go after the bull and get some glassing in. Yes, it was mainly because I didn’t like the odds of a stalk on the bull in his current location, but it still took some serious willpower.

However, later in the evening the elk moved along the top of the drainage, and I saw an opportunity. It appeared that the bull was just beyond a very large boulder. If I could get to the boulder, I might be close enough.

I did get to my spot by the boulder, and was very close to some of the cows, but the bull was still a hundred yards past the boulder. I let out a bugle hoping he would come to chase off the intruder, but he only screamed back and stood his ground. I was able to back out of there without spooking the elk but returned back to camp without fulfilling my main goal of locating a buck that evening.

On Sunday morning I woke up to the sound of elk right below camp. They were splashing in the lake, and I was sure it was the big bull when I heard him bugling and glunking. The elk temptation continued! I got ready as quietly as I could as the elk were not more than 150 yards below me. Luckily I was able to get out of camp without spooking the elk. As dawn approached, they moved back into the main drainage, and I followed.

When I got out to my glassing location, the big bull was directly below me with a cliff separating us. I still attempted to locate a muley but with a bull of that caliber in sight, I couldn’t help coming up with a plan to ambush the bull as he continued to parallel around the drainage.

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As luck would have it, there on that same slope was a buck, and he was a good one. I was able to watch the buck as he fed throughout the early morning and was fortunate to see him bed down. Meanwhile, the wind was not holding steady, spooking the elk on two separate occasions.

I made my way back to camp and where I waited for the wind to stabilize before I started my stalk. I was able to watch the waves on the lake switch back and forth and back and forth before the wind finally calmed around 11:00am. After a short hike I was above the buck and working down the slope in my socks towards the buck’s location. The slope seemed much steeper than it did from my glassing location. On two separate occasions, I had to set down my bow so I could scale some small cliff sections.

By the time I was within sight of the buck, I estimated the horizontal distance to be no more than 40 yards. But, without a rangefinder and an obstructed line of sight, I decided to sneak in closer for a shot I could feel comfortable with. I was able to get down to a better location where I estimated the buck at no more than 30 yards.

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I took a deep breath, calmed my nerves, and drew my bow. I let the arrow fly, and knew I connected.

After waiting half an hour I started the job of tracking the buck. There was a large amount of good blood right near the location of the shot, but it faded out quickly and left me following tracks. Eventually, I had to resort to searching in the last known direction of travel. When that didn’t pan out, I figured the best thing was to head downhill.

As I headed downhill I ended up jumping the buck and could tell my shot had only gone down through one lung due to the steep shot angle and the way the buck was bedded.

In my mind I worried that jumping the buck would have been catastrophic, but the buck had also broken a back leg somehow and was not very mobile. He bedded down not long after jumping him. I quickly decided to get another arrow in him – I had a great Wyoming buck down!

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The rest of the day contained a few hiccups including my camera dying before I could get any timer shots with my buck and forgetting my truck key adding a couple miles to my meat pack-out. Even with those mishaps, I have never felt more fortunate on a hunt. It’s just not that common to spot the largest buck you have ever seen while set up to ambush one of the largest bulls you have ever laid eyes on, not to mention taking the buck of a lifetime.

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Posted by JOMH Editor