My buddy Jon and I headed to the great state of Montana this September for an elk/mulie combo hunt in the Missouri Breaks. For the first three days we were also joined by our good friend, Gabe. Jon and I drew a pretty decent tag and were excited about the hunt. I did as much research and snooping trying to make a game plan for the hunt as I could and we had some good intel from a friend who had rifle hunted there in the past. Most of his info was great and very helpful and we appreciated it.
The trip started on Sep. 17th. On Saturday morning Jon came to my son’s football game and watched him play (and me coach) before we could leave.
The boys played great and won their first game 7-0 and their second game 35-0. It was a great morning and I loved leaving on a high note for the team.
When our games were done and after lots of hugs and kisses to my kids, we were off. Jon and I drove out to the middle of Montana and pulled into the boat landing at about 11:00 PM. We packed our gear into the boat and listened to a bull bugling across the river, in the unit we could hunt. We tried to nap in the truck for a little bit too. Gabe pulled into the boat ramp at about 3:30 AM. We loaded his gear up in the boat and headed for our planned destination to camp.
We boated over a few miles by the light of the moon. We were loaded down very heavy with a lot (i.e., way too much) gear. When we pulled into the bay we planned to camp in we were very disappointed to see two camps set up. As rough as the lake had become we had little choice but to pull up on shore across the bay from the other camps. We tied up on shore and headed out in search of elk, deer, fun, and adventure.
Gabe, Jon, and I left together, but before long Gabe headed West in search of a big mule deer buck and we headed South. Jon and I struggled up and down the cuts, creeks, and draws a bit, still not having our “mountain legs” underneath us. We glassed each time a new area came into view, then kept heading down the main draw. Occasionally we bugled in hopes of a response. It was warm, even in the early hours of the morning. As the sun painted the landscape we were given our first real look at the landscape and terrain. In many ways it was much like the places I had hunted mule deer in ND- I felt like I knew this kind of country pretty well, even though I had never set foot in this area.
Here are a few pictures to give you a feel for the kind of country we were hunting.
We spotted quite a few doe, fawn, and small mule deer bucks. However, no elk! We put on several miles, but were striking out. The area looked great and we felt like it was a matter of time… Around 10:00 AM Jon lifted his glasses up and said, “We got elk.” He directed me where to look and I saw six cows and a smallish 6 point bull. We couldn’t tell just how “smallish” the bull was, so we tried to get a better look at them by moving closer. They were moving along pretty fast, so we decided to try intercept them farther ahead. To make a long walk/story short, we never saw them again.
We planned to meet Gabe at camp at 1:00 that afternoon so we could get the tent and camp set up, so we decided to head back around noon. On the way back two things of significance happened. First, Jon mentioned several times that his knee was bothering him. His knee gave him problems on our last elk hunt together in 2014. However, he didn’t get it looked at since after the trip it did just fine and he never had another problem with it. Half-way into Day 1 of the trip, he regretted not getting it looked at.
The other thing that happened on the way back was that we ran into this guy!
I’ve seen a dozen or more rattlesnakes now and three times they didn’t rattle until the last second, just like this spitfire did. My left foot hit the ground and my right foot was in the air in mid-stride when his rattle started. I looked down and could see my foot was going to land right on the snake. I then did two things- I dove off to my right and simultaneously screamed like a girl. I’m almost certain I set my new personal volume record for screaming in fear.
I’ve heard that different snakes have their own personalities and I have to admit, this one was different than any snake I’ve ever encountered. He was an ornery SOB! I didn’t see it, but Jon said he snapped at me when I dove away from him. He continued to be crabby and didn’t want us anywhere near him. Many of the snakes I’ve seen simply rattle a little bit and nonchalantly just want you to go away. Not this little street fighter! He had attitude and was aggressive. He was the first rattlesnake Jon had ever seen and we both hoped he’d be the last.
Eventually we made our way back to the boat and we got our tent and the rest of camp set up. That went well, but Jon noticed we had one small mishap happen on the way in—a rock had taken out Jon’s window in his boat on the drive to the boat ramp.
Bummer! Once camp was ready we grabbed a quick bite to eat and quickly made plans to head back out for the evening. Jon was hobbling around camp and his knee was clearly not doing great. Much to my surprise, Jon informed us that he was going to stay in camp and rest his knee instead of hunting that afternoon. Jon taking any time off on a hunt was unheard of—I knew this was not a good sign for him for this hunt. Jon is stubborn as a mule (I think it’s why we can hunt together so well- we’re similar in this regard) and he’s tough when it comes to stuff like this. I headed out with Gabe for the evening, but I was worried about how this would work out for Jon.
The evening was kind of quiet, but still interesting. We didn’t hear a single bugle that evening, but we did manage to locate two different groups of elk. They were both about 1.5 miles away and too far to make a play on with the limited amount of time left. We watched them for a while and saw a mediocre 5 point in one group and no bull with the other cows. I decided to move down the ridge and look on the other side of it, in a small hidden bowl I knew was there from studying Google earth images. I struck out on my little looksee, but when I came back Gabe informed me that I had “missed the show”. Right after leaving Gabe noticed the group of elk high on the far ridge started acting weird. Soon they were running back and forth and jumping and kicking their legs for no apparent reason. After watching for a few minutes he saw the reason for the odd behavior—a mountain lion was in the middle of the herd and they were trying to defend themselves.
I soon returned and when I glassed up the herd the cat was gone. Bummer! Gabe got a fun show though. I decided to head back to camp a little bit early knowing any elk we spotted at that point would be too far to do anything about anyway. I wanted to check on Jon and get some grub started.
When I got back I Jon had our food ready for us. I told him the happenings of the evening. Gabe showed up 30 minutes later and told me that a nice 6x6 showed up soon after I left. I missed all of the great sights that evening! Tomorrow was a new day though and we were excited to have a couple different groups of elk spotted.
First you hold out on us, then you leave us hanging on a story that's already written? You're killin us Scoot!
Thanks for sharing
Good luck, Robb
With Jon’s knee giving him problems I decided I wanted to hop in the boat and look/listen for elk from the boat to start the day. It wasn’t our preferred method to locate elk, but it seemed the wisest thing to do given my buddy’s bum wheel. We headed down the shoreline towards the bull we had heard from the boat landing two nights before.
Just as we got down in the area we expected him to be he bugled right on cue! He was relatively close to shore and if we could get in to shore without being spotted we could get relatively close. We motored past the elk and out of view then quietly trolled into shore and anchored up. We slinked around the area the bull had been and made our way up the hill. It was steep and difficult, but it was dry and the going was good. We worked up a good sweat going just a little ways because even though it was still early, it was already warm. Here I am just cresting over the top of the ridge.
I got into the trees the bull had been near and quietly made my closer. Jon followed 10-15 yards behind waiting to call or spot or do whatever he could to help since it was my turn to be the shooter.
I stopped on top of a little hill in the trees and watched and listened. There were tracks and elk sign all over. After looking for a minute or so I slowly slinked forward and down the little rise. I peered through the trees and just as I spotted a cow, she spotted me. She immediately trotted off. I signaled Jon to cow call. However, there was a tree between him and me and he couldn’t see me. Seconds later I could see several cows filtering through the trees and heading up the hill. I hoped the bull would be in the mix, but soon heard him scream a gathering bugle and the herd tore off and they were outta there. Dang it! We checked out the area and glassed a bit, but soon headed back to the boat having the typical “woulda, coulda, shoulda” conversation that follows a blown elk encounter.
That evening we boated to a different area because the other guys camping in our same bay were putting plenty of pressure on the areas near camp. We picked a nice looking bowl a few miles away, anchored up on shore, and headed in. After glassing for a while we had seen nothing. However, a bugle soon rang out in response to one of our locator bugles. After locating him to the best of our four ears’ ability, we headed down and tried to get close enough to make something happen.
We made our way down and Jon gimped along on his bum knee. About half way down Jon took a very nasty tumble. The ground started slipping and just didn’t quit! Before he knew it he was flipped over and landed face first in a heap in a pile of brush, dirt, and rocks. The worst of the fall was taken when the top cam of his bow cracked him in the face. It looked like a really bad fall, but had was not injured (except maybe his pride a bit). I REALLY wanted to take a picture of him in a heap (after I determined he was OK), but I just didn’t think he would appreciate the humor of the situation at that moment.
When we finally made it to the bottom of the draw we heard another bugle- he sounded farther up the other side than he previously was and he had also moved west. We headed up the hill and tried to cut the distance. About 1/3 of the way up the hillside we spotted movement up the hill. Some cows were working the ridge above us and it was pretty open and would be almost impossible to get very close.
We ended up watching and calling to the elk. The bull was behind the cows, but eventually showed himself. He wasn’t huge, but he was a pretty decent 6 point bull.
We called back and forth and played with him a bit, but really knew at that distance and with him having a group of girls with him already, we were just playing and entertaining ourselves. We understood we were painted into a corner and accepted the encounter as fun and one that would not end in a punched tag. Once it got dark enough we sneaked out of there and planned to come back in the morning.
At camp that night Gabe reported that he had seen 18 mulies that day, but none were what he was looking for. We each made our plans for the next day and hit the rack.
Jon and I got back to the same draw early the next morning. We didn’t go far before we heard several bulls going bonkers. One bull was in the same area as the night before, but another was further into the draw and another was across the South ridge and just into the next little draw. We headed into the draw in hopes of getting on the same bull as the day before.
As we gained elevation and cut the distance to the bull by nearly ½, we heard a new bugle. This bull was in the willows near shore and we had walked right past him! He was closest, so we headed down in his direction. We moved quickly downhill and cut the distance quickly. Soon I was glassing the willows and trees below and Jon hissed “Don’t move, he’s 100 yards away and looking our direction.” I held steady until the bull began to move. I pulled my rangefinder up to my eye and Jon knocked an arrow. We slipped down the hill a little bit and under a pine tree. I ranged the bull- he was at 90 yards. There was almost nothing between us and him but low sage and some grasses. However, he quartered towards us and to our right and he continued forward. 85, 80, 78 yards… His angle started to veer away a little bit. Jon whispered, “We need to move closer.” I felt him leaning my way and I instinctively rocked back a little bit. My very first step backwards found my heel on the nearest pine cone. I felt it under my foot, but before I could stop myself from putting weight on it there was an audible “Crunch”. That was all it took- the bull snapped his head our way and he was off in an instant! Uuugh! It’s bad enough screwing up a chance at a bull for yourself, but it’s much worse to screw up a chance for a buddy.
We turned and went back towards the bull we were first after. However, he went quiet. The bull across the South ridge was more than happy to keep on talking for us. We busted our humps and made it over the ridge and into the next basin. After some navigating, we made it to a good glassing point to see much of the basin. It didn’t take long and I spotted the bull with his harem of a dozen cows. He looked like a nice bull, but was a long ways away. We watched them work their way even farther from us. I wanted to follow and try to cut some distance (or at least maintain it), but Jon wanted to stay put and watch to see what they would do. I reluctantly stayed and glassed. Once they finally slowed and hung around a little park for a while I finally said we need to go after them. They were easily 1.5 miles from us and it wouldn’t be too easy to get back to them. Jon’s response was “Go for it.” I wanted to push him to come back there with me, but with his knee the way it was I didn’t dare. Jon had been using a trekking pole and was doing OK with it, but I decided to take his suggestion and head out by myself. About 2/3 of the way there I jumped the only nice mule deer buck of the trip- a 24-25 inch wide, thick horned buck. He popped up about 20 yards from me. I knocked an arrow instinctively and realized he was only about 30 yards from me when I was ready to draw—he had gotten hung up in all the brush around his bedding area. I tried to stop him several times: “Grrrrrrrt!.... Bwaaaaaaa… Rrrrrrrrrrrt!!!”, but it was to no avail. Once he cleared the brush he never looked back.
A few hundred yards ahead I caught movement going up the hillside. A group of elk was heading out of the back end of the bowl in the back of the basin.
At first I was really bummed the mulie had blown my chances, but quickly noticed this bull was all muddied up from a recent visit to a wallow. Then I realized it was a much smaller bull than the one I had come back here for.
I hoped they hadn’t scared the group of elk I was looking for. They likely had blown out the other group given that I was getting into pretty tight quarters back in the end of this basin.
There was one pocket tucked up against the steep clayface in the SW corner of the bowl, just a few hundred yards ahead. Almost half-way to this pocket I heard sweet music to my ears—the bull ripped a half-hearted bugle just 200 yards ahead. Although I couldn’t hear it, Jon was occasionally bugling and keeping the bull talking. This was exactly our plan with a long distance call and stalk approach. I moved in as close as I dared and watched and listened. Just as I was about to leave my little lookout and move in close, I caught movement up ahead as the bull tipped his head back and ripped out another bugle. I’m lucky he did because I would have blown the whole thing up if he hadn’t given up his location at that moment. However, there was no real way to get any closer than I could from where I was at. It was a gradual slope downhill to them and all open grassy/sagey ground with virtually no cover. I could either wait them out and see what played out or I could try call the bull in to me. He was only 120 yards away, but he was still 120 yards away! I hate this distance!!! It’s too far to be in his bedroom, but close enough to feel like I should be able to get it done every time.
I watched and listened for a few minutes trying to weigh my options. Although the wind was somewhere between marginal and acceptable at the moment, I figured odds were low it would hold throughout the afternoon and all the way until the elk would get out of their beds and move around very much. It was warm and they seemed awfully comfortable where they were. I finally decided to try cow call him in—I just wasn’t close enough and wasn’t able to get close enough to get really aggressive with him.
I knocked an arrow and cow called. The bull immediately jumped to his feet and started raking a tree. This would have been my opportunity to sneak in closer, but a calf also popped out of her bed and she moved closer to me. I thought maybe I could keep talking and get her closer to me, possibly even taking a cow along with her eventually. However, after coming 20 yards closer, she wouldn’t budge. The bull kept raking the tree and nobody was moving. The wind felt increasingly sketchy. Combine that with the fact that the closer calf seemed to be getting weirded out by the situation and I decided I needed to get more aggressive. I dropped a spike squeal and watched to see how they would react. Nothing- nobody flinched! I slinked back a few yards and started beating and raking some sagebrush. I again peaked back up and saw the calf was joined by a cow and they both didn’t like what they were hearing. I dropped a cow call and the bull bugled back. I cut off his bugle with an aggressive bugle of my own, hoping to ratchet up his engagement and trying to entice a fight. Nope- the cows quickly moved away and all huddled together. Soon the bull joined them and they all tore off as if I had shot a rifle at them. Dang! If the terrain had just let me get 40 yards closer I would have really liked my chances. No such luck though.
While looking at the bedded herd of elk I noticed this guy in front of me.
Jon had watched the whole thing unfold. Although he couldn’t see me, he knew I had made contact when he watched the bull and calf jump to their feet. He said it was great entertainment watching it unfold, but boy was he rooting for me. As Jon watched the elk storm out of there he noted that they reached the bottom of the basin and split into two groups- some went south and the others headed North. Then the thought hit him, “Hey, wait a minute, half of the elk are headed right for me!” He knocked an arrow and moved slightly to get into a better position. Soon he heard hooves stomping the ground and getting close. Several cows popped over the ridge at 30 yards. He let them slip by and waited for the bull to follow. He waited, and waited, and soon concluded the bull must have gone with the other group. The cows got to the clayface behind him and quickly turned around. Again they ran to a different spot 30 yards away and Jon stared at them. He wasn’t even tempted (they would have been in trouble if I was in his shoes at that point!) But he let them walk. He sat and watched them trot away and a few minutes later a little spike muley buck tipped over the ridge at not 20 yards. Jon thought about it for a second, but wasn’t really tempted. Again, the little buck would have been in trouble if I was there. It was his lucky day!
We headed back for the boat and went to camp. We talked about how lucky I was to get on those elk and how much luckier Jon was to have them come 30 yards away from him. I concluded I was an excellent elk driver! LOL One other thing happened back at camp—while glassing the herd of elk earlier I resituated myself to get more comfortable and I managed to shift my butt directly on top of a cactus. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I finally couldn’t take it. I’ll spare you the details, but I can tell you it’s time like that when a guy realizes just how valuable a great fried (and a Gerber multi-tool) really is.
Gabe had again seen a lot of deer and one decent 4x4, but he didn’t ever get a chance to make a play on them. He did have an excellent elk report for us- in the area he had been he saw several nice bulls, including a 320-330 6x7. Unfortunately, that was the end of Gabe’s trip. He had to head home early, so Jon and I ran him back to the boat landing through a dense fog. Gabe loaded up and headed out just as it started to drizzle. By the time we got back to the tent it had turned into a rain. I cooked supper in the vestibule of the tent that night trying to stay dry. It rained all night long and in the morning Jon and I got ready knowing navigating the country would be different today than the past three days. I’d read Bigdan’s reports of the mud and I knew it would be tough. In actuality, we had no idea…
We headed towards the area Gabe had seen all the elk the day before. This was actually the same general area we had gone the first day, but this time we took the route Gabe suggested and going along that route made the actual walking distance much shorter and there was MUCH less up and down. However, it was very tough going, in spite of the more efficient route. We found that about 99% of the ground was made up of two different types of mud- about ¾ of this mud was unbelievably slippery. Imagine glass-smooth ice with 80/90 gear lube poured on it. Then tip it at an angle and try to stay upright on it! The other ¼ of the mud was so sticky it would cake on your boots so much you’d have 18 lb. feet in just a few steps. Snapping our legs/feet and trying to flick it off would sometimes work, but three steps later you’d be no better off. It sucked!
On top of that, imagine the combination of the two: feet full of mud that totally covered the tread on the boots, then hitting a hillside of solid slippery snot. We spent a lot of time hitting our butts, backs, and every other part of our body on the slick spots of the hills. We eventually covered the 2.5 miles back to where Gabe had seen all of the different bulls the day prior.
Over the last mile we could hear bugles ahead, so we knew at least some of the elk were in there again. We tipped over a hill and started seeing cows. I soon spotted a nice 6x6 and pointed it out to Jon. I mentioned “he’s pretty nice” and figured he was probably the biggest bull we’d seen so far that trip. Suddenly, another much bigger bull came into view and he chased off the bull I had just called “pretty nice”. This guy was much bigger- he was the 6x7 Gabe had seen the day before. He was much wider, taller, and simply bigger than the other bull.
It was raining the whole time, so I wasn’t able to get any pictures or video of the elk. There were probably 30 elk back there and multiple bulls. The elk stalled in an area for a while and we tried to decide what to do. The wind was marginal, but with the weather the way it was we weren’t sure we’d be sticking around for the whole day. We were frustrated with how all of the pressure had pushed the elk way back to the very far end of the bowls and we didn’t want to screw anything up and do more of the same. However, they were in a decent spot and we thought we could make the wind work and make a play on them.
We moved in behind a hill and we figured we were probably inside of 200 yards, maybe half that distance, from where we’d seen them last. Jon wanted me to cow call as he moved ahead in the shooter position. I dropped a few cow calls and the herd bull immediately screamed back. Jon moved ahead and soon found the cows were just 40 yards ahead of him and he was pinned down. I saw a pretty decent 6x6 coming on a string from about 400 yards away- he was coming on a trot and covering ground quickly. He hit 200 yards from us and stopped as if he had hit a wall! To get to this lone cow (us) he had to walk right in front of the big 6x7 that was just past the cows Jon was near. It was clear the bull didn’t want him to do that and he didn’t want to tangle with the big guy. He stood there staring, but not daring to approach and take the whoopin’ that would almost certainly be inflicted on him if he tried to stroll right past the big bull. Eventually he wandered off and it became clear the herd bull wasn’t going to come in and try swoop up the cow that had wandered from the group. I cow called and when he bugled I hammered him with a rude, interrupting bugle of my own. He didn’t like it! He moved closer, but just wouldn’t come through or around his cows to get close enough for Jon to get a shot. He was inside of 100 yards, but with the rise right in front of us Jon could only see cows milling around. I tried raking a tree- he didn’t like that! I tried light chuckles as if the intruder bull was trying to steal one of his cows. Again, he didn’t like it, but he just wouldn’t budge. We played this game for about ten minutes, but he just wouldn’t budge. The cows eventually grew tired of these two guys spatting and wandered away from us and towards their guy.
In the end, we think the wind got the best of us towards the end of the interaction- our guess is the lead cow or some of the cows caught a whiff of us and headed out. They got to the back of the bowl and most of them headed right up the steep slope and out of there entirely. We concluded on thing—we suck! We did exactly what we were frustrated with other hunters doing and pushed them way back. In fact, we did it so well we pushed them right out of the basin entirely. Yes, we suck.
We saw one more bull that morning, but he spotted us and the jig was up before anything really started. We slogged our way back to camp and unbelievably to us both, quit early. It was wet and miserable- we could deal with those things and had done so many times before. However, it was dangerous as heck trying to navigate our way around those unbelievably slick hillsides. On top of that, 15 pound boots sucked the life out of us! Even more exhausting was trying to climb the hills- we’d get Scooby Doo legs half the time and you’d have to spin your legs as fast as possible to stay upright. All of this made the travel difficult, exhausting, and most importantly dangerous. We agreed the safest and best thing we could do was to stay in the tent for the afternoon and evening.
To give you an idea of how sticky of this mud was, the boots below were unworn prior to using them for one quick trip (10 steps worth outside the tent) to the bathroom. Sticky stuff!
It rained all night and all morning. Jon shut off the alarm before it even went off—we both knew we wouldn’t be hunting in the morning when we went to sleep the night before. Jon got up first and started organizing his pack and getting his gear put together. I slept longer than him and when I got up Jon was playing solitaire (having seen the long-term forecast and Bigdan’s warnings, I packed cards). It was still raining out and we knew what would greet us if we tried to hunt. After some breakfast and discussion we decided that there was no hope for the morning hunt. We organized things a bit more and decided to bust out the cribbage board (first time I had ever brought one and I was glad I did). At first the big match up looked like this.
After it rained all day long and we were stuck inside the tent the whole time it eventually looked like this.
It was a looooong day to say the least. We think about this week all year long and to have time stolen from us by Mother Nature was tough to swallow. But, there was little we could do about it, so we did our best to make the best of the situation. We played cribbage and drank beer into the evening. At home that would seem like a fine plan for an evening, but on our hunting trip this was torture for us. It wasn’t a competition (of course it was, everything is!), but I feel the need to point out that the cribbage tally was 17-9 in my favor-- haha!
We woke up and it was misting and rainy still. Back to the cribbage board! Around noon the rain subsided for a while and we tried our luck at fishing near camp. It was still dreary, foggy, and occasionally misting, but at least we were out of the dungeon!
We managed to get two bites and caught one little smallmouth bass. Nothing too exciting, but it was a whole lot better than being stuck in the tent.
After lunch I declared that I would be hunting that evening, with Jon or without. I understood it might be an exercise in futility and that we may get a few hundred yards from the tent before we turned around, but I certainly hadn’t come to Montana to play cribbage and neither had Jon. Jon made no argument—he wanted to get back out there just as badly as I did. Jon tends to exercise caution and good judgement more than I do (note: I’m not saying he is cautious or has good judgement, I’m just saying he’s better off than me in those departments), but he couldn’t tolerate the tent and tight quarters anymore either.
We left camp around 3:00 PM and headed up the ridge behind camp. The going was tough, with very heavy boots and slippery conditions, but we mucked out way up the ridge. Occasionally we’d fall, sometimes on our stomach, chest, and face, sometimes on our hip or butt, but we slogged our way up to a glassing point. Jon described the area as “an absolute quagmire” and I had to agree. The afternoon started quiet, but we finally glassed up a group of elk. I convinced Jon to come with me after them, but we ran out of light before we could get there. It was just too darn tough to move very quickly anywhere and the ever-present slipperiness made it too tough to cover ground like I’m used to.
Jon and I worked our way back up the Slip-N-Slide ridge behind camp in the wee morning hours. In the dim light of the morning we spotted the same group of elk we’d gone after the night before.
We also watched several muleys work their way across a sage flat below us.
Occasionally we heard a bugle from in the bowl we were facing, but twice we heard a bugle from the far side of ridge and farther West. We heard one bugle that seemed particularly close on the far side of the ridge, so we decided to go investigate. After covering ½ mile or so Jon threw up his glasses and said “I see him.” He directed me and soon I saw him too. He was a pretty good 6x5 (compared to what we’d seen thus far) and easily surpassed my minimum standards at this point in the game (which dropped significantly after the rain started).
After watching him for a while we decided to cut some of the distance between us (about 1.5 miles) and get a better look. We lost sight of him for a while, but Jon eventually climbed up a little hump and he spotted him bedded by a small outcropping of rocks.
As usual, we didn’t agree on how to best get close to them. In the end, I agreed Jon was right and the way I was thinking wouldn’t work. We moved around the finger the elk were on and tight roped the clay face to the South of them. We made it around the edge and figured we were about 200 yards from them when my fears came true—the wind was directly at our back. However, it was a really steep, slippery hill behind the elk and wide open in front of them. With nothing else to do, we pressed on. After going just another 50 yards the wind was again moving in the right direction and blowing hard- it wasn’t perfectly in our face, but quartering towards and left to right enough to possibly get away with.
We sneaked our way to a small sage flat with a little high spot in it. Immediately behind us was the sharp drop off I wanted to come up on the approach. I glanced at it and realized the folly of my planned approach—just as Jon said, we’d have never made it six steps up that slimy slope.
I belly crawled to a large sage bush that sat higher on the hump than anything else. Jon stayed ten feet behind, not wanting to mess anything up for the shooter (me). I looked and looked and I was convinced I was searching the right area, but I saw nothing. I pushed back and talked to Jon. He thought the elk were a little farther down. I struggled to believe it, but the thought occurred to me “Everything always looks so different when you get up to the actual spot. I’m sure he’s right.” I leaned slightly to my right to sneak over to the area he mentioned and through the sage bush I was just looking at I spotted a tawny brown patch below us. I had been looking in the right direction, but they were so close and so directly beneath us on the hill that I was looking right over the top of them.
I spotted six cows and calves, but I couldn’t locate the bull. I knew he couldn’t be too far with all of these gals sitting casually on the hillside chewing their cud. However, after looking and trying for a couple minutes, I couldn’t see him. I could feel the breeze going from left to right and a light mist of rain keeping my left cheek damp, but I feared the turbulent weather would result in the wind betraying us before long at all. Again I peered through the grass and brush and tried to locate a rack. No dice. I turned back to Jon, had the thought “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” go through my head, and whispered “I’m going to shoot the cow.” “You’re going to do what?” Jon replied. I smiled and said unless he would be upset with me, I would shoot the cow. He said “You’re the shooter, do whatever makes you happy.”
I moved forward again and tried one last ditch effort to find the bull. I couldn’t locate him. I again ranged the cow with my rangefinder—46 yards. I knelt down, drew my bow back, got up straight and tall on my knees and put my pin on the cow. I immediately “felt” the cow to the right of my target snap her head and focus on me. I tried to pay no attention. I placed my pin on her vitals. I can see my pin right on the crease in my mind’s eye as I type this. I quickly went through my shot sequence, feeling like the cow to the right might spring from her bed any second. Just as I started to pull my bow apart and apply pressure to my thumb trigger I did something I try very hard not to do when I’m shooting—I had a thought. “Don’t you need to give a few inches for wind?” With the strong left to right wind, it seemed reasonable. I moved my pin to the left a bit, then a lot, then, much to my surprise, the string dropped and the arrow was on the way. “OH NO!” I immediately knew I had made a very poor shot. I saw the arrow hit the cow far back and a little high. According to Jon, that’s when the bull stood up not 15 yards away from the cow I shot. I never even saw him—I think he was behind and below a cow that was closer to me. I was completely focused on the cow I had hit as she flipped and flopped her way to her feet and disappeared over the small rise below. In the meantime, all hell had broken lose- there were elk all over the place and they were vamoosing in all directions.
With the rain coming down, Jon and I quickly headed down the hill after her. We didn’t want to push her, but the shot was poor and we knew any sign of a blood trail would disappear quickly. I started down the hill with an arrow knocked and immediately realized that not only is that always a bad idea, it was a particularly horrible idea with the slick mud all over the place. I quickly quivered my arrow. I looked ahead and saw Jon flying down the hill with three razor blades flailing around the end of his arrow too. I barked out “Get that arrow put away before you kill yourself!” I got to the bottom of the hill, about 50 yards below her bed and I found my arrow- eight inches of penetration and a broken off arrow. I saw Jon ahead and below me and told him I had found the arrow. He said “Forget the arrow, I can see her right there”, he said pointing down the hill ahead of me. I couldn’t see over the rise below me. Jon said “I’m going downhill along this cut in case she tries to go that way.”
I pressed on after her. I came over the next rise and was pleased I could see a lot of country. I would be able to see virtually anywhere she might have gone. However, I immediately saw absolutely no sign of her and just as quickly I got a nauseous feeling. I blew the shot, I blew the opportunity, I took the “easy opportunity” and I still blew it! I mortally wounded an animal that there’s no sign of and she’s going to die thanks to me. I hadn’t given up, of course, but I knew it looked bad and I knew I had screwed this all up. I pushed ahead another 50 yards and walked up to the edge of a 15 foot deep little creek. Ten feet from the edge of the creek I heard a loud sucking sound from the bottom of the creek- it was the sound every kid who’s stepped in a muddy riverbank and gotten his/her foot and leg stuck to the mid-calf or deeper knows. As I knocked an arrow I peered below and saw the nose and ear of the cow, her legs were obviously stuck in the mud at the bottom of the creek bed and she was trying to get out. I stepped ahead, drew, and was pleased to see her get her feet loose and step up, perfectly broadside and not far below me. I took careful aim and finished what I knew I should have finished five minutes earlier.
As upset as I was with the first shot, I was happy, and relieved too. I had a wave of strong positive and negative emotions hit me as I waited for Jon to make his way up to where I was. I don’t usually get as emotional as I did when I shot this elk. “Just a cow” might be some people’s thoughts, but it mattered a lot to me and the relief of not mortally wounding and not recovering her is/was a big deal in my mind. Soon the satisfaction of filling my tag helped wash away much of the frustration of the trip and disgust with my shooting performance.
It kept on raining and unfortunately most of the pictures I took had some wet spots on my camera. Oh well, we had an elk down and we were happy.
We climbed into the bottom of the muddy crotch she had died in.
Tracking her wasn’t hard from there.
I played with the Ultimate Predator Adventure Cam on this trip a fair bit. There was a learning curve and I messed up most of my opportunities to get good video or audio. However, I did get some video of “the river of blood” and the “tracking job” when we went to find her. I am a complete newbie with video cameras and it really showed on this trip. However, the UPAC was pretty sweet! I didn’t keep it out as much as I would have liked to because of both the rain and the fact that I figured I would destroy or lose it falling down a slippery slope eventually. I learned a lot with it and it’ll be dang fun using it on my hunts in the future. For reasons I can’t figure out, I can’t get the video to upload to photobucket. If I figure it out, I’ll post it later.
This was my #1 arrow on this trip. My dad had been through one hell of a roller coaster health-wise just prior to this trip. I really wanted to take a picture like this (without the water spots on the camera lens LOL) to show that this arrow was dedicated to him.
The bull died in quite an interesting spot for us to get our work done. Not only were the quarters quite tight at the bottom of this little crotch, but the mud was like quicksand in spots. Adding to that, something interesting happened as we finished our little picture session. Just as we grabbed our knives and game bags and rolled up our sleeves to go to work, we both heard the unmistakable sound of a large amount of water heading down the cut we were standing in the bottom of and heading our way. We grabbed our gear and scrambled up the hill. The tiny trickle quickly became 18 inches deep. You can see in the picture below how much it had risen in just a few minutes compared to our original pics. The additional water made it more of a pain to get our work done, but really nothing more. When I first heard the water I feared the elk could get washed away!
You can see in the picture below a hint of what I’m talking about. The water was up a lot in this picture compared to the little trickle you could see in the first few pictures. It got deeper than in the picture below too, but this is the best I have as we put the cameras away and went to work.
Once we were done quartering the elk and getting the meat up out of the creek we had one last ritual to take care of. I had two small Crown Royal bottles in my pack and we had earned them. Again, the choice of Crown Royal was with my dad in mind. I don’t even like whisky, but I have to admit, that was the best tasting whisky I ever had!
We each hauled a bone-in hind quarter to the water’s edge, which was a pretty nice 1.5 miles of gradual downhill ground. We weren’t used to hauling meat downhill, particularly on a gradual decent like this was, but boy it sure was nice! In the last few hundred yards I had an idea (look out!)—if Jon headed for the boat I could go back and get what was left and take it out in one trip. This would save an extra trip. Jon asked if I could handle what was left and I said “Yep, I think so.”
I made my way back and loaded up the remaining two bone-in front quarters, two backstraps, and some neck meat. When I tried to lift my pack up onto my back I immediately realized I had made a mistake! Wow, that sucker was heavy! I know some tough guys could handle that much weight with no problem, but I’m not that tough apparently. I carefully and slowly made my way back to our pick up point on the shore.
As I turned the last little corner I saw Jon going back and forth out in the water- that dirty dog was fishing! The water was too shallow for him to get the boat in close, so he spent his time trying to catch something. He even managed to catch a nice eater sized walleye while I hauled back the remaining meat. Nice!!!
That night we had an amazing and hard earned meal of fresh elk tenderloin and walleye fillets. Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a meal that hit the spot quite like that.
This photo was the aftermath of the rainstorm.....I had to drive across 1/2 mile of water running across the road up to my wheel wells and hope that I didn't drop off the shoulder of the road and wash down stream as the water was moving fast too....
BTW, other than an uneventful sit in a tree Sunday evening, my weekend wasn't spent with stick and string but was spent enjoying some pheasant hunting. It was too warm for the dogs but still a great opening weekend!
Good luck, Robb
It quit raining not too long after we finished hauling meat yesterday (Saturday). We hoped we might get a sunny, breezy day and dry things out enough to be able to drive the truck and trailered boat out of there. The sky was clear and you could see a million stars when we left the tent. It was impressive! We again slogged our way up the still slippery ridge and watched the sun paint the sky and landscape. I’m partially color-blind, but I could still see how impressive the colors were this morning.
Not long into the morning I spotted a mule deer. Then Jon and I saw several more right around it- they were all bucks. They ranged in size from small spike buck to pretty decent 4x4. Certainly nothing huge, but a decent mule deer buck would be a great consolation prize. We also spotted a lone buck about 600 yards away from the rest of the bucks- he was bigger than the rest of the group. He was outside the ears, had reasonable mass, and decent forks in both front and back. Still not a huge muley by any means, but a pretty solid buck. We schemed and planned on how to handle an approach on him and waited to see how things would play out. The closer bucks took turns sparring and entertained us for quite a while.
Around 9:30 I spotted two different groups of elk- they were a loooong way off, but they were there. A few minutes later we heard a weak bugle straight south of us and much closer than the elk we were glassing. I threw up my binocs and almost immediately found a bull dogging a few cows. The bull was a decent 6x5, maybe in the 300” class.
Jon and I watched and schemed and tried to decide what to do. Eventually we decided to cut the distance and try get close enough to make a real game plan.
We dropped down and climbed back up a bit and tipped over a hill. Jon miraculously spotted the outside edge of the now bedded bull’s rack in a juniper tree just a couple hundred yards ahead of us. He only spotted a little of the rack, but here’s a picture of him. This view makes him look much smaller than he actually was for some reason.
We backed off and made a game plan. With no great way to get much closer without being spotted, we decided to have Jon get as far ahead as he could and once he was set up, I’d pop up his decoy and try cow call the bull in.
Here’s Jon trying to move ahead to slip in as close as he dared.
He eventually set up here, which was as close as he dared get.
I popped up the decoy and called. The response: absolutely nothing. We eventually made our way up to where the bull was bedded and realized he had almost certainly watched us tip over a hill about half-way to him. He stuck around until he wasn’t comfortable with how close we were, but with our little sticks and strings he was very safe the whole time.
Decision time… it was 12:30. We could head back to camp and pack up or we could chase after the elk I had glassed up before we heard/saw the bull we just chased. Jon was torn a bit, but I cajoled him some and soon we were off in hopes of finding the next group of elk. The trip over to where we had last seen the elk was a story all to itself. In short, Jon wanted to go high and I suggested we go low. We ended up going low and to say the hike over sucked would be an understatement. Jon fell a dozen or so times- the travel was dangerous and very slow going. I’m pretty sure Jon cursed the day he first met me at least a handful of times on the trip over.
We finally made it over in the general area and soon we spotted a cow. We moved in closer, being careful to not be seen. Eventually we spotted the bull, a nice 6x6.
We moved in as close as we could. However, we had a significant problem- the 150 yards that separated us and the bull were bisected by a deep, sharp cut. As slippery as it was there was no way we were going to be able to get up the other side, let alone get down our side without a slip-n-slide-like fall. We moved as close as we dared.
In a fine stroke of luck, the bull worked in our direction. He raked trees and fed through the little bench he was on. Soon a cow and calf joined him. Twice he tried to breed the cow, but she wasn’t quite ready for him yet. We called and moved in as close as the sharp cut and slippery mud would allow us. The bull came to within 100 yards of us, but with the sharp cut between us and the hot cow next to him he wasn’t coming any closer. We finally backed out and tried to move in closer, but by the time we got back in there the elk were gone. This was the final glimpse we got of him, just as he tipped over a little ridge.
We had done all we could do and came close, but we just couldn’t get it done in the final hour. We headed back towards camp and made it they as the sun set. We packed up and boated over to the boat ramp. We loaded up and made our way up the still somewhat muddy hill. We were white knuckled a little bit, but we made it to the good roads without too much of a rodeo. Besides the drive home, our trip had come to a close and we were tired and ready to head back and see our wives and kids.
Chasing elk on public land with no guide and a bow and arrow is hard. Add to that the combination of Mother Nature and the mud that comprises most of the Breaks and we pretty well got our butts kicked. However, we were bringing elk meat home and we both felt rejuvenated by another great adventure chasing elk. We love this time of year, this trip, and the great opportunity to come out to some of God’s most beautiful creation and do something we truly love and appreciate.
Best of Luck, Jeff
Maybe once the rut is over we can connect over some beer and talk smart!