It all started about three years ago. In 2010 I finally followed through with my urge to head out west. I'd always thought I would enjoy the western mountains. Thus I pointed my Silverado that direction, and made my first trek into the Rockies, or as Del Gue would call them “God's Finest Sculpturins”.
That first year was supposed to be nothing more than a scouting trip for the mighty wapiti, however I soon discovered that my elk scouting skills were not up to par. I was also extremely humbled by the steepness of the mountains of western Wyoming. Somehow, even though I had read and heard about the tough conditions in the high country, I was a bit skeptical. After strapping on my lightly loaded pack and heading straight up the side of a mountain, I quickly learned that I had absolutely no reason for skepticism. I was not well prepared to physically handle the rigors of elk hunting. Good thing this was only a scouting trip, and partially, this was the reason I came out a year before actually hunting.
I spent the early part of the next day checking things out up high and doing some glassing on the opposite side and lower portion of the basin. Nothing was found. I went ahead and packed things up and headed down the mountain. Although no elk were seen, all was not lost for the day, as I discovered a moose as I walked along the trail that paralleled the drainage at the bottom of the basin heading for the truck. The rest of the trip was spent checking out a few different spots around the area, as well as spending some time relaxing around some of the local towns. Although I didn't find the elk I had hoped to, that trip was the beginning of the learning curve.
Fast-forward to this year. I really felt that 2013 was going to be my year, but was aware that it might take a few breaks along the way. My physical preparation was better than ever, and I felt like I had gained enough knowledge through various sources over the last couple of years to have a legitimate chance at scoring. My approach to the elk hunting learning curve was slightly different than many of those coming from the eastern flatlands to hunt these majestic animals. My style is definitely DIY, and I wanted to get it done based mainly on my own personally-gained knowledge. I spent only a little of my preparation time practicing with calls and technique, thus my calling was probably well below average in comparison with many of the other hunters chasing September bugles.
After a night and day worth of travel and restlessness, the morning of the 19th I made my way north along the highway towards my destination. As usual the morning views were nothing short of breathtaking as I ventured toward the a somewhat familiar spot. I finally arrived near one of my pre-determined hunting spots by mid morning. As I was making my way down the muddy gravel road I noticed a group of hunters packing up camp along a short section of a dead end FS side road and decided to stop and inquire about their success. After a short discussion of how their hunt had played out, during which they indicated that they had only been targeting mule deer, I eluded that I was there for an archery elk hunt. They quickly pointed me in the upstream direction of the small drainage where their camp had been located, and indicated there was a nice bull elk just a few hundred yards upstream. Apparently they had come upon the bull several days in a row, but he had been quiet and was alone. I was assured I could make quick work of this bull; of course I knew better. I ventured up the drainage, but to my dismay, I never discovered any elk. I did however, happen across a hunter who had lost his mule-deer hunting partner and was firing his pistol randomly in the air in hopes of meeting up with him again. Okay... no surprise I didn't find a bull.
The next day, Day 3 of my trip, was my first day of true hunting. As I arose in the morning, it became evident that a couple bull elk were bugling above me and working their way up the ridge to my north. I made my way across the stream, which was a small nearly vertical ravine near my camp, and headed up the ridge in hopes of intercepting a bull. I was unable to make any progress however, as the bulls continued up the ridge and eventually quieted. I ended up climbing to the top of the ridge in the morning and spending some time at the highest point doing a little reconnaissance of the area. After enjoying a snack and a little bit of a nap in the sun up top, I spent much of the afternoon working my way along the north-facing back side of the ridge, which was heavily timbered. I did not come upon any elk, but did come across a somewhat freshly killed mule deer. The carcass had been dragged and covered with dirt. At the time I assumed it had been a lion kill but didn't put much thought into other potential scenarios. Once I finally returned to camp, there was not a lot of light left for the day, so once again I decided to simply fill up on a good meal and fresh water and stick around camp listening for bugles. Action for the first hunting day had not been great, but I was encouraged by the all-night and morning bugling.
Since my previous forays into the mountains yielded little action, I was pleased with the amount of bugling I was hearing, and I was getting into elk as well. What was to come? I sure as heck didn't know, but I was glad to be traversing the mountains in search of my quarry. I continued down the drainage, slipping between pieces of cover near the stream at its base. Suddenly I noticed a light colored object on a bare hillside above that just didn't seem to fit in amongst the landscape. I pulled my glass to my eyes and scoped out a young bull feeding his way across the opening. It was a raghorn, but he was unaware of my presence. In a matter of a few seconds, my mindset completely changed from calmly searching to kill mode, as I decided to put on a stalk. A finger of pines led uphill adjacent to the opening where the bull was located. I slowly worked my way into those trees and began ascending the hillside. At times I was able to view the elk, which was feeding its way towards me and quartering down the hill. When I came to a thick part of the timber, I felt as though the odds were not in my favor to continue towards my prey without spooking it. I waited. The elk, near the 100-yard mark, was working its way in my direction, and I had all day.
After things settled down at this location for a bit, I continued on down the drainage. Once I neared the confluence of the small stream I was following and its larger collector stream, I decided to work my way up the north-facing slope with dark timber. It seemed several elk were bugling nearby, but I figured one, if not more, were other hunters. At one point, something ran up to my location, but I was unable to identify exactly what it was due to the thickness of the vegetation covering the sloped hillside. I went ahead and made my way up the ridge because soon the thermals would be rushing up hill and my scent would alert anything that had moved up the hillside towards bedding. As I worked my way across the slope parallel with the drainage, I noticed movement through the thicker brush ahead. It appeared to be a few cows. This area was likely bedding, thus I decided to move out of the area and head back towards camp. I didn't want to ruin future hunting opportunities by carelessly hunting through bedding areas during the mid-day hours.
After descending the ridge and returning to the trail below, I ran into a mule deer hunter on horseback. We talked hunting for a brief moment and then he made mention of a local grizzly. Apparently a couple of other hunters had spotted a grizzly high on the ridge above my camp within the last couple days. This wasn't exactly the type of news I was wanting to hear. As I left that hunter glassing the darkening open hillsides for mule deer, I thought about what my game plan should be. After reaching my camp, re-supplying my water, and having a wonderful Mountain House meal, I made the decision to hunt the next morning, then pack up camp and try another area. Not expecting grizz to be in the area, I hadn't brought a sidearm, and was feeling a bit vulnerable. Nor did I have any bear spray. While I laid in my tent that night, tired but restless, I couldn't sleep. My mind kept telling me that every twig or leaf that moved with the slight breeze was an eight-and-a-half foot grizzly coming to knaw on me. The decision to leave the area would be a good one.
I decided to climb the south-facing slope and try to get in front of the bugling bull. After making it approximately half-way up the knoll, I suddenly heard crashing through the trees and sliding rock. The bugling bull was chasing a smaller elk around the hillside. First, I identified the elk being chased as the raghorn from the previous morning. I was caught out in the open on the hillside, but the elk were too preoccupied to identify me at first. I slowly worked my way to a small pine tree on the hillside, which offered pretty much the only cover within a good distance. I intently watched as the elk ran back and forth and finally learned that the chaser was a small but symmetrical 6x6. Anyone would be happy to take this as their first elk, and I was stoked. After the larger bull was satisfied that the raghorn was outside his territory for the time being, he worked his way uphill into the timber. I tried to follow, but made too much noise as I worked my way up the steep hillside in the loose rock. When I reached the timbered area, I decided to let out a bugle. I was hoping the 6x6 would think I was the raghorn coming back for more, but the plan didn't work. I neither saw nor heard that bull again.
Since I returned to the truck I decided to re-fuel and get a hot shower. That night I stayed in a hotel and gorged myself on some fine eating.
After a night of well-needed rest, I drove to another spot that I had previously virtual scouted and received some positive intel on. I set up a camp with my Outfitter Lodge tent near the road, which happened to be beside a river. The area I intended to hunt was on the opposite side of the river. The first evening I didn't have a lot of time to head back in the forest, so I simply hiked up to the nearest ridge and glassed for the evening. This was of course after I had to wade the calf-high river in my leather boots. The evening of glassing didn't produce any sightings, but I didn't lose faith, since my vantage point wasn't the best for glassing over the entire area. As darkness approached, I made my way off the ridge and again crossed the river. Even though this was a truck camp, I again had Mountain House for dinner.
After taking a very short ride in the truck down the road and warming up for a bit, I got out and crossed the chilly river. My plan was to head up an intermediate drainage that split two larger basins and ended in somewhat of a saddle near the headwaters. I worked my way up the south-facing bare side of the ridge, and slowly followed the spine to the west in hopes of seeing or hearing elk. With the clear and cold morning behind me, the sun was now in my face, and I had the now rising thermals at my advantage being on the top of the ridge. Man was I glad to have that spare set of boots! Mid morning came and I started hearing bugles on the timbered opposite side of the drainage, unsure if it was elk or more hunters. I decided not to make an immediate play, as the thermals were all wrong for heading straight down and back up the drainage at them. After a fair amount of time listening to the bugling, I decided that it was likely elk based on the calling patterns and ground covered between bugles.
The second bugle rang out and it was substantially closer... okay gotta move. I immediately jumped up and grabbed my bow, working my way down though the groves of trees, with my hat and gear remaining at the top. When I reached the edge of a large clearing I could hear the elk running on the mountainside. Along with the bugling, I knew they were within approximately 100 yds or less, and closing it seemed. Suddenly, a cow elk burst into the opening; wow do these animals cover a lot of ground effortlessly. A spike was on her heels. My thought that instant was that the spike couldn't have been the source of the bugling, but I'd be happy shooting either. Then the bull appeared behind the spike, apparently he wasn't too fond that the latter was making advances toward the ladies. He was intent on whipping that spike's butt, furiously bugling every few paces.
The bull did appear to have a record-book rack. I don't know if it was the fact that he had rather impressive front end tines, amplifying his antlers when his head was up in the bugling position, or if it was simply the fact this was my first encounter at close range with a relatively mature bull. After the bull made his way downhill some distance, he slowed to a walk facing directly away from me, coming to a halt shortly thereafter. It was at this point that I came to the conclusion that my shot was likely not 100%. The bull had the body expression of a hurt animal, but seemed to have no idea of what happened. He was now at a point about 60-70 yds straight downhill from me, and slowly walking away. I contemplated going for a follow-up but decided I might be able to sneak in closer for a more lethal attempt. Hindsight being what it is, sending an arrow may have been the better decision, but there really is no way to know for sure.
I spent the next number of hours slowly following the trail, at times at still-hunting pace with the difficulty of finding the next blood drop. It was an interesting experience. The timber was relatively open for the most part, with a moderate slope for the mountains. I encountered several different bulls in this spot as I was trailing; they seemed to be moving back and forth sidehilling the slope. This area must have been a corridor between bedding areas where the bulls traveled during the rut looking for love. A couple of the bulls were at comfortable shooting distance, but there was another task at hand. As I neared the top of the ridge, I came to a point where I just couldn't find the next drop of blood. If this elk was to be found, it would require a grid search. I'll never know if I made the right choice, but at this point I was questioning whether or not I'd been pushing the injured bull. With darkness near, I called the search off in lieu of pulling a solo night time grid, so I headed down mountain.
I climbed up the mountainside from the drainage opposite of where I shot the bull, with the snow being about 4-5 inches deep and lightly falling still. Everything was wet, including me, even though I was wearing my "breathable" rain gear. After reaching the top of the ridge and getting my bearings on the area, I began a grid search. There is no easier way to make a grid alone than in the snow... I moved slow and methodical. I hadn't searched for 20 minutes and I saw something that looked out of place? No way I could have found the bull after only a short time searching. I move my way around some trees for a different vantage point. Holy cow, there he is! Unbelievable.
Sparing some of the unfortunate details, most of the meat ended up being unsalvagable. I was pretty devastated, and of course wondered what might have been. Should I have pulled that grid in the dark? I'm not even sure how I would have done it. Would the bull have been alive when I came up on him, and ran two miles away into the next drainage? The weather conditions were obviously not the best on the mountain over night; how would that have played out? Many of us are faced with these questions at some point in a long bowhunting "career", and they almost always go unanswered. From my perspective, the only thing to do is learn from your experiences and strive to do better when things go south. Most hunts generally offer something new, or something to learn. This hunt was certainly no different, with numerous lessons to be gained and applied to this lifelong pursuit we call bowhunting.
The bull was a nice 6x6 with good width and a well-above-average front end. He officially scored 283 and change, but this bowhunting pursuit was one that had a bittersweet ending.