Saturday, March 14, 2020

Steep and Nasty - 2019 Elk


Elk and Mule Deer Hunting 2019

Am I a trophy hunter? I wouldn't define myself as one, but harvesting a mature bull elk with more bone on his head than room in my house is a frequent dream I have. "You can't eat the antlers", and "The big ones are all old and chewy"; I hear this from many hunters, but after being blessed with 2 spike elk in my previous years hunts, I was determined in 2019 to "hold out" for a mature bull and find out for myself if it was worth the effort. 

All spring and summer I couldn't wait to return to the steep, nasty, elk filled hillsides I discovered last year. A short scouting trip in August revealed the elk were exactly where I had left them last year. My hunting partners and I located 4 bulls right where we wanted them. My father also joined me several weeks later to place a trail camera and soon I had camp set up in the area. My anticipation was terribly high by early October.

Elk season would open soon but with a deer tag in my pocket, I hunted the area; checking the photos on my trail camera and scouting more for elk and deer. To my surprise, my "elk honey hole" had quite a few deer in it this year. The trail camera showed a couple nice bucks, and just before dark one evening, my spotting scope found a dandy buck: a large 4X6 with a set of dark gorgeous antlers. With this caliber of deer in the area, I decided then that I would not shoot a deer unless he was a really big one. My deer hunting/scouting trip ended without pulling the trigger, but I would be returning in a few days for the opening of elk season.
Joining me this year would be my long-time friend and hunting partner, Ryan Bier. Ryan had hunted waterfowl with me several times but had yet to kill a big game animal. Ryan would be the first shooter, deer or elk. After he notched a tag, then I'd be up. 

The evening before opening day I walked down to the glassing spot to try to locate some animals. One hour before dark I located a herd of elk, 2 ridges over. Spike, rag-horn, cow, big bull... I heard a rock shift behind me and saw Ryan approach. Ryan had gotten off work that afternoon and frantically drove up to try to get there by last light. 
"Look through the spotting scope. I just found a nice bull." I said, moving over for Ryan to look through.
"Sweet!" Ryan replied.
The bull appeared to be the herd bull, a 6X6 with long back-scratchers. He was feeding and chasing other bulls and bugling from time to time.
We watched the entire basin until dark, seeing a few more elk in some much harder areas to access. Everything was lining up like the hunting shows: nice weather, lots of elk, locating a big bull the night before opening morning, shooting him opening morning...


That night in the tent we put together a plan on how we were going to make it happen. It's rarely easy, and an elk with that many other cows and small bulls around him has a lot of other eyes to watch out for him. On the other hand, we had counted at least 4 other bulls in the herd to shoot; somebody ought to get an animal out of there. I didn't sleep much that night, replaying negative possibilities in my head; the elk wouldn't be there tomorrow, someone else will sneak in, the wind will switch and they will all spook... But morning came and by first light we were well on our way down the trail to where the elk were. As we snuck toward the ridge the elk had been on the night before, I remembered there was a spot you could look over the edge and see a large piece of drainage. I had seen a couple bucks on my deer hunting trip there. We were almost to that "look over" spot, so I diverted Ryan and I over there. 

We snuck to the edge where the mountainside fell off into steep nasty country. The change in grade allowed us to see a large piece of prime deer and elk real estate. Ryan and I froze and began scanning the country below us. There! 150 yards directly below us stood 2 deer. To the naked eye, I could tell they were bucks, and one was not half bad; a spindly 4X4 about 22 inches wide. This buck would be perfect for Ryan.
"Ryan, do you see them?" I whispered with excitement.
"Yes. Which one is bigger?" Ryan asked, as he slowly pulled the arms of his rifle bi-pod out.
"Shoot the one on the left; he's pretty big."
Ryan sat down and got ready for the shot. Both bucks were staring directly at us, but the wind was right, so I knew we had a little time. I looked down at Ryan who was shaking.
"Rest your bi-pod on your boots. Take your time. Don't rush the shot." I advised, knowing what it was like when I shot my first deer.
Ryan steadied himself and squeezed the trigger. BOOOOM!
I watched the bucks run off to our left, weaving in and out of the trees. The one Ryan had aimed at appeared to be hobbling slightly. Or was it just the steep rocky country? The buck stopped at the ridge crest and looked like it was going to bed down. It didn't, and slowly trotted over the ridge crest and out of view. 
"How did the shot feel?" I asked, as Ryan stood back up.
"It felt good. I thought he was just going to die right there on that ridge top." Ryan replied, still shaking with excitement.
"If it felt good, it probably was. He's probably dead just out of view on the other side. Let's wait about 30 minutes and we'll walk over there and see if we can find him. From there we should be able to see if the elk are still there. Good job man! Your first deer! And it's only 15 minutes into our hunt!"

We crept around the ridge and started dropping elevation, hoping to spot Ryan's dead deer. Ryan's deer wasn't laying dead in the wide open, but the herd of elk from the night before was. 
"Dude, look! Elk!" Ryan said, pointing to the ridge to our left.
Sure enough, elk were scattered across the hillside. It didn't take long to spot the large herd bull we'd seen the night before.
"Let's go get you that big bull! My deer can wait. Those elk are right there." Ryan said encouragingly.
"Ok. I suppose we probably should."
Ryan and I snuck closer, constantly keeping an eye on the herd and checking the wind. The hillside was getting steeper and patches of snow made walking difficult. We were able to creep within 350 yards where I found a nice log to rest on. I found the big bull in my rifle scope feeding in the wide open, however, I couldn't get steady. I was laying on such a steep hill, it was just too uncomfortable. 
"We have to get closer and I have to find a better rest for my gun." I said to Ryan.
"Let's go to that little flat bench down there. From there I bet it'll only be a 200 yard shot."
"You think we could sneak down there and not get caught?"
"They look pretty occupied, and the thermals are blowing up the hill in our face."
"Ok, let's do it."
The hillside was getting steeper and the dead weeds were noisy, but despite all of that, we were able to sneak down to the bench. We now had elk above and below us, all within 300 yards. We lost sight of the big bull, but suspected he was at our same elevation and somewhere on a small ridge about 200 yards in front of us.
"Look Ryan, there's a bull down below us." Ryan whispered and pointed to a rag-horn feeding on practically a cliff face 250 yards below us. 
"Yeah he's in the wide open, but I want that big bull." I whispered greedily.
Then I saw him, the big 6X6 bull stepped out from behind a patch of dead trees and started feeding up the hill. He was directly on top of the small ridge 200 yards in front of us. I quickly found him in my scope. But once again, I just didn't feel steady. My rifle was rested on my backpack, but I wasn't going to take a shot at a big bull like this if I didn't feel 100% solid. A wounded elk in this nasty country could be a nightmare!
"Man, I don't feel solid!" I said to Ryan in frustration.
"Here, I'll sit sideways and let you rest your gun on my pack and we'll put your pack out here near the barrel of the gun."
Ryan slowly shifted as we got into position. I looked through the scope and finally felt steady. I found the big bull just as he stepped over to the back side of the ridge and bedded down. The large tan target instantly reduced to a set of antlers protruding over the ridge line.
"Darn it! He's bedded down. I can't see his body, only his antlers!" I  whispered in frustration.
Then we heard a bark. A cow above us had spotted us in our movement and had us pinned. She continued to bark, alerting all the elk to danger in the area. Despite the impending doom we were likely to face with a barking cow, I continued to look at the antlers in my scope. Maybe he'll stand up? Sure enough, the big bull stood from his bed. I could only see the top 2/3 of his abdomen, but that was enough. The cow barking apparently had no "street-cred", because the bull did not appeared to be alarmed, but was only shifting in his bed to find a more comfortable position to lay. The bull turned broad-side and I knew this was my shot. BOOOOM! Instantly the elk dropped and all I could see were his antlers. I quickly jacked another round into the chamber. The antlers disappeared and then I saw my bull running downhill and out of view. I shot again through a gap in the trees but doubted I hit him.  
"Well, I think I got him. That first shot felt money." I said, still breathing heavy from the excitement.
"That was awesome! That's a big elk, dude!" Ryan said.
"Well... Shall we go get your deer?"
"Yeah I guess we better."

It was now 9:30 in the morning and we suspected we had 2 animals down. This had turned out to be a great opening day. As happy as I was to have shot a big bull, I was even more happy that Ryan had killed something. Or had he? Had I? We didn't have confirmation my bull was dead either. In the back of my mind I was really uncomfortable that Ryan's deer didn't drop in it's tracks, and my elk wasn't laying dead in plain view. This steep nasty country was not forgiving in any aspect. 

Ryan and I scoured the hillside and ridge top in search of his deer. We started where we had last seen his deer and then split up. We searched for 2 hours and never found a trace of blood or even hair. We followed tracks, but there were so many deer tracks in the area, it was hard to know which one was Ryan's.  
"Now that I think about it, the shot angle was so steep I probably shot right over his back." Ryan admitted.
"I bet you did. We looked hard man. If you had hit him we'd know by now." I reassured. "Let's go get my elk."

Ryan and I returned to the ridge my elk had been on. My anxiety was high, but 50 yards downhill from where the elk had stood, I could see him laying dead. I exhaled a deep sigh of relief and inhaled a deep breath of joy. 

We descended down the steep rocky mountainside to where the beast lay. Ironically he had died on the only flat piece of ground in the area; an elk sized bench of bare ground. He was all I had dreamed of; long, dark and heavy antlers with a touch of character.
His body was also huge. I could tell he would provide a lot more meat than a spike. 

We took some photos, ate a snack and then started the real work of breaking him down. By 3 pm we had him in 7 game bags, ready to pack up the hill. My plan was to shuttle all the meat to the top of the mountain where we'd hang it. From there we could walk the old road that was more or less flat back to camp about a mile away. Ryan and I set off on the first trip, but as we ascended the steep hill, it was clear that this steep quarter mile would not be easy. We had to stop about every 10 steps to catch our breath and our legs were already cramping. We powered through, however, and by dark we had all the meat up to the top and hung. We were exhausted and out of food and water. We each loaded our packs with meat and set off on the road back to camp. What a day it had been. Tomorrow morning we'd sleep in a bit, then carry the rest of the meat back to camp; two more trips we figured.

That afternoon, after we had all the meat back to camp, we hiked down to the glassing spot to try to find Ryan a bull. With an hour of daylight to spare, we located a rag horn on the ridge to our right, about 1,500 feet below us. 
"Let's go give it a shot Ryan, we'll have to hurry, but we might be able to sneak in on him and get a shot just before dark."
"Let's do it." Ryan Bier said, as we slung our packs on and started down the hill. 
As we approached the area we thought the elk was in, we realized we were in serious elk habitat. The trail on the top of the forested ridge was beaten into the ground and I doubted few humans had been on this trail. We went into full stealth mode, but as a flash of tan cut across the trail, I realized how clumsy us humans are in comparison to these animals. The bull stopped 50 yards in front of us on the trail but his vitals were blocked by a tree. Ryan immediately dropped to a prone position for stability but couldn't get a clear shot. 
"Can you shift a little to see his vitals?" I whispered, frozen in my tracks on the trail. 
Ryan tried to moved but the bull bolted further down the trail. He stopped several times but always behind some trees or bushes. Ryan crept after him in the fading light but it was futile. We hiked out of there in the light of our head lamps. We came so close, and perhaps only the slightest difference in timing could have made the difference in an all nighter on the mountain. 

That night we carved off several steaks from my elks back strap.
"These would sure be good if we had a little Montreal steak seasoning and a little butter to sear them on this griddle." I said, practically drooling.
"I've got both of those things. I'm always prepared. My father always said, 'if its worth doing, it's worth doing right'." Ryan said, producing a half stick of butter and a shaker of Montreal steak seasoning out of one of the 5 containers in the back of his truck.
"You're a good man to bring along, Ryan."
That steak ended up being the most delicious steak I think I've ever eaten. As far as I could tell, the saying about old animals being tough was wrong.

The following day we trekked around another area and found a few more animals but nothing to shoot. Before we knew it it was time to go home. I felt like I had let Ryan down. He should have been the one to pull the trigger on the elk.

I returned to the area a few days later with my dad to see if we could turn up any more bucks. We did, but they were all 2 and 3 points. We did, however, scout out some areas and located a lot of new bulls for Ryan to chase. Ryan would be returning in a week for his last chance at an elk of the season. 

Just before his trip I informed Ryan where the elk were and anxiously awaited some good news. Ryan sent me a picture of him next to a spike elk on the first day of his trip. My joy was uncontainable. Helping someone into their first elk is way better than shooting one yourself. My only regret was not being with him when he did it. However, I was happy that I didn't have to help him pack it out. He shot it in a deep, nasty hole with at least 2,000 feet of elevation to gain getting it to the top. 

I returned the last week of the season with Rick, my father in law. He had the same elk tag but had chose to hunt some private land in a different area at the beginning of the season. Rick was excited to see all the elk we'd seen in the area, but not excited about the steep, nasty country. It didn't take long, and by 10 am the first full day of hunting, we found a herd of elk. Rick picked out a spike in the herd and dropped him. Luckily we'd only traveled a couple hundred yards down an old road and the pack out was a breeze. 

It had been a very successful season with 3 out of 3 rifle elk tags punched. The formula was scouting and hunting an area nobody else wanted to hunt; steep and nasty. 

Am I a trophy hunter? If all large, mature animals provide as much tasty meat as my elk did, I may turn into one after all.





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