Thursday, December 1, 2016

My First Elk

Over the last several years, my passion for hunting big game, specifically deer, has intensified immensely. I spend the off season dreaming and planning for the following season, and each year, the time seems to drag on even longer than the previous. Hunting videos on YouTube are about all that get me by. When deer season finally comes, it's gone all too quickly. Wouldn't it be wonderful if October was half the year?
The 2016 season would be especially exciting though. A friend of mine had convinced me to purchase an elk tag for an area he knew well. He would do his best to show me where to go if he couldn't take me himself. It sounded like a winning deal. However, as luck would have it, my friend drew a controlled hunt tag for another area and a large fire burned the area he had planned to send me. So there I was, an elk tag in my wallet that no one else had and a vast expanse of steep, rugged, densely forested mountains in an area of Idaho I wasn't familiar with. Let the research begin!
One of the wonderful things about Idaho is how nice most of the people are. It didn't take long before I had a plan and maps printed out of several areas people had told me to try. Another perk to this elk tag was the ability to hunt deer at the same time as I hunted elk. Elk would be my primary focus, but I wouldn't pass up a nice buck if our paths happen to cross.
September came along and my anticipation was nearly uncontainable. A scouting trip to investigate a suggested area was in order. My scouting trip was very successful and revealed a great number of elk and a few deer.
The only problem was the mountain they called home; steep as they come, thick, no obvious trail and the need for waders to cross a stream. I hiked my butt up 3000 feet to the top of that mountain, but I was not looking forward to harvesting an elk up there and having to pack one out. If I had to do it alone it would nearly kill me. Regardless, the area had promise and it's where I would start my hunt.
YouTube has a way of making us believe that massive bulls and bucks are bugling and rutting on every hill, ridge and valley you choose to hunt. Giving many hunters, myself included, unrealistic expectations. I don't even see many elk when I'm hunting deer or even hiking in the woods; certainly not large bulls. I knew I better shoot the first bull I encountered, especially since I didn't see any bulls on my scouting trip.

My father in law, Rick, would join me on my first hunt. He could hunt deer while I hunted elk. He also knew the area well enough to provide some fresh ideas on alternative places to try. We set camp around noon right at the base of the mountain I had scouted a couple weeks prior. Like a dark, ominous figure cloaked in green and topped with a snowy, white hat, it loomed over us. Rick and I stared at the mountain and then back at each other.
"Let's try some other places first..." Rick said.
"Let's hit this little ridge opposite. I saw some sign over there," I replied and pointed.
Rick agreed, "sounds good to me."
We parked the vehicle off of a dirt road and with rifles in hand and eyes in predator mode, we began hiking to the top of a small, steep and forested ridge. There was fresh sign everywhere; both deer and elk. It didn't take long to reach the top of the ridge. Once on top, we were able to observe both the North and South sides by only taking a few steps from one side to the other. I saw the familiar color of an elk rump up ahead and closer inspection revealed several elk cautiously creeping through the forest on the South side. I motioned to Rick that there were elk up ahead, so we pressed on in true hunt mode. The forest was quite dense and I could only get small glimpses of the animals as they moved along slightly below and ahead of us. If only I could get a better look at them, I thought, as I crouched to see under the canopy of pines.
BOOOOM! Rick's rifle resounded, alerting all creatures to our presence. I spun around to see Rick peering over the North side of the ridge. I ran over to see what he shot. Two medium sized bucks bounded a short distance away and stopped. BOOOOM! Rick shot again and I saw one of them drop but lost sight of the other. I looked intently into the woods, hoping to spot the other deer when I heard Rick.
"I think I got both of them."
"Really?" I responded, wondering momentarily why he would shoot 2 deer. I then remembered that Rick usually purchases a second, non-resident tag. "That's awesome!"
"I guess I got greedy!" Rick chuckled, with wide eyes.
We waited a few minutes before slowly proceeding down the steep, rocky slope.
Sure enough, as we descended closer, I could see 2 downed deer, each at the same elevation and only 30 yards apart. I approached one, and Rick, the other.
"2 point, Rick." I shouted over while checking to make sure the deer had passed.
"4 point. That's funny, they seemed like they were the same size when I shot them." He said, slightly confused.
"Well you didn't waste any time putting some meat down. What are we, one hour into the hunt?" I laughed.

Together we drug each deer to a more convenient location for photographs.
Rick got busy quartering the deer while I took off and hunted the ridge some more. I found several more does but the sensible elk were nowhere to be found. A couple hours later, I met back up with Rick to help pack the quarters out. Luckily, we hadn't gone far from the vehicle and the pack out was quick and easy.
That evening I returned to the same ridge and watched a few areas while the sun set. No ungulates revealed themselves and I returned to camp where Rick had stayed to skin out the heads of the bucks.
The following day we awoke to rain and fresh snow only halfway up the mountain. Rick had an idea to hike up along a gradual creek drainage where he had seen elk and deer in the past. There was fresh snow here and it would make tracking the animals easy. However, after a couple miles up the trail and no tracks, we began to lose confidence.
The snow continued to fall and after another mile with no tracks, we turned around. We spent the rest of the day checking out other areas at slightly lower elevations. I spotted many does but no bucks or elk.
One of the areas seemed to hold some promise for the following day. On the third day, Rick drove me to the end of a dirt road and dropped me off. From there, I planned to ascended to the top of a ridge and follow this ridge down to another area where Rick would be waiting. Dense looking clouds began to roll my direction and I knew rain was imminent. Patchy fog was also cruising the mountain contours, limiting my visibility substantially. 
I heard a crash up above me and glimpsed the back half of a cow elk disappear into the forest. That's a good sign. I made it to the top of the ridge and found a "highway" of a game trail beaten into the ground. I followed it up a ways until it split into several smaller trails. 
I then began to slowly descend the ridge. The fog was thick and I could only see 50 yards in front of me. Movement caught my eyes and a cow with a calf appeared below me. My gun went up and I was ready if a bull emerged, but I did not get so lucky. They trotted out of view and I waited awhile longer before slowly continuing down the ridge. The rain began to fall, forcing me to put the hood of my raincoat on. I've always hated hunting with a hood on. You can't hear as well and your peripheral vision narrows. I felt like my senses were as clouded as the skies. Regardless, I continued on. 
Eventually I found myself parallel to a creek bottom. The ridge leveled out to a gradual slope and the woods opened up a bit more. A foreign object appeared in front of me; an arrow? An arrow from a bow was sticking directly out of the ground. That's strange. Someone from bow season must have shot an arrow and didn't retrieve it. I took 2 steps towards the arrow and a familiar shape and color redirected my eyes. 50 yards ahead, stood an elk. I froze. It's head was behind a tree but I could tell it was looking for me. Bull or cow? A stick curved away from the tree trunk where an antler might be. Antler or just a stick? I flipped the safety off and slowly side-stepped to my right. The elk turned it's head slightly. Antler! It's a spike! I shouldered my rifle, placed the crosshairs on his vitals and pulled the trigger. BOOOOM! He stuttered and then hurriedly trotted off. I could hear Rick's voice in my head. Shoot until they drop! Don't risk it! I found the elk in my crosshairs again and pulled the trigger. BOOOOM! The spike collapsed behind a log and I took a sigh of relief. I could see him moving slightly, but down he was. I decided to back out of the area and let him pass. Elk down! 
I walked through the woods towards a dirt road I knew was nearby. It didn't take long to find the road. I called Rick on the radio and told him where to go.
I had waited about 20 minutes before returning to the downed elk. I slowly crept back to confirm my elk had passed. I was looking in the area he had dropped when suddenly a spike elk 40 yards to my left stood up and began to run off. That's my elk! Crap! I raised my rifle and shot. Nothing happened. The elk continued running downhill to the bottom of the creek. The trees and brush were thick and I had to run to an open area where I could get a shot. Just before the elk crossed the creek I put the crosshairs on his shoulder and pulled the trigger. The elk collapsed and quickly passed. My heart was racing; not because I had been running or that I had just harvested my first elk, but because I almost LOST my first elk! I could hear my father's voice in my head this time. ALWAYS wait 1 hour after you shoot an animal. If you jump them before they pass, they may run for miles! I had returned to my elk too soon, despite a lethal first shot to both lungs. When Rick joined me, we walk down to the elk together.
We admired the great animal before taking care of the important part: the meat. There is no better meat than that of a cow or young bull elk like a spike. I momentarily found myself standing next to the grill, hearing the sizzle of tender steaks over the open flames on a warm summer evening. This daydream quickly faded as I heard the loud spats of raindrops on my hood and the cold begin to grab hold of my bones. I began to skin the animal as Rick moved the pickup to a closer pack-out location; the highway! Many successful elk hunting stories end with a long grueling pack-out where the elk died way down in some nasty hole. I was very fortunate on my first elk. I apparently had hiked further down the ridge than I thought and from where I stood, skinning the elk, I could hear cars pass on the highway. I quartered the elk and loaded the meat into my pack.
Three trips was all it took before all the elk was loaded into the pickup and we were headed back to camp. Rick and I took a moment to celebrate with our victory drinks before packing camp up and heading back home.
That night, Rick and I got started butchering his deer and the following day I butchered all of my elk.
It was a truly wonderful feeling for the first time to have sufficient meat in the freezer for the rest of the year. The pressure was off now and I would only harvest a deer if it were a true trophy. I hunted deer a few more days before the season ended but didn't encounter any bucks. My first elk hunt had gone surprisingly well and I had gotten very lucky. Or had I? With a spike elk now under my belt, would I feel a greater calling to harvest a larger bull next year? Undoubtedly yes. And thus begins the long off-season...