Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Great Elk Hunt of 2018

Landing my dream job last year as a fire fighter left little time in the fall of 2017 to chase deer or elk. Regardless, our families took care of us and kept our freezer full. This year I was lucky enough to apprehend the same elk tag I held in 2016. Only this year, so did my brother in law and his cousin!

I spent several months planning, mapping and scheming for the much anticipated hunt to come. Before I knew it, the season was upon me and I still didn't feel as prepared as I had hoped. It was hard to narrow down a starting location! Elk inhabit lots of places, so it was hard to know exactly where to start. We eventually fell back on where I had harvested my spike the previous hunt. 
My first trip gave me 5 days of hunting, and man did I hunt hard those first 5 days! Thirty-five miles on foot, several mountains scaled and I saw plenty of cows and calves. I even missed a shot on a medium sized mule deer buck. Buck fever perhaps? At the end of the week, no one had harvested an animal and I felt beaten down. I needed a break and a new set of plans. I needed to hunt smarter, not harder.
My hunting party was able to stay a few days later but I had to return home. On my way home, I scouted an area that had been suggested as an option, but by no means an easy area to hunt. The area scared the rest of my hunting party; "That area is nasty steep." and "Let's try some other areas first." Regardless, what we had been doing wasn't working like I wanted it to. I scouted the area and saw it's potential; a lot of fresh sign and no other hunters. I was sold. 

A week later I had my gear packed and was ready to start fresh in a new area. I planned to go with my brother in law, Trevor. But he had just returned home from his first trip, in which he ended up harvesting a spike. He had to cut his elk up and his truck had broken down on the way home. With those things to do, it was clear I would be on my own for at least a couple days. My friend Ryan would join me later in the week, since he had a deer tag and had never shot a deer. 

I drove up, set camp at an experimental location and began hunting. My first day produced little game but a gorgeous sunrise. 
On the second evening, I relocated to the nasty area and found myself at a glassing location as the sun set. I immediately began to spot animals; several deer here, a herd of cows and calves there, a bugle over there... Holy crap, was that a bugle? There's a bull here! By dark I had confirmed there was at least 3 different bulls in the drainage. My optimism was high!
The following morning I returned to the glassing spot to find several more groups of elk feeding leisurely about. I heard a couple bugles but had not spotted any bulls. By 10 am the animals had all retreated to their mid-day lounging spots, telling me it was either time to go lounge myself or try another ridge to glass from. I chose to try another ridge.

I hiked over to a finger ridge and began to descend. The slopes began to steepen exponentially as I descended. I needed to find a location to glass before I ended up too deep into this drainage, and would spend the rest of the day trying to get out of it. As I quietly descended the ridge, a familiar shape came into view on the side of the hill below me: a mule deer ear. I froze and began to scan the area. As I peered around through the trees and brush, the shapes of about 6 deer began to materialize. Then the wind switched. All 6 bedded deer stood up and turned their eyes toward me. Busted! All I saw were does, but a buck could be nearby. All 6 deer stampeded off across the hill. As they did, I heard a glorious sound on the ridge to my left: a bugle! My eyes immediately focused on it's location. Weaving in and out of the trees was a mature bull elk. He bugled again as if to say, "you stupid deer are making an awful lot of noise!" Then I heard another crash. Above where the deer had been bedded, a larger bodied mule deer took off in the direction of the does and the elk. A buck! A monster buck! Not only did his body look like he'd just finished at the gym but his large antlers swept out past his ears. I didn't have a clear shot and he quickly reached a distance too far for me to comfortably shoot. That was cool! Both the deer and the elk were close to each other. I think ill go over there! 

I quickly ascended my ridge and worked my way over to the ridge with the elk and deer. I dropped my pack, checked the wind and went into full predator mode. I began to sneak onto the ridge and begin my descent. It hadn't rained or snowed in weeks and the dying plants were very dry and noisy. Like a dream shattering landmine, the wrong step on a dry plant sounded like a bag of potato chips being crushed, alerting every animal on the mountain something was coming. 
I went as slow and quietly as possible, my eyes scanning ahead of me. I hadn't made it far down the forested ridge when another familiar shape appeared in front of me: elk. Two spike elk came into view below me. Each stood staring at me. Busted again! I couldn't see the mature bull but I knew if these 2 spikes took off, so would the big bull and the buck, likely to never be seen again. I had a decision to make. I could let the elk go, back out of the area and hope to get on another bull later. Or I could shoot one of these legal elk right now, finishing my 2018 elk hunt. I chose meat over antlers. I took a knee and shot the elk giving me the best shot. BOOM!!! At 50 yards I felt confident in my hit. Still, the elk took off down the hill, disappearing from view. The woods below me erupted as elk scattered everywhere. About 5 seconds after most of the crashing stopped, I heard another crash below me. Was that my elk dying?

I backed out of the area and returned to my backpack. I knew it was wise to wait almost an hour to return to the area in case my elk needed time to pass. It felt like an eternity, but eventually I returned to the spot where the elk had been when I shot. No blood. I followed his tracks for several steps. No blood. Doubt began to creep into my mind, especially since I had missed a deer earlier in the season. I began to follow his tracks down the ridge. Still no blood. Tracks starting going every direction. There must have been at least 10 elk down here when I shot! I stuck with a set of tracks that went straight down the hill. Still no blood. Crap! Did I miss again? Then I saw him; piled up next to a small tree was my spike! Thank the Lord! 
He lay on a very steep hill. The only thing keeping him from rolling further was a 4" diameter tree he appeared to be sitting on. My shot had been perfect; right through his heart. Yet still the only blood to be found was right at the bullet entry. I took a few photos and got ready for the fun part; breaking this large animal into manageable pieces of organic meat. 
I tied his antlers to a small tree near his head to keep his body from sliding down the hill as I worked. I found quartering an elk by yourself to be difficult, but not impossible. Two hours later I had 5 large game bags full of delicious elk meat. I decided to shuttle all the meat up to an old road at the top of the ridge. That way, the remaining 1.5 mile pack-out would be relatively flat and easy. I carried 2 front quarters on the first trip to camp. Ryan arrived just in time to put a pack on and help me get the rest of the meat. By 6pm we were back in camp with the entire elk.
It was bittersweet to have notched my 2018 elk tag. It's rarely easy to get an elk. I was successful and would be bringing home a lot of great meat. However, I had just started getting into the elk. Would I regret taking a spike with 3 days left to hunt? I just had a feeling that I would not only see more mature bulls in the coming days, but have chances to shoot a mature bull. I pushed these feeling to the back of my mind. Let's get us some deer! 
The following morning we set off for the glassing spot. Before we got there though, we ran into a herd of elk feeding across the road we were on. There were about 15 elk in this group, including one spike (which I could have shot) and a bull just below us out of sight that bugled a couple times. They all meandered off, allowing us to get into position on our glassing spot. From there we spotted a herd of elk on the hillside in front of us. This group had almost 20 elk, including one very wide 5 point, (which I could have shot). This became the pattern for the next 3 days. Everywhere we went in search of deer, more elk turned up. We couldn't buy a deer! Even in spots that screamed deer country, we found elk. One day we stumbled upon a huge herd of elk containing 8 individual mature bulls. It was almost becoming comical. 
The last deer I even saw was that large buck the day I shot my elk. Before driving home, Ryan and I were able to reflect on the trip. It was certainly a memorable and informative one. I had found an elk hotspot. We had seen more elk and witnessed more elk behavior than any of us had in our lives. That alone was worth the trip. Unfortunately, Ryan was still deer-less and would have to wait for 2019 to harvest his first deer. 
Katie, Ryan and I processed my elk in our garage that evening.  By 11 pm the freezer was full. A hunt brings many memorable events; spotting that animal, the rush and excitement of the pursuit and pulling the trigger. But few are as rewarding as opening that freezer and pulling out a package of delicious organic meat, knowing exactly what you're eating and where it came from. I may not have any antlers to touch and hold this year, but those bulls we left behind will only be bigger next year... 

Monday, October 8, 2018

Streamer Junkies - Eastern Idaho 2018

Eastern Idaho is a fly fisherman's dream; miles and miles of rivers packed full of trout. There's never enough time to explore all the water available in the time the average angler has on a trip. Those angling possibilities grow even more if you have a boat; a sobering reality to 3 fly fishing junkies. Joining me would be my long time fishing and hunting buddies, Camron and Kevin. Both friends had to move to Utah for work after college so our adventures have thinned in the last several years. Our trip had been planned since May: fish for 4 days on 4 different pieces of water in Kevin's new drift boat. Kevin had not been on a fishing trip with Camron and I before, so he was in for a treat.
"What's everyone thinking for breakfast? I'm pretty traditional; eggs, bacon, hash browns and sausage." Kevin asked in our group text message prior to the trip.
"Traditional for Cam and me is Poptarts and yogurt, man. We fish hard from sun-up to sun-down." I replied.
"If you want to wake up before light and make it, we won't stop you." Camron added. 
"You guys are hardcore! No sleeping in on this trip!" Kevin responded.
Our 4 days didn't exactly mesh up perfectly. I would drive over a half day early and they would stay a day later. Noon the first day I found myself standing in the peaceful water of the Henry's Fork with a streamer rod in my hand. I fished hard until dark and landed numerous browns; a great start to the trip.

At dark, Camron and Kevin showed up. They were quite the sight in a diesel pickup pulling a 30 foot camp trailer with a drift boat behind that.  

These were deluxe accommodations for Cam and I, and we certainly weren't complaining! We fixed dinner and toasted to a great trip.
"We're now all working in our desired careers guys. It feels good to be adults! We have arrived!" I said while toasting, producing a laugh out of all.

The first day of fishing we floated a new stretch of the Henry's Fork. Streamers and hoppers were the game and a decent number of fish were caught. It's always fun to fish new water, even if nothing monstrous was caught.

We immediately followed up our float with a night float! It was too hard not to take advantage of the full moon. We moused our brains out until 11pm only to receive a couple "kisses" to our flies.

By 7 am the next morning we were launching the boat on another new section of water. This float was long but fun, fish were caught and more tests will be needed in the future. 
By the end of the second day our arms were starting to really tire.
"Man, I'm getting too old for this streamer stuff!" I said, shaking my arm out.
"Yep, this is a young man's game." Camron added.
"Ryan, you're about the most prepared for this stuff. Camron and I both work desk jobs!" Kevin exclaimed.
"Well, if I wasn't casting this old rod with a boat anchor for a reel up here, Kevin!" I said referring to the oversized Pflueger Medalist click and pawl reel attached to a custom made 7 weight rod.
"Hey those reels are classics!"
I didn't have room to complain since I could be using my Helios 2 rod that was also sitting in the boat, but it was only rigged with a floating line. 

Day 3 we decided to hit a lower section of the South Fork of the Snake. The old cottonwood bottoms were gorgeous with the leaves just starting to turn. In a couple weeks this place would be amazing with colors. Bald eagles and osprey flew about. I could see how this river was so well liked. We had already caught a couple cutthroats on streamers before we pulled over on a great looking nymphing riffle.
Camron and Kevin immediately starting picking up fish; both whitefish and trout, including one very large brown trout.
Strangely enough, this 20 inch brown was the largest trout we had caught yet, and it wasn't on a streamer but on a stonefly nymph. 

We continued down the river with the fishing only improving. Kevin was on the oars when we hit a very "fishy", but short bank.
"Oh guys this bank looks good." Kevin said as we approached.
Camron threw a cast next to the bank. BOOM! A fish grabbed his fly and he was hooked up. I made a quick cast to a likely pocket and a flash darted out from the depths but missed the fly. I looked in front of me to see Kevin practically day dreaming on the oars, the boat flying by all the good stuff.
"Pull Kevin, pull!" I said shaking my head. "It would be nice to get more than one cast into a spot."
"Sorry guys! Gosh Ryan, didn't know we had a boat Nazi aboard!"
I laughed, "That's just one of those things you do when your casters are hitting a good bank; you slow the boat down!"

We drifted along, swapping spots frequently. 
"I think I love this river." I said, after releasing another brown trout as we drifted along towards the next riffle.
"Yep, this river is pretty incredible." Kevin added as he casted to another "fishy" spot.
We caught fish all the way down. Just before the take-out, Camron stuck another big brown. 
We finished out the float, tired and sore but with big smiles on our faces. None of us are much for trying to count the number of fish we catch, so we couldn't give an exact number, but I'm sure we each landed about 20 fish in a 7 hour float.
"Man, being a streamer junkie for 3 days is hard." Camron said.
"I think I just want to stare at a bobber for while!" Kevin added.
"Gosh Cam, I think we wore the poor little bugger out!" I laughed.
I had to head back home, but Camron and Kevin stayed until the next day, fishing more streamers and catching more browns.
It's always fun making special trips with friends. During the trip we talked about all the other potential trips the 3 of us should make in the future. A repeat to Eastern Idaho will surely be in the future! 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Float Tubing in the Mountains

September 2018
As fall approaches, the evenings cool and the days grow shorter, trout begin to move back into the shallows of lakes and reservoirs. These seasonal changes stir in them an instinct to pack on the pounds for the coming winter. Minnows and leeches become a prime food source, and if they're available, trout will even feed on dead Kokanee salmon. 
Katie and I planned our next adventure to put us in the Central Idaho mountains chasing trout in our float tubes. This particular reservoir was one I hadn't fished in years but had fond memories of. We chose to camp and fish where the river entered the reservoir. Google Earth revealed some great drop-offs and a distinguishable river channel; key features to focus our effort on. 
The first day of fishing started like most trips to a lake; calm, glassy water with fish rising everywhere. Once our float tubes touched the water, however, the wind kicked up and waves started lapping against our tubes as we kicked away from the shore. It's almost comical how many times this has happened to me and I suspect many anglers can relate. Regardless, the water was very clear and the sun was out, showing us exactly where the river channel was. We trolled our flies over to the river channel, tethered our boats together and anchored near the edge. I started casting a flesh fly and Katie a leech. BOOM! My line tightened and I set the hook on the first fish of the trip. A chunky cut-bow darted about in the clear water.
After releasing the fish, we continued casting and stripping with no success. Rather than moving on to another location, I reeled my line in and looked over at Katie.
"It's bobber time!" I said, grabbing the other rod in my boat already rigged with a balanced leech and a large yellow strike indicator.
Katie chuckled and grabbed hers as well. 
I started with an olive and brown leech and Katie with a halloween.
It couldn't have been more than 20 seconds before Katie's big pink bobber dove under the surface and she heaved back on a nice fish. This one was a gorgeous cutthroat.
The next several hours were filled with a lot of nice fish: rainbows, cutthroat and cut-bows. The trout were cruising the edge of the river channel. When one spot slowed we would re-anchor 20 yards away and resume catching fish. The chop on the water was also helping our flies dance under the water as our bobbers rose and fell with the waves.  
"Gosh, this topography is awesome!" I said in a humorous way, pointing to the steep drop-off in front of us leading into the depths of the river channel. "It's all about that topography!"
"You're silly," she laughed and rolled her eyes in the, 'I married a nerd' sort of way.
"Oh, this topography!" 
Topography became the joke of the afternoon, and I beat it to death. But you couldn't argue with the success we were having because of it.
We kicked back to the truck near dinnertime, finishing up a stellar afternoon of fishing.

The following morning we rose to the chirping of bald eagles. The skies and shorelines were full of them, as well as osprey, vultures, sandhill cranes and herons. Today we would try a different spot. Google earth showed a clear drop off that extended out into the lake a couple hundred yards. We kicked off from shore, this time trolling a flesh fly and a leech. I hadn't gone more than 30 yards from shore when my line went tight to a fish. I brought in the cutthroat and released it.
Katie was on next.
We continued to troll along the edge. To my right it was 4 feet deep and to my left, 10. We continued to pick up fish here and there.
We eventually lost track of the drop off and turned around, trolling our way back. We began picking up fish once we found the edge again. We decided to anchor up and try the bobbers for a little while. It worked like a charm, despite the calm water. From my experience, fishing a balanced fly under a bobber works about the same whether it's calm water or choppy. 
We took a few hours off from fishing to eat lunch and go for a hike. But at 5 pm we were back on the water to see what the evening held. We anchored our boats near the river channel and caught several more rainbows, cuts and cut-bows to finish out a great day.
The last morning of our trip we rose bright and early to catch the morning bite and the calm water before it was time to drive home. We tried trolling the drop off before kicking over to the river channel. On the way over we passed through some deep water with large pine stumps scattered about. My line quickly tightened to a strong fish! A silver flash came from the depths. What is this? A black, freckled, silvery fish came thrashing to the surface. A chinook salmon! I scooped the 17 inch fish into the net. Fish and game has been planting chinook in many reservoirs in Idaho over the last few years and in some locations they are thriving and reaching sporting size. This was the largest land-locked chinook I'd ever caught, but surely more to come in the future.
We released the fish and proceeded to the river channel. The calm, clear water enabled us to find little pockets of old creek channels, stumps and holes the fish were using adjacent to the river channel. The action was consistent, however today our hooking success was lacking. 
"Honey, you got one!" I shouted with excitement as I watched her bobber dive.
Katie heaved back on the rod, several seconds too late. "Darn-it! I was looking at the eagles! Oh, you've got one!"
I quickly looked at the end of my fly line to see my bobber one foot under the surface. I yanked back in a futile attempt, seconds too slow for a seasoned trout. "Darn-it! I was paying attention to your bobber!"
We both laughed. After re-casting, the same thing happened again.
"Stare at your own bobber!" I said, frustrated that we kept missing fish due to looking at each others bobbers instead of our own.
Even after we committed to looking at our own bobbers, something else would distract us, causing us to miss more fish. At least we were having fun. Despite the poor hook up rate, we managed to land numerous fish, including this nice rainbow.
We drove home with big smiles on our faces. The fall can be a fantastic time of year to get the float tubes back out, and most of the time, you'll have the whole lake to yourself. Concentrate your effort on river and creek channels, drop offs and flats. Locate these topographic features with a depth finder, google earth or simply clear water on a sunny day. Find these and you will likely find the fish. When things seem to slow down, remember: put a bobber on it!