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...