I left camp early that morning to hit my favorite ridge. I went alone, leaving my hunting partner to do some running and phone calling he needed to get done. We are both self-employed which equates to a day or two out of the week spent keeping things running back at home to afford us the month in the back country during elk season. As I expected when I reached the ridge after 2 miles of hiking a logging road, the elk were just ahead of me. This had become one of my favorite morning hunts. I had located a ridge the elk used to migrate from their river bottom night feeding and rutting canyons back to their dark timber daytime haunts. It was just one of those spots where something always happened no matter when you got in there. This morning was not any different.
It sounded like there were at least three different groups of elk moving back up this ridge from the low country. As I had intercepted them a few minutes late I had some ground to make up. The bulls were talking some on their own, but when I needed to assure their location all I needed was to start the conversation. Several times I thought about making a setup but I knew better. The elk were on the move and headed for bedding grounds. I had several occurrences with the cows and calves but never long enough to get one of the bulls interested in a fight. A fight is what I live for. Bugling is ok, but the fight is what I am in it for. So I kept pushing on. A few bugles, some excitement, and then make up some ground. Meanwhile I was working through cows and calves and the lagging elk of the herd, trying to keep from pushing something the wrong direction and blowing the entire morning. It was one of those mornings when the mountains were never silent. It seemed like the entire universe was following this herd. I did pause on a few occasions to chase a few grouse around with a stick – my objective has a lot to do with our next evening camp meal. But all the while I was listening and waiting for the right opportunity to make this into a fight.
If you have been in this situation you will know what I am talking about. It is just not the right time. Every elk seems to have their own initiative when they are headed for bed. Not really interested in standing around for a fight and there is nothing really to fight about. Thus far it had been just a walking conversation with this herd of elk. Is it going to happen this time or is this going to be just one of those days when I was in the elk but couldn’t make it happen? I probably was a little laid back since my partner wasn’t there. I had always called in my own elk until just a few years back when I had a very humbling experience. After I realized how much more enjoyable it was to team hunt I did not get so excited about going it alone. But this morning was one that I had no choice in the matter. So I pushed on bugling and responding to the potential challenges that I could get. This was one of those situations where you know you are just one of the guys and no one is paying you much attention. I just kept up with the herd and responded as necessary but nothing was going to change the fact that these elk were headed to bed and had probably already established the sleeping arrangements.
This had gone on for about 2 hours and covered about 1 ½ miles of the ridge with no real heart changing challenges by any of the bulls. At about 9:00 when the sun was reaching all of the high tops and making the difference in the wind currents, it happened. It seemed like the elk were silent for a few minutes but that was not the case. The ridge had now come to a peak and there were several little basins extending down from this area in which we were milling around. I realized what was happening but it was too late. The entire movement had stopped to wait for the winds to start up before the elk would drop off the ridge to their favorite daily bedding spots. I topped the nob where the ridge tied into the mountain creating three or four little pockets and basins. All heck had broken loose and I was exposed. When I couldn’t hear the elk any more I hadn’t side hilled into the basins or put my nose to the wind and followed it, but I had climbed to the highest point of the ridge to locate the elk again. This is when I realized I was surrounded by the elk and the wind was getting real unpredictable. I even noticed how good the sun felt on this cold frosty morning. When that happens we know what is next.
I calmed myself and tried to make a plan but I had already made another bad mistake – I had just disclosed my location with a bugle before I realized my doom was near. 3 bulls in 3 different directions responded – surely I could work something out. I could still see the white powder from my puffer bottle hanging in the air in most all directions. But just in case I tried to use the last half of my ketchup bottle of cornstarch to convince the wind to give me a break. I thought I saw a trend in the thermals and let out a bugle, knowing the bulls were converging on my location. Well, this story can go on forever but in the next 30 seconds I don’t know how many bulls I had within 100 yards of me, only to hear them each crash off and become silent. It was over. I did not even stand around and try to make a plan. I knew the entire herd had dropped off into some dark hidden spot and what was a frenzy turned deathly quiet.
I may have called myself a name or two but with nobody around to be embarrassed with I just put my head down and started towards the road. Having hunted here a bunch should have let me in on the clue that I was making the next stupid mistake. I know how to properly get on and off this ridge and it never involves trying to go straight to the road. Always down the backbone of the ridge turning off on a subtle little hogback and then to the logging road. Never, ever heading straight to the road. But I had lost all sense and wanted to go share my stupidity with someone, hoping compassion would make the pain go away. About 15 or 20 minutes later, after walking with the puffs of dust on the open hillside just hanging around my feet, waiting on the daily currents to make up their mind, I got back into some white fir thickets. The kind of thickets that when they die they leave little swords that will take the best clothing off of your shins and leave you with some nasty gashes. I was just busting through it not trying to save any clothes. This is the part where I try to decide if I make up a really good lie or just tell it like it is. I hope I am not the only one that goes through this stage of failure. I do admit this is usually a stage in defeat until reality sets in and it doesn’t really matter anyway.
I was hammered out of my self pitying stupor by something jumping up and crashing off just in front of me. It sounded like an elk – no bouncing like a deer, just a bunch of crashing. I mustered a half-hearted bugle and got an immediate “I can’t believe you woke me up” scream. I put an arrow on and a few seconds later the 5X6 bull came stomping up the side of the mountain to reclaim his bed. I drew at about 30 yards and placed the pin just right and let it fly. I did, and so did the sleeve of my jacket that I had threaded through the straps of my pack. The arrow clanged off without even slowing the bulls progress to my location. I quickly grabbed for another arrow and the movement startled the bull. He turned to leave but a quick cow call as I drew the next 100-grain Thunderhead back to its resting spot on my rest stopped the bull. No way. Not like this. The perfect shot – quartering away at 25 yards, looking back over his right shoulder, standing perfectly still trying to bat the sleep out his eyes. The shot was perfect and he made it about 60 yards down the hill in the direction of the road. Unsuccessful?
Just wait – the best is yet to come. I have a bad habit of running in and giving a downed bull a good kick and then it’s off to the races to see how fast I can get it into 4 little white bags. But this time I just sat down and laid back and laughed out loud a little. This chuckle was while eating one of my last years’ Snickers bars that had turned white with age. I did say I was self-employed, so I don’t spend a lot of time preparing, I just go. Luckily my partner, Ralph Albright, had persuaded me to join him in purchasing a set of Garmin GPS radios. They paid for themselves today. We had made some half-hearted plans that if I wasn’t off the ridge by a certain time he would drive in on the road and see if he could contact me on certain intervals. I dug my radio out of my pack and turned it on. It was only a few minutes and I heard Ralph try to communicate. When I responded to him he could not hear me but he could tell that I was trying to talk to him. He pushed “go to Sasquatch” on his radio and it locked my location. Technology is great. I later walked about a ½ mile down the ridge where we could communicate clearly and told him that I was working up an elk and would have it in little white bags in a short while. He said he was coming up and could find me using his radio. I told him to bring the pack frames and we would see if we could get it done in one trip. He said “I will see you in a while”. It wasn’t very long and here came my hunting partner – I had someone to share the morning’s events with. I was startled, however, to see he had not brought the pack frames. He eased my nerves and said that Rockie was following him up with the horses – no packing after all! Rockie and the horses showed up and the rest is nothing short of great memories.