Robert Burns in 1785 wrote “The best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew”. How was I to know this was to foreshadow my Rookie season as an elk hunter? Mr. Murphy and his law must have been in the peanut gallery putting in two cents as well. So let’s tell a few stories and review what the Rookie Elk Hunter learned last season…
As some of you know this season started out to be a team effort. A local friend of mine was to be my mentor and ‘show me the ropes’ of backpacking in for elk and hunting off your back. We shot our bows at the house and talked about gear, packing into one of the wilderness areas, etc. That was all fine and dandy until I got the call. “Dude, I’m finished. I think I tore my ACL”……….. Can you folks hear the silence that follows the words “I tore my ACL”??? I think that injury falls into ‘often goes askew’ or ‘laid schemes’, I’m not sure. Not to let all my hard work in the gym and road miles go to waste I put together plan B on the fly. OK, solo trip. Hours on the internet scouting and on the phone with contacts; I worked and re-networked plan B. It seemed to be coming together at the last minute.
Corey Jacobsen and the guys at Elk101.com helped me greatly. Short of holding my hand they dove in there and helped me salvage the trip and put together information, ideas and a plan.. (insert here plan C and D (maybe E)). But no one can give you the experience needed until you put it all together for yourself. So on that note…
I think it took 8 or was it 10 CD’s to get to the X on the map. I don’t remember but it was plenty of time to get pumped up and ready to rock and roll. Plan C was now in motion and I had my tag and license in hand and I was living the dream! Yes, I was on to plan C.
Arriving at the X on the map I had just enough time to gear up and make an evening walk down the road and attempt to elicit a few bugles to confirm I was in the right place. To get that ‘game on’ feeling if you will. The air was crisp and I could feel the cold creeping into my bones as I ripped off my first “location bugle” I had been practicing with Rocky Jacobson on CD. Wait for it.. Wait for it…WOW, is it quiet out there.. Another location bugle and another wait. No reply. Move on to the next ridge line and repeat. I came back to the camper in the dark tired from the long day driving and analyzed myself. Was I too loud? Too soft? Have they been bugled to death and won’t reply? Are there any elk out there? Hello???
Sleep came easy and the alarm too early. Fitful sleep gave way to a feeling breaking all the way into my conscious. I was cold. I remember asking myself if I had brought enough clothes or even the right ones when I hit a patch of ‘pogonip’ on my way up here. Do I really want to get out there in that cold? Yep, that’s what I’m here for and so out I go. Exiting the camper and silently closing the door I am assaulted by the cold.. and then… what the hell was that… a bugle!!! That sounded like a growling bear, a BIG bear and an elk bugle mixed together! And it came from right down there! I estimated this bull and the few cows I could hear to be maybe a hundred to two hundred yards from my camp. Checking the wind with my Elk101.com puffer bottle.. Damn! Blowing right down the mountain at them. Damn! What do I do now? I didn’t explore that area last night and if I remember correctly the mapped trail leads right down on that area. Well, I made a very hard decision and I don’t know if it was the right one. It was to walk away and not let them get my scent. So down the road in the opposite direction I went. That was tough. To hunt another area while waiting for the thermals to change as well as letting the sun come up a bit more and let me see better before returning and attempting to move in on them.
It was a long few hours and when the thermals finally did change I was back to the area to call in that bull. That was the plan anyway. Some soft cow calls were not answered so I decided to go in and try to find where they were this AM. After an hour or so of slinking down the trail and in and out of the dark timber I found pay dirt. Fresh scat and lots of prints. I found a nice open’ish area to set up and call hoping the bull would come back to pick up the straggler he heard. All my practicing was put on the line and I busted out my first calling sequence in the field. It was sweet music or at least I thought so. I guess that big ol’ bull wasn’t impresses as his lips were sealed. I followed the obvious sign in the direction of darker steeper timber. Yep, they went that away.. Way down there to the bottom of the ravine and up the other side to more dark timber. I wasn’t prepared to dive in that deep as it was getting late so I backed out and read more sign trying to get a better feel for the area. I found a well used trail that looked promising for a stand. After a bit of digging around I thought I had a good mental picture of the area the bull and his herd of cows had been using. I waited till dark and listened for any more elk sounds, chirps, mews or even a bugle. Nada.
I went back to the camper to get a repack and look at my topo map of the area. Making a plan for the next morning I made dinner and sat out in the dark listening for any bugle activity. It was unfortunately quiet but I had the greatest view of the night sky and stars. As the cold set in it seemed that the stars got even clearer.
The next morning found me out on the ridge listening and cow calling. I would set up and call for a while and sit silently listening and watching for a sneaky bull to approach. After 30 minutes of sitting silently after a calling sequence, I would get up and move trying to see new territory and expand my calling area. I was getting a bit discouraged as I had no responses and hadn’t seen many elk. I did have the pleasure of being busted by a small group of cow elk but other than that I was all alone.
One plus of the area is that I had cell phone coverage. Calls in the evenings to my wife were of mixed blessings. On one hand she would give me words of encouragement and positive feedback. Telling me to push forward after seeing me put so much time and effort into this dream of mine. Though on the inside she had some of the same worries that I did about my safety and our home front agenda, i.e. baby due any time now. Then there was the new house and we had to move the second I got home and we hadn’t started packing much before I left. Aw man, then there’s missing the kids and being all alone and not used to solo hunting.. A virtual cacophony of feelings and thoughts distract me from the task at hand. I felt like a big baby letting my brain and responsibilities eat away at me like that.
On the third day of running and gunning with little results the distractions in my head were getting quite heavy to pack around. I had not seen any elk and a few trucks had moved through my area and then sound of a chain saw ripped apart the peaceful woods. On that evenings phone call with my wife all it took was “well I wasn’t going to say anything while you are on your trip but I have been having some baby cramping” and my mind was made up to head home, head hung low and feeling defeated.
As I drove from the mountains I beat myself up quite a bit. It was a long road of defeat that awaited me for the next 10 hour leg of this trip. What was I doing? Where was I going? In fact, I had several “just turn this truck around and head back in there” or ‘go explore over there” moments. My mind raced over all the things I learned, experienced and new things I wanted to try. Fact is I was planning my trip for next year before the mud had spun off my tires. With some long cell phone calls to my wife and friends and a lot of encouragement I had realized this trip wasn’t a full failure but more of a chance to learn and reflect. It was my first elk trip and solo at that. I was a Rookie and it was experience. A list of last minute changes and adversities were stacked against me.
So what are some of the more important things that this Rookie Elk Hunter learned?
Experience……… Nothing can take the place of experience. Just showing up is a start. Every day, every step, every road you drive is a learning experience. Listening to elk and watching them, everything is a chance to learn their nuances and behavior. Read all the books you want (like I did) and go to an Elk 101 seminar ten hours away and hang out with elk killers and you still need your own experiences to learn firsthand.
On a solo hunt ‘Your head has to be in the game’. Now this trip wasn’t planned as a solo hunt but as events unfolded it was presented to me as a ‘solo’ or ‘no go’ trip. I had way too many things in my head, irons in the fire so to speak. My wife and I had a Baby due very soon, house packing and moving deadlines within days (hadn’t started packing), new job (used all my PTO), no physical scouting to this new area and new to the entire experience of chasing elk, let alone solo. Cameron Hanes wrote about it in his Backcountry Bow hunting book. You can be your own worst nightmare when your thoughts wander and there is self doubt. I was and it did! My friend Jeff relayed a story of one of his first long solo trips in Colorado to me and I had to laugh out of similarity. About the fifth or sixth day out in the wilderness and not a shot he stumbled upon a father and son hunting together. I guess he was so starved for conversation he talked those poor boys ears off and they couldn’t wait to hit the trail again!
My camper was very comfortable and gave security from the unknown but it was also cumbersome and didn’t allow me to explore as readily as I needed or move as quickly. It kept me from going in deep and in tight places or roads. It was cold at night but not crazy late season cold. I didn’t need that much protection from the elements.
I would have made any Boy Scout proud. I packed and was prepared for anything and therefore it was a heavy load everywhere I hiked. I had food, water, butcher supplies, first aid kit, marking tape, camera, rope, space blanket, water filter, GPS, maps, compass, etc…. dang!
Pouring over the internet and looking at maps is a great way to pick an area if it has what you’re looking for but there’s something missing. You can learn a lot by just showing up and putting your feet on the ground and listening and glassing. My trip area was last minute so I didn’t get the time I needed and it came back to bite me.
Pick your hunting partners carefully. I need someone like myself, or yourself, with good knees. Someone who will keep hunting and go in deep even when their tag is punched to help you fill yours and then pack it out when you succeed. The old adage ‘If at first you don’t succeed…” applies here.
There are many great products available to the hunter/packer/camper that this category could be an entire article on its own. The Sitka gear clothing that I used this year was amazing and I’m saving my pennies to get more. I agree with their catch phrase.. ”turning clothing into gear”
I have always found that when I put my mind to a task or a new thing I am usually pretty good at it. All the sports I played in school came to me easily. All were physical and things that I could control, until starting as a Rookie Elk Hunter. All things considered, it was a great Rookie elk hunting experience. I initially came away feeling defeated, but soon realized it was all an opportunity to learn. Everyone must pay their dues, some more than others; it’s a rite of passage to becoming a HUNTER OF ELK.