March 17th, 2012 was one of my favorite horn hunting (antler hunting) days ever. Klay Nelson, a friend from work, and I left town shortly after 6 a.m. and were soon suiting up in winter gear for our ATV ride up the mountain. Pack frames and snowshoes were strapped on the racks, along with a shovel, and off we went. Luckily, it had dropped below freezing the night before and we were able to drive over some snow drifts instead of plowing through them. This worked well until we were stopped at the bottom of a massive, 30-foot, nearly vertical drift. This drift has stopped us a few times in the past, but with today’s destination in mind, we desperately needed to drive several miles beyond. I hit it fast and surprisingly made it over the top. Shortly after, Klay did too. We looked ahead and were disappointed by more large drifts that lay in our way. I worked the gears and hit the next one doing 20-25 mph, only to sink in. At the sudden stop, this 48 year-old, immature fat guy went over the handlebars quickly, flipped through the air and landed somehow looking back at Klay. Luckily I was fine, and listening to Klay describe what it looked like gave us both a good laugh.
After brushing off the snow and digging out, we retreated back down over the big drift, parked, and made our packs ready for the hike to our backup destination. This required an 800 foot vertical climb over a high, wind swept ridge, only to drop another 1500 feet into a rough, broken-up basin that bulls like to winter in.
Nearing the bottom, we split up, with a plan for Klay to cover the left ridge and me to cover the right. About ten minutes later, I saw Klay come over the ridge waving a large 6 point antler. I crisscrossed my ridge unsuccessfully and we finally met up at the bottom. Klay showed me the antler and a picture he had taken of a wolf that trotted out of the timber to check him out. We stayed out of the trees so we wouldn’t spook any elk and worked our way down the canyon about 200 yards apart. Frequently we crossed deep ravines choked with snow. These are the places where we wished our snowshoes were not 5 miles away back at the ATV’s. Sometimes it required crawling on all fours to distribute weight enough to not fall through and be stuck chest deep.
Soon I glassed up an antler ahead, and then another one out in front of Klay. I took photos of mine, strapped it on and worked around a small ridge. When I came back in view of Klay, he was taking pictures of a fourth antler. We whooped it up a bit, had a snack break, strapped the antlers on and headed out looking for more. We had dropped about as far into the basin as I wanted to go. I’d been here before and knew how tough the climb out would be. We post-holed our way through the thigh-deep snow up a steep north-facing ridge. I think the only way it was possible was by following some old elk tracks.
Once we topped out on the ridge, we entered totally different habitat. Now sagebrush dotted the landscape and made glassing for antlers much more difficult. We continued up the ridge, 180 degrees from where we travelled the bottom. Progress was slow, weaving through sage brush and clawing our way up snow covered slopes; not to mention that we were beginning to feel the effects of the physical strain. Up ahead, I spotted the scapula from a large animal that didn’t show years of sun bleaching. I casually mentioned that right over the ridge we would probably find a winterkilled bull. What a surprise we were in for!
Topping the ridge, I scanned to my right and said “Klay, look at that”! The skeleton, skull and antlers of a large bull were right in the open on the grassy ridge top. We took photographs of the site before disturbing anything. Wyoming law requires you to notify a Game and Fish Department warden before removing antlers/horns attached to skulls, or afterwards as soon as phone service allows. I maintain good contact with our local department and felt we had documented the site very well.
Since we still had a 1500 foot climb and a 5 mile hike ahead of us, we sawed off the skull plate to reduce weight. Klay took the four antlers we’d found and strapped them all on his pack. I figured what the heck-he’s younger than me. I tied the wide 7×7 rack onto my pack frame and after a few more photographs; we were weaving through pines and sage again, searching for more antlers.
Fortunately we didn’t find any more antlers, or we probably would have cached them and come back in the summer with a pack horse. We hydrated and had another quick snack before our final assault, climbing out of the basin. It’s one of those places that look easy to climb, but once you start, never seems to end. I’d been here before many times and warned Klay that what looked like the top of the ridge was a false horizon, with another 500 feet of climbing beyond. Miles later, when we finally reached our ATV’s, we were both physically spent, but still smiling.
I consider elk shed hunting to closely mimic the rigors of a real elk hunt. Both scouting and physical preparation are critical for success. Throw in a dose of luck and you just may bring home a huge set of antlers. This was such a memorable day, being launched into a snow bank, hiking with good company, seeing a wolf, and finding some of nature’s finest and unique artwork – elk antlers.