September is gone for another 11 months. Most years, I get a little bit of the October blues, but this year, I’m kind of glad it’s gone! Don’t get me wrong, I love September. But I’m ready for a break. My legs and back are ready for a break! Between September 2 and October 5, I put over 170 miles on my boots and packed 7 bulls out of the woods. I feel like an old rutted out bull elk that is just lying on a hillside recovering from the rut! But you can bet that by August of next year, I’ll be ready to go again!
There were so many highlights from this elk season, it’s going to be hard to capture them all here in this post. Fortunately, we did manage to capture all 7 elk hunts on video, and the footage is insane. Stay tuned for more details on the upcoming film(s). This season, I was able to watch my 13-year-old son, Isaac, shoot his first bull elk with a bow, as well as help out on some amazing youth hunts through the Hunt of a Lifetime organization. It was truly a special season. Here is a summary of my season:
Dirk Durham, Donnie Drake, and I headed out on September 1st for our annual Elk101.com DIY, public land elk hunt. I look forward to this hunt every season for so many reasons, but the primary reason is the simple fact that these guys are just plain awesome. The success we stumble into on these hunts is always overshadowed by the camaraderie and the experience of sharing a week in spectacular elk country each fall. This season was no different.
Late in the summer, and on a whim, we decided to buy tags to hunt a brand new area that none of us had ever set foot in previously. Dirk and I made a quick overnight “scouting” trip to the unit about a month before the season opened, and realized that we may have made a mistake. We found no signs of previous rutting activity, no elk sightings, only 3-4 elk tracks, and grizzly bear sign EVERYWHERE! We were committed at this point though, and could only hope things would turn around once the season opened and we could scout with our bugle tubes. In addition to our concerns from the scouting trip, we were also going to be hunting the early part of the season which often means limited bugling action, and we only had a week to try and fill three tags. To say we were apprehensive about this hunt would be an understatement.
We set camp on the first evening, and immediately discovered that the electric bear fence we had brought was too small to fit around the tent. This meant we weren’t able to complete the electrical circuit and make use of the security feature we had hoped would allow us to sleep peacefully at night. We decided to head out for a quick “surveillance” trip and hope to spot some elk or hear a bugle so we would have a game plan for the next morning. Fortunately, we did hear a bugle, and actually had a good setup going until the wind switched and the elk crashed away. We heard two bugles in the distance that night, so we at least had a plan of action for the next day.
We managed to call in a handful of elk over the first three days, but normal elk hunting challenges prevented us from filling any tags. Finally, on Day 3, we located a bugling bull on the opposite side of the canyon, and Donnie spotted the bull all alone on the edge of an opening. The midday thermals were moving up the mountain in our face, so we dropped down and set up just on our side of the valley. The bull was fired up, and within 2 minutes, we could see him moving in our direction at a fast pace. The bull marched right into Donnie’s shooting lane and gave him a great, broadside shot at around 30 yards. We watched the bull run back up the hillside and stop just inside the timber 150 yards away. With another bull bugling around the mountain, we decided to give Donnie’s bull an hour and see if we might be able to double up on bulls.
Dirk moved into the shooter position, and we worked our way into the middle of the main herd. Cows came running to our calls from multiple directions, and even with inconsistent winds, they seemed oblivious to the fact that we were danger. However, the big herd bull was not oblivious, and despite keeping our wind away from him, he wouldn’t step out into the opening for a shot. He finally moved back up the hill, so we slipped back around to begin tracking Donnie’s bull.
The track job was short and the bull was laying dead just 20 yards from where we had watched him go into the timber. It was at this point that the reality of elk hunting in grizzly country sank in. We made quick work of processing the elk, and celebrated the first success of the season with a lunch of elk tenderloins cooked on a flat rock as the first rain storm of the season rolled in. We packed the bull out of the canyon and up to the truck, then headed back to camp.
The next day, I was in the shooter position, and the wind was terrible. We set up on three different bulls, and all three of them were inside 30 yards. I was at full draw three times and only needed the bulls to take 1 or 2 more steps to be in an open shooting lane, but all three of them were saved by errant gusts of wind. That evening, we couldn’t find any bugles until right before dark. A bull was moving down an adjacent ridge, and was on a mission to get to the open meadows at the bottom of the canyon before daylight vanished. Dirk and Donnie stayed back to call, and I slipped ahead, hoping to catch up to the bull. He was moving quickly, but when I got within 100 yards of him, I screamed a challenge in response to his bugle. He had no idea he was being followed so closely, but rather than turning to chase off the challenger, he moved up the other side of the draw and made a stand where he could see any attempted approach.
I stopped at the bottom of the draw in some thick willows, and threw every aggressive tactic I could think of at him. He was fired up, but showing no signs of coming back down the open hillside he had just climbed. I knew daylight was rapidly diminishing, so I ramped up the aggression in one last attempt to break him loose. It worked, and the bull started angling down the open hillside, then turned and started sidehilling away from me about 100 yards away. I ducked down and scrambled through the willows, angling toward the bull, until I came to a large opening in the brush. I quickly ranged a tree on the hillside above me, just as the bull walked into the opening. He walked straight to the tree I had just ranged, stood there broadside, and started raking. I drew, settled the pin, and shot. The bull ran 20 yards and piled up with an arrow through his heart. After another tense night of quartering an elk – and then packing the elk – in the dark, we finally made it back to the truck with the meat around 2 a.m..
The next morning, we slept in an extra hour, and decided to chase a bull we had heard bugle close to camp. We spent all day on the mountain above camp, but came up empty handed. There was still an hour or so of daylight left, so we decided to drive over to where Donnie had shot his bull and see if the herd bull was back in that canyon. We found a large herd, but unfortunately, they weren’t elk. On the hillside where Donnie had shot his bull, there were 5 – yes, 5 – mature grizzly bears. The largest one was a monster of a bear, and he was making certain none of the other bears were getting close to the carcass. I can’t explain the raw power of these animals, but we were able to watch the largest two bears square off and sink teeth and claws into each other, and the roar they let out from across the canyon was absolutely amazing. Knowing that there were five grizzly bears in the same canyon we had been elk hunting in made the decision to cross that area off our list rather easy.
On our second-to-last morning, we headed up the drainage where I had shot my elk, leaving a solid 2-3 miles between us and my elk’s carcass. We got a response to a location bugle shortly after daylight, and quickly scrambled down the ridge to get the wind in our favor. Less than 90 seconds later, Dirk was at full draw, lining up his sights as the bull emerged from the thick wall of fir trees. The bull made it 60 yards and was done.
We spent the next day scouting more areas, and then loaded up camp and headed home. We had hiked 68 miles in 7 days in some pretty rugged country that ranged from 8500 feet to 10,800 feet in elevation. We experienced everything from warm, sunny weather to freezing temps and windy snow. The scenery was breathtaking. Once again, another week of elk hunting memories had been etched into our memories. All of our apprehensions had dissolved, and we made it out of there without any bear encounters, and with all three tags filled. We had solidified our motto for the hunt: Bugle. Shoot. Pack. Repeat! It was an amazing hunt, and I knew things were only going to get better as the season progressed!