I wrote this last fall, but never posted it. Now that I’m in Alaska, I am waiting to “earn” my residency before hunting due to the price of out of state tags. In the meantime, I’ll bide my time thinking of last season, spotting wildlife while hiking and hopefully reading and hearing of friends adventures. Until then, I’ll fondly remember last season…
Last fall was a huge learning experience for me in regards to wildlife. I shot my first animal with a rifle, a North American Pronghorn Antelope, which interestingly is more closely related to a goat than an actual antelope. I managed to also get a doe deer, and I thought I was figuring out some ungulate behavior and habits. But the big one, the elk, remained elusive.
I actually hunted elk more than any other species this fall. and while I saw lots of pronghorn, and many deer, the wapiti were real
hard to find. Sure, I saw some tracks, some relatively fresh scat and plenty of rubs, all things I’d seen while hiking in the mountains. But the actual animals began to take a mythological place in my mind. I went where I thought they would be, where I would go if I was an Elk (clearly flawed logic) but they were never there. I would talk to other hunters and they would casually mention seeing a herd of 40 that evening or two large bulls watching them from a ridge. I hadn’t seen anything in over a month.
An early fall snow storm gave me hope that the elk would be pushed out of the mountains and into my area. A day of wandering through wet snow chasing tracks yielded fresh scat and a recent bed, but no elk. I did have some mule deer walk by pretty closely and I was hearing shots all day, so someone was having luck, but it sure wasn’t me.
After a week of hunting deer, and getting my doe, I was back to seeking out the wiley wapiti.
As the season progressed, I was able to hunt a different area than my early season tag, higher up and I hoped, fewer people and more elk.
It seems that the problem with switching areas when hunting is that you have no idea where the animals are. Four days of wandering, glassing (a fancy term I’ve learned for looking through binoculars for stuff, while generally not seeing it) and exploring led to nothing. Some sign here and there, but most was old.
After spending an afternoon wandering around in the same area with my wife, where we saw my best friends truck, I invited him
over for dinner and we talked elk. I wanted to know where these things were, how to find them and if he had seen anything in the area we were in. We laughed about me stumbling upon his “secret spot” which I took as a good sign that I was at least in a good area. He gave me some info on where he had seen elk up there before, when I might want to go and we overall encouraged each others efforts with a lot of excited stories.
The next night I was feeling inspired. I left the house at 11pm, and got up to the parking spot that I’d been scouting from around midnight. a previous bivy in the back of the truck had proven that it was a cold, snow drifty place to crash (I should have known this, given the years I spent living out of a pick up truck!) and given the time, I chose to just catch some z’s in the back seat. My alarm went off way too early at 6am. Still dark. I dragged myself from under my down quilt, hunted through the front seat for some layers and my boots and eventually pushed open the door to the truck. I started hiking to the the spot that I thought I might be able to see some elk from. Not far out, I heard the faint sound of an ATV. I kept walking, hoping the motorized fella would roll on by when he saw my truck.
When the first opening appeared in the trees, I headed uphill, staying tight to the scrub pine and slowing my pace down. I saw nothing. I kept moving.
When I reached the outcrop of limestone, the sun was just peaking out to greet the day, I had begun to appreciate sunrises more this season. I sat, glassed, relaxed. There they were. The first elk I had seen all season, way far off. The range finder showed them at 550 yds, way further than I felt confident shooting. I watched them move, maybe a dozen elk, traveling down slope, through thin timber and brush. and then they were gone. Into a depression, a drainage or some other feature. What to do. I sat for a while, trying to find them in my binos. Pondering my next move. Would they come to me? Should I move? What the hell do elk do when they are moving anyway? I figured I was better off moving, maybe I wouldn’t find the same herd, but I certainly wasn’t gonna get one sitting still.
I scooted off my perch and walked downhill into some sparse trees, quickly arriving at the edge of a cliff band overlooking the valley below. Meandering along the cliff edge I looked below me to see if any elk were in the valley. The thought of actually shooting anything down there and having to haul it back up hill was intimidating, so I turned back along the trees and moved up the bench I was on. The trees ended as I stepped out just a bit into an opening and saw them all, grazing not fifty yards away. I quickly crouched and walked slowly towards a dead tree. I knelt in what must have been cold snow, focusing on my breathing as I tried to settle my pounding heart. I watched as the elk moved around each other, through some sparse trees, in and out of cover. It felt like forever. Braced against a fallen tree. Breathing. Watching. When I thought I had a good shot, I fired. The herd scattered, fast and far. I looked frantically to see my cow drop, stumble or slow, but they all ran. One ran away from the rest of the herd, still close to me. I watched the others while this single cow looked nervously around, apparently not seeing me. The herd appeared content 200 yards away, while this lone cow stood and began grazing about 50 yards from me. I shifted position. I had missed my first shot. Not this one. Three steps and and down.
I was amazed at the increased volume of guts inside an elk, even this small one. After field dressing, I dragged the cow up hill to a small pass, passing where I had shot my deer. I had learned the hard way from that experience that sometimes the fastest way between two points isn’t a straight line. This time I had learned mornings alone in the mountains can be beautiful and rewarding.