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Wapiti Wanderings

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

Saw lot’s of mule deer, no elk.

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.

Chased these tracks all day!

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

I spent hours doing this. Note the homemade shooting sticks supporting my rifle.

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.

Learning to love sunrises, I saw elk on this ridge.

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.

The perfect size cow to haul back to the truck solo.

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.

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Speed Goat stalking

The high desert of Wyoming hold secrets one might not expect.  A rich human history, both historic and modern is interspersed in the hills and rocks of what most see as a vast and barren plain.

Remnants of the uranium mining boom

An excuse to wander this dusty landscape doesn’t often present itself, with the lure of high, snow-covered peaks gleaming in the west over each rolling sage covered hill and rocky hoodoo.  These plains hide much from the cage trapped travelers on the highways north and south.

The antelope though, they don’t hide, not from the cars.  They stand on hilltops, eying the passing vehicle suspiciously, as though they are sizing it up, gauging its speed against their own.  Stop the car though, get out, and their gone.  Over a hill, down a draw, around a bluff.  Thus the importance of the stalk.

“Look for terrain features.” Scott had said, almost casually when I asked for advice on hunting the speed goats.  I would be going out alone, this first foray into the world of hunting, and to be totally honest, I had little idea what I would be doing.

My first day out was spent wandering around the hills and draws, spotting, attempting the stalk and spooking lots of antelope.  Learning, slowly, where they go when they sprint away.  By the end of the day I had chased a small herd for two hours, watching through binoculars across two draws as they grazed on a hillside, finally darting around the corner when I stood up from my hiding spot, succumbing to mild boredom.  They had remained in the open, and the terrain I was using seemed of little help in hiding from them.  In order to see them, I had to be up high, or down low, and I was generally in the open which does not it seems, help one’s ability to sneak up on the keen-eyed antelope.

They're over there, but how do I get to them?

Towards the end of my 1st day, I saw a small, yet deep ditch slithering up a wider draw, it’s deeper trough would keep me lower and if I crouched, I found I could keep my torso below the sage on the banks.  Could this be the terrain I should have been looking for?  I followed the ditch up the draw, staying low, moving slowly, until it petered out in some sage.  On my elbows and knees I peeked over the sage and saw a fine buck, bedded down in the hot afternoon sun on a ridge top at the end of my draw.  I carefully pulled off my pack, belly crawled to an opening surrounded by the strong-smelling sage and very slowly sat up, watching as the buck just lounged in the swaying grass one hundred or so yards away.  I had a doe tag of course, so there was nothing to be done but watch him and ponder the day.  This was my most successful stalk yet, he had no idea I was there and I knew I was close enough for a shot if I had the right tag.  Eventually he stood up, and I did too.  He looked at me and I dropped to my knees.  He ran right near me, not thirty yards away and stopped.  We stared at each other for ten minutes, he eventually trotted over the hill and off into the sunset.  I walked back to the truck.  It had been a good day.

Rock art at Castle Gardens

Rock art at Castle Gardens

On the drive home, I drove the western boundary to my area, unsuccessfully stalked a few more antelope on the more open plains and checked out the Castle Gardens, a cool hidden gem of a canyon with enough elevation  to support pine trees and a strange, pale talc like sandstone.

The area holds hundreds of petroglyphs from early Native Americans, dating back over a thousand years.  These people are thought to be the predecessors to the Apache and Navajo.  The area is stunning, both in geology with steep sandstone spires and canyon walls interspersed with juniper and with remarkable human history.  You can camp right there and it is a short walk to the petroglyphs, most of which have to be protected behind chain link fences due to vandalism.

It occurred to me in that spot that these people who left their mark on the sandstone walls so long ago, had good taste in campsites.  There was likely water here once, shade from the blazing sun, and terrain.  Terrain to hide game.  Smart.

One week later I was back at it.  the hot sun beating me down all day, walking in convoluted circles up, over and around the varied terrain of the gas hills.  Trying harder to stay in behind a rock here, in a ditch over there, up this draw and down that one.  A herd grazes in a basin surrounded by dark eroding rock to the north, rolling hills to the east, a drainage to the south and some sort of sedimentary hogbacks to the west.  I crouch and move from shallow draw to shallow draw, flanking the herd to the east.  I drop into a deep wash, up into the big sage brush when they spook and bolt over the hogbacks.  Damn it.  I walk through the head high sage and work up the draw between hogbacks.  As I glass from the ridge I see some mule deer bolt from the tall sage I had moved through, a nice buck and three does.  What spooked them I wonder?  I look harder through the binoculars but see nothing, later I would spot two coyotes sniffing the tracks of the deer.

At the top of the draw I see a small herd of four antelope two ridges to the north.  On my belly again I crawl to the top of the ridge and hunker down.  There’s no terrain here to hide me if I move, so I wait and watch.  Some thing spooks them.  I don’t think it’s me so I stay put and wait, they seem to be coming right to me, flying down the hill into the draw between us.  Will they come towards me or run somewhere else?  I wait.  One then two and now the buck and a final doe pop onto my hill, thirty yards at most, just the crest of the hill hiding me from their nervous glances.  My rifle rests on my pack, just a small move to raise it to my eye and put a doe into my sights.  And then they bolt again, down up over and across the plains.  I lay chase and watch them from a distant hillside, but the terrain leaves me exposed and they are far away.  I walk  back to truck, grab a cold drink from the ice filled cooler and check my watch.  It’s hot, I’m tired and it is getting late.  Another good day, should I call it quits?

As I walk around the truck, I see a wash between where I’ve been hunting today and where I was last week.  It’s just walking with a rifle I think, and that looks like some cool terrain.  I drop into the wash and work my way up until it grows choked with sage.  As I step onto the bank, I glance up and see ears and a black nose at the top of a hill.  I drop to the ground and stay still.  Glassing the doe to see if she saw me.  She climbs to the top of the hill and I watch her as she looks towards me but not at me.  I wait and watch.  Looking at the terrain around me, I weigh my options.  I can try to sneak back into the wash, or move towards the hill, hoping she won’t see me move and I’ll be out of her field of view when I get closer.  She makes the choice easy as she turns casually and drops over the hill, out of sight.  I run now, staying low towards the confluence of a small drainage and the wash.  When I reach the hillside I slow down, breathe, relax.  I know the pronghorn can’t see me now, so the stalk begins.

I climb the hill in a low crouch, at the top there is nothing.  No sign of the antelope, nothing, just another hill.  And so I walk, quietly and with purpose to the next hill.  Peaking nervously over the shoulder of the hill

I lock eyes with a buck antelope, and back quickly below the crest.

Did I blow it?  Where is the doe?  Where to now?  Breathe. Crouching again, I scoot around the other side of the hill, and there they are.  The buck I saw so close, and his harem of does, a half-dozen of them grazing calmly in a small depression.  I remember looking through the scope at the largest doe, easing the safety to fire so it wouldn’t click loudly, telling myself to relax, to wait until the shot was good, broadside.  I can’t remember if I was sitting, kneeling or prone.  She couldn’t be more than thirty yards away.  Exhale, squeeze.  The herd bolted at the report, she made it five yards and dropped.  Now I would learn how to field dress.

The learning and doing pay off, more learning followed as I field dressed my first animal.

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