Four thirty came really early, and I was definitely not ready for my alarm to go off. I staggered downstairs and dressed quickly then sat and waited for Brian and Drew to pull into my driveway. A couple minutes before 5, I received a text that they were on their way so I carried my things out to the porch and waited outside for them. We made the short drive up the canyon, meeting with Josh and Carsen at a gas station about halfway to our destination. As we began the drive up the dirt road the lack of snow at the lower elevations prompted us to drive past our planned starting point and head to higher elevations. Our starting point for this hunt would be the same as the muzzleloader elk hunt in early November.
Since our plans had changed our timing was off quite a bit, and we had to make an hour and twenty minute hike through an easement on private property to where we would be able to hunt. As we crested the northern rim of a large bowl we began to glass. It was 8:30am and I figured that we were too late and we would need to now be looking for elk that had bedded for the day. We began to work to the west along the rim of the bowl up towards the head of the bowl and right about when we reached the head of the bowl we glassed back to our southeast to see a string of 8 cow and calf elk working their way up along the bottom of the bowl. The elk were right where I figured they would be… but they were much later than I had anticipated. Here we thought we were late, but in fact we were early and the elk were late. If we had just stayed put where we initially crested over the ridge into the bowl we would have had long but manageable shots at the small herd. Instead, we were left to plan an attack on the herd as they worked up to the patch of pines that is a regular bedding location.
Josh and Carsen volunteered to gain elevation and get about even with the pines then work back to the east into the bedded elk while Brian, Drew, and I would drop down lower and head back to the north to potentially shorten the distance if the elk busted out of there and headed downhill.
We sat and watched Josh and Carsen close the gap on the cluster of pines and when they reached about 400 yards we were able to see some movement and could see one cow standing in the smallest of openings in the pines. Josh and Carsen got to about 150 yards and the elk moved out. They ran exactly where I thought they would and headed east along the ridge and across a rocky chute. A moose was in their path and 3 cows split from the herd and began to run straight downhill towards us. They were moving fast and covering ground quickly. The best shot we were presented was a 450 yard shot on a running elk… so no shots were fired.
We continued to work around and try to determine where the 3 cows went. We searched for a while to see if we could find their tracks but they must have made a change in direction or went over a small ridge where the snow had already melted. We ended up spotting three cows bedded a long ways off on the opposite side of the canyon ¾ of a mile to a mile away and there was some dispute as to whether these were the same cows… we’ll never know.
Early in the afternoon we decided to head back to the truck and try the spot that I had originally planned near the power lines. We didn’t see anything in the early evening light and the younger boys were ready to call it a day so we headed for home.
This was the third time that I have hunted that bowl and had bedded elk use that same escape route. I’ve got to come up with a strategy to put somebody in a spot to take advantage of that escape route. There are a handful of challenges that I’ll need to address. The first challenge is timing. For me to get to the ambush spot I will need to cross the path that the elk will inevitably take to get to the beds. I can’t hike up to the spot early because I could spook the elk before they even get to their beds, so I essentially have to wait until they pass me then circle back behind them and get myself into position. I should be able to take advantage of this by setting up early in a spot advantageous to me as they file on past up to the bedding area and if no good shot presents itself to just let them file on by. Then I could circle back behind them and hike up to where I should be able intercept them if they get pushed from the bedding area. The second challenge however is the wind. In this area there always seems to be a prevailing breeze or wind from the south. This escape route is in the southeasterly direction so I would need to position myself so that my scent does not get carried into the bedding area to begin with. If I can figure out how to best position myself along that escape route I should be able to fill a tag there pretty easily… but I will probably need to be pretty creative to accomplish this with a muzzleloader on the bull elk hunt.
Four thirty again came early and I dressed again in the kitchen. Hopping in my car I headed to the designated meeting point to meet up with my friend Doug who was in town from Idaho and was willing to accompany me for the day. We arrived at the parking lot of the WMA about 30 minutes before I had planned so we had some time to sit and contemplate our plan of attack in the dark. After the series of snow storms that had plowed through the valley over Christmas I was worried that hiking would be strenuous, however I found that there was no more snow at the parking lot there than piled up on my front lawn. Doug left the strategy to me and said he would follow my lead wherever I went. My plan was to begin hiking about an hour before legal shooting light and get on a ridge overlooking a saddle to our south, a large bowl to our east, and a large sagebrush flat that stretches up onto the main face to the west. We attained the ridge just shortly after legal shooting light and began to glass. We saw a staggering number of deer, and a small handful of bucks that were some of the biggest I have personally laid eyes on in the field. We glassed a couple of bulls out in the sagebrush flats and a small herd of cows just across the private/public boundary. A hail of gunfire erupted from the direction of the parking lot, from my recollection I would estimate 8 to 10 shots maybe. That got things moving as strings of deer began running from that direction, and with all the movement it was tough to keep track of where everything was going. Just below us three elk rounded the hill and made their way at a trot into the trees just south of the saddle. When they reached the trees they slowed to a fast walk and by the time they had made their way through the trees and to the saddle they had slowed to a normal walk. Doug was talking in my ear the whole time telling me this was going to be easy and to wait. The elk were clearly preoccupied with the commotion below them and had no sense of any danger lurking above them, so I seized the opportunity to get even closer and shuffled my way to a cluster of rocks… I had my eye on one particular rock that appeared to be an ideal rest. I reached the rock about the same time the three elk reached the saddle and as they began to cross the saddle they stopped and grouped up. I was perched on the rock a mere 70 yards away from the small herd ready to take the first good shot offered me, the three elk all appeared to be the same size and all appeared young so I really had no preference. One cow stepped clear enough that I felt comfortable with the shot and fired. I saw the impact in the scope and almost immediately heard the “whomp” of the bullet hitting flesh. The other two elk just stood there for a second with their companion lying in the snow. I stood from behind the rock and they ran. I sent my wife a text at 7:57am letting her know that I had shot one… her response was, “Nice! So you’ll be home before lunch?”
I wanted to maximize the meat from this small cow so I decided to try and drag her out whole. Doug helped me get her gutted and we took stock of our gear before heading back towards the parking lot. I realized that I had left a glove back up at the rock cluster, so I returned to retrieve it. Then I realized I was missing a ski pole, so I returned again to the rock pile to retrieve it… I had stuff scattered all over that mountainside, it’s funny the way that happens when you have a surprise encounter with the quarry you’re after and you’re so focused on making sure you get a good shot.
Doug had started dragging the elk down towards the parking lot while I had returned for my ski pole, and he was making darn good time and was having an easy go of it because it was entirely downhill. There were spots where the elk would get going just a little too fast down the slope and he’d have to put the brakes on her to slow her down a bit. Even dragging the elk, we made it down off the mountain in about 15 minutes.
At the parking lot, we threw her onto the tailgate of the truck and skinned and quartered her there. It was like having her up on a nice little workbench! By 10:30am we were headed home and I’ll be working on the final butchering here over the next couple days.
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