Okay, where do I start? Do I make this a novel and include everything or do I just cut to the chase and write about the hunt itself? Iím leaning toward the novel!
Opening day was on a Tuesday this year so the travel schedule wasnít going to work out quite as well as it had the last couple years. We made all our last minute plans and got everything packed in the travel trailer on Friday evening and planned to head out first thing Saturday morning. In the past we had been bringing one of our 4 wheelers for Cathy and Eli to be able to putt around camp with, but with our new trailer being heavier, it wasnít going to work this year so we had to leave the 4 wheeler at home.
Saturday ended up being a long day of travel, we ended up pulling into a parking lot beside a McDonalds in Laramie, Wyoming about 10pm and spent the night. Headed back out the next morning and ended up having to change out one of the trailer tires because it was wearing funny in Rock Springs and made a last minute trip to Walmart while we were at it. After another few errands in Jackson, we headed out to our spot. The last 35 miles is all gravel roads and it was in pretty poor shape this year and it took two hours to cover that last 35 miles pulling the trailer. We ended up pulling into our camping spot for the week right at dark on Sunday night.
Monday was a day of relaxation and we had a great time just hanging around camp waiting for the opener. It really was a great day just hanging out with the family. The place where we camp has a nice creek running through and this time of year it is a perfect place for little boys to hang out. Weíre going to have to do that more often in the future for sure.
Tuesday morning was opening day and we knew exactly where we wanted to be at first light. After a little bit of debate, we decided that we would need to leave camp at 4:45 am to have plenty of time to get where we wanted and get settled in before first light. Itís about a 20 minute drive from camp to where we park to hike in to our spot so we were loading on our backpacks and spraying ourselves down with scent spray just after 5:00.
As we were getting ready to roll we heard something that neither of us could figure out. Sounds are pretty hard to describe in writing, but the closest thing I can think of to describe the sound would be a severely constipated grizzly bear! A very loud growl/groaning sound that ended up almost like a moan. Whatever was making the noise was pretty close and big! There are moose in the area and at first we thought maybe it was a moose although both of us have been around moose and never heard one make that noise before. My friend Mike said he had heard bears making that noise before when they were grubbing and rolling logs over so thatís what we were leaning toward. I was already a little nervous about bears this year with 2 hikers being killed over the summer in Yellowstone less than 50 miles from where we were hunting and we always see plenty of bear sign in the area and actually saw a grizzly bear last year right where we were planning on hiking to this morning. We probably hung around the truck for 15 minutes and then decided that we werenít going to kill anything hanging out at the truck so we needed to get going.
We kept our rifles at the ready and bear spray readily accessible and started out. It was 29 degrees and clear, but it had rained over the weekend and the brush was pretty wet and the deadfall was as well. It was about a half moon and bright enough to see pretty well. We tried to be extra quiet and skirted well to the west of whatever it was that was making the noise. About ľ mile in we hear the growl/groan again and it was pretty much where we had heard it the last time, that gave us a little bit of comfort level and we headed in to our spot we wanted to be.
We got there just before shooting light and got setup. I sat in the same exact spot that I was in the year before when I shot a raghorn on opening morning. Sunrise came and we heard a few bugles off to our west. We made a few cow calls and nothing really responded. A bull was bugling off to the west still and we tried to decide on whether to go after them or what. We saw a few cows moving through the heavy timber and but they were headed away from us so we decided to commit to going after them. The problem was that the wind was right at our backs. We dogged them at about 100 yards and in the heavy timber we could just barely catch a glimpse of them every now and then. Both of us could have shot a cow, but our general tag was only good for a mature bull in that area. After a hundred yards or so either the wind got our scent to them or the heard or saw us or something, because they busted out and took off. Both of us were pretty sure we saw the bull, but neither of us saw his antlers so there was not really a chance at a shot.
They hadnít busted out too bad, so we decided to keep after them. The wind wasnít going to be against us as badly, and at least we knew we were after some elk. Probably 30 minutes later we ended up at the top of a steep ridge and made a cow call and we surprised to hear a bull pipe up from his bed less than 100 yards away from us! We thought that maybe we had broken up the bull and his cows and he was ready to hook back up with them. We just sat there for 10 minutes or so and then tried to close the distance on him as quietly as we could. We were as quiet as possible and the wind was blowing up to us from where he was below so we were pretty confident we could close the distance. We moved about 25 yards closer and somehow he had us pegged. He started moving through the timber about 50 yards away, but neither of us could get a good glimpse of him. In retrospect I should have tried to stay still and cow call, but I decided to get aggressive and cow call while I went down the hill after him. I caught another glimpse of him, but just a few tines and a bit of tan hide, nothing even close to a clear shot. Thatís the biggest problem with the area that we hunt, the timber is so thick that we were within 100 yards of a bull elk for close to 30 minutes and never even came close to getting a shot at him. If they arenít talking it is pretty close to impossible to hunt them.
The area we hunt is also very close to Yellowstone National Park, and after talking about it a bit we decided that the last thing we wanted to do is push the elk into the park so instead of keeping after them, we decided to go back to the spot where we were at first light and hang out there for a while. We checked out a few spots on the way back and then hung out for a while to see if anything else was talking. Everything had quieted down and nothing was moving. We ate lunch and went over the morning and I was kicking myself for the blown opportunities that morning. We were probably not aggressive enough on the first opportunity (we should have started moving that direction right when we heard the first bugles) and I was too aggressive on the 2nd opportunity (I should have stayed put and cow called instead of going after him). Chalk it up to learning experiences. We finished lunch and my friend had brought a can of coke with him and he stood up and crushed it with his boot and it made a loud crunch sound and low and somehow that triggered our mystery animal. It responded with the now familiar growl/groan sound from about 400 yards off to the south. It was directly between us and the truck and we decided that it would be better to figure out whatever it was during the daylight than having to worry about it on the hike back out in the dark so we gathered up our stuff and went after it. We werenít exceptionally stealthy, but werenít making a lot of racket and we got within about 100 yards of where it had sounded off and tried to get it to talk again to help us locate it to figure out what in the world it was. We tried moose grunts, cow calls, bugles, mimicking itís growl/groan and couldnít get it to talk again. After close to an hour, we gave up and headed back over to our spot to spend the afternoon sitting around twiddling our thumbs.
Mid afternoon whatever it was that was making the noise spouted off again but it was moving through the bottom to our west and going away from us. We still didnít know what it was, but felt like it was probably a large grizzly bear and were very thankful that at least it was going to not be directly on our path on the hike out now. As it got closer to evening we started to hear some movement in the timber and then saw an outfitter and his hunter go through the timber on horseback below us. If nothing else it gave us a good feeling that we would be able to spot some elk if they did come through at least.
It was getting close to sunset and we started thinking about when we were going to need to start heading back to the truck when our mystery animal spouted off again right back where it had been after lunch. Same growl/groan as it had been all day. Whatever was making the noise was a large animal no doubt. We made some cow calls and some bugles and tried to mimic it again but didnít get a response. With whatever it was back between us and the truck, we decided it was probably a good idea to start heading that way while it was still light. We got our stuff together and had just started that way when we heard it again with the growl/groan and then at the end of it there was a distinct chuckle of a bull elk trying to round up his cows. No mistaking it! The entire time it had been a bull elk growling/groaning. We didnít waste any time heading his direction and decided that it must be injured or something and thatís why it wasnít bugling and why it wasnít moving much.
We had made it about 100 yards closer to it and we saw some movement in the tree line to our south. The reason we hunt this particular spot is that it is about the only place anywhere near that you can actually see any distance at all. Just a few seconds later and a cow elk breaks out of the tree line headed toward us. We were standing on deadfall and there wasnít anywhere to really get down and get a rest for a shot and of course right after the cow breaks clear a nice bull comes out after her! Both of us shouldered our rifles with our packs still on, and started to try to get a good hold on for a shot. He was still coming directly at us somewhere between 150 and 200 yards away. After getting steady, I started to squeeze the trigger and BOOM, my friend Mike shoots first and the bull goes down like a sack of potatoes! I was too slow on the trigger!
I really expected to need to put a shot into him even if my friend hit him first and was surprised to see him drop so fast. We both looked at each other and were amazed at how fast everything had gone down. From sitting there dejected and bored to having a nice bull on the ground was probably a whopping 15 minute time difference. We went ahead and headed straight for him with our rifles ready, but as we got closer there was no doubt he was down for the count. He also didnít have ground shrinkage and looked even bigger the closer we got to him. He was a nice 6X6 with decent backs and very big bodied.
Here's a couple pictures of my friend Mike with his bull.
We didn't get any pictures of us together with the bull, but here's a picture of me with his bull.
The sun was now setting and even though we had one less boogey man to fear in the woods since our mysterious animal ended up turning into a nice bull elk, we still didnít want to mess around too long and needed to get to the job at hand. We took some pictures (it never seems like you end up taking enough pictures) and were about to start working on getting him cut up with another outfitter walks out of the timber toward us. He told us they had been shadowing this bull much of the day and he wanted to make sure if we got him or not. He was actually the same outfitter that ended up on a 370Ē bull 2 years earlier that we had been dogging all day and then they shot him the next day so we didnít feel too sorry for him that we had shot this one. He said he was happy it was us that got him instead of the other outfitter that we had seen. Seems like they are having some territorial disputes over some of the areas that they hunt. This bull wasnít 370Ē, but we felt like he would push the 320Ē mark and for sure he was the biggest bull Mike had shot and he has been hunting this same area for nearly 20 years and is 53 years old. I was very happy that he ended up being the one that squeezed the trigger first and he is very happy with him.
Talking with the outfitter a little more we discussed the crazy growl/groan that this bull had been making and he said that they have been seeing more and more bulls doing that lately and fewer and fewer bulls making the high pitched bugle at the front end anymore. Speculation of course is that they are doing it because the higher pitch brings the wolves in from a long way off, but no idea if that is right or not. For sure it was a noise that I had never heard in the woods before. He also said that was one of the largest bodied elk that he had ever seen as well.
It was pushing dark and we had a lot of work to get done. I had bought a havalon knife and was really looking forward to using it to see how it worked, but somehow I lost it before I even left on the trip so it was the old standby gerber for me. Mike worked on caping him while I got to work on quartering him up and we made pretty decent time on him. I bought some new Caribou game bags and those worked out pretty nicely as you can just drop the quarters right in the bags without worrying about any dirt getting on them. No need to have a drop cloth setup to work off of. After we had him quartered and caped we ended up with 5 bags of meat plus the head and cape. It was full dark and even though it was only about a half mile to the truck in a straight line, there was some up and down between us and LOTS of deadfall and brush. The temperatures were plenty cool so we decided to just hang everything and come back for it in the morning.
We found a good tree about 100 yards from the carcass and moved the game bags over to it and got to work hanging them. Last year I we had trouble hanging my elk in New Mexico due to the friction of the rope on the tree limbs so I had a pulley in my pack to help with that chore this year. The problem was that there was no way we were going to get all of this hung up on one rope. After trying to think through a better option we never came up with one so we ended up using the pulley for the head and cape and just rope over the tree branches for everything else. We had plenty of rope and were able to hang the hind quarters and loose meat individually and had to hang both of the front shoulders on the same branch. We struggled to get the meat high enough as with the friction of the rope on the tree branch you can only get the meat as high as you can reach over your head with one guy pushing the meat up and the other guy pulling on the rope. We decided that with it in bags and at least off the ground 6 or 7 feet it would have to do though. We hung our florescent orange vests on the antlers and on a tree branch, hung a glow stick and a LED flashing beacon up and peeíd on the bushes around the base of the tree and called it good.
The hike out was very uneventful and it was so nice to get to the truck about 11:20 and rolled into camp just before midnight. Our wives were awake and a little worried about us as my friend is a diabetic and if he ran out of food it could get ugly, but we had packed plenty of food as we expected to be out all day and he was fine.
We went ahead and slept in the next morning and went back after the meat about 9:00. We figured that we could get it done in 3 loads with me hauling the head and cape with one load, then each hindquarter for the other 2 trips and he would take out the loose meat with one load and a front shoulder on the other 2 trips. When we got in there we ended up running into the outfitter that we had talked to the evening before and another guide with the same outfitter and they had 4 hunters in there. One funny note is that they had seen the florescent orange that we had hung in the tree and assumed there were already some other hunters over there and hadnít gone over to that spot. Lots of traffic for a tiny little spot thatís for sure.
The guy we talked to the night before said we were crazy for trying to take the head and cape out together, but I figured that it was only a little over a half mile and I would be fine. He gave us a few tips on caping out the head if we decided to do it and we nodded and smiled and they ended up leaving. I got everything loaded up on my pack and started toward the truck. It was heavy and it was awkward, but I could do it. Iím sure I could have done it, but after about 200 yards away climbing over deadfall and busting brush with a 100+ lbs awkwardly on my back the elk decided he didnít want to cooperate and somehow a strap came loose and it tumbled off my back onto the ground. Sitting there looking at it I decided I might be willing to try to cape itís head!
Mike decided to continue on to the truck and while I attempted to cape the head. The tips that the outfitter had given me was to start around the eyes and get that all done as far as I could reach through the eye holes, then do the scent glands as deep as possible and then do the lips as close to the teeth as I could. I set to work and it really wasnít as bad as I was dreading. The left side went really well and I think I got overconfident because I ended up with a few nicks on the right eyelid and I didnít get the right scent gland as deep as I had on the left one. I felt like I did pretty good on the bases of the antlers and the lips and nose though. I was using my same Gerber knife and the biggest problem was that it was a little too big and thatís why I ended up with the nicks on the eyelid and not getting deep enough in the scent gland. Not sure if it was easier because it had set overnight than if I had caped it when it was fresh or not.
Once I got the head caped I cut the tongue out and all the other loose meat that I could get to and that trimmed a bit of weight off of it. Mike still wasnít back from hauling his load to the truck so I went ahead and grabbed the antlers and hoofed them to the truck without my pack expecting to run into Mike going or coming. Somehow I missed him both ways but when I got back he was there wondering where I ended up. He grabbed the cape and started hauling it to the truck and I went to where we had everything hung to grab another load.
Sometimes I think Iím pretty much of a stud and I decided that I would haul both front shoulders in one load so that we could still end up getting everything out in 3 trips. In the dark the night before I hadnít boned anything out, but I typically donít bone the front shoulders out anyway so I figured I would just grab them and go. I got them in my pack and got my pack on but after about 50 yards I decided that it wasnít going to be worth killing myself to feel like a macho man. I haul the front shoulders back to the tree, set them down in the shade and pulled a hind quarter down. I quickly boned it out and threw it in my pack and it was a much more manageable load!
We got back to the truck and ate an early lunch then headed back to the tree. We decided that the only way that we were going to get everything out in one more trip would be to bone out the front shoulders. We got to the tree and I set to work and it really wasnít that bad at all. Not as easy as boning out a hind quarter, but I was able to keep the entire quarter in one piece and bone it off the shoulder blade pretty easy. It was amazing how much weight we lost taking out both front shoulder bones, what was a borderline unbearable load ended up being very manageable. I boned out the last hindquarter and Mike hauled it out and I hauled out both boned out front shoulders.
I should have taken a picture of the tree when we had everything hanging, but I didnít. The Caribou game bags really did well and the reflective tags really is a nice touch when we were working in the dark that night. One of the knocks on the synthetic game bags is that they donít ventilate as well, but the meat was nice and glazed over the next morning when I pulled it out to debone it. The temperatures overnight got down below freezing and the meat was very cool even after lunch when we made out last trip out. I was able to wash them in the creek and they would have been ready to use the next day if we had needed them.
It took longer than expected getting everything out, but we did keep at a pretty leisurely pace when it all comes down to it. Still we ended up with a little over 3 miles on the clock with half of that hauling some pretty heavy loads through heavy deadfall and thick brush. We made a quick trip into town to get the meat in coolers and on ice and send out some pictures and messages to everyone, and got back to camp just in time for an evening hunt. It was pretty uneventful and VERY quiet. Seems like the woods had pretty much shut down with all the pressure from the first two days.
We got back in our routine on Thursday and left camp at 5:00 and headed back to where we were on opening morning. We struck out completely there not hearing or seeing anything and then decided we would put our boots to good use instead of just sitting around like we did on opening day and moved out. We checked out several of our spots from previous years, a known wallow spot and some known bedding areas but the whole place just seemed dead. Thinking it through there was a lot of pressure put on the elk that opening day with us and two different outfitters in a pretty small area and I think we pushed them right on out of there. We were seeing plenty of sign, but that just means that they had been there, not that they still were there. We got in some miles and some pretty good elevation changes but didnít have anything to show for it. We got back to the truck mid afternoon and went back to camp for a bit then tried a different spot that evening with the same results. Didnít see or hear anything and everything just seemed eerily quiet. We hadnít even heard any wolves which is usually the explanation for why things are quiet.
We decided to try a different area the next morning and put in some miles and elevation gains on our boots and we got to see some pretty country, but didnít see or hear any elk and not a lot of sign. We took the boys out that afternoon to another spot and planned on it being more of a hike with the boys (they are 4 and 5 years old) than really a hunt and it pretty much turned out like we planned. Not much sign, didnít see or hear anything. That evening was going to be our last night there so we went back to the spot we were opening morning on the slight chance things had calmed down and the elk had moved back in there. The recurring theme continued as we didnít see or hear any elk, but we did see the fattest black bear sow either of us had ever seen. We were sure it was a big boar when we first saw it, itís ears were very far apart and very small compared to the rest of itís head, but then we saw a 2nd year cub about 10 yards behind it. The cub was almost a good sized bear in itís own right and a really nice chocolate color. They were about 20 yards away and we watched them for several minutes, but we were after elk, not bears and they werenít even legal if we were after bears so we made some noise and started walking toward them and they scooted off into the timber.
We setup and watched the sun go down and made a few cow calls and didnít hear a thing. We saw the bears again but they were even farther away and moving away from us so we didnít think they would really affect anything, especially since there didnít seem to be anything around anyway.
Saturday morning arrived and we made one last ditch effort in another spot and saw some sign but didnít see or hear anything else. The area where we were hunting is very dark timber and the chances of just stumbling onto some elk and getting a shot off is about zero. If they arenít talking it is pretty close to impossible and either the elk just werenít there after opening day, or they werenít talking. Probably the latter, but we sure spent some time looking for them and didnít even hear anything bust out ahead of us, let alone have to worry about trying to get a shot off. We packed it up, hooked up to the trailer and headed home. Here's a picture just before we pulled out Saturday morning headed for home.
The trip home was pretty uneventful, we got a whopping 10.8 mpg pulling the trailer home and 9.9 mpg on the way up there for a round trip average of 10.35 mpg. Pretty close to what we got the previous two years with our smaller trailer so that was nice. I was super nice to have a queen sized bed to sleep on instead of the jackknife sofa that I was sleeping on in the smaller trailer. We had a great time and I was very happy to be there with my friend Mike when he shot his biggest bull of his life. Going through it all again in my head, Iím really happy that I was slower on the trigger pull than him and he was able to end up with a really nice bull on the ground.
This has turned into more of a epic book than a novel, so Iíll end it here. I might go back and add some thoughts on some of the gear and other things later.
Hope you enjoyed the read, I know I will sometime down the road when I come back and read this again and relive some of the details I will have forgotten by then.
That's it for now! Nathan