Skipping a year of elk hunting was a very hard thing for me to do, but 2012 I was going to have to sit the trip to Montana out. We had welcomed our first son Cole into the world on August 2nd; he had some complications 24 hours after he was born that scared the hell out of us. So we thought it would be best if I stayed closer to home that year.
The year prior I had hunted elk on our friend’s ranch and some state property and had a blast. I did not fill my tag but it was still one of the greatest trips I had in a long time. Elk hunting is sensory overload and every moment is amazing; the smell of sage and pine, the sounds of elk, the feel of sore, tired muscles and the beautiful sights that are waiting around every corner make all the work worthwhile. For me elk hunting has been my favorite out of a variety of hunts; I have hunted whitetail in MN, pronghorn in eastern Montana and moose in Canada. I have been blessed to have harvested bulls and bucks in all these categories but for me elk hunting is the ultimate hunt! I dream of the day that I get to take my boys out to elk country to chase their first bulls.
So when we got drawn for 2013 I was thrilled and this would be the first time I got to hunt with my little brother Justin out West. I started training for the hunt in August and by November I was in great shape for the hunt. There was a fire the summer of 2013 on the backside of the range that we hunt. This, we would come to find was a blessing.
The first morning we were a half hour into daylight and we spotted a herd of about 25 elk. They were up on a hill that was peppered with small pines so we were not able to tell if there were any good bulls in the group but I also held onto a bonus cow tag. Justin and I decided to stalk in and see what we could find, if there was a bull that’s what we would target and if not, we would pick a cow. We didn’t plan on it taking long and we didn’t take the time to grab our packs or extra clothes. Well like most stalks it took longer than expected. The elk were slowly working away from us and we were getting cold. Finally we got to a point that there were cows mewing and bleating all around us. If you have not experienced this, I suggest you find the time to get out and immerse yourself into the middle of an elk herd. After watching for about a half hour we decided that we were not going to find a bull in this group and picked a cow. I steadied my rifle and let out the shot. Dust and snow flew up over her back. The herd took off instantly and not being 100% sure that it was a clean miss I did not fire a second round. I didn’t want to risk hitting two different elk and when they herd up it’s almost impossible to tell a cow apart from another cow. We went up to where she was standing and we were not able to find any blood. After spending another 15 minutes searching we settled on a clean miss. I should have sighted my rifle in after.
The next morning we happened upon another herd and I again got a shot at another cow and again shot over her back. I should have sighted my rifle after this. That night I shot over the back of a very nice mule deer and finally decided to sight in my rifle the next morning. Sure enough it was a foot high at 100 yards!! I was disgusted and very upset with myself for not checking this right away…
The next couple days were slow. We got into some more herds and Justin and I even stayed with one for a while but we were unsuccessful in finding a bull. We were starting to hit a lot of the same areas and seeing less and less signs of elk. After the rut, bulls that aren’t herd bulls typically break off into bachelor groups and go into the deepest, nastiest parts of the mountain where they will not be bothered and keep their movement in daylight down to a minimum. One thing I have always believed is “Good things come to those who are willing to work hard”. So I started to think about the hardest spot to reach on the mountain that we were hunting and decided I needed to get up on the BLM property on top and skirt the ridge.
On the fifth day after glassing and breakfast I wasn’t feeling good. 5 days of eating junk food, sausage and bacon wasn’t sitting well with me. I needed to get out in the fresh air and spend some time moving around and I decided it was time to head up to the top. My friend Cody offered to drop me off as close to the BLM land as he could so I loaded my pack and said “I’ll see you guys tonight” and off I went.
Once I got out of the truck I was blown away immediately by how steep the grade was in that area. Like I said I trained for this hunt, 9 miles running wasn’t an issue at all. But here I couldn’t take 10 steps without needing to catch my breath. Once I got about half way to the top I came across some mountain lion tracks and some very fresh dung feces as well. This put me on edge, the last thing I want to see me when I am bent over huffing and puffing is a mountain lion! I started paying really close attention to my surroundings.
About 10 minutes later I was heading up an open area and following a very heavy trail. This trail was under some great big ponderosas and was still soft and very quiet walking. I was looking ahead and I accidently kicked a root. That’s when it happened; I saw a very large elk stand up. Like every time I get really close and surprise an elk; they are behind a tree and I can’t tell if it’s a bull or cow. This elk was 20 yards from me broadside and its head was behind a 6ft thick tree base. So I am standing there with my rifle ready but not looking through the scope yet, talking to myself “come on, come on be a legal bull!” Finally he trots 5 yards forward to an opening so he can see what woke him from his nap. I instantly said, “He’s legal” I shot hitting him in the lungs but he kept going (as elk always do). I shot again through some brush and heard a crash moments later. Before even going up to the bull I got on my Rhino and put out my signal for the others so they could find me. Then the moment came where I got to go see my bull. I knew he was legal but I wasn’t sure how big he really was. Honestly I didn’t think he was that big when I shot him, but I was wrong. Yes compared to magazines and other areas he is not a monster but for the area we were hunting and the history we have at this place he was a trophy to me.
When I got to the bull I saw what the crashing was all about, he fell on the second shot and slid down about 20 yards and luckily got stopped by a tree. He was a lot bigger than I thought he was. I stroked the pelt with my bare hands and took in the smell that only an elk gives off. I said thank you and relived the moments prior to his death. After looking at him more I noticed he had some scars on his face and body. There is no doubt that he was once the king of this mountain but was on the downward slope these last couple years. He was an old bull and I am sure that his genes are running through the elk that still remain on that mountain. I called my wife, Amy, to tell her the good news. She was not as excited as I was; she was worried that I was going to get a shoulder mount. The next thing in order was radioing the guys and letting them know what all the fuss was about. I told them right away I had shot a 6×6 and they were on their way.
I started the process of field dressing the bull and prepping it for a pack out. My brother and Cody were radioing me to try and find out where I was. Justin said, “We are right by you according to the GPS but I don’t see you.” So I started whistling and within 5 minutes they were 5 yards from me (when he called he was 20 yards away but couldn’t see me because it was so steep).
Once everyone made it to the location of the bull we made short work of prepping and packing for the hike out. This is one of my favorite parts of elk hunting. I love packing out game (mostly when it’s my own though). To me it’s an essential part of the journey and the pain is just a reminder (for a few days anyways) of the success I’ve had.
This was an amazing trip and the elk from that trip was fuel for me to work even harder for the 2014 hunt. I started my training a week after I got home from Montana that year.
My plan for 2014 was to top the 2013 trip. I will write a post about that in the future!