Although my eyes were still closed, and despite the fact that the moon kept the sky somewhat aglow through the night, I somehow knew that dawn was peeking into the sky. My mind instantly raced – it’s time to hunt!
I squirmed out of my sleeping bag, crawled out of the tent – making as much noise as I possibly could – hoping that my stirring would inspire Rudy and Phil to get going, too. We crunched our way around camp, breaking the heavy coating of frost that had formed over all the eye could see. Leaving the meadow, we began to gain elevation while the morning thermals dropped a slight breeze in our face.
We crossed a sloppy trail that was littered with a combination of elk tracks and horseshoe indentions; a sight that left us with mixed feelings. After gaining some ground we let out the first bugle of the morning. We listened carefully for a response that never happened, but after a short while we heard branches breaking. The sound of movement grew louder, then Rudy said in a stoic voice, “Hunter.”
The hunter, Wayne, approached and said, “You boys sure sounded good. You had me fooled!” Wayne had packed in to the mountain the day before we did, utilizing his rented horse and mule. Oddly enough, this roofer from Tennessee – who was donning tennis shoes, a 15-year-old bow, and mismatched arrows – had also flown over the area to “scout from the sky” before he packed in. Wayne was a good’ole Southern boy that loved to hunt elk on this mountain; something he had successfully done on 3 of his last 6 trips. (Wayne would be the only hunter that we would see while out hunting during the entire week.)
We wrapped up our visit with Wayne and began to gain more elevation using well-worn games trails to reach a destination that I had scouted ahead of time. At 10,600′ up the mountain we carefully approached a clearing on the steep face, and as we approached the edge I noticed fresh tracks and leaves that had been eaten off a bush. Peeking around the corner to scan the clearing, I spotted a large brown figure. My heart pumped faster, and my brain raced to prepare for the encounter. The excitement ended abruptly when I heard a loud, “MMMOOOOOOO”.
Cows at nearly 11,000′ up the mountain!? You’ve got to be kidding me! Although the tag in my pocket made it legal for me to shoot a “bull” or a “cow”, it was only good for the wapiti variety.
We pushed through the meadow – and the cows – making our way to the backside of a vast swatch of dark timber that fell off the side of the mountain, to a creek draw below. Snow covered the ground in the cool, dark spaces, and my hopes of getting into elk over the next couple of hours were high.
By lunchtime we had yet to cut a track, hear a bugle, or see much sign from recent days. We fueled up, studied maps, and made a plan to drop to lower elevation.
Sure enough, the lower we got, the more fresh sign we ran into – the droppings became fresher, the rubs still oozed fresh sap, and the tracks were still wet. Down, down, down – that’s where the sign was pointing.
We dropped just below camp, passed through the patchy aspen groves, and entered at chunk of steep dark timber. A game trail cut across the nearly vertical face, creating the only flat spot that a foot could find. Just 50 yards into the forest we found the fresh bed of a bull elk. Proceeding carefully, with the wind our favor, we soon heard some activity below us.
Rudy and Phil setup to call from above and behind me, and I tried to balance myself for a shot on the steep grade. Rudy’s calls, as good as they were, didn’t yield a bugle in response, but we still heard movement below. We remained in position, eagerly awaiting a bull that was coming in silent, but he never came. Did we push the bull away? Were we winded or spotted? Who knows? It was an exciting and tense series of events either way.
Heading east, with the wind in our face, we continued to skirt the mountainside along the same elevation. The ground evolved from thick forest, to aspens, to clips of oak brush, and then back again. We dropped into steep creek draws, scrambled up the other side, and kept pushing.
The evening didn’t yield any actual elk, but we found more sign – tons of it! – rubs, beds, droppings, game trails. You name it, we were on it. The sign was fresh, but much of it still pointed down the mountain. The lower we went, the better it looked.
A game plan for tomorrow was developed as we worked our way back up the mountain to this evening’s camp; in the morning we would pack up all of our gear and hunt with camp on our backs, working our way to a lower elevation. Once we found a good spot – and hopefully some elk – we would establish a new camp.
“Elk are where you find them, ” was the advice of many that counseled me on this trip, “and to kill them you have to be where they are.” That sounds simple, but unless you understand the magnitude of elk country, it’s not as easy as you might think. Thus, we were heading where the signs were leading.
Back at camp for the night, we visited “the dining room” – the base of a tree where we ate, then hung our food – keeping the scent away from our tents. Rudy checked the weather forecast on his phone, “It looks windy of the next two days. Really windy.”
“I think we’ll be alright, ” I responded. We headed to the tents, and before we could fall asleep, it began.
“WSHOOOSHHHH…” Wind, and a lot of it.
Lesson of the Day
Adapt. I put a lot of hope in the higher spots I scouted on this mountain. I didn’t expect elk to be really high this time of year, but from the research I had done of the area, I mainly focused on 9,500-10,500′. The snow that we encountered wasn’t deep, and I didn’t think it would affect the elk too much, but Rudy told me that the storm came through with intensity – winds, sideways rain, then blowing snow. Maybe that storm pushed them down after all?
I could have been stubborn, insisting that the “honey holes” I found would produce, but I had to adapt to the conditions and sign that was in front of me. Pre-season scouting is good, but you have to scout as you hunt and follow the signs that you’re given – even if it means you’re abandoning your plans and heading to a new area of the mountain.
Gear of the Day
From the cold of the first night, to the 50+ mph winds that were to come on this trip, the Mountainsmith Mountain Shelter LT was great. My buddy Phil and I – both of us over 6′ 3″, and over 200lbs – fit in the shelter just fine. For just 2lbs, and only a bit over $100, it’s a value that’s hard to beat. Look for a full review coming soon.