ekspləˈrāSHən: the action of traveling in or through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it.
We leave the tent at 6 AM and work our way along a horse trail that leads to the north. The plan was to setup and try to catch elk moving from feed to bed, but the winds are polluting what looks to be the best travel corridors.
We decide to circle around and drop into the timber. Now our plan is to work our way up into the falling thermals, eventually cresting the ridge and scouting a meadow for sign. Along the way we do some calling and get a response from a pair of cows that work our way, but skirt out of range.
At the meadow we bump into some muzzleloader hunters that saw the cows. They tell us what direction the cows were headed, which is nice – but more than that, we want to hear where the hunters are going. Unfortunately, their plan for the day was the same as ours – keep working up the ridge.
We drop off the west side of the meadow, which falls sharply to a creek drainage. The opposing face looks like ideal elk habitat, and I begin to glass for sign. Jerud quickly reminds me how much further away it is, despite what it looks like through my binos, and how difficult it would be to pack an elk out of there. He’s right, but I can’t help but look for a few minutes.
Staying on the eastern slope, we side-hill to the north, cutting several active game trails along the way, and occasionally stopping to call. On our third set, a cow begins responding to Jerud immediately. I work forward to close the gap and put the wind in my favor. Jerud’s “lost cow” sounds appear to tug at the elk, pulling it closer and closer.
The sounds of an approach begin from my left and are swinging toward the front of my position. I do my best to scan through the standing Spruce, deadfall, and maze of other natural obstruction – the whole time hearing sticks softly breaking and occasional mews in response to Jerud’s calls.
The sounds that were coming near have now stopped. I can picture the cow – not far off, standing guard, making the final, fateful decision to come closer – or not.
I spot movement on the other side of a thicket that lies 30 yards head. My heart jumps, then sinks. Blaze orange.
“Hunter,” I say in a stern voice, alerting Jerud to the situation, and the muzzleloader to my camouflaged presence.
“Did we call you in?” I ask.
“Ya’ll sounded good, but, no,” he says. “I was trailing a couple of cows by a ways. You boys were bringing them in, but they just skirted to the side and caught your wind.”
We called in more than another hunter, so at least the excitement of the preceding moments was validated.
After exchanging pleasantries and brief stories, the other hunter works up the ridge, towards the meadow from which we came. We continue to side-hill to the northeast; planning to make a giant loop through the afternoon, before working our way back up the mountain towards camp for the evening.
Our calls go unanswered for the next hour, but we are finding fresher and more plentiful sign with every step, including some wallows. After a slope-side lunch and a quick nap in the cool of the dark timber, we continue the hunt and find an isolated water source that had been getting some traffic. We setup for a calling sequence here, but there’s no response.
We travel another 100 yards or so and enter a small clearing. Jerud steps past a tall pine, and the sound of thunder instantly erupts from our left. A bedded bull had spotted Jerud’s movement and bolted. Jerud’s instincts take over as he quickly drops to his knees and lets out a couple of cow calls. The bull stops and looks back towards Jerud’s direction for a moment, then casually walks away.
We can hear the bull walking; he hasn’t gone far. Jerud continues his calling as I drop back – knowing that if the bull is going reproach the area, it will with the wind in his favor. Elk are smart and deceivingly fast. The bull out-maneuvers my play – circling downwind of both of Jerud and I – catching our scent, then disappearing for good.
Jerud, who got a pretty good look at the bull, says, “He was well more than just legal.” It’s always disappointing to blow an animal out of their element, but I can’t help feeling excited after having our first encounter with a bull on this trip.
For the evening hunt, Jerud and I sit on different parts of a meadow that include some good game trails, but nothing shows. Just before dark we hear a distant bugle, followed by the blast of a muzzleloader.
At least someone is having luck. I wonder if we will get our turn.
Now back at camp, feeling the comfort of a fully belly and the warmth of a down sleeping bag, I fall asleep while analyzing today’s hunt. Our exploration has put us on fresh sign and given us a couple of encounters, but it is going to be tough to fill a tag if we keep running into this many hunters, and if the elk remain this quiet.
Jerud and I decide to wake up early tomorrow, get back on the same horse trail, but use it to quickly hike much further to the north. We will drop to a creek bottom at 8,300’, and work our way back throughout the day. Hopefully, by staying away from the meadows and main corridors where we’ve encountered hunters, we will find elk that are seeking solitude and security.
If that doesn’t work, we are going to need to rethink our strategy altogether.