At 3 am. on September fifth, my headlights shone onto the door of the house. I was running on adrenalin and redbull, my 4Runner on fumes of gas as I rolled to a stop in the driveway. I was returning from a trip in the the Idaho backcountry with a few new memoirs- most noticeably a beauty of an archery mule deer, cooling off in the Yeti, and a few new friends.
The next week was a blur. By day, I struggled to stay awake and focused at work, and at night, I processed meat, and cleaned, repaired and checked gear. I was repacking for another 6 day hunt the following week and time was scarce.
By the end of the week, there hadn’t been much time for ‘recharging the batteries,’ and I had yet to determine where I was going to start my hunt. I had to finish processing, packing and pushing off work to load up and drive another 6 hours in exactly one day.
Although I had 4 years of resident experience in Montana, I had never hunted the area that I drew a tag in. I was starting from scratch with zero experience with the elk behavior and movements in a new area. To top it off I had just moved further away from the zone- six hours to be exact and scouting how I wanted to would prove to be an obstacle.
My summer scouting consisted of one overnight sprint trip to what looked like a basin that would hold summering bulls. The drive back home left me scratching my head as well as the rest of my body from horse fly and mosquito bites. No elk, literally nothing - except for mountain goats that is.
I’ve always felt that scouting should be time spent on an escarpment, with a sharp eye behind quality glass, however with the restriction on time I would have to adapt to new ways of scouting. Google earth and OnXmaps proved helpful for identifying access, glassing points and game trails. The trouble was how would I know it was terrain that the elk would be in come September 15th. Starting a hunt with a shot in the dark is nerve wracking and I was walking full speed into it.
As the rest of my summer free time disappeared without warning, I felt the uneasy tension of a difficult six day hunt growing with every day. My ideal - a relaxed backcountry elk rut hunt - was looking more likely to be a rough, fast and grueling pursuit. I was sure to be physically and mentally destroyed.
Dumping the tag altogether began to look like a most attractive option. Afterall, I had spent years learning the ways of 350+ bulls in particular ranges with encounters too close to forget. In the end, adventure won out, I would surely regret passing an opportunity to archery hunt new county, despite the totally unfamiliar, relentlessly steep mixed alpine terrain.
We arrived at the trailhead to heavy clouds looming overhead, a four-hour and 3,200-foot ascent into a secluded alpine basin for camp. Twenty minutes into the hike, a downpour began. Three hours later, in the dark and on a windy ridgeline, the cold and sopping sleet turned to huge flakes of snow. The trail disappeared as we navigated through cliff bands and scree with nearly zero visibility. I couldn’t help but wonder if this weather would drown the fire of the bulls’ rut craze.
We finally crawled into our tent and sleeping bags at 2 a.m. and when I woke up to the alarm a few hours later, the mountains were still socked in and well within the grasp of the storm. We slept in, occasionally shaking the snow load off of the ultralight tent we were sharing.
As soon as the snow stopped we started a fire to dry out our soaked clothes and made an effort to hunt. Our effort was a walk with increasing angst- a quick reconnaissance loop searching for evidence of elk using the area. After a 5 mile loop down drainage we found zero fresh elk sign. My worst nightmare was quickly coming true, scuffs in the snow were that of bears, and not the friendly type.
Returning to the tent, I felt like I had chosen to walk into a brick wall of stupidity. I chose this area because of its remoteness - and a bull I had seen half a decade ago. Now it seemed this was a basin void of elk and changing drainages was a serious move. Then, the storm started up again, distracting us from our findings, we hunkered down again for the night.
The next day the weather began to break, and we took off light and fast in a last ditch effort to locate anything elk related. Due to the rise in temp and our drop in elevation, the forest was now alive with sound and the ground was sturdy and silent, a vast improvement from the previous day. After cutting a single bull track, we ended up bumping a small herd of elk from a well traveled avalanche chute. We had finally found life and a tiny shimmer of hope began to flicker.
I waited with no shot while the tail end of the herd filtered out of the opening. Not a single elk verbalization in three days, and it was September 15. Something was odd. A beam of light cracked through the clouds as the storm moved swiftly by. With it, a seam opened up just long enough to see the adjacent hillside about a half mile away and I threw the spotting scope on it. I instantly picked up the glow of a big bull….the clouds socked back in...then they broke away 10 minutes later. He was a straight six with width, mass and tine length that emulated the apex of his species. Pitch blackened antler- and solo in an avalanche chute- the perfect place to stalk a quiet elk. I shifted over so Dan could see and our anxiety instantly vanished as we high-fived in celebration of finding a good bull. Finally,we were hunting.
With only about 4 steps around the scree edge, Dan screeched ‘ELK!’ Looking down through the scree field, there were two bedded mature bulls. We shrunk back into the hillside of rock. Suddenly Dan’s hunt began and mine went on pause. We were just outside of my special unit, and Dan was in the hot seat. Two golden figures became three as another 6 point bull joined them. I couldn’t believe it, no cows! Soon we were about 80 yards away and I dialed my sight in just in case. I turned to Dan and nodded; time to finish the stalk to 40 yards and make the shot.
I scooted my rear on the hillside to let Dan by and instantly dislodged a golf ball sized rock down the hill and it sputtered to a halt on a chunk of fescue. I glanced back at Dan with a look of ‘don’t do what I just did’ and heard a hoof clank on the scale of rock. Spinning back around, I saw a rag horned bull jump out of the scrub pines about 15 yards away. I was sure we were busted as the rest of the bachelor herd appeared in the opening. 8- six point bulls and a raghorn. I was blocking Dan’s shot, so I made a quick judgement. 37 yds, 54 yds, 42 yds, 28 degree angle, 22 degree angle. My biocalculator was spitting random numbers at me. At the last moment before the vitals passed behind a pine it read…. 44 yds and the arrow was on its way. Like a Top Gun missile lock, my pin settled onto the lungs of the bull and as the arrow fell, I waited to see the impact. TWACK! High lungs and a little back.
Relief from executing an ethical shot flooded my body as the bull turned to run with arrow and blood poking out both sides of the rich tan canvas. The elk trotted out of the meadow just as quickly as they appeared. Realizing a team success, we high-fived. With rain-soaked ground, we picked up the blood trail quickly, easily picking through the meadow step by step. Blood….. Blood…. blood here.. skid track...blood.
As we entered the timber it became more difficult, we slowed. I lost track and blood, right when it was supposed to get easier, it all disappeared. I looked at Dan, dumbfounded with my hand in the air and panned around to see a single red fletching- my arrow. I reached over the downed log and picked it up. Falling a few steps backwards, I realized the bull was camouflaged by the tree right in front of me. High fives ensued. In surreal fortitude, I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be, in tune with all the things and emotions that nature could offer.
Dan took off to retrieve our hauling packs that we had left at the tent. Only four hours earlier we were convinced not a single elk existed in this basin. Now, eight miles from the truck we realized the severity of our pack-out. Only two minutes after Dan departed, another six-point bull- the biggest of the group- was walking by at 10 yards. From zero to one-hundred in only a moment. Thankfully, Dan was gone by the time the bull walked by- two elk this deep would be a burden-especially with the bear activity.
Just like that, my curse of the 5 point bull was over. For the last 9 years, I jokingly complained about only harvesting 5x5’s, 5x6’s, 5x7’s but never getting both sides above six tines. And although he wasn’t the bull I had envisioned, I felt grateful to have such a rich experience. I never assumed that reaching a goal would be so insignificant. The bull, the experience, the camaraderie with a great friend far outweighed a mere point tally.
Shuttling upwards 2k vert to camp, then up another 800 to the summit and down 3200 was grueling. I thought back to all of the hours accumulating vertical feet on runs and hikes. The painful mornings of trail running up and down the Tetons, and now the snow and sleet resumed in their good natured way- ignorant of human emotions.
A day later, with buttered backstrap and a glass of whiskey in hand, I knew the story the mountain was trying to tell, and it was a story I would be sure to hear again.