The morning started out much like the first few of our eight day elk hunt high in Idaho’s back country. My partner Dave Stanley and I got up well before dawn, had breakfast, and then made plans for the day. We decided to hunt a long ridge about a mile west of camp where we had previously seen a herd of elk and noticed a fair bit of bear sign. After hobbling the horses and taking them off the picket line to graze, we set off for the day’s adventure. Little did we know what lay in store.
Early morning: The Bear
As we approached the ridge we planned to hunt, Dave suggested we split up, with him climbing higher on the ridge to look for mule deer while I worked lower near some gooseberry patches in hope of finding a bear. We decided to meet again toward the end of the ridge and glass for elk.
Easing along below a talus slope, I saw movement in some scraggly spruce 75 yards ahead. Working closer I could see a nice-sized black bear foraging in some berry bushes. The bear tag in my pocket was enough of an incentive to start a stalk.
Carefully moving forward with a breeze in my face, I got within 20 yards of the bear and was looking at a fine broadside shot. Before I could nock an arrow, I detected some commotion out of the corner of my eye. Carefully turning, I found myself looking at two cubs playing on a downed log.
I may not be the sharpest broadhead in the quiver, but I was smart enough to know I was in a bit of trouble. It was a sow with cubs; not legal to hunt, but the sow was fully capable of inflicting harm on anyone or anything she viewed as a threat to her cubs. Momma bear was close and baby bears were closer. How could I extricate myself without any of them noticing me?
I started to slowly back out the way I had come in when I heard a noise above me. I glanced up expecting to see a deer, but crossing high on the talus slope above me and the bears was my partner Dave, totally oblivious to the drama playing out below him. My situation seemed to have worsened. If Momma bear heard Dave and looked up or moved toward Dave, there was a good chance she would see me and would act appropriately, at least as far as she was concerned. It was a cool morning but I could feel the sweat trickling down my forehead.
Much to my good fortune, the sow continued feeding and showed no interest in anything else. I continued to ease back until I had some cover between me and the three bears. Now I started to breathe easier. I wasn’t out of the woods yet, so to speak, but had put some distance between myself and Momma bear. But now what to do? Should I move across the talus slope and risk alerting the sow to my presence or should I move lower on an open sagebrush hillside and get well below the bears before moving by them? I decided on the second strategy and headed down slope.
Unbeknownst to me, one of the cubs decided that same slope would make a great playground. I soon learned of the cub’s plan when it gave out a cry that sounded suspiciously like “mommmm”. No sooner did that cub start heading back up the hill when Mom started heading down. Within seconds the sow saw me and started to advance. I was now facing an unhappy sow bear with only a stickbow and sheath knife.
I nocked an arrow–more to give myself a false sense of security than any real protection. As the sow slowly advanced to within 40 yards, snapping her jaws as she moved forward, I took slow backward steps down the slope. The bear would take a few steps toward me, then glance back toward the cubs and I would ease back a few steps. We continued that dance for what seemed an eternity, but was probably only a minute or two.
Finally, one of the cubs bawled and the sow stopped. She glanced back toward her cubs, then back at me, and then turned and moved toward the cubs. I got out of there as quickly as I could and headed for the area where my partner and I planned to rendezvous. I got there before Dave, and I was still shaking when he arrived. Like any good hunting partner, he greeted my story with a broad grin and mumbled something about my lack of woodsmanship skills. He also denied making any noise at all as he moved across that talus slope. I figured I had enough excitement for one day, and hoped to do nothing more thrilling for the rest of the day than shoot a grouse. But, the fun was just beginning.
Mid-day: The First Elk
After a short rest, Dave suggested we again separate and each work along the edge of the ridge to where we had seen elk bedded the previous day. An elk was bugling somewhere in that direction, and I had lost all interest in hunting bears, so I readily agreed. Dave and I also had a long-standing arrangement that if we needed help or a brief meeting the signal would be two bugles, one quickly after the other. An hour or so later, I heard the signal and started in Dave’s direction. The next thing I knew, a spike elk is running by me. I sat down and waited, thinking more elk might be in the area. Nothing else showed so I continued working towards Dave, who had given our bugle signal again.
Finally, I found Dave and he waved me over. He explained that after leaving me he came upon a small bear and, knowing my approximate location, thought it would be great fun to chase that bear right back to me, so he bugled twice to get me moving toward him and the bear. While he was engaged in this evil venture, an elk answered his bugle so he gave up on the bear and set up for a shot on the bull. A short time later, he bugled that bull in and shot him.
I found Dave while he was waiting our standard 45 minutes for the elk to die. We had a snack, then went looking for Dave’s elk. We did not have to go far before we came upon his bull, a nice six-point. I helped Dave field dress his elk and then started toward another bull we could hear bugling over an adjacent ridge.
As I worked toward the bull, I reflected on the day’s adventures and concluded that we had a very exciting time and nothing else was likely to happen. Still, I went looking for that other bull with no clue that the excitement was far from over.
Late Afternoon: The Second Elk
As I moved over the next ridge, the bull bugled and I spotted him with a herd of cows on a low hill 100 yards away. Looking around, I found a large log and some shrubs that would provide great cover. I settled in and then gave a couple of cow calls. A few minutes later I saw a large shadow glide down the slope toward me. Soon the shadow materialized into a decent six point bull. He kept coming so I kept quiet.
The bull stopped broadside to me at less than 30 yards. A few seconds later a cedar shaft was on its way. The chartreuse fletching was easy to see, and I knew I made a good shot. The bull simply turned around and ambled back up the slope where I could see some cows bedded. I began the 45 minute wait.
A few minutes later, I sensed more than saw some commotion where the bull had gone. It was not possible to tell what was going on, so I continued my wait. Finally, I moved off to where I had shot the bull and found the blood trail. When I got to the top of the slope where the bull had appeared to lay down with the cows, there was no sign of any elk. However, the ground was dug up, indicating several elk had left in a hurry. The situation was puzzling.
After scouting around a bit, I realized there was a trail at the bottom of the far side of the hill. The bedded elk had a great view of that trail and I guessed that someone had come along the trail, spooking the elk. Regardless, I had a bull to find. It was easy enough to pick up the bull’s blood trail, so I followed it. Unfortunately, it was late in the day and I was losing light quickly.
Evening: Return to Camp
The light ran out and I had to give up on the trail until morning. At that point, I was a couple of miles from camp, and about 1,500 feet lower in elevation. We were camped at about 9500 feet in a hanging valley. By the time I reached the creek that fell from our valley it was dark. There was not much of a trail along the creek, but I had a good flashlight, or so I thought.
With flashlight in hand, blood stained pants from Dave’s elk, and memories of the sow and cubs, I began the long uphill trek. While taking my night time stroll, I planned the morning search for my bull, remembering also that we had to get Dave’s bull back to camp.
About half way back to camp, my flashlight started to flicker and fade. Within a few minutes I was out of light and it was a dark night, made even darker by dense stands of tall spruce and subalpine fir. Still, I could hear the creek to my right and had a pretty good idea of where I needed to go. Camp was at the base of some tall whitebark pines on a hill several hundred yards west of the creek; it was going to take a bit of searching to find my bedroll.
Finally, far in the distance I saw a pinprick of light. Great, now I had the direction and would soon get a bite to eat and some well-needed rest. I thought to myself that I had to thank my hunting partner for leaving a light on. I had taken no more than a couple of dozen steps toward the light when it disappeared. I moved left and I moved right, but no light. Still, I had a better sense of where camp was than I did a few minutes before.
Once I was in what appeared to be familiar terrain, some circling eventually resulted in camp being found; it was 10 pm. Inside our wall tent my partner was sound asleep and totally unconcerned about me being missing in action. Truth be told, my entrance to the tent was not exactly quiet. When Dave woke I asked him why he turned off the light; he muttered something about me sleeping in the woods. I replied that I had been looking for an arrow, and we let the conversation die for that night. Between the bears and bulls and a long, dark hike to camp I was plumb tired and couldn’t wait to crawl into the sack. Today was a day that I would be a long-time forgetting.
Dave and I searched for my elk the following morning, but with no success. The blood trail just seemed to peter out at the edge of a small ravine. It was warm and we did not want to risk losing Dave’s bull so we spent the rest of the day packing it back to camp.
Undeterred, I returned the next morning. I knew I had an elk down, but could not understand why it seemed to disappear. After going over that blood trail several times, and walking in ever-widening circles from the last drops of blood, I concluded that the elk went into the gulch and never came out. But the ravine was not that deep, and I could easily see all along the bottom. I had a real mystery on my hands. That’s when I started paying attention to a single heavy shrub in the bottom. I went down into the gulch and walked around the shrub. The first thing I noticed was a large rock just down the drainage from the shrub, and lying between the rock and shrub was the bull. I had walked all around the elk several times.
Final score for the hunt was two bulls and a hair-raising experience with an unhappy momma bear. Oh, and we shot a deer and some grouse on that trip too.
Equipment Note: On this hunt the author used a 55# Rasmussen Flatbow, cedar shafts, and 2-blade Magnus broadheads. Dave Stanley used a 60# Brackenberry Recurve, aluminum shafts, and 2-blade broadheads.