You’ve heard it likely thousands of times throughout your life: “The early bird gets the worm.” I suppose that it’s true; especially with elk hunting. I recall one September, being frustrated that “my mountain” suddenly hosted triple the amount of pickup trucks, and therefor triple the amount of competing bowhunters. Opening day found me running behind schedule and arriving at my favorite gate only minutes before daylight and yes, you guessed it…a pickup truck was already parked where I should be. Exasperated I hammered the accelerator, climbing further up the mountain and finding that EVERY likely place already held a truck parked nearby.
Checking the likely places and talking elk.
The rest of that morning found me a few miles away and inevitably calling in a group of hunters that were convinced that I was a herd of elk. We’ll leave that story for another time, but needless to say, I held the conviction to get an earlier start from then on out. I hunted another area for the next couple of days to give my favorite spot a rest. The following Friday, I hustled after work to get up on the mountain in time to make camp, ensuring that I’d be on time the next morning. I decided to make use of a warming hut that was located on the opposite side of the mountain. I had stayed there before, but always anguished over having to get up extra early to pack up all of my gear before I vacated for the day. This time I just figured that I’d forgo setting up my cot and just crash on the floor, keeping things as simple as possible. But, after an all-night battle with a pack rat, I managed to sleep through the loud chiming of my 4:00 a.m. wake up call.
A little over an hour later, my eyes cracked open and my sleep-deprived brain was alert enough to notice the grey light creeping through the only window of the structure. Expletives flew as I violently sprung from my bedding. With reckless abandon I swept up my sleeping bag, simultaneously deflating my sleeping pad, wrapping both into one lump to be hurled into the backseat of my truck. I didn’t even bother to tie my bootlaces before I leapt into the truck cab and began careening down the narrow, treacherous road that led around the mountain to my destination. As I closed in on the area that I’d come to love so much, I spotted a truck parked at one access point situated above the area that I’d be hiking into. My stomach sank, taking this as an omen of things to come. As I got within the last quarter of a mile, I noticed brake lights off to the right, indicating a truck parked at the last gate that led into an area on the opposite side of where I’d be going. My stomach sunk further; fully expecting the next gate to be occupied as well. Cab lights turned on as I passed, which allowed me to catch a glimpse of the two hunters inside. My stomach was a mess of knots as I made the last switchback. It was very close to shooting light, so I just knew that I’d be out of luck once again. I almost could not believe my eyes: no dark blue Dodge at the gate! “YES!” I gingerly pulled in and shut off the truck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you…” I murmured to myself, getting my gear together as quickly and quietly as possible.
Since it was light enough to legally shoot, I went ahead and let out a cow call and a quick bugle to get the party started. I immediately received an answering bugle, and it sounded like it came from where the duo of hunters had been parked, a bit farther back down the road, and above my location. “How stupid can you be?! I only drove by them a few minutes ago, and they HAD to hear me pull in…” I thought to myself. Frustrated, I hustled on, determined to quickly get to a spot that I had dubbed “The Island”. Usually, I’d hike in about a quarter of a mile before sounding the first calls, and then would stop to listen every few hundred yards before calling again and moving on. This morning had me in a hurry. Every time that I’d let out calls of any sort, the hunters would immediately bugle back at me. I was determined to get far enough in that I’d be out of range of their calls and actually get a chance to interact with some live elk. I had made it about a half of a mile before I decided to stop for a pee break. I absent mindedly let out a cow chirp while I finished relieving myself. I started to chirp once more, as I zipped my fly…but I was interrupted by a loud bugle, and close! “What in THE heck?!” Not only was I completely exasperated that the dull-brained hunters had kept incessantly answering my calls, but they actually had followed me?! I turned to continue on and for a minute, thought that I had lost my mind. There, standing in the road, not over sixty-five yards away, was a six-point bull. The bull had his head down seeming to be feeding on the grass along the road, or maybe he was sniffing for a hot cow…I don’t know. I don’t know because at that point I was turning inside out. My instincts told me to just take a knee right there and wait for things to unfold. But my mind ran away on details that were likely not even in the realm of being important. The complete absence of any cover made me feel naked and vulnerable. I came up with the lame-brained idea of getting as low as I could, and scurrying to the nearest alder that was about fifty yards behind me.
Sometimes you just have to pause and remember that it’s the simple things that make the hunt.
The last that I saw of the bull, was an over the shoulder glimpse of his wide rack as I executed my weak plan of duck and cover. As soon as I made the patch of alders, I spun around and readied an arrow…but the bull was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t believe that I’d managed to bungle up this opportunity. In the steep and thick country where I hunt, often a successful season is counted by one solid encounter like this one. I had been wound so tightly and had let the presence of competing hunters cloud my judgement. Not only that, but I had let myself forget that the real reason why I loved the hunt so much, was to let the worries and drama of the secular world go. This was done by joining the circle, engrossing oneself in the chase, and seeking the source. Live and learn, as they say. All I could do was laugh things off, chalk it up as a lesson learned and finally get my head back where it needed to be.