Everybody has that one hunting spot that, regardless of how productive it has been, it’s just special. It’s your favorite place to hunt and you will stubbornly return nine times out of ten. It makes you happy! I had just a spot for elk. I knew it like the back of my hand and knew what to expect whenever I stepped foot there. But there’s no stopping progress and my little elk haven would not be spared of this fact. Some wise and knowing person deemed that it was time for this mountain to be logged. It likely had been several decades since the last plaid and suspender-clad axe and chainsaw men had plied their trade. This of course instantly changed the dynamics of the place and brought in many new hunters.
I noticed an increase of large hunting camps around the general area and this reeked of guiding outfits. I felt the need to find a new spot. I knew a wildlife biologist who worked for a local Indian tribe, and he told me about some of their property not too far from my house. “It’s always been a good property…would you like me to get you permission to hunt it?” he offered after he heard my story of woe. I’d never really hunted any sections of private property before, especially for elk. And this was lowland territory: a hundred or so acres of meadows, surrounded by mountain ridges and bordered by an alfalfa farm. When I first laid eyes on this new piece of ground, I really didn’t know what to think. It was a 180-degree departure from the type of country I was used to hunting, but I had high hopes. I was granted access a week or so before the season started, so I scouted around the property as much as I could. I found most of the sign around the perimeter and leading into the surrounding canyons and ridge systems. My instincts told me that any action would likely be happening off the property, but my friend seemed fairly confident that I’d have good luck there. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? I’d give it a shot.
After hunting hard for several days without finding anything remotely promising, I made a report to my biologist friend. My report seemed to perplex him, and once again he repeated “It’s always been a good property.” After giving it a rest for a couple of days, I decided to utilize his most recent advice, which was to focus on the south end of the property, so that’s where I started on the morning of my next hunt. There was a Forest Service road that bordered the Southeast boundary, so after driving a short way, I parked my truck and began to slowly head toward a corner of the property that had me speculating. It was misting rain and almost shooting light when I left the surface of the road and slipped into the timber bordering the meadow. It was immediately obvious that I’d chosen an incorrect course, because within ten minutes I was ankle deep in muck and slogging through marsh that reeked of skunk cabbage. “The elk probably love this,” I mused, trying to stay positive. Once I made dry ground, I decided to stop and listen for bugles and do some calling of my own. Silence. Not to be discouraged, I made my way across a section of cut alfalfa and headed for the base of the ridge on the opposite side. Once across and inside the timber, I found what I was looking for. Elk sign! Several well used trails and plenty of fresh sign. I found a great trail that worked its way up the steep mountainside and began my climb. The musky smell of elk hung in the air, but I had a feeling that the elk had likely crossed the meadow before daylight and were well ahead of me. I let out a few mews and chirps, hoping to hear an answering bugle. Still the same silence. I couldn’t take the silence and ripped off my own bugle, followed by a few more mews. Still silence. I took stock of the situation and came to the conclusion that this particular group of elk were long gone, but still…there could be a satellite bull or two just lurking, waiting for a chance at a hot cow. I decided that since the herd was likely far away, I’d take advantage of the atmosphere that the dark timber provided and shoot a few photos. While engaged with photography, I thought that I heard something startle down below me and take off running. I wanted to chalk it up as just “hearing things” but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had messed up. I decided to call it a morning and hike back to the truck.
I made the trek back across the meadows and into the timber that grew along the Forest Service road. Since I now had full daylight for optimal vision to play elk detective; I paused within sight of the road and was busy looking over a section that seem to hold a metric crap ton of elk sign. The sound of approaching footsteps jerked me out of my Sherlock Holmes persona and really had me wondering who it could be. A young man came into view and, assuming that he saw me too, I said “Hello there!” He appeared to be in his early twenties and something about him just told me that he was not in his natural element. My friendly greeting caught him in mid-stride, causing him to catch the lip of a pot hole. He caught himself before taking a nosedive, but water violently slogged from the buckets that he carried in each hand. He starred ahead, looking very alarmed and then looked over in my general direction. I realized that he did not see me, and that I likely had caused him to mess his britches, as well as lose half the water from the two buckets. I moved forward and climbed up the short embankment to the road and apologized for startling him. He told me that he was a writer for a magazine, and that he was renting a nearby cabin, living “off-grid like the early days” and writing about his experiences. We chatted for a few moments and he informed me that a few hours prior, he’d seen a “big male” elk that had come through this very spot, and had headed for the timber across the meadow. This made me pause for a moment and recall “hearing things” as I shot photos earlier. The timing would have been about right. I then knew that I had definitely screwed up.
Since I was soaked from both perspiration and the rain-soaked brush that I had been moving through all morning, I decided to make a short drive into the nearby community for a hot meal. By the time that I pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant it was pouring rain. I ordered chicken fried steak with all the fixings. The past week of hunting hard had worked up my appetite. Before I knew it, my plate was scraped clean and I had gone through two pots of coffee…while outside it was still raining heavily. I paid my bill and dashed to my truck. It was already two o’clock, which meant that the elk would be up and moving. My enthusiasm was quickly waning. I drug out the commute back to the property as long as possible, but the deluge was still on when I pulled into the driveway of the vacant ranch house.
I sat in my truck looking over a large chunk of the meadow through a foggy windshield, as rain continued to hammer the roof. I’d periodically start my truck to blast the defroster and take advantage of the seat heater to fight off the chill that had been working into my bones. I became very discouraged and contemplated just heading home. But of course, that would not fly, I knew that I’d regret the decision as soon as I pulled out of the driveway. The rain finally started to let up and I watched two whitetail does cross the field and disappear into a depression. I never saw them exit the far side, so figured that they had bedded down. What a better test of skill was there, than to stalk across hundreds of yards of open field and close with two whitetails? Before I knew it, I was out of the truck and halfway to the depression that hid the deer. I slowed my approach and took advantage of the wind gusts for moving forward, but I was soon to discover that what I had witnessed from a distance, really wasn’t what it appeared to be. There was no sign of the two deer, but I did find a small pond surrounded by chest high grass and a ditch leading away to the west. It made sense why the deer seemed to vanish. They simply had followed the ditch and headed into the tall vegetation that bordered the cut portion of the meadow. It dawned on me that this was one of the places where I had expected elk to appear just before dark and my timing couldn’t have been better. I had a steady crosswind from east to west, with the elk expected to appear from the south. Perfect indeed. I began a brief calling sequence, as I stood in the chest high grass.
Within about ten minutes, there I was again hearing things! I kept hearing something on the very far reaches of my ears’ capabilities, but nothing was appearing in the meadow where I expected action. The wind would vary in force, but was steadily blowing into my left ear. There it was again! “What IS that?!” I had just done a 360° scan of my surroundings that hadn’t unveiled anything of note, but had the urge to do so once more. Right before I was to look over my left shoulder, there it was…a faint bugle! I swung to the left and couldn’t believe my eyes: a 5×5 bull was within one hundred yards and closing fast!
I didn’t think that in a million years that I’d ever get a shot, given my present location, so decided to reach for my camera to snap a photo of the bull. But as soon as I moved, it got the bull’s attention and he made a beeline for me. There I was, standing in chest-high grass with a nice 5×5 bull standing a scant thirty-five yards away and just behind my right shoulder! I slowly set the camera down, grabbed my bow, nocked an arrow and pivoted toward the bull. I came to full draw, but didn’t like the sharp quartering-to angle that he was presenting. I let down and quickly considered my options. He still stood there, looking around quizzically, but even though he’d shifted his position slightly, I still didn’t like the shot angle. He was close enough for me to pick out individual hairs on his chest, so I started to feel confident that I could thread the needle and sneak the arrow in front of his shoulder and access the heart. I came to full draw again, but he’d had enough and trotted back in the direction he’d come from. I quickly grabbed my bugle tube and screamed a challenge at him. Instantly he hit the brakes and trotted back, but this time not coming as close. He paced back and forth in front of me, offering a nice broadside shot, but…man he seemed far away. Having no experience with taking shots in an open field, and nothing to help gauge the yardage, it presented a challenge! I quickly put the point of my broadhead on his elbow and raised to the level of his spine. Figuring that if my point-on was thirty-five yards, I should have no problem scoring a vital hit. The arrow was away on a beautiful trajectory and I was ready to watch it disappear into his side…only it suddenly dropped off and hit the dirt tent yards short. The arrow slamming into the cut alfalfa and making a sharp “CHINK!” as it impacted rocks was enough to send him off again. I screamed another challenge bugle and, to my delight, he wheeled and charged back a third time! But he would only come within around seventy yards and didn’t stay long. He hit high gear and I watched him traverse several hundred yards before he disappeared around a bend where the mountain met the meadow. I quickly grabbed my gear and gave chase, but I lost his trail in the timber when it became too dark to trail him further. Mesmerized by the encounter, I hiked back to my truck amidst the first few stars making their appearance. How different my attitude was only hours prior. I felt proud of myself for not giving up and could only wonder at what I would have missed by throwing in the towel and heading home early. I wouldn’t have even been the wiser, but I most definitely would have been the lesser.