feature By: Randy Burtis | March, 19
Their vocalizations filled the air. Sparse alpine trees provided cover for the elk and me. The herd bull was just out of sight, but its bellowing gave the bull away. My legs were burning from the hurried trek across the canyon. A descent of 1,100 feet, followed by an immediate gain of 1,300 feet, put me in the perfect position. I knew I was playing a risky waiting game. The closest elk were mere feet away. It was only a matter of time before an elk spotted me, or worse, winded me.
Some hunters would say success in the field is a matter of luck, but it’s more a matter of persistence. That fall, every fiber of my being was put to the test. My mental state was frayed and frazzled. My physical capabilities were pushed to the limit. Elk hunting is unforgiving. Every success is earned with dedication, blood, sweat and tears. The elk woods are the place where your dedication determines your outcome.
It had been five years since I was able to hunt this area. We all hear about the “dream tags” or the “tag of a lifetime.” That is not exactly what this was, but to me it was music to my soul like nothing else can be.
I have been asked many times what is the best day for hunting elk. If I knew the answer, I would be a wealthy man. Though, as a hunter who likes to shadow elk and stalk them rather than calling, I do have thoughts on the subject. As bulls gather cows they are not only adding to their harem, they are adding security. Typically, as the rut goes on, the herd grows larger, but having fewer noses and eyes to contend with is my style of hunting. This hunt was planned for September 9 through 20. In years past, those dates have proven very opportunistic. However, 2018 did not prove to be a normal year.
The hunting area is high-country wilderness with elevations varying from 8,300 to 10,200 feet. Every hunt starts months before the opener by studying maps and researching weather. With the tools available, this preparation is valuable, and information is easy to gain. I go a bit against the grain when it comes to scouting as it relates to finding elk; I do very little of it. They move so much in most cases that a hunter has to evaluate their distribution when he shows up to hunt anyway. If it’s a new area for me, I scout terrain, trails and water before the season begins.
There is something special about pulling into hunting camp each year, miles from cellphone service with only my feet to carry me into the backcountry. A hunter’s pack is loaded with survival gear, clothing for the conditions, water and filter, GPS, knives, camera and, for the ever-optimistic, game bags. The day I rolled in, the weather was perfect. Before even setting up my bed, I strapped on my pack, grabbed my bow and set out for the hills. I had a burning need to hear an elk bugle and see a bull tend its herd. Less than a half mile from camp I glassed a bull in the head of a long valley. Feeling fresh, my pace quickened to nearly a run. Working through heavy timber and up rocky ridges, I made my way to it. I soon found the bull and its cows feeding out into an open bowl with no cover, and no chance of getting close. My hope for the next two weeks was sky high, but I was about to learn how that hope was misplaced.
The next day I loaded up for a whole day of hunting. I started out for one of my “honey holes” located more than five miles from camp. Something was different – every herd was in a place that made them nearly impossible to stalk. I was finding elk in places where they were seldom known to frequent. Conversely, I was not finding any elk in the terrain or cover where I was used to seeing them. Additionally, everything was silent. As the sunset and shooting light faded, I made the long walk to camp, my mind busy in contemplation. In 20 miles of hiking I learned that something was odd. But what was it?
It’s not uncommon to have quiet days near the beginning of the season, so I didn’t think much of it. As the days went on and miles stacked up, though, I was becoming concerned. Not only did the elk spend a lot of time very high, they also seemed to be hypersensitive to noise and movement. On the fifth day while crossing a small creek, there in the mud was the evidence that tied all the strange things together – wolf tracks. This was not an area known to have wolves regularly, though rumors of unsubstantiated sightings did occur from time to time. It was time to adapt in the same way the elk had adapted to this new environment.
Over the next few days I had one close call after another but was never able to close the deal. Though not one to ever back down, my body was reminding me how big the country was, and how I was out of shape. On the afternoon of the seventh day, while filtering water into a bladder, a bull bugled a short distance away. The wind was not ideal, so I made a long loop-stalk toward it. Everything seemed to be so easy. If I had ever made a perfect stalk in my life, this was it. My predictions of the wind and where the elk would be were exact. I was able to move in smoothly and quickly. In 20 minutes, I found myself 45 yards from 10 cows and calves. It was only a matter of time before the bull showed itself. One thing about a rutting wapiti is the odor, and I could smell this bull directly upwind. Sure enough, a huge 6x7 stepped out 42 yards away and was getting closer.
My heart raced as I drew my bow. I settled in as it walked left to right. When it stopped, I released the arrow. However, something was wrong. I missed my mark. I failed to consider how hard the wind was blowing in the open. The huge bull left unscathed. I had just messed up maybe the best stalk I had ever made because I didn’t consider all the factors. I was sickened.
The next day brought 40-mph winds. Any elk hunter will tell you this is a double-edged sword. It not only covers your sound in the dry and crunchy forest, it also eliminates almost any chance of hearing an elk bugle. There is one place I know that almost always holds elk when the wind is blowing hard. I waited until midday and slowly worked my way into a small box canyon. My instinct was correct. There was a herd bedded in the bottom, sheltered from the elements. I worked my way into 40 yards from the farthest elk, yet there was no shot at the bull. It was bedded deep inside deadfall. I spent the next four hours within 50 yards of 21 cows and calves, and one good bull. There is no substitute for time spent with elk for a hunter’s education. So much can be learned when we choose to see it. I drew my bow seven times and never loosed an arrow. Yet it was one of the best days afield I have ever had. Inevitably, as evening fell the heavy, cool air changed the winds, and my location was no longer a secret.
A great thing about hunting in Wyoming’s general-season areas is you can also carry a deer tag. On the second to the last day of my hunt, I glassed a 4x4 mule deer in a large burn. Its position seemed almost perfect for a stalk up through the rocks and fallen timber. The old mountain buck stepped into view 22 yards away. At full draw, I settled in and made a perfect shot. It was down in 40 yards, I was ecstatic, and my confidence was restored.
With my confidence high from the hunt the night before and my time in the woods winding down, I headed out for one final elk hunt. My good friend Ramie was along for the day. This guy has more titanium in him than a space shuttle, and he can still put on the miles needed to hunt hard in the backcountry. I normally hunt alone, but it’s always a pleasure to have a good friend along. We spent most of the day covering country and glassing, and eventually made our way to a vantage point I call “the rock pile.” By the time we got there we were both beat; Ramie laid on his pack in the sun for a snooze while I spent the next two hours with my Leica’s glued to my eyes. No matter how hard I tried, I could not turn any of the rocks or trees into elk. Ramie awoke from his slumber, stumbled over to the edge, picked up his binocular and immediately found elk straight across the canyon from us. With only two hours before dark, Ramie explained he could not make it, but urged me to give it one last try before I had to leave.
The task of getting there was not easy. When elk hunting, the wind is always the final determining factor if you will get there. In this case, that meant losing 1,100 feet in elevation only to gain it all back plus 200. My body had been through just about all it could take, but it was time to dig deep. With burning muscles, I soon found myself making the final approach. Surrounded by the sounds of the rut, I was finally among the herd. Elk vocalizations filled the air. Sparse alpine trees provided cover. With the herd bull just out of sight and my legs still on fire from the hurried trek across the canyon, I stood waiting. I knew I was playing a risky waiting game with the closest elk mere feet away, and it was only a matter of time before an elk saw me or winded me. I stood fast, hoping to get a chance at the herd bull.
Just as the herd bull started to close in, I saw a cow feeding around a tree only 10 feet away; It was my now or never moment. That cow was going to blow the whole thing if I didn’t make a quick choice. A quick glance revealed a raghorn at 45 yards – it was my best opportunity. Drawing ever so carefully so I didn’t get busted, I quickly glanced around, and everything was calm. Settling in with a deep breath, I made a great shot. The bull ran out to 125 yards and stood. A quick evaluation through the binocular revealed it was hit well. Even though the shot was good, I have always been a firm believer in a follow-up shot every time an elk hunter has the chance. Using the cover available, I moved into shooting distance and made a good follow-up shot. The elk went down just out of sight.
There I sat with my hands on the hardest-earned bull of my hunting career. Though it was the smallest bull of my hunting career, my joy was no less significant. The gratefulness was there, and is still there today, overflowing. It’s been said that the work begins once the animal is down. For me this is welcome work. It took an hour and 20 minutes to quarter and bone out the bull. With my pack loaded heavily with elk meat, I started back to camp. The next morning five of us packed out the remainder.
There is always something to be learned if an elk hunter is willing to recognize it. This hunt was tough lesson, and I can only hope I was a good and faithful student.