feature By: Jason Books | September, 18
The afternoon breeze blew steadily into our faces as we slowly made our way down to a bench where the elk were bedded. Thermal winds kept our scent away, and my hunting companion for the day, Russ McClellan, turned toward me with a look of excitement. The elk were content in the shade of the trees after feeding all morning on an exposed grassy slope. Soon they would be within rifle range, and with any luck the work of packing the bulls back to camp four miles away would begin.
The hunt began a few months earlier when Russ contacted me about his return to my annual elk and deer hunt in Idaho. Growing up in the same small town and knowing each other since we shared a ride to school on the same bus, our lives ended up hundreds of miles apart. With my father being well known in town as “the hunter,” Russ had asked about where we hunted in Idaho shortly after his return from college, and he soon joined the deer camp festivities. He knew I had turned to chasing elk a few years before in our same fly-in camp and found success a few times. Russ called one day and asked if he should buy an elk tag.
Elk have come back in good numbers since their decline after the reintroduction of wolves in 1995. In those 22 years, prey animals had learned to stay low and near the river where camps were strewn about, as predators kept away from mankind. But the winter of 2016-17 took a toll on the mule deer, with nearly all of the mature bucks and young fawns succumbing to extremely cold temperatures in March. During a six-week period, animals low on fat reserves would eat alder saplings, pine bark and dried sage; not nearly enough calories to sustain life. But the elk, with their long legs and large hooves, could dig through the snow and reach grasses. Thick hides allowed them to stand on wind-swept slopes and browse on the exposed vegetation. Deer suffered, but the elk did not.
It was a simple answer I gave Russ: Absolutely he needed to buy an elk tag, and I followed up our conversation with, “Don’t expect much for the mule deer this year but be ready to pack an elk back to camp.” Little did we know… McClellan arrived a few days before our group did. He brought his soon-to-be son-in-law along for the wilderness hunt. Once camp was made we sat around the campfire, and I asked if he bought an elk tag. Looking across the fire that illuminated Russ’ face, he smiled and then said, “I bought two.” After August 1, Idaho offers leftover nonresident tags for purchase as a second opportunity. His plan was to buy a leftover deer tag, but those sold out the week prior to the trip. Instead, he bought a second elk tag – one for the early season that ran from October 1 through 31, and the second for the late season that started November 1 and ended November 18.
Idaho is one of the rare western states that offers an over-the-counter elk tag for both residents and nonresidents. Unlike Montana, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and other states that are “draw only” for nonresidents, you can hunt every year in Idaho without worry. The state is also home to the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness that is home to a healthy elk population. Unlike Wyoming, where a nonresident must hire a licensed outfitter to hunt in wilderness areas, Idaho allows anyone to partake in a “do-it-yourself” adventure.
The following morning after our campfire social hour, I decided to head up to an old lookout. Elk liked the mountain it sat on because the front side faced south and was full of grass and feed. The north-facing backside was very cold where the frost stayed on the ground all day long. Water was located down a long slope, and just below a saddle was a natural spring. Here the elk would lounge all summer and fall. Wolves would move through, but a quick getaway was easy as the wapiti would run down the ridges and across blowdowns left from a fire that burned a decade ago. Wolves have a hard time jumping logs that elk easily step over. This was their home, and I planned on being in their dining room before the sun came.
Modern technologies have helped hunters, especially interactive maps and GPS units. But it has also made us rely on them and too often make a simple mistake that can ruin a day’s hunt. I climbed in the dark up the ridge that led to the spring. Making my way up until I hit a pinnacle of rocks, it was then that I knew something was wrong. Turning on the GPS, it confirmed that the ridge was one draw away from the one I needed to be on. It was my fault as I had looked at the GPS about a mile before the climb began and noticed that the batteries were low. Instead of taking the time to pull new ones out of my pack, I simply looked at the digital map on the bright screen and figured I knew where I was and turned off the GPS to save power.
As the sun started to rise, I looked across the draw to the slope I planned on arriving at when the sky began to lighten. Elk covered the hillside – at least three legal bulls and two or three dozen cows. Now my GPS was telling me I made a five-mile mistake as the ridge led away from the elk. Knowing they would feed up and over the ridge right past the old lookout, the winter-coated bulls would bed down in the shade of the north-facing slope. Climbing up to the ridgeline and making my way to the lookout, I arrived around noon. Five hours passed since I first saw the elk, and now they were nowhere in sight.
The old lookout still had glass windows, and a pack rat had made a nest from grass in a wood crate brought up years ago by packhorse. These lookouts are sprinkled all across the wilderness peaks, providing vantage points like no other. A tattered map on the wall allowed me to figure out where the distant mountains were, and how far it was to Boise that was toward the southwest. Scarred hillsides revealed where recent fires had burned, and if you knew that young fir trees are a brighter green than the older and mature trees, then you could easily see where other forest fires had burned. The view was impressive, but it was a bull elk that I wanted to see most. Staying until nearly dark in hopes that the elk would return to feed as the sun went down, I pulled my headlamp out of my pack and headed back to camp.
I found myself once again sitting at Russ’ campfire. We shared our findings of the day, and it was my father, at 70 years of age, who found the elk for us. He took his rifle and a daypack with a ham sandwich and an apple – there was always an apple in his pack – and walked four miles upriver on the pack trail. As he crossed a creek on one of the many wooden bridges built by volunteer groups and trail maintenance crews, he looked to the far mountain. In his words: “The whole damn hillside was full of elk!” There were five legal bulls he could see, and he watched them until the elk fed to a long bench and settled down in the midday sun in a small patch of timber. No hunters came along the trail, and he told us about the elk as we sat around the fire making plans for the next day.
Russ and I hit the trail two hours before daylight. We knew that it would not take that long to hike the four miles that were flat and followed the river, but we wanted other hunters to see our headlamps and be discouraged, and maybe head in another direction. Making our way to the pack bridge, Russ and I began talking how life, like an elk hunt, never turns out the way we plan.
The small town we grew up in is located in a valley where apple orchards cover the hillsides. A large lake fills the valley, and during the summer tourism flourishes. Hunting and fishing were mere steps away, and you could leave your door unlocked without worry. Russ returned home and started to sell real estate, but the market, apple industry and economic recession hit hard. He had big business plans with a degree in marketing and finance, but a tourist town and a flailing apple industry made for some very lean years. I found myself moving away from the valley I love so much to find work in a big city. Instead of quail hunting in my backyard or deer hunting in the hills above the high school, I stood among concrete skyscrapers, and hiking meant the elevator was broken.
Now, with the morning chill starting to freeze the sweat on our exposed backs as our backpacks sat beside the rock we shared, Russ and I were finally back in the wilderness, together again. He is a few years older than me, and I told him about how I used to be so scared of him because he would throw snowballs at me while waiting for the school bus to pick us up in the morning. We laughed a bit and talked, and then he turned to me and asked a simple question: “How are we going to kill our elk today?” The mountain where my father had found the herd was one I have hunted a dozen times or more, and have killed a few elk on. In fact, it was the very mountain where I killed my very first elk almost two decades earlier.
As the mountain’s peak started to stain magenta from the early morning light, I laid out the plan. The pack bridge we were on crossed a creek that lead to the east with a main trail that followed along it. The river flowed to the west, and the hillside the elk were on was right in front of us. It was a south-facing slope, and I knew that if we tried to climb up to the elk they would see us and run. The bridge was at an elevation of 4,000 feet, and the peak that was all aglow was around 6,600 feet. As the elk began to filter out of the timber and the long bench that ran alongside the river, I told Russ we should go east, up the creek bottom, and then cut up the far right ridge. Just below the peak we will be high enough above the elk that we can cross over to the far west ridge and sneak down on top of them. By then the thermals would carry our scent up and away from the elk. They did not have any place to go, and we could get within range.
This took us nearly five hours after a short detour chasing a small herd of elk we jumped in the creek bottom. The group had two bulls, but as we cut the distance down while the elk crossed the creek and climbed a slope on the far side, we determined the bulls were not legal. In this unit they had to have brow tines a minimum of four inches in length, and the two bulls were a spike and what appeared to be a raghorn.
Climbing back up the eastern slope, we made our way to a bench just below the peak. From there we could finally look back down on the elk we were stalking. A mature bull was laying out in the sun with a few cows and calves. The younger elk were still up and feeding, but the majority of them were gone. With at least one bull below us, we continued our stalk. Crossing over to the western ridge, all the while keeping an eye on the elk, they were oblivious to the two predators above.
When slowly making our way back down the mountain, the afternoon sun was heating the hillsides. A steady afternoon breeze blew into our faces. It was then that a bugle was heard farther down the ridge from the pocket of timber. It was the rest of the herd and another bull. Both Russ and I stopped at the bugle and decided to sit for a second. We were getting close and our adrenaline was taking over. Knowing that we skipped lunch because we wanted to get to the elk as quickly as we could, my legs started shaking. The hours of hiking up the steep mountain and then the descent back down on loose gravel and shale was taking its toll, and the adrenaline was more than my muscles could take. Slipping my pack off, I reached for an apple. The sugar in the fruit gave me energy, the reason my father always carries an apple with him. It is the little things that my father taught me over the years that I always took for granted. He taught me to be a better hunter, and I was thankful that those lessons were not lost.
Back on our feet, we picked out a tall sage that stood prominently against the ridgeline. It was at an overlook that led to the long bench and timber where the bulge echoed from. We knew that if we made it to that sage without being detected, we would have a chance at those bulls. It was the last 50 yards – it’s always the last 50 yards – that we came upon trouble. There was no way we could make it to the sage without a group of cows seeing us. Hours of climbing and sneaking came down to a few minutes and mere feet. With no other choice, we simply crouched down and went slow, not making any noise. The cows were content, and soon Russ and I had our rifles up.
One lone bull was laying on a small knob between pine trees. It was a 4x5 with legal brow tines and was 385 yards away. Then another bugle rang out, and to my right was a group of elk in the timber. A hundred yards farther to the right, a fully mature 6x6 bull was standing in small jack pines, and as I put the rangefinder on it, it lay down with a dead snag between us. With the elk visible through the bare branches at 310 yards, I knew it only took one of the limbs to deflect a bullet. A smaller 5x5 bull was bugling and thrashing the young trees. The plan was that I would shoot first, hoping this would cause the bedded 4x5 to stand up in the open.
The crosshairs came to rest on the bull’s shoulder, and it fell at the shot. Elk exploded out of the trees – some running out to the end of the bench while others ran through the timber patch, and the 4x5 stood while Russ’ rifle cracked. Two bulls were down and yet more were running around. My father was right – the entire hill was full of elk! A group of cows and a small bull ran right past us.
We had our elk and work to do. It took us the rest of the week to pack all of the meat from the mountain to our camp – mostly because a few days later when Russ’ late tag season opened, he found more elk about a half mile from the pack bridge and filled that tag with a small bull.
Russ rebounded from the financial recession and now owns his own real estate company. I am still in the city, but each fall find myself chasing wapiti in the wilderness, sharing a campfire and making a plan to hunt elk. The phone call will be made, and the question will be asked, and “Yes, buy the elk tag, but maybe just one this time.”