October 13, 2010

Elk Huntin'

After my last NOLS course, I managed to catch the last 3.5 days of the month long archery season for elk in Oregon.  Jake already got his elk this year, so he was more than happy to take me into the Snake River Unit in the northeast corner of the state and show me the ropes.

Jake had been to this area once before while bear hunting.  He saw some elk on that trip and thought it might be a good place to go during elk season.  Turns out he was right.

Trying to blend in
After driving from Seattle, meeting up with Jake in Eugene, and driving to the remote corners of Oregon, past the town of Imnaha, we arrived at the spot where we would leave the truck.  Jake's plan was to backpack around, chasing elk, either until the end of the season or until I shot a bull.  We ended up being away from the truck that entire time, seeing bulls every day.

Jake and I have been accused of being the same person many times before.  With similar personalities and the exact same tuxedo measurements (with the exception of his neck being 1/4 inch bigger than mine), this perspective has merit.  However, hunting with Jake for these few days helped me realize that in some ways we are quite different and each have our own specialties.  Jake's happens to be elk hunting, and I was very impressed and honored to hunt with and learn from such an expert.  From his ability to spot the elk to knowing how they will react to everything we could possibly do, Jake must be part elk.

One of the many bulls we saw as seen through the spotting scope
After hiking in a few miles on the first day, Jake spotted a small herd of elk up on the ridge where we planned to go the next day.  Shortly after this, he spotted another elk skylined on the ridge as the sun was setting.  The silhouette of this large 350 bull was quite impressive, and from that point on I was super motivated to learn how to outsmart these magnificent creatures.  For this one, however, it was too late and too far away to hunt.

At the end of the following day, Jake spotted another small herd on a ridge about a mile away.  He put the spotting scope on them and told me to watch while he looked around for more.  Shortly after setting up behind the scope, I saw the tips of two antlers begin to rise over the ridge, following the small herd.  The antlers gradually got bigger and bigger.  I kept thinking that I would see fur any second, but the antlers just kept coming into view over the horizon of the ridge as the big bull slowly fed up the back side of the hill.  I think I was too excited to anything very coherent, but I remember saying something to Jake to the effect of "Jake.  There's a bull.  It's big."  When Jake looked over with his binoculars, he became even more enamored than I was.  He said the bull would have scored about 365-370, which would make it one of the largest elk in Oregon, much larger than anything Jake had ever killed in his 15 or so years of elk hunting.

When we saw the big bull, the sun was about a half hour from the horizon.  And we were about 2 miles from the elk via the path we would have to approach them.  Jake asked me what I wanted to do, but having no experience, I asked what he would do.  He said he would be very aggressive and run until he got about 300 yards from the elk, using terrain features to keep us out of view while we approached.  After that, he would continue at a slightly slower pace, getting as close to the animals as possible.  This is exactly what we did, and  just after sunset, we were within 100 to 150 yards of the herd.  A spike (young bull) was hanging near the herd, but not with it.  This presented problems as we had to try not to spook elk that were in multiple places.  We actually thought I might get a shot at the spike before nearing the rest of the herd, which I would have been happy to do as I was not trophy hunting.  We slowly poked our heads over the rise, thinking we would see the spike within range.  Turns out the spike had moved since we last saw it and was on the other side of the ridge top.  He moved into such an unfavorable position, he winded us and started acting weird.  When we saw him, he was 90 yards away, looking right at us.  We couldn't see the rest of the herd at this point, but it was clear that the rest of the herd was wondering why the spike was acting funny.  In attempt to get to the bottom of the young spike's odd behavior, the big bull came walking back towards us!  We were concealed by a small rock outcropping which also prevented us from seeing things very well.  Then Jake saw the massive antlers slowly begin to appear beyond the rock, about 50 yards from us.  The direction it was moving, it was about six steps from being broadside to us at 40 yards.  Jake told me to get ready to shoot.  At about that same time, the big bull winded us, smelling the same scent picked up by the spike, and promptly ran away.  So, at the end of the first full day of hunting, I was six steps and one good shot from killing the largest bull I had ever seen!  The kind of excitement involved was unlike anything I experience while climbing or skiing.

We didn't spot any bulls close enough to be worth chasing the next day, but on our third and final day we found the canyon where the majority of the elk were hanging out.  We heard a faint bugle, ran down into a canyon and up the other side to where we thought we heard it, heard it again yet another canyon over, ran down the next canyon and up the other side, seeing about 40 elk spread out all over the canyon, some as close as about 250 yards.  We couldn't try to move closer to any of them because one would inevitably see us.  So we just sat there and listened to them talk and interact.  Jake, being fluent in Elk, translated what they were saying.  For the rest of the day, we chased around various groups of elk, trying to get withing 30 yards of a bull.  With limited tree cover, closing the last 70 yards or so proved to be quite difficult.

Towards the end of the evening, we spotted a herd we chased earlier in the day about 800 yards away with a nice 325 bull in it.  Jake told me that I had learned enough by this point that there was no reason he should go with me.  Two people stalking a herd of elk just doubles the chance that one of them will see, hear, or smell you.  As soon as they all went over a small rise I began running at them, trying to make it to the spot where they disappeared before they had moved very far away.  I got to the rise and didn't see them.  They were feeding away from me the last time I saw them, so this wasn't very surprising.  I went to the next rise, and the next, all the while with very limited sight distance.  I started thinking to myself, "Where the hell are they?  They have to be right about here!"  Just after saying that to myself, I peered around the corner of a small cliff and say the bull about 80 yards from me, casually feeding away from my position.  Perfect!  The wind was blowing uphill, and the bull was across the hill, so he couldn't smell me.  After composing myself, I started to look around and assess the terrain features in order to figure out how I was going to get 50 yards closer.  As I peaked above the cliff I was standing under, I saw the cows!  The bitches had doubled back on me, completely changing directions.  They were now above me and it would only be a matter of seconds before they winded me and ran away.  Five seconds later, the entire herd was running up and over the next ridge, never to be seen again.  They disappeared over the last ridge in about a minute and a half.  It would have taken me a half hour to cover the same distance.

The hike back to the truck after that was not a sad one, and I felt no sense of failure.  I learned a lot about elk and now respect them even more, not to mention having a wonderful and exhilarating time chasing them around all day up and down the canyons.  The combination of skill and luck involved in a successful archery hunt makes it an addicting endeavor.  I can't wait for next September!

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