September 12, 2011

Elk Hunting, Phase I

I returned last night from 4.5 days of chasing elk around in the woods east of Mt. Rainier, primarily in the Norse Peak Wilderness.  This marked the start of my second year bow hunting for elk, and my first year hunting without the guidance of the accomplished Jake Adams.  As it turns out, the area I'm hunting in Washington is so dramatically different than that which Jake and I hunted last year, I'm having to learn a lot by trial and error.

My scouting efforts paid off!  I saw and/or heard elk every day.  The one similar aspect to my hunting experience with Jake in NE Oregon is that the elk are extremely difficult to get close enough to to spear with an arrow.  I chased many bugles over the past few days, putting lots of off-trail miles on my hiking boots.  I failed to draw a bull tag, but I have a license to shoot a cow or spike bull.  Here is an overly detailed chronological replay.

Day 1:  I hiked into the wilderness in the afternoon to a location where I had seen a smaller 6-point bull on a scouting trip.  Glassing into the basin to the west (where I had seen the bull a few weeks earlier) that evening turned up nothing.  Shortly before dark, I moved locations to look into the valley to the east.  As soon as I put my binoculars to my eyes, I saw a cow elk about 700 yards away.  With only 20 minutes of daylight left, I didn't have time to pursue them so I stayed there and watched with my binoculars.  The elk were in pretty dense trees with occasional openings, so I would occasionally see one or two elk (all cows) but I heard bugling so I knew there was a bull with them.  As the light was fading, the bull walked into the open.  It was huge, every bit as big to my untrained eye as the 350 and 360+ bulls that I saw with Jake.  After watching him bugle in my binoculars, I decided to try my bugle out which I had previously been hesitant to use due to inexperience.  I bugled.  To my surprise, I convinced the big, mature bull that I was another elk and he bugled back, warning me to stay away from his cows.

Classic Antler Rub - I saw a ton of these, many of them very fresh

Day 2:  In the morning I chased a bull that was bugling like crazy (screaming his head off as Jake would say).  It was interesting trying to sneak up on a group of animals that you cannot see and can only hear.  My previous hunting experience utilized almost all eyes, this new experience is 100 percent ears until you get inside about 80 yards.  Anyway, I closed the gap to about a hundred yards.  I never saw them, but heard them spook and run away shortly before I got within eyesight.  That evening I heard almost nothing.  On my way back to my bivy site in the dark, I spooked up another heard that was apparently about 80 yards below my camp.  I went to bed that night humbled and reminded of how difficult it is to sneak up on an animal who make a living (literally) by not letting you sneak up on it.

Day 3:  With one day of "ear" hunting under my belt, I was beginning to figure things out.  Early in the morning I began hearing bugles.  I followed the sound of the nearest one, down the hill for about 700 yards before hearing their footsteps as they broke sticks.  I moved very slowly and quietly toward the sound, and then I saw fur through the trees about 60 yards away.  I could tell the heard was large by the sounds coming from all around me, sounds including the bull bugling from somewhere very close by.  I hoped that some of the elk would pass by closer to me than the first couple that I saw.  While watching the elk I could see 60 yards off, I took about one step every 30 seconds to avoid making too much noise while walking on dry sticks.  Then I noticed a cow elk 30 yards away, staring right at me.  I held motionless until my camouflage convinced her that I was nothing to fear.  As she looked away, I drew my bow.  I could only see part of her face and a leg at this point due to the trees.  I had limited shooting alleys, but if she took about three steps I'd have a broadside shot at her lungs.  She took one step.  Now I could see her head and neck.  I held my 30 yard sight pin on the center of her neck, wondering if I should take the ethically questionable shot.  I decided not to.  Soon I could no longer hold the draw on my bow, and had to let it down.  This made the cow nervous and it trotted off, back into the heart of the heard which was out of view.  Excited but composed, I was planning to wait for the cow to be out of site before I made another stalk and attempt to get close again.  Just then, I heard another elk coming through the woods.  At about 50 yards I spotted it, a young 6-point satellite bull heading right at me.  A large tree 10 yards from me prevented me from seeing him well, but I could tell he was heading directly at me.  Again I went to full draw, primarily for the practice of drawing without spooking the animal.  I didn't know which side of the tree he would go, but either way he'd come real close to me.  As he approached the tree he went to my left and stopped.  I had a clear broadside shot from about 18 yards . . . if only I had drawn that bull tag!  After he cleared out, I could no longer hear the heard and figured I spooked them.  I got out my cow call and mewed to see if the lead bull would respond.  Seconds later, the lead bull bellowed from was seemed to be about 70 yards up the hill from me.  I slowly and as quietly as possible took a few steps in that direction before hearing the heard stampede off like so many times before.  With a little luck, maybe this whole elk hunting with a bow thing is possible!  While producing no meat for my freezer, this experience helped me gain confidence in my bugle, mew, camo, and stalking abilities.

Trying to look like a hunter

That evening, hunted my way back down and out of the wilderness to meet up with Kris, who would be hunting with me for the weekend.  I chased a bugle early in the evening, spooking the heard before I could see them.  I soon picked up another bugle on the other side of the steep ridge as I was descending.  I followed it, spooking a deer in the process.  I eventually found myself looking over the edge of a 50 yard cliff down on top of a lone bull, about the size of the satellite bull I saw that morning.  It was mildly upsetting that I descended such a long steep hill only to be duped by the bull that had no cows.  I decided to practice my calling with the bull as he wandered around below me.  I bugled, and he bugled back.  I cow called, and he responded with a chuckle, typical of the final notes of a textbook bugle.  I did this multiple times before he wandered off.  While briskly hiking back to car so as not to do too much off-trail hiking in the dark, I looked downhill to my right and saw a cow elk standing broadside at about 90 yards, staring at me.  I held motionless, and soon she lost interest and resumed feeding.  One second later, she bolted as the wind was blowing down hill, straight into her and it had taking several seconds for my now pungent odors to reach her highly sensitive nostrils.

Day 4:  I met up with Kris (aka: Haskins the Deadly) Friday night.  Kris had never been hunting before and now had the privilege of being taught by a novice (at best).  I decided to take him hunting in an area of National Forest that looked promising from a scouting trip.  Early in the morning, we heard a bugle less than 5 minutes after we finished breakfast and started hunting.  We chased it down the hill, and each time it bugled it sounded about twice as far away as before.  We figured it was running away from us as the wind was not in our favor (we had hoped the elk we would find that day wouldn't be directly below us).  We neither heard nor saw any other elk that day, which was disappointing because I really wanted Kris to have an exciting first experience.  Afterwards, it was pretty clear that the place we chose to hunt was a good place except for the fact that it had been hunted real hard during the first few days of the season and all the elk in that area had been pushed out.

Kris, looking rather hunteresque himself

Day 5:  Determined to get into some elk, we went to a different spot that we thought would have been less heavily hunted.  We heard multiple bugles in the morning.  The first one we chased ended up spooking at about 100 yards because we got closer to them faster than we anticipated, and failed to enter super stealth mode soon enough.  Not much later, we picked up a different bugle.  We followed it up the hill, determine not  to make the same mistake again.  Unfortunately, it was getting late enough that the elk stopped "talking" and were making their way up the hill to bed down for the heat of the day.  We followed their tracks for quite a while before stopping to have a conversation about how the best case scenario would be that we follow them far enough up the hill that we spook them out of their beds before we ever see them.  After deciding to go up just a little further, we didn't take 10 steps before the forest erupted with the sound of scattering elk.  We never saw them, but went up to where the sound came from and realized we had gotten within about 30 yards of some of them before they ran off.

That evening we moved yet again to a new spot, ending up on the opposite side of the wilderness that I had been hunting a few days earlier.  We heard no bugling, which didn't make sense to us given all that we had learned.  I knew there should be elk in that area, and I desperately wanted Kris to at least see some fur before we went home that night.  About an hour into the evening hunt we were quietly traversing a valley slope, slowly making our way back to where we parked the truck.  Suddenly, I saw and heard an elk about 120 yards in front of us, heading straight down the slope.  We kept watching that area, and eventually saw several more elk head down through the same viewing window through the trees.  We tried to back off, parallel the elk, and move back in below them so that they would eventually walk right into us.  We either spooked them at some point or they randomly took a route that avoided our arrows.  Either way, we never saw them again.

To summarize this now superbly long blog post, I had a fantastic time and cannot believe how much I learned.  I chased elk every day, got really close once and managed to accomplish my goals of getting Kris close to elk and getting his eyes on some fur.  Please pardon my concluding baseball analogy.

1st Base: Hiking through beautiful forest (arguably fun in its own right)
2nd Base: Hiking through beautiful forest while chasing elk
3rd Base: Hiking through beautiful forest while chasing elk and getting really close to them
Home Run: Hiking through beautiful forest while chasing elk, getting really close to them, and ending up with meat in the freezer

I hit a triple this trip, and I've got my fingers crossed for a home run next weekend.

Closing Trundle


The Fraurer's said...

I think you look the hunter part, good luck with the rest of your season.
smiles Jasmine

Montana Elk Hunting Pack Trips said...

Yeah! You guys seems like a great hunter. Hope you'll have more catch next time.