Wyoming has been very good to me in regards to drawing elk tags and being successful on those hunts. Since 2007 I have drawn 7 elk tags with a maximum of 2 preference points. Up until the Fall of 2014 I was 100% on my success on branch antlered bulls in Wyoming. I knew that these streak was untenable and that October I was faced with my first skunk. It stung, and it has taken over a year an a half to talk about it publicly.
We had hunted beside the Morris family for the previous 3 years with them as our resident guides, and had some memorable close encounters with elk. In 2013 they began operating a lodge near a major trailhead into the wilderness some distance from our previous hunting country. Through the summer Wes, the eldest son, led pack trips into new country and found a basin with lots of elk sign. It was beautiful country with trees, large meadows and rugged topography.
We trailered our saddle horses to meet them where they had their summer seasoned pack string at the ready. The thunderstorms followed us menacingly across the Nevada and Utah high desert. We rode in the day before opening day under mixed freezing rain and snow flurries.
The next two days it snowed. On opening morning we saw numerous tracks pointed downhill, and I caught a glimpse of an elk headed “down and out”. The rest of the hunt we never came across another elk or any fresh sign. We relocated lower, and found old sign, but no shot opportunities. The elk had outsmarted us.
Our application strategy for 2015 was to take the long shot chance and apply for a unit specific earlier season tag. Drawing that tag gave us a 5 day earlier opening day and more of a chance to get to the elk before Fall snow pushed them to lower ground. Sure enough, my father, uncle brother in law and I were drawn as a party. My brother in law, was delayed and wouldn’t be able to join us on opening day. He would come a week later.
We arrived in Wyoming a couple days early to news that the thunderstorm that had accompanied us had laid down a couple inches of snow in the high basin we had planned to hunt. The clouds had cleared though and snow was melting fast. We could see the snowline receding from the surrounding peaks, although crunchy snow still lingered in the shade.
We rode in under blue skies and finished setting up camp. The evening was eerily quiet, and not a single elk bugle was heard. Thoughts of the year prior were creeping in, despite the better weather. We made plans for the morning, watered horses an had a fitful, night before opening day sleep.
I’d been fighting a cold-turned respiratory infection before setting off on this trip. I had antibiotics at the ready, but my doctor wanted me to hold out until day 3 of my hunt before taking them. The combination of the high altitude, and sickness had me panting for air at the slightest exertion. I know it had my companions concerned as I hacked and coughed each morning. But I did my best to keep up with my acclimated Wyoming partners.
Day One was eventful as my father and Dee were able to have a bugle exchange with a bull up the draw. unfortunately it attracted the attention of some other hunters down slope and that distracted them from pursuing the real elk in the trees above. Wes and I circled the basin to a saddle that looked promising and the number of elk bones bore tribute to the volume of elk that met their demise there. We posted ourselves with a good view of the saddle, only to have the group from below walk through our setup. We spent the rest of the morning working through the trees, finding elk tracks and sign, but nothing live.
That afternoon we looped through the trees above camp. The elk sign was there in scat and tracks and trails. A few distant shots at dusk way down below had us thinking we might be above the elk.
Day Two was more of the same. Boot leather and unanswered bugles. As the sun set though we heard bugles in the dusk to the east. I thought to myself that another hunter had moved into the basin and was trying to locate a bull. We made plans to go the other way in the morning.
On the third morning I awoke wheezing and coughing and sore. Dee assured me we would work up the ridge slowly, calling through the trees. As grey dawn came we paused to readjust clothing and Dee made a few soft cow calls. As we continued along the game trail, I heard a grunt off to our left. We paused, then a squeal and hoofbeats. I motioned to the tree I was going to try to get behind while Dee hissed “don’t think you have time, he’s coming. ”
The tree was twenty yards away and I was ten when I saw the tan body of an elk flashing through the trees less than a football field away. I froze as Dee began his seductive cow calls, and the bull answered as he trotted from our left to right seventy yards away. I saw branched antlers and flipped off the safety. First elk of the hunt was ok with me.
As he cleared a tree I held the crosshairs behind his shoulder and fired. He flinched and jumped and turned, now coming from right to left. At fifty yards he stood there. I squeezed off a second shot, reloaded as he still stood there. A third shot didn’t seem to phase him, and I moved the crosshairs forward to the shoulder and shot number four folded him like a wet tent.
Dee’s whoops and hollers echoed through the basin as we made our way through the downfall to where the bull lay. Six tines to a side, dark with sap and bark, and ivory tips curling up at the ends. We just sat there in silence as the sun rose and filtered through the trees, and the jays began talking once more.
After telling each other our interpretation of the events, and our thoughts as they were happening, we got out the knives and skinned and quartered the bull in preparation for the packhorse, 1.3 miles away at camp. We bagged each quarter, tender loin, loin and neck meat in game bags as the flies began buzzing in the warming day, and positioned the bags in the shade for retrieval later that day.
With my bull back in camp the energy was one of renewed hope. Dee and I told the story with about three different variations. Suddenly my respiratory function was much better as I breathed a sigh of relief to have filled my elk tag.
There is more stories to come from our 2015 Elk hunt. Check back to read about Colby’s “Cash Money bull”, and Dad’s Skunk Breaker.