To say I love hunting is an understatement. Just ask my tall kid and she will give you the appropriate eye roll. I will wake up at 3:45 am to hunt. I bust my knees, my butt, and my quads traversing into and out of some of the nastiest steepest terrain. I read about hunting. I dream about hunting. My life comes to a halt when it is hunting season. Disproportionately. We are out of juice. Drink water! There’s nothing to eat. Pizza! I have no clean clothes. Turn them inside out! I do sympathize with my family during this difficult time. Hunting tends to consume me. But, even I have my limits! I learned yesterday that even something one loves can become the absolute bane of their existence if pushed too hard and visited too often.
Disclaimer now, there are no pictures of elk in this post! If you are looking for a post about the victorious and glorious harvest of a burly bad-ass bull elk, look elsewhere. Here you will find stories about the trials and tribulations, albeit still my favorite thing…..usually, of what it really is like to HUNT for elk.
This past Sunday morning I set out at 4:15 am to hunt with a friend I had never been out with before. He was an experienced archery hunter and was going to call for me this day. We hiked in to the musical accompaniment of a bull elk bugling chorus as the pitch black began to loosen it’s hold all around us. The sound was thrilling and reassuring. I certainly would get my archery bull today, I thought! Lessons about bull elk were yet in store for me.
Set up after set up, we called and they answered….from the safety of the timber on the bordering private land. They would move laterally in front of us but never advance toward us. Once, they even sent up an elk calf to do the reconnaissance for them. And after a few “Are you my mama?”s the calf seemed satisfied we were no threat. But yet, no big guy appeared. After about 5 hours of this game of cat and mouse we started to feel mocked by the bugles. At one point my hunting partner started to give what I believe is the Italian sign language for “Screw you” when another bugle would tease us from a safe distance. There was one opportunity at a 5x that was coming down stealthily at our backs, but alas we were focused on the deep voiced bugling to our front and we missed our chance. Finally at 12 pm, after staring at a curious spike for 15 minutes, we decided to call it quits. Though the hunt didn’t end with an elk for my freezer, the resounding siren call of elk bugling that filled my ears and haunted my dreams that night fueled me for another hunt.
The next day rifle elk opened and I hit the woods again right after dropping the girls at school. Same area, different experience entirely! There was not a sound from an elk and even if there were I couldn’t have heard it over the busy Monday schedule of the construction workers building homes in the neighboring properties. I walked and I called. I sat and I called. I glassed and I called. The only sounds were of heavy machinery coming from where yesterday the sweet high pitched whiny bellow of a bull was coming our way. The only sign of game were a few doe I busted out of their beds. After a snack break to enjoy the beautiful scenery, I came upon a sign that read PRIVATE TRAIL and I thought, “Uh oh.”
For the first time that day, WHY NOT EARLIER?, I decided to open my OnXMaps app to only realize I had been hunting on private land ALL MORNING! What? How thankful I was at that moment that I did not see any elk that day! I love hunting, I love elk, but I also am a strong proponent of property rights. I don’t fudge at all. I don’t care if the owner is some oil conglomerate with headquarters in Texas who has never even tapped a toe on this parcel of land in Wyoming. I still respect their rights. Discussion over. Hunt over.
That brings us to yesterday’s hunt, my third day in a row chasing the woeful Wapiti. This was the hunt that sunk a thousand ships. This was the day that hunting became my bane and not my joy. It was date day in the woods with my husband. Oh how I look forward to these dates where we drive to a location together, hike in together for a bit and then separate for the day with only the occasional radio check in. But this date in the woods was a doozy. Just picking our hunting spot was proving to be slightly tedious.
You pick. (the husband says).
Ok, let’s go here. (I say)
You really want to go there? (the husband replies)
Ok, you pick. (I say)
There’s so many choices. It really doesn’t matter to me. (hubs)
But, it does matter because I picked and you had an opinion. (me..slightly exasperated)
We were still deciding where to hunt as we drove in at 5:45 am.
Choosing a spot that one hasn’t hunted in for multiple years for a pre-dawn hunt might not have been the best choice. But luckily it took so long for us to find the unfamiliar location in the dark that we didn’t start hiking until shooting light. This turned out to be a blessing as the trail up to the “we think this is it” area was not really a trail and had lots of fade outs. This would have been a bit tricky in the dark. We did see sign. Lots of it. We decided quickly to divide and conquer. Once we separated, my husband toward the steep and deep timber and myself for the ridge line, I slowed my pace down considerably after nearly developing a smoker’s cough (I don’t smoke) trying to keep up with my husband’s pace up the hill. We hunt differently. I hunt. He hikes vigorously.
Not 20 minutes after leaving my husband the sun is cresting the timbered ridge that I am hiking towards. The sky is so crisp and clear that the dawning sun is blinding. I give up using my binos in that direction and try to scan the open spaces with the naked eye. I am walking the balance beam of the spine of a rocky ridge when I see the creases of two legs in the shadow of a spruce tree. I can barely be sure it is an elk as it is nearly invisible with the cresting globe right above it and the sheer darkness of the hill it is feeding on. I freeze and sink to my knees inch by inch. I glass and can just barely make out a cow elk with the halos of light on my optics caused by looking right into the sun. I sink lower into a prone position as I ask myself, “Are you okay with a cow?” I answer myself, “Yes, I am okay with that. I like cow meat better and it’s an easier pack out.” Since we are in agreement with each other, me and myself, we inch further down into a prone position. It’s an awkward thing for sure as I am on this spiny crest and my abdomen is slightly higher than my rifle. I finally get into a position that I think I might be able to safely shoot from and when I try to look through my scope I realize that it is completely emblazoned with sunlight. I try to move to a new angle to see through it and nothing seems to work. I can see the darn elk with my naked eye and she can definitely see me but every time I try to see through the scope I am greeted with halos and refracted light. The elk is staring me down hard as I try to appear as non-threatening as possible. I am stuck between a rock and a hard place, literally. Eventually, after no improvement of my sight through my optics, I lose my chance on a shot as the elk ambles into the thick timber as if she has all the time in the world. I am exasperated. The only thing even remotely amusing about this episode on the ridge line was that my camouflage worked so well that a bird landed on my butt like three times as I lie there as still as a rock trying to scope that elk. The bird would just sit on my butt for a few seconds and than fly off, only to return again a moment later. At the time this was only slightly interesting to me, but the more I retell the tale the funnier it is. A bird on the butt is worth two in the bush.
After waiting a while in vain for more elk to cross where my cow had just been blessed to travel unscathed, I decide to hit the timber in pursuit. What started as a gentle game trail into the woods soon become a labyrinth of downed trees, snags, slippery roots, and rock features. I began to wish I was a quadruped and imitated one frequently as I climbed up and down steep rocky faces. I kept looking over my shoulder for mountain lions because it looked like just the sort of place they’d hang out. (Update from the husband as I have him proof this…he did see mountain lion scat near where he found me sitting on the rocks). The timber was so thick that visibility at times was less than 20 yards in front of me. I began to ask myself what the heck I was doing in here besides scaring away every living thing in a 5 mile radius. It became a game to try and guess what kind of animal that was running away from me. Snort and run, probably a doe mule deer. Snort, grunt, huff, and stick around just out of eyesight; probably a buck. Crash, bang, and the charge of many hoofs; probably that elk herd I was chasing. This was ridiculous!
I sat for a snack and a listen and a look. Mostly I just wanted to sit. Day 3 and I was feeling it. Elk 100, Gloria 0. I decided that I was ready to hike out; which meant going back down the way that I came up. You know that timber that seemed hellish to climb up through? Yeah, climbing down is kind of worse. My legs kept giving out. My ankles kept failing me; toppling to the side like dominoes. I was continually getting attached to a tree by some part of my gear or my body. At one point I actually developed an unrealistic fear that the trees were out to get me. Remember that scene from Poltergeist? The one where the tree grabs the boy and is swallowing him inside of itself with gnarly branches and slimy wood? Yeah, that’s what I thought was happening to me. When I finally got to a clearing to see where I was at, after scaling another steep rocky face that had me wishing I was in a rock gym with rubber mats below me, and I realized how high I still was….I might have almost cried a little. Eventually, though, I made it back to the truck. I let the bird dog out, took off all my heavy gear, and grabbed the pellet pistol. At least the bird dog could have some fun! After a radio check in from the hubs I realized he was still hiking out and so I had some time to kill.
The bird dog and I picked a patch of timber. She doggedly hit the scent trail and I wearily tried to keep up with her. LO AND BEHOLD, after only 10 minutes of running around with her nose to the ground, my bird dog did what I had not succeeded in doing in three days. She found her quarry. A grouse, a single grouse. She flushed her. I shot her. Good bird dog. Good girl. At least one of us had a harvest today.
And as I carried that grouse back to the truck by it’s little bird legs I thought to myself, “Now isn’t this an easy pack out?”.