“Man, I’m sweating already,” I said to my hunting partner Jeremy as we crested the first rise into our elk spot. He replied, “Yeah, me too.” So with our headlamps still on and quite a ways yet to our elk spot we shed our outer layers hoping to cool down. For the first three weeks, Oregon’s archery elk season had been a fluky one for us on many levels. There were unusually high numbers of hunters in our neck of the woods, crazy weather with gale force winds, hail, and thunderstorms, with very unresponsive elk. Now the weather had warmed up again, the hunters were still thick as molasses, and it being the 12th of September we were hoping to hear some elk sounding off on their own because they hadn’t been yet. Optimistic in spite of things, both of us hoisted our packs on our backs and kept moving.
A short while later after zipping our headlamps away into our packs, still squinting to see, we rounded a corner we usually hustle past to keep moving to a spot where we typically get into elk a few miles away. Surprised, we both simultaneously came to a complete halt at the sound of a cow mew up slope from us! Frozen in our tracks we heard another mew, we had found ourselves smack dab in the middle of two groups of elk! The unfortunate part was there was barely enough light to see my pins and it was so thick where we were a shot opportunity was going to be nearly impossible.
Jeremy decided that the Heads Up Decoy strapped to his back could be counter productive in our current predicament, so he slowly hunkered down. He didn’t want to bugger the elk outta’ there as an elk might saunter over to take a peek at the decoy without either of us being able to shoot. Down slope from us the breaking branches were coming closer. I pulled an arrow out and knocked it just in case. I could just barely make out a large bodied elk moving by at about 50 yards through the thick timber. He continued to trot by and I could see him circling away from us with his head tipped back and nostrils in the air. Even though I couldn’t make out all his points as he drifted by, I could tell he was a wide, big bull and my heart rate started to accelerate!
About a minute later I could hear an elk crunching brush towards us. It sure sounded like it could end up right on top of us! I slowly inched over a few steps into the only shooting window within 360o which was only the size of a small pane window. As I could make out the legs of the elk I moved one last small step and had my bow low behind some chest high trees. The bull stopped, looked towards us then sniffed the ground 20 yards away. I slowly pulled my bow back behind the trees and anchored. Luckily my Spott Hogg pins were bright enough in the low light for me to see them. The bull’s head twitched back toward the herd turning a few paces back where he had come from. Luckily he stopped quartering away! I split my flourescent green 20 yard and red 30 yard pins right behind his last rib. THWACK! The arrow looked like it hit true and he bolted out of sight back toward the other elk. A few seconds later it sounded like a herd of elephants running through the forest. I really hoped my shot was lethal and the bull was NOT running with them!
Jeremy and I looked at each other dumbfounded at what just happened; no calling, no bugling, not our usual six mile march deep into the woods. We were both VERY surprised to get into elk where they were at; not to mention getting a shot through the wall of thickness. We grinned at each other and shrugged our shoulders in disbelief, thankful we were on the first leg of our trek.
I nocked another arrow and since it was such a thick spot we moved up to check for blood where he was standing knowing the likelihood of spooking anymore elk was slim since the herd took off earlier. There was no sign of blood but the ground was tore up from him taking off. We could see where he traveled and it opened up a bit so we peeked ahead. I quickly stopped about 10 yards up as I saw the unmistakable golden hide of an elk. We paused for a little bit to see if he was moving and he wasn’t; he had breathed his last. I had my 2013 Oregon bull elk on the ground and it wasn’t even seven in the morning yet!
As I put my hands on my bull I was consumed with gratitude. I took some time giving respect to my elk, thanking the Lord for blessing me with him. Several times during boning him out I shook my head in disbelief. “Did that just happen?” To this day I still cannot believe how fortunate I was. Jeremy and I are grinders. Where we hunt we might not get very many opportunities at elk; especially like this. After the first several weeks and how things had been going I was overjoyed. Now it was time for me to focus on doing something I enjoy as much as hunting myself, calling elk for my buddy Jeremy!
As hunters we know that we are on a whole other playing field in the timbered ridge lines where we pursue our quarry. Stepping into the realm of these wild places can bring a true sense of our own disconnect in our day-to-day lives from the experiences of our ancestors and the animals that inhabit these magnificent places. We are visitors on their turf. There is life and death. The hunter and the hunted. A struggle on a daily basis to survive. No other experience has made this more evident to me than finding a cougar killed elk on the hike out the first morning back in the woods, trying to get my hunting partner to notch his 2013 Oregon bull elk tag.
At first we thought it may have been wounded by another archer and the cat claimed it as it’s own. On further inspection we found no signs of an arrow and the tufts of elk hair scattered about confirmed a mountain lion had taken it down. We paused there for a few moments retracing the ambush as best we could. The struggle of the spike bull must have been brief, and the kill swift; the spike didn't make it far. Knowing we were not the only human hunters in the area, and the newly discovered evidence of a stealthy cougar in the vicinity had us go back to the maps for another game plan heading into the final weekend of the season.
By the following weekend we had formulated a plan. We knew the general travel routes and hidey holes of the herd. We also had a pretty good idea of where the elk would get pressured from other hunters. It would be a longer hike to get into the spot but we felt it was our best option to fight the crowds and stay ahead of the curve. We decided to climb a ridge and get back in well before sun-up to hopefully hear where the elk were at. We sat on a log in the dark listening; it was a still, quiet morning. The moon wasn’t up and the stars were bright. A memorable morning already.
As we sat there Jeremy heard what sounded to him like a bear growling below us. In years past we had come across a bull that had a deep raspy bugle that sounded similar, so that got us a bit excited at the possibility of finally running into him again. I didn’t hear the growl but I sounded off with a locator bugle to see if we could hear it again. No response.
As dawn was finally upon us we headed across the ridgeline. I bugled into a ravine down below; again no answer. Questioning our decision to try a new plan was further confirmed when we finally heard the unmistakable octave stair step climb of the dreaded piano man. We had called in another hunter. He was at our backs but on our level so we kept moving making sure our setups and calling were away from his location.
As we kept moving we were pleasantly surprised to hear that growler again. Jeremy and I both looked at each other with the, “did you just hear what I heard” look. Yep, the growler was down below us, moving his cows through the thick timbered bottom. I pointed Jeremy in front of me and we started downslope towards his harem. As we made our mad dash to get in front of them, I used my bugle tube to cow call down to them. There were some thick stands during our descent so it was hard to peg an approximate distance to the elk. It also made glassing an impossibility. To make things even more interesting I lost sight of Jeremy. When you hunt with someone long enough though you can anticipate what they’re going to do. We both knew we were going to head in on the elk. I would keep him singing as best I could, and Jeremy would move into position.
Our approach was further intensified as we moved closer. At about a hundred yards from the herd I could hear more than one bull sounding off! This was going to be good! I could also hear the piano man bugling about four hundred yards back and behind us. If Jeremy was going to get a shot he’d have to do it fairly quickly. Almost simultaneously, Jeremy and I both ended up popping out of a thicket onto an old skid road. I glanced his way and he was already sneaking in. I stayed back a bit and kept demanding the bull to come over and give me some attention. I moved up and the woods started to erupt in the sweetest symphony an elk hunter can imagine. Cows were running back and forth chirping and carrying on. At least three bulls were screaming their heads off and the growler with his thunderous booms was rocking the timber. Oh man, can’t you just hear it?? I kept the mews going and had cows calling back and forth with me. I knew Jeremy’s route in on the herd and hoped he was able to get within bow range. I noticed it opened up a little which was good for shooting lanes, but bad for a guy trying to stalk in.
Next I saw some cows run off in Jeremy’s direction. I hoped a bull was in tow. I got to an edge and called some more; a bull sounded off at me within fifty yards. I grabbed my grunt tube and let him have it. He screamed back and I bugled over the top of him. I LIVE FOR THIS KIND OF ACTION!! I heard all kinds of commotion and even the piano man still off in the distance four hundred yards back. I don’t know if that guy ever really could hear all of what was going on down there or else he should have been sprinting to get in on the action.
Moments later I saw a yearling cow go running by. Shortly after I thought I heard the thwack-uh-twang-twang of a bow going off. The bull and I gave another round of insults and I started raking a tree. I figured I would keep going until I either saw an elk fall over or Jeremy, I was hoping for the former! The big growler was rounding up his cows and pushing them up the other side of the ridge ahead of me. Then I heard some turkey clucks. Wait, what? Turkey clucks?? I finally snapped out of the adrenaline rush I was getting from my elk calling trance and realized it was Jeremy trying to get my attention. I made my way over to him, which took some time. The bulls were still bugling off in the distance now. When I finally saw him he had one leg up on a big log with his elbow on his knee. I gave him the hand motions of a bow shot and asked, “So did you get a shot?”. His response was classic, I will never forget it. He simultaneously raised his eyebrows, smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and slung his wrist pointing to the ground towards me. I almost jumped out of my skin as I about stepped on his bull!
We both had our woohoo moment of high fives and storytelling. Jeremy’s version reminded me of the Top Gun scene when Goose asked some of the other pilots about their dog fight training rounds with Jester. “We went like this, he went like that, I said to Hollywood, ‘Where’d he go’ Hollywood said, ‘Where’d whooooo go!!’.” Apparently while I was calling Jeremy was in the thick of them. One elk went whizzing by him. He called to stop it but it was gone. So he moved up to where it was and the bull he ended up shooting ran in behind him where he was just at. Having just been there he was able to figure the distance and got a broadside target. He made a great shot and the bull fell over within sight!
The pack out was quite a bit longer than my bull but the encounters that morning couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces. With the last load on our backs, not long before dark, I slowed down to walk out next to Jeremy who only months ago had torn his Achilles tendon. We both were overjoyed for the blessings we were able to experience together this past season. It seemed pretty bleak at times with encountering more people in our areas than all other years combined. Finding proof of another top predator taking down an elk didn’t help either but we kept our determination. As I sit here now re-adjusted back into the day-to-day “daily grind”, I am longing once again for the majesty of the elk woods! I think as many hunters know, once you’ve gotten a taste of it there isn’t much else that can compare.