Battling the elements
In 2006 my older brother, Tyler, and his family moved back from Texas to the Cowboy State of Wyoming. With the move, his adolescent love of the outdoors, hunting, and fishing were rekindled, and soon we were planning hunts together, which we had not done since we were kids.
In January 2014, I began the annual process of reviewing drawing odds and researching possible Wyoming elk-hunting units. I narrowed my search to a unit I really wanted to hunt, but before I could apply, I would need my brother to agree to what I knew would be an epic backpack-hunting adventure. Luckily, he is as crazy about elk hunting as I am, and agreed. I applied, and as I suspected, I was successful in drawing a Wyoming Type 1 any-elk permit.
For the next seven months, my brother and I talked frequently, kicked maps back and forth, and talked to anyone we could that may offer some advice on the unit. Just about everyone I talked to suggested I would see a lot of elk and have a great hunt, but that I should be prepared for bear encounters. Hunting in grizzly country was a new concept for me and I spent several evenings over the summer researching and reading articles on backpack hunting in big bear country.
On Sept. 16 at 4 a.m., I finally hit the road. By 7:30 p.m. that night, I picked up my brother, and we made the two-hour drive to the trailhead, and stepped out of the truck just as the sun was dropping behind the ridge. At that point, we had a choice to make — camp at the trailhead and head into the area we wanted to hunt in the morning, or begin our trek in the dark and hope to get halfway up the drainage. After weighing the pros and cons, we shouldered our packs, flipped on the headlamps and headed up the trail. We hiked for three hours in the dark and just before midnight, we found a suitable place to make camp. We took every precaution to avoid a bear encounter, including talking the entire hike in, carrying bear spray and hanging our food several hundred yards downwind of camp, but I was still unable to sleep well that night.
The next morning, we broke camp early and headed up a tributary to the main canyon. We hiked for a couple hours, and just as we were coming into an area that overlooks a larger portion of country, we heard a bugle.
After a few minutes of glassing, I saw a small six-point bull and nearly 20 cows and calves feeding across the canyon through an old burn. Although the bull was not one that I was interested in hunting, we were excited to see rutting elk in the same area we planned on hunting. While we watched and listened to the bull, we took an opportunity to eat our lunch, and put together a game plan for the evening, and the rest of my hunt.
For the next three hours we climbed farther into the drainage and found a prime spot to setup camp. From camp, we were able to slip out onto a small knoll overlooking the majority of the drainage, plus there were a series of wet meadows and wallows just over the ridge.
That evening, as we sat glassing three bulls across the canyon, a bull bugled just above us. We only had one more hour of light, but we grabbed our packs and headed toward him. He had no interest in my cow calls, but would respond to a bugle. We exchanged several bugles with him, but he continued moving up and away from us, always just out of sight.
Finally, after bird dogging him for a half hour, he seemingly drew a line in the dirt and held his ground opposite a large patch in pine. We eased closer, bugling over the top of his every bugle. He became more and more agitated, and finally, after we got within what must have been his comfort zone, he turned and started toward us. I readied my bow and waited, listening to the twigs crack and pop as he approached. The wind hadn’t been great, but it was good enough to get us this close. Just as he was about to step out, the wind betrayed us, and just like that, he was gone before we got a chance to see him. We loaded up and headed back to camp while we listened to several more bulls screaming up the canyon.
I slept much better that night, and once again, we hung our food a couple hundred yards downwind of camp to avoid any bear encounters. The next morning, we climbed out of the tent just before light and after a quick PowerBar breakfast, we slipped into the knoll and listened. Within minutes, we heard two different bulls bugle from up the canyon.
We checked the wind and began hiking up the draw. Similar to the bull we encountered the previous night, these bulls moved away and eventually timbered up on a large northeast-facing slope. We sat on the timber’s edge exchanging bugles, hoping to again coax out the bulls. In the mean time, I put my glass back to work and glassed another bull from across the canyon. He was a nice six point with a small extra after his sword on the left side. For the next 20 minutes I watched him and his three cows feeding back to the east, toward a timber patch where it appeared they would bed for the afternoon. Every few minutes he would bugle, and at one point, I thought I even heard a second bull answer him.
I looked farther up the ridge, and another bull appeared over the ridge pushing nine cows. This bull appeared to be similar in size, like the other bull I watched although, this one had better back tines and his extra was on the opposite side. We sat watching both bulls as they postured and pushed their harems into separate timbered slopes. By 10 a.m., the bugling stopped.
We looked over the pictures of both bulls that I took through the spotting scope and after some review, I decided that I would be happy with either bull. Based on the wind, which was relatively steady out of the west, we decided that we would loop around on the second bull we watched, and spent the afternoon staked out on the ridge opposite of the timber he and his cows were bedded in. He appeared on the ridge mid-morning and given his location, we both thought he was likely to drop into the bottom that evening to water.
Distances out west can be deceiving, and what appeared to have been an hour-long hike turned into more than two. By the time we crested the ridge and snuck into position behind some cover, it was almost 2:30 p.m. The wind was still steady out of the northwest, but black clouds began to gather, and rain blowing in sideways followed. We sat huddled together in our rain gear hoping for the storm to pass. By 3:30 p.m., the rain and wind had lessened and a bugle erupted from the timber across the canyon. A few minutes later, we heard another bugle and then cows started popping out into the open. At first, it appeared they may hold the ridgeline opposite of us, but after a few minutes, they turned and began working toward the canyon bottom.
As suspected, the bull drifted out behind his herd, bugling and steering any cow that wandered back into a tight group. We sat watching and waiting for the entire group to dip below a small rise in the topography between us. Finally, he dropped out of sight, and I quickly made my move. I used a small cut in the hillside to quickly close the distance into the bottom where I estimated I could cut the herd off as they passed by.
I covered maybe 70 yards and thought I was making good progress when I heard a massive bugle that sounded like it was directly below me. I stood motionless, scanning the bottom of the draw, and watched as several cows came into sight out of the timber directly below me. I ranged the lead cow as she fed — 102 yards. It appeared that I was going to miss my window of opportunity, the elk seemed to be feeding down the draw and I had run out of cover. So I watched, frustrated and shaking, wondering what to do next.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement back to the right of the cows. The bull stepped out of the timber and bugled again, this time while facing me 100 yards below. He stood chuckling with his head laid back, lip curling. It was a truly awesome experience. At that point, for reasons I can’t explain, I caught a major break. The cows first started up the face toward me, and then began moving back, diagonally up the draw.
The elk fed along, passing behind the few trees that were on the slope between us. I used every opportunity I could to gain yardage. Finally, I got to a point where I anticipated I would have a good shooting lane, and I prepared to draw and shoot. The first cow elk stepped out, and as she fed I ranged her at 55 yards. I slipped my rangefinder back into my pocket and tried to control my breathing and pounding heart.
Elk were drifting by for what seemed like forever and then I saw antler tips coming. Just as his brow tines appeared, I came to full draw. He steadily marched out into my shooting lane. I cow called softly and anchored in, staring a hole in a light spot in his hide directly behind the shoulder. My cow call startled him, and in reaction, he wheeled to face me. I dipped the corner of my hat attempting to cover my eyes. We both stood motionless, one praying not to be seen, the other straining to see what was lurking in the shadows.
After a few seconds, his curiosity was satisfied and he turned once again, and began walking broadside to me. I cow called again, and this time he simply swiveled his massive antlers and looked in my direction. I pulled hard into the backwall and felt the release give way. I knew immediately upon impact that I just harvested this bull. He turned and bolted, all in one motion back into the bottom of the draw, and started up the other side. I could clearly see his heart pumping though both sides of the entry and exit wound.
My brother, who was watching from our perch on the hill, bugled and the bull stopped. I was shaking so badly it was hard to hold steady. He stood for a few moments and then started up the ridge again into a small timber patch. My brother bugled once more, causing the bull to stop. This time I could see he was starting to wobble, and then slowly, he tipped over.
For a moment I just sat there, taking in the view, the sounds and the smells. I hiked back up to Tyler, and we recounted the events and after a few minutes reloaded our packs and made the hike over to the fallen bull.
After admiring the bull, and taking over an hours’ worth of pictures, it began to rain again.
We had a two-hour hike back to camp, and decided that we would process the bull in the morning.
I slept well that night, even though I was anticipating a massive amount of work in the morning. At first light, while laying in the tent, I heard a cow elk. By the sound and tone, I told my brother I thought that it was another hunter. Previously, the plan had been to quarter and hang the meat and then hike out to the trailhead where we could make a phone call to a friend that had horses, but if there was a hunter outside the tent with horses, I wanted to talk to them.
I scrambled out of the tent and looking to the west, I could see a horse tied to a tree less than 200 yards from our tent. I walked over, and as I approached the horse another bowhunter came walking toward me through the trees.
His name was Greg Paris, he was hunting alone, and after hearing my story and only knowing us for less than five minutes, offered to us his three horses to help pack out my bull. We broke camp, and hiked two miles up the canyon to his camp to help him prepare the horses. During this two-mile stretch, we saw the first and only grizzly sign of the trip, a fresh track in the mud less than a half mile from camp. After getting the horses, and making the three-mile hike back to the bull, we quartered and boned the meat out.
The one item his horses would not pack were the antlers, so I had the pleasure of packing them out, and I mean that honestly. For the next six hours we hiked. Arriving at the trailhead just as darkness was setting in was such an overwhelming feeling.
I felt grateful for the adventure I had, the challenge, the new and amazing country we saw, the chance to hunt with my brother, the gift of a clean ethical shot, and the success of doing it by ourselves in the backcountry.