A do or die 48 hour scramble for elk
As always, I was running late. Early muzzleloader season opened tomorrow in Washington and my buddies had already been waiting for a couple of hours. Finally, I pulled into Tyson’s driveway and the jokes began with the majority coming from Jason Phelps as he is perfect in his eyes! We loaded everything into the truck and I realized I had left my bin on the ground at my house next to my rig. The jokes soon turned into deep digs we began to see that this was going to turn into a very long night. After driving an hour back to get my bin full of camo and other essentials we were finally on our way! We anticipated laying glass on a couple of bulls by the time we hit the highway en route to our destination. Lucky for me, my friends managed to stay in good spirits — probably because I was the only one with a tag!
We arrived at the trailhead around 10 p.m. with a light rain falling from the sky. We sat in the truck, contemplating whether to hike in and set up camp or just sleep in the truck. I cannot sleep inside of a truck for some reason and I’m fairly certain Jason and Tyson learned their lesson once they let me decide what to do. I will always hike in even if that means getting wet. We had the Kifaru Sawtooth and Smith Cylinder stove to dry out with so we weren’t too worried about the wet concept. Loading up all the camera and camp gear is always a challenge, but we got it done and started up the trailhead, snickering as we walked right around a giant wall tent at the bottom. We decided to set up camp after about an hour and a half of hiking in an open alpine timber patch and I am glad we did. As soon as we got the Sawtooth and Tyson’s tent set up, we were caught in a torrential downpour as we gathered wood for the stove. This sort of put a damper on things because we’ve always had better luck getting the bulls hot when the weather is hot, but there was no bringing our spirits down!
Once we had camp set up and the gear bomb went off (organized) inside the shelters, it was already midnight. Time for dinner! While the downpour continued, the Smith Cylinder cranked out heat, keeping it a toasty 93 degrees inside. I’m pretty sure I lost my fire stoking privileges. It was a pretty cozy dinner three deep in the Sawtooth; however, I wouldn’t recommend sleeping three in it with the stove. There was too much excitement and anticipation going through my head to sleep, but we finally crashed around 1:30 a.m. and Jason was snoring by 1:32 a.m.!
Opening morning was crystal clear. You could tell that the high country must have needed the rain because it seemed alive in the first morning light. We were in good hunting right from camp. Even though it came from Jason, that first bugle was like music to my ears. The alpine was soaked and we counted on it being hard to get a bull to respond in the morning even though we continued to bugle and cow call as if there was a bull waiting to sound off in every direction.
We made our way to the highest point to glass and try to locate a bull. It was an absolutely gorgeous morning to be outside and we soaked up every minute of it. Yet, first light glassing turned up nothing and we went off to the timber for some cold calling. The huge timber of Washington’s high country is a sight to see if you haven’t. Every time we set up to call I pictured a giant bull disturbing the fog rolling through the old growth as he came in. The morning resulted in some amazing views and no elk. Tyson and Jason decided we’d eat lunch on a rock outcropping overlooking a big basin.
As we ate and joked with each other, I realized how lucky I was to have hunting partners who take time from their families and lives just to follow me around with a camera and a bugle tube. Mid-rumination, Jason interrupted, and said, “We need to be there.” He stared across the basin to a big timbered bench. Tyson and I quickly agreed and away we went.
The elk sign became extremely heavy as we made our way closer and closer to the bench. My hopes were soaring as we descended further and further down to the bench. Game trails turned into highways and, all of a sudden, we felt the wind slap us in the back. A quick group meeting resulted in us continuing towards the bench as I had a muzzleloader and could shoot further than a bow and arrow, which was our preferred weapon of choice. Breaking out off the steep hill onto that bench was like a breath of fresh air and it looked like an elk sanctuary. Three wallows in a row and sign everywhere had us on full alert. We called and called and called, working different methods and tactics until we were left stumped. The elk had clearly been there recently yet we couldn’t even get a bull to answer. Was it the recent downpour? We bet on the weather as we had a ton of confidence in our caller’s ability to get bulls to answer.
The afternoon progressed as we made our way through the park-like bench and the sun began to heat things up. After climbing back up off the bench to a little vantage point we decided a little MTNOPS Enduro was in order. Jason let loose a bugle. It was immediately answered. Jason thought it was another hunter. Obviously, we wanted to be sure. I’m sure most of you reading this know that elk can sometimes be the worst buglers. Until I hear the tube in it or the terminator dooooodle deee doooooooo, I will give it a chance to be an elk. Yet, low and behold, we saw a hunter making his way toward us with the wind directly in our faces. We had our fun with it and decided calling in muzzleloader hunters was much more dangerous than calling in bowhunters!
Elevation loss and gain is no stranger to where we hunt and we had roughly 1,200’ to gain before setting up for our nightcap calling/glassing session. It always feels better when you have a tag in pocket so, naturally, I felt bad for my buddies. Breaking into the alpine is never a let down and this time didn’t disappoint as the sun was in the process of setting and we had front row seats.
The spotters came out and a soft cow calling sequence was under way when we heard it: the nastiest, raspiest, growl let loose from the bottom of the very canyon that we had just climbed out of. With the sun setting, we looked at each other without much hesitation and ran back down the trail we had just come up. In about four minutes we went down what took us an hour to go up. It would have been faster, but we’d stop, bugle, he’d cut Jason’s bugle off, and we’d keep running. Our run came to a rapid halt as we approached a 100’ cliff and let one more bugle rip. The bull answered again and was already across the basin headed up the other side! I don’t know how those animals cover so much ground so quickly but we just got dominated. Now we were right back in the exact spot we were in when we called in that hunter.
Only having two days to get it done can be nerve wracking, especially when things don’t work out. Jason had his binoculars glued to his head as he looked across where the bull was headed. Then he said, “Elk!”
Frantically, Tyson and I threw our binoculars up and found them. Cows, cows everywhere. We glassed over 20 cows without seeing a bull, which seemed extremely odd given the time of year. My guys were looking for other elk as I decided to scan back over to the cows and I laid eyes on a muscle strapped mountain bull.
“There he is,” I said.
Jason put the Razor HD spotting scope on the tripod and we started judging. I badly wanted to shoot a mature bull, but with only two days to hunt, I would have gladly shot the first opportunity that I had at a legal bull. After about ten seconds, Jason said, “It looks like a 260” six point.”
I stepped up and took a look through the spotter. It amazed me that even at more than 2,000 yards, he looked twice the size of all the cows. I watched him bugle through the spotter and heard it a couple seconds later. We sat there on that hillside and watched him run his herd, bugling way too much for his safety until just before dark.
Our hike back up the mountain toward camp had us contemplating how to go about killing him. Tyson and Jason both agreed we would kill him if we could get close as he was clearly agitated. I was a little bummed we had to tear camp down because it had cleared up and every star in the universe was out. I’m always trying to take advantage of good photo opportunities while out scouting or hunting and this night would have been great for that, but we also had business to attend to.
As soon as we got back to camp, Jason laid down on his pad and asked, “Do we really have to relocate tonight?”
I chuckled a little bit and guilt tripped him into getting back up to start tearing everything down. A few freeze dried meals later, we were loaded up and headed down the trail. Jason said he thought he knew where the road split off to get us closer to the herd, but it was washed out at the bottom. We figured it close to three miles to where we left the elk that night and planned on getting to them just after first light in the morning.
It was getting close to midnight as Tyson drove down the road. Jason was in the passenger seat nodding off mid-sentence and Tyson passed the road a couple of different times. At this point I couldn’t really tell if I was awake or not. It seemed as if we turned around fourteen times and still weren’t there. Finally, Jason yelled, half joking, “There it is!”
We pulled in sometime after 1 a.m. and decided we’d better get to sleep. Jason and Tyson took the front and I slept outside in the bed. 4:30 a.m. came way too early, but I was so excited to get up to this bull and see if he was still there. I wasn’t expecting to need to gain over 3,000’ and we found ourselves still hiking three hours later.
Second guessing ourselves as if we missed a turn was the worst feeling. Wondering if this was all for nothing, we broke into an old clearcut at the bottom of a giant rock peak I recognized from across the drainage. At least now we knew we were still on track. Closing in on 8 a.m., over two hours later than we wanted, we were hiking through the old growth down the alder overtaken old logging road when an all too familiar sound erupted in front of us.
It sounded like we’d spooked a herd of elephants.
Jason immediately started cow calling and they talked right back to him. The camera was rolling and I started feeling my nerves kick in. All of the sudden, one of the cows that was mewing at us bugled. I’ve heard of it happening a lot but never heard it for myself. She continued to bugle lightly and it seemed like we had a standoff with them forever. We could hear the cows milling around in the timber above us yet we were stumped because there was no irritated bull with them like the night before.
Jason sounded off with a challenge bugle and instantly that bull decided that he’d better make his presence known. The shrill sound of that bull’s bugle through the old growth is something every hunter should hear. Our nerves and adrenaline started going nuts as we ran down the road to a big corner to make our next move. It was on. We set up, Jason on my right and Tyson on my left, 40 yards from an alder patch that had completely taken over the old logging road except for a game trail running through the middle of it. Back and forth, Jason and the bull kept screaming at each other; the bull’s bugle getting closer and closer every time.
Out of nowhere, a couple of calves blew off the hill behind us almost running us over since they didn’t have a clue we were there. Somehow, we found ourselves in between that bull and his herd and I’d have it no other way. As I watched his lead cow get pushed through the alders to check us out I thought to myself; this is the moment I’ve waited all year for. Take a deep breath, aim, and kill him when he steps through. As the cow came through she could tell something was wrong and, without hesitation, Jason ripped a bugle. The bull couldn’t hold back any longer. He stepped through the brush and stopped, facing me straight on, staring right through us. I aimed low center for the heart and felt my gun go off.
The smoke flew and the bull whirled as the rest of the herd exploded down the hill. Shaking, I high-fived my friends. After all the laughs and congratulations, Jason asked, “Did you hit him?”
I said, “Yeah.” But you can’t be completely sure on that answer as you never know with a muzzleloader when they don’t immediately go down. Tyson and Jason insisted that we give him time even though they both thought they heard him crash. We watched the footage multiple times and couldn’t tell if I had hit him or not.
Even though I was sure I had hit him doubt, began to creep over me. After what had seemed like hours we walked over to where he was standing when I shot. No blood anywhere. I’d been in this situation before and it ended poorly so, at that point, the doubt was really starting to take over. We kept our heads up and pressed forward, even without any blood.
Jason looked up and yelled, “There he is!”
Then I saw him, lying only 20 yards from where I shot him. We saw that he had a kicker to boot!
A huge feeling of relief and accomplishment flooded me and I didn’t have much more to say other than thank you to Tyson and Jason for helping make this happen. He was a beautiful bull and my biggest to date.
The amount of respect I have for these animals is insane. He was truly king of that hill and they make the extreme country they live in look like a walk in the park.
I was humbled.
Now it was time to get to work — as if five and a half miles up hill to get to him in the first place wasn’t enough. We took some photos that I'll cherish forever and began taking care of the meat. The veterans went to work deboning the meat as I photographed the whole process.
During this pack out I decided that everyone needs a friend like Jason Phelps. He may not be the prettiest, but hot dang, when it comes time to pack meat, the guy gets it done. Two of the large T.A.G. game bags stuffed so full we couldn’t close the top all the way went in his Kifaru AMR along with 30 lb. of camera and hunting gear; never once did he complain.
Tyson is also an animal. Not a super big guy and I’m fairly certain his pack weighed close to his own body weight. I knew the downhill wouldn’t be fun but it’s such a good pain knowing what we accomplished and I’d do it again any day of the week.
We decided to power it out in one trip. Each step was a struggle and I loved it.
The sight of Tyson’s truck was welcoming when we finally arrived. I took my pack off on the tailgate and enjoyed the feeling that seems like you are lifting off the ground, starting to fly. We enjoyed the ride down and ended my season with a burger and a couple beers on me.
I’d like to formally thank Jason Phelps and Tyson Drevniak for making that weekend happen. I would have gone alone but I wouldn’t have had near as much fun and let's face it, I’d probably still to this day be packing that bull out. Another thing we couldn’t have done without is our Kifaru AMR’s. I’m not saying at all that this is the only pack that could have gotten it done but it is, by far, the best that I have used. I highly recommend them to anyone that wants to be able to pack heavy loads longer.