Public Land Archery Elk Hunting - Part II, THE HUNT
We learned so much on this trip. I hope you can benefit from our mistakes and lessons learned. This is a multi-piece article, and if you haven't read part 1, CLICK HERE. In part 1, you'll learn about the scouting process, how we made decisions on where to hunt, and finally a complete list of the gear used.
This story best unfolds from a timeline perspective, here we go.
It's September 20th, and we arrive in SE Idaho for an 8 day do-it-yourself over the counter archery elk hunt, the weather had just dumped 20" of snow at the high elevations, and about a foot of snow where we found elk. We weren't sure what to think of the weather, but were optimistic that the forecast would be improving, hopefully leading to some elk activity. Our hunting group consisted of:
- My Dad, 61 years old, worked construction his whole life, he loves hunting whitetails in Upper Michigan and fishing on Lake Superior in his spare time
- Chris, 50 years old, an eye surgeon who grew up in Colorado. Some experience hunting mule deer, and elk with a rifle as a kid growing up
- Myself, 29 years old, grew up hunting whitetails in the midwest. Moved west after graduating college, I've been in the Pacific Northwest for 5 years. Family, fitness, and outdoor activities are how I spend most of my "free time"
We'd be hunting out of our backpacks. Two firsts here, none of us had been elk hunting, or backpacking. We had a large learning curve. Thanks to the internet, some friends, and plenty of research I felt like we did our best to prepare for the unknown. Leading into the hunt we had spent a lot of time e-scouting. We used Google Earth in combination with OnX maps to pick out spots we felt like had a high chance of holding elk. We would mark the spots on OnX maps, and download the offline maps. We had picked out 6-8 spots to scout and hopefully could find sign. Knowing that it had snowed, we were hoping to find elk tracks.
Here we go, first spot, a beautiful looking canyon that had all the features, water, north/south/west slopes. I believed it too good to be true, and figured somebody else would be hunting it. We get to a point where I can let out a bugle into the canyon. I let out MY FIRST EVER BUGLE. Instantly I get a response! But we weren't sure if it was a bull. I let out another bugle, something bugles back. Holy smokes, is it a bull? Finally after bugling back and forth 10-15 times. We realize that it's a bull moving far faster than a person could. Good news, we found a bull! Bad news it's all the way across a nasty canyon. I look over at my dad, he's got wild eyes. He says, "Let's go!" I couldn't disagree, we both had elk fever. Chris would be joining us that evening he'd hike in the dark. So here we go, it's mid-afternoon probably five hours until dark. 1000 vertical feet down a steep slope, and 800 feet up the other side we found a respectable camping spot to drop the gear, and about 2 hours to hunt before dark. No sign of the elk that night, bugling activity had shut off.
That evening we were winding down at camp and waiting for our buddy Chris to arrive at camp. We'd both joked that he was going to get his money's worth on the hike in. It was one to remember. Probably the most vivid memory I have is Chris sending a text to me on the Garmin Inreach, he said "I'm here". He was half way, at the bottom of the canyon near the creek. About 90 minutes later he comes in to camp. First words "I was about to give up and find you guys in the morning, I said 100 more feet up and that was it". Luckily we met up.
The following morning we head out optimistic we'd find elk. We head towards where the bugles were the night before, about a half hour hike up the mountain, towards a sage flat. On the way up we heard a bugle, boom! It was so exciting. The anticipation had us hiking quickly. We get to the sage flat only to find the elk feeding out and up the draw towards us. We had our eyes on this 5X5 we saw cresting the horizon 200 yards off when a cow snuck up on us and spooked. We got caught looking at the prize, and not being observant enough of what was going on around us.
That morning was more or less blown. But we hike up the ridge a ways to scout more only to find some more public land hunters. They were friendly, said they had hiked 4 or 5 miles in, and it would be their last day on the mountain. They made an unsuccessful play on the elk. We had a very sobering conversation. The realization had set in that if we got an elk. It would be nearly impossible to hike it back out of the canyon we hiked through to get there. That morning we decided he had to re-locate the camp. It meant hiking the death canyon we came in from the day before. It had to be done though. Fortunately according to our OnX maps there was an old forest service road that could get us in there. It would be about a 4 mile hike, very doable. So we broke down camp and made our way back to the trucks.
Fast forward, we hike in down the forest service road. I was itching to get there. I hiked out in front of the guys. I got to our pre-planned camping spot only to find a bugle fest going on below me. Two bulls were going wild about 400 yards below where we planned to camp. I did my best novice play on the elk and did some cow calling, they bugled back but didn't close the distance. Looking back I should have closed the distance on them, lesson learned. We were excited though! Bulls near camp, nobody else around. It had seemed the stars were aligning.
Ok, we're camped near elk. Scenery is beautiful, does it get better? I'm not sure, the camping spot alone has a memory etched into the brain. But we weren't out there for the camping, we were there to get an elk. That next morning we set out to where the elk had been staging. Stopped at a neutral location to listen for bugles, sure enough boom, they were in a similar spot staging down near the sage. As we moved in on them we realized they were heading across the ridge towards us. We were in position to cut them off moving through the timber. As the bugles near, anticipation rises. My Dad was setup down the ridge about 100 yards from me. I hear the elk coming through the timber and let out a cow call. I look left and see my dad raise his bow, couldn't believe it, he was about to have an opportunity. All I could think was I sure hope those elk present a shot. Next thing I know he touches off the shot! I'm in awe and hoping for the best. I see the elk go running through the timber, and approach my Dad. We talk it over and he was a bit nervous about the shot. Said he had a window, but it was 70 yards. I let him stay up on the ridge to guide me to where the elk were. I find where the bull spooked, but no blood immediately. Follow his trail, and find blood! We were so excited. It's always been my Dad's dream to get an elk out west. So we give it a couple hours and decide it's time to track the elk. There's decent blood, spattering here and there as we follow the trail. The snow was super helpful tracking. The bull was headed uphill now and we were about 2 miles in, that's when the sinking feeling set in. We continued to track as I watched the optimism disappear from everybody's eyes. Next thing you know we're 5 miles in, blood is almost gone, then 7 miles in blood disappears and we hear a distant bugle. At that point we determined the bull was not fatally wounded. It was heartbreaking, and a decision that didn't come lightly. Dad pursued him a little further as we setup over a wallow and called a bit. Needless to say nothing happened, no bull.
As we're sitting around talking we form a plan for the evening hunt. We decided to split up. Chris would head back towards the tents as his ongoing joke was "You don't need to hike so far to find elk, they're right by camp". Dad and I would stay on the ridge near where we've found the most activity. All of a sudden I see my Garmin Inreach beeping, I have a text. The text reads "Bull down!" I couldn't believe it. We hike to find Chris, and sure enough he had laced an arrow into both lungs of a 5X5 elk no more than 250 yards from camp.
Chris' story - he walked down a small road off shooting from camp. Let off a squirrelly bugle, next thing you know this elk bugles back and is charging down at him. He has a cow call in his mouth, and the bull closes the distance. Chris get's an arrow knocked and the bull comes into shooting distance. He draws back, and dumps an arrow into the ground, release came off the d-loop. The bull spooks, Chris sweet calls it back, knocks an arrow, fires it over the bull, he overestimated the yardage. Sweet calls this bull back again, and the bull presents a broadside shot, and Chris put a perfect double lung shot on him! The bull piled up right near the forest service road. Not bad planning, huh? At that point he messaged us. We found Chris, and congratulated him. His first elk, got it done with the bow! We were all elated.
At that point it was time to process the bull. It's amazing how large they are when you first approach them on the ground. It's a bit intimidating but if you've processed other game the anatomy doesn't change much. Elk just have bigger pieces. We processed him and grabbed some for the campfire, hung the rest in the tree. The next day we'd pack him back to the truck. That evening we had fresh elk tenderloins roasted on the rocks next to the campfire. Another experience etched into the memory bank.
The hunt wasn't over though, we still had 3 or 4 days to try and get it done. The next couple days I'd spend chasing the bull of a lifetime. A mature bruiser that had 30 or so cows with him. He was the big boss, if I guess his size he somewhere north of 350". Needless to say we'd hear his bugles, and every day we hunted him more aggressively. Everyday I got within 100 yards of him. Everyday he slipped me. He was wise, and grew to be that size for a reason. He had a different exit route everyday. I think he educated me more than I educated him. I learned a lot and am looking forward to the 2018 season. Those experiences left me so hungry, I want more time in the mountains, more time chasing those bugles. September can't come soon enough. But in the meantime, I'll spend my time preparing for that moment.
Thanks for tuning in for another article! I'll summarize all the tips, tactics, and tribulations we learned from in the next article. I hope you can benefit from our experience. If reading this adds some value to your time in the woods, all the better. Cheers to September.