Elk Hunting and Hard Lessons Learned
It was a long drive back to Kansas City, but the hours in the truck finally allowed me to reflect on this trip in its entirety. So many things went differently than I had imagined. This trip had been planned for over a year. When you plan something for that long it's hard to understand how your expectations could be so wrong. But that's exactly what happened to my friend, Alex, and I on our trip to Idaho to hunt elk.
Hit the Ground Running
It had been quite a day to say the least. We finally arrived to our location after a two day drive and we planned to park the truck near a trail. We would backpack into our campsite and hunt within a couple miles from there. The plan was to hunt for almost two weeks, so we had a good amount of gear and food to bring along. The Rokon would help us get our heaviest stuff up the trail and to camp. If you don't know, the Rokon is an awesome, little, two wheel drive motorcycle. It's not exactly fast, but it is built for trails in mind and can climb over logs and rocks, and can haul a good amount of gear. Unfortunately for us, the trail we were on suddenly ended and we couldn't get the Rokon along any further due to the steepness of the ridge in front of us. After walking around for about 20 more minutes, I found the intersecting trail we were looking for at the top of the ridge. I dropped my pack and gear just off the trail and went back down. I took off on the motorcycle and tried to make it to the top of that ridge by a couple different trails, but only achieved the same outcome. After giving up and parking the Rokon, I took the big duffel bag off the bike which contained all our dehydrated meals for two weeks, and carried it on my back like it was a backpack. Problem was, this duffel bag weighed about 50 lbs and wasn't built for the job I was asking of it. The shoulder straps were definitely not made for comfort and to have it loaded like it was and to carry it up the side of a mountain, sounds pretty stupid right about now. At the time, I knew we had to get our stuff up to camp and this was the only way I knew how. We could figure out the motorcycle situation later. A few hundred feet up that steep ridge, left me feeling just about broken. We had gotten our gear and food up to the trail, but we were dead tired and it would be dark in just a couple more hours. Not to mention we were only halfway to our campsite and the Rokon was parked at the end of a trail down below us. We decided to make the best of the situation and set up our camp along the trail we were at. It was eerily quiet that night and just as I was about to fall asleep, a bull elk bugled not far from us. It didn't help me sleep, but that bugle gave me hope and some extra energy we would surely need for the next day.
We filtered and filled our water in a nearby spring just off the trail and packed our stuff to head towards our campsite. We couldn't take all our food and gear since we no longer had the motorcycle to help assist. The trail up to the campsite was steep, rocky, and narrow. Alex and I both agreed riding the Rokon would be sketchy and probably not feasible. I imagined the Rokon, loaded down with food and camp essentials, slipping off the edge of the trail and tumbling several hundred feet down the rock slide before smashing into a tree. I wasn't about to try it.
My body was hurting from carrying the food bag up the ridge the day before, and by the time we made it to the campsite with the rest of our gear, I felt like I'd just played in a football game. My shoulders and back were done for and my calves and feet were already sore from hiking around with heavy packs. The campsite looked solid, except there was one problem. We didn't see any more water on our hike and there wasn't any around the camping area we picked out. We sat down, ate our lunches, and saw a couple guys riding mountain bikes towards the way we just came. They waved and went on. We must have looked awful. We were sweaty and covered in trail dirt, and they were wearing shorts and t-shirts for a casual 20-something mile ride around the trail. How fun.
After lunch, we headed off towards our hunting location to scout and search for water. The area looked more like a desert than it did elk habitat. I could feel the dust getting in my eyes and mouth. The only main source of water we could find was directly on one of our hunting locations and it looked like it should have had a toxic waste sign sticking out of it. Ironically, we stumbled across a dead deer a couple hundred yards away. It was like something you would see on an old cartoon. It was a sick joke. We barely had enough water to last us for the rest of the day, but I'd have to be dying to drink filtered water from that cesspool. We walked on for several more miles with no more sign of water. This had been our number one hunting spot and we couldn't even hunt this area because there wasn't any water for us to drink. We tucked our tails between our legs, grabbed our packs, and made the long hike back down to the truck. We found a campground to stay at while we figured out where we should hunt, but half our food and gear was along the trail where we camped the first night, and the motorcycle was still sitting at the end of another trail. What a complete mess this already was.
The next morning, Alex drove me to the trail and I retrieved the Rokon. We finally figured out where the trail we had camped at the first night began, so I rode the Rokon a little over a mile up the trail and got the rest of our food and gear packed on the bike. The trail was filled with big rocks and was slow going most of the time. I had a blister on my thumb from the constant rough riding, but I was thankful for not having to hike up and down that damn trail. That afternoon and the next day were spent scouting various locations. We found several spots that could have potential, but we saw very little recent sign of elk. We did manage to find lots of cows. I'm talking about BEEF, not cow elk. After hiking several miles and climbing a sharp, steep ridge, only to find several walking hamburgers atop a meadow at 9500 feet, was frustrating to say the least.
Finally, an Elk
We decided to try a new location that required hiking along a trail for a few miles. When we got to our location, we finally found fresh sign of elk and sat down at a clearing in the timber to eat our lunch. I took my boots and socks off and started to eat lunch. I thought about how I would need to take care of my heels otherwise my feet would start to blister soon. Alex interrupted my thoughts on foot care and pointed to my left. Sure enough, a bull elk had just walked out of the trees. Once he turned away from us, Alex told me to pick up my bow and he snuck into the trees behind us to help call and range distance. He wasn't a huge trophy sized bull, but he was a decent 5x5. Plenty big enough for what I was after.
While I was sitting on the log, he was standing perfectly broadside to me, getting a drink at 68 yards. I had been shooting my bow regularly for months now and felt confident in good conditions shooting out to 60 yards. I was standing now but the bull started to move away from me. He found another spot to drink from and was now 85 yards away. Alex made a cow call. The bull stared in our direction without moving for about two minutes. It felt more like two hours. He finally went back to his business and Alex called again. He looked our way, and to our disbelief, his curiosity got the best of him and he started walking directly towards me. I heard Alex whisper 72 yards. I was standing in the shaded cover in front of the trees and this elk was headed straight at me. He walked slowly and continued to look directly at me. I wasn't moving a muscle. I barely heard Alex say, "35 yards." There was a small hole out in front of me and the elk put his head down to get another drink. I started to raise my bow but that was a mistake. The bull saw me move and pulled his head up quickly. Water dripped from his mouth as we stared directly at one another. His front legs were bent and I knew at any second he was going to dart away in either direction. I could feel my muscles tightening and wanting to twitch but I knew I couldn't move until he did.
He finally stood up straight. A few moments later, he suddenly turned away from me. I drew my bow back. He took a couple of steps away from me, then turned back towards us, quartered away slightly to the right. I guessed he was at 37 yards. I knew exactly where to hold my pins and within a brief moment, I saw where I wanted that arrow to go and squeezed my release...
I watched in horror as my arrow flew high and to the right. This couldn't have just happened. An overwhelming rush of emotions flooded over me as the elk ran back into the timber from where he came. The moment was over and there wasn't anything else I could do. I ran my hands over the top of my head and wanted to pull my hair out as I sat back down on the log. No doubt about it, this one hurt. I had prepared for this moment for a long time and it was all gone within a second. I didn't have any excuses. I knew this fault was my own, but I had felt prepared. Alex called the elk in well within my range. I was proficient with my bow out to 60 yards. 40 yards and under should have been automatic. My physical conditioning was good. My bow, arrows, and gear didn't fail me. In that final moment before I took my shot, I was running purely on instinct. Not the kind of instincts a pro baseball player uses to determine whether a pitcher is going to throw a 95 mph fastball or a 70 mph curveball as the ball comes out of his hand. No, the instincts I was operating on were much more basic. I was firmly held by fear. There was a short window of opportunity that presented itself and I was afraid of losing it. Instead of focusing and taking a shot I had practiced for countless hours, my concentration was centered completely with the elk in front of me. I wasn't ready to send that arrow flying when I pulled my release. I rushed my shot and because of that, I missed my first opportunity at a bull elk.
On the long walk back to the truck, I spotted a moose. He was laying down on the ridge next to us a few hundred yards away. I hadn't ever seen a moose in the wild before and it helped to take my mind off the earlier fiasco. The next morning we didn't see any elk, but we did see a wolverine run across a log about 70 yards from us. A few hours later, a light rain slowly turned into a shower. It was getting cold with the wind and rain coming in on us. We took shelter under a tree and put a trash bag above us for additional cover. Lightning and thunder started up and I couldn't help but laugh at our misfortune when small pieces of hail started coming down. The weather was intense for about 15 to 20 minutes. As the thunder started to fade, we decided it was time to go. With all the rain, it wasn't like we would be able to track an elk if we shot one anyway. It was a good thing we brought two trash bags, and I'm glad we opted for the thick contractor bags. We poked holes in our bags and wore them like ponchos over our clothes and packs. It took about 30 minutes of stepping over logs in the rain-soaked timber before getting back onto the trail. An hour into our hike back to the truck, the rain quit and the sun came out. Of course... We felt better about ourselves once we got to the truck, since it looked like the other hunters in that area came down off the mountain and were drying clothes and gear out also.
Encounters of the Hillbilly Kind
There was still the majority of the afternoon left and not much to do at our camp except wait for our stuff to dry, so we decided to go into one of the nearby towns and get some real food and fuel for the truck. We got burgers at a local diner and headed back to camp. We were about 30 minutes away and driving in the dark. The highway we were on was as flat as a pancake and you could see headlights from miles away. There were two sets of lights in front of us. After the first truck went past, I saw the second truck coming shortly behind it and it appeared to be swerving. I think I told Alex "woah, watch out", but it all happened so quickly, I'm not certain what I actually said, if anything at all. A big Dodge Ram 3500 was about to smash the living daylights out of the front driver's side of Alex's F-150, and more importantly us, but he turned again at the last second and destroyed Alex's mirror. After a several choice words, we looked back and the truck had stopped so we decided to turn around and talk with the driver. As I started to think about how we were on a small country highway at dark, one house within view, and no cell service, this lanky guy maybe 60 years old, gets out of his truck, starts talking 100 miles a minute and lights up a cigarette. His passenger, about the same age but smaller, got out of the truck and was also acting strange. Alex and I glance at each other and know we need to leave. These guys weren't going to help us out and the situation was tense. They seemed like they were on drugs or drunk, or maybe both. It was time to cut our losses. Since our attention was strictly focused on these two hillbillies, we didn't get their license plate. Both parties had lost mirrors and fighting these two over the cost of the mirror didn't seem worth it. As it turned out, when the mirror exploded, it scratched the side of Alex's door and down the side of his truck. The repair suddenly got a whole lot more expensive. Instead of simply replacing a mirror, Alex would have to file an insurance claim for the likely thousands of dollars worth of damage. We would talk with a friendly local deputy later on and while there wasn't much hope of repayment for the damage, he was hopeful this case would allow them to move forward with getting stripes painted on the rural highway and slowing people down. We were alive and thankfully no one was hurt, but what a terrible ending to another day.
More Hunters and Bad Weather
It was now the weekend and the only hunting location we had managed to find elk sign and see an elk, was now covered in hunters. At the trailhead, there were almost a dozen trucks and almost as many tents and camps set up. Not really having any other location to go to, we decided to try it anyhow. It's funny how up until this point we had only heard one bugle that first night we camped, but all of a sudden we heard bugles everywhere we went. I bugled once during the day as a reply and called in a group of three hunters. They didn't see us and made themselves at home about 80 yards away from us. I saw a mule deer but no elk while we were waiting there. We ditched that location after awhile and made our way to a more remote spot to hopefully lose some of the hunters and the bugle fest. We sat on this other location until dark and as soon as the sun went over the trees, the bugles started up again. I decided to try one bugle and that turned into calling in two different groups of hunters. One guy got within about 12 yards from me before he saw me waving at him. My prior public land hunting experience is next to nothing, but I know we weren't going to have any luck finding elk with a couple dozen hunters all stomping around, calling like maniacs, and stinking those few square miles up. If I were an elk, I wouldn't have been hanging around there.
Our morale was low and we decided to not hunt the next day mainly due to poor weather. We finally caught up on some much needed rest, but the weather was absolutely depressing. It rained almost the entire day and was starting to get even colder. Our tent looked sad in the rain and we spent the majority of the afternoon sitting in the truck, listening to music, and discussing the ridiculousness of this trip. It looked like colder weather and snow would be coming within the next day or two. Perfect. While we had brought some cold weather clothes, we weren't prepared for freezing conditions, let alone snow. Previous forecasts had shown highs of 60's and 50's throughout the second week we would be there. Now the middle of the week was calling for snow and highs in the low 30's.
The next day we hiked up the trail and didn't see anything at the first spot we hunted. We found a small location on our map which was much more remote than the other locations we had been to. In order to get there, it took about another hour of climbing over more of those fallen trees and logs I have grown to love so much. The wind was in our favor and it looked promising as we came down into the location. As I came in close to the edge of the clearing, I paused, looked to my right, and saw camo pants, a bow, and then a hand waving at me. My shoulders slumped and I let a long, slow breath out. We talked to the two hunters for a few minutes and they were nice guys, but I couldn't hold my frustration or disappointment in any longer. Alex and I didn't really talk on the two and a half hour hike back to the truck. There wasn't much else we could say that we didn't already know. They were forecasting heavy snow for the next day and freezing temperatures for the rest of the week. We were throwing in the towel.
I had missed our only shot at an elk this trip, but I thought back on that day and how it was an entirely chance encounter that we saw him in the first place. We had hiked a good deal off the trail to get to that location and if we had taken a break or gotten to that clearing a few minutes later, we likely never would have even seen that elk. It still stings knowing I missed my shot at that bull, but I'm over feeling sorry for myself. I know I'm not the first or only hunter to miss a shot like that, and I'm grateful for that chance and opportunity. Unfortunately, I had to learn a hard lesson that day. While I was physically prepared for that chance encounter, I didn't take the time to focus on my shot when it mattered most. In the end, it was a mental error that got the best of me.
That being said, we didn't drive 2000 miles round trip to only learn a lesson on the importance of mental focus. There were mistakes made from day one. We made entirely too many assumptions about where we were going without ever even setting foot in the state. When our main plan fell through, we weren't really sure how to proceed. We didn't account for rain, freezing temperatures, or snow, and since our entire plan was based on the assumption of backpacking into our hunting area, we didn't bring along heavy cold weather clothes. We didn't have a good way of drying our clothes other than hanging them outside, which doesn't work too well when it's raining. The rain and cold weather were somewhat unseasonal but that doesn't really matter. I'm grateful we were able to use the motorcycle for this trip, but the only time it was actually useful to us was when I retrieved our extra food and gear along the trail, which never should have been taken up there in the first place. Without shelling out a lot more money, I knew I was going to have to sacrifice some weight savings and bring along my DSLR camera if I wanted to take quality photos and get some video while we were out there. I wouldn't recommend taking along this type of camera gear if you're also trying to hunt. It's doable but not exactly ideal. I was really missing my small Sony RX100 that was stolen a few years ago. Honestly though, I don't regret taking my camera since I was able to use it often and was able to capture a lot of moments during our trip.
By the end of the trip, we had hiked over 75 miles, averaged almost 9 miles per day, seen several mule deer, a wolverine, one very large rabbit, a moose, one elk, hundreds of squirrels, and too many hunters. From what I know (which isn't much), it's almost inevitable to run into other hunters while hunting on public land. The area we were hunting was entirely too crowded though. The good hunting locations we were able to find were obviously well known by many others. Everyone who was hunting like us has access to Google Earth and OnX Maps, but we didn't seriously consider how that could impact the hunting locations we had scouted online. Specifically in that area, you couldn't just move a mile or two and find elk. There were only a couple of prime elk inhabited areas and too many accessible ways for hunters to get there. It didn't matter that we were hiking a minimum of 3 miles in everyday on a trail to get to where the elk were. We didn't anticipate it before the trip, but everyone else was prepared to do the same thing.
Back-country hunting and elk hunting has risen in popularity in recent years. There are affordable compound bows and there are plenty of lightweight gear options that make getting further into the wilderness much more accessible. The barrier to entry for this type of hunting has been lowered. There is a plethora of information out there and it has allowed more people to get involved. Technology has done the exact same thing in many different industries. Some people choose to grumble about it and remember how things used to be in the good ol' days, but I know these changes are good for progress being made and introducing a new generation of hunters. The photography world is no different. I surely wouldn't have been able to jump into photography without the recent affordability of decent equipment. Keep in mind, cell phone cameras now are higher resolution than most cameras professional photographers likely started on. As much as most photographers love talking about gear, a camera is only a tool. A tool helps achieve a desired result. It won't create the solution in the wrong hands. It's like a new bowhunter spending $1500 on their first bow. You can't always buy your way into producing the result you want. There are plenty of guided hunts that will lead you to elk and drastically increase your chances of taking one home. All for a premium price of course. But that wasn't what we were after. We definitely wanted to bring coolers full of elk meat home, but had to go the more affordable route of public land hunting. I could probably save my money for X number of years and go out on a guided hunt at some point, but I wouldn't be able to do it year after year or gain the experience I learned from doing this on our own.
While this trip wasn't anything like Alex or I expected, I know a lot more now than I did before we left. I'll conclude with a couple pieces of advice. Do your research. Make a plan. Practice and prepare like no other. However, I learned more about elk hunting and myself in a little over a week, than I did in a year of preparation for this trip. Making mistakes can hurt, but growing pains are only temporary. If you're serious about something and want to become good or great at it, you will eventually have to step into the metaphorical arena and face your challenges. You will always be limited as to what you can achieve by watching from the sidelines. When it comes down to it, do what you want, but I'd rather fail while pursuing what is meaningful to me, rather than never knowing what could have been. So, I'll keep taking photos, shooting my bow, and pushing myself even if it means learning lessons the hard way.
A special thanks to my friend, Alex. Cheers to hunts to come, brother.