Lightning, Wapiti and Bears…Oh My

(Blogger’s note:  I originally posted this on the General Big Game forum at 24hourcampfire.com  That’s an awesome site and forum for outdoors enthusiasts.  Rick, the owner, gets some real talent there.  Several regular posters there are actual professional writers.)

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November, 2006

This story gets pretty windy, so if you just want details and pix, scroll right to the bottom. My hunting partner and I both drew tags for a nearby unit that historically holds good bulls. Nine preference points it took us both, so I guess you could say we were committed. I spent this summer scouting the country and praying I wouldn’t break a leg before the season!

We left to set up camp Thursday morning. I agreed to meet my buddy at IHOP in the wee a.m. hours and we’d convoy up to where we would set up his wall tent. During breakfast we each remembered what we forgot, ran home after breakfast, and met back up at the gas station.

We finally got up on the plateau late morning and set up the wall tent and other camp trappings at about 8300 ft. We cinched the roof tarps down hard, filled the kerosene stoves, and remembered everything except the trench around the tent. That would haunt us later. We spent Thursday night glassing a few spots we’d been checking all summer. Steve had been keeping tabs on a monster six-point in a particular drainage. We saw some cows and small bulls but didn’t see “his” bull.

Friday we spent more time glassing around seeing lots of elk but no real monsters. One good five-point was the honcho of a small herd and we watched him for nearly an hour. He was noisy, bugling, chuckling, rounding up his dozen cows and shooing away a spike and raghorn in his small herd. He was fun to watch, thinking he was big stuff and acting like a bull twice his size. We figured he’d be a Monday or Tuesday bull, but not a Saturday shooter for the five-day season that started Saturday.

We noticed lots of cattle and cowboy traffic and stopped to visit with a couple cow-punchers up in the high country. They confirmed what I’d started fearing, the deadline for getting cattle out of the USFS grazing leases was Sunday. That meant these guys had been riding around for a couple days yipping, yee-hawing, and rounding up all their cattle. From the looks of things, they’d continue all this for at least a couple more days…right into the season. This surely wouldn’t do us any favors tracking the elk we’d been patterning last month.

Don’t get me wrong, they were nice enough guys and just doing their job. Lord knows ranching and cowpunching is pretty thankless. They even offered up some sightings of some good bulls. But in the same breath they talked about how they didn’t think all this would affect the elk patterns yet a friend of theirs who bowhunted thanked them all to pieces for moving the cattle around in September and running some nice bulls right past him. The USFS is federal and the DOW is state and I’m guessing the two don’t talk much. First rifle season is touted as the best odds season as it’s still in the rut. There’s nothing in the DOW’s fine print about having to elbow your way around the cattlemen riding through the woods pushing everything with hooves in front of them. Oh well, everyone loves a challenge.

Saturday morning came, we donned our orange and our game faces and headed up the trail. Pretty much the same routine, glassing and seeing elk but no real monsters. The weather started going downhill with fog and rain moving in. We still-hunted through some pockets that usually held game but came up empty. Sunday the weather got worse with thick fog and rain most of the day. It was still better than work!

I still-hunted down a long ridge Sunday and got within spitting distance of every manner of beast except those that I had a tag for: bull and bear. I kicked up two nice bucks, one stood up out of his bed not 10 feet from where I stopped and we had a staredown for a good three minutes. That was fun. Nearly stepped on blue grouse and had eight turkeys and a fat, healthy coyote cross my path. Bear and elk sign everywhere, but no joy with a live one.

bullcanyon

 

Sunday night I got back to the ATV’s before Steve, he and his son went out the adjacent ridge and the views were better. I could hear him bugling and cow-calling playing with at least one other bugling bull. I didn’t want to hunt out his way since he wouldn’t know I was coming and didn’t want to mess up anything he was setting up. There was about a half hour of light left and I was just a short ride to the drainage where we spotted Monday’s five-point so left them a note and scooted up the trail to see if I could put that bull to bed.

I came around a bend about halfway up the trail to see cow elk crossing the road in front of me about 30 yards! I stopped, got ready, and waited to see if a bull was following up the group. A couple more cows came through but no bulls. By then it was dark so I just stretched out on my ATV and waited for the guys to come up the trail.

Watching the night sky, I realized I forgot how neat it was to watch the stars come out. When lying there, they just sort of sneak in and you can never see it. They’re not like raindrops appearing on the window, more like weeds growing in your lawn. You look away, then back and there’s more.

Also while watching said stars, I learned something new. If, while lying on your back, you decide to eat trail mix, it’s very likely a raisin or peanut will drop up your nose. A guy makes quite a commotion in the woods getting it out.

Sunday night I as starting to get bummed on the ride back to camp. I realized this trophy-hunting stuff being picky puts a lot of pressure on a guy. I told my buddy it was almost more fun in years past where we’d hunt OTC areas and any legal bull really got our blood pumping. Anything with five points or a brow time and it’s usually Game On! With us busting our humps to get in after them. Maybe it was the wet and sloppy weather just getting to me.

Remember that trench we forgot to dig? Mother Nature really dumped on us Sunday night, the roads were a sloppy mess and absolutely everything outside the tent got soaked. We took a few steps into the tent to hear “squish, squish,” water was running under the floor tarp and the old carpet we threw down. I hustled outside to go dig that trench, finishing just in time for the rain/snow/sleet to let up. That’s one way to keep warm I guess.

Monday morning came, day three of a five-day hunt, and I was ready to go kill that five-point. We glassed a couple spots on the way up but came up dry so drove on to where we saw Friday’s bull. Parking at the trailhead, we agreed that my buddy would walk in the trail and I’d lag about 3-400 yards behind. The trail stuck to a contour through the first drainage. We worked our way through it with no results. I was coming up to the next spur and spotted Steve running back up the trail waving me along.

I hotfooted up to him and he’d seen a nice six-point above us spook and run over the spur at least to the next drainage. Steve says “he ran through just below where that buck is looking at us.” I looked up and skylined above us about 150 yards was about the heaviest Muley I’d ever seen. Only about 26 inches wide but he had to be as big as my forearm at his base. Any other day I would have stopped to gawk but we had to beat feet up the trail to see if we’d catch that bull in the next drainage.

We scooted over to the next drainage to no avail. Fresh sign but no critters. The trail was still sticking to the contour and was pretty easy walking with good views so we kept going over to the third drainage in. Still no elk but the country was looking good, not much cattle sign, and we were about out to a ridge where we’d seen a fair six-point bedded on Saturday. What’s one more drainage, we’re only about three miles from the ATV’s?

view2unaweep

 

We came over the next spur to the 4th drainage and it looked real good. We both spotted elk on the far, north-facing slope, right away. We ducked down and scoured the ridgeside for elk. There looked to be at least 10 cows walking and bedding through the Spruce and low oaks…and the rear-end of one very bleached elk bedded at the top of the herd. That one moved and sure enough, antlers started waving around in the sunlight, a good bull!

He looked to be a six-point, more than big enough for me at that point. Steve still had his heart set that other bull that had been eluding us so I was more than happy to be the shooter. We grinned at each other and made plans for drawing a bead on the guy. He was about 500 yards at this point and the thick tall oaks didn’t give us much shooting space. We dropped our packs and snuck into the oaks trying to be as quiet as possible. We were moving right at him through the oaks trying to close the range. At about 100 yards in a few pockets opened up enough to get a shot. But that also meant we could be seen moving right at them. I low-crawled down to the last open pocket before the slope of our spur dropped off into really thick oak again.

I set up for a sitting shot with shooting sticks at the top of a small opening. We couldn’t’ see the bull but both knew the Spruce he was behind. The elk were still feeding down the slope and we lasered the nearest cow…330 yards. Sweet.

The bull stepped out and his front half appeared between to trees. “Take him,” says Steve as I flick off the safety, hold on the shoulder, breathe out, and squeeze…

Boom! The bull crumpled but took a couple steps on three legs. A hit low in the shoulder. Damn, he’s still up and behind a tree as I rack another shell in. One more step and he’s in the open again. “Hit him again David” Steve reads my mind as I raise the crosshairs a bit and squeeze again. We’re both of the “shoot them until they fall over” school, especially this far back off the trail.

Boom! The bull rolls over pointy side down, shady side up. Yes! This one’s done. After gathering our wits I leave all the goodies I won’t need to work on the elk and start heading over to him. After I talk Steve out of helping me clean the elk, he agrees to stay put until I get over to the bull and radio back an all clear. These tags only come once every decade and I couldn’t stand for him wasting time with me with the season half over.

Coming up on him he’s a pretty fair bull but kind of fell awkward in the deadfall so I knew I’d have my work cut out for me. I knew I’d have to leave him for the night so proceeded to start gutting. That went pretty well but I didn’t get a good look at the exit holes. The entrance holes were spaced vertically seven inches up the shoulder. The first shot would have been a killing shot but I’m glad I hit him with the second one. Nosler Partitions haven’t failed me yet.

I left as much “scent” around the kill as I could and started my way back up the trail about 5 p.m. The weather was turning foul again, go figure. A real low and dark storm was moving east right at my side of the mountain. I made it to the last (first) drainage before the main trail that ran back up to the ATV. This was about where I met Steve running back at me this morning after seeing that six-point. I started into the dark timber at the head of the canyon and heard “scratch, scratch, huff, huff” coming from halfway up a big Ponderosa about 20 yards off the trail. Oooo, Yogi’s in here too.

I racked a shell and tried to get a visual through my scope but he was on the back side of the tree. I started weighing the odds, it was about 10 minutes till dark, I’m in the dark timber, exhausted and nearly out of water. As half a fuzzy head and one ear peaked around the tree into my scope, I moved my thumb off the safety and decided I didn’t want to risk chasing a wounded bear in this dark timber. I watched him for another couple minutes, he never did give me an opportunity for a decent shot anyway, and moved on up the trail. I figured that elk would be enough work for me for the next couple days. I don’t regret it. I did keep the shell in and kept checking my six all the way through that last drainage.

About the time I reached the main trail it was obvious that storm was headed right at me. And just to make things exciting, the sleet and lighting really started cranking up too. I hit the main trail, took a breather, and started climbing back up to the ATV. I knew this part of the trail would be the worst, it was about ½ mile up to the ATV at about a 1:1 slope, sort of like a stair climber with mud and rocks. Plus it ran right of the exposed spine of this steep ridge.

I made it about 100 yards up the trail thinking about the guy that got killed by lighting last month not far south of here. I’ve always had a healthy respect for lightning, frequently preaching to people how silly it was that they were worried about getting eaten by bears and lions when statistically lighting was more dangerous out here. I figured it was time to walk the walk as the leading edge of this baby was getting close enough to be dangerous.

I found a slide in the side of the trail I could hunker down in. I set my 26” stainless steel Remington Ultra Lightning Rod on a bush in the trees, packed everything metal into my pack and kicked it away as the last strike was too close for comfort. The storm clouds were pretty low and for a while I was actually looking down into the lightning bursts, that was something new and more than a little creepy.

The good news was now, as I lay curled up in this hole, that it had started to hail. Only a few stones were big enough to hurt, plus in short order I had a big pile in my lap and arm. Apparently the big guy knew I didn’t pack enough water with me this trip and was being kind enough to provide some ice to chew on.

After about 45 minutes of listening to the strikes get closer, too close, WAY too close, then finally move away and getting plenty soaked I gathered up all my stuff and headed back up the trail. Steve was waiting at the top and was getting ready to start down the trail after me. The storm had given him the willies too. Good hunting partners are priceless.

We checked out the maps that night and figured out a shorter way into that bull. It would be a hair less than a mile as the crow flies but very steep for the first half. 700 ft. total vertical says the GPS. I figured that would still be less pain in the long run than packing him the three miles back out the way I just hiked.

frosttrees

 

Tuesday morning was again super sloppy and cold and neither of us was excited about riding the ATV’s. We took my truck around the rim road on top and watched the GPS until the distance to the bull was the closest. I parked, Steve unloaded and took off on his ATV to go hunt, and I beat the brush for a different way into my bull.

The GPS was crucial, I worked my way out to the spur above my bull and dropped down the slope to him. I’ve packed worse, I kept telling myself. And I learned another valuable lesson: use a compass with the GPS. The cardinal directions it was telling me were good, but the little “hold me flat to get an arrow that points the way” routine didn’t work worth a crap, that stupid little arrow kept jumping all over the place.

It took until about 3 p.m. to bone out and hang the meat up in game bags. I hung everything but one load and the head. Those I started leapfrogging the loads back up the slope to the top of the spur. About two hours, a string of profanity, much sweat and a little blood later, I finally topped out on the spur’s ridgeline. I understand how the sheep hunters say they would take the fillings out of their teeth if they could. I was looking to shed every ounce possible. Again getting dark, foggy and snowing I worked the rest of the way up the much gentler ridgeline back to the truck. Steve had beat me back to the truck and switched on the lights making the last few hundred yards a little easier to navigate. Carrying a big elk rack and head over your shoulders makes it a little difficult to hold a GPS, compass, walk, chew gum, and not look like a pig on skates as you make your way through the woods in the dark.

Wednesday we repeated this routine all over again. I got the last of the meat back up to the truck about 3 p.m. and was whooped in the worst way. I guess that’s why they’re called trophies. I made it back to camp in time to cook up a Dutch oven supper that was about the best thing I’d ever tasted. Killing, gutting, and packing out a bull elk nearly single-handedly over the previous 3 days probably had something to do with how well that meal went down. All the bourbon didn’t hurt either as the season was now over and we let loose and killed a good bottle. Another lesson learned tonight…you can finish out a Dutch oven meal on the top of a Kerosene heater on high if you’re too lazy to keep going out in the weather to check on the oven on the charcoal.

Thursday we broke camp and took pictures. Of course, this was about the nicest day of the trip. All in all, I had a blast and am thrilled with this bull. I plan on doing a European mount.

Here’s the bull. He’s a pretty fair six, certainly nothing to sneeze at. He doesn’t have the longest points, but he’s real heavy and symmetrical, a pretty bull. My rifle is a Rem LSS 26” barrel that pushes 180g Nosler Partitions at about 3340 fps. She wears a Leupold 4×12 vari-x II.

davebull

 

This was pretty wierd, the bull had a cavity in one of his bugle teeth.  I’d never seen anything quite like it.

 

 

Good luck on your hunt!

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4 thoughts on “Lightning, Wapiti and Bears…Oh My

  1. Been checking out your blog and ran across this post on elk hunting in unit 61. Congratulations on your successful hunting trip. And I have never seen a cavity on an ivory either.
    I recently was drawn for unit 61 (rifle). As you know it takes several years to get drawn so I don’t have a ton of knowledge of the area. I have been doing a ton of research, maps, dow, forums, etc… I also have a couple of scouting trips planned soon too. Would you be willing to chat briefly or help give some direction to a fellow hunter? I am not asking for specific honey holes or anything like that but some general direction for such a vast unit would be helpful. I also live in Colorado Springs 😉
    Thanks so much for your consideration.
    Dustin Hardage
    twitter: @dustinhardage

  2. Thanks! I don’t know that one season seven years ago makes me an expert, but I’ll be happy to pass on a little info. I think the hardest part was narrowing down which part of the plateau to hunt. There are good bulls all over, but you kind of have to pick a specific area that gives you some route flexibility but doesn’t have you driving all over the place in that short season. You can narrow it down to the southern, middle, or northern region, or even smaller, depending on your own travel logistics. I’ll email you. D

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