By Warren Anderson Jr., Originally published in Bow and Arrow Hunting Magazine 2016.
My alpine Elk hunt started a year ago as a summer scouting trip for Mule Deer. I had never been to the area before, matter of fact, I had never spent any time in that part of the state, but the country looked good on a map and I decided to check it out. After finding several Elk during the summer trip, I decided to buy a cow tag and take my bow for a walk in the woods on the opening week of archery season. My main objective was to still uncover some remote basin that held some alpine bucks, but by going during season, I was also able to see how much hunting pressure the area received. While I would gladly take a yearling cow or calf given the chance, the main objective was deer.
Hiking two miles into the wilderness area, I pitched camp. The next morning I spied five other hunters snooping around the trees, all of them tooting on their bugles. I loaded up camp and put some distance and the great divide between us. Soon I was all alone and I was into Elk, lots of Elk. Glassing from my camp I was seeing bull after bull, all of them sporting hefty antlers, no rag horns here. With a cow tag in my pocket, alone, and five miles from the truck, I decided to turn the trip into an Elk scouting trip instead of deer.
Which brings us to this year. Armed with a bull tag and plans to spend seven days chasing Elk with my bow, I started up the trail. I had a packer lined out in the event I fulfilled the mission and I had a full day before the season opened to glass and come up with a plan for opening morning. I awoke to a few soft chuckles and found a six point bull and twelve cows feeding on the lush alpine tundra two hundred yards from camp. It was the day before season and I grinned to myself knowing he was safe for today, but tomorrow morning would be a different story.
I kept tabs on the group while glassing for other animals and soon found their preferred basin. Strangely, this was the only group of Elk I found after a full day of glassing. As first light began to creep over the eastern horizon on opening day, I dropped over the edge of the basin behind camp and caught a glimpse of two bulls having a shoving match through a narrow gap in the timber. Rather than confirming it was the herd bull from the morning before, I bailed off the top headlong into the basin promptly blowing five cows and two small raghorns into the next basin. Rookie mistake and I knew better.
I spent the next two days glassing, still hunting, snooping around water holes and doing a little calling. There were Elk around, but not in the same numbers as the year before. Glassing from my perch early in the morning and again during prime time evening hours, I still wasn’t laying eyes on the Elk that last year, were roaming the meadows between pockets of timber as the sun set in the western sky. Weighing my options, I decided to go deeper into the wilderness and check out another basin.
The following afternoon I moved camp another mile or so further from the trailhead in an effort to find the Elk. The next morning, as the eastern sky was just starting to give way to daylight, I hit pay dirt! The bull from the day before season and his girls showed up along the closest ridge. Further away, two more bulls and a dozen cows and further still, more cows….and a bull, a BIG bull. Things were looking up and a plan was beginning to take shape. My strategy was to catch the closest bull and his twelve cows feeding their way to the top in the late afternoon. If that didn’t pan out, I would go even deeper (another two miles) and try to kill the big bull I had seen that morning.
On the way to my chosen ambush spot, I found a water hole that looked like cattle were hitting it. Three small pools lay in a low spot just off the top of the mountain, and all of them were being hit. A heavily used trail ran through a saddle to the west and tracks pocked the trail going both directions. Plans for the morning may change, I thought, after the discovery. I was guessing that the Elk were hitting the water in the early morning before heading to the timber for the day after spending the night up top in the lush tundra grass. When I side-hilled to where I wanted to be, the wind was finicky. One instant it was a do-able cross wind and the next it was blowing from my back, right towards where the Elk should be, if I guessed right. I’ve done this enough to know that you may fool an Elk’s eyes or their ears, but no way are you going to fool their noses. I decided to back out and head for the wallow. If nothing else, it would give me time to construct a makeshift hide in the stunted pines thirty-yards from the trail. I also reasoned that it was a warm day and it hadn’t rained for three days. I might just catch a bull coming to quench his thirst, or better yet, catch him preoccupied with wallowing in the shallow pools. I would sit until dark and if nothing showed, I’d have to make a decision on going there again in the morning, or abandoning this bull and going after the big guy.
About an hour and a half before dark, I did a little calling. A few soft mews with several minutes in between, I had only heard a few bugles the last five days, and even fewer cows talking. It was a quiet evening with a constant but subtle breeze blowing from the water hole to me. As I was wrestling with the image of the big bull I had seen that morning, I was shook back to the moment at hand when my ears detected what sounded like a hoof striking a rock. I reached over to grab my diaphragm call and slip it into my mouth. As I turned my head to do so, a nice bull was walking towards the wallow a scant thirty yards away, broadside. My bow leaned harmlessly against a stunted pine just within arm’s reach. He made a grand entrance into the wallow as he flopped and rolled in the muddy mess. Slowly, I was able to stand up and arm myself. I watched, waiting for the chance to strike as he floundered like a wet lab in the lawn after getting a bath. He stood and raced to the next hole, smacking the water with his front hoof and raking the mud sending it several feet into the air. Then he dropped to his belly and sucked in a few gallons of water before repeating the same process at the next and furthest away hole.
He was now out of my effective rang. All I could do was pray he wasn’t finished and hope he would return to one of the two closer holes. He stood up and started to walk to the edge of the saddle, almost as if to say, “Hey girls I am up here, did you hear any of this?”
I was afraid he was going to walk out of my life when all the sudden he wheeled around and charged headlong into the closest pool. What caused him to do this I have no idea, I guess he wasn’t done trying to attract some girls, but it proved to be his final and fatal mistake. Splashing and drinking again, he was now on his belly and broadside. I put the range finder on him one last time, and when I saw his rear legs start to push him upward, I locked the bowstring back and settled the sights on his side. He shook like a dog, now standing and looking away as the pin floated just behind his shoulder. The arrow screamed towards him and struck home right where I had been focused. When the arrow hit, he busted out of the water heading for the saddle that would take him into the abyss and make for a much harder packing job. Instantly, I hit him with a few cow calls and was able to stop him thirty yards from where I had shot him. He stood for only a few seconds before trying to walk off. As he moved, I could see his legs start to give out and he crashed to the ground on his left side. The sound of his last few labored breaths filled the high mountain air, then, he lay still.
When he first approached the water, I never counted points. His long fronts and good mass were all I needed to see. When I walked up to him and started to count, he was a five by five. I was a little surprised not to see six on a side, but in no way did that take away from his beauty or the satisfaction of having done this solo. A great bull that I was super proud of and an exciting encounter that I will always remember.
After getting the soaking wet hide off and getting him quartered, I soon had game bags filled with the succulent meat balanced atop rocks for the night time air to circulate and cool until I could get it into the shade of the timber in the morning. I made it back to camp at 11:00pm and ate dinner while I wrestled with a plan for the morning. I needed to hike quite a distance and gain a fair amount of elevation to try to get cell service to call the packer, but I would also need to move the meat down off the treeless alpine and into the timber to get it in the shade the next day. I decided to try to reach the packer, then, move the meat once I knew where he planned to pick it up.
On top at first light the next morning, I was able to make the call to the packer and was deflated when his response was, “I can’t take stock up there. You will have to try to get a hold of the outfitter on the other side of the divide and see if he’ll come get you, but I won’t.”
You can imagine my mood after hanging up. As I weighed my options, I was in a pickle and needed to figure a way out of it. Losing this meat to spoilage was not an acceptable outcome. I called my good friend Wayne to let him know I had shot a bull, and to let him know the packer had told me to go pound sand. As I was telling him this, his response was, “Can I find you where you are? If so, I’ll be on my way to give you a hand getting that bull out.” My response was, “Yeah, you can find me, but I don’t expect you to drive four hours to get here and then hike another three hours to get where I am. I killed this bull and I will figure out how to get him out.”
He persisted, “I will be there by five. Have a load of meat ready to come off the top.” Now that’s a true friend, and one that not many of us are blessed with. I headed back to the meat and began de-boning it as I wasn’t about to carry any more weight than needed off this mountain.
After a full day of hauling meat, I had two game bags loaded with delicious Elk meat at the rendezvous point some two miles from the kill site by four pm. At five-fifteen, Wayne came into view in the alpine. A hand waving gesture and he was headed my way. I was whopped, and thirsty. When he got to me he said, “Hey, I brought you something.” He produced a 32oz Gatorade and a five hour energy. “Thought you might want these,” He said as he handed them over.
We made a plan for the following day and I gave him the map and the other outfitters phone number. He would try to get a hold of this fellow and try to get him to bring stock up top to pack out the bull. If he failed, we would be bringing the bull down the mountain on our backs. We loaded his pack frame with the first bag and parted ways. I was headed to a water hole for a long drink and to fill bottles, then to camp for one last night on the mountain. The next day I would break camp and get the last two loads of meat and the antlers, then start for the top. In the morning, Wayne would hike back in for the second load and hopefully meet me and the packer on the top where the trail crossed over the divide.
Well, you have probably heard the phrase, “The best laid plans of mice and men”. Wayne’s pack shoulder strap had broken within the first 300 yards, causing a nasty fall that fortunately didn’t result in a serious injury. He was forced to stash the meat and head for truck at the trailhead. His focus was now completely on getting a hold of the packer. I had no idea any of this was happening, and the next morning began hauling meat and my camp to our pre-determined location. Once on top with the first load, I turned my phone on. As it gathered service, text after text began to flash on the screen.
“Pack broke, stashed meat.” Then I saw, “Packer is on his way.”
That’s all I needed to see. A quick call confirmed that he had gotten a hold of the outfitter and he was on the way. I had to hustle to try to get two bags of meat in each spot, as I knew the packer would not want to load one bag at a time on a pack animal. I was now faced with a time constraint and I had bags of meat in four different places. The packer told Wayne it would take him three hours to get on top and he didn’t want to wait because he wanted to get off the top before afternoon storms blew in. This was when that all the summer conditioning would pay off, as I was damn near jogging at 12,400 feet to try to get things in order before the packer arrived.
At noon, I saw two men riding horses and towing a mule, crest the top of the ridge. I couldn’t have been happier! After two solid days of packing heavy loads, help had arrived and I would not lose any meat to spoilage after being stood up by the first packer. A small rodeo ensued when the antlers were placed on the mule, but soon I was skipping down the trail behind the packers carrying only my bow and walking staff.
This hunt was a test. A test to overcome the mountain, to persevere through bad weather, to rely only on myself , to put to use years of skills learned through trial and error, to return safely, and to harvest a bull Elk. I am proud of this accomplishment, the handsome bull, a good friend and a packer that came to the rescue. And to think, it all started with a scouting trip for deer!