2012 Idaho Elk Hunt Part I
My Suburban bounced along the old logging road as I neared what would be our new elk camp as described to me by my brother Todd. It had been a long, agonizing wait since last year and almost every day for the past month I’d been dreaming of arriving at elk camp. I’m not sure if it is the symbolism of the fresh start or the simple joy of knowing that elk hunting is so close, but pulling into elk camp and setting up the base camp is an experience I look forward to every fall. This year, because of our new location, my anticipation was running especially high.
It wasn’t that we weren’t seeing elk from our old camp – that wasn’t the problem at all, as in the three years I’d archery hunted elk in Idaho, I had been fortunate enough to kill an elk each year. No, our reasons for moving camp were twofold: a fear (irrational as it was) that the area we’d hunted the previous years was going to be crowded due to the re-opening of a road that had been closed for three years, and the new camp offering us access to a couple canyons that we’d always wanted to hunt. This new camp would allow us that access while also allowing us to hit some of the country we’d hunted the last three years.
The dust boiled around me as I pulled the Suburban to a stop. Todd was already set up and fixing dinner. The plan was for this out of the way spot to be our home for the next five days. Much to my brother’s chagrin we had to share the location with some cows of the bovine variety, but we settled into an otherwise nice camping spot and swapped memories of past hunts while dreaming of what the morrow would bring. The smell of pine fresh in our nostrils and the full moon lighting the sky, we slept.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the optimism of opening day can be replaced by the drudgery of hiking difficult country without seeing many animals. This is the riddle that is elk hunting, and being in new country, I knew this was going to be a real possibility, so I tried to brace myself against this feeling of disappointment. Todd and I headed up the hill together, then about 300 yards above camp we split. He continued up the ridge while I angled across the now wide face of the ridge. My plan was to hunt the mouth of one of the canyons we’d always wanted to hunt, then angle up the opposite ridge putting me back into familiar country where I’d finish the day.A mere 15 minutes after I’d split from Todd, I was slowly making my way through a patch of deadfalls and spotted a cow elk 35 yards away through some brush. Eventually she winded me and as the small herd left I guessed there to have been only three or four elk in the bunch. As it neared 10:00 I spotted a few elk legs traveling the top of a ridge. The elk didn’t seem spooked, but they moved like they’d seen something they didn’t care for. I never got a look at the heads, but I guessed about 5 or 6 elk in that bunch. I set up and called for 45 minutes, but no elk wandered in. Perhaps what they had spotted was my own movement.
“It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the optimism of opening day can be replaced by the drudgery of hiking difficult country without seeing many animals. This is the riddle that is elk hunting”
I ate lunch overlooking the upper part of the canyon I’d hiked through that morning. As I munched on my Top Ramen, I glassed the opposite hill and spotted four cows and one spike. I debated going after them, but decided against possibly blowing the elk out of the canyon in the swirling afternoon winds. I opted, instead, to hunt the head of the familiar canyon I was now nearing and come back to this spot by early evening to see if I could spot some more elk for an evening hunt.
I topped the ridge into a gaping wide canyon – this was country I knew. Immediately I felt more secure and more confident. I knew right where I wanted to be and as I neared the saddle between two canyons, the elk sign became abundant and concentrated. Soon, I was finding droppings that were just hours old. I dropped down into the head of a much smaller canyon and began to cow call using a technique made famous by Jim Horn on calling early season elk. After 45 minutes, I’d heard a few mews and even a rusty bugle as a young bull tested his vocal chords, but nothing appeared. I set my bow down and dug in my pack for a slice of jerky. I had no sooner put a huge piece of peppered jerky in my mouth and the brush behind me exploded. Instantly, I assumed the wind had shifted and busted a herd of elk, but as I grabbed my bow and turned, I saw two cows and a spike headed down the hill toward me!
They cleared the brush and split up. The spike continued down the trail and stood just 15 yards from me. The cows had swung in behind me, but I was locked in on the spike. He was quartering to me and began sniffing at the ground as he kept coming closer looking for some green forage among the deadfalls. At ten yards he would have to pass behind a beetle killed tree and when he reemerged, he would be broadside. A can’t-miss shot. I got tension on the string so I could draw quickly when all of the sudden the cows I’d forgotten about caught my scent. They bolted, causing the spike to bugger as well. I drew as soon as the bull turned knowing that he’d probably stop and offer me a shot as he tried to see what the commotion was about. He stopped at just 20 yards, but he was behind the beetle killed tree. I slowly peeked around the tree – he was standing facing me and looking for the cows. All I needed was for him to turn uphill – I knew I could shoot around the tree. My arms began to ache, then my shoulder began to whimper. I couldn’t hold much longer, and I started trying to find a slot to hold my bow at full draw that would relieve some pressure.
I was desperate now, and not having any luck finding relief. Finally, I simply couldn’t take it any longer and I tried to let off slowly. The only problem was that I was so spent now that letting off slowly was impossible, and my arm jerked forward while my bow also grazed the root wad of the tree I was sitting under. The bull took off. I cow called and stopped him again at 35 yards, but he was behind brush. Finally the young spike had enough and he wandered down the hill and out of sight.
I was glad for the reminder about why I love hunting early season elk. Hunting unpressured elk in the first week of the season is like finding an all-you-can-eat diner that no one else knows about. If you can find the elk, they will almost throw themselves at you. As always, though, the trick is in finding the early season elk.
Find them, I did.