BACKCOUNTRY SOLO ELK HUNT - ARCHERY
Next thing I knew I had the same bull coming into my exact call sequence forty-five minutes later, or was it the same bull? I didn’t have time to tell, I drew back, aimed, and let an arrow fly for a 35 yard frontal shot, the most lethal shot I know of. It was my first morning in, Wednesday, September 13th in brand-new area that I had never explored except for riding a nearby trail on my dirt bike in the month of August a few years back. I had no idea my plan B spot would have produced the results it did for my plan A was a complete wash.
Plan A was also very foreign, I had scouted it once before earlier in the year. It was considered plan A because the area looked like rugged elk country and the challenge getting in there was also very rough and completely inaccessible by dirtbike and practically inaccessible by pack-horse. After spending less then 72 hours in this area (during season) with zero sign or activity, I decided to chalk it up and head to plan B the next week. I knew my elk hunting was limited due to two jobs and two different weekend blocks for weddings already in September. Having practically maxed out my PTO I knew I couldn’t waste anymore time, the decision to leave the area was quickly made.
I arrived at what I called a spike camp roughly 5 miles in the following week on September 12th. The original plan B camp location was mapped out prior on my OnX Hunt App which after physically standing there ended up not being ideal for my set-up so I moved ⅓ mile further to the next canyon with a decent water source. With a few hours of light left I quickly dropped camp supplies and headed up the nearby canyon and spent the first 100 yards looking for fresh sign of elk as well as tracks that resembled any boots or horses (which I had seen a ton of along the 5 miles in). It wasn't too long before I started seeing fresh elk rubs on a bench just after climbing a steep 200 yard incline with absolutely no sign of human activity. I let out a few cow calls and a late evening locator bugle that unfortunately did not have an echoing response. I waited in an old bedding area that didn't appear to have any recent actively via tracks or smell but I knocked an arrow anyways as I always do. I had a great advantage point and took the opportunity (after 15 minutes) to pull out my phone with the downloaded map of the area to familiarize myself with the terrain. I had already planned a route on the other side of the basin in the north facing timber. It was steep and massive, much larger than what I had seen on my phone app. The meadow and stream I had to cross also appeared much larger than what I had anticipated. I knew I would have to give myself twice as much time to complete my route on tomorrow's journey. It wasn't long after until darkness would soon approach so I hunted my way back down the steep terrain on another route and arrived back at camp just after dark. I set up camp and boiled hot water for my dehydrated meal under moonlight with a bit of help from my Petzl headlamp before crawling into my tipi tarp.
Choose A Hunting Area Wisely
I woke at 4:30AM September 13th, not from my alarm but from the clacking of horse hoofs. I sat up quickly to the site of headlamps flickering through the nearby timbered trail and the sounds of horses crossing a nearby stream that I was nestled up against. I thought about frantically trying to get my gear together and beat these horseback hunters on the trail, but who was I kidding, I can’t compete with guys on horses, or could I?
I quickly pulled out my phone to review the areas terrain again, trying to predict the area these guys would be hunting as they rode by in the direction I was planning. I checked my route and measured the distances between the nearby designated pack trails, it was close but I felt confident they would be hunting the larger basin the trails somewhat led too. I would continue to hunt a vertical line mid-mountain route through some steep country to the small bench pockets further down from there. I put myself at ease by slowly gathered my equipment and convincing myself there's no way these guys could have the same idea I had or were capable of doing on horses.
Following Another Hunters Tracks
I jumped on the trail at 5AM and within 30 minutes there was another set of tracks on top of the horse prints, it was another hunter… yet not human. They were a single set of Mountain Lion tracks, I slowed my roll. I couldn't have been more than 30 minutes behind these guys that road past my tipi which means I wasn't too far behind this cat. I put my hand on my side arm as my adrenaline spiked. If I wasn't quite awake earlier, I sure was now. I was now following a set of cat track for about a half mile before I had to turn off. I was happier knowing my tracks turned off the trail before both of theirs. I made it through the meadow and across the stream without picking up any horse or cat tracks, it was getting lighter and my adrenaline finally settled as I gained elevation and had a better view of my surroundings.
Calling In Bull #1
It was a pretty slow morning, I made it mid mountain and started my side hill following a few game trails with simi-fresh tracks to the first bedding area. I never saw the horseback guys, their tracks, or heard a bugle from them or any elk all morning. I eased my way into the first bench pocket of the hunt, there were a ton of fresh rubs the whole way in so I took my route even slower than anticipated. Wind had already switched so I stayed high and had made it through the top of the bedding area still without any action. I had an arrow knocked (as I always do) and started my soft cow calling, location bugle, and raking sequence again on the edge of the bench. It wasn't too long before I heard a faint raking of dead timber just over a small knull below me. I sent out a couple estus cow calls in his direction for I felt confident he would start talking. I didn't get a response but a few minutes later I saw antler tips coming over the hill from the direction of the raking sound had originated. Lucky I had already ranged some nearby trees, stumps, and rocks on paths I predicted he would take. He came in cautiously and hung up around 50 yards without a shot. He started to circle above me because he was not seeing any elk on the edge of the bench from where I stood. I new he was going to pick up my sent soon enough. I had drawn back twice without him noticing but no ethical shots were presented. It was only moments later he stood directly above me behind a few small Douglas firs when he winded me and bolted out the same way he came in. Excitement and frustration settled in as I took a knee and dropped my pack. I worked my ass off all day for this one opportunity and it was gone in minutes.
Calling in Bull #2
I hadn't eaten all day, so I sat to take a break and eat some food. My game plan stayed the same, follow my route to the next bedding area across mid-mountain. As I finished my lunch 15 minutes later I figured I’d investigate where the small 6 points tracks went, for they headed in a similar direction as my route. They led me into the next thick dark timbered ravine, I found a couple wallows in a tight creek crevice with a ton of fresh tracks.
The smell of elk was very predominate so I eased my roll again. I stealthily made my way through the area and worked up the hill for the wind was still blowing up. I knocked another arrow and started cow calling periodically to see if I could get a bull to sound off. With no luck I made my way up the bench that sat above it, a very similar set up as the one I was at just 30 min prior. I started the same routine as I got to edge of the bench; cow call, raking, and a couple location bugles within a 5 min time span. I listened and within minutes I heared a few predominate branches break in the timbered area across the ravine. I new it had to be that bull again, so this time I sent a couple estrus cow calls in the polar opposite direction and then quickly traversed my way diagonally up and in to the middle of the ravine. I quickly ranged a few obstacles in the direction I predicted this bull would come through. Sure enough, antler tips appeared through the dark timber and out came the bull. As he moved slowly out of the edge of the timber he smelled the air and was fixed right on the direction I was just calling from only a minute before. He started to circle around and was heading straight to me, 40-38-35 yards.. he had one more tree to move by and I quickly drew my bow, the tree was exactly 35 yards away.. I aimed center chest just below the neck, settled my pin and released the arrow. The arrow disappeared in his chest, blood sprayed the trees as he spun quickly around in the direction he just came from.
He took about ten steps and lost equilibrium and ran directly into a tree, he kicked around as he stood back up and fell against another tree 10 feet away, it was over in minutes. A burst of adrenaline ran through my body once again and I was shaking in excitement. I pulled out my phone, snapped a picture of the opening I was standing in. My Exo pack was still on, the bull laid just out of site, 60 yards away to the right.
I gave it a few more minutes, check my OnX, and proceeded to marked my location. I knew the work was just about to begin and I was pretty far back. I walked to my bull that laid motionless in a small opening, and to my surprise he was not the same bull! He had decent fourths like the previous bull but I couldn't tell earlier because he came in frontal. I was also surprised because he has the same cautious behavior and had an identical route pattern of the previous bull that I had called in just under and hour before. Non the less, I was happy with him. I snapped a few more pictures and even set my phone on my pack with the help of my trekking poles and timed a few selfies with my 2018 trophy.
Packing Out An Elk Solo: “The Idaho Elk Shuffle”
I told myself I would never do this again, but deep down inside I doubt it will be my last pack out solo. Packing out an elk solo does a number on the body, it’s not healthy and I don’t recommend it one bit. I feel It can really shorten a hunters lifespan if they continue this method. I am 32 years and this was my first elk pack-out solo, so here is what I did: I call this method, “The Idaho Elk Shuffle,” stolen from “The Kansas City Shuffle,” which really is a “bait and switch” tactic in sales and is ultimately a trick and scam on tricking customers to believe something or in a way mislead. I feel this applies to this method of packing out elk and actually seemed to help. Basically it’s shuffling elk meat to an area before a massive change in elevation and going back for the next load to do the same making it seem not so bad. Shorter trips and not as difficult (in a way.. misleading). I’ll explain more to this method soon, but let's talk about the other hard part first, deboning an elk by yourself.
I Used 151 paracord and rolled the bull down to a nearby tree with strong sturdy branches I can use as pulleys (Phone died after selfies). I use the debone gutless method to pack out elk in the backcountry. I will tie string around a leg of the elk and toss the excess string around a branch well above me and start pulling so the leg is held up in the air. I will tie off the string and start working to debone and dismember the leg. I will hoist the leg even higher by pulling the string down as it loosens and will leave the leg hanging in the tree after it frees from the rest of the body. I will repeat this method until all 3 other quarters are hanging. I also use flat rocks and or laid out my game bags to place additional elk meat on. I then start dividing meat into game bags according to how many trips I needed to take. I reviewed my map and pinpointed the easiest route back as well as the steepest sections of the terrain to help detail my route with the least resistance. I had to basically side-hilled for about 1.5 miles across the mountain before hitting the peak bench where I then had a grueling switchback mile down to the base of a massive down timbered area from a landslide to the open meadow. Had to cross the creek and then back up the other side to the trail.
So, I decided to take the elk in two trips and almost cut the full distance in half. I would cut across with the first load to the bench and go back (finding a better path or following current marked path) for the second load. Mentally this was the best method because the hardest part was the first climb up, the side-hilling wasn't as you imagined but to shorten this story, I left out the other minor hills I had to climb. Basically as long as I can go heavy the first route with my legs “fresh” (per-say) I would be okay going back for the other half (a little lighter) with a bit more leg fatigue. Once I made it to the drop point with second load I would continue with this “lighter load” down the mile switchback to the bottom. I was another 2 miles up the trail to camp and had the heavy load (first trip) waiting for me a the top of the bench for tomorrow's load. It took me just about two hours to debone and divide the elk meat into my designated trip packs. I killed my bull at 12:30 and made it back to camp with the first load at 6:45pm. I definitely didn't waste any time either, there was no way you would catch me hauling bloody elk meat out in the dark with what appeared to be hungry cat lurking the area. I had traveled roughly 4.5 miles just to to kill my bull and did an additional 7.5 miles with the shuffle making a total day’s miles right around 12 with added distance walking back to camp up the trail. I was ready for rest and I’m pretty sure I passed out around 8pm.
Final day of packing elk out.
The next morning I was woken up again by horses and chatter of horseback hunters right around 6am, I assumed they were not attacked by the cat, and was thankful I was not either. I had to head up the trail (following them again) to my dirt bike that was parked a little off trail 2 miles up. I again didn't waste time, once it was light I was on the trail. Finally at my bike I road 4 miles down to my marketed tape, (2 miles to camp and another 2 miles to where I cut off trail). I trekked across the meadow, over the log and stream, into the basin, and up the steep zig zig switchback. One mile later I was at the “Idaho Elk Shuffle” spot where the rest of the heavy load and skull/rack rested over night. Nothing had gotten into it and all was nice and cool. I strapped it all to my empty Exo pack and headed back out the same way I came in. I stopped once at the bottom of the mountain and soaked my face and hat in the creek, stretched out the legs, and eventually headed out to the meadow. Making it back to my bike was a victory in itself but I knew I still had a lot of work ahead of me.
Finally at camp I had the elk all together again and broke down my bivy camp set-up. I again organize all my gear for two trips. It was around around a 45 minute ride out and by far the sketchest ride of my life. There was really only two spots to stop and one of them was when you hit the top summitt. I made it back to my truck with the first load (¾ elk and bit of camp), it was around 2:30PM. I had a few things in my cooler and took a small victory break and started up my bike again for round two. I stopped along the way and cleared out a few things on the trail to make my last load a little better. Last load included small load (80lbs) of elk, head, and 80% of my camp. I arrived at my truck at 4:45PM that evening and a few hunter were just arriving in their trucks as I was loading up my bike. I couldn't believe what I had just done and neither could the other hunters that came by to chat while I was strapping everything down. They were very familiar with the area and called me crazy for what I had just accomplished by myself. “What time did you kill that bull at?” It was around noon yesterday (I replied), i've been trying to get this bull out ever since.”