Passing on Our Elk Hunting Tradition
With Luke’s youth deer tag filled a couple days early, we were left with two extra days to scout for elk. Little did we know how valuable those two days would be.
My favorite time of year is September. I love chasing elk with my bow during the rut. It’s a magical time to be in the mountains. However, with my oldest son, Luke, finally reaching the ripe old age of ten, I knew that 2019 might look a little different.
Luke was already an experienced hunter. In late December 2018, about a week after he turned ten, he took his first big game animal, a whitetail doe with a 20 gauge slug. Just a few months after that he shot his first gobbler on an Idaho youth spring turkey hunt (20 gauge again!). We figured some of this good luck might translate to pulling an elk or deer tag during Idaho’s controlled hunt application period. It sure did.
Luke and I drew late season elk tags as a group, and he also pulled a youth deer tag! We had big plans to scout both the elk and deer areas in anticipation of the hunts. However, as life tends to do, our plans were complicated. I accepted a new job, which required our family to move from the area where we had drawn these tags to a larger city about five hours’ drive away. Nevertheless, before we moved, Luke and I hung a trail camera in his deer area and planned on checking it as the season approached. And fortunately, we had spent much of April, May, and June, in our elk area running a bear bait. We had a good idea of where the elk were spending time during the tail end of the winter.
The summer passed quickly, and we tagged the last three days of October (and the last week of his deer hunt) to chase deer, and the first five days of November for the elk hunt (opening day was November 1). Luke’s deer hunt is a post for another day, but suffice it to say, he shot his first mule deer buck on the first morning of our hunt. This freed up two additional days to scout for elk in advance of the season opener.
We had a few areas picked out as plans B and C if our spring bear hunting area didn’t pan out. And were able to put eyes on these two areas that first day of scouting. We located a substantial number of elk, including one big bull and a bunch of smaller bulls. However, they were in a pretty easy to access area and we knew that about half the town had seen them too. We decided to spend the evening and next day checking back in on our bear area. We located a good number of bulls that evening and again the next morning, both times at the same tree-line trail. We decided to stick with our plan A area for opening morning. (Lucky for Luke, we had the afternoon and evening free, and he even managed to get in a little trick or treating in his old hometown. I’m sure you can guess what he dressed up as….)
Opening morning Luke and I were up and ready at exactly the time we had planned for. This doesn’t always happen. But it did this time. Our game plan was to hike in from the bottom with good wind and get set up near the point in the treeline where the elk fed in to on their way to their bedding area. We hiked for about 90 minutes in the dark, and although it was all up hill and slow going, we were looking to get up to the treeline right around first light. We’d seen the bulls hanging out in the sage brush opening near the treeline until about 10 a.m. the day earlier, so we figured we had plenty of time.
About 500 yards from our planned setup, I spotted a bull 120 yards ahead of us. It was light enough to shoot. He was a big, mature five-point. At this point my thoughts were all on how to get Luke set up for a shot. We were just below the crest of a small rise, and there was no cover to speak of. The bull was not spooked, but he was walking steadily toward the trees. There just wasn’t a good option available to get a ten-year-old set up in time to make a shot on this bull. And we still had our original plan that seemed viable. So we didn’t rush things. The bull hit the trees in a matter of seconds. We gave him a couple more minutes to be sure he was out of sight and then continued our upward climb.
The hill steepened, and I pointed out a couple boulder patches, telling Luke we just needed to get to one of those and we should be able to set up our ambush. When we reached the first patch, it wasn’t high enough up the mountain. So Luke and I gutted it up to the next one. He was about fifteen yards behind me when I reached the boulders. I spotted three bulls out in the sage brush, working their to the trees. They were early!
I ducked down and motioned to Luke to quietly hurry. I ranged the bulls at just over 350 yards. We had the Tikka 6.5 Creedmore sighted in to around 600 yards, so this was a reasonable distance with a good rest. We sprung the bipod legs and the rock ended up being the perfect height for Luke. He was able to rest the bipod on the boulder and stand with a steady rest. He picked the bull he wanted to shoot out of the three. Boom! His bull slowed, and we knew he was hit. “Put another one in him if you can, Luke!” I whispered hurriedly. Boom! The bull didn’t drop, and we were not sure if this shot hit. But he was able to get one final bullet in to his bull and dropped him! The look on Luke’s face was a mixture of adrenaline and excitement! We’d dreamed about filling this tag all year, and we’d worked hard for it, but it still took both of our breath away when it actually happened!
Luke wanted to call his uncle, Ryan, to share the good news. About ten seconds in to the call, I glanced down the draw we were in. I was shocked to see a group of around twenty elk making their way up the draw from around 1000 yards away. We quickly told Ryan we had to go, and that we’d call him back. Luke stayed put, and I dropped down about 300 yards. I settled in and started watching the elk down the ravine, about 400 yards away at this point. Suddenly, I heard some rocks rolling to my left. I slowly looked over: the lead cow was way out ahead of the rest of the herd.
Fortunately, she hadn’t seen me or winded me. I held tight as she continued to work her way up the mountain. Soon, she was followed by a few more cows, and then a few small bulls. I looked over each bull as they made their way up the mountain. I didn’t see any I was ready to shoot opening morning of a good Idaho controlled hunt. However, the final bull appeared, pushing the rest of the herd up the mountain. I decided he was the bull I wanted to take, and I was able to pile him up about 250 yards from where I sat.
I looked down. Not even 9 a.m. Luke and I had both filled our tags the first hour (considering shooting light) of the first day of our first elk hunt together. Although we had a ton of work ahead of us (i.e., cutting up and packing out meat until 10 p.m. that night, only to come up again the next day for the heads and antlers, then hours of meat processing a few days later), we couldn’t have dreamed up a better ending. And even though it wasn’t September, and the elk weren’t bugling, there was still something magical about this hunt.