My brother and I met up at the trail head late in the afternoon the day before Idaho’s general archery elk season opened. I had hunted mule deer with him down in Utah the week before, and this time it was his turn to play wingman. We were excited to spend three days on Idaho’s public land chasing bugling bull elk.
We headed up the trial with a plan in mind about how we wanted to spend the next three days hunting. I had two trail cameras set up in different drainages, and we figured we’d hustle up to the first trail camera to see what was in the area, and then hunt around that drainage the first day or so. After that, we’d transition into the second drainage, check that trail camera, and give that spot a go if things didn’t pan out earlier on.
That plan quickly changed. When we came up to the meadow that signaled our turn to the first trail camera, as well as the spot we wanted to camp, we came upon a group of thirty or so teenagers on a school-related wilderness campout. It was dusk, and we didn’t have a lot of time to call an audible. So we headed off trail to check the camera (which ended up having pictures of a couple good bulls in the area) then decided to chat with the campers and see what their plans were. They had arrived the day before and would be hiking all around in that drainage for the next two days. With that, we told them we were glad that youngsters were getting out to enjoy the great outdoors, and wished them well. Then we headed back down the trail, both agreeing Plan B had now become Plan A.
Things got a little tricky at that point. It was dark. I knew the general area in which to cross over into the other drainage, but it was just a game trail, and steep at that. We switched on the head lamps and made our best guess on the trail. I knew we were close, but we ran into a lot of downed trees, some cliffs we had to go around, and a pretty mean slide that was plenty nerve-racking. But by 11:00 p.m. we found ourselves at the saddle and gladly set up camp for the night. Hiking up that steep hillside with our camps on our backs had us beat.
The next morning it was easy to wake up, knowing that after eleven months of waiting, it was archery elk season again! We ate a quick breakfast, loaded up camp, and started down into the drainage with elk on the brain. I let off a location bugle no more than fifty yards from where we’d slept. We got an immediate bugle in reply. I looked at Ben and we knew this was going to be an historic day.
However, things didn’t quite pan out with this first bull. We tried to cut the distance in order to try our hand at the Slow Play calling tactic (as taught by Paul Medel, the ElkNut), in which you give a bull time to get fired up rather than starting out aggressive from the get go. But as we tried to close the distance, we bumped an elk on our left. We were pretty sure it was a different elk, but after that point we were not able to get a sound out of the bull we’d heard below our camp. After thirty minutes and no appearance, reply, or sound of an approaching bull, we decided to move on.
As we rounded a bend on the game trail, we looked across the drainage and saw a group of five bulls feeding their way up a steep slope. They were a long way off, far enough that we couldn’t see antler sizes through the binoculars. But it was early and we decided we had time to get around to this herd about the time they’d be bedding down. We picked a spot we thought they’d be when we got there and started out. As we approached it became clear that the group included five bulls, three were rag horns, one was a five point, and one was a six point. Perfect; we had options!
The plan went really well for a while. But as we got within about 250 yards, we ran into a flock of grouse. As soon as one would explode out of the brush, we’d move along and another one would bust out. Any high country hunter knows how nerve-racking this can be! Anyways, when we got to the spot we’d picked from across the canyon, I let out a location bugle. No response. I waited another few minutes and bugled again. Nothing. We started to think that maybe we’d picked a spot that was too high and the elk had slipped below us. But we hadn’t heard anything, and it had started to warm up. There was a chance the elk had bedded down where we expected and they just weren’t interested in talking yet. We decided our best bet was to drop down into the trees about fifty yards and see if we couldn’t work our way into the herd of bulls with some cow calls.
The trees were thick, and our visibility was about thirty yards. Within about two minutes, we’d found one of the two bigger bulls in the group of five, but he stood about the time we realized where he was. I cow called and froze him, but I could only see his back half through the only available shooting lane. As I tried to take a few steps down hill, still cow calling, to get a better shooting lane, he busted, and the gig was up. We heard the five bulls crashing through the trees. Within minutes, they were standing at the location we were when we initially spotted them. It was not even 10:00 a.m., we’d been presented with two opportunities, and swung and missed both times!
After some water and food, we decided to head down the drainage and check that second trail camera I’d hung, which was on a wallow. I had found the wallow after hunting this area the year earlier and had marked the spot on my OnX app as one to explore next year. I’d only made it in three weeks earlier to set the camera, and this would be the first time we’d checked it. Who knew what we’d see? We also knew there was a good sized creek along the way and our sore feet and knees were calling for a little refresher.
The hike down was steep and slow going. We descended about 2,000 feet in elevation. At last we reached the bottom of the ravine. We found a great spring and saw a small mule deer buck (I had a mule deer tag in my pocket as well, but this buck wasn’t big enough to turn the elk hunt into a deer hunt quite yet). After wrapping around a ridge, we wound our way into the drainage with the creek. We took a quick soak and then enjoyed a great early afternoon nap. (Any honest archery hunter will admit that naps in the woods are the best!)
At about 2:00 p.m., we slung the packs back on our backs and headed up to the wallow. Although the action had slowed down over the past few days, there was a serious amount of elk, deer, and even moose coming into this wallow. There was a wide variety of branch antlered bulls as well as one shooter mule deer buck checking in. That decided it for us. With the elk so far not wanting to “play the game,” so to speak, when it came to calling, and considering we were pretty beat from our hiking around the drainage that morning, sitting at the wallow sounded like a plan worth trying.
The setting was perfect for an ambush. We picked a spot with good wind and cover and started the waiting game at around 3:15 p.m. On and off I’d let off a location bugle or engage in some creative cow calling for a few minutes. But the wallow was tucked in a ravine and it didn’t seem like my calls were traveling far. By around 6:50 p.m., my focus was waning. Fortunately, my brother’s wasn’t. I heard him whisper my name, and when I glanced his way, he gave me the “there’s an elk” eyebrow raise. I slowly turned around again and didn’t see anything. Ten seconds went by and then I heard him.
Out stepped a six-point bull elk, on his way to what turned out to be another wallow above the one we’d been sitting on. Fortunately, while I had been waiting, I had ranged about every tree in the ravine and knew the distance from me to the bull. As he started towards the upper wallow, I tried to get my knees underneath me and bow in place. He looked at me from 40 yards away, and I froze. After about ten seconds, he turned to advance up the trial and took a couple more steps. I was able to kneel at this point, and when he put his head down to drink, I drew back my bow. When I did so and the bull didn’t look my way, I knew he was a dead elk. He was fifty yards from me, and when I lined up that green pin in my peep sight behind the bull’s shoulder, I let my arrow fly. I saw it hit right where I was aiming and the bull jumped. We heard him crash once in the brush out of sight and then nothing. I looked back at my brother; we both knew we’d done it!
This August archery bull expired not far from where he was initially hit. His death was quick. And he would feed my family for months. We were very thankful. I walked up in awe at the size, strength, and overall impressiveness of these great creatures.https://gotgametech.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/20180830194244422.mov
It was about 7:30 p.m. at this point, and we got to work boning out the bull. We knew we were in for a long night. At 9 p.m., we were all loaded up and ready to head down the trail. My brother took the two game bags with the bull’s hind quarters. His pack was full with bivy gear, so he tied the two game bags together and wore them like a squat bar across his shoulders and behind his neck. I had the front quarters in one game bag and the miscellaneous bag (backstraps, tenderloins, neck meat, etc.) in another bag. My EXO pack was loaded full of bivy gear myself, but fortunately the pack has a nifty meat shelf. I was able to fit the miscellaneous bag down in the meat shelf, and then stacked the other game bag on top of the pack and lashed it down. Finally, I held the bull’s head and antlers in my arms like a curl bar and we started out. For the first mile, there was no good trail, and we bushwhacked it for three hours to cover that mile. We hadn’t had dinner and were running on a Five-Hour Energy shot a piece. When we finally did reach a cognizable trail, we collapsed and rested. It was 12:15 a.m. Three and a half miles to go.
On an actual trail, we did make better time. But our bodies were tired and it became an exercise in “mind over matter.” At just a little before 3:00 a.m., we finally found our vehicle at the trail head. What a night (and early morning)! I’d managed to tag out on a great Idaho public land bull elk on the opening day of archery season (even if we didn’t get him to the truck until technically the second day), and my brother was there every step of the way.
Here are a few things I learned from this trip:
1. Build off of your failures. In 2017, I didn’t fill my elk tag. I hunted long and hard, sometimes with family or friends, sometimes solo, for a total of nine days. Each day we had at least one opportunity, and each day I came up empty. On the last day of the 2017 season, we had one of those amazing days with the rut on full tilt, and just about came away with an incredible herd bull. But once again I got beat, that day by the setting sun. On the hike out in the dark, I nearly fell in what looked to be a great wallow. I marked it on my On X app and decided I wanted to come back to this wallow next year. Lo and behold, this wallow is the one I set my trail camera on in early August this year. It’s the one that we decided to sit that afternoon on opening day. And it’s the one I shot my bull on. There’s always room to build on time spent hunting, even if you don’t always get your tag punched.
2. Details matter. One thing I didn’t mention above. When I sat down at the wallow, it was after about eight hours of hard hunting and hiking. I’d pretty much sweated off my Nature’s Paint face paint. Part of me wanted to say, no biggie, it probably won’t matter anyway. But I decided to reapply some face paint with the expectation that I would need it when an elk came in. And an elk did come in. And I did need it. That bull looked right where I was before I ultimately had a shot. Fortunately for me, my face wasn’t glowing and he gave me an opportunity to shoot. That reapplication of face paint detail mattered immensely.
3. A good hunting partner is priceless. Having my brother along was a game changer. He helped keep me focused when I was losing it. He spotted the elk I killed well before I did. And having his help on the pack out was priceless. Thinking about packing that elk out solo, after the grueling six-hour hike with my brother’s help, is staggering. My brother reduced the pain of the pack out by at least fifty percent. (He’s also 6’3″ and 240 pounds, so he can carry a lot.) I highly recommend finding a good hunting partner to take with you elk hunting.
There are probably many other principles to glean from this elk hunt. But those are the high points. Now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of our labors, namely elk steak, burger, roast and jerky, until we are blessed enough to do it again next year.