The day I'm writing this is the last day of the 2016 Archery elk season in Washington and I’m sitting in a coffee shop on a business trip dreaming about of being in the mountains chasing elk. My season was cut short due to this trip, but instead of concentrating on how much I wish I could have had more time hunting, I’m going to try to focus on how incredible of a season it was for me and how fortunate I am to even have such opportunities at my fingertips. Though I wasn’t successful this year, I had what was probably the best season yet and was so very close to making it happen with my recurve. I know without a doubt success is not far off in the future.
My 2016 elk season began about mid summer when I decided to investigate a new location I’d been eyeballing from Google Earth for about a year. Since May, I had made three official trips to this spot and on two of those occasions was able to locate a herd of about 10 resident elk living on that particular side of the mountain. After having bumped into them twice without hardly trying, I made the call to focus all my attention on this spot for the upcoming season, created a game plan, and on the day before the opener, I backpacked in with 3 other friends to my camp spot to see what kind of luck we could find.
Two of the guys had to leave after only two nights, but the other made the commitment to stay with me and stick it out for 4 total nights, no matter what. What’s funny about this whole group hunt thing is that I had mentally planned to go in solo, but before I knew it I had a full camp. There’s something really special about hunting in a group that makes you feel extremely primitive. It’s as if you’re taking part of something so ancient and so traditional that it's nearly impossible not to feel connected to something much bigger than yourself.
I decided that 2016 would be the year of patience. The plan was the wake up early and hike to the top of a high bluff overlooking the valley floor to see what movement we could account for. After having coffee in the dark, we posted up at our lookouts and within minutes Chris had spotted a lone cow meandering down the hill toward the tree line. How he spotted her is beyond me because it was still fairly dark (Chris apparently has eagle eyes) . Though she was a long way off, the morning was shaping up nicely.
About a half hour later, two more elk were spotted way up on the hill and I decided to make a move to cut them off before they made it to the tree line. Using hand signals and binoculars, the guys on the hill directed me to where they were headed, but my bipedal nature was not fast enough for the four legged creatures I was pursuing. I made it to within 100 yards of the elk before they disappeared into the forest and out of sight.
Heading back to the overlook where the guys were posted up, I learned via hand signals that another group was making its way down the hill again. I started laughing to myself thinking that maybe there was some sort of “re-spawn” point up on the hill that kept creating elk like in a video game or something. One of the guys came down the hill with me to see if we could make a move as a team to cut this new group of elk off before they hit the tree line, but again, we were too slow. Our movement was exposed by the open terrain and before we knew it we were in a dead sprint heading for the trees to where we thought the elk would enter at. Yet again, our legs were too slow and the elk made it there before we did, however I did get within about 75 yards this time around.
Hiking back to the overlook, we regrouped and it was then that I was told me there was a huge herd of about 19 elk still up on the ridge. Not wanting to get burned a third time, Tyler and I made our way to the tree line and awaited their arrival. Over the course of the next couple of hours, we watched a big bodied 5x5 run his cows all over the mountain in every direction but ours. Having winded another hunter in the area, the elk decided that up was better than down and for remainder of the afternoon we watched as they turned into mountain goats by climbing their way up the mountain much higher than I had ever thought possible.
As the sun faded, the herd hung up their mountain goat antics by coming back down the mountain while our team devised a game plan for the following morning. Dustin and Chris who were not hunting, would spot for Tyler and I as we lay in ambush at a point where we knew the elk would likely wander through at sunrise. Now, we wait.
Our game plan worked out perfectly and at first light, we began to see three cows and a young bull head down the hill right toward us. I watched from a distance as the cows walked right past Tyler who was hiding in a single bush awaiting for the bull to make his entrance. He was fortunate enough to have the bull pass within 30 yards, but the shot he made was low and the bull took off down the hill alive and well. The route the elk took toward the trees was beyond my range so the gig was up.
Later that morning, Tyler and Chris headed back home and myself and Dustin remained to make our next move. Knowing that big 5x5 was still up on the hill, we decided to find him in the afternoon, but when we arrived at where we though he’d be, we found nothing. Did we miss the herd come down the hill? Was our opportunity lost? Regardless, we decided to repeat that mornings hunt by setting up an ambush the following day and let our luck play out.
As I sat there waiting for the sun to come up in my ambush point, I readied my mind for the shot that may come my way. I positioned myself in a location that would allow me to be within my recurve range and glassed the hill the moment the sun came up. Nothing was moving and my heart sank thinking about how I may have missed my opportunity at the herd bull.
I made my way back to camp after realizing nothing was coming down the hill. As I dropped my pack at camp, I looked up to see my bull silhouetting himself against the morning sky. Game on! I woke Dustin up and we were soon headed down the trail with plans to make a stalk on this bull once he bedded down for the day.
We made our way up the mountain and covered our moves with the available terrain. Arriving within a hundred yards, I belly crawled to the closest ridge to get an update on the herd. They were exactly where I last saw them! The entire herd was one small gully over and about 100 yards away. At this point, it was just a waiting game until the wind shifted in our favor.
We watched a small bull and a handful of cows feed on the grassy slopes without a single care in the the world and having no idea that a predator was within striking range. Watching these animals in their natural un-alerted state was incredibly peaceful and after about 30 minutes, we crawled back around the hill and awaited our opportunity.
About 20 minutes later we made our way back up the hill to make our move, but when we crested the ridge we didn't see the herd. The next couple of hours were spent moving as slow as possible from one bump to the next knowing that any moment could be the moment. As we continued to move towards where the herd was at, we found nothing. Ridge after ridge was void of elk and had it not been for me spying on them earlier that morning, you could have convinced me they were never even up there in the first place.
Nothing. Not one elk was found on that hill and our hearts sank thinking that these animals somehow doubled back on us and ran like hell down the mountain. There was no way this could have happened! We could see for miles and we were nearly as high as we could go. If anything lived up here, we should be able to see it, but there was nothing. The hunt was over and my grand scheme to be as patient as possible was shot.
For the remainder of the day, we did our best to locate the herd from below by looking up every crevasse we could. The only thing that made any sense to me was that the elk had found a sort of worm hole that transported them through to the other side of the mountain and away from me. It could happen, right? No elk were seen the rest of the day, and though I was thankful for that morning hunt, I was heartbroken that we never got closer than 100 yards.
As we were packing up camp on day 4, I kept my eye on the ridge above me just in case my Houdini bull was up there laughing at me. I swung my pack on for the hike out and looked up one last time to find the same herd in the exact location as the day previous. I pulled up my binoculars and swear I could see Houdini’s cows smiling down at me and thanking me for coming to play their game of survival for an extended weekend. All I could think as I walked to the truck that morning was how incredible these animals are and how in no way shape or form do I have the upper hand. In the words of Dave Chappelle as Prince, the Houdini called out to me – “Game. Blouses.” Whatever cave or notch they found up there was good enough and sneaky enough for me to not see an entire herd that was pretty much right under my nose the entire time.
After taking a day off to regroup myself, I headed back out solo to a familiar location that wouldn’t require me to hike in very far to find elk. I planned to slowly work this ridge and do some calling along the way. The only risk I was going to run was accidentally calling in fellow hunters that might be in the area.
As I worked the ridge calling and moving as slow as I could, I noticed that there was literally no fresh sign that elk were even in the area. Thus began the mental games of hunting. Did I choose the wrong spot? Was a just going to hike with my bow today? I sat down on on a log and let out a few calls when out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of tan moving through the trees just as silent as can be. A final glimpse showed me antlers and he was coming right at me without hesitation from about 75 yards away. I quickly looked at my surroundings and saw that I was hemmed in on the wrong side of the ridge with the wind blowing in the wrong direction. I wanted to change positions, but it was too late. The ground was covered in dry sticks that were going to announce my movement so my only choice was to stay put and hope that this bull was dumb enough to come in with a crosswind that would turn downwind.
I knocked my arrow and had about the best shooting lane a hunter could ask for. If this bull continued his curiosity, he would be broadside to me at 15 yards in a matter of moments. I let out one final call and awaited his arrival.
I heard him stop short of my shooting lane. My curiosity was killing me. I peeked my head around the tree and there he was, not 20 yards away trying to figure out how he could get to me. The next thing I know, he pulls a fast one and dips below the horizon of the knob I was on to try and smell me. That was pretty much the final straw. He lazily winded me, moved down the hill, and out of range.
My moment was over, but my smile would last forever. I remember being on cloud nine having just called in a bull on my own to within 20 yards. Sure, I didn’t get a shot off, but in that moment I knew that my opportunity of harvesting an elk with a recurve bow was real and not just a pipe dream. Though it didn’t happen, I know that it will and that was good enough for me. It’s not every day that you have such a close encounter with such an amazing creature.
My bull bounced down the hill and out of my life for good because a pair of hunters were bugling up a storm from the valley floor. I, of course, obliged them and called back…over and over to the point where they came to within 100 yards before realizing that I wasn’t real and their steep climb was for nothing but a friendly wave. Hey – don’t act like you wouldn’t do the same! Mad skills...just mad.
I bumped into one more herd of elk on my way out, but my timing was all off and they scattered before I even knew what happened. My mind went through the sequence with that lone bull over and over and I tried to figure out what I should have done differently in that moment. There were a few things I could have done, but in the end it’s all about how the cards are dealt. Sometimes it’s perfect and sometimes it’s not. I had nearly a perfect hand dealt to me, however the wind that day had other plans for how my hunt would play out. I may not have had a pack full of meat coming out of the forest, but I did have a new experience to draw on when another opportunity comes my way.
So That’s It
I woke up the following morning with a stomach ache and low energy levels so I cancelled my hunt. I sometimes kick myself for not going back out that day, but I knew that going in solo when I wasn’t feeling well was probably a bad idea. With my luck, I’d probably get something down and have little energy remaining to pack it out. It wouldn’t be right to risk a bad situation so I called it a day knowing full well that I had hunted my last day of the season. I had to head out of town for work the next day and wouldn’t be home in time to hunt again.
Though my season was cut short, it was probably the most exciting one yet. My scouting had paid off and the money I invested in the gear which allow me to stay in the backcountry as long as possible was well worth it. The fact that I even have the opportunity to hunt these wild animals is a blessing in itself so how could I not be anything but grateful for my experiences? Multiple bulls, a couple dozen cows, and a lifetime of memories is what my short elk season gave me this year. Of course I wish I had been able to take home a harvest, but it’ll come eventually and I know that so I won't sweat it. It’s just a game of persistence at this point. Until that time, I’ll continue to make the most of the opportunities I do have and be thankful for each of them. I’ll take my lessons learned and apply them to my next hunt and eventually it’ll all come full circle.
Best of luck to those still hunting. Stay safe and enjoy it while you can!