Friday, September 30, 2016

The Ghost of ***** - 2016 Elk Hunt

The Cutthroats got some good action this trip!

Man, I'm trying to think of how to start this article. I just got back from an elk hunt in the mountains with my brother, Dan, and my cousin, Chad. We had the hunt of a lifetime. How can I possibly write an article that does justice to all the inside jokes, laughs, falls and crashes, cuts and bruises, and to the wonderful experience that we had? We didn't know that elk hunting like this existed on public land. I think back on my elk hunting career and remember those few special days where a ton of bulls were bugling all day...well it was like that, every day.

Too good to be true, you ask? Kinda... This is not normal elk country. We gained and lost a minimum of 4,000 feet a day, closer to 5,000 many days. Grizzly bears and wolves roam these mountains, and the hills are rugged.  Like super steep, brush choked, downfall laden, nasty rugged. The sheer distance in, and deep river crossings, which would require waders, make backpacking into here nearly impossible, and not at all practical. It would simply take a guy too long to pack an elk out on his back. The river eliminates llamas or goats. This is horse country, that's all there is to it.

This was a tough hunt. It was hard on me. The long hikes gave me a lot of time to think about the physicality of the hunt. There will come a day when I hang treestands a 1/2 mile from my truck, but right now the adventure is part of the fun for me. The "mental" aspect of elk hunting has been beaten to death everywhere you look. But I commonly see only one side of the "mental" coin. The side that says you're weak unless you pack your bull out yourself and kill it 15 miles from the truck. I enjoy a hard elk hunt, but that's not the only way to elk hunt.

People will tell you that you can buy all sorts of things to give you the "advantage". Whatever. I don't believe it. Powders aren't the secret. Paying a guy to give me the secret work out regime isn't the answer. You know what I think the secret is? The secret to spending two weeks in a crammed shelter with two other dudes; going from freezing cold to sweating like a mule five times a day; sleeping on the hard ground when your pad goes flat; and walking with wet feet when your boots spring a leak? The secret to doing all of this, while hiking up infinitely tall mountains that are impossibly steep, day after day? It is simply - cheerfulness.

I searched for the secret in my mind for two weeks, and that word is all that kept coming to me. I'm not a big guy, I'm not crazy strong, I don't have legs or lungs that can carry me for days. I'm not like Dan or Chad. Those guys are tougher than me, stronger than me, and they can do more than me. I watched them closely and tried to find out what made them keep going. No matter what I saw about their physical abilities, I saw a thankful and grateful attitude - all the time. A true love for what they were doing. They were cheerful. I was cheerful. We were just willing to keep moving, one foot in front of the other, especially when we didn't feel like it.

We never crossed words, never had a fight, never got discouraged or had a bad thing to say about anything. If the weakest in the group (me) needed help, then the strongest in the group sacrificed whatever he had to in order to help. This was the type of hunt that required a team effort, in the hunting, the preparation, the work, and the encouragement. We all knew, after growing up together and hearing our dad's tell us what a good hunting partner was, that we had each other to rely on. If one guy killed an elk we all killed an elk. We were, in every way, a team.

I see the Cameron Hanes shirt all over the place, the ones that says "It's all mental". But it's usually in the context of, "it's all mental, so suck it up". And I disagree. It should be in the context of - "it's all mental, so soak it in". Be thankful, be grateful, be cheerful. And yeah, obviously get in shape. But a strong body always crumbles with a weak mind. Where as a thankful mind keeps a depleted body moving forward.

Cheerfulness. That's all you need. You'll go as far as you need to go. And you'll be a better hunting partner. Don't let anybody convince you otherwise.

When one of my brother's best friends from college told Danny he just found some of the best public land elk hunting in the West, we jumped on the chance to bowhunt in this new area.

We've hunted with Carter quite a bit in the past when we were just college kids looking for fun. Carter grew up taking huge horse trips into many of the most remote mountains in the west. Elk, deer and bear hunting, with lots of fishing trips in the summer. Carter grew up on a large cattle ranch, and after his college wrestling career he trained horses and rode bulls professionally. Carter is a true to life American cowboy. He's been doing this stuff since he could walk. He's good at it, and his animals are good at it too. 

Carter and his dad, Hardy, getting the packs ready.

I felt like I was doing the splits on this big horse. Should have stretched before I jumped on!

Chad is ready to roll.


We spent quite a bit of time looking at Google Earth before we came in. The mountains looked steep, and we knew we were in for some hard hikes. When Carter dropped us off he was super confident that we would find elk. He didn't really give us much info. He just pointed to the hill and said "There's a game trail that runs up that spine, go up there, or go up the creek, you guys will find 'em. Good luck." He was pretty confident in us, we hoped to not let him down!

It didn't look like elk country that we have hunted before. None of the hills were necessarily speaking to us, they all looked the same, they all looked dry, they all looked like places I would normally skip over. We got the Kifaru 8 Man Tipi up and I was putting in the last of the remaining stakes when I heard that first bugle of the season. Jackpot! We didn't even have camp set and the bulls are bugling. It's 2:30pm and I just want to go!

We got super close to the bull that evening but didn't let go of any arrows. We were very encouraged to say the least. We started to get a feel for what kind of physical hunt we were in for. After two hours of moving straight up hill we were only .6 miles from camp. What the heck?!

After the first evening we knew why Carter didn't give us much info. It's not that he didn't know, it's just that there are elk EVERYWHERE! 

Big mountains all around us, and not a single bowhunter anywhere. Unbelievable.

The Kifaru tipi is down there in the bottom (zoomed in pic below)

Zoomed in from the picture above.

The rain came down for most of the first night. The first morning out was spectacular. We had a huge bull in range but couldn't get an arrow off. The only flat spot we could find to rest and dry up was an elk bed. The smell was so strong it gave me a small headache, but at least it was flat.

Chad's boots sprung a leak right off the bat, here he is drying off his socks with his stove.

Airing out my pants. I was super impressed and happy with the First Lite Boundary Stormtight Pants.

We hiked to the top of the first hill by camp, not really knowing what was up there but counting on at least glassing something for the following day. There was no need for that, the elk happily told us exactly where they were. We looked across the basin and watched a massively big 6x6 come out of the trees and into an avalanche chute. His body and his rack were caked with white mud, and his bugle must have lasted for 10 seconds. Chad called him the Ghost of ***** (insert national forest name).  The Ghost, and his unmistakably long bugle, haunted us for the next four days.

The Ghost was less than .5 miles from us as the crow flies, but over 2 hours of walking. Luckily for us there was a pile of bugling bulls on the hill below us. We started creeping closer to the elk but got held up by all the cows feeding in the trees. Danny dropped back to call while Chad and I stalked forward. The elk completely drowned out Dan's calls, there's no way he could make as much noise as the real cows and the real bulls.

I kept watching bull after bull move across a small knoll down the hill from me. I knew I had to get to that knoll, as more elk were bugling from below and I thought that they would also move across that knoll. As I moved down Chad motioned that some elk were headed my way. I heard them crashing so I found a tree to stand near and got my bow pointed that direction.

The bull bugling from over there had the nastiest bugle on the mountain of a thousand bugles. My heart started to race, I thought I had King Kong coming my direction.

The hill curved away steep enough and the trees were positioned so that I couldn't see the elk coming. All the sudden a bull walks around some trees just ten yards away from me. He stops, tilts his head back, and cut loose a furious bugle. At that distance the high pitches made my ears ring and the low grunts vibrated through my feet. The rack did not match the bugle, but I had already made up my mind - a 5x5 was getting an arrow, period.

I was frantically trying to figure out how I was going to draw my bow when the bull started moving again. Lucky for me he cut between two trees (pictured below). When he walked behind the close tree I RIPPED my bow back as fast as I could. The bull kept angling towards me so I had to wait for him to turn broadside a little bit. When he did I tucked my arrow as far forward as I could and let it go. At just 3 yards my arrow smacked him hard. He jumped in surprise and turned his head to look at the few inches of feathers sticking out of his side. He hauled the mail but before he got out of sight I watched him go down in a little patch of aspen trees.

The tree at the center of the frame provided me with a half second of concealment to yank my bow string back. The tree is 5 yards away, he walked closer before I shot him at just 3 yards.
We didn't bother following the bloodtrail, we were a long ways from camp with a long night ahead of us so we just walked straight to the elk. Little did we know, we got extremely lucky that his rack got stuck in a bent over aspen tree. Before I freed him I tied his rack to the tree, and it was a good thing I did!

Everybody knows that pictures never do justice to terrain, and this is no exception. After freeing the bull's antlers from the tree he slid down and pulled that rope TAUGHT in a milisecond.

Danny was upset at how the pictures turned out, but I told him it was part of the story and that they were good enough! After completely de-boning the elk, I cut the head from the carcass and it started to tumble. We listened in awe as it crashed down the hill until we couldn't hear it anymore. Then five seconds later we heard a huge crash, another five seconds and another huge crash. I have no idea how far that carcass went down, but it had to be 500 ft. We were very happy that his rack got stuck in the trees, it could have been a much longer night.

I killed this elk with a Wapiti recurve, Carbon Express Maxima Blu arrows, and Cutthroat Broadheads.

We got the meat hung up on the top of the mountain as quick as we could. As we headed down the mountain that night, every time we stepped on a branch a bull bugled at us. If we made a lot of noise the elk bugled harder. At one point, in the dead of night with no moon, a bull cut the distance to us in half and started to rake a tree - all because he heard us walking. These elk don't see human beings, so any sound in the forest they assume is another elk. We got back to camp at about 2am and decided we'd sleep in the next morning. It was a very fulfilling first day of hunting.

Getting horses to the top of the mountain was an absolute NO. So we returned to pack the elk down to the trail.

A quarter and the rack is about as easy as it goes on my Kifaru Duplex Timberline 2.

The next few days were full of close encounters with huge bulls. Dan had the Ghost at 23 yards raking a tree. As happens too often while hunting, the bull would have offered Dan a shot with one more step, but the bull chased a cow up the hill and out of our lives before ever exposing his vitals.

We learned how to go up and down these hills after a few days of hiking the wrong paths. The brush at the bottoms was so thick that navigating through it was a bear. Throughout the next few days we listened to an elk symphony happening on one of the mountain sides. Even though we were close enough to hear all the bugles, we never got in position in time to make a go at this mountain. On day 5 we got up early and tried to get up there in time to hunt the morning. The hike was further than we thought, so we still didn't get there quick enough to make a move in the morning. We positioned ourselves for that afternoon on the same hillside, but far enough away that our wind wouldn't reach the elk. With the elk serenading us, we took a nap and waited for the evening.

When the sun got lower and the elk started bugling hard again we began to move in on them. We got as close as we thought possible on this fairly open hillside. I backed up as Chad and Dan got into shooting positions. I pulled out all my calls and gave them everything I had. A big 6x7 came in to 80 yards, but in this open timber he would come no further without visual confirmation. He headed back up the hill and stayed there bugling at us until we left late that night.

During the commotion a bull up the hill lost his mind. He bugled so hard that his voice lost all volume. The middle of the bugle came out as a raspy, low, scratchy growl, or something like that. That bull came down charging. I saw him coming, waited until he got behind a group of trees, and ran as fast as I could to get into cover where I could better call from. I tripped and fell hard on my face, catching my wind I figured I had run far enough and got my bugle ready. Every time I bugled the bull ripped back, the nastier I bugled the more murderous he responded. I knew this bull was coming, and with both Danny and Chad waiting for him, I also knew that his time on earth was limited.

When the bull came into my view I slithered over some logs, low enough that he couldn't see me, and re-positioned again to a spot where the bull couldn't see me. He needed to come just a little bit further, which I heard him doing after another bugle. I started to wonder why he was still alive when I heard Dan's bow thump, followed by a loud crack. I got real excited but heard no thundering of hooves, no running. Did Dan miss? He doesn't miss often...that crack could have been his arrow hitting a tree but it sure sounded like it hit the elk. Then I heard a loud cough, and another. Oh yeah...if that elk is coughing after five seconds then it is all over. Another few seconds and I see the bull's body rolling down the hill.

After Dan's shot, the bull just jumped a foot. He stood there licking his lips as blood poured from his mouth. The elk literally fell down a step from where he had been shot, and less than 10 seconds later.

This picture is Dan's view of the shot. Enlarge the picture and you can barely see the elk where he ended up after rolling down the hill.

Dan killed his bull with a Bowtech Experience, Carbon Express Maxima Blu arrows, and Cutthroat Broadheads.

We were a long ways from camp and we knew it was going to be another long night. No big deal, there isn't a place in the world we'd rather be.

I made the mistake of bringing grizzly bears up. I asked what we should do with a dead elk in grizzly country at night. Danny mentioned that most of the advice is to gut it and come back in the daylight. So we started to share bear stories and got ourselves a little worked up about bears.

Just before midnight, and long after ignoring the advice of the experts, we started looking for a tree to hang the bags of meat. We got about 100 yards away from the carcass, which is where we had our packs and bear spray, when Danny saw eyes down the hill. I am not at all afraid of black bears, but I have a healthy amount of respect/fear for grizzlies. We had already worked ourselves up about grizzly bears over the last few hours, so when Danny saw eyes we all switched on our high beams and started looking around. Then Danny said something that made my stomach hit my throat! He says, "Oh **** guys! It's on the carcass!"

My heart rate JUMPED as I whirled my headlamp around. If this bear is bold enough to go the carcass, with us talking and making noise just 100 yards away, then it cannot be a black bear. It's got to be a big ol' hungry grizz. We instinctively got close together. The tension in the air went through the roof. Our packs are over there, everything I need is in my pack, and my bear spray is at the carcass. I'm nervous as hell, I see the eyes on the carcass and I'm waiting for the mother of all grizzly bears to bust out of the bushes and come grab me by the throat. Then it jumped up on top of the carcass, and my absolute fear turned into out loud laughing when a pine martin went running off and disappeared into the night. If I wasn't laughing I would have been crying. Such relief.

This hillside gave me the willies. One misstep, with meat on your back, and it could be hard to stop rolling.

Dan is carrying a prototype centerzip Kifaru. This pack is AWESOME! Me want.

We took our time and got Danny's meat hung up proper to keep it safe.

Chad stayed super happy and positive even though he was the last one with a tag in his pocket.
After we got Dan's bull down the mountain we pulled out the topos. We needed some fresh elk. There were some close benches in flatter ground that I thought looked outstanding. But when hunting with Danny and Chad you can usually count on going to the furthest, highest, toughest possible spot to get to, just because. So that's what we tried to do. We walked down the river to try and find a crossing where we could access a big canyon. After spending all morning contemplating all the different ways we could cross this deep, fast river, we decided it wasn't worth it and headed back to camp so Chad could get some fresh socks and dry out.

We started a little fire in our tipi stove and got warmed up and dried off. A little before noon we got moving again and headed towards those benches. The topo showed some nice steep north faces that butt up to the top of the big bench, and possibly some open meadowy areas.

At exactly noon Chad said, "You hear about guys calling in midday bulls, why don't we try a set up?"

I wasn't thrilled at the idea, but what do we have to lose? I threw out a bugle to see if anybody wanted to play. The second I got done bugling we got a bugle in response. Hey, how about that? We circled up hill to get level with the elk and get the wind where we wanted it. Chad moved close to the bull while Danny and I found a good place to hide and call.

I bugled. The bull bugled. Danny raked a tree, the bull bugled. I broke a branch, the bull bugled! This might happen! Danny started to get after a tree, he'd point at me, I'd bugle, and every single time the bull hammered back. His first few bugles sounded weak. I thought for sure this was an itty bitty raghorn, but as we got to working him he started to sound better and better.

Finally, after about five minutes, the bull answered me again, this time like he meant it! He ended it with some savage grunts. Danny and I agreed that he must be super close to Chad. A minute later the bull goes sprinting through the trees. Danny and I run down to find Chad and see him give us a fist clench. It was 12:30pm and the sun was out in full force, the bull still came in as hot as they ever do. He only stopped trotting towards us to tear up a tree or to bugle.

As we approached Chad I saw his quiver half empty. What the heck is up with that? Chad told us that the bull stood still for him at 25 yards. The first arrow was a great shot, but the bull did absolutely nothing. He didn't flinch, just kept looking towards our raking and bugling. Since the elk was just standing there Chad took out another arrow and zipped him again. Again, the bull did nothing. Arrow #3 was on the way. Chad was a little rattled by now and the third arrow hit the elk in the leg bone, that got him going.

Chad was very relieved and super happy to walk up on his bull. Heck, we all were. It was now day 10 - tagged out!

Chad killed this bull with a Bassett recurve, Carbon Express Maxima Blu arrows, and Cutthroat Broadheads.

It was nice to be fairly close to camp and work on an elk in the daylight. I think we spent more time hauling meat on this trip than we did actually hunting.

We were supposed to leave on Saturday, so we still had a day to hang around camp. I busted out my packable three weight fly rod and we had a blast catching little cutthroats on the stream by camp. 

I brought olive oil to add to my food and tinfoil in case we needed to cook anything. Chad had steak seasoning, and Danny brought bagels for just this occasion. We cooked some fish, some tenderloins, and a pack of instant mashed potatoes.

Rich people and kings have never eaten as good as we did on this afternoon.

This is the picture we dreamed of taking. 3 for 3!
I think Carter did find some of the best elk hunting in the West. There were absolutely great bulls in there. If I had access to a horse every day I would have tried to hold out, even though I am not a trophy hunter. But because of the amount of effort and time it took to get to the elk every day we decided that a 5 point or better was getting an arrow.

I think the three of us are completely spoiled on elk hunting now. Chasing elk in our normal spots will definitely leave something to be desired. But that's okay, it'll make our return trip in a few years all the better.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Blog Update

It's been a year since I wrote a blog post. Not because I don't enjoy writing them, but with the growth of our store I have felt guilty about writing stories when actual real customers were waiting on me to do things for them. We have gotten over a few of those growing pains and I will try to resume putting up hunting stories and pictures throughout the year.

Here are a few critters that we got to hunt since last year. The store has kept us grounded more than most years. If you are on the social stuff I am putting up pictures on Instagram and our Facebook Page.

Stay tuned, I'm working on an elk hunting story that will show up soon.

Our good friend, Malcolm, killed this bull on the last day of the 2015 archery season.

I brought my buddy turkey hunting for the first time last year, he shot a jake...