So, we’ve been planning this hunt for nearly a year… We had been keeping an eye on the exploding elk population, yet extremely low bull harvests. But in order to hunt it properly, we knew it couldn’t be a mere truck hunt and would require a full on backcountry pack trip. Ryan had us talked into going in for a muzzleloader hunt in that unit to really get into the big dark timber bulls. Being primarily rifle hunters, the thought of getting into rutting bulls was pretty appealing, and a little out of our routine.
5 of us drew muzzleloader tags, two bull tags and three cow tags. Myself and Adam had the bull tags, and Adam was just coming off of a week of mountain goat hunting. I had tried to help him get his goat by opening morning so his mountain goat hunt wouldn’t cut too much into our elk hunt, but it ended up taking a lot longer to connect. We needed his horses, we needed to be fresh for this hunt, and he needed to be able to spend some time at home before taking off again for another big hunt.
In June we did a scouting trip on horseback. Probably saw over 75 elk up in the bowl that morning. Nearly every meadow we came across seemed to have elk in it. And the additional sign was incredible. The trail looked like an elk highway and the willows were browsed down to practically nothing. We came away very excited about our prospects.
Our plan for the main hunt was to meet at the trail head, late Tuesday night, pack up and hike in with the horses carrying our gear Wednesday, and Wednesday afternoon to Sunday morning, hopefully catching the best rutting activity at the tail end of the muzzleloader season. Because muzzleloader season is 9 days, encompassing two weekends, we also decided to investigate some easier to get to areas for an opening weekend hunt. Some of that country will be shown in the scouting video we are working on, but we got into elk off the easier roads too.
Because our scouting trip up to the bowl was on horseback, we didn’t have a good feel for how long it would take on foot. We knew it was all uphill (about 3,000 feet), took four hours on horseback and was going to be at least 7 miles, maybe more. We also knew that we’d be wiped out if we did do it on foot, and decided to try to rent a horse with a guide for the ride up to the bowl, then hiking the remainder in to camp while the guide took the horses back.
The scouting and legwork for the unit was the easy part for us, but getting everyone’s act together for the rest of the prep was much more difficult. Ryan was the only one in the group who owned a muzzleloader by the time we drew our tags, so the rest of us needed to buy or borrow. I had previously owned one, and had several fiascos deer hunting with it before selling it. I waited until early August to finally replace it with a .54 cal Lyman Deerstalker and a 57SML peep sight. Two of the guys borrowed guns from other friends and didn’t shoot them until about two weeks before leaving. Another bought his gun in late July, and spent several hours getting accustomed to it/fiddling with the sights in frustration. The point is, none of us felt super confident with our new toys.
By late August, we finally decided to contact an outfitter about setting us up for the ride up to the bowl, but at that point they were completely out of horses. And since they were the only outfitter working this portion of the wilderness, we were back to square one. We had to walk it. Oh well. However, one of our hunters also backed out, when he learned there would be no easy ride in, deciding to just hunt the opening weekend. It turned out to be a good thing, leaving more space on each horse for the rest of our gear and allowing us to go up with just one tent for four guys instead of two tents for 5 guys.
Summer flew by, and Friday, September 10th was here, quicker than we were really ready for. I backed out of the weekend hunt at the last minute, instead focusing on just the pack trip. Mike and Ryan saw elk on that quick hunt, but couldn’t make anything happen.
Despite logically knowing the hunt was coming up, I still didn’t feel prepared. We had been planning our whole year around the big pack trip hunt, and it was time to put our plans to the test. On Monday, the 13th, Adam had a minor emergency with a boarder’s horse at his place, but he basically lost the whole afternoon and evening for packing and gear prep. So, he and Jason, who were supposed to leave by about noon on the 14th so they could get to the trailhead with daylight to spare, only left an hour before myself and Ryan left after working all day. Those two had never been to that trailhead, and were going in in the dark with a horse trailer. Thankfully we found them by 11pm on Tuesday night without any real incidents.
We got up at 5am Wednesday morning, hoping to hit the trail sometime just after dawn. But breakfast, packing and repacking gear in the panniers and saddlebags took a lot longer than anticipated. It was 9:30 before we hit the trail and was already starting to get hot. We balanced our loads pretty well on the horses, and they didn’t require much additional work. However, this is when things started to unravel for us…
First stop, we hit a creek about a mile and a half past our trailhead, just inside the wilderness boundary. While letting the horses get a drink, Adam set his shooting sticks down. By the time, he remembered, we were 3 miles up the trail. Not a big deal, but just a sign of the many things to come.
Next up was my turn. On my brand new gun, the ramrod guide tubes popped loose under the strain of being integrated into the sling swivels. I tied Sonny up to a very large dead Aspen, mostly because it was handy while I saw about dealing with my gun. Sonny, an otherwise great horse, has the bad habit of pulling when tied up. I forgot about this until he tore down the 40 foot aspen he was hitched to and freaked out, bouncing around with a 3 foot wide log attached to himself, laying waste to all the vegetation around him. Thankfully, I got him untied before he did any real damage to himself or the rest of us. We weren’t prepared to repair the gun at that moment, as my Leatherman tool was stowed in a fairly inaccessible part of the panniers. Barely two miles into our hike, I was now forced to put my gun into a scabbard and carry Jason’s gun, whose sling swivels thankfully did not come undone.
A mile after that, Ryan, who was carrying a six foot galvanized pipe that we were going to insert into the spring we were planning on camping at in order to better facilitate filling water bottle and buckets realized he set the pipe down sometime after my stop to deal with Sonny and the faulty sling swivels/guide tubes. He insisted we continue on without him and would meet us at a campsite that he and I knew of. At that point we were going to eat lunch, load our guns and fire fouling shots for those who hadn’t before leaving. That camp was about a mile from the border of our unit and still a long way from where we planned on camping and hunting.
At Lunch Camp, Adam couldn’t get his gun to fire on the first shot, it seemed his percussion caps were too small for the nipple. Turns out the friend he borrowed that gun from gave him #10 caps for a #11 nipple. Once again, not an insurmountable problem, but the last thing you’d want is to have to you gun go “CLICK!” instead of “BOOM!” with a bugling elk at bayonet distance. I had plenty of #11s, so that was no problem. Not long after we got Adam’s gun up and running, Ryan showed up, about 30 minutes behind our arrival.
I popped a few caps to clear out any cleaning residues in my nipple, then loaded a partial charge below a patched round ball to fire a fouling shot. However, I was out of caps and walked back to my pack to get another, hoping it would light the charge on the first cap in a still slightly oily barrel. Of course, it went “POP!”, instead of “BOOM!”, so back to my pack I walked (we were shooting at a bare hill about 75 yards from where the main camp was and where the horses were tied up). Next cap “POP!”, and the next, and the next one and the next one went “POP!”. WTF?! I never marked my ramrod for a full charge, so I couldn’t tell whether or not the charge was still in there. I was scared to death of double charging the gun, so my next idea was to put a little bit of Adam’s FFg blackpowder into my nipple to hopefully light my Pyrodex charge.
Holding the gun well away from my face, with Jason threatening to put the video of this whole incident on YouTube (I’m sure it was funny to him!), I took a deep breath and pulled the trigger, “POP!”. But this time, the lubed patch from my round ball came flying out! Once again, WTF!?, over? My guess is that while walking back and forth to my pack for caps, the ball and main powder charge fell out. I know the patches and ball were always kind of a loose fit in my bore, which explains the poor accuracy I had with anything but Powerbelts, but still, the ball fell out? Never heard of that. But, next charge and patch ball lit off without a hitch, leaving me feeling and looking pretty stupid, screwing around for nearly 45 minutes when we could have been hiking to camp.
Oh well, bellies full, egos shattered, guns loaded and we were back on the trail by 3:00 pm. While messing with the guns, we did see two pack trains. One heading up and the other heading down. The wife of the outfitter had told us that the bowl we were headed to would be full of people during muzzleloader season. That seemed tough to believe, given that there was no more statewide muzzleloading tag. When we got up to the bowl(kind of a basin several miles wide, with strips of timber separating large meadows, bounded by heavy timber below solid rocky peaks), which is where the unit boundary started. About 1 mile in, we found a camp with several guys with rented horses from Pennsylvania. Thankfully, that was the last occupied camp we saw all week. Ol Linda was full of crap. In fact, the large outfitter camp wasn’t even occupied. It was getting late and we were exhausted, pushing on towards the camp we had intended to use. However, on the way there, we spied an even better spot, with better grazing for the horses. It was late, and no one was going to argue. At 6:30, we could finally stop hiking and start unloading horses.
What was a four hour horse ride back in June, took 9 hours this September! 6 of those hours through a unit we couldn’t hunt.
It didn’t take long to get camp set up, the horse corral built (electric fence), water bottles filled from the creek (no monkeying with the pipe was going to be necessary, but yes, we still filtered the water). By about 7:15 camp was made, and were feeling a little better. So 3 of us spread out to hunt the last remaining minutes of dusk. I head up towards where we intended camp to be, seeing a buck muley at our spring, Adam saw several does in the meadow below camp, and Ryan, who had a cow tag, put a stalk on a lone elk that night back towards the trail we came in on. In the falling light, he couldn’t make out whether or not it was a spike or a cow at 140 yards, so he let it walk. Jason stayed in camp, heating up some elk chili his wife made earlier in the week. After a long day and some good hot food, there wasn’t much lingering by the campfire. We hit the sack before 9.
Thursday morning we were up by 5, watered the horses, moved the 400 square foot pasture (3 horses can wipe out a 20x20 foot piece of meadow pretty quickly), grabbed our gear and headed out. Jason and I hunted together and Ryan and Adam hunted together so that we’d each have someone on had with either a cow or bull tag.
We started the morning sitting a meadow near a small saddle in the bowl, hoping to catch elk headed towards bed. No luck, so by 8 am we were stalking the timber and headed to a large opening at the back of the basin, up against the cliffs which would still be shaded. We took a little longer than anticipated going through the timber, but the large, wide trails just begged to be sat in hopes of ambushing elk headed to bed. We sat the meadow below the cliffs, glassing some bighorns above us until almost noon.
After that is was time to still hunt the timber. Within 30 minutes we were busted by two cows that we had no shot on. Oh well, that means slow down, but at least we were into elk. We spent the rest of the day investigating feature in the timber we had seen on the aerial photos. We found a small lake below a slide, several wallows, and some hidden meadows. The north facing timber that we cruised was absolutely littered with trails, sign and the familiar barnyard smells of a good elk hunting area.
At 4:00 pm we heard our first bugle of the trip, and it was within a half mile of the wallow we were presently investigating. The only call I carried was a cow call, as I’m not a super confident elk caller, and had always been of the belief that less is more with elk calling. Having called the biggest public land bull I’ve ever seen my just using my mouth several years prior to this, I thought I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. Our first move was to cut a quarter mile of the distance between us and the bull before he bugled again. On his second bugle in the thick blowdowns, we felt we were close enough to start calling to him. My first mews had him immediately bugling in response, so we set up, with guns trained in his direction. What felt like eternity was probably barely 3 minutes, before I couldn’t resist calling again. Another bugle, and it sounded closer. So we sat still, hoping any minute he’d come up out of the small drainage in front of us and collide with a .54 caliber slug. A few minutes later, still nothing. So we call again, trying to sound like a desperate cow. He bugles in response, but was he further away now? We move forward, creeping towards the ridge above the small creek in front of us. Nothing. We call some more, nothing. We creep forward…. “CRASH! SNAP! THUD! CRASH!” Sonofa! I catch a black blur off to my left as our bull is headed out of Dodge in a hurry. He must have been wallowing in the black mud alongside the creek below us on that last bugle, making himself sound further away than he really was with a hill directly between us.
Dejected, we decide to head back towards the meadows as evening was coming on. We sat the edge of a meadow, just above the large creek that lead towards camp, watching deer browse along the edge and a couple of grouse putter around, doing whatever it is they do when they aren’t busy scaring hunters. With 15 minutes of shooting light left, we hear another bugle, this one within a quarter of a mile, but just inside the tree line along the creek. We scoot around the edge of a spruce and give off a few cow calls, making us seem really desperate to the bull. Another bugle! Maybe 100 yards away, still inside the timber, but much closer now. Our guns our up and we wait. Nothing. Tick, tick, tick, tick, we are running out of daylight, so I call again. The bugle is further away now, down the creek towards camp. So we scoop up our packs, run to the trail, then jog/walk at a brisk pace until we hear him again. Our camp is now within sight, and just I’m about to call, I say to Jason, “where are the horses?” I could see the white electric fence in the falling light, but no horses. He picks up his binoculars and says, “they’re gone!”.
Oh crap. This bugling bull is now the last thing on our minds as we race down there to look at the fence. The stakes are strewn about, the fencing is stretched across the meadow and there are no horses to be seen. Softly, I call for Tango and Honey and Sunny. I knew it was a futile effort, but it was all I could think of.
10 minutes later, I get Ryan on the radio, who informs Adam of situation. I’m glad I wasn’t there when he heard the news, it could not have been good. He was surprisingly calm about it when he got to camp, saying there’s nothing we could do about it now, and that tomorrow we would have to go look for them.
We were all hoping that the horses would just show back up in the middle of the night, but at dawn on Friday we were not so lucky. We hiked the 2.5 miles down past the outfitter camp and to the Pennsylvanian’s camp. They had seen the horses run right by their camp the night before, but could do nothing to stop them. Unfortunately this now meant the horses had to be all the way down at the trailer, as there was no other place they were likely to stop at, except maybe the outfitter’s small ranch where he kept his horses.
Adam didn’t want us to ruin our hunts by going all the way down with him, but Ryan graciously insisted on going with him. He had two bridles with him, but the saddles were in camp, so whoever went down was going to have to ride the horses bareback all the way back up the mountain. In the end, Ryan and Adam both hiked all the way down to find the horses while Jason and went back to hunting.
Because our morning was now gone, we decided to hike back up to the slide lake, hoping to catch elk looking for a drink or to wallow at midday. We took our time getting there as quietly as we could through three-quarters of a mile of dark timber. When we got there, we maneuvered some of the driftwood around the small lake (maybe 100 yards wide) to create a small blind. We mostly napped and snacked throughout the afternoon, trying to keep the snoring to a minimum. By 2:00, we were pretty cold in the shade, so we switched sides of the lake to warm up a bit in the sun.
After warming up, I got underneath a tree at the edge of the lake with a little bit of shade, and got back to napping. I awoke an hour later after hearing a stick snap. Upon opening my eyes, a midsized 5x5 raghorn bull stepped out into the sunlight barely 60 yards away! But now I felt like I was caught with my pants down. I was lying on my back, with my feet facing the bull and the gun leaning against a tree next to me. I slowly reached over and grabbed the gun, but on cocking the hammer, which seemed to echo across the rock slide above us, the bull whirled to face me. At this point my heart was racing, I knew it was just a raghorn, but we had had had enough problems (oh yeah, did I mention my sling swivel and ramrod guide tube fell out again, and my powder flask broke open spilling powder out all over my food?) and with no word from Adam and Ryan on the horses, I had to try to take this bull to help salvage the hunt. As the bull turned his head to look back behind him, I snuck the gun to my shoulder, but I still felt pinned down and unable to rise off of my back. The gun naturally settled at the top of his shoulder, which was a lot higher than I should have aimed, but I pulled the trigger without thinking about it. “BOOM!” The bull stiffened in his tracks, then whirled around trotting back into the timber. I had a clear view of where the exit side would be, and with his unhurried reaction, I instantly knew I missed. With no hair, no blood, no muscle, no bone in the bare soil, my heart sunk. I let us all down. Jason saw the whole thing and was caught trying to decide whether to grab his gun or his camera to back me up. But there was nothing we could do now; I blew what should have been a chip shot. In fact, this is the first elk I’ve ever missed. There was no excuse, I shot before I was ready, which was the kind of thing I used to do as a kid. I’ve killed way too much game to do something so stupid, but here I was, acting like a 15 year old again and not talking myself through the shot placement and trigger pull.
We half heartedly sat the pond for about 30 more minutes before deciding to sit a smaller wallow a few hundred yards away. A lone bugle reminded us it wasn’t totally over yet. It was Friday, not Sunday yet. The rest of the afternoon was uneventful as we alternated sitting wallows and trails, and stalked the timber back towards camp, watching a few doe deer here and there. We were at camp at dusk, and thankfully Ryan and Adam were there. Apparently they just arrived and didn’t find the horses until they were over a mile beyond the trailer. The horses spent the night at the trailer, but when no one showed up, they must have wandered off to graze. Sonny was sore with a stone bruise, but otherwise the horses were just tired and no worse for wear. And apparently it’s really hard to bareback ride a horse up a hill unless it’s sweaty. We decided to alternate high lining two horses while one would graze in the enclosure at a time. That way we couldn’t lose all the horses at once again.
That evening, the camp bull piped up again. And unlike the night before, he kept going all night long! His bugles would seemingly reverberate off the mountains. Every half hour to an hour or so, there would be a response or three. We hardly slept, listening to the eerie chorus all night. The banshee shrieks and throaty roars seemed to be all around us, but that certain throaty roar of the camp bull was the one constant. It sounded as if he was standing just outside of our tent, tempting us to come out and fight him.
Dawn couldn’t come soon enough, as the bulls were still sounding off when 5 am hit.
It was decided that Adam and Ryan should go after the camp bull, while Jason and I headed further down the creek towards slightly more distant bugles. As the light began to switch from black to grey, the other bulls quit talking and we had no sound to cue in on, until another small bull piped up back towards camp. As we crept back in the direction of camp, we could still hear the camp bull going nuts. His high pitched opening note, followed by a throaty roar of a second note was very distinctive. As we headed up the trail past camp, we finally heard a “BOOM!” in the timber above it. Jason and I high fived in relief and glee for the other guys, then tried to get Adam and Ryan on the radio. We slowly hiked towards where we thought we heard the sound, when Ryan finally turned his radio on. I found him on my Garmin Rino, barely 500 feet away, and he said they found hair and felt like a good shot but were waiting on me to help them track the bull Adam shot.
It was a steep uphill angle at 110 yards through an avalanche chute surrounded by heavy timber. Ryan and Adam were trying to get to the main herd bull and cows, but a satellite that was dogging the herd was always in the way. After the 3rd pass by the satellite, Adam decided that the bird in hand was better than the two in the bush, so he took the easy shot. He said the bull spun at the shot and headed back into the timber to the east. When I inspected the shot site, I couldn’t find any blood, but there was hair there and so I felt like we should be able to find blood pretty soon. However, after 50 yards, and several log jumps, with no blood, things weren’t adding up. In my experience, animals don’t generally spin when shot, they run the direction they are facing. There was no hair clumps in the shot site, just a bunch of single hairs, and no meat or bone. I went back to the site to investigate some more and found where Adam’s slug hit the behind the bull. Now the question was, did it hit the bull first, or just graze him? We could see that the bullet hit the tree at about original caliber size, then expanded once hitting the tree. The final determination was made when Adam dug the bullet out and there was no meat or blood in the grooves. He now got to experience what I felt the day before. After all the angles he had studied for his .300 Win Mag before the mountain goat hunt, the excitement of the elk hunt made him completely forget to hold much lower on that bull at such a steep angle (50 or so degrees uphill). Combine that with what was likely too high of a hold, and he just missed spining the bull by an inch. After the shot, Ryan charged the herd while calling, hoping to catch the cows in confusion, but never caught up with them.
We decided to switch things up, so Ryan and I headed to the top of the mountain, towards the pass above our bowl, while Adam and Jason headed west through the timber. After a grueling climb, Ryan and I topped out at 11,500 feet on a ridge with a lot of elk sign. While debating our next move, and contemplating lighting off a location bugle, our questions were answered for us. A squeaky little bugle started to our east along the top of the ridge, then was answered below us by a hearty, throaty, deep bugle. I guess, we go down then, eh? Those two bulls kept talking, and every once in a while a third bull would light up to our west and down the canyon. So we fired off a bugle, and all three would answer. Then we would drop further towards the bigger, closer bull. Then I would cow call, and he would answer. Then, thinking he was coming and we really needed to challenge him, we got to within 100 yards, Ryan lit off a challenge bugle, while I kicked and snapped dry limbs and through in a little cow call here and there, trying to sound like a bull was taking his cows. Sure enough, our herd bull answered, but further away. He was now across the creek and heading up the opposite hill! Crap! We could talk AT the bulls, but we were not talking TO them. We did not know what they wanted to hear. We could get them to respond vocally, but we were just trying different noises to make them come to us. We didn’t really know what we were doing and were really out of our element. It was exciting, but demoralizing, being amongst what sounded like 3 bulls, at least one of which likely had a herd with him, but we didn’t know what to say to him. It’s possible we could have just crept in on him while the other bulls were talking to him, but instead, we wanted to feel like a part of the action, not an interloper. We should have just shut up and hunted him down.
The rest of the day was spent spinning our wheels at the top the ridge, then back to the slide lake until dark. It was a fun day, but we just couldn’t make anything happen in our favor. Now we only had a few hours of Sunday morning left to hunt.
I slept in, but the other three got up and hunted. I watered the horses and rotated the grazer, then Ryan came back by about 7:30. We began packing up the tent and the rest of our gear, and Jason came back to camp by 8:00. At 8:30 we heard a “BOOM!” behind camp. We hooted and hollered, hoping Adam took a last minute elk so we wouldn’t be coming out empty handed. It took another 20 minutes before Adam showed up with a big ol sh!t eating grin on his face, carrying something being his back. He said, “you didn’t think I was gonna come back empty handed did you?”, then pulled out a big lump from behind his back. I let a big whoop before I realized what I was looking at, assuming he was pulling out some sort of an elk part from behind his back. Turns out it was a grouse! He head shot it perfectly, but begs the question, if you can head shoot a grouse, how’d you miss an elk?
One last bit of drama in packing up the horses. Sonny decided to pull his “tug on whatever I’m tied to” routine again. He was fully loaded, but tied to a stout spruce that wasn’t going anywhere no matter how hard he tugged. He fell over sideways while we were trying to untie him. His eyes rolled back in his head, with the halter tearing at his face, as all 1,200 pounds of him pulled against it. I eventually got him untied, but not before getting kicked in the shin. It took him a moment to stand up, he was shaking with adrenaline, the skin on the bridge of his nose and above his eyes being torn off and acting completely dazed.
He quickly recovered, and the rest of the hike down was uneventful. We were excited about the spot and would like to return, but very disappointed with our own performances. Most of our problems were totally avoidable or easily solved with better preparation. We let too many opportunities slip through our grasp. We very likely should have been packing out at least two raghorn bulls. We’ll go back, but we need to get more serious about learning to talk to elk, we need to really focus on our open sight shooting, and we need to take more precautions with the horses. Or we’ll be taking goats next year. Just another smooth hunt, eh?