Friday, September 5, 2014

Day 9 - No Regrets in Idaho

We got a late start at base camp, had two game plans we kept tossing around. One revolved around "chuckles" and the other was to head up high and see if we could get eyes on a buck Curtis saw earlier in the week. 

He spotted the buck when he and his father stopped midway up the big mountain, while my father and I went all the way up. The plan was to go light, so he didn't bring his spotting scope, just his bino's. He watched the buck for about a day and half, knew where it fed and knew where it bedded down. I believe this was days 3 and 4. When we finally met back up at base camp after our departure, Curtis began to describe the buck that he had been watching. He said it was a decent buck, nothing spectacular but a shooter for sure. Remember, he was looking at this buck through his bino's, from a great distance... Given that we had a bull elk below base camp and not much else to pursue, we put that buck in our back pockets and pursued chuckles over the course of the next several days. 

So when we woke up on Day 9, it really was a coin toss, but we decided to spend the last day up high, if nothing, we would have a great view, so about mid morning we started the climb. 

Once we finally arrived to the bench on that knife ridge where Curtis was glassing that buck he saw earlier in the week, we both pulled out our spotting scopes and started looking.

It wasn't more than maybe 5-10 minutes when Curtis said, "I got him! I can see his ear flickering and a branch of his antler"... How he found him so quick, I don't know, I'll tell you what though, Curtis knows how to work some glass. He got me lined up and this is what I saw... 

I said, "Dude, that's a monster!!!" We initially thought he would go 170-180", deep forks, real deep and well past his ears. Got to looking a little more and he was 4 on the right 3 on the left so we dropped our estimation down 150-160".
We watched that buck for about 30-40 minutes while it fed, and then he went out of sight behind some pines in the shade and bedded down. 

We made a plan, got our fathers lined up on the buck, they would keep their eyes on him while we worked our way over there. We came up with some hand signals, so they could let us know whether he busted out, or if he was up feeding or which direction he was headed. The challenge for Curtis and I, was to get up to this knoll above him, without getting seen, heard or scented. Once there, we would be in plane sight for hand signals from the eyes across the way and completely hidden from the buck below. It was a little over a mile away too, we knew it would take some time, a lot of time, we had to hop several ridges. Curtis's dad Randy filmed, while my dad stayed behind the spotting scope keeping an eye on the last place we saw the buck... Curtis and I began our stalk. 

The Stalk - 

When you canvas an area from a distance, you can think to yourself, hey that's a long ways, or hey that's some tough country. Until you step foot, until you head that direction, you really do not know what you're up against. We just knew that we had to get above him. We had landmarks picked out, still pictures in our minds to help guide us through the stalk and to let us know if we were getting close to our target area. 

We set out... To cross the first ridge we had to drop down across sage brush country all the way to the bottom, just to climb the next ridge to get into the tree line to remain undiscovered. Our plan from there was to get up high enough to side hill all the way across to the knoll above the buck that was a few fingers over on another ridge. So climb we did, up and up and up and all the way across until we hit a rock wall ledge that divided the ridge we were on, from the ridge the buck was on. This was due to a spring coming out of the side of the mountain. We would have needed some serious equipment to repel down that rock wall... We had to drop all the way down to the bottom, and that's what we did. We crossed the creek below and took a look up, straight up. Too risky to do any side hilling from here, we had to climb this ridge straight up, we started the climb. Definitely had a few moments of don't look down, one misstep and you'd be on your way to the grave. I don't think we took our time, we just went... We didn't have anything else, we had no idea if the buck was still there, we had to get up high enough to look back at our spotters for some signals. We moved quickly, but in unison and with precision. Each step mattered and we treated the situation very delicately at times. Pause, check the wind, look for landmarks... We worked up to a finger full of pine, we guessed we were straight across from the buck at this time, but still about 300 yards away. The wind was swirling and at times gusting straight towards the buck. We thought the stalk was blown, but still had no clue so we pressed on. Up a little farther a grouse ran out in front of us... I think Curtis and I simultaneously got a little evil grin on our faces, I looked back at him and said, "Should I shoot him?" Hoping so dearly that he would say, "Do it!"... And that's exactly what he said. I had one arrow with a judo point, so I knocked it... Looked back at him said, "that's about 20, right?" I drew, and the arrow flew true. Smacked that grouse with a wallop so loud I thought for sure the buck would have heard it. The grouse hobbled out of sight. I climbed up to where it stood when I shot and I could see him down the ridge just a ways with my arrow sticking straight through him. I got on him quick and finished him off with my bare hands as quickly and silently as I could. 

Looking back, we're definitely some kind of crazy. Put the grouse in my pack and we pressed on straight up for about another 200 yards till we hit a clearing... We were directly across from the knoll, the wind was still swirling.

To cross the knoll we had to walk straight across an open area, I was walking behind Curtis, keeping tabs on his steps when I noticed something very different from the usual terrain I was so used to looking at. 

On the knoll, we got in contact with our spotter. We got the signal that the buck was up feeding, just 100 yards below us.   

It was here where we dropped our packs, took off our boots and covered our scent with spray. The wind was perfect and our worries about the swirl and cross winds before, were completely put at ease. What was happening was, the wind would push through the draw to where we were when we were straight across from the buck... It would then bounce off the adjacent ridge and then bounce back over us, seemingly pushing straight towards the buck. However, since the thermals were rising, the buck was on the face of the ridge, say the nose and us at the ear, where the buck was the wind was pushing straight up, which concealed our scent. Perfect.

Anyway, so all the way through the stalk, Curtis and I were talking about sticking together till the end, "ride or die together!", but once we got ready for the final decent, he started off in one direction and I the other. Looking back, we should have stuck together, we had no form of communication and we were both out of eyesight. This is, the one mistake we made. 

So I began the final stalk, wool socks gently pressing into the earth, gliding silently through brush and sharp rocks, I worked south around the knoll. Once I made it around, I found myself in a tree line, which was clearly the bucks bedding ground. He couldn't have picked a better bed. I kept my eyes below, looking at the brush we knew he was feeding on. He was out of sight, but I saw some brush moving quite differently from the brush I could obviously tell that was affected by the wind. I devoted my eyes to this spot, and soon before long, I caught a glimpse of an antler. My heart started to pound... 

My senses were on high alert. I had a bush in front of me and him, but he was feeding up. Through the tree line, if he were to continue the direction he was going, I would have a small window to sneak an arrow in him. He was taking his time, definitely testing my patience... I was trying to find another angle on him, but to get anywhere I would have to expose myself, I stayed put. Heart still pounding. The buck was gorging himself, eating and gently scratching his antlers on the brush. I couldn't help but think, wow, what an amazing animal and he looked much bigger standing in front of me. I ranged the brush he was feeding on, but in my window of opportunity, 43 yards. 

I'm sure it was only minutes, which seemed like an eternity, but he was slowly moving up to where I wanted him to go. It was about this time that I started to wonder where Curtis was and if he was looking at the buck himself. Studying the buck, he kept looking back at the direction where I thought Curtis was. The buck, still feeding seemed a little more nervous than before, and I convinced myself that he was on to us. I kept waiting to hear a shot from Curtis, and then the buck moved just ever so slightly into my view. I felt a sense of urgency, so I drew back... I had to hug a tree to get around a branch that was extending out and I still had parts of a bush covering up the bucks backside... He was quartering away, I put my 40 pin behind his shoulder and released an arrow... Just as I had done, a thousand times over. As the arrow released from my string, and headed it's way to the bucks lung cavity... it clipped the brush in between me and the buck. 

It could have been my string, or it could have been the sound of my arrow hitting that brush... But the reflexes of a mule deer, simply, go unrivaled. His body dropped to load up the strength of his legs, at the same time my arrow passed just inches above his hide. In an instance... He was gone.

I'll never forget the emotions felt immediately afterwards. It was an all time low. Completely somber. Here I was, beat down and tired... After executing a perfect stalk, an unimaginable experience ... 43 yards away, from one of the most incredible animals that I have ever had the chance to pursue... And he was gone. Our opportunity, was gone, just like that.

I met up with Curtis and told him what happened... In one aspect, I felt guilty and ashamed. Curtis devoted so much time into watching this buck. We wanted so badly, to stand over him. I think I apologized a hundred times, to which he replied, "Hey, that very well could have been me missing." I still felt terrible. 

We got back to the knoll and gave the signal to our dad's that the hunt was over, without bloodshed. We took our time putting ourselves together... I plucked and gutted the grouse from that spot. We dropped down to the creek below, making our way back up to our spotters.

It was here at this spring, where we found some peace. Took our packs off, stood at the edge of the creek and rolled that cool water over our faces, heads and the back of our necks. I'll remember this as our baptismal. 

Walking up to my pops, I'll never forget the look on his face, I'm sure he won't forget mine. He wasn't disappointed, nor upset, he was actually quite joyous, both of our dad's were. He gave me a hug with the warmth only a father could and told me how proud he was of me and Curtis, Randy said the same... They were so proud of their boys, executing the perfect stalk on a trophy class animal and the excitement they felt watching was something they'll never forget. I'd be lying if I said I didn't tear up a bit, not sure why either... It was a long tough week... And I left a little bit of me on that mountain side.

We took our time heading down... Standing there looking over the country, the sun setting, illuminating mountain peaks and the valley below in a special hue. What a sunset it was... 

I think I said before, that Idaho was getting the best of us... In truth, that just isn't so... We got the best of Idaho. We got the memories of a lifetime with our friends and family, we got the thrill of the chase... We got the ups and downs, we got to revel in it all. Idaho can't take that experience from us, cause that's all ours. That's our story to tell... 

I thank you all for your support, and coming along this journey with us. 

Till next time... And there will be a next time.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Day 8 - Beat Down and Tired

I don't know how many miles, how many ridges or how much dirt I've walked on and over... How many set ups, how many times I have blown an elk call... The highs and the real lows, the excitement and the frustration. It's a number I don't think I even want to know. Idaho is getting the best of us, getting the best of me. I've contemplated sharing on here about how difficult this hunt has been, because I don't want to seem like I feel as if I am owed something or complaining. I just want to be honest. The simple truth is, nothing has been easy...  But that was expected, to some degree. It's hunting... Or rather, it's elk hunting, pre rut. We've covered just about every area we could, I've seen fresh tracks, old tracks, beds and feeding areas. In total as a group, we've seen 3 elk, 2 bears, 4-5 deer and some moose. Finding three elk, in this country, is literally like finding a needle in a hay stack. The fact that we have had close calls, is an accomplishment all in itself. There is one bull elk in the area, in this huge area. He bugles every morning, just once or twice, occasionally once in the evening too.  He never once has answered to any of our calls. We know the general area he frequents, but the forest is so thick that at most times you can only see about 30 yards in any given direction and sometimes that is even a stretch. It's shocking in one aspect, that here I am in Idaho, the public land/national forest Capitol of the US, and there's very little game to be had. We've watched mountain sides, ridge lines and draws for hours... Still hunted for miles, never once did we bust out a deer or anything for that matter. 

So what happened? There was a herd of elk here last year, they are gone, why? The only finger I can point, the only thing I can blame, is the sheep. I stepped foot in the herds tracks up on top of the mountain, they were there before the sheep moved through. The sheep bring forth heavy predation from coyotes and wolfs. I am sure there are cougars in the mix as well. You get anywhere near a sheep dog, and immediately, it's like an alarm is going off and the chase is on. How the department of fish and game allows the Peruvians to run this many sheep over all this country, is beyond me. Especially this time of year. Everywhere the sheep go, the forest looks destroyed and it's rich with stench. It is what is and we continually try to make the best of it.

 Anyway, so here I sit around a campfire with three other guys and it's on all of our faces. Early mornings, cold nights, long, really long hikes through some of the most brutal country I have ever stepped in. You feel the mountain in your bones, your feet, legs, shoulders and back. That's elk hunting, I presume. 

We went after chuckles again today... Wind was blowing a steady 20 mph with gusts much greater. The area he lives in, the wind changes direction and swirls so much that you cannot predict the angle of attack. He's a smart animal, and he lives in the perfect spot to evade intruders. I can't help but wonder what he'll do in two weeks, when the rut is in full swing. Will he make his mistake then? Or will he continue to shy away from calling, and choose his bugles at only the opportune time? I don't know, but one thing is certain... My time on this mountain is running out. Tomorrow will be my last full day of hunting, and Friday will be a half day as we will be hitting the road and headed back to California in the afternoon. I'm looking forward to starting my deer season at home. 

This trip has been an amazing one, regardless if my tag gets punched or not. I'll cherish the memories made up here for quite some time. I believe this trip has made me a better hunter, and the challenges have made me realize that I am capable of a lot more than I had initially thought. We may get beaten, but I am not easily broken. My journey for elk, will continue until I can't hunt anymore. Next year, we may be in Arizona, Wyoming, Oregon or even Colorado. Not sure what the future holds, but if there is a season and opportunity, I'll be packing my bags for another week in the high country. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Day 7 - Howl at the Moon

So after a long night up on the mountain, and an even longer hike back to base camp, we chose to get some rest and do some listening in the morning. I was curious to find out if the bulls we heard before the opener, were still hanging around. Well, one was... And he was only about a 1/3 of a mile from where we got busted by that branched bull I saw on the opener. 

So I was watching the sun rise with a hot cup of coffee in my hands, and my eyes and ears were focused on a few ridges to the east. It was about a half an hour of listening when I heard him, one of the worst sounding bugles ever. He actually did it twice. It sounded like he was trying to chuckle and bugle all at once. Thus, we gave him the name chuckles. 

At camp, pops and I devised a plan to go after him. I was certain he was going to bed in a particular area, so we tried to work into it, keeping the wind in our favor. What a challenge the wind is up here, and I know exactly why chuckles hangs out where he does. He gets to smell from every direction. Smart bull for sure, and he only gives us a slight clue each morning as to where he is and where he is going. I wish elk hunting was like a game of chess. At least in chess, you can see all the moves, you can make predictions, you can read your opponent. Hunting elk with a bow, is more like a puzzle, where you have a piece in your hand and you're just constantly trying to figure out where it goes. 

So we were working towards chuckles, strategically navigating through draws and ridges trying to close the distance. Constantly checking the wind, and moving accordingly with it. Wind rules all, you have to obey it. We were about a mile and a half from camp, when we paused and softly started cow calling. Real simple chirps and what not, locator calls. Immediately, we get an answer from a cow. This unit we are in is "Any Elk" and in fact, with out elk tag we put on any deer, bear, cougar or wolf. I would gladly out an arrow through a cow. Anyway, so we dropped our packs and tried to get ourselves into position... I got up to a tree and my pops went to move into opening above me, I think he took maybe seven steps and just as he was nocking an arrow, there he found himself busted... face to face with a calf. There was no opportunity for a shot, the calf never busted, it just moved off. I had no idea this was happening, to much brush in the way and the calf moved silently. After my pops told me what happened, we tried to keep the cow and the calf in the same area and the cow continued to talk to us, but it was clear she was moving out. This whole thing went on for about 20 minutes, before we finally abandoned ship and focused our attention back to the bull and finding him. About 5 minutes passed, while we were heading up the draw when we heard him... Only about 100 yards away, he let out two chuckles! I checked the wind and it was swirling, my dad moved about 40 yards behind me and started calling... Checked the wind again and it was pushing right towards him. He had us... Nothing left to see here. He never talked to is again, and we decided not to push him. We moved out and tried to guess where he move to in the evening. More miles on the boots, but we got a good idea of where he is traveling to in the morning. The evening was uneventful, and very quiet. These bulls in the early season, they talk, very little. At sun down we headed back to camp. Met up with Curtis and his dad Randy, and we swapped stories. They were up about halfway on the big mountain, watching a couple mule deer, a moose and Curtis tried to stalk a big cinnamon bear. Got close from what he says, but no dice. 

The warmth of the fire and some friendly banter between good friends. It's such a fine thing, and I am glad to share this experience with the other three men up here in Idaho. The night ended with the usual sound of sheep, sheep dogs and coyotes... However, tonight there was something different in the howl we heard up on the ridge behind us... It was deep, long and drawn out. Calm, controlled and somewhat haunting. A lone wolf, whom I envision surveying the land below him, as if he is the ruler. Immediately uneasy, frustrated, worried what would happen to the elk in our area...but still honored to hear such a thing as it was only the second wolf I have heard in the wild... Day 7 ended in the most erie way. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Day 6 - A Tale of a Thousand Sheep

It was cold, freezing cold as a matter of fact. I was cold. The wind was blowing a steady 20 mph and pushing right over the ridge we were spiked out on. Any chance at hearing any bugle was out the window. I'll have to rethink some of my gear, a night shivering... Is not a pleasant one. This is how day 5 transitioned into day 6, at the top of the world. 

The alarm went off, I was already awake. Dreading leaving what little warmth I had, to open myself to the elements. The wind was still blowing pretty strong, I navigated to my backpack in the dark and grabbed my headlamp. First order of business was to get some water heated up for some coffee. I fired up the jetboil and placed my hands around the flame, trying to thaw my fingers out. The coffee cup was warm to the touch, but no match for the wind. I layered up, with everything I had... Merino wool base layers, kuiu 1/4 zip wool top, kuiu attack pants, kuiu guide jacket, kuiu chinook rain pants and jacket, kuiu guide gloves, kuiu hat and a kuiu beanie. That seemed to do the trick. We headed out in the dark...

To give you guys a little bit of a preface, because I am not sure I have shared this yet... Since we have arrived in Idaho, since we have arrived to our hunting area. Each evening has been filled with the sound of sheep, thousands of them and I mean thousands, several different herds spread throughout the entire area. So you hear the sheep, and then right when the sun is setting, you hear several packs of coyotes, and then after the coyotes, you hear the dogs that are ordered to protect the sheep. It's obvious that the coyotes are planning their attack, and the sheep dogs are well aware of it. Several times the sheep dogs have ran the coyotes off, in fact they have chased them for quite aways... Right through the areas that we have been trying to chase elk. I don't think the elk like the sheep, and I am certain that they do not like the sheep dogs... So through a series of deduction, we have been able to make the assumption that, where there are sheep, there are no elk or deer either. This is why we headed up high, to escape the sheep and the smell they leave behind.

Anyway, so we're hunkered down on top of the ridge and we're looking at a side of the mountain where we were hoping to see the elk. The sun is just coming up and we can start to pick out rocks and bushes with our glass. It was only about 5 minutes of glassing when my dad said, "I see the herd! Cresting the top of the mountain... No wait, is that sheep?" Sure enough, the sheep were up there too... I think my heart sank. We ended up dropping down into the bowl off the other side. We got down into the bowl quite aways and we started to see beds, tracks and sign of elk. It looked good. We figured we would call into the bottom from there to see if anything would answer... Something did that's for sure, or rather somethings. Two different packs of coyotes. One from the bottom where we were hoping the elk would be and the other across the ridge from us... Hope began to dwindle... We ended up dropping off into the tree line on our left, it was part of a finger of the ridge... There was sign everywhere! Like a herd of elk had just walked through there a day or two ago... Massive trails winding throughout the entire thicket of trees. We set up in there for about two hours calling ever so often, hoping the elk would come up with the sun. A coyote came in and circled us, I never had a clean shot. No elk, we found much needed water here, and off we went. Steepest country I have ever been in, it takes it toll. We glassed and listened, nothing. Nothing for as far as we could see, not even a deer. Just sheep and coyotes. We packed up our spike camp and headed west on the ridge. Where we ran into more sheep making their way up from there... Frustrated, we decided to come down off the mountain. Probably hiked about 7 miles today to get back to base camp. Exhausted. We took the evening off, I made a phone call home. We ate dinner and now we are licking our wounds. All in all, I believe we have at least hiked 20 miles in total since the opener. Elk are scarce... We've gone everywhere the elk have been, but the elk have not traveled anywhere we have... And so it goes. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Day 5 - up high

It started out with a new plan and strategy. Instead of hunting low, we decided to hunt middle ground, or I guess a transition area from the low lands and the high lands... But before we set off to hunt, we were going to glass the ridges way up high to see if the elk were doing what they did last year. Just as it got light enough to glass, a heavy fog/mist/rain set in, right over the ridge top and then slowly worked it's way down to us. It was very wet, and cold and visibility was horribly. 

Anyway, there's elk low, the problem is, it is so thick and the terrain is straight up and down, we're at a huge disadvantage. You would almost have to hunt the area like you would blacktail deer. Just sitting and waiting off a trail, but what trail? There are hundreds and several with fresh sign. The only distinct clue that we have gathered from hunting low is that everything was headed high, thus why we chose to hunt mid, which was still lowish. Quickly, we were reminded of what we saw the day before... Fresh sign, all headed up. About mid morning-ish, we came up with a new plan. To leave base camp and set out for 3 days, up high and mid-high, so that's what we did. My buddy Curtis and his dad traveled about halfway up the mountain and my father and I went all the way to the top. Most definitely, one of the most grueling climbs that I have ever done, in zero to nothing flat, we climbed 2000 feet. No break in the trail, no side hilling, it's just straight up and quick, but we made it. I am actually huddled in my tent at 9000+ feet right at this very moment. The wind hasn't stopped pounding us, it's howling through the top of this ridge so the thought of hearing a bugle is almost non existent unless it lets up. We brought as much water as our backs could handle up here, but our supplies are depleting quickly. This is a huge concern of mine at the moment, almost more than arrowing an elk. Water is scarce up here, but it looks like there's a spring about a mile straight down off the other side of the mountain. Tomorrow, we're work the ridge to east, there's sign all over up here... If we don't see anything or hear anything up top, we'll drop down and look for water. Where do you look for elk? Find the nastiest, thickest, steepest country, country no man would want to be in... That's where you'll find them. 

Highlight of my evening was a phone call to my wife, laying out atop the ridge with my pops soaking in the sun as it peeked through the clouds... And crawling into my sleeping bag. Hoping the best for the morning.