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>> A Northern Gentleman :: By Marshall Stanton on 2001-02-10
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Opening day of Idaho Panhandle general elk season brought with it a fresh dusting of the year's fist snow, and great anticipation, as this was my first year to hunt Idaho as a resident, after moving from Southern Oregon where I was raised.  Archery season had proven a great excuse to get out and learn some country, and locate some animals.  I hadn't thrown a stick all season, but had located several small resident bands of elk not far from home, each having a respectable bull.

Arriving before daylight at the top of an old, brushed over burn, I turned off the lights on my pickup and sat to enjoy a cup of hot coffee before my hunt.   Enthusiasm swelled within as daylight approached, no other vehicles had been in before me in the fresh snow, and climbing the switchbacks up the mountain, there were no other headlights behind me.  I had all of the north ridge of Quartz Mountain to myself for the opening day of general elks season!  Archery season on this ridge and drainage to the north had been a continual cat and mouse game, with several cows, a spike bull and a very nice 5x6 branch antlered bull.   Never had an opportunity offered itself for a shot with archery tackle, but I was confident that I would find the elk this morning.  

The first gray light of daylight began to show in the eastern sky, through a heavy cloud cover delaying dawn by nearly half an hour.  Snow fell lightly, but steadily in the dead calm morning silence.  The temperature at five thousand feet that morning was just below the freezing mark, making the woods absolutely silent for still hunting.  A thrill raced through my mind as I chambered a round in my rifle and tucked my lunch into the back pouch of my wool mackinaw coat, in anticipation of what awaited that morning.  

Within eyesight of the pickup, I noticed a set of fresh black bear tracks in the snow, fresh and distinct, a small bear, perhaps a yearling, traveling alone, and checking out every elderberry bush along the trail.  Soon his tracks headed deep into the drainage to the west of my ridge, and I slipped silently through the fresh carpet of white, savoring the freshness that comes with the season's first snow.   Two whitetail does jumped to their feet, alarmed by my appearance, I was merely twenty feet from them when they finally saw me.  There being no breeze, and the forest so quiet, they hadn't even heard my approach.  I was feeling great about this hunt!

Still hunting down the ridgeline another quarter of a mile, I heard the distinct sounds of an animal feeding.  I slowly crept down a game trail to my north, slowly, silently picking my way through the heavy alder and scrub willow brush that characterized this forty year old burn I was hunting.  As I approached the sounds, a gentle breeze kicked up from the north, perfect for my path of travel.   Two cow elk and a calf were busily feeding on a patch of elderberry.  The recent freezes had set the sugars in the leaves, and they were scarfing down every elderberry leaf they could reach.  I waited, and watched for what seemed like an eternity, a few minutes in reality, waiting and listening for one of the bulls that I knew were in the area.   All I heard was the immediate noises of the feeding cows and the calf, and they put on quite a show for me from a distance of only thirty to forty yards.   The biggest cow was very possessive of her elderberry bush that she was feeding upon.   If either of the two other elk approached, she bared her teeth, and kicked at them to run them off!  Of course she had selected the biggest of the elderberry bushes, and the one with the most leaves within reach.  

Before too long however, the calf, being rather frisky, came within ten or twelve feet of me during his playing and frolicking, kicking up snow and racing in circles as he went.   Complete stop!  That calf froze, mid-stride, knowing I wasn't supposed to be there.  He snorted, called to mama, then wheeled and raced over to the smaller of the two cows.  They gave me a thorough stare-down, but the breeze was nearly entirely in my favor, being only slightly cross-wind, and they couldn't scent me, so the biggest of the two cows approached one or two hesitant steps at a time, until she was about twenty feet from me, then, sensing that things weren't all they should have been, she led the departure down a game trail parallel to the one I had come down.  They never spooked, but rather walked away at a brisk pace, and never even broke into a trot.

I absolutely could not hear them on that trail, the woods were so quiet that morning.   When I saw the last cream colored rear-end disappear into the brush, that was it!  I picked my way back up to the ridge trail I initially was traversing, and very soon cut a huge set of tracks!  It had to be my bull!  The animal was traveling alone with feet that left near saucer sized tracks.  Again, the breeze was in my favor, and I followed the tracks, quite fresh tracks at that, down the ridge trail for about three-eighths of a mile where they too dove off the ridge on a game trail leading to the north.  

This area had been ravaged by an intense forest fire during the late 50's, and the brush had come in very thick, then in the early 70's the Forest Service had contracted to have a cat come in an clear the brush from the burn, piling it into windrows that were burned the following spring.  Then the whole area was replanted with pine and fir trees.  Natural reforestation from a few old, standing trees provided a little more diversity with some Western Larch, Idaho White Pine, White Fir and Cedar being dispersed among the planted nursery trees.  Although there was an excellent survival of trees, the brush came back in, and grew faster than most of the trees, creating an almost impenetrable jungle fifteen to twenty feet high where the burn had been.  However, running parallel to the ridgeline were still the remains of the windrows, acting as travel corridors for game, providing pretty much unhindered passage through this burn.  These windrows were spaced about every hundred yards or so apart, paralleling each other, just at spaced intervals through the burn where the brush had at one time been cleared.

I followed those bull tracks down the game trail until once again, I heard the distinct sound of feeding animals.... big animals!  I stopped and listened for several minutes trying to decide what to do.  The wind was quartering towards me, and basically in my favor, the animal sounded as if it was within seventy-five yards of where I stood.  Slowly I crept, ever so slowly along the game trail through the thick, forbidding brush, until I came to one of the old windrows that afforded some ease of mobility, and speed in travel.  It was headed in the general direction of the feeding noises which were now very distinct.

The snow had nearly stopped falling by now, and mid-morning thermal lift from below began making the breeze a bit shifty as I approached the sound of the feeding animal down the windrow.  Still, being silent as a cat I slipped within what must of been just a few yards of the animal, but I heard nothing.  I stopped, waiting for some clue to the whereabouts of my bull.  Then, less than forty feet from me, heard the rattling of brush, then saw them!  The white ivory tips of antlers, and a great pink tongue reaching up to some choke-cherries hanging from a branch!  I couldn't make out the head or neck in the thick brush, but my bull was right there!  There was no mistake, it was antler tines and a tongue I had seen, because here it came again!  I watched, expectantly over the sights of my rifle to see his head and or neck, but no such luck!  He grabbed another bite of choke-cherries, and the antler tines and tongue disappeared into a tangle of brush.

The wind shifted slightly with just a puff of breeze from behind me, then I heard what sounded like a muffled grunt, then I could see brush moving, and hear the sound of  a big animal pushing his way through the alders and choke-cherry brush.  His movement was roughly parallel to the windrow I was on, but about twenty yards now, to my left.  He wasn't spooked, but was definitely aware that he wasn't alone either.  I followed paralleling him through the brush, via the old windrow.  We played this little cat and mouse game for nearly half a mile, over a time span of about forty-five minutes.  Occasionally I could distinctly hear him feeding and chewing.  We were that close!  Finally the wind began shifting even more, being very unpredictable as the morning wore on, and the sun broke through the cloud cover and the temperature rose above freezing.  The falling water from the trees helped to mask what noise I was making following this big boy, but I knew that it was only a matter of time that he would get a good, full whiff of my scent with an unfavorable gust, and he would be gone, along with my chance to harvest him.

In Southern Oregon, and extreme Northern California, I had hunted much the same type of cover, old windrowed brush-fields that had been replanted with trees and then over-run with brush once again.  They had been very productive places to hunt both mule deer and black-tail deer as well.  One of the tactics that we used when deer knew full well that you were there, but kept up the little cat and mouse game of paralleling you through the brush, was to find a game trail that ran across from one windrow to the next, and simply put your head down and run directly towards the deer through the brush, using the game trail for passage.   Often times, more likely than not, the deer would simply stand still to see what you were, and wait for you to come out of the brush.   Several deer have died due to their curiosity when I've crashed through the brush on an over-confident buck!

Well, with the shifting wind, I had reached a time for action.  Something of an offensive nature was in order, so I called up the charge-through-the-brush play!  I had remained fairly even with the bull the whole way down the windrow, and finally, I came across a well used game trail leading directly towards where I heard him feeding.  Putting my head down, I charged through the brush like a madman the twenty or twenty-five yards to a small clearing in the brush about twenty feet wide and forty feet long, and there he stood!

My bull was standing stock still at the end of this little clearing in the brush!  His four-foot wide antler spread topped his six-foot bearded frame.  Yep, bull moose!  This big boy stared me down, from a distance of less than twenty feet, then snorted, blowing yellow mucous all over the snow in front of him!  Was he ever annoyed.  Although not a huge moose, any moose with an attitude at that distance looks pretty darned big when you are looking up at him!  Then, he took about four steps towards me, pawed the ground as he came to a larch tree about twelve feet high and three inches in diameter.  Then he proceeded, in almost the blink of an eye to absolutely shred that larch tree with his antlers, as his hooves pawed the ground!

I suddenly realized that this was not Southern Oregon, and this North Idaho Panhandle was a place of critters much bigger than me, and some that carried an attitude as well.  It certainly wasn't Kansas, and this raging bull looking at me surely wasn't Toto!  I began talking to the moose in slow, even, low tones, and at the same time slowly, backing away, back along the game trail I had charged down.  Never did I turn my back on him, or stop talking to him, for fear he might rush me.  Until now, I had never considered the proposition of a moose, having never been raised around them, or hunted to any extent in habitat supporting moose.  The Lord had preserved me that morning, and provided an unforgettable lesson, and thrilling memory.

After reaching an old cedar log about two hundred yards from the scene of my confrontation, I sat down, very weak kneed, and shaking!  It occurred to me that I could have been made a red grease spot in the snow before ever having time to react to the moose!  I was glad that the Lord had seen fit that my first introduction to a bull moose while hunting would be with an understanding sort of critter.  He was, after all, a true Northern Gentleman about the whole affair!

 

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