A crisp beautiful north Idaho morning, and seven souls chomping at the bit to get out into the woods to stalk the elusive "timber ghost." It was still dark in the early hours that October morn, an excitement permeated the camp as we all hurried around our camp stoves slinging grub in frying pans and packing our lunches in day packs for the long anticipated opener.
My thoughts had gone to another opener a couple of years back when Marshall Stanton and I towed his camp trailer up into the heavy black timber we hunt in the panhandle, trying to stake out a spot for our elk camp the next week. This was just a one day teaser, as my vacation wasn't until the coming Saturday, and I had somehow convinced my foreman at the mill to let me have the day off.
We stopped at "our clear cut" and snaked our way down the trees to the top of the cut. I decided to take the left and hang out about a third of the way down along the edge just in the trees, Marshall went right, and then cut slightly into the clear cut and kegged up until we were to meet at the bottom an hour after light.
Time passes slowly in the dark and every sound is magnified in the cool quiet of the pre dawn. The first sound I heard was a slight "crack" then a "snap", I looked deep into the trees to my left and I couldn?t believe it, ELK!! Three cows; their dark flat heads bobbing up and down as they meandered down a trail feeding in the first light of the day. I shouldered my rifle and started searching for a bull, as cow season begins the second week of the elk season. The wind is in my face and suddenly I smell this musky funky smell, and I know I have just smelled my firsts bull elk! Now I am getting serious, and really start searching for the big boy. "Crash... down the mountain they go! I don't have a clue what spooked them; I must have made some kind of mistake. Well I figure, what the heck, and I take off down the edge of that clear cut and stop after about fifty yards and blow on my cow call, the bull bugles and I see legs! I crouch in the dew soaked knee-high grass and lay my scope on an area I believe is his chest. I give another mew, and he answers! It was a very dry, warm archery season and it seems the heat delayed the rut a week or two. As luck would have it for that bull, I held back my shot, not fully convinced of my target, as I could not see his head or rack of horns.
I was very disappointed and kicking myself for not taking the shot. But I have read those newspaper accounts of hunters swearing they "thought it was and animal" too many times to want to take a chance on hitting a human or maybe a cow standing near the bull. "Strike one"
·We all had our fill of grub and started for the rigs, Marshall and his son were heading three quarters up the mountains and going to hunt the finger ridges down to a creek trail and try to get back by dinner. Mark and his son were going to hunt up a gated road and bail off towards the same trail after working the fingers ridges that separated the two. That left myself, Scott and his son to head up to the top and hunt our clear cut, then work our way down the ridges to join up with the others on the trail. On the way up to the "clear cut" I had a chance to share my second brush with a bull elk, with Scott and his boy...
The snow that year had come early and hard. Marshall and I had just finished setting up camp 5000 ft above sea level on a windy ridge we like to call home in early October, when the snow began to fall with a vengeance. We decided to take a short drive in the near blizzard conditions to see if anything was moving. About three eights of a mile down the road; he hit the brakes, hopped out of the Burb. Bang! "Did you see that buck?" Marshall said, as he started off to find his trophy. We found the nice 5X5 kegged up at the base of a small grand fir, dead from a double lung shot. After the ten-yard drag to the road, we tended the deer and headed back to camp to skin the big boy out. That was the first time I had ever seen an animal skinned with a suburban! A few cuts here and there, a round rock tied to a piece of neck hide, and the other end to a bumper and wham bam, off came the hide in a few seconds!
Up early as usual, I start to head out the camper door to relieve myself of last night's liquids, and find it hard to get the door open. It seems the tarp has fallen down along the door and I have to use a little beef to get it open. "Holy smokes Marshall, our whole camp is buried under 2 feet of snow!" "No way, are you serious?" Marshall challenges. " Yes I am, I can't believe it, we are going to have to spend the morning digging out of this mess". We get a few things taken care of and decide to head down the mountain for some help with our predicament. An hour later we come steaming up to camp with the Calvary. (Ok it was just Marshall's buddies Hank and Bill). Two much wiser elk hunters who camp low, just like we do now.
We spent the week in "Billyville", the name these fellows gave their camp, hunting and sharing stories with these guys. On the way back to Billyville after one such hunt, we caught up to Hank who was just a bit ahead of us on the road. He was all excited and trying to get us to cross this 15-foot wide creek to help him find the cow he said he just shot. Well I was a little skeptical, thinking he was trying to get us to hop in a creek and then laugh at us for being so gullible. Hank hopped in followed by Marshall; I figured he must be serious so I hopped in the frigid creek like a sheep. Bill being the wise OLE hunter that he is, backed the truck up as close as he dare to the creek, waiting for some news. Hank spotted her, right where she stood when he shot her, her neck ripped open exposing her wind pipe and big arteries and veins. After some discussion we decided to drag her into the creek and float her over to the other side and drag her up on the road with the truck. All was going as planned until Hank hit a hole and threw his back out, Marshall went to Hanks aid, and I was left holding the right rear hoof splashing toward shore trying to grasp a hand hold, as I was quickly being led by the cow down the creek. The two creek bathers finally got things under control and came to my rescue. We got her up and loaded whole into the truck after much straining and grunting and other manly noises. Lanterns blazing and blades a flying, we were soon treated to another "Burb" skinning job, followed by the best fried chicken and potatoes I have ever had, cooked up by another Bill from Arkansas. Hmp, I wonder if that's why they called it Billyville.
The next morning was our last day to hunt, and even though we were exhausted from the previous nights excitement, not to mention my first elk butchering party, Marshall and I decided to try one last hunt that morning, and then bag it and head home.
We rolled out of our bags and slowly put our things in order for our " last hurrah " of the season. Tired from the week of climbing up and down steep snow covered mountains, we passed on breakfast and loaded up the Burb for what we thought would be a short hike to an area we felt we could sit and perhaps have an elk pushed to us from the "weekend" hunters. As we walked up the road in the dark, whispering the small talk that hunting partners share, Marshall spotted a huge set of elk tracks on the side of the closed road. A fresh snow had fallen that night and as the light of the sun slowly poked through the trees, we perked up a little as we followed those tracks to a small steep hill leading to some heavy timber and brushy ridges. We planned a quick strategy, and started our slow climb to the top. About half way up Marshall asked if I wanted the lead, I passed since he spotted the tracks, and I veered off to the right parallel to the tracks, hoping we might divide and conquer. Just about to the top I hear a noise over by Marshall, who has his rifle shouldered and seems about ready to shoot. The elk bolts from his bed and over my direction but all I see is a rump and brush swinging back and forth like a blast of wind just blew through it.
I start to work my way up to where I last saw Marshall who is now gone, and I gather by his tracks in the snow has taken up pursuit. I backtracked the elk to see where he was hidden, and find his bed right up against a big douglas fir tree. He left a fresh pile of pellets as a going away present, and I could smell his lingering musk as I started in pursuit of my hunting partner, and the bull.
I caught up to him about a mile or so up some ridge after passing through a bowl and up another ridge. Marshall was exhausted but the sight of this big bull gave his body the needed shot of adrenaline that it craved. He said the rack was huge and he was just stunned to have it jump up so close to him that he felt frozen, and was now kicking himself for not putting the big boy down. We decided to slowly follow him in hopes of spotting the big boy on a parallel ridge watching his back trail. We kept up the slow pace, wading through close to knee-deep snow for about three hours, when a shot rang out. We looked at each other, and almost in unison said "someone just shot our elk"! Well about a half an hour later we found the 7X8 radio collard bull on a steep slope next to a big fir. Some very proud hunter tagged him undoubtedly.
That was the last straw for us; our plan went awry as we pushed the elk for some other hunter to shoot. We had decided to follow the hunter's tracks out to the main road to congratulate him, and hear his story. After hitting the road we started our six-mile hike back to the Burb, the adrenaline was slowly warring off, and our feet getting heavier with every step. A couple of miles down the road we heard vehicles storming towards us. We flagged them down to find the shooter, a young man of about 17 with 3 other wide-eyed teens and a few adults. One of the boys asked us if it was really a 7X8, and we shook our heads and affirmed that it was. The very excited young man shared with us how he kept slipping and sliding down the steep snow covered draw, and finally after his last fall and 100 ft slide, decided to just put his back to a tree and sit. He was amazed when a half hour later he heard and saw this bull up the hill about 40 yards from were he sat. What happened next we already knew by the tag we saw tied to his large rack. So down the road we continued for what seemed like hours. "Strike two"
As we pulled off the road to the clear cut, I told Scott that I would like to hunt the left side were I had seen those elk a couple of years ago. He agreed and led his son down the right side into the darkness. I slowly worked my way down the edge of the timber to about where I thought I had been a few years ago during my first encounter with elk. As I settled in for the 1 1/2 hour wait till light, I chuckled at myself for seeking out the exact spot I had seen elk before, (like the same bull would be there again.) In any event, the morning light came with nothing but a few deer roaming by.
I decided to head down to the lower road and link up with Scott, and found them down the road about 1/4 of a mile. We worked out a plan and split up. The plan quickly went awry as I ran into another hunter heading right for the exact ridge I was going to take to another road. After a few minuets of visiting this man, I decided I would follow this road until it met the bottom road and then backtrack the few miles to an area I had scouted during the bow season. As I was nearing the merging roads, I spied a group of four orange clad hunters beating feet down the bottom road in the direction I was going to take. Now I was beginning to get a little discouraged, not only was I going to miss Scott and his son, but I was now going to have to sit a spell and let these guys get out of sight. I cannot remember ever running into this many hunters in one day.
Finally on my way again, I was able to get my focus back and start hunting. As I neared the trail, which would take me to an open bowl and bare ridge with trees on either side, and thick brushy draws I was starting to get hungry. It was nearing 10:00am and I hadn't eaten since 4:00am. I made my way through the timbered trail onto the steep bald faced ridge and slowly worked my way about 3/4's of the way down to where the trees were just starting to grow on the ridge again. Feeling like my whole morning hunt was ruined, I quickly slid out of my daypack and sat down to eat. That's when I heard the first snap and looked down into the draw figuring it was another hunter about to intrude on my quiet time. About 5 minuets later I heard more noise and it was loud, so I just swung up onto one knee and picked up my rifle. It couldn't have been but a few seconds, when out of the draw about 30yds away popped a 4X3 bull elk! Not having much time to think, I threw my rifle to the shoulder releasing the safety and fired for the boiler room. The bull spun and went straight down the draw. I couldn't believe I just shot at an elk; my adrenaline was really starting to pump as I heard the young rag horn crashing in the brush. I slowly started to head to the edge of the ridge to begin my search. About to time I started down the draw I heard more crashing, and thought it wise to stop and listen. It lasted just a few seconds followed by the bull trying to inhale great gasps of air, I had made a good lung shot, and this poor beast was down for the count. I continued my trek hoping I would find him soon, and I did, on his back, legs in the air, next to a big brushy alder. I sat down staring at this big animal and ate my lunch.
" Now what am I going to do", I thought as I pulled out my knife. I had for the first time ever, decided to leave my rope and game bags at camp. I will never make that mistake again. The bull I now call "half rack", because he only had two eye guards on his left side, with the rest of that side broken off, was laying on a very steep hill, and wanting to slide. Well I just wedged myself into him as best I could and began to dress him out praying he would stay put. Elk have a massive amount of innards to say the least. I thoroughly enjoyed my task, and found it fitting that I would tend him alone, my first elk!
The job finished, I headed down the ridge and straight to the trail that is off to the right. I needed some help and wanted to hook up with the rest of the bunch. I made it to the trail head in Olympic time, and couldn't believe it when there wasn't a reception party there to greet me. After about 2 hours of waiting, Mark and his son came walking out of the woods. We hopped in their rig and headed to camp, on the way we ran into Scott and his boy. Now we had a crew to tend the elk, I was sure glad for the cool day, and the canopy of trees and brush he was under.
With one pack out completed, we began heading back for another load, when Marshall showed up, running late because of the two fine deer he and his son had to drag down a ridge, and long trail, to load into the Burb. They then readied themselves for the 8 mile drive to the bottom road and the hike onto the ridge we were on. I was never so glad to be done with that pack out, straight up that ridge in the dark with dimming flashlights. Lungs gasping for air, hearts racing, legs burning and backs aching, what fun! The third time really is a charm, at least when your elk hunting.
I looked forward to basking in the glory of being the "hero" of elk camp, that is until Scott busted a monster 6X6 three days later! But that's another long story. A back breaking, lung busting story.