It's been said that there is joy in the journey. A true statement, but while you are in the middle of the story, there are times when it's easy to get lost in the struggle. Lactic acid builds up in the muscles and momentary pain gives the sojourner a short-lived amnesia, forgetting the reason they came. Soreness clouds the vision, bringing with it a temptation to give in ... dismissing the fact that the pain is temporary. Oh. My. Aching muscles! The thought of climbing up and down a mountain again, had us thinking twice about whether or not we left our sanity down in that hole yesterday. Once again, Rudy, Troy and I found ourselves at the top rim, packs fully loaded for a day of chasing after the bulls in the bottom. This time, we were going to take our time, locate the elk and then go on attack late afternoon.
The sun broke through late morning, and we sat comfortably on a berm as we glassed the elk haven, just across the way. Banana chips, swedish fish, and a cup of coffee were consumed as we verified where the elk were hanging out. Spread across an open section of the mountain, scattered with rocks and pines, this berm provided the perfect cover as we peered down. The warmth of the sun was welcomed as it heated the rocks around us and continued to dry out the saturated ground. I picked up a stick and began to draw in the dirt, then proceeded to braid grass and create a bracelet for my wrist. Rudy and Troy compared GPS data. We were passing the time, waiting for the right moment to advance further down. As the sun crept higher in the sky, the elk slipped into the shelter of the pines. We decided it was time to sneak down to the bottom section.
Taking caution to stay in the shadows, we moved down. A few more hundred yards down and we were now level with the entrance to the elk haven. All that needed to be done was navigate across the beaver dams, and we would be in a good position for the afternoon hunt. However, it was still a little early to move across and take a chance of prematurely waking a sleeping bull, or two.
Over a freeze-dried mountain house meal, I pestered Rudy about his camera equipment and he briefly showed me how things work. I received a quick 5-10 minute lesson on how to run Rudy's camera. I was loving it, but a little overwhelmed. Wow! Everything on his camera is set up to be used manually ~ sound, focus, brightness, etc. If I had to operate this camera with a bull screaming at me, I'm sure that I'd forget to do something! I now had a new appreciation for Rudy's videography skills.
Finally, it was time to navigate through the beaver dams. The trick we discovered was to find the game trail. It still isn't the easiest of paths, but there is definitely an advantage. Now familiar with the drill ... Up and down we went. It felt like dejavu, a reoccurring dream, or something that had been previously rehearsed. However, if yesterday's hunt was the dress-rehearsal, the opening curtain was about to be lifted.
Periodically, we'd let out a bugle, and receive a response that echoed back to us. We were now playing a game of Marco Polo with a bull in nasty territory, his back yard. So far he was winning, but we were closing the distance. Knowing the general area of where he was located, we decided to go in quiet and set up before giving away our location. This time, I chose the high spot, 50 yards above where Rudy and Troy were situated in front of a huge pine. In front of us were 30-40 yard lanes, then a ditch that contained a small grove of aspens that blended into the steep terrain on the other side. An incline, held together by pines reaching upwards to the ridge above, contained a bull who was destroying trees in a display of dominance. With a Heads-Up decoy pinned to a branch behind me, our set up seemed perfect.
I let out a couple cow calls, signaling to the guys below that I was ready. Troy challenged the bull above with a bugle, and the games began! I saw a flash of brown, as the bull ran through the pines on the ridge. Back and forth, from one side of the ridge to the other, he would slip in and out of view. Bow at the ready, I was sure at any moment, I might have an opportunity to release an arrow. Then silence. These are what I like to call "adrenaline confused" moments ... with all your might, you try and constrain the adrenaline rush that is about to surge through your body, but some of the pre-adrenaline sneaks through and you are on high alert, red bull status. If you could bottle this, it would put all energy drinks out of business.
Then from down by Troy and Rudy ~ a warning bark broke the silence!
It was close. Really close. What I couldn't see from my vantage point, was a spike elk that had snuck up on the guys below, and was about to give away our location. Troy and Rudy were pinned down, and couldn't get the curious fellow to leave them alone. Knowing that a bigger bull was on the heels of the spike, Rudy told Troy, "Just bugle as loud as you can at the spike." Troy ripped of one of the most gnarly bugles I've ever heard. I thought it was the bull!
The challenge worked! The spike tucked his tail, left without spooking the other elk, and the bigger bull was drawn in, like a moth to a flame. Seeing the bull come in, down and up the drainage, Rudy began to give Troy a play-by-play. "Here he comes, stop him. Troy, call. Stop him." However, Troy, quickly responded with, "Not yet. I'll stop him when I'm ready." The bull continued past the pine tree, forty yards in front of Troy, and a single cow-call escaped from Troy's lips, stopping the bull in his tracks.
Not seeing any of this from my vantage point, I was up above still thinking the bull was in the ditch below. Then I heard the familiar sound .... THAWK!! I knew that sound immediately. I began to cow call and sat down with a big old grin on my face. We were going to be packing an elk up this mountain tonight.
After several minutes I received the hand wave to come down and join the guys. Troy was worried about his shot because it was a little farther back than what he wanted, but with a good angle and deep penetration, we were positive the bull would expire soon. Since we didn't want to push him any further down the mountain, we decided to give it an hour before following the blood trail ... just to be safe.
While we waited, we practiced our cow calling and quietly formulated a plan on the best way to carry the elk up the mountain. Maybe it would be best to go straight up and try to find the trail from our FUNT several nights ago. We appeared to be just below that area, and it would mean shaving off 1/2 a mile. A short distance on flat ground, but a world of difference when carrying an elk UP a mountain.
When Troy could no longer take the torture of waiting, he slowly began to follow the blood trail down the ditch. Just as we were about to make our way out into an open section, Rudy's eyes got big and he waved us over. "Elk!" There was a bull nonchalantly grazing just below us. Troy and I both simultaneously told Rudy, "Get your bow!" As Rudy advanced down the hill in stealth-mode, I somehow found myself holding his camera, and motioning for Troy to bugle. The bull seemed to care less that another bull was above him making a commotion. Troy would run back a hundred yards, bugle and cow call and then make his way back down to me. Several times, I'd motion Troy back with the instruction, "Keep calling - He's still down there." The bull wasn't interested in fighting, or talking. He was simply hungry, and if there was a bull with cows up above, that was cool with him. He'd come up when he was done.
Rudy sat patiently waiting. Finally, this bull decided he better make his way up the hill and see what all the fuss was about. Troy was doing a great job of sounding like a herd of elk! As the bull broke through a section of pines, Rudy had a perfect fifty yard shot. THAWK! The arrow found it's mark. The bull pin-wheeled and was dead thirty yards from where the arrow sliced through both lungs.
We now had two dead bulls within a hundred yards of each other!
Troy came over the hill, not knowing what happened, and wondering if I was going to motion him back again. This time, I had the front-row seat, and somehow managed to capture it on Rudy's fully manual camera. As we sat in disbelief at what just unfolded, I asked the guys, "Do you feel better now?" Rudy's response ... "Yah, let's get some pancakes!"
That evening we deboned two bull elk in the back country via moonlight, hung all the meat securely in the trees, and spent the next day carrying our precious cargo up the mountainside. The three of us walked up and down that mountain twice the following day, with loaded down packs. If you ask us, we will still recall how painful that was, but ultimately ... there is joy in the journey, especially when it results in a freezer full of meat. A few of the footsteps permanently burned in the hillside are from us, and if you listen closely, the sound of "elk steak, elk steak" still echoes through the pines down in the DMZ.
Remember what it was like to dance in the rain? A soft steady rain on a late summer day became the perfect reason to toss socks and shoes aside. Bare feet splashed carelessly through puddles. Water sprayed upwards and clashed with raindrops descending down, a collision of pure joy. This mixture of mud, rain, and the smell of it all somehow brought an uncontrolled smile to the dancer, and in a way cleansed the soul. That is kind of what it is like to hunt elk in the rain. I'm brought back to those moments of carefree dances, and a smile slowly creeps over my face. I can't help it.
There were plenty of moments last season when the rain had us wanting to throw in the towel, and exchange cold, wet camouflage for dry clothes back at camp. While huddled under a pine tree it is tempting to complain about getting wet, but those are also the times I often reflect back on. It is the pivotal point where the story is unfolding. The magical moments in the rain collide ... the smell, the sound, the struggle; and produce hunting opportunities that hold us captive. A pine branch offers temporary shelter, redirecting the rain until it can no longer retain the water. Drip. Drip. Splash! The hunter is then left with a choice: wait for the storm to pass, call it a day, or maybe, just maybe .... hunt in the rain.
In other words ~ Step in the puddle, get a little muddy, and dance.
This is where we found ourselves this morning. More rain was heading our way. We weren't held captive yet by a mountain storm, huddled under a tree, but with the possibility of that becoming our reality, a decision had to be made. We could either hunt close to camp, or don rain gear, put on mud-caked boots and journey back down into the canyon. After experiencing the close encounter with a bull and a few of his cows down in the DMZ yesterday, the allure of trying again was just too great. Our legs were tired, but our spirits where high. Once again, we ended up climbing down the mountainside, while constraining the thought that it meant climbing back up at the end of the day. Like a magnet pulling us down, we yielded to the force of the elk.
Half-way down we stopped and decided to glass the hill-side to make sure our efforts were not made in vain. It didn't take long for Troy to spot movement. Sure enough we found our elk! Since they were one more ridge over from the spot where the cow practically licked Rudy's neck yesterday, we decided to move fast and get in a good position before starting to call.
The heavy mist in the air began to roll through, and gave the appearance like something out of a dream. It was frightening and beautiful at the same time. At any moment we were sure that an elk would step through the fog, let out a screaming bugle and scare the snot out of us.
Choosing our footing carefully, we traversed the beaver lands. Threats of revenge on the flat-tailed critters that caused this mess of downed trees, were voiced as we pushed our way through. Sections of logs and branches reaching heights taller than Troy and Rudy, had each of us momentarily disappearing into the beaver mess, only to pop up again into view as the next section is crested. Up and Over, Down and Up we went. The thought on all of our minds ... what are we going to do if we end up shooting an elk down here!
Finally, we reached the first clearing of sorts. Two large pine trees sat prominently on a hill, marking a section that opens up leading to a pond just above. Beyond that, just a couple hundred yards away, a large bowl filled with pine trees reaches up to a mountain ridge ~ a secluded elk sanctuary.
Troy broke the silence and let out a bugle. An answer was received! From what we could tell, it sounded like the bull was in the pines lining the bottom edge of the elk sanctuary. He had to be close! After a few more attempts to figure out exactly where he was, we realized it was probably time to put some pressure on this bull. He was still a little too comfortable. We hustled to the next section of pines. From this vantage point we could see the cows on the slope. They were just above a slide. If we played our cards right, this bull might just come down and take a stand to defend his ladies.
The clouds became thicker and the rain began to fall. It was honestly beautiful. Slowly and steadily it came down. All three of us were now huddled under a solo pine on a hill that overlooked the entrance to the elk sanctuary. I wish I would have taken a picture of this tree. It had a perfect hole through the center of it. I'm not joking. A round window seemed to be carved out of the trunk just for us, for the single purpose of spying on elk in this moment of time, while the rain fell down around us.
Finally we couldn't take it any longer. As we watched the bull circle round and make his way up to the cows, we ditched our packs under the tree with the looking window and made a dash for the pine trees at the base of the mountain. Troy ripped off another bugle as loud as he could. It worked. This bull was mad and came screaming down the hill. Troy was positioned at the bottom of the hill and I was 20 yards behind him to the left. He ran the ridge just 60 yards above us, bugling and straining to see his challenger below. With only an incredibly steep angle shot presented, Troy made the decision to pass this time. The bull worked the ridge-line back and forth, but wouldn't commit to coming any further.
He finally decided to check on his cows above and we then advanced up the ridge-line after him. For some reason, our communication broke down a bit here, in the midst of the excitement. Rudy and Troy followed the trail up, and I stayed down half-way on the trail and continued to cow call. Then another bull showed up below us! I don't know what happened, but I spotted Troy motioning me to get back down the slope and try to get in position. We had elk running everywhere! It was actually a bit comical thinking back on it. In all the commotion, I'm not sure if the bull saw me or something just didn't feel right to him. He was mad and running back and forth bugling, but never came back in close enough for a shot.
In the end, we were wet, tired and sore. Our gear was scattered all around the entrance of an elk haven. Stomachs were empty and growling in protest of forgotten dinner. Arrows had yet to be released from our bows, but smiles were permanently planted on our faces. We had just danced with elk in the rain.
Arriving back in camp, packs were immediately prepared for the morning. Encouraged by our bull encounter that night, it was now time to get serous. No more FUNTS. Come morning, tennis shoes would be exchanged for boots, and packs would be strategically loaded with gear needed for hunting the DMZ. Everything was inspected and ready to grab in the early morning hour: water, rope, GPS, food, knives, rain gear, etc.
With packs neatly lined up by the camper door, we were restless but not quite ready for bed. One of the bonuses of hunting from a camper is having the luxury of watching movies in camp. I know, I KNOW... some may frown upon this, but honestly, it is sometimes nice to cozy up in your camper, and fall asleep to a hunting video or movie while the rain dances down on the camper ceiling.
So there we were, three hunters sitting on a couch, anticipating the next day, eating bowls of steaming soup, and watching a movie. You are picturing this in your head, right? The movie we were watching?
RED (Retired and Extremely Dangerous)
The levity of this movie was just what we needed. Rudy, Troy and I laughed until our stomachs hurt. During the last scene in the movie, Frank asks Marvin after shooting a bad guy, "Feel better now?" Marvin promptly responds with, "Yeah. You guys want pancakes?"
Heading to town for a hearty breakfast of chicken fried steak and eggs after a successful hunt is a tradition that has developed over the years. The one criteria ~ Whomever shoots the elk is buying! As we all went to bed this evening with thoughts of killing, pancakes and the sound of rain sprinkling down on the camper roof, a new tradition might be in the works. Mmmm... pancakes!
The next morning, rain continued to threaten our planned hunt, but we were determined to make something happen. We made our way to our familiar entrance to the DMZ. The hope was that we could catch some elk on the top section and maybe not have to test the strength in our legs. As the fog rolled through the top pasture, we found ourselves at the DMZ overlook waiting for a break where we could scan the section below.
If my memory serves me correctly, Troy was a little grumpy this morning. The deal he made with Rudy and myself was that IF we heard or saw elk in the bottom section, we would chase after them. (Confession: We may have prodded him a bit and encouraged the grumpiness.) So we waited for the fog to lift and strained to hear any answers to our bugles. Silence. While Rudy and I gave each other looks, we would tell Troy, "Bugle again." All was quiet. So we waited. Then without saying a word, we would give Troy puppy dog eyes as if to say, let's just go down there. We promptly received the answer, "NO." Troy is an experienced elk hunter and is often my voice of reason when I push him to do crazy ideas. If there aren't any elk in the area, there's no sense in wearing ourselves out.
After an hour or so, the fog lifted and we crept a little further down to where we could see the terrain below us and scan the trees. Troy ripped off a bugle, and we received an answer!
Rudy and I both immediately looked at Troy, and he replied .... "Let's go!"
We hustled down over a ravine, and through an open section to find cover in a grove of pines. We would set up, bugle and wait. Each time, an answer was received. Bugles were exchanged back and forth. In what seemed to be a stand off, this bull was stubborn and standing his ground. He wasn't getting any closer. After fifteen - thirty minutes in each set up, we would hustle to the next location to see if we could call him up. However, he was happy down in the bottom and wasn't going to budge. So we would advance further and further down the mountainside. Once we were near the bottom, there was one final large ditch between a line of aspen and a section of pines. We decided to make one more move. We could tell we were close.
Just as we crossed over to the section of pines that marked an entrance to a nasty sequence of beaver dams, the fog increased and the low-laying clouds couldn't hold the rain any longer. We were about to get soaked. A grove of three pines huddled together with a downed tree in front of them became our shelter. We had made it this far, so we decided to wait out the rain. As Rudy broke down his camera equipment to shelter it from the downpour, Troy and I took off our packs and settled in on the opposite side of the pines.
Just as we inched as close as we could under the shelter of the huge pine boughs, Troy mouthed the words, "Don't move!" Elk had ambushed us.
A cow elk was now practically sniffing Rudy's backside ... a foot or two away!
As we tried not to laugh at Rudy's expression, Troy found himself slowly reaching for his bow. A bull was not far behind the cow. The whole experience was comical to us because 1) Rudy had just put away all his camera equipment, and 2) everyone else had seen elk so far this year, except for Rudy... and now one was sniffing his neck! After what seemed like forever, Troy was finally able to get his bow. He quickly stepped up on the downed tree and drew his bow back. The bull was now at around 40 yards, but didn't give Troy a good angle. A quick warning bark from the bull was let out and the elk disappeared back into the dense fog as quickly as they ambushed us, leaving us with a reminder of why elk are often referred to as ghosts of the Rockies.
By this time, the hours in the day were building up. As the rain continued to come down, we made the decision to begin the long haul back up the mountain. It was a good hunt, and we now had a very good reason to try again in the morning. You see, what I didn't tell you earlier, is the fact that we had definitely heard more than one bugle response. There were multiple bulls in this hole, maybe four.
The story of the 2013 Elk Double Down ...
I'm not sure how or when the area was first coined this name, but we all know the area immediately whenever someone in our hunting camp suggests we drop down into the DMZ, aka the Dead Man's Zone. To some, it is an acronym that has military references, and for fire fighters it has a whole other meaning, but for us hunters ...
It's the place where the hunter finds himself looking down into a mountainous canyon, wondering if he can call the elk up instead of venturing down. Sometimes the call of the elk on the ridge beyond is too great a temptation, and the hunter journeys down. This is exactly where we found ourselves last September. Our "Dead Man's Zone" is a valley or hole in the mountain where we've found elk before, but crawling out of the area with an elk on your back will have you quickly wishing for a tow rope. Still echoing across the canyon from seasons past are the sounds of hunters with elk-laden packs ... thoughts of "one more step" and "elk steak, elk steak" seem to be burned into the hill-side with each footstep, as the hunter carries his quarry up and out of the canyon below. Like a fossil of previous hunts, these steps serve as both a warning and encouragement to the next hunter who finds himself peering down from the ridge. They beckon the hunter to move forward, yet warn of incredible fatigue. A choice has to be made.
Last September, we chose to venture down.
The evening before chasing after elk in the canyon below, we had located a bull. So we knew there was a good chance of having an encounter the next day. Here's what happened ...
All throughout the day, unforgiving rain continued to pour out of the heavens. We had become used to the conversation about the cold, wet, and mud. On a whim after a late lunch, as the sun forced it's way through the overcast sky, we decided to not waste the evening. We were restless and ready to hunt. Bows were grabbed, and hastily put together packs were thrown in the back of the truck. We named our stir-crazy attempt at chasing elk that night... a FUNT. Translation? Fun Hunt.
Making our way to the top of the canyon, we decided to follow a path down a couple hundred yards. It was a section that we hadn't become familiar with (yet), and often wondered if it would provide an easier way in and out of the "Dead Man's Zone." Since my boots were drying out in preparation for the next day's hunt, I had tennis shoes on. Remember, this evening hunt was to be a low-stressed FUNT; therefore, I carried a light pack, a few snacks in my sweatshirt, and a bottle of water. Of course, as if on queue the elk knew that we weren't taking them seriously. At the sound of the first locator bugle, we received an answer below. And we were off! Down we went a couple hundred yards and set up in anticipation of the bull making his way up the "hill."
Laid across the mountainside, fingers of aspen groves took on the appearance of a hand print impressed upon the slope, as if a giant leaned against the mountain and peeked across the ridge, leaving his mark. Meadows dispersed themselves in between aspen finger impressions. Settled in the edge of an aspen grove, we strained to locate the approaching elk, hoping he would make his way up our aspen finger cut against the ridge or make the fatal mistake of crossing the clearing in front of us. Bugling back and forth, he closed the distance. However, it wasn't meant to be this evening. The bull made his way up an adjacent aspen finger, giving us a brief glimpse of his existence and then slipping back into the shadows.
Our FUNT ended that evening, as we said goodnight to the bull and climbed back up the trail in now soaked tennis shoes. Even though an arrow wasn't released, this brief encounter wasn't for naught. We not only discovered a new path in and out of the area, but we went to bed with the knowledge of where the elk were located ... at least one bull.
A plan was formulating in our heads that night. Tomorrow, we would venture down.
From the Draw
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