It’s what every elk hunter plans for, anticipates and remembers...
I stood in silence. Deep inside eastern Oregon’s John Day Wilderness, I was alone with my thoughts. The dawning of a new day brought with it a feeling of serenity and solitude as I watched the early morning light work its wonders on the landscape. Sucking in a deep breath of high mountain pine fresh air, I opened the bolt on my Browning .300 magnum and dropped a cartridge into the chamber, closing the bolt behind it. The adrenalin was flowing and excitement building, invigorating my senses. It was opening day of the Rocky Mountain elk season and I was ready for my chance.
The last week in October is always a special time for me; whether it’s the anticipation building months before the 400-mile trip across the state, the guys I share the week with or the burning passion in the quest for a dream bull. The pine forest of the Elkhorn Mountains have become an anchoring place for my emotions and thankfulness for life’s blessings. A kind of place that begs you to stay. Coming here each year is like being with a wise old friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I could always count on this place to bring balance and understanding to the challenges found along the trails blazed by life’s choices.
Leaning below a tree limb I squatted down, my eyes focusing on a nearby stand of lodge pole. Then like a camellia trying to see everything at once, I glanced at a distant large timber patch, straining to detect an out-of-place color or movement. 45 years hunting this area had filled my memory bank with many elk sightings; some ending in successful adventures, some not, but all euphoric and spirit lifting.
Though I hunted the same basic trails, canyons and ridges for decades, each year was different. As the years passed some elk trails were abandoned and deteriorated because of new windfall. Shooting lanes that had been good for years disappeared in the growth of young pine thickets. It was always a new adventure finding where the elk were traveling, feeding and bedding. Dark snowy nights or nights filled with a blanket of stars and a bright full moon. The crisp early morning air rising from the snow covered, frozen ground of a midday circling breeze.
Everything plays a part in where the elk might be and how I’d hunt to find them. Realizing that elk are hunted everyday of their lives, either by wolf, bear, cougar or man. And realizing too that my hunt was on their home turf where they knew every tree, trail, escape route and thicket to hide gave the advantage to them. Dawn-to-dark, alone deep inside the wilderness, sliding down canyon faces or climbing sweat popping steep ridges. Climbing over windfall or crawling through thickets of young pine. It was the kind of hunting I loved; nothing free, nothing easy.
I eased forward, avoiding the tinder dry pine branches and limbs as much as possible. It had been a sun soaked autumn. The forest floor had not felt rain in months. Try as I may to avoid being a rice crispy kid candidate, I found it frustrating each time a misstep cause a snap, crackle or pop of twigs and branches as I moved deeper inside the canopy of large Ponderosa pine. Hours passed.
The sun peaked over the tall distant granite peaks, slowly climbing into the blue-bird sky. As the morning moved to midday, I cautiously picked my way, zig-sagging around the blowdown, tip-toe stalking while intently watching and listening. But it wouldn’t be my eyes or ears that was about to signal my senses. The soft afternoon breeze blowing up from the canyon floor suddenly carried something more than the scent of pine. The strong, wild, pungent odor of elk jolted me. Feeling like a bird dog who’d caught the scent of quail, I froze immediately in my tracks. The scent was strong... the elk were close!
Along the spine of the ridge to my front was a dense pole patch, bordered on either side by large Ponderosa that dropped off into steep canyons speckled with young pine and blowdown. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop the adrenaline from pumping and excitement from raging like a wildfire inside me. I kept staring, eyes widened, watching for movement. I readied my rifle as I stepped slowly backward to pick up the scent that momentarily had faded. Then I saw a flicker of movement, ever so slightly but it was there. It was elk! I am always amazed at how a 700 pound animal can disappear or hide behind virtually nothing. And I am so truly shocked at how fast something so big can run.
I pulled the rifle up to shoot but at 50 yards the running target stayed mostly hidden in dense reprod. I couldn’t see antlers. A sense of urgency quickly set in. Swinging the gun, I found a slight opening where I thought the animal would pass. Releasing the safety on the rifle with my thumb, I put tension on my trigger finger. The shot would have to be quick, no time for squeezing. Antlers flashed in crosshairs of the scope. It was a bull. I jerked the trigger, feeling the recoil of the magnum against my shoulder. The running monarch quickly disappeared.
My rapidly beating heart pounded in my chest while I let the flash of the past few seconds sink in and all of nature went quiet. No birds chirped, no squirrels chattered and the breeze stopped whispering. I stood like a statue for what seemed like eternity but was more like a minute, excited by what had just happened and holding a glimmer of hope that my snap shot had connected.
Allowing my heart to settle for a calming moment, I opened the bolt of my rifle and loaded another cartridge into the clip, replacing the one I’d shot, then stepped slowly forward. One slow, easy step at a time moving to where the bull had ran. Keenly focused in the trees where I’d last seen him, I glanced at the ground, finding his track. I felt my body quiver with excited anticipation but little did I know my dream of having a bull down was about to come unraveled.
I knelt down to look closer at the bull’s track and where he’d gone, preparing to follow him. Suddenly a head-spinning thunderous rumble erupted from the thicket where I’d first detected movement as I caught a disheartened glimpse of another huge bull with a towering set of ivory-tipped antlers vanishing into the dense cover of the canyon.
A moment of desperation overruled common sense as I took off running through the trees hoping to get a shot. Catching a boot lace on a branch sent me stumbling to the ground, quickly ending the charade. I stood, brushing off my pants, now ripped by the limb. The sting of a cut leg helped me regain control and stop any thought of extending the useless effort.
Standing like a beaten prize fighter, I listened to limbs and branches of trees snap as the massive bull crashed his way down the mountain, leaving me bewildered, stunned and caught completely off guard. How is it, I thought, that you practice, prepare, get your mind right and when on the hunt, think of any and every possibility of what might happen. Yet, given all you do, something totally unexpected occurs.
Though I admit I was very disappointed and upset as I walked out of the forest that afternoon, I look back now, thinking that maybe my thoughts and uncertainty about whether or not I’d hit the first bull might have played a part and caused me to let my guard down. I guess I’d rather think that, than think I’d been outsmarted by an elk that knew where I was and when to run. Though that thought is probably the one most truthful.
I did spend time tracking the first bull. No blood, no sign of being hurt. He played with me for a few hours. He took me down some steep canyons and then led me back up the mountain. He stayed upwind of me so he could catch my scent if I got too close, just like he would with a predator. I heard him leave the ridge late that afternoon and tipped my cap to him — maybe another time. I hunted the next four days without seeing another bull elk. I came home happy. I’d had my chance...