2015 was one of the busiest hunting seasons of my life. On top of an Alaska caribou hunt I had planned, I also managed to draw a Wyoming mule deer tag. Drawing this Cowboy State tag meant that instead of coming straight home from Alaska to hunt elk in Idaho, I would instead be heading to Wyoming for 10 days. I’m not complaining – I just noticed my calendar was getting a little full.
Alaska didn’t turn out as planned due to horrible weather that kept us snowed in our tent for most of the hunt. We came home empty-handed. Wyoming produced the same result. I had a great hunt with several close calls, but no arrows were fired. Before I could blink, my 2015 season was off to a rocky start.
It was September 10 when I finally got to my Idaho elk camp, and I was excited to be on my home turf. Since this was a hunt I do every year, I figured I would replace my bad luck with good in no time at all. Oh, how wrong I was.
I spent the first four days checking spots that typically hold elk. Nothing. I saw and heard very little rut activity, and the elk I saw were off in the distance. On the morning of September 14, I spotted a big bull across the drainage from me, but before I could make my way over to him a huge rainstorm blew in, bringing high winds and miserable conditions. I went back to camp hoping the weather would break for the evening hunt.
Nearly 24 hours later, it was still raining. Having been on several tough hunts before, I decided I needed to make the best of the situation and give it a go. With my rain gear on, I made good time hiking up the bottom of the drainage, but right before I was going to cut up the ridge where I’d had last seen the bull, I ran into a trio of hunters heading up the same ridge I wanted to climb. Awesome! Nothing was going my way. I went another half mile up the trail and cut over the ridge into the next draw hoping the bull had moved over the hill.
As soon as I got off the creek bottom I could hear the bull bugling, so I scrambled as quickly I could up the steep slope in an attempt to cut the distance between the bull and me. I knew I had to be getting close, but I hadn’t heard him bugle in fifteen minutes or so. I figured I had better set up to call. He answered immediately. He was close, and I could hear him breaking branches on his approach. The bull was 150 yards out and coming hard.
That’s when it happened. The wind changed. I felt it tickle my neck, and when I looked back toward the bull all I saw was a fleeting white rump. When it rains it pours, right?
The following day I hiked into another area in which I’ve had a lot of luck over the years. This spot is a real butt-kicker, with a monster straight-up climb first thing in the morning to get to where the elk usually hang out. When I reached the bench, I cold-called (moving from spot to spot and calling every few hundred yards) my way across the entire ridgeline with no luck. After several hours, I crested an adjacent ridge that gave a great view of a beautiful basin. Sitting down to glass, I finally spotted an elk. He was a big, lone bull. I worked my way down the hill toward the bull and found a spot to set up and call. I could still see the bull, and the first “mew” I made got his body moving slowly in my direction. He finally disappeared into the trees just as a big storm hit – a storm that brought driving rain and swirling winds – and that was the last I saw of him.
Over the course of the next few days, multiple camps filled with eager bowhunters started to show up in the area. We have always had competition but not to this magnitude, and within a couple days the few elk we had been seeing vanished.
A New Location
Playing the hand I was dealt, I drove 15 miles to a little pocket I had always wanted to try. After several hours of hiking, I finally spotted a bull on a bald ridge at the head of the drainage. When I broke over the ridge below him I heard bulls bugling in the timber between the bull and me. I’d love to tell you that it all worked out. I was, after all, surrounded by elk. However, once again, nothing went my way, and I returned to my truck with all of my arrows still in my quiver
The next few days came and went with more of the same. Many miles walked, lots of hunters and very few elk encounters. One evening my friend Cary invited me to go after a couple bulls he had heard bugling that morning. When Cary and I got into the area we had to wait for the wind to change, but as soon as it did and the shadows started to get long, the bulls started bugling above us.
For the next hour and a half we listened to literally hundreds of bugles while we tailed two elk herds toward the top of the mountain. On several occasions I thought the bulls had committed to our calling only to have them move off again. I finally spotted a couple cows above me and could hear a bull bugling in the trees behind them. Knowing he would be coming to round them up, I made my move and tried to get as close to the cows as possible. The terrain between us was wide open, making it slow going, and I’d only closed 70 yards when I saw the bull sweep in and move his cows up the hill.
Change of Plans
After 13 days of elk hunting I hadn’t even hooked my release to my string. I was getting worn out and, to be honest, a little depressed. I needed a change, so I packed up camp and drove home to drop off the bulk of my gear. I made up my mind that for the remainder of my hunt I was going to be mobile and simply jump from spot to spot until I found the elk.
I reached a big flat just as the inky darkness was giving way to the gray light of morning. I let out a locater bugle and immediately a bull answered me from the top of the drainage. I made my way toward him. He kept talking, which made finding a spot to call much easier. A second bull joined in. Knowing the bulls had probably been getting a lot of pressure, I called sparingly. After nearly 20 minutes of back and forth calling with the bull above me, I finally saw movement in the trees 75 yards out. I couldn’t tell how big the bull was because he was being very cautious and wouldn’t step out. Eventually, he moved off and I followed him up the steep ridge.
I went another 100 yards and set up again to call. The bull was still close and started answering my calls. This time I threw everything I had at him – from soft cow mews to estrous calls to bugles. Nothing helped. Then I started raking a tree with a branch. That was the ticket. His mood changed and I could hear him heading my way.
He was coming fast – 50 yards, 40 yards, now 30 yards. I drew my bow as he cleared the last branch into my shooting lane. He stopped abruptly and started staring down the hill past me. Yep, the other bull had arrived on the scene and was splashing in a wallow below me. Perfect! The bull I was drawn down on switched direction and headed down the hill toward his challenger. At 22 yards he passed behind a big fir tree, giving me a chance to once again draw my bow undetected. When he emerged from behind the branches I stopped him with a soft cow call, settled my pin and released the arrow. It disappeared right in the pocket behind his shoulder.
I decided to give the bull a couple of hours before I went looking for him. To help pass the time I hiked out of the area and drove home to enlist the help of my father-in-law and wife. When we returned, we found the bull less than 40 yards from where I’d last seen him. I can’t explain how grateful I was for my wife and father-in-law being there to help me break down the bull and pack him out – that’s a job made much more enjoyable with some help.
Of all the places I get to hunt and dream of hunting in the future, none will ever compare to hunting elk in my home state of Idaho. It’s the kind of hunt I like to call a character builder. It’s rarely easy, but when you finally drag a nice bull off of the mountain, you know you have earned it. And that is my definition of a successful hunt.