Monday, February 19, 2018

Elk Adventure 2017

Time for an update!  I definitely got burned out with this blog and came close to ending it with my last post.  However, I was re-reading some of my old posts and decided that it makes a pretty good diary for myself.  So, here's an update on a few things that have happened since the Ursula storm. Let's start with the highlight of my year:

Elk Adventure 2017

I’ve been after elk for decades. I started with a bow, tried for several years and then switched to rifle.  My first year with a rifle was successful and I took a cow elk (cow only license) at 240 yards. I backpacked that one out over 2 miles of rough country. Three years later, I took a bull with the rifle, calling him in and making the shot at 30 yards. This one was on an old Jeep trail and we were able to use a cart to wheel the deboned meat down to the ATV’s.  The next year, my then-12 year old sontook a bull, the first to be taken on our ranch. We backpacked that one out for 0.15 mile uphill on a freshly healed screwed and plated collarbone. I’d gotten clearance the day before to do “light” exercise and, knowing we were going to go elk hunting the next day, didn’t ask for a definition of “light exercise”. 

This son is the key to both my bull and this year’s successes as I’m very hard of hearing and he’s not.  He can hear elk and in 2017 was able to both bugle and cow-call. At 13, he’s taken 3 pronghorn, 1 whitetail, and 1 elk as well as several coyotes and hundreds of prairie dogs.  In 2017, I drew for archery elk and mule deer in my home unit, here in New Mexico. The emphasis was on elk. 

Here’s the story, as I wrote it each day.

Day 1

I'll tell you what. Elk hunting is tough. Or I'm weak. Whatever. My butt has done been kicked! After a late and rough start this morning, during which we fixed the trailer wiring and fixed the truck fuses in the dark, we finally got to the mountain about 8 am and found elk everywhere. We saw at least 10 bulls before 9:30 am. However, I'm looking for either a young cow or a monster bull so we mostly just glassed and moved on.
Elk hunting gear

On the way up one canyon, I spotted a bedded bull about 300 yards away across the canyon. We played with him a little bit and he showed interest in my cow calls but not enough to stand up. Then, I showed him our cow elk decoy and, surprisingly, he stood up and then walked out of sight over the ridge. Maybe we won't be using the decoy after all!

Around noon, we parked our butts at a waterhole for a bit and inside an hour, a very decent 6x6 came in and frolicked around in the water at distances between 45-55 yards, well within my range. He was decent, but not decent enough to backpack 2.5 miles back to the Ranger on the first day, so I just let him enjoy his bath.

That's a 6x6 bull in that pond @ 50 yards
Derek in his hiding spot

I have an unwritten rule to not shoot elk past 2-3 pm unless I want to pack it out in the dark- and we've been there, done that, and don't really need to do it again- so we headed back down the mountain to the Ranger. We busted two elk right away and then I slowed down and did some cold-calling with a cow call as we moved along much slower. This worked and I got two bulls to poke their heads out of the timber but neither were the bull I was looking for so we just moved on.

Finally back at the Ranger, I turned back to glass the slope we'd just left and immediately picked up two cows about 350 yards away. After they walked off downslope towards us, a bull showed up and I watched him disappear downslope too. After a bit, I told D, "I'm going to walk right over there and see if I can spot those elk. And I should probably take my bow 'cause if I don't, there'll be a bull at 40 yards..."

After glassing a bit, D heard some elk talking (his ears have been a Godsend!) and told me to bugle a little bit. I did and got an answer. A minute later I got more than an answer when a bull with nice bell shaped antlers came striding over the hill toward us. D cow-called, I cow-called and bugled, and Mr. Elk was coming in. I had D to my left and back about 40 yards but if the bull appeared where I thought he might, I've have a poor shot angle. So, I stepped forward to another bunch of trees. Minutes later- 10, 15.... I don't know- I signed D "Do you see him?" "No". I stepped forward around another tree and there he was, staring at me from 30 yards away. Had I stayed in my original position, I would have seen him coming but when I moved, I put a tree directly between us, blocking my view. The original position was a bad angle, too, and the way he was coming, he might've ended up about 10 yards from me, head-on. He snorted, wheeled, and trotted off thru the timber. When he turned, I thought he was a big 5x5 but Lil’ Dawg D thought he was a 6x6 and bigger than the one in the pond.

We bugled and cow called a little more and ta-da.... another bull lit up. This one was a 5x5 and stood about 125 yards from D, but wouldn't cross a little drainage. Finally, he gave up and left, too. Too bad, cause we were less than 100 yards from the Ranger and pack out might've been relatively easy. But such is hunting.

We're pooped. We should get up and go in the morning but it's gonna be painful.  While loading the Ranger on the trailer, with it at face level, I noticed a bent A arm leaking grease. Dunno if it's fresh or old or whatever, but it's obviously gotta be fixed ASAP. I do not want to add "recover broken down Ranger from mountain" to my list of things to do. Well, hey, at least we made it to, up, and off the mountain.

Day 2

I am pretty glad we took the day off elk hunting to check out the Ranger's bent A-arm! If you recall, yesterday when I was loading it up to come home, I got some grease on my hand. My bikes and trucks and such don't have loose grease so that prompted me to take a closer look and I found a bent A-arm. The grease was from the plastic "protection" plate rubbing on the CV joint boot, causing a small tear thru which the grease leaked.

Bent A-arm on Ranger

Today, we pulled the arm off and found it nearly cracked in half! I think we were pretty fortunate to make it down off the mountain without the thing breaking and leaving us stranded. Just imagine if I'd killed that 30-yard bull, spent half the night prepping him, and then had the Ranger break down on the way back to the truck! It would have been a pretty long night.

What a dumb place to put a rivet hole!

I'd already ordered a nearly new used arm from eBay so, with nothing to lose, we decided to weld, heat, and reinforce the damaged arm. For a couple of cowhands with a stick welder, I think we did a pretty good job. We used a piece of re-bar to get all the holes lined up and the arm went right back in place.

Emergency reinforcement

The rubber boot had a 1/2” tear, so I cleaned the rubber and stuffed RTZ along the seam. I then sewed it shut and coated the threads with more RTZ. I'll hold until I decide I want to tackle the job of replacing it.

We think this happened a few weeks ago when I hit a big rock buried in the deep pasture grass. I only noticed it when I got grease on my hand loading it because I store the Ranger head first in the barn and rarely eyeball the front from a distance. At least the pasture grass is deep this year.

While working, we also talked and it turns out that D does NOT want The Big Bull. He just wants a good 6x6 that's bigger than the 5x5 he got last year. He would've shot either Pond Elk or Smarter Than Me elk from yesterday. With my upcoming guide duties clarified, we decided to try for a 6x6 that’s practically in our backyard tomorrow. If we can't get him into bow range and he looks good, we'll leave him alone until rifle season so maybe D can get him. It also seems good to us to test our crippled Ranger out close to home as the walk home will be shorter than it will be from the mountain.

That's the plan for tomorrow.  To that end, we went out in the evening to glass from the road and found a nicer 6x6 than the one I’d previously seen and something else that never came out of the trees but definitely had antlers.  Tomorrow awaits.

Day 3

This morning we went after the 2 bulls we put to bed. To get to them, we needed to cross 1.5 miles of roadless pasture. I've used mountain bikes in Idaho to ride closed logging roads and so we decided to use them this morning instead of walking. It was a semi-good idea. Going in fresh wasn't too bad but the trip back- uphill- was rough. What I found out is that my hunting boots have a convex sole that sits firmly on the spindle, not the teeth, of my pedals. It was like pedaling in ice skates and really aggravated my knee. I was averaging 3.3 mph on the bike and when I finally gave up and pushed it, I averaged 3.1 mph on the rocky, pockmarked, definitely not smooth prairie. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Biking across the pasture

The morning dawned very foggy and moved to extremely foggy until about 9:30 am. At times I could not see the bottom of the canyon in the photos. This made glassing sort of tough. It was cold, windy, and the fog was wet so we were pretty miserable, esp after getting sweaty on the pedal in. Eventually the fog lifted and we checked some adjacent canyons but no sign of our bulls. A thunderstorm was expected at 3 pm and I definitely don't want to be packing out a bull in the dark, in the rain, so around noon, we called it and headed home. Right now, at 4 pm, the thunderstorm is, in fact, moving in.

Still art with bow

I think we'll go back out to this spot in the morning, sans bikes and give it another chance. I've been seeing bulls here and they'll be back sooner or later.

Day 4

We drove back to the canyon, using the truck this time instead of the bikes. We glassed and called and saw nothing.  We then moved to another canyon with the same results.  On the way out, we spotted some other hunters moving in on the 1st canyon. I recognized the truck from Day 1 on the mountain and later that evening, I found out it was a friend of mine guiding another friend. They were on State land and legal, so we let them be.

We got back to the house around 1 pm, tired and discouraged.  I had some work to do, so we called it a day and go ready for the next day.

Day 5

D and I went up on the mountain again in the later morning. After seeing nothing all day, we started working our way across the elevation, cold-calling into every draw as we came to them. At one, we rushed in just a little too much and busted a bull. He didn't smell us and just kind of trotted away. We were going that way anyway, so we dropped down a little and kept going. Two draws later, we called and he peeked around a tree but never came closer. After half an hour or so of trying to entice him, with no success, we dropped down a little more and left him.

More canyon stuff

 Almost back at the Ranger (and yes my weld repair is holding up and yes I'm driving super slow), we spotted some cows about 350 yards below us. Cows are legal for me so just for fun and practice we decided to stalk them. As we did, I cow-called a little (it helps hide our noise of walking) and as we closed to about 200 yards, I looked to my left and there was a bull standing there. Game change!

I did a short, weak little bugle. D cow-called, and Mr. Bull started coming our way. D quickly moved back and I found a good spot. The bull moved in but didn't come straight to me, instead sliding in downwind of me. If you've ever hunted in the mountains, you know that the wind is _constantly_ changing and I could see he was going to hit my scent cone. Finally, at 80 yards, he did. Game over. He ducked into the trees, disappeared, and reappeared back where he started from. We didn't call anymore, but just backed off, and left him. It's possible that we had TWO bulls coming in because D and I couldn't settle on whether he was a 5x5 or 6x6. The 5x5 I saw definitely had an injury and limp in his rear right leg and D said he didn't see that when it was coming in. He thinks he saw 6 points per side.

As we sat in the Ranger glassing at sunset, D said he heard 5 bulls bugling up on the mountain. We got home at 9, ate, and went straight to bed. GPS gave us 4.5 miles and 1,000 vertical feet of hiking at 7,500'.

Day 6

We headed back to the mountain in the morning. There was already one vehicle in the parking spot.  Most guys go as high as they can and we decided to try a totally different tack and just stay low on the mountain, calling into canyons like we’d done previously. Unlike previous mornings, though, we heard no calling and it got hot fast. GPS gave us 3.5 miles with 800' of elevation change at 7200'.

In the canyon

After hiking and exploring all morning, we headed back home around 1 pm with not a single elk seen. We ate and rested and fixed some stuff and then checked out some closer canyons where we found 2 5x5 bulls bedded down right up against the canyon wall, still bedded at dusk. One was a skinny antlered bull but with a good looking body. The other had bigger antlers, but had a large scar/hairless area down his back, right along the spine, with a smaller, old-bloody, area on his side. We wondered if he'd tangled with a mountain lion or if the injuries were from fighting. Hard to see how he'd get that big injury on his back from fighting, though.

Our canyon- bulls were bedded against this rimrock

I had one at 80 yards and the other at 75 yards which is about 15 yards farther than I’d like, plus I didn't want to make a shot as late as it was.  I accidently spooked Scar a little when I stepped on a branch moving to better position. He only moved behind a tree, but we backed out, left them, and will be back first thing in the morning.

Day 7

We went back to the canyon where we were at last night to look for the bulls we'd seen loafing under the rimrock. While I looked up canyon a bit, D checked yesterday's spot and found one in the exact same spot, standing and walking around eating grass, and motioned me over. There was NO wind... totally dead calm...and, remembering yesterday's incident where I crunched grass underfoot and spooked the bedded elk, I took my boots off, took my pack off (the shoulder strap goes "skritch, skritch" against my shirt), and took 1 arrow to the cliff.

Rangefinder said 65 yards, a longer shot but definitely in my skill set. Rangefinder also told me the angle down was 35 deg, so we're talking a steep shot here. I drew and discovered that with the sun at my back and the elk in the shade, I couldn't see the elk thru my EZV sight gap.  To be fair, I've had the same issue with sight pins, only worse because when you can’t see pins, you’ve got nothing. On the upside, I _could_ see the elk on the outside of the sight’s V, so I just centered the outside of the V inside the elk, put the tick marks where I wanted them (I've done this during practice), and shot.

Honestly, I was a little nervous about the shot, due to the distance, this being the only shot I’ve taken in 7 days, the bad lighting conditions, the steep downhill angle, and everything else.  D said my anchor wasn’t good, too.  Oh, well…. too late to call the arrow back!  I'm using lighted nocks for the first time and it was like watching a tracer in ultra-slow motion arc toward the elk. I could see it rise above the elk and I thought " I'm gonna stick it in the creek!" then it started arcing down, down, down and I'm thinking "I'm gonna hit it!" All this is happening in....wait a minute.... 275 fps, 65 yards = 0.71 seconds... and ziiiiinnnngggg... the arrow went RIGHT OVER the elk's back and stuck in the dirt behind him. And he kept right on grazing! Didn't even look up! He just kept grazing right along.  On the upside, the arrow was perfectly in line with his heart, just about 5 yards too high.

I was using Nockturnals for the first time and they came in just as the hunt started. I tested them at 50 yards, hit my 18:1 bullseye and called them good.  I wonder, though, if the little extra weight on the tail might flatten the long-distance trajectory just enough to cause the miss?  Dunno… in any case, it was a clean miss and that’s good.

I slipped around the tree, grabbed another arrow from D as I went by my pack, got into position, and waited for the elk to get clear again.  60 yards this time. I'm gonna get him! I waited, and waited, and waited for him to clear his trees  and then he saw me or smelled me or sensed my aura or _something_ and bolted, taking another unseen smaller elk with him. Buh...bye!!! I lost. I actually saluted him as he trotted off up-canyon.

Well, now we've gotta go get my arrow. I mean, $10 for the arrow, $10 for the broadhead, $10 for the lighted nock... for $30 I'm going down there. We climbed down the rocks (this is just opposite of where I nearly stepped on two rattlers 2 weeks ago) and made it to the bottom. While down there, we sat under the trees, cow-called a little bit and waited. An hour and half later, with nothing happening and with the wind swirling every direction possible, we scrambled up the cliff to the top (and I'm talking "cliff"), making all kinds of noise in the process.

Shot!  And missed.
Having a sit in the canyon

In spite of all our noise, I suggested we go ahead and walk the rim for a bit and see if we might see anything. Neither of us were sure that the elk we'd busted were the elk we saw last night and we suspected there were more in the canyon. So, we hiked about 100 yards (later, I GPS’ed the distance and it was 225’) and took a peek over the rim. I was up-canyon about 40 yards from D and out of my peripheral vision, I saw him recoil. I stepped back too, and he signed to me "4x4, right THERE". The wind was up now, masking my noise, so I carefully scooted to the edge, peeked over and RIGHT THERE!!! was a bedded bull, looking downhill. Rangefinder said 26 yards (37 deg incline, too) and I checked it several times because I couldn't believe it was that close. Even better was the access to this canyon- it was ATV’able and on our private property.

I needed the bull to stand up so I motioned for D to go away from the rim, move up canyon to the next set of trees and cow-call a little bit. D did and the bull sort of looked over there. D called again. The bull looked again. Finally, he stood up and looked around like "What's going on?" That was what I needed. I drew, framed the V of my EZV sight on his chest and let her rip (and this time the lighting was perfect and I had bull clearly in the V). THWACK!!!! There was no mistaking that sound!

The bull wheeled and tore off down canyon and another bigger bull went after him. I wonder if it was this bigger bull moving for the cow call that made my bull stand. My bull just cleared the trees below and then his rear end started fishtailing and he crashed headfirst into a juniper, reared back, fell, and didn't move again. You want to talk about excited?! That was me! Seven days and many years of trying and when it finally all came together.... 26 YARDS!!!!..... that's a chip shot. D came over and quite calmly said "You got one!!! I could hear it hit!". 

Bloody, broken arrow

Blood tracking wasn't even necessary- I could SEE the elk.

Elk, down.


What a funky looking lil' dude.  The elk.  Not me. Whatever.

We called Mom and had her bring the Ranger to the head of the canyon while D walked down to meet her. They decided the Ranger couldn't get across the creek bed to make it up canyon, but D thought he could get to us with his Grizzly 450 and volunteered to hike back to the truck, drive it home, get his Grizzly, and return. Meanwhile, Mom and I worked on the bull and I was amazed to learn that she's never field processed a big game animal. I guess I've been spending too much time with our kids!

Georgia helping process for the first time!

D returned, we loaded quarters on the Grizzly, he ran them back to the Ranger, and 3.5 hours after starting, we were done, with the elk quartered and in the walk-in cooler. I wanted either a big bull or a cow/small bull and I got the small bull. His skin was noticeably easier to cut than the bigger bull I killed 3 years ago, and his body much smaller than D's bull last year. He'll be excellent eating.

For those who like to know these kind of things, I was using a Hoyt Alphamax 32 bow set at 62# with a Slick Trick Mag broadhead on a Gold Tip 400 arrow. My release is a Spot Hogg Whippersnapper 3-finger open jaw. I destroyed one lung and clipped the bottom of the elk's heart.  It was maybe 5 seconds and 90 yards from the shot to him collapsing in the juniper. The arrow penetrated the far side but pushed back in at a some point- I was able to push the broken arrow all the way thru to remove it. 

You can see the broadhead X if you look closely

The broken off arrow inside the chest cavity

Elk heart is pretty big!

 I used Cabela’s Extreme insulated boots and they were excellent with grippy soles, lightweight, and fabulous ankle padding/support.  They are, unfortunately, also sold-out and discontinued.  My camo is Predator Brown which I’ve been using for many years. The only thing that I didn’t like was my Predator undershirt- it’s pure synthetic and was cold when it was cold and hot when it was hot. After this hunt, I immediately ordered a Kuiu Merino wool undershirt and it’s already shown itself to be 100% better. I’ve been using an Alaskan Guide bino case for my Zeiss 10x40 (West Germany!) binocs for several years now- it’s quiet and easy to get stuff out of. I stored my diaphragms and wind detector in the pockets.  I wore a variety of socks, but my mainstays are Thorlo hikers. We use a variety of  Gerber, Havalon, Ruko, and custom knives- I think we had 6 knives total between us.

My pack was a Tenzing 1140 sling to which I zip-tied a 5-arrow hip quiver.  This worked really well and kept my bow light. The single shoulder sling got tiring after a long day, though. (*) D used a Tenzing 1200 and I think I’m going to switch to one of those next time. The Tenzings have a lot of pockets, are quiet, and have a lot of tie-on spots. Had I needed to pack out an elk, I have a tried/true Horn Hunter Full Curl pack and a Cabela’s cart. We use OnXMaps on my phone and a Garmin Oregon 600 as a backup GPS/land-status map.

(*) I've since purchased a Badlands Super Day pack and think it will be a much better pack.  It has more and better pockets and a very handy pistol holster built-in.

Getting a bull elk with a bow was a tremendously exciting and satisfying thing and is the cap of many, many years of effort.  We worked hard, had some near encounters, and in the end, when it came together, it was almost easy.  There was the bull, close, totally unaware, and I made a perfect shot. And, after climbing up the cliff- not 150 yards away from the bull!!!- I almost quit, thinking we'd made too much noise.  Moral of the story- don't quit.  Having taken a cow with a rifle, a bull with a rifle, and a bull with a bow, I have achieved all the success I ever wanted. From here on, I don't think I'll ever rifle hunt for elk again.  It'll be bow and it'll be for the experience. 

Part 2- D's hunt:

We are done with Derek's elk hunt. We're both tired and didn't see any elk in our home canyon this morning so we called it. Is this failure? Well, you decide....

Day 1, at 9 am, we had 5 bulls under 200 yards for 2 hours, and several times under 100 yards. There was a bigger bull- a 6x6- but he disappeared in the timber. We were perched on our sniper post patiently looking for him when a pickup pulled up to the canyon mouth (on private land, I will add) and 2 guys bailed out while two stayed behind. The 2 (whom I recognized) walked up the canyon (now on public land) and soon busted the 5 bulls we'd been watching. Long story short, after busting all 5 of the elk we'd been watching and failing to see any of them, they ended up busting Mr. Big who was hiding near the canyon mouth as they walked back to the truck. I couldn't see everything, but I heard a total of 7 shots and then the pickup drove off in the direction of Mr. Big.

We were disappointed that they'd busted Mr. Big in such a clumsy way, but as D2 pointed out, if we'd shot any one of the 5 we were watching then Mr. Big would've busted too, and those guys wouldn't have gotten him (if they did). We figure they kind of owe us. Everyone has different ethics, and I know those guys were after meat not antlers, but, me, personally, I wouldn't have shot directly toward my buddies back at the pickup truck, like they did. Nor do I shoot at elk running away from me. I'm a 1-shot, the animal doesn't even know I'm there, kind of guy, but that's me.

We checked other canyons the next afternoon and found nothing. 

Day 3 was cold and windy and all we did was glass from the truck in the afternoon.

Day 4,  we hiked up the mountain. We watched 3 bulls walk thru the timber in front of us followed to the rear by another hunter who never saw us. The bulls topped out on a ridge 350 yards away... about 50 yards too far for D2's 7mm-08 plus they were skylined and we don't shoot at anything that's skylined. One was a 6x6 with a busted tine whom we would've taken if we could've, a 5x5, and then a small rag horn bull. They went over the ridge and a few minutes later we heard shots. And more shots, And then more. Fifteen shots in all. Fifteen!!!! I bought my Browning .280 in 1989 and in that time have killed 10 big game animals with 12 shots. I missed once and my Idaho deer needed a finishing shot. Later that day, we found a 5x5 bull that I videoed with my phone. We spent 30 minutes together inside 100 yards and D2 wouldn't had any trouble collecting him, had he wanted to.

Day 5 was this morning. We went back to my canyon and found no elk, although we did find mule deer, which we have not seen until now. Tired and hungry, we called it good and quit and then drove to town for a bacon cheeseburger.

So, 6 bull elk inside 200 yards, most of them less than 100 yards at some point. We found 2 that we would have taken if we could've but we didn't get the chance or didn't like the shot.  D2's pretty happy. So am I. As I pointed out to him, if I'd taken the 6x6 Pond Elk at 11 am on Day 1 of Archery season and he'd taken any of the 5 on Day 1 of Rifle season, we'd had experienced 1 full day of elk hunting. Instead, we got to hunt for 7 days on my end and 3 full days on his end for a total of 10 full days of hunting, exploring, and learning. We decided that we like archery season a lot better than rifle season. It's quieter, the hunters don't blow the game out of the place, and the elk respond to calls. Except for 2 pronghorn doe hunts and a possible private land mule deer hunt, that's it for this year.