Friday, 31 December 2010

Elk season.

Inuit whalebone carving of shaman.
The big game hunting seasons last but a short time.  Two weeks for deer and two weeks for elk, antelope season is almost a month.  Surely it is best to be immersed in the hunt, to stay connected to the rhythms of the sunrise and sunset and the weather and to open oneself to the intuition which seems to be crucial to success. This year my hunt was even more disjointed than usual. Many obligations fell in the middle of the short elk hunting season.  Aside from the normal work duties, hunting season falls near the middle of the fall semester, we were finishing building a new house and then, we moved in on October 15th, the first day of elk season. The following weekend was largely taken up with finishing the move.  I was only able to get out two afternoons during the two week long general elk season in the local area.  Neither day did I kill an elk.

On the first afternoon out I hunted an area where I could shoot a bull or a cow. It meant driving further from home but bull elk are by far in the minority and having failed to kill a deer, I was after meat. After a long drive down a very bad dirt road, trying to get to the edge of the Platte River wilderness area, I was blocked by recently fallen trees.   With the pine bark beetles killing the forest I carry a chainsaw in the truck in case a tree comes down behind me blocking my exit.  I did not take the time to clear this one and hunted into the wilderness from where I was halted.  I found plenty of mule deer and elk sign, including sign of a recent mountain lion kill.  I was back to the truck by headlamp after dark, not having seen an animal.

The Southwestern Naturalist 48(1):147-153. 2003
On my second afternoon out, the last day of the local season, I headed back to the same area.  I'd seen enough elk sign the day before that I was not completely pessimistic about my chances for an animal.  As I drove up the canyon on Hwy 230 above Woods Landing toward Fox Park, a very panicked and very large bull ran across the road right in front of me. I looked him in the eye as he passed not fifty feet in front of me. I pulled over about a hundred yards up the road as he jumped a fence and ran off into the forest. It was a large bull, as large as I've seen during hunting season with a rifle at hand. He was dark and carried a six-by-six rack with a huge non-standard drop tine low on the right side that arched down in front of his head.  The atypical tine was thicker at the end than where it attached to the main beam, it was as thick as a baseball bat. For a second I had the irrational thought that I needed to quickly drive on to where I was planning to hunt.  For that second I thought that I could not shoot an elk in the area I was in --  I could not shoot a cow there, but a bull was fair game.  I grabbed my rifle, some shells and my blaze orange hat and took off after him leaving the truck unlocked and most of my gear on the back seat.   I followed his tracks for some distance, stopping to look and listen and then moved off his track following the lay of the land hoping to cut him off further up the draw he was following.   I hunted for a two hours, almost until dusk, and finally I made my way back to the truck to get water and my binoculars.  Rather than hunt back up from the same side of the ridge he'd disappeared over,  I drove around the back of the ridge on some desperately bad roads and hunted him from that side until after dark.  No luck.

I have driven up Hwy 230 more than a hundred times and have never seen an elk on the road there; as I went after him I could not  help but think that he was mine, a kind of a gift. Leaving my binoculars and other gear in the truck was a big mistake.   Elk tend to run until they feel they are safe, which is often not too far, and then will hide in thick cover.  I had little chance of spotting him before he spotted me through the dense lodgepoles without my binoculars.  I believe I would have killed him if I'd have had them. Another lesson learned.

*        *         *  

After that hunt I thought my season was over.  I studied the regulations and discovered that within a two hour drive there were two areas where cow elk (but not bulls) could be tagged until November 14th on a general elk license. The open areas were above Encampment WY on the north side of the Battle Mountain highway and over the continental divide toward Baggs WY. I was not able to get away until the second weekend in November, the last weekend.

Above Encampment there was lots of of snow, I was a bit worried about the forest service road but it was passable, with 4-wheel drive and good tires.  Right at the turn-in  I cut some fresh tracks and I geared up and started to follow them.   It was 7:20 AM.  Before long I was following an animal that was bleeding -- intermittently but heavily at times. It had bedded down more than once and there were pools of blood at the beds, though as I followed, there seemed to be less blood. The animal had large tracks so I was worried that it was a bull (which I could not shoot), or even a moose.  After less than a mile I jumped her. I  could not tell for sure if it was a cow or bull because I only saw the butt before she crashed off into thick timber.  I did not get a shot.

This happened two more times before she crossed the forest service road.  She would wander into an old overgrown clearcut and bed down, even thought I was never far behind.  There was no way for me to be quiet on my approach in those dense places and she'd hear me and crash off before I could even see her.   I followed her tracks to the road and there was truck idling there, she'd crossed, dropping some blood, and some guy had stopped and was following her on the other side of the road -- just to see what was up. He was cutting firewood having killed a cow the night before.  He drove me back to my truck so I could move it down the road (maybe 3/4 mile) before following her again.

I moved the truck down to the new crossing point and took off after her again.  I bumped her out of thick cover again almost right away and did so too more times in the next mile an a half.  At one point, in the heavy cover of an old clearcut, she was very close and she grunted threateningly at me before crashing off.  She did it again about a quarter of a mile further along and I ran forward and as she ran off I took a hail Mary shot through the thick trees.  I knew she was already wounded in some way and I was getting worried about how I was going to get her out since now I was far from the truck. I was shooting 250 grain round-nose bullets out of the 35 Whelen at around 2500 fps; a brush bucker if there is one.  I had followed her more than a mile from the truck, closer to two,  and I did not have my GPS so, aside from the fact that I knew the road was somewhere southwest of me, the only true way I knew to get back to my truck was to follow my tracks.  It was snowing so I was worried my tracks would disappear. At the first shot she stopped, then started wobbling forward -- I ran forward and I could see her clearly this time -- and at the second shot she went down. I hit her in the heart.   It was 10:15 AM, just about three hours after I'd started tracking her.  The blood I'd been seeing was from her left rear leg which was shattered and hanging free just below the hock joint.  I have no idea how she kept in front of me for three miles, maybe four, we'd made wide detours from the road.

Cow elk: I tracked her for about 4 miles.
When she did go down, I was definitely worried about how far from the road I was -- but also, she'd fallen on just next to an old logging road so I thought there might be a way out to the main road.   And then I heard a truck, and although road sounds can be terribly deceiving -- I thought that the road was not far. About twenty minutes later two hunters came walking in on me.  I asked how far it was to the road.
They said "About eighty-five yards, just follow our tracks."
This was luck beyond belief. I gralloched her and hiked back out to get my truck and my dog.  I pulled in my orange toboggan in and carried the game bags.  It took two trips to get her out.  By 3:30 I was on my way home.  I stopped in Encampment, an otherwise deserted town, at the surprisingly stylish Chez Booze and picked up a bottle of Jameson.

I took a chance by following up a wounded animal.  There was no telling if she'd been gut shot or how much meat might have been ruined.  Nichola Fletcher warns that the meat from a stressed animal may be inedible and certainly will not be as good as the meat from an animal that has been dispatched quickly.  But I did feel good about taking an animal that would not have survived the winter.  The meat was hung for a week before I butchered it.  For a change, I had near perfect temperatures, freezing at night and up into the low 40's during the day.  It has proved to be excellent.

No comments:

Post a Comment