Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Spawning Browns on the North Platte

What I was after.
For a few years now I've been wanting to get up to fish for the big brown trout that run up into the North Platte from the series of reservoirs west of Casper.  The run of spawning browns is a mid-November to mid-December event that happens to fall during prime pheasant and sharptail hunting season so I never seem to make it.  This year, with the drought, reports from pheasant country are not promising so the decision to fish instead of hunt was not difficult. Jeff and I drove up to the North Platte leaving at 7:30 Sunday morning from the West Laramie Fly Store.

Tom McGuane (via Steve Bodio) wrote "Shoptalk is lyrical."  Here's the technical details for them that likes them. I was casting a 5wt 11 foot Z-axis switch rod loaded with a Scientific Anglers 280 gr Extreme Skagit head with a 10' Airflow Salmon/Steelhead fast sinking polyleader with a bit more than a foot of 15 lb. tippet attached to a streamer.   My running line is the yellow Airflow Ridge.  This is all spooled on an old Lamson LP4 which really needs to be replaced; if the reel gets wet the drag slips or even goes free spool and the spool occasionally spontaneously falls off.  The orange Skagit head is 18' long. I feel like I'd cast it a bit better when I'm not in deep if was a couple of feet longer - but I do pretty well with it. Although I am no expert, I can Spey cast a lightly weighted streamer far further with this rig than I can with a 9 foot 8 wt. rod.  For this kind of fishing I far prefer fishing the 5 weight switch rod to my 14 foot 9 weight Spey rod though that works too.

I caught one big brown, a few smaller ones and a decent rainbow. I went for a big brown and was completely satisfied to have caught one: you can't always get what you want. The take was textbook perfect - the fish took a white marabou streamer I was swinging in classic Salmon/Steelhead fishing style.   Jeff netted it for me and took a photo.  By then I was anxious to release it so it could continue the sexual business it was there for - and so I did not measure it.  I'd guess it was a 26 or 27 inch fish.  Jeff hooked up more than once but did not land one.

No snow up there yet - a shocking continuation of the current drought conditions.  People all over, even those who don't much like snow,  are wishing we'd get some.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Elk Season: The Conclusion

Fresh snow, rifle, and pack.

As I mentioned I was going to do in a previous post  - I picked up a leftover cow/calf tag and continued hunting this past weekend on the northeast side of the Snowy Range. I hunted with an unnamed friend on Saturday who I'll call The Pirate and on Sunday we were joined by  Mr. Stone.

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Saturday, 10 November 2012: Overnight we'd had two to four inches of fresh snow and temperatures we predicted to drop all day going down into the single digits by nightfall.  As we got on I-80 West out of Laramie the warning sign blinked the message "NO LIGHT TRAILERS - WIND GUSTS 60 MPH+".  This was perfect.

There is no shortage of theories among elk hunters; some of them hold up to scrutiny bearing some relationship to reality and others are just  pipe dreams or wishful thinking. Theories abound as to whether the elk are up high or down low, and if so, why? One theory says that fresh snow, high wind and a significant cold front coming through will tend to push the elk down to lower elevation.  This is the one the Pirate and I were counting on.  How else can you put a positive spin on 60 MPH+ winds?  It's good weather for elk hunting,  that's how.

As we parked the truck at the Pirate's cabin he spotted an elk up a steep hillside in the open sage about three quarters of a mile away.  With my binoculars we could make out six elk. I thought to myself:  "This is just going to be too easy.  I'll be home by mid-afternoon."  We grabbed our rifles, threw on our packs, hopped on the 4-wheeler and headed toward the base of the open slope.  Last I saw them, the elk did not seem to mind the noise of the ATV.  We parked in the timber and carefully made our way on foot to the sage opening where we'd seen the elk not fifteen minutes earlier. They were, of course, gone but the tracks in the fresh snow were easy to follow.   We followed the tracks for two and a half miles before giving up near the top of a ridge with the wind blowing hard and snow falling.  The snow was much deeper up high which made walking a significant effort.  The creeks flow west off the slope we were on and we followed the ridge south to drop back down toward the truck in the next drainage over.

It was after 1 PM and by now and we were cold, tired, hungry and thirsty and a bit wet so we started to get sloppy.  In our rush to get to the elk in the early morning we'd failed to pack our lunches or even drinks. This was a lesson I thought I'd learned before - no matter how short you might think a hunt will be - take everything you would carry for a full day.

Because we were tired and thirsty we were anxious to get back down to the cabin - and so we were moving faster than we should have been, stumbling our way down the mountain.  I'd mostly given up glassing the timber ahead and of course, that's when we bumped a small herd of elk.  They saw us just about the time the Pirate saw them.  He hissed "Elk!" and I looked and saw them.  Nervously trying to fingure which way to run.  I quickly set up on my shooting sticks and though it was a far dicier shot than I like to take, I was willing. As the elk started to run I fixed my sights on an opening in the trees where I'd seen the others pass and as the last cow in the herd ran through, I pulled the trigger. I pulled and nothing happened.  My safety was on.  Exhausted and embarrassed I did not mention the safety to the pirate.

Blowing snow and blue skies on the drive out.

We got back to the cabin in a howling wind with temperatures in the teens and even after warming up, neither of us could bring ourselves to head out for a late-afternoon/evening hunt.  We drove back to town in a big blow.  If it was 10°F and the wind was blowing at 50 MPH,  the wind chill was -39°F (old method) or -17°F (new method). In any case it was brutally cold and a minute without gloves on left your hands hurting. This is weather that can cause frostbite, it is weather that can kill you.

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Sunday, 11 November 2012:  The Pirate's friend Mr. Stone joined us on Sunday. He and the Pirate had been hunting hard all season in the same area where we'd bumped elk the day before but they had never been so lucky.   The plan was that the Pirate and I would hunt together up one drainage and the quiet Mr. Stone would hunt alone up the next one to the south. We planned to meet up in a few hours at the top of the ridge.  It was still damn cold with high winds and it was practically unbearable riding in on the back of 4 Wheeler through the open country trying to get into the trees.

Almost as soon as we got into the timber we cut tracks.  A heard of five or six elk headed uphill.  We followed the tracks on foot.  About a half a mile in, as we neared the top of a steep slope, I just knew they'd be bedded down on the flat in the timber.  The Pirate and I separated a bit, me to the right, and moved up onto the flat.  We quietly stood and looked and listened when we were off the steep. Just like the day before, the Pirate hissed  "Elk!" and I turned toward him and saw them, about 60 yards away through the timber.  After the previous days shooting debacle I quickly got my sights on them, flipped off the safety and, just as they started to run, I pulled the trigger.  I did not see an elk fall and I felt I must have missed - for the second time this season.  I quickly headed toward the spot where they'd been.  There was no blood. I was sure I'd aimed high.

We tracked those elk for more than a mile before we gave up. We circled around and headed back to the 4 Wheeler and to the cabin for lunch.  Mr. Stone had also followed elk and jumped one off her bed but had not had a shot.

Cow elk down last Sunday - just at dusk.
For the afternoon hunt we drove up as high as we could get through the snow on the 4 Wheelers and hunted from there. The winds were still high, my legs were tired and I'd lost hope.  I really just wanted to call it a day.  The three of us split up and hunted uphill meeting on a rocky high point absurd winds ravaging the landscape. As I stood there I heard the honking of a flock of geese and I saw them for a moment through the blowing snow before they were blown away into the haze.  None of us had seen fresh tracks. As we hunted back down the Pirate and I dropped off a steep slope into dense timber and Mr. Stone hunted the contour.

Off that rim and down in the thick timber it suddenly got very quiet and there were elk tracks everywhere. There must have been 20 elk and possibly more in the herd we'd dropped into.  We hunted slowly downhill, separated by 50 feet or so, slowly and silently weaving our way through the trees, expecting to see them at any second.  Further and further down we went until we were well below the 4 Wheelers.  It was close to 3:30 PM and after a short consult,  we decided to hunt just a bit further.  And of course, that is when we saw them.  Determined not to repeat my earlier errors I clicked off the safety and took aim but did not shoot because the shot was not clear. And then they saw the Pirate who was below me  and the forest exploded with elk running in every direction.  A panicked cow tore up the steep gully, not more than 15 yards in front of me, I swung my rifle like a shotgun and pulled the trigger and she ran by.  She fell instantly onto a log sticking out of the side of the narrow ravine.  She wasn't going anywhere but I put a second bullet into her heart to finish her.  The first shot that had dropped her was a neck shot.

I gutted my elk and left her where she lay and walked out to the 4 Wheelers in the dark. From the cabin  we drove out to I-80 in a serious whiteout which forced us to stop frequently to wait for the wind to die down.

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Monday: 12 November 2012

Up at 5 AM again.  During a long elk season a work day, when I can sleep in until at least 6 AM, is almost a welcome reprieve.  This day I had a PhD prelim to attend.  It had been scheduled for months and I could not miss it.  The wind had died down and up on the mountain we were able to get the 4 Wheeler to the edge of the ravine where my elk had fallen.  We were able to use the winch to pull her up and out of the ravine and then were able to drag her all they way to my truck. We managed to load her whole into the back of my Toyota. 

Whole elk in the back of my truck.
Thanks to the Pirate and Mr. Stone for their help.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Elk Season (so far)

An exceptionally well outfitted jeep (not mine) that did not survive the elk season.

I hunted elk five days in October, by my accounting that's nearly 50 hours of hunting in total. Add another four days hunting deer and I managed to spend a lot of time in the field this past month.

There was a lot of good hunting in that time but the most eventful day for my elk season so far was Saturday October 27th.   We had about 4" of fresh snow on the ground that morning so all but the steepest roads were still passable for my Tacoma and the conditions were perfect for tracking.    I took the photo above of the jeep on its side on my drive into my hunting area.   I stopped to see if anyone was hurt but the occupant was gone.  Whoever it was, hope they are OK. This was an exceptionally well outfitted vehicle with excellent offroad tires, a winch, auxiliary lights, permanently mounted high-lift jack and Jerry cans for extra gas.

I got onto the track of two bulls around 10:30 AM and tracked them until I finally caught up with them at 2 PM.  There are so many moose tracks in the area that I occasionally convinced myself I was foolishly tracking a couple of moose, then I would regain my confidence that they were indeed elk.  According tot he GPS they'd gone a bit more than two miles by the time I caught up with them.  Just before I did catch up they'd changed their direction of travel.  I wondered why. I'd been following them in the same direction for more than an hour - essentially heading NNE following the contour of the land (at about 8500 ft) headed into the wind. Then they turned 90 degrees left heading WNW and downhill.  Soon I found myself in a sea of elk tracks. The bulls I was following had scented the cows long before I realized what they were up to and had merged with that herd.

A stand of lodgepole pines - looking for elk in the timber.
I was far from my truck at this point with lots of deadfall between me any road.  I reasoned that I could find a cow elk closer to a road later in the season and decided I would only shoot a bull this far in.  I was in a thick stand of lodgepole pines - each tree uniformly six to eight inches in diameter and standing about 25 feet tall.  Some were spaced as close two or three feet.  Moments after I'd made the decision to only pull the triger on a bull  I glassed an elk through the thick trees.  After glassing for elk and fully expecting to see one at any minute for more than three hours now it was exactly what I'd expected to see. Finally. His head was in profile through a small gap in the trees and I saw his large eye - looking at me.  He turned his head and I could see the base of his antlers.  I kneeled down and put the rifle on the shooting sticks and sighted him through the scope. He was aware that something was up -  but he did not know what and he was not sure which way to turn so he stood still. Elk feel secure in the deep timber.  And when they are with a noisy herd, a movement or sound is not as alarming as it might be to a lone animal.  On the other hand, eight elk have sixteen eyes and ears and eight noses the better to detect you with.

He was about seventy yards away - certainly less than a hundred and slightly downhill from me.  He was facing away from me - turned slightly to the left - more than quartering away but not straight away.   A raking shot to be sure, but I had most of the flank in sight through the narrow gap in the trees. I was not rushed. I took aim and pulled the trigger and fully expected to see him drop right where he stood.  No such luck - he ran off uphill. I was unconcerned until I got to the spot where he'd been and I found no blood.  I had been certain that he was, or would soon be lying dead.

Gaia GPS ap for an IPhone - a new addition to my hunting technology -  excellent.
After spending almost an hour searching for blood - moving back to the spot I'd shot from and down to where I had seen him -  I got back on his trail and started tracking him.  I could only believe that, even though I had a clear sight picture of him through the scope, the bullet must have hit a small branch. I'm shooting a pre-64 model 70 rifle rebarreled to 35 Whelen.  I'm shooting handloads: the bullet is a 250 gr Hornady Spire Point  in front of 54 gr of H4895 powder with a Federal GM210M primer in a R-P case.  These loads clock in at 2525 fps.  The Whelen is known as a brush bucking cartridge - but brush bucking may be more a matter of luck than anything else.  These trees have few if any low branches so I am still confused.  Another theory is that the bullet went in and did not exit (which it probably would not do at that angle) and he was mortally wounded but not bleeding. I've read that fatty tissue will sometimes close a wound. Since he had run uphill before angling off downhill toward the other elk who had run off down the ridge I was able to follow him.  No blood.  About a quarter of a mile later his tracked merged with the rest of the herd and he was lost to me.  I followed the herd for another quarter of a mile - further and further from the truck - before giving up.  A completely surprising and disappointing end to a nearly perfect elk hunt.

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I hunted again Sunday the 28th with more fresh snow and roads less passable than the day before. Early on I got a the very fresh tracks of a herd of cows and followed them for about a half a mile until they crossed into Colorado.  I followed them some more hoping they'd angle back into Wyoming but eventually I was not able to justify following them further.

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It turns out that there are still leftover licenses available for a nearby area that will allow me to kill a cow or calf elk until January 31st.  I'm going to take this weekend off and start again next weekend.