So, this last weekend was a second chance at an elk hunt. The plan for this one was significantly dependent upon snow. The proclamation from the Game and Fish Department notes with respect to the hunting unit I had a tag for something to the effect of "Unit X features small and scattered populations of elk". In other words, don't just expect to find them anywhere. However, past experience has shown that a good snow or three will push elk off a big chunk of (legally) inaccessible property to the heads of some big canyons and a couple of large burns and to places where a fellow can get to them.
Unfortunately, our fall has turned out warm and dry, with only one snow on the mountains in question and that falling in the last week. Nonetheless, you have to get out there to get to them, so I set out early on Saturday morning. I met up with an Atomic Nerd (who'd also drawn a tag) and we embarked upon the A plan for the day, which involved heading up a shallow draw before the morning thermals started in order to glass a big canyon. No tracks in the snow, apart from a coyote or two, a deer, and a few rabbits. Most the way up, we met a couple of guys coming down. A brief conversation imparted that they had been to the top, hadn't seen any elk, and that there wasn't enough snow. One of the other hunters volunteered that a couple of years ago he'd been up at the top of the canyon and seen a whole bunch of elk, but there was about a foot more snow on the ground then. Well, hell. Me, too, buddy. Thwarted, and with one of us suffering from a bit of food poisoning ("a bit of food poisoning" is probably akin to "a bit pregnant" from the prospect of the sufferer) we headed down the hill to figure something else out.
Driving a loop along a couple of ridges revealed a few elk tracks, but not a whole lot of encouragement. Given the short time to hunt, I headed out on my own the afternoon to try to figure something else out. I ended up walking a fence line, looking for tracks and generally trying to get to a quiet place an elk might bed. I found a bit of sign, mostly from the day before. Finding where four elk had taken a walk that morning, I followed:
They wandered about a ridge top a bit, then headed back into private property and out of reach.
I began to find a finger off the ridge to head down to a nearby road, hoping to find an elk or two bedded in the spruce along the spine of the slope. Before I had gone far, though, I heard a cow chirp off over the edge of the ridge, in a little bowl below a meadow (in the private stuff). I paused and listened, soon hearing another call. I headed back up to the ridge and the fenceline, then down that line into the edge of a bowl. Soon I could hear the elk moving below me, the amount of calling and commotion in the quiet cold mountain air indicating a decent-sized bunch. Although it was now late afternoon, the wind was fair for my purposes, blowing up the slope and keeping my scent above the elk. The rapid cooling as the sun headed down would change that, though, and I waited and hoped the elk would come down into legal territory before they winded me. A chilly bit later, I saw a couple of cows pass through a gap in the trees at the bottom of the draw below the bowl. Soon, I had five cows on a slope across from me and, very shortly after that, one was down and this winter's meat was assured, if not yet quite in hand.
Better still, by the time I got to her I discovered that, rather than being a half mile above the road as I thought, the curve of the ridgetop had brought me (and the elk) back within sight of it. A brisk forty minute walk brought me to my truck and a phone call garnered some welcome help. I drove back up to near the cow and filled and fired up a lantern, got on my headlamp and proceeded with field dressing. About the time the insides were out the cavalry arrived and skinning and all the rest went quickly. Meat now in hand and Sunday was spent turning it into little white packages.
I don't mind hard hunts and the odds weren't looking to good for this one, but I'll never look a gift elk in the mouth.
Update: a much more amusing account of the hunt in which Stingray channels Pat McManus can be found here.