Work took its usual toll on our schedule and so we found ourselves driving up into the mountains late on a Friday afternoon as rain showers marched here and there over the country. Starting up in elevation, we even saw a little snow on the side of the road.
Old, tired, out-of-shape, wimpy, or perhaps wise, rather than set up the tent in the dark and the rain with the prospect of snow overnight, I opted to spend the night in a very nice hotel in a tourist town on one edge of the hunting unit. Warm bed and a hot shower made a 4:30 get up easier, while a tall coffee and an Allsups burrito (semi-native hint: get a crispy one that has been in the hot box for a while) got us headed to our choice of starting places.
I suppose that such a start might be a modern classic, the very low rent version of McGuane's "New Rugged". No long pack string heading up days before the season, setting up a wall tent and scouting, not even winding up into the country in a pair or convoy of pickups, setting up a group camp and checking out familiar country. Instead, A and I drove blacktop, gravel and then dirt in turn, getting to the mouth of the draw we were looking for just about a half hour before daylight. Overnight, the weather had cleared and the wind had died, leaving the woods cool and fresh, just a bit more chilly then shirtsleeve weather.
As I was loading the rifle, we heard the first bull bugling.
I'm pretty much a novice at hunting with a muzzleloader, having only had one previous hunt and having fired fewer than a hundred rounds through my rifle. In keeping with the spirit of a primitive weapons hunt, I use a traditional style mountain rifle with fixed iron sights. Not completely traditional, that rifle has a fast-twist barrel to shoot longer projectiles rather than a round ball. With 90 grains of Pyrodex black powder substitute, the rifle will put three 350 grain bullets in a three inch circle at a hundred yards. In the last decade I have yet to see or speak to another hunter who uses a traditional style muzzleloader, most of them using primer fired in-line guns with scopes. In any event, full of the optimism opening day usually brings, I set off up a ridge on one side of the draw while A hung out down below.
An hour later, I could hear a couple of bulls regularly bugling at each other, the problem being that they were on the ridge opposite my location and the wind was not in my favor to even head that direction. I eased down slope until I came to a small tank at a fork in the draw and decided to wait a while in hopes that the thermals of the warming day would swing the wind around and let me make a try at one of the bulls. As I sat back from the tank and listened to the elk while watching some cattle drink, I heard what is perhaps the worst sound known to a modern foot hunter, that being the buzzing, putting grumble of a number of 4-wheelers. They were quite some way off, over another low ridge from the elk, but easily where they could hear the bulls. For fifteen minutes I sweated as the machines grumbled away out of sight, greatly relieved and more than a little surprised as the sound faded out of range. Apparently, the riders never stopped and turned off their engines, so as to hear the elk up above them. Some half hour after that, the wind switched around. Impatient, I made myself wait fifteen minutes by the clock to before heading up towards the elk, just in case the breeze tried to switch around some more.
The wind held true and before long I was up on top, working through thick mixed timber toward the bulls and straining my eyes with every step to try to spot satellite bulls or cows before they noticed me. Coming to a little saddle, I was about to head toward the bull on my right, who was moving a good bit but sounded a little more guttural than all but one of the other three bulls I could hear. Before doing so, I poked over to the left to look into the shallow swale coming off the saddle. As soon as I did so, I saw a piece of elk, which a little glassing revealed to be a feeding cow. Soon I saw another and they move in and out of sight as they ate. Having a favorable wind, I very slowly crawled up a little on them to where I could see down into the draw as well as a decent part of the saddle. From that position, it was mostly a matter of waiting and hoping that the heard bull, who was moving about and bugling up on the other side of the shallow draw, maybe a hundred yards away, would come into range and view.
After about forty minutes, the bull down the draw came up into sight, moving through the timber down toward the cows. Before I could find a lane and get a shot, he moved back out. Just about that time, an some elk further up the ridge must have crossed my wind, as then came trotting and running down the far side of the draw and pulling the cows I had been watching with them. Figuring I was blown, I eased a little further in that direction, only twenty yards or so, to have a bit better view of that side of the swale in case there was a trailing bull. Despite the commotion, the herd bull bugled again and, as soon as he did so, the bull from down below came charging in- literally at a trot and bugling as he came. I suppose he thought the herd bull was moving his cows off and he had to make a challenge right now. In any event, his path was directly toward my new location. At about twenty-five feet from me, he paused at a large downed log preparatory to jumping over it, and I rolled over a little and shot him, knocking him down immediately. He got back up and so a reloaded as quickly as I could. Mortally wounded, the bull stopped after stumbling fifty yards and I knocked him down again. He continued down the draw another hundred yards before falling for the last time, taking another bullet through the lungs in the process.
I have a new appreciation for the amazement expressed by hunters from the turn of the previous century regarding the shock affect of modern smokeless cartridges and the high-velocity projectiles they propel. Despite three good fatal hits, the bull was able to get up and travel a fair distance before succumbing. I don't think he'd have gotten up a second time had I been using my '06.
Once he was down I dropped down the ridge and into the draw, then down to where A was waiting near the truck. Having dropped off my rifle, driven a little nearer, and gathered my help, A and I got up to the bull and got to the business of dressing and quartering him out. That process, along with three round trips to the truck, took us over six hours.
Once the load gets around a hundred pounds, there's no real way to get it comfortable that I've found.
Once back at the house, we rested an evening and then began cutting and packaging meat, which took longer than the hunt and the pack out lasted. Good work, though, and a year's worth of red meat. I was a bit concerned that a rutting bull would be strong, but it is as good as any elk that I've eaten.
I have best luck keeping meat in the freezer wrapped first in Saran, then butcher paper. Long way around an elk!
The sign below can often be paraphrased "good hunting".