Well, it’s very interesting thinking back on this hunt with the benefit of hindsight. This made my 6th year in a row to be going on an elk hunt in Wyoming with my friend Mike from Powell, WY.
It has somewhat morphed into a family vacation of sorts and we pull our travel trailer up there and my wife and son come with and the last 3 years we’ve been bringing one of his friends along as well. Getting everything ready for the trip is always hectic, but we had the added fun of a fridge going out, the furnace on the trailer not working, buying new batteries for the trailer, a new tire, etc. the two days before we were going to leave. We finally had everything thrown together and at least in the trailer and we headed out.
Thankfully, the trip up was uneventful and we got settled in at our normal camping spot late the afternoon before opening morning. I was still pretty unorganized as a lot of stuff had just been thrown into the trailer and it was well after dark before I had things sorted out and ready for the next morning. I’ve been planning ahead for my New Mexico elk hunt that I’m going to be backpacking in on and I bought a new backpack for that trip that just barely arrived in time to try out on this hunt. The timing was so close that I actually had it shipped to my friend’s house as he was leaving a day later and closer to where the pack was being shipped from as well. I was worried about trying to put everything together on the pack when I got there, but thankfully Kurt at Stone Glacier had put my bag on the frame and my rifle sling on as well for me so I just had to get the pack loaded up with everything I brought. Somewhere around 10:00, I had things sorted out and hit the sack, my alarm set for 4:44 am.
A big benefit to hunting the same area for several years in a row is that there really isn’t a big need for scouting things out. We knew where we wanted to be when shooting light arrived on opening morning a long time ago. After a short ride in the pickup, it was time to pull the GPS out and head out in the dark toward our waypoints that we had marked on the way to where we wanted to go. It was a little chilly out with the truck thermometer showing 26 degrees, but the wind wasn’t blowing and wasn’t raining and the forecast was for it to warm up to the mid 60’s by the end of the day so it was actually a pretty nice day.
The hike into our spot was pretty quiet. The moon was pretty bright and the last ¼ mile or so we were able to turn our headlamps off and get setup in our spots pretty quietly. “Our spot”, had been very good to us over the last 6 years. The previous 5 years we have been into elk on opening morning every year, we were hoping that this year would not be any different.
Shooting light arrived and things were still pretty quiet. The wind was blowing a little bit and sure enough it was right at our backs blowing where we were thinking the elk would be. Really not much we could do about it now, so we just hunkered down and waited a bit. I threw out a few cow calls, but sunrise came and went and things were still quiet. No far off bugles, no up close bugles, nothing but quiet. We decided to hang out for a while to see if things were just running late, but by 8:00 it was pretty obvious that “our spot” might not be quite as good as it had been this year. After some scouting around it was pretty clear that there just wasn’t the elk activity this year that there was normally in the area. We decided to leave our spot and check out some other areas close by.
There was a steep bench dropping off into a canyon about ½ mile away and a saddle that has some activity in it sometimes so we started off in that direction. We moved slow, looking for sign and trying to be quiet. We still weren’t seeing much sign, but did finally come across a couple very fresh rubs and were finding a little bit of sign here and there. We decided to go check out a wallows about ½ mile away and were messing with the GPS when we were interrupted by a bugle not too far off, maybe 500 or 600 yards. We immediately forgot all about the wallows and slowly started off in the direction of the bugle.
Maybe 10 or 15 minutes later we hear a bugle again, but it’s farther away now. This was still the only thing we’ve heard so we were going to be following it until either it shut up or we got busted one way or the other. My memory isn’t perfect here, but I think we heard 2 more bugles as we were working that way, with the second one being fairly close to us. We quickly setup about 20 yards apart from each other and I made a couple cow calls. I didn’t get a response to my diaphragm mouth call, but when I used the “I MAKA DA BULL CRAZY” estrus cow call I got an immediate response and it sounded very close. Rifles were out and ready, wind was pretty much dead calm, we were ready for some action! Another bugle pretty quickly after the first and I thought I heard some branches snapping in that direction. Our heads were on a swivel as we knew it wouldn’t be unexpected for the bull to circle around and try to come in behind us so we were on full alert.
A little background on the area that we are hunting in, other than a few open areas, it is pretty much dark timber. That’s where we were at now. If you are lucky you can find a shooting lane 50 – 75 yards, but most of the time you are limited to 20 or 30 yards of visibility. A rifle has an advantage over a bow here, not really because of it’s range, but because of the ability to get off a quick shot without having to draw a bow and because you can take some shot angles that you wouldn’t be able to with a bow.
Another 10 or 15 minutes go by and nothing. We decided that if he wouldn’t come to us, that we were going to have to go to him. Again, my memory fails me a little here, I don’t remember if I cow called as we started toward him, or not, but just a few minutes after heading out going slowly and as quietly as we could, I see a bull trotting away in the trees about 30 yards ahead of us. I for sure cow called then, and he wasn’t really busting out, but he didn’t stop either. I didn’t get a good look at him, but I got enough of a look to know that he was a legal bull.
The area that we hunt is a branch antlered bull only area, no cows or spikes allowed. This was a general tag and I hate to call it a meat hunt, but with the number of bulls that we normally see each year it isn’t a unit where you have the opportunity to look over several different bulls and be choosy. I’ve shot the first legal bull that I had a shot opportunity on the previous 5 years of hunting the area and that was 2 bulls. Both 5 X 5’s, one decent, and one pretty much a raghorn. My standards hadn’t gone up, I was going to shoot the first legal bull that I had a shot opportunity on this year as well. To me, any elk DIY on public land is a trophy.
Okay, back to the hunt. The one bull had trotted off and while we hadn’t closed the deal on him, it was at least a positive experience to be on a bull. He hadn’t bolted so I’m still going to head after him and start that way and maybe about 50 yards away an elk barks at me. At the time I thought this was the same elk, but my buddy says that the first elk was smaller and kept trotting off and the one that did the barking was a different elk. For sure the elk doing the barking was close and didn’t know what I was so I immediately let out a couple cow calls on my diaphragm mouth call and kept heading his way. He trotted off a bit and I caught a glimpse of him and saw that he was a branch antlered bull, but I didn’t see much else. I cow called again and he barked again. I kept moving toward him and he kept trotting off a little bit and stopping. This repeated several times and one of the times he barked at me it was an odd bark that almost turned into a bugle at the end.
It seemed like this went on forever, but we might have only covered 50 or 60 yards when it was all said and done. Finally I caught a glimpse of him through the trees and he was standing there looking at me. I could still see that he was a legal bull, but not much else. Somehow there was a tiny gap about 9 or 10 inches wide in the trees right where his vitals were. He was quartering to me at a pretty tight angle, but I could see the spot behind his front right shoulder where a bullet needed to go. I edged up to a tree and rested my rifle against it, had a good rest and felt good about the shot and squeezed the trigger.
He wheeled around and I jacked another shell in and went to run after him, dropped my cow call out of my mouth somehow and it was pretty much chaos. I could hear him stumbling around a bit, for sure he wasn’t bolting out of there so I went back the couple of yards and grabbed my cow call and called a couple times real quick, grabbed my empty casing and headed back toward where I heard the bull. There was a tiny little open area that he was going to have to cross based on the direction he was headed so I headed that way.
About 10 yards that direction and I see him stumbling around. I pull up my rifle to shoot him again and about that time he goes down. I watch for a little and he takes 4 or 5 breaths and then breaths no more. He’s finished. At this time, still all I know is that he is a legal bull. The excitement is still there regardless of how big he is. Now standing there watching him I realize he is a little better than a legal bull. I shout out to my buddy that he’s down and that he’s a nice one. Still shaking a little from the excitement and I start walking up to him. He keeps getting bigger!
At first I couldn’t figure out whether he was a big 5 point or a 6 point. Surely those back tines couldn’t be his 5ths! As I got closer I realized they were! Okay, I can’t be that lucky, he’s probably all broken up on the other side. Here’s what he looked like as I walked up to him.
As I got up to him it only got better. Instead of being broken on the other side, it matched up almost perfectly with his left side. Even better, he had a nice devil’s tine on his right G1! It didn’t take long to realize that this was going to involve a caping job as this elk was going to the taxidermist.
It was just after 10:00 on opening morning and I had shot the biggest elk of my life and probably the biggest elk that I ever will shoot in my life. It still hadn’t all sunk in yet, I had a tape in my pack, but didn’t pull it out to measure him yet.
It seems like you can never take enough pictures, so we set out trying to prove that saying wrong. 2 cell phones and 2 point and shoot cameras and about 30 or 40 minutes later and we were done taking pictures. Of course we didn’t take enough pictures when it was all said and done! Here are a few of the best ones I think.
It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Then the work started. It was warming up already so we got to it getting him quartered up and ready to pack out. I quickly snapped off a couple blades on my havalon knife getting started caping him, but was able to get back in the swing of things and we had him caped and quartered without too much difficulty. I’m going to be on my New Mexico hunt by myself so I was thinking through what I would need to do differently if I was by myself. One thing going for me is that I really doubt I will need to cape that bull because it is going to be extremely doubtful that I’m going to shoot one bigger than this one.
I decided that it wasn’t going to be too much extra weight to go ahead and haul the head and cape out together instead of getting him fully caped right then, so I just caped him up to the base of the neck and trimmed off what I could and cut his tongue out from the back side so I was only carrying about 10 extra pounds of skull out over what I would have to carry out if I fully caped him and skull capped him in the field.
One other thing of note is that we were able to recover the bullet. I shoot the Winchester E-Tip in 150 grain out of my Browning A-Bolt 7mm Rem Mag and have been very pleased with their performance in the past. I’ve recovered 2 bullets previously out of a couple different mule deer bucks that were shot at severe angles and they both petaled out just like in the literature for the bullets. I need to get this one on a reloading scale to figure out if it just didn’t expand like it should have or if the petals broke off, or exactly what happened, but tentatively it looks like this might have been a bullet failure. It still did it’s job and I’m thinking it must have just lost some petals, I’ll probably make a post later once I get it figured out. Here’s a picture of the recovered bullet.
We carried the quarters in the game bags off about 100 yards and got them in the shade and hauled the head and cape over there as well. The area that we hunt typically has plenty of bears and the last thing we wanted to come back to was a bear on the carcass. The bears seem to like the gut pile the best so getting everything moved off a bit is the only way to do it in bear country.
We kind of thought through what we had in front of us as far as packing him out and decided that we had 5 full loads to go out. With 2 of us that made it an odd number, but my buddy is 10 years older than me and I figured I would just haul the last load out by myself and give him a break. If the head and cape together ended up being too big of a load for me, we decided that we would finish the caping job and he could carry that out. I’m almost embarrassed to tell how far we had to pack him out (not very far), but we decided to just go ahead and split it up into the 5 loads instead of trying to kill ourselves doing it in 4 loads which would have been 2 trips out with 2 of us.
The first load out was with what we already had in our backpacks plus the lightest loads we could find. When I quarter an elk up I tend to put it in 4 bags. I also bone everything out in the field. Each hindquarter gets it’s own bag, the boned out front shoulders go in a bag together and all the loose meat goes in one bag (backstraps, neck meat, tenderloins, and whatever else I trim off). It generally ends up with 4 bags at about the same weight. On the average bull elk they weigh between 50 and 60 pounds each.
The second load out was probably the easiest for me, I think I carried the loose meat on that trip which was the heaviest load we had on the meat. With an empty pack and not carrying my rifle it was the lightest load out. Probably around 70lbs. I really liked the Stone Glacier backpack on these trips, especially the first trip out, I didn’t have to take anything out of my pack to make room or stick a bag of bloody meat in my pack, I just released all the compression straps, stuck the meat bag in the load shelf, cinched everything back up and was off. Really pretty slick.
I’ve always been a big fan of pack out pictures so on the last load out we got a bunch of pictures. Turned out that I was able to handle the load, but I wouldn’t want to carry much more than that. When we got back to camp we weighed my pack and it came in just under 100lbs. Again the load shelf on the pack worked out slick. I just tucked the nose into the load shelf, ran the pack up over the head and then snugged up all the compression straps and it was good to go. There is no way to keep a load like that from being awkward, but it really wasn’t too bad.
Here’s a couple pictures loaded up before we headed back to the truck.
I wasn’t sure about carrying it out with the antlers pointed up instead of previously I’ve always carried out the antlers pointing down, but the way it went in the pack was much easier this way. Turns out I think it was easier with them like this because it kept them out of the lower brush and going over deadfall was much easier. I don’t know how this poor guy made his way through the forest very well though, with an outside spread of 55” you had to be careful on your route selection, I had to make a detour after hanging up in between these two trees.
On this load I was pretty happy that I didn’t have to go too far. That pack started getting heavy toward the end. In those first few pictures I didn’t have any orange on the antlers but for the packout I did. After going through some more trees the orange slipped off one antler, but thankfully we didn’t see anyone else on the way out.
This is one of my favorite pictures that we took. We ended up back on the road for about 100 yards before we got to the truck and were walking up the road and I noticed the shadow that I was casting with the antlers on my back. Thought the picture turned out really neat.
Last little bit and then I’m going to wrap this up. When we got back to the truck we just put the pack and the head in there and headed back to camp. I had a scale back and camp and wanted to try to weigh the pack if I could.
Here’s a picture of the head in the pack once we got back to camp.
Took a bit to figure out how to get the pack hung on the scale, but we got it sorted out and picked it up. It seemed heavier back at camp!
Here’s the scale.
I had forgotten to calibrate the scale and once we got it weighed it was showing 5 pounds with nothing on it so that puts the load somewhere between 95 and 100 pounds, maybe a little closer to 100 than 95. I think I’ll go ahead and just say it was 100 pounds!
One of the best parts of this trip, being able to share it with my son! It was worth the extra 10 pounds hauling it out for him to be able to see it with the hide still on the skull.
I think I’ll wrap this up for now. Still have a few more days of the hunt left that I will share in another post.
Still kind of in shock at being able to take such a beautiful animal.