Thursday, November 6, 2014

2014 Wyoming Elk Hunt - Part 1

This is going to end up being at least a 2 part post.  I have the first part already typed up and am going to cut and paste it in here, but it's going to be a few days before I can type the rest of it up.  

Like my Mountain Goat hunt, this is a hunt that has been several years in the making as well.  I’ve been building preference points in Wyoming to be able to draw a Limited Entry hunt for 4 years now.  I read a post on Monster Muley’s Hunt Adventure Challenge back in 2010 on a hunt in this unit and I really wanted to experience it.  The entire unit is in a Wilderness Area which means no wheeled or motorized vehicles allowed.  Even the government can’t use them.  Everything is done with horses or on foot.  No chainsaws, no nothing.  A true back country elk hunt.

On top of the backcountry wilderness aspect, the unit is supposed to be one of the better quality units in Wyoming with lots of elk and plenty of older class bulls.  If you are 12 miles back in, you are probably going to be more choosy and not shoot the first raghorn you see.

Wyoming nonresident elk is the first drawing of the year for western big game hunting so I found out that I drew this tag in mid February.  I was short of the minimum points needed to get the tag in the preference point pool, so that means that I actually got lucky and drew it in the random draw pool, I think the odds were something like 6% to draw it.  I was super pumped and started making plans for the hunt right then.

As I mentioned in my Mountain Goat post, it’s kind of one of those deals where sometimes you get too lucky.  In May I found out I drew my once in a lifetime Wyoming Mountain Goat tag so suddenly my premium elk tag was going to have to take a back seat to the Mountain Goat tag.  Instead of scouting my elk unit, I spent that time scouting my mountain goat unit.  My buddy had planned on taking several trips to the elk unit over the summer, but instead took several trips to my mountain goat unit.  When it all came down to it, they were able to make one day trip a few miles into the unit, but that was it.  We were going to have to rely on talking with others and scouting via Google Earth.

I think I mentioned it in my mountain goat post, but I was surprised at how willing people were to talk about their mountain goat hunts in detail and practically give me GPS coordinates where to go.  When you think about it, it does make sense though because it is a once in a lifetime tag and they know they will never get to hunt it again so they are very much willing to share really good specific information.  Not so much when it comes to elk hunting.  Although this is a premium tag and takes about 6 years of points to draw as a nonresident, for a resident it is about 40% draw odds so residents can expect to hunt it every couple of years or so.  If they give you any specific information, that would mean that you might shoot the elk that they could have a chance at next year if they drew.  So we knew there were elk in the unit, and knew some general areas to start looking but that was about it. 

The way the week fell this year, opening day of October 1st was on a Wednesday.  We had decided because we had never hunted the area before that it would be a really good idea if we could go in early and get some scouting done.  We planned on going in on Monday and possibly scouting Monday evening and all day Tuesday if I could get tagged out in time on my Mountain Goat hunt.

Thankfully, I tagged out on my mountain goat hunt that previous Friday, so I was able to spend part of Saturday and Sunday switching gears from mountain goat hunting to elk hunting and was ready to go on Monday.

Right about this time I started to realize that my expectations were not going to be quite matching up with reality.  Not because reality was a bad thing, but because I didn’t have a very good understanding of exactly how much work it was going to take to get a camp setup 12 miles into the backcountry.

I had planned on packing light and I was in charge of the food.  Mountain House was about 80% of the menu and everything else was non refrigerated items including foil packaged tuna, chicken, tortillas, etc. for lunches.  That part went pretty smoothly.  But food was only a small part of the big picture of getting a camp back in 12 miles.  The first thing I was surprised at was getting fitted for a saddle out of a couple options and getting my stirrups setup and all kinds of fun stuff like that.  Not sure why I didn’t think about that kind of stuff, but it had just never crossed my mind.  We spent several hours Saturday evening just going through all the gear we would be taking and getting everything sorted out.  

We were going to be taking a total of 6 horses in with 3 pack horses and riding 3 so that was going to be more than my friends son could fit in his trailer.  So I ended up getting to hook up his old horse trailer and hauling 2 of them in with me.  My friend had a small pasture that he could hold them on so we ended up hooking everything up and taking them back to his house that evening.

Sunday we went to church together and after that dropped my mountain goat cape off at a local taxidermist so he could go ahead and flesh it out and get it ready to send off to the tannery.  I’m going to use my taxidermist to do the full body mount, but this way we didn’t have to worry about dealing with the cape over the next week or so.  Sunday was a bit of a breather after going hard for a full week after mountain goats.  A little grocery shopping and quite a bit of sitting around and catching up with some other friends that we have that live in the area and overall we had a really enjoyable day.  I was starting to get excited about the elk hunt already though and still had a lot to get done to turn everything around for it.
The original plan had called for my friends son to go in and setup camp a week or so before the opener.  Then plans changed and he was going to go in over the weekend.  Well, with some rough weather and a few other issues, plans changed again and camp didn’t end up getting setup.  We were going to end up going in and setting up camp ourselves on Monday.  No big deal, with an early start we would be fine. 

I still had to check in my mountain goat with game and fish, but the local game and fish office is right on the way to where we were going to hunt and they open at 8:00 so that wouldn’t set us back any.  However plans changed and things popped up and a few errands and some last minute work requirements for my friends son and it was closer to noon before we ended up heading out of town.

Here’s a picture with the horse trailer hooked up to my pickup and the 2 horses that I ended up hauling to the trailhead.

Checking in my mountain goat at the Fish and Game office was actually a pretty pleasant experience.  They got out a map and had me tell them exactly where I shot it so they could use that to compile the harvest data.  They measured the horns and were very complimentary and congratulated me on shooting a fine billy.  It took less than 30 minutes and we were ready to hit the road. 

Part of the reason for the change in plans and delays was due to the fairly ominous weather forecast we were looking at.  Wind, rain, snow, you name it, at one point or another it was in the forecast.  It wasn’t looking especially inviting as we got going that morning, but so far the rain had held off for the most part and the winds weren’t as bad as they had predicted.

Driving to the trailhead, the previous rains had actually improved the road from what my friend was telling me.  It had softened things up and as a result every loose nut and bolt wasn’t trying to rattle off the truck and trailer.  We did have to stop a couple times to relatch the gate on the horse trailer my friend’s son was pulling ahead of us though.  This ended up being one of my favorite pictures of the trip.  Really neat how somehow I took the picture right as a bird was flying in front of the cloud.

We were heading into some beautiful country.

We were running just a little bit late, but the weather was holding for us and we were even catching a glimpse of blue sky occasionally and we were still in pretty good spirits and full of anticipation for the hunt ahead of us.  The road had turned out better than expected and things were going great, what could go wrong?

About that time my friends son pulled over and said his engine was knocking pretty bad.  We had 6 miles to go to the trailhead, but he said the way it was sounding he didn’t think he should go any farther.  The hood goes up and the oil gets checked and it shows that he is a full 2 quarts low on oil.  Of course the nearest place to get oil is about 30 miles away one way with most of that a dirt road but sometimes it is what it is.  A few trucks stopped and we asked if they had any extra oil and one had about ½ a quart, but we knew we needed more than that so we told them to just keep it.  We tried to check a shop of an oil drilling type operation, thinking they might have some, but there was no one there to answer the door.  So I unhitched from the trailer that I was pulling and made as quick of a trip into town to buy some oil as I could.  

We put in a couple quarts of oil, fired it up and it was still knocking.  Turned it off, checked the oil again and it was still low.  I had bought 4 quarts of oil just to be safe and when it was all said and done we ended up adding all 4 quarts.  The engine on his truck only holds 5 quarts so it’s amazing that the engine was just knocking and hadn’t seized up.  It had been a couple months since he had changed the oil, but hadn’t noticed it burning any or leaking, but it must be burning some because it sure was low.  We fired it up again and it was still knocking, but after a little bit it smoothed on out and seemed okay.  As far as I know it is still running fine although I think he is checking the oil more frequently now!

While I was gone they went ahead and saddled the horses and reloaded them in the trailers and when it was all said and done we probably only really lost an hour or so of time because I made some really good time getting to town and back and they would have had to spend most of that time saddling the horses once we got to the trailhead anyway.   

Once at the trailhead it was time for another surprise.  There were horse trailers EVERYWHERE!  Talking with my friends they had mentioned that there would be quite a few people up there, but we were going in 2 days before the season and there were already trailers everywhere.  The regular trailhead was completely full, some camping type areas farther up were jam packed, we ended up getting the last couple of spots in an overflow type area about ½ mile from the regular trailhead, and when we ended up coming out there was evidently quite a few folks who came in after us because there were trucks and trailers parked all along the road coming into the trailhead.  I should have counted them, but I think a conservative estimate would be 40 to 50 trucks and trailers parked at the trailhead.  This was a big area, but I couldn’t imagine that many people in one spot.  Oh well, we were committed and it was a big area.  We were planning on going in at least 10 miles so hopefully we could still find a spot that wouldn’t be too crowded.

This is just one side of the overflow area that is ½ mile from the trailhead.  There are 10 trucks and trailers in this picture and I think there was a couple over by the trees that were blocked in this picture.  There were 7 or 8 trucks and trailers parked on the opposite side of this spot as well.

The next surprise was how much time and effort it takes to take a huge pile of gear and get it all sorted out and weighed and packed onto some horses.  Not sure what I was expecting, but evidently I hadn’t really thought it all out.  My job ended up being just taking stuff and hauling it to a big pile on a tarp and then helping weigh stuff as it got packed up.  I didn’t keep a stopwatch running or anything, but when it was all said and done it took a couple hours to get it all sorted and weighed and packed.  The horse that I ended up riding is the brown one right in the middle of the picture, her name is Salty.

We finally got it all sorted, everything loaded and ready to roll.  I guess I might not have mentioned it yet, but I have ridden a horse 2 times in my life and the longest of those was for about an hour.  Needless to say I’m not an experienced horseman.  To add to the complexity, one of the members of the pack string was a 2 year old horse who hadn’t ever been on a pack trip before.  One more twist was that my friend was going to ride his son’s wife’s horse who was known to be somewhat temperamental and he would be leading a horse that had been borrowed for this trip.  Oh yeah, and when it was all said and done we were now running way late and we only had a couple hours before it was going to be getting dark and we had at least 10 miles to go to where we were going to try to setup camp.

Finally getting on the horses and getting started was a relief though.  The actual riding didn’t seem too bad at all, although I got the easy part by not having to lead a pack horse and riding in the middle of the string.  The horse I was riding was my friends son’s oldest horse, she actually isn’t very old by most standards, but plenty seasoned and lots of hours of hauling people around on her back so that worked out really well for me.

Of course we get ½ mile up the trail, actually just past the actual trailhead and my friend’s son asks if anyone remembers packing the coffee pot.  I have no idea how anyone would be able to remember whether or not there was a coffee pot in that giant pile of gear that ended up on the pack horses backs, but no one could remember seeing a coffee pot.  Not being a coffee drinker myself, whether we had a coffee pot or not didn’t seem like a big deal, but 80% of our meals were going to need to be prepared by boiling water and as far as I knew, we didn’t have anything else that could be used to boil water.   After a short discussion, he heads back to where the vehicles are parked at a trot putting us behind even farther.  It ended up being a very good thing though because we had indeed left the coffee pot behind and it was the only thing we had that would work for boiling water.

While we were waiting we did get to enjoy some beautiful scenery and the horses were very well behaved.  I thought this ended up being a good picture of my friend Mike while we were waiting.

Looking at the trail ahead.

Okay, coffee pot secured, we now have about an hour to go before dark and we are really just starting to head down the trail.  Having almost zero experience riding a horse period, I’m trying to do the math and figure out how far we are going to make it before dark and what we are going to do then.

This became my view for the next several hours.  The white canvas ended up being about the only thing I could see after it got dark and we kept heading down the trail.

Of course since we were getting started so late, what else to we need to slow us down even more?  How about a nice distraction?  Possibly the largest Shiras moose I’ve ever seen in the wild.  Of course with it getting dark and just using a small point and shoot camera the picture quality isn’t very good, but I think you can get an idea for how big this guy was.  He just hung out there and watched us from about 200 yards away for 5 or 10 minutes while we gawked at him.

Still not a great picture, but if you look at the pine trees in the cropped picture above you can see him standing in that little gap in the trees if you look closely enough.  This gives you an idea of how close he was, he never did run off.

Okay, now we actually start to get into a rhythm and start to actually get a few miles down the trail.  Darkness is full on by now and I’m pretty much just locked into the white canvas tarp on the pack horse in front of me and trusting that the horse I’m riding can see a whole lot better than I can.  The trail had a few rocky spots where sparks are flying off the horses hooves in the dark and that was pretty cool.  We went through a few spots that had a steep drop off to one side and I was actually a little happy that I couldn’t see how far down the drop was.  

Overall the horses continued to do really well, especially considering that it was the first pack trip for the 2 year old horse ever.  She went across the first few river crossings really well considering, and overall things were going really smooth, although we still had a long way to go to where we were planning on camping.  We got to one spot where the trail dipped down into a ravine with some running water and some rocks and the 2 year old horse “Sass”, decided to balk a little.  The 2nd pack horse “Charlie” ended up not paying very close attention and when Sass decided she was going to go she ended up going.  Charlie ends up with a big yank on his lead rope and ends up nearly leaping all the way across the ravine right into the back end of Sass.  I was sure we were going to end up with a huge wreck in the dark, but somehow they got themselves sorted out and we kept on going down the trail.

Not much later after crossing the river for a 3rd time (in the dark of course), either a bear or a moose (probably a moose) busted out not far from us and the horses were getting pretty unsettled.  My friend Mike had been asking his son Zeke how much farther we were going to go before stopping and after that they both decided it was probably time to find a spot to spend the night.  When it was all said and done we had covered just over 6 miles but we still had a ways to go and finding a good place to setup camp in the dark was going to be tricky so we decided to just unload and spend the night right there beside the trail and get going again in the morning.

Here was our camp for the night.

After boiling up some water and making up some Mountain House, we tried to get some sleep.  With the horses stomping and occasionally neighing I’m not sure I got much sleep, but I think I did sleep a little.  So far things weren’t quite turning out according to plans, but thankfully the rain that was forecast held off and we didn’t have to find out how our makeshift tarps were going to do at keeping us dry.

The morning dawned a new day and we were in the mountains and it was a beautiful day.  After a couple hours in the saddle the day before including several miles in the dark I was ready to load back up and get camp setup and do some scouting.  

One of the unique aspects of this area is the fact that most of it burned several years ago.  It makes for some interesting scenery and lots of grass for grazing animals as well.

After a quick breakfast we were ready to get going and find a good spot for camp.  Of course after taking longer than I expected to get everything re-weighed and loaded back up we were back on the trail.

At least we were going to be able to pick our campsite out in the daylight now.

The horse riding ended up being actually enjoyable.  The new pack horse “Sass” had a few more struggles going across some wooden gangplank type stuff over some boggy areas, but overall did very well considering it was her first trip.  The horse that Mike was riding kept getting too close behind the horse I was on and actually got kicked in the head once, but overall it was pretty smooth sailing.  Riding in the daylight was more enjoyable than riding in the dark, it was really nice to be able to look around while the horse just followed along the trail.

We finally got to the area that we were planning on putting up camp.  It looked like a really great spot for elk and we were actually really surprised that we hadn’t seen or heard any sign of elk either last night or that morning.  Another amazing thing was that although we had seen 40 or 50 trailers at the trailhead we only saw a couple camps along the river that morning.  The outfitters camp was huge though, I can’t remember if they had 8 or 9 tents setup on a bench above the river.

Here’s where we started looking for a spot to camp.  Looks like a great spot, the only problem is that my hunting unit was on the right side of the river, not the left side.  If that right side of the river looks steep, trust me, it was!

Kind of interesting that I took this picture on the ride in.  Of course I forgot to take a picture of this area on the ride out, but I ended up getting pretty familiar with that particular spot.  A little bit of a spoiler alert, but we ended up coming down that spot in the dark with heavy packs a few days later.  If it looks steep, trust me, it was!  (You might notice that I repeat that line several times in this write up) 

We ended up finding a nice looking spot for a campsite on the right side of the river and were able to get across the river to it and start setting up camp.  We were just over 12 miles in according to my GPS. It was obvious that other people had thought it looked like a good camp spot in the past as there were hitching rails already lashed to some of the trees, some precut tent poles and best of all a really nice meat pole setup about 100 yards back in the trees from where we ended up putting the tent.

Thought this was a good picture of the horses tied up in the burned trees.

Not a bad spot at all for a camp.

Getting unloaded and getting the tent setup wasn’t bad at all.  My first time ever to have a canvas tent setup for camp.  It was a lot bigger than I expected.  With just 3 of us there was tons of room.

By the time we got camp setup and the horses taken care of it was already getting later in the day than we wanted.  We had just enough time to get an evening scouting trip in and get back to camp and try to get ready for opening morning.  We were in a spot completely new to all of us and didn’t really have a good idea where to even start.  Mike was starting to feel poorly and we ended up leaving him back at camp while Zeke and I tried to get in a little scouting.  After the break from the horses I was ready to get back on and see some country and hopefully find some elk.

That was the one thing we were all surprised about.  Based on talking with different people and reading different hunt reports, I honestly was expecting this to be a deal where I was going to get to have a choice between multiple mature bulls each day.  We were so far back in and there was supposed to be so many elk I had been thinking through what kind of bull I would be willing to shoot.  So far we had seen a whopping Zero elk.  And not much sign either.  We had heard reports of literally 1,000+ elk in the unit but so far we sure weren’t seeing them.

We rode a couple miles and were going to go up a creek to some country that had looked pretty good on Google Earth.  It became pretty obvious that with the rain and the steep country, we weren’t going to be spending all our time on the horses, there was no way that they were going to make it up the trail we wanted to go on.  We tied them off after crossing the river and continued on foot.

It was beautiful country and looked like there should be plenty of elk in there, but again, we just weren’t seeing much sign and for sure we weren’t seeing or hearing any elk.

I think I’ve mentioned a few times already that this was some steep country, but I’ll say it again.  This was some steep country.  Looking across the other side of the drainage there were some really nice spots that looked perfect for elk, and there were some other spots that looked a lot more like sheep and goat country.  I really thought the rock formations on this ridgeline were pretty cool with the holes showing on the ridge.

Another thing that I didn’t realize at the time, and I will get into more detail later, was the fact that when you see waterfalls that means that things are really steep.  I was just taking this picture because it was pretty at the time, but I think this really helps to give you an idea of how steep this country is.

The other side of the creek.  More waterfalls, but above that it looked like a pretty good spot for elk.  It was just going to be some serious work to get there to find out whether there were any there or not.

More scouting pictures.  More waterfalls.  More steep country, but it looked like a good spot, especially since there were only a few pockets of dark timber in the entire area with all the burned stuff.

Surely there are some elk up there in the bowl aren’t there?  We didn’t ever find out.  I blew a bugle a few times but nothing ever responded.

On the way up the trail we had seen some bear tracks, this area is supposed to have a very good population of bears including grizzlies so we were actually expecting to see more sign that we did.  We followed one track for a while that we decided had to be a really big black bear. 

I’m wearing size 13 boots for comparison.  That is the front paw of the bear.  

Did I mention that it was muddy?  I still haven’t gotten good at getting my video clips edited and uploaded, but I have a good one from my GoPro knock off of Zeke nearly busting it going down a steep spot on the trail in the mud.  We both nearly fell several times slipping and sliding on the way back down.

I thought this was a really good picture.  Looks like a perfect spot for elk, but again, that was on the wrong side of the river so we never rode up there to check it out.

We got back on the horses and rode back to camp just as it was really starting to get dark.  Mike had a fire going when we got there but still wasn’t feeling very good.  We messed with the horses for a bit, boiled up some water for supper and tried to decide what in the world we were going to do in the morning on opening day.  I got ready to spend my first night in a canvas tent a long way from civilization.

I don’t think any of us expected opening day of elk season to turn out like it did, but I’m going to have to wait a few days before I can get back to the story so you’ll have to wait to find out about it.

Thanks for reading along.  Nathan