Tuesday, December 16, 2014

2014 New Mexico Elk and Deer

New Mexico Elk and Deer – 2014

After what seemed like 2 epic hunts for me in Wyoming for my mountain goat and elk, I thought I had a few weeks at home to hang out and get caught back up on the things I needed to do at work and around the house and just decompress.  Somehow I had it in my head that the season was the 25th to the 29th of October and that’s what I had told my wife and also the guy that was going to go hunting with me this year.  So I was a little surprised when I actually got online to print out my hunting licenses and they were for the 18th through the 22nd instead!

Not sure if I have mentioned it or not, but I made a mistake applying for my New Mexico licenses this year and ended up drawing 2 different hunts the same season in 2 different units.  They were both my 3rd choice options and I just didn’t look over everything as carefully as I should have and ended up drawing both tags for the same season.  This wouldn’t be as bad in most states, but New Mexico’s hunting seasons are very short (5 days for deer and elk) so this was going to be tough to do either tag justice.  In addition the deer hunt was a muzzleloader tag (my first ever) so I needed to bring everything I would need for that as well.

To make everything even better I had a last second work trip that I had to make on the 17th to San Antonio so this was going to be a madhouse getting things turned around and headed out.  My friend Angel was going with me for his first ever elk hunting experience.  He didn’t have a tag, but really wanted to go just to be out in the mountains and kind of get a feel for what elk hunting was like.

Finally we got loaded up and were headed out a little late, but since I had hunted the unit the previous year I felt like I had a good idea of where I wanted to be opening morning and hopefully it wouldn’t make much of a difference.  It was about a 7 hour drive from my house to where we were staying and we ended up getting there in time to get settled in and get to bed at a pretty decent time.  Last year I had planned on staying in my tent, but ended up staying at a cheap hotel for several nights instead so this year that was the plan from the start.  The hotel was only about a 10 minute drive from the trail head where I had stumbled on a nice herd of elk last year so I didn’t really see the need to mess with camping out if we didn’t have too.  We brought our camping gear though so we would have it if we needed to switch spots.  

One little note here, I didn’t do a very good job of taking pictures on these hunts.  Part of that is that these are some of the easier to draw tags in New Mexico and I don’t really want to give away too much information on exactly where these spots are.  The other part of that is that I guess my picture taking finger must have been sore from taking so many pictures on my Wyoming mountain goat and elk hunts.  Either way, I don’t have near as many pictures of these hunts to share as I normally would.

Day 1.

We started early, I wanted to get to a spot I had marked on my GPS from last year an hour or so before shooting light so we would give everything plenty of time to get settled down after we hiked in.  We made the hike in pretty uneventfully and got setup in the dark just in time for it to start raining.  Not a hard rain, but enough that we were getting our rain gear out.

We sat there in the rain for a while and I had high hopes as it started to get light.  This was the area that I had been in elk so thick last year that it was actually a problem because there were too many elk and it was hard to avoid detection.  Last year they were also very vocal and that was really neat too.  Not so much this year.  We sat for about an hour after shooting light and I threw out a few bugles and cow calls but nothing responded.  After about 30 more minutes of that my high hopes weren’t so high any more.  My honey hole from last year was not this year.

Here's a picture of what we were looking at that first morning.

The rain had pretty much stopped as we gathered our gear up and decided to scout up along the ridge we were on.  We moved slowly and tried to be quiet, but Angel’s rain gear was pretty loud.  We kept at it moving a ways and then I would cow call or bugle, moving slowly and trying to hear something.  This area is pretty thick and not the kind of spot where you can glass out in front of you or anything.  Generally you have 50 – 100 yards for you maximum visibility in the trees.

We’d moved up the ridge about ¾ of a mile from the original spot and I was getting pretty dejected.  This wasn’t turning out at all like I had expected.  About that time I threw out a cow call and bam, a bull bugled back about ¼ mile ahead of us!  It is amazing how quickly things can turn when you see or hear a bull with a tag in your pocket.  It was Angel’s first time to hear a bull bugle in the wild and that was pretty neat.  We started moving toward him trying to stay off the ridgeline and being as quiet as possible.  Angel dropped back a bit since his rain gear was making so much noise.

The bull bugled on his own a couple times and then got quiet so I cow called back and he responded right away.  We were closing in on him and the wind seemed to be good and this was looking like a great opportunity.  The unit I was hunting is not a trophy unit so a legal bull was all I was looking for and this guy sure sounded like he would qualify.
We kept closing the distance and I quit calling so he couldn’t pinpoint me and thought I was getting really close.  I setup in a little ravine that I thought he was in and waited a bit hoping he would talk again but he had gotten quiet.  I cow called a couple times and he didn’t respond.  About that time I hear some branches breaking down in the bottom of the ravine about 100 yards away, but it was so thick I couldn’t see anything.  I cow called again and then I heard him busting out of there.  I never did see him but evidently he saw or smelled us and the gig was up.

The spot I was hunting was right on the edge of some private property and I was afraid if we went after him that we might push him onto private for the duration so we just backed out and moved on around the ridge.  It was pretty exciting for me and Angel thought it was really cool being that close to a bugling bull.  We were so close to making it happen but that’s just the way it goes sometimes.

We kept moving up to the top of the ridge calling occasionally but not getting any responses.  We were seeing some sign, but nothing like I had seen the year before and nothing was really that fresh.  We sat around a while up on top and ate some lunch but didn’t really see any reason for sticking around.  

Here's the view from where we were eating lunch.

The year before I had stumbled on this spot and was surprised to find that there was a legal ATV trail down in the bottom of the canyon.  Even more surprising was that I never saw anyone using it.  I was prepared this time and we had hauled a couple ATV’s in and were going to use them.  We hiked back down to the trailhead and unloaded the ATV’s and headed up the canyon a little after lunch.

What seemed like a great trail when I had hiked it the previous year didn’t seem quite so great trying to ride the ATV’s up it.  Lot’s of big rocks and fallen trees and not much trail maintenance.  The little trail maintenance that had been done seemed to be by someone who liked motorcycles but not ATV’s because they would saw about a 24” gap out of the fallen logs which was perfect to get a motorcycle through but didn’t work at all for an ATV.  We kept after it though, it was better than walking, but not by a lot.  It was pretty rough on the ATV’s though.

We got about 2 miles up the trail and ran into 2 hunters sitting in a clearing.  We were surprised to see them as we were the only ones parked at the trailhead and I didn’t know of any other way to get in here without going a long way around.  Turns out there is a road that goes up on one of the ridges and they were able to drop in off that road and were only about ½ mile in from where they had started.  We chatted a while but they weren’t exactly thrilled to see us running ATV’s up the trail and decided they would held back up a side canyon and we went ahead and kept going up the main canyon.

We got another ½ mile up the trail or so and ran into 2 more hunters walking down the trail.  These guys were obviously locals and weren’t even carrying a backpack or anything.  They seemed very unprepared, no rain gear, I’m assuming they had a knife and a gun and that was about it.  They weren’t even carrying a water bottle or anything.  We talked to them a while and they didn’t really seem to even know where they were, but didn’t seem too concerned about it.  We later figured out that they did know where they were but they were looking for a trail that didn’t show up on the map and actually ran down into the clearing where the first 2 hunters had been.

We kept going up the trail and it didn’t get any easier on the ATV’s.  Up and over logs, around logs, over big rocks, etc.  Not exactly fun.  About ½ mile farther and we decided to give up on the ATV trail.  We had crossed over or around at least a dozen fallen trees and a couple pretty bad spots with some big rocks.  None of it was really scary as we were running the bottom of the canyon, but it was rough on the machines and rough on us.

We decided to go ahead and head up a side ridge in an area that looked pretty good and see what we could turn up.  It looked like a really good spot, but we hung around until right about sunset and didn’t see or hear anything.  We headed back and got on the ATV’s and headed back toward the trailhead and got back to the clearing right at the end of shooting light but didn’t see or hear anything there either.  I did some calling there and a few more times in the dark thinking that something might respond but nothing ever did. 
The ride back down was just as rough as the ride up was but even more fun now that it was dark.  Somehow I had knocked one of the skid plates off the a-arm of ATV I was riding so I kept looking for it as we went back over logs and rocks but never did find it.  It really wasn’t that bad riding in the dark, the headlights do a pretty good job and again, we were riding in the bottom of the canyon so it wasn’t really that scary like it would have been if we had been up on the edge of the mountain or something.

We got back to the trailhead about an hour after dark, loaded up the ATV’s and were back at the hotel pretty early.  I was disappointed that the original spot that I had picked out had been a bust, but we did have a good opportunity on the one bull although it didn’t pan out but at least we had an opportunity.

Totals for the day were 5.56 miles and 1,540’ elevation gain on foot per the GPS and 6 miles on the ATV’s.  A quick supper and we had the alarm set for 4:45 the next morning, ready to go.

Day 2. 

We discovered that one big drawback to staying at a hotel is that there are other people that stay there that don’t get up and get going at 4:45 in the morning.  The people in the room next to us had been having a great time and were not very quiet about it.  It was very tempting to make a lot of noise while we were getting ready to go that morning, but we didn’t.

We decided to start out at the same trailhead that we had the day before, but hunt the other side of the canyon since we hadn’t seen much sign on the side we had hunted the first day.  First we sat on a heavily used game trail thinking we might be able to ambush something coming up it, but that plan didn’t work and with nothing talking we decided we would just put some miles on the boots and see what we could see.  
We hiked up to the top of the ridge on that side and pretty much side hilled the rest of the day.  We saw some decent sign and busted a lone cow out in front of us about 50 yards away early in the morning, but that was pretty much it.  

Here's a view from the top of the ridge we started out on.

Saw a lot of pretty country and some good rubs that were fresh this year, but no super fresh sign.  Again, it was pretty thick and at most you were able to see about 100 yards in front of you.  The rain was holding off and we were moving pretty slowly and trying to be quiet, but we were at a big disadvantage to be the ones moving while any wildlife were more than likely bedded down in a prime location.  I cow called periodically as we were moving through and bugled a couple times but nothing ever responded.  We busted a couple other animals that we never got a look at, but I’m pretty sure they were deer based on the sound they made when they were running off.

Saw several spots that really looked great, a few wallows and lots of rubs, but nothing super fresh.  We ended up all the way up where we had ridden the ATV’s the day before and sat a few spots where we actually could see farther than 100 yards but again, no luck.  Somewhere in here Angel found a nice chalky white mule deer shed, but I never did get a picture of it.

Here’s some pictures of some of the rubs.

Not sure why I took this picture, but it is about as open as it got for the area we were hunting.

There were several areas with lots of Aspens like this that had already lost their leaves.

We started to head back and the rain came hard this time.  Since his rain gear was so loud the day before, Angel decided he would just wear his rain jacket and not his pants so I did the same.  It was a mistake.  The rain got even harder and what I was thinking would be a 10 or 15 minute rain shower ended up going on for over an hour.  It was raining so hard you couldn’t have heard a freight train 100 yards away so it wouldn’t have mattered how loud Angels rain pants were this time.  Of course instead of being smart and putting them on, we kept thinking that the rain would let up but it went on and on.
It finally quit raining right about sunset but by then we were both pretty well soaked.  The rain would run down between our packs and our rain jackets and run right down the back of our pants.  The rain that started out on our legs ended up running down into our boots and so our feet were wet as well.  No idea why we were so stupid to not put our rain pants on when we had them in our pack but we didn’t.

The hike back down the trail wasn’t bad and we were back at the trailhead about 30 minutes after dark.  Pretty long day with 9.62 miles and 2,195’ elevation gain logged per the GPS.  Pretty dejected as we headed back to the hotel.

When we got back to the hotel we discovered that the Eberlestock backpack that Angel was using wasn’t very waterproof.  The guy he was borrowing it from had a rain cover, but we had left that back at home and probably would have been too stupid to put it on even if we did have it.  Everything in his pack was soaked, he actually even ended up pouring some water out of the bottom of the pack when he was unloading things to try to get them to dry out.  Our boots were soaked as well so we tried to hang everything around the hotel room in good spots to let them dry out.  My Stone Glacier backpack didn’t seem to leak even in the pretty hard rain.  Some water did get into one pocket that I didn’t have zipped all the way but everything else actually stayed dry.  Pretty impressed with that.

Day 3.  

Thankfully the next door neighbors from the night before were gone and we both got some pretty good sleep that night.  We had discussed our options on where to go and decided to try out the original spot that we were at the first day one more time and maybe go up the ridge again where we had the chance at the bull on the first day.  

We got in there in the dark and were setup where we wanted to be in plenty of time.  It was a perfect morning and I was really hoping that today would be the day.  Again, sunrise came and went without any signs or sounds of elk though.  

I think this is my favorite picture of the trip.

I cow called and bugled a few times and we both thought we heard a cow call back once, but we weren’t ever able to get a fix on exactly where she was and we never did see her. 

This was my view when we her the cow call just down on the other side of this small opening.

We ended up hiking back up around where we had been on the bull on day 1, but didn’t ever get a response to a call or see anything.  We hiked back down into the main canyon and then across to the area we had been the day before that looked the most promising, but never did see or hear anything.  A few more calls and some more silence and we decided we should probably try and check out a different spot.  Ended up back at the truck about 12:30 with 6.23 miles and 1,410’ of elevation gain on our boots that morning.

I was racking my brain trying to figure out why I had been into elk in that area so well the year before and now just wasn’t seeing anything.  It actually wasn’t too hard to figure out, I had started out the year before up high and the snow was too deep and I wasn’t seeing any tracks and that is why I went low in the first place.  This year there wasn’t any snow up high and more than likely the elk were still probably up high so it looked like we were going to have to go up high if we were going to get into them.

I had looked at a few other ATV trails on the map and one of them looked like it would get us up pretty high so we headed to the trailhead, unloaded the ATV’s and headed up the trail.  We made it a whopping ¼ mile before we realized that this was another one that was intended for motorcycles, not ATV’s.  There was a huge rock in the trail that there was no way we were going to get around on the ATV’s so back we went and loaded the ATV’s back up on the trailer where they ended up staying for the duration of the trip.

We moved over to a different trailhead where I had started out last year and had a few spots marked on my GPS and headed up that trail on foot.  We got to a spot that I had marked on the GPS from last year but it really wasn’t that great of a spot and after a little bit we started moving a bit and looking for a better spot.  We ended up sitting a small clearing with a good view of some oak brush as the sun went down which seemed like a good spot, but again, we didn’t see or hear anything.  A few calls by me with no response and we headed back to the truck in the dark. 

This is the clearing that we were setup on that evening.  I just knew some elk would feed out into that oak brush, but they never did.

Only 2.61 miles and 929’ on the GPS for the evening, for a total of 8.84 miles and 2,339’ of elevation gained for the day.  This was the first day that we didn’t see or hear an elk the entire day.  

Day 4.  Morning. 

We had spent some time looking over maps the night before in the hotel and decided that we needed to move up high if we were going to have any chance of getting into elk.  We were also going to need to switch move to the unit that I had a deer tag in if we were going to have any chance of getting a mule deer, so we were packed up and checked out and heading down the road about an hour before shooting light. 

We drove a little farther this time and started out on a trailhead that I had never been down before.  This trail was off limits to ATV’s, but it was obvious that it had seen WAY more maintenance than the ones we had been on  previously.  There was a large parking area, but when we started off in the dark ours was the only vehicle in the parking lot.  Quite a difference from the trailhead back in Wyoming where the trucks and trailers were parked back along the road because all the parking spots were full.

We started out at over 10,000’ elevation and were hoping that this was going to get us up high enough to be in elk that day.  We found a spot where there was a heavily used game path that crossed the trail and decided to sit there and see if something would be moving at shooting light.  No such luck.  A few calls and a little more time spent sitting and we decided to do the moving.  

We found several more spots that had some decent sign and looked really promising, but again it was really too thick to do any glassing and nothing was responding to any calls. 

Here's a couple pictures of the area we were checking out.

We hiked around for a while, called some more and after a few hours decided that it was time to switch to deer.  We met 2 deer hunters on our way out but they hadn’t seen anything either.  We heard some guys on horses heading down the main trail as we came up a side trail going back to the trailhead but that was about it.  Overall this spot looked better than where we had been the previous several days, but we decided that we would probably have a better chance at getting a mule deer in the other unit if we at least had 1 ½ days to hunt there so we headed back to the truck and headed out.

Total mileage that morning was 5.20 with 855’ of elevation gain.  All of those miles were above 10,000’ but we never did get up high enough to be into any snow so we may have still been too low.

End result was a lot of miles and some pretty country but only 1 cow elk seen and 1 bull that talked back to us for a little while.  Essentially a swing and a miss for elk.  Hopefully we would have better luck at deer!

Day 4 – Evening - Deer.  

It was about a 4 ½ hour drive to get over to the unit that I had my deer tag in.  This was an area that I had hunted 3 times before and I had shot a deer each time I had hunted there.  Those were all rifle hunts and I was hunting with a muzzleloader this time, but 2 of the 3 deer that I had shot with the rifle in the past were under 100 yard shots so I was feeling pretty good about this hunt.

We got to where we wanted to park and shuffled some things around to be setup for muzzleloading and headed off a hour or so before sunset.   Not a lot of pretty scenery here, just some sand hills with some crop circles that keep the deer around.  We headed out with a pretty strong breeze at our backs so I tried to plan a big circle around to where we would be headed back into the wind closer to dark when the deer should be out and moving.  

We made some pretty good time and covered some ground, saw about a dozen deer, but they were all does.  Several of the deer that we saw were well within shooting range of the muzzleloader, but some were acting pretty skittish.  The season had been going for 3 ½ days so I wasn’t sure what kind of pressure there had been so far.  In the past I hadn’t seen a lot of pressure in this particular spot, but I thought I might have seen some boot tracks in the sand a few times.  The sand burrs were really bad this year and the flies were terrible as well.  I normally hunt this unit in the rifle hunt in early November and I guess there is usually some hard freezes by then because I don’t remember the flies being so bad but they were terrible.   

Ended up with 3.97 miles and 416’ elevation gain on the GPS for the evening.  Hiking in the sand hills isn’t the same and hiking up the side of a mountain, but it’s not like walking down a nice trail either.  The weeds seemed worse than normal this year and it was plenty of work going up and down the hills.

Day 5.  

We spent the night in tents that night and were ready to go the next morning before shooting light.  We got going early and did some zig sagging through the sand hills to keep  the wind right and keep from walking straight into the rising sun.  We were seeing plenty of deer, but almost all of them were does and the few bucks we were seeing were pretty small.  We jumped a few deer up at very short ranges (like 25 yards) and had others spooking and running off 700 – 800 yards before we got to them.  Probably the majority of them were spooked up at close range though.  

This is the kind of terrain we were hiking in.

There were some spots that were more just like rolling prairie like this.

Saw a couple legal bucks but they were way smaller than I was wanting to shoot.  Saw one decent buck, a 3 x 4 that I was tempted to shoot, we dogged him for a while and I could have shot him, but he was probably just a 2 ½ year old deer and again not what I was looking for although Angel said he would have been more than happy to shoot him if he had the tag.

I think it was pretty educational for Angel to see the quantity of deer that we were seeing and I tried to work with him to help him learn how to spot them better.  He has good eyesight, but had a terrible time seeing them with the naked eye.  Even with the binoculars he was having trouble.  I earned a free dinner by betting him that there was a deer in a patch of brush about 100 yards away after I have him about 10 minutes to look it over with the binoculars.  He was positive that there was not a deer in there.  After making the bet we walked toward the brush and not 1, but 4 deer popped up out of the patch of brush and took off.  He was pretty impressed that I had seen them because even when I described exactly where they were he couldn’t see them with the binoculars.  I told him to start looking for parts of deer (eye, ear, tail flick) instead of looking for the entire deer and that seemed to help him some, but spotting deer is for sure a learned skill
We covered some serious ground that day and the grass burrs were terrible.  We had a quick rain storm blow through and we spent more time picking grass burrs off our pants before putting our rain gear on and then picking grass burrs off our rain gear before taking it off than we did actually wearing the rain gear.  I’m not going to go back there without wearing gaiters to keep the sand burrs off my pant legs and am also going to look into some type of spray to keep the flies off, they were terrible as well as there are several dairies in the vicinity and the main fertilizer for the crop circles comes from the dairies as well.

I did find this old skull, but it was so far gone I just left it where I found it.  It’s against the law to collect a dead head in New Mexico anyway.

We ended up back at the truck late that afternoon and I had a spot that I wanted to try for the evening.  We got over to a set of crop circles and setup hoping to catch something coming in before shooting light was gone.  We were sitting there covered in flies and actually spotted a decent buck bedded in the crop circle.  When he was laying down you couldn’t see him at all, but he had stood up for a couple minutes and moved around when I spotted him.  We decided to go after him and made a quick plan of attack and headed down the crop circle.  We headed around walking down the wheel tracks of the center pivot, but we were making quite a bit of noise and we weren’t being too stealthy and about 300 – 400 yards before we got to where he was he busted out of there.  Not a shot I was going to attempt with a muzzleloader.

We headed back up on a last ditch effort to see if anything would still get to the circle before shooting light was over and right as it got too dark a decent buck started coming in with several does.  He wasn’t a whopper by any means, but if it had been a little bit lighter I would have been tempted to shoot him.  As it was I never could really even tell exactly what he was and shooting light slipped away before I really had any kind of a shot at him.

We walked back to the truck empty handed.  Ended up with 13.98 miles logged on the GPS with 1,264’ of elevation gain for the day.  We saw at least 40 different deer and 5 or 6 different bucks that day but no whoppers.  The buck in the crop circle would have been about a 160” buck or so.

Total mileage logged on our boots for the 5 days that we hunted was 47.17 miles and 8,609’ elevation gain. 

I mentioned to Angel that this was not a good hunt to measure what elk hunting or mule deer hunting was like as this turned out to be about the least successful elk hunt of my life.  For sure the least successful as an adult.  I’d been on 11 other elk hunts in the last 6 years and in every other one at least someone had a shot opportunity at an elk with 9 out of the 11 hunts someone in the group did end up with an elk on the ground.  It made me realize that I’ve been on some pretty successful elk hunts over the last several years!

It was a whirlwind trip and we hunted hard but ended up with nothing to show for it but memories.  You can’t win them all.

That’s it for now.  Nathan

Thursday, December 11, 2014

2014 Wyoming Elk Hunt - Part 2

So back to the story.  I mentioned it a little bit in my first post, but after an adventurous pack in and getting camp setup, my friend Mike wasn’t feeling too good and skipped out on our scouting trip that evening.  He wasn’t feeling much better that evening but we were hoping that a good nights rest would be the cure and we were all looking forward to opening day the next morning.  Instead of getting better he woke up several times during the night and was getting worse and worse.  We ended up deciding that he had gotten dehydrated and now more than likely had altitude sickness.  The only cure for altitude sickness is to drop down in altitude and that was looking like our only option.  After discussing our options, we decided that Zeke would ride out with Mike to the trailhead in the morning and take Mike back into town where someone would meet up with them and take Mike home.  

The drawback to this plan was that we were in a designated wilderness area and in Wyoming a non-resident can’t hunt in a wilderness area without a resident guide or an outfitter.  With Mike and Zeke both leaving camp for the day that meant that I was going to be stuck in camp and couldn’t hunt opening day.  To make matters worse we had a light snow overnight and it would have been perfect weather to be out hunting.  As I mentioned, it turned out to be a very unexpected start for the opening day of elk season.  Stuck in camp by myself the entire day.  At least it was pretty out with the new snow!

Mike was not any better that morning, but really the only option was to get him back down in elevation and the only way to do that was for him to ride out.  Riding 12 miles with a splitting headache wasn’t sounding very good to him, but it was going to have to happen.  After a quick breakfast they were on their way.

The 4 horses that were staying with me in camp watching the other 2 go.  I thought this was a neat picture in the snow.

After they left I had the rest of the day ahead of me with pretty much nothing to do except sit around camp.  The thought went through my head about what I would do if a nice bull elk showed up right behind camp, but I didn’t end up having to worry about that.

It continued to snow pretty good for a while that morning and I actually had to knock the snow off the tent a few times.  It only snowed a couple inches, but at the time I wasn’t sure how long it was going to snow so I was trying to keep it from building up to much.

One thing that was a surprise to me was how hard it was to get a fire going.  With the rain and now snow it had been wet for over a week and the wood was very wet to the core.  Even before the snow the grass wouldn’t even catch on fire.  In the past I have always just used a lighter and or a match and some paper and that was enough to get a fire started, but if my friend wouldn’t have had some fire starting gel I’m not sure we would have ever got a fire started.  Even with the gel, you had to baby sit the fire really closely for a long time putting tiny sticks on it to get it going enough to where it would dry the next size up piece of wood out enough to actually allow it to burn when you got to it.  At least that kept me busy for a while.  I gathered up a bunch of wood and tried to rotate it around the fire once I got it going pretty good to try to get some of it dried out.

Hanging around camp was pretty uneventful overall.  The night before we had caught a glimpse of a moose moving through the timber behind camp, and that morning I heard what I’m pretty sure was a bull moose calling along the river periodically.  Almost sounded like a dog howling, but it was too repetitive to be that.  It went on for over an hour off and on.

Lunch came and went, I started typing up notes to my story on my cell phone but that was kind of a drag, I’m not the best thumb typist, but I was pretty much out of anything else to do. It had turned into a really nice day and the snow had pretty much all melted off.  Zeke was going to be coming back that night, but with 24 miles on horseback and a couple hours of driving ahead of him it was more than likely going to be after dark before he got back. 

We had discussed what to do with the horses and the decision had been that it was probably best to just keep them tethered to the trees all day and Zeke would take care of them when he got back.  I just wasn’t super comfortable taking care of them and really didn’t know what to do with them anyway.  I was sitting around the fire typing on my phone when a horse walks by feeding with it’s tether rope dragging along behind it.  OH!  Now what do I do?  

The horse was really calm and I walked up to it and grabbed the rope no problem.  I kind of just let him walk along feeding while I held the rope.  This didn’t seem too bad.  I went over to another horse that was still tied up and looked at the knot that it was tied to the tree with and took a picture of it with my phone and thought that I would just go tie the horse back up.  Then I thought that if I could tie one horse back up, why not let another loose and let them eat for a while.  

I remembered Zeke mentioning that the horses would tend to stick close to the dominant animal and the horse that I was riding (Salty) was one of the dominant horses so I left her tied up and turned the other 3 loose.  They did really well, hanging out maybe 50 yards from camp and moving around nice and slowly just eating.  I started feeling guilty that Salty wasn’t getting to eat so I untied her, but I kept a hold of her lead rope the entire time, I was too scared to let her go. 

I let them all eat for close to an hour and probably would have let them eat longer, but the 3 horses that were turned completely loose had started to wander away from camp.  I walked after them, but that just made them move farther away.  I started to get pretty nervous as they feed back into the trees behind camp and I went back and tied Salty up by looking at the picture I had taken of the knot on my phone and went after the loose horses.  

Again, as I got close to them they moved farther off, away from camp so I ended up circling way around and cut them off.  I worked toward them nice and slow and thankfully was able to grab the lead rope on 2 of them and the younger one just followed behind as I led them back to camp.  I went ahead and led them down to the river to drink while I had them loose, but none of them drank very much.

When it came time to get them all tied back up I was VERY thankful to have the picture of the knot on my phone.  It’s probably a knot most folks can tie in their sleep, but even though I was a boy scout I only have a few knots that I can tie on a regular basis.  I learned a lot of knots throughout my life, but I just seem to forget them about as fast as I learn them.  Anyway I got all 4 horses tied back up and for some reason felt like I had really accomplished something.  I got pretty worried when the 3 started to move back into the trees, but when it was all said and done I got it worked out and at least Zeke wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of them when he got back after dark.  I still have a picture of the knot on my phone.

Some more hanging around camp and it was starting to get close to dark.  I had been doing what I could from camp and glassed around a bit and about sunset a big string of elk moved across the river and up the other side in a long row.  I counted over 50, but would guess there were somewhere between 75 and 100 of them.  They were over a mile away and a couple of the bulls were big enough I could see their antlers through my binoculars pretty well.  The only problem was that #1, I was in a designated wilderness area without a resident guide, and #2, they had just crossed from the unit I had a tag for into a unit that I did not have a tag for.  I was at least nice to see some elk though as they were the first elk I had seen since leaving the trailhead 2 days earlier.

I watched the herd of elk as they moved deeper into the other hunting unit and out of sight as it got dark.  I got some water filtered and figured I would try to have everything ready to go with a hot supper for when Zeke got back.  One thing about having horses in camp is that they are a pretty good indicator for when anyone is coming into camp.  Especially when it is one of the horses that they know.  Sure enough, long before I could see or hear anything they started neighing as Zeke got probably ½ mile away on his way back.  Enough time for me to get the water boiling and have some Mountain House ready to go when he got into camp.

Thankfully his trip in and out had been long, but uneventful and Mike was back home still trying to get rid of the headache.  He was going to give it one more day and if it didn’t go away he was going to go to the Dr.  Zeke messed with the two horses and was very thankful that I was able to take care of the other four while he was gone.  We talked hunting strategy for the next morning and decided that since we really didn’t have a go to spot we would just leave camp a little before shooting light on horses and see where the day took us.  That would let Zeke get a little extra rest anyway.  

It was for sure the weirdest opening day of hunting season of my lifetime.  Kind of surreal just sitting around camp by yourself all day.  

Day 2 of hunting season started off much better as we had both gotten a good nights sleep and we were finally ready to actually hunt some elk.  The only problem is that other than where the big herd had crossed over into the other unit, we really didn’t have a clue where the elk were going to be.

We had looked over the topographical map the night before and scoped out a trail that we wanted to check up a couple miles back down the river.  On the ride over we were both surprised when we spooked up a couple of antelope!  This wasn’t what I would think of as antelope country, but there was some big open areas and lots of grass so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.  

Zeke had switched over to riding a different horse to get the horses that had done the 24 mile roundtrip a break and my horse had just hung around camp all day the day before like me so we felt pretty good about that part of things.  The first couple miles were easy along the river, but then we crossed over and started up some switchbacks that were pretty steep and my horse really started struggling going up them.  I weigh 205 pounds dripping wet and with all my gear, rifle, backpack and the saddle, she probably had close to 250lbs on her back so I don’t blame her.  Zeke’s horse was doing fine and he was getting a bit ahead of me when my horse pretty much decided that she was done and stepped off the trail for a bit.  The problem with that was that the switchbacks were there for a reason and stepping off the trail meant that you were now on some seriously steep stuff.  She stumbled a bit and I got out of the saddle as quickly as I could (you might could read that as I fell, but I really didn’t think I fell, but I did end up on my butt with one foot still stuck in the stirrup.)  After a little bit of excitement I was loose and standing there next to the horse.  We were both breathing pretty heavy, her from exertion and me from excitement.  

We both caught our breath and Zeke decided it might be best to lead her up the last part of the steep trail.  Just walking ahead of her I started breathing heavy so I can imagine how much it must have sucked for her to be hauling us both up the trail.  Zeke said that she was a bit out of shape, but that there just wasn’t any spots along the trail to really stop and let her catch her breath so he had just kept going up in front of us.  I’m sure my inexperience as a rider didn’t help although I was trying to lean forward as much as possible to help keep things balanced.  We all caught our breath and relaxed a little at the top of the switchbacks and then decided to continue on.

We rode right by several mule deer does that seemed more curious than afraid and didn’t even run off although they were only 50 or 60 yards away sometimes.  The trail was now on somewhat of a shelf and not near as steep so the horses were having a much better time of things.  Things started looking a little more elky and the trail started to get steeper again so we decided to leave the horses and continue up the trail on foot.  

Again, this is where being totally new to the area was going to cost us a little.  We could see that there had been horses on the trail ahead of us, but we didn’t know what the trail was like.  With it starting to get steeper we didn’t want to have to deal with another episode like we did back on the switchbacks so felt that on foot was the best option.  ½ mile up the trail we walk right into some folks camp.  With several horses, big wall tents, etc.  The trail hadn’t gotten any steeper, it actually had flattened back out and by far the worst spot was the switchbacks right at the start.  Obviously we could still be on the horses but at the time we left them we didn’t know that.

There was a hunter in camp that had tagged out on opening day and we chatted with him for a little bit.  They had a couple other hunters up ahead of us and knew of a couple others that were in the same drainage we were headed up as well.  Not exactly what we were expecting, but we were pretty much committed to this spot for at least this morning.  We had spent about 1 ½ hours getting to where they were camped.  They had a pretty good advantage on us there.

The spot still looked really good and we kept looking as we hiked on up the trail.  We left the trail and hiked up a ridge about ½ mile further in and spooked up 4 mule deer bucks, one of them that was a really nice one.  When I had researched this unit, I debated on applying for the deer tag for this unit so I could have both a deer tag and an elk tag in my pocket but couldn’t get much feedback on the deer hunting.  Just not many deer and not many tags issued so not many people who have hunted it.  I could have probably drawn the tag in the special draw, but applied in the regular draw to save a couple hundred bucks and ended up not drawing it in the regular draw.  I was pretty much regretting that choice now after watching a for sure shooter buck running off about 400 yards away.

We got up to the top of the ridge and although we weren’t rewarded with seeing any elk, we were rewarded with a very nice view.

This is looking back down the river where we had come from the trailhead.  It’s hard to see the perspective here, but when you are traveling along the river those cliffs are 150 – 200 feet tall on both sides of the river.  

It is some big country.

We climbed up over the ridge and were treated to another beautiful view.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we would end up focusing pretty much all of our hunting in the bowl that you see in the middle of the panoramic picture above.  The other hunters seemed to be more interested in catching the elk out in the open and doing more of a traditional spot and stalk approach.  That’s what I was expecting at the start of the hunt, but after being in the area for 2 days and still not seeing an elk we decided that maybe we needed to get in there and go after them.

We hiked around the edge of the bowl to the left side in the picture above and did some glassing on our own.  The wind was blowing pretty good and although it wasn’t really that cold, the wind didn’t make it a very pleasant day.  We tried to get behind some rocks and out of the wind, but that wasn’t always possible in the open area along the top.  After the 2nd glassing stop I was wearing 100% of the clothes I had in my pack including my rain gear which actually did a pretty good job of blocking the wind, but after sitting for a while I was still shivering pretty bad.

We moved again and concentrated on the timbered area and Zeke calls out that he spotted an elk.  I didn’t believe him.  We had been pretty much looking over the same patch of timber for a couple hours now from a few different angles and there weren’t any elk in there.  He starts describing where to look and sure enough I see a cow elk down in the timber.  Then Zeke says he sees a bull in there too but he can’t tell much about him other than it is a bull.  We spend the next 20 or 30 minutes looking, but they are almost impossible to see even though we are only 400 yards away.
We moved spots again and were about 300 yards away and still struggling to see them in the timber.  It’s pretty thick and every once in a while we can catch a glimpse of an antler but that’s about it on the bull.  We do see a few cows and a spike moving around a bit, but the bull seems to be bedded down in about the thickest patch of timber on the entire mountain.  Zeke thinks he is a shooter but not 100%.  Both of us have just caught glimpses of pieces of antler, but that’s it.

We decided to go ahead and bugle to see if we can get a response and sure enough he answers right back.  I can’t remember if we were cow calling or bugling or both, but we had a pretty decent conversation going with him but he still wouldn’t move.  Zeke decided to back out and go down a little farther while I sat on him and we got a little 3 way action going on the conversation but I still never could get a good look at the bull.  After a little bit the conversation stopped and we couldn’t get a response from the bull anymore.

After a bit Zeke came back up and we talked it over and decided to just go after the bull.  We dropped down and headed into the timber and go a good look at where he was bedded, but that was about it.  Lots of elk sign, but they had cleared out at some point and it was so thick that I never saw them go.

At this point we were about 2 ½ miles from the horses and the horses were about 3 miles from camp so we started thinking about when we needed to start heading back.  We were pretty much standing in the only timber in the bowl and the elk were gone so we decided we might as well start heading back that way.

The ridge that we were walking around the bowl was right around 10,000’ and the wind had picked up some more.  The snow was blowing and it was getting a bit hard to see especially along the ridgeline.  Some side hilling and some more elevation gain and we were on a ridge trail headed back when Zeke about steps on a young bighorn ram that ends up running by about 20 yards away.  I tried to get a picture of him, but by the time I got my gloves off and phone out he was too far away for it to be a decent picture.

That’s when it kind of sunk in to me that kind of country we were hunting in.  This isn’t elk country, it’s bighorn sheep country!  But we had finally seen some elk in our unit and one of them seemed to be a shooter bull so I guess it was elk country after all.

We made it back around and were headed back down a little earlier than we had planned, but the weather up top was pretty miserable anyway.  The other hunters that had been up there glassing had given it up a long time ago.  I thought this was a good picture of Zeke headed back down.

Anyway.  We headed back down and stopped in and chatted with the guys that had the camp that we had passed through.  We chatted for a bit and mentioned where we were camped and that we had seen the elk in the timber and we were probably going to come up again the next day but see if we could hike in from the bottom instead of riding all the way around on horses and if they were going to hunt the top that might work out pretty well for everyone.  They said that’s what they planned on doing and that sounded like a plan to me.

They were really nice guys like most all hunters are and one of their group had actually shot a nice bighorn the week before up there.  They did mention that they weren’t seeing near as many elk as they normally see, but they had seen a few and the one that they first guy we met shot was a neat looking bull.  Almost looked like a stag with crowns on the backend.  It was a 7 X 7 and not huge, but really neat looking.

We made our way back to the horses and went ahead and lead them down the steepest part of the trail down to the river and then rode back to camp.  We actually ended up timing it just about right as it was getting pretty dark as we went through the willows around the river and I wouldn’t have wanted to do that when it was all the way dark.  We got back on the trail and rode back to camp in the dark. 

It had been a pretty good day overall.  We were actually into some elk and thought we at least had a line on a shooter bull.  I usually do a good job of keeping track of my mileage with my GPS, but with the horseback riding and the hiking I was having a little bit of a hard time keeping it all sorted out.  I ended up just letting my trip meter run the entire week and tried to keep track of what was on foot and what was on horseback.  Instead of knowing the exact mileage and elevation gain each day I just have rough totals.  The rough totals do add up to what the GPS tracked for the entire week though so I’m not fluffing the numbers.  Doing the math and backing into it, we ended the day with 13 miles traveled, 7 of those on horseback and 6 of that on foot.  On foot we ended up with 2,600’ of elevation gain conservatively and topped out at 10,800’.  We left camp on horses in the dark and got back to camp on horses in the dark.  Not quite the same as the day before when I sat around camp the entire day.

Back at camp we were kind of getting into a routine.  I was the waterboy and the cook and Zeke took care of the horses.  I ended up getting sand in my filter and it was getting really hard to pump to filter water so that part was taking me a lot longer than it should have.  I was filling up every container we had in camp when I was filtering so it was ending up being a 20 to 30 minute chore each time especially with my pump not working as well as it should.  I was still ending up done with my chores and having supper cooked before Zeke was done with the horses though so I was still getting the better end of the stick on that.

After a quick supper we looked back over the topo map and my GPS and made our plans for the next day.  We were going to head out on foot from camp and go up the drainage where the waterfalls were.  We had checked it out a couple times and looked it over from the top and were pretty sure it would be doable.  Not fun, but doable.   We weren’t really pumped about trying it in the dark though we were going to plan on just heading out of camp a little before shooting light again.  This time without having to mess with horses we could actually sleep in a little.   We set the alarm for 5:30 and it didn’t take much before we were both asleep.

Day 3.

Another mountain house breakfast and we were headed out in the dark.  We found another old camp with a meat pole, corrals, hitching rails and the works right next to the creek that we were going to be working our way up.  This area for sure has had plenty of folks putting in camps at one time.  

We were able to find a decent game trail that did some switchbacks up the steepest part of the base of the hill and then once we got up on the ridgeline it was fairly easy going.  Easy going as in, we weren’t having to use our hands to climb with, but the kind of climb that took some stopping and catching your breath every few minutes.  We were gaining some serious elevation though.   

Here’s a shot looking back at camp.  The white spot right in the middle of the picture is our tent.

We kept climbing and got into a little rougher area along the ridge line where we did have to do some climbing.  Nothing terrible, but we both made the comment that we really didn’t want to be coming back down this in the dark.  Sometimes what you don’t want to do ends up becoming reality when you are hunting though!

We made it to where we had seen the elk the day before and found a nice spot to sit and glass the area.  We were looking at it from a different angle and could actually see into the timber a lot better than we were able to the day before, but we weren’t able to glass up anything this time.

We always try to spot first, but when that fails in my opinion it never hurts to throw out a few calls and after a few cow calls and a bugle, we got a response but instead of being in the timber right below us, the response came from the next ridge over.  

Of course the bull again was in the thickest nastiest stuff around, just to the right of the clearing in the middle of this picture in the spot where the timber is the thickest.    I circled the area where we thought he was in yellow.

Of course the bull wasn’t going to come our way and make things easy for us so we tried to decide the best way to go after him.  The wind was blowing pretty much right to left in the picture above so it wasn’t going to be a big factor if we just went straight after him, but our worry was that we would end up in the same situation as the day before if we went straight at him.  He would be in the thick timber and even if we closed the gap to a few hundred yards there was a good chance we would never see him.  There was plenty of escape cover behind him and we would end up exposed on the ridge.  

We decided our best option was to pull back and go all the way around the main ridgeline and drop down the ridge behind him.  That would cut off his best escape route and pretty much force him out in the open.  We would have to cut across the wind at some point, but we figured they would be happy down in that thick timber and not mind us crossing over ½ mile above them.  It was a long way around but we really felt like it was our best option.  

We made it around and it was indeed a long way over there with some more elevation gained.  I put a yellow spot on the ridge that we were first glassing and calling from.  If it looks a long way off, it was actually farther because we walked around the ridgeline to get there.  We were hoping that the bull was still bedded down in the trees right in the middle of the picture.  You can see the way the ridges are bare on the south side and we were hoping that by coming in behind him we would get a shot at him climbing up that ridge to the left.

Of course like the best plans of mice and men, we failed on this one.  As we were going down the ridgeline to the right we spotted about 7 or 8 elk dropping down into the main creek bottom and going up the other side of the big ridge.  It was some ugly nasty stuff, but we were still hopeful because we didn’t see the bull in that group.  We scoured the timber and called and didn’t get any responses.  The bull we had hiked all that way to get to was officially gone.

We sat down and talked things over and ate our lunch.  We were talking about where the bull must have gone and could actually see some cow elk over on the north facing slope on the other side when we heard him bugle.  He was over there too, it just took us a while to find him.  

I had taken this picture back when we were hiking down this ridge just because I thought it was such a pretty shot of the snow capped mountain in the background.  Now I get to use it to describe just where these elk were hanging out.  

Most of them were in the timbered area across the draw.  There was one cow moving off to the left of the picture toward the burned area and it seemed to be the oen that the bull was most interested in.  He just kept following after her.

I ranged them at 783 yards which is a chip shot for some of those long range folks, but that is about 383 yards further than I am willing to attempt a shot, so the option was to either try to get closer or find some other elk.  We hadn’t seen any other elk so my thought was to try to get closer.  Zeke was smarter than me though, and said that was a lot farther away than I thought.  How could it be farther than I thought?  I had a range finder and it said they were 783 yards away.

Zeke said something about having to go all the way down and then all the way back up and I thought he was just being a weenie.  He said I could go after them if I wanted to but he wasn’t going with me.  I settled for watching them to see what they were going to do.

We watched them for a good while and the bull continued to follow the one cow like a love struck teenager.  Up and down, back and forth, I think she was just enjoying leading him around the side of the mountain.  Eventually they moved all the way out into the burned timber and seemed to be lower and in a spot I was almost sure we could get on them.  Come on Zeke, let’s go get him.

Zeke agreed and off we went.  We kind of shadowed them as they moved left, periodically I would cow call and the bull would answer just about every time so he was easy to keep track of.  For a little while it looked like he was going to come down into the bottom and we actually setup for a shot, but he ended up hanging up or more likely following the hot cow wherever she chose to go other than into my line of fire.

Last we saw they had gone into the draw between the shaded ridge and the sunny ridge.  There was a raghorn off to the left of this picture and that was another reason that the bull seemed to be so fired up about this hot cow.  The raghorn kept his distance, but everyone knew he was in the vicinity. 

We waited for a while and again I was able to convince Zeke that we just needed to go a little farther to seal the deal.  We were pretty sure that they must have bedded down in that draw.  The bull bugled a couple times and then quit responding so we decided to go on after him.

My memory has softened since it has taken me so long to get this written.  We did have to do a little back tracking here and there getting down to the creek to get around some cliffs and frozen waterfalls, but hey, that’s part of hunting right?  We finally got down to the creek and now needed to start climbing up the other side.  Piece of cake right?

We climbed up and it was as steep as it looked.  The snow made things a little tricky, but it really wasn’t too bad.  Lot’s of deadfall and it was warm so the snow was nice and quiet so the stalk was looking pretty good.  Hadn’t heard the bull bugle in a while, but we didn’t want to announce our presence so we didn’t call either.  We slowly crept up to the edge of the draw and the bull and the cow were gone.  We start to scour the ridge with our binoculars and Zeke calls out “There he is”.  He was on the top of the ridge and the hot cow was right in front of him.  They were headed straight toward us.

I got out my rangefinder and ranged him at 253 yards.  Well within my shooting range.  He was still coming our way, but I didn’t feel like taking any chances.  I got setup and had a good rest and told Zeke I was going to shoot whenever I felt like I had a good window with the timber.  He came into a nice open window and stopped.  I shot and could tell that I hit him good, but I always keep shooting on elk as long as they are still standing.  He hadn’t even moved so I shot again.  I was pretty sure that was also a good hit, but now he was starting to stumble and moving downhill but he was still on his feet so I shot again and for sure hit him this time and he was on the ground.

Whew!  It was all over but the crying.  We waited a few minutes and took a few pictures from the spot where I had shot him. 

I circled him in yellow on this zoomed in picture.

He was down and out and we decided to get right over to him instead of waiting around any longer.  It was still about 2 ½ hours before dark so we thought we had a pretty good chance of at least getting started on getting him a good way back down the mountain before it got dark.

I posted this earlier in a separate thread but one very interesting thing to me when we got to him was that one of the bullets didn’t seem to even penetrate the skin.  This was on the entry side of the bull, not the exit.

Pretty crazy, I’m sure glad I kept shooting until he went down because I don’t think that shot would have done the trick by itself.  Not sure which shot that was, they were all grouped pretty well and right where I was aiming, but I’m still shocked at the performance.

Here’s a link to the thread where we never really seemed to figure out exactly what happened, other than it was crazy.


The sun was getting lower and we were starting to get a sense of urgency, but still felt like we were in fairly good shape.  We knew we weren’t going to get off the mountain before dark, but we had discussed our options and felt like we would be able to at least get everything packed down to the creek and leave half of it there to come back and get it the next morning and then follow the creek out and skirt around the bigger waterfalls and still get back to camp at a fairly reasonable time.

The bull was wedged in between 2 trees and we weren’t sure we wanted to take the time and effort to move him for pictures so we just left him where he ended up and took pictures there.

This wasn’t the bull that I was expecting to have on the ground when we started out on the horse ride in, but after the limited number of elk that we had seen so far and the fact that we were needing to be headed out the next day whether we got anything or not I was very happy to have him on the ground.  I had set my goal on shooting a herd bull and this guy was that as he had about 7 or 8 cows with him most of the day.

This picture shows his weakest feature.  His inside spread is only 28”.  If he was a little wider he would be a 300” bull, but as is, he taped out at 289 3/8”.

Here’s a picture of Zeke with the bull.  This picture does a good job of showing the steepness of the area around him.  The ridge to the left in the picture is where I shot him from, the ridge right over Zeke’s head is the one that we came down. 

This is where time started getting away from us.  I’m not the fastest guy at quartering up an elk, but I’m not the slowest either.  With Zeke helping I figured we could get it done in about an hour and that would leave us about an hour to get down to the creek and maybe make some decent progress down the creek before it got too dark.

We spent a little time inspecting the bullet that didn’t penetrate, I went ahead and deboned all 4 quarters to save on weight, and that part seemed to go about like I would have expected.  Maybe a few minutes slower, but not bad.  I still wasn’t worried about getting out.  One thing that we did notice that started making me think that this was a bit steeper spot than I thought was that when we accidently would kick a rock loose while we were moving around that it would roll down the hill.  Not just a few feet, some of them would roll for 40 or 50 feet before stopping.  Hmm….

The first real snag that I hit was getting the head off.  I don’t carry a saw, I debone all the quarters and usually don’t have any problems just taking the head off by cutting around the first vertebrae and giving it a few good twists.  For some reason it just wasn’t working.  I cut around, twisted, got Zeke to help me twist and the minutes just dragged by.  I handed the knife to Zeke and told him to try.  No luck for him either.  He asked if I was at the right spot at the base of the skull and I told him yes.  He gave up and I went back at it and realized I was cutting between the 1st and 2nd vertebrae instead of at the base of the skull.  Once I started cutting in the right spot we had the head off, but we had burned about 15 or 20 minutes messing with it.

It was getting a lot closer to dark now, the sun was about down and we still weren’t loaded up.  Zeke was adamant that he wasn’t going to be climbing back up here again so we needed to at least get everything hauled down to the creek.  That didn’t sound too bad to me either.  How hard would it be to carry everything down the mountain 600 – 700 yards?  So we decided we would just load everything up and carry it all down at the same time.  We would stash ½ of it at the creek and continue to camp and then come back the next morning.

The next kink in the process was getting the game bags stuffed into Zeke’s backpack.  We had planned on him carrying a hindquarter and the loose meat with me carrying a hindquarter and the boned out shoulders plus the rack to somewhat even out the weight.  He has an Eberlestock X2 backpack and there was no way he was getting a hindquarter stuffed into his pack.  He ended up having to take some of the loose meat (backstraps, neck meat, tenderloins, etc.) out of the game bag and putting them back into the game bag once it was inside his backpack.  Then we switched him out the front shoulders that he strapped onto the outside of his pack.

I was using my Stone Glacier Solo pack and it is a breeze to get loaded with the load shelf so while I waited on him to get everything loaded up I trimmed as much off the head as I could, lost the tongue, lower jaw, started skinning the face, etc.

Zeke got loaded and was able to get his pack on and stand up so I tried to do the same.  I was able to get my pack on by laying down, rolling over to my knees and standing up.  Uffda!  My normal daypack stuff, my rifle, 2 boned out hindquarters and the antlers was a load!

We still had some light left and were pretty confident that we could get back down to the creek before dark.  This wasn’t turning into the ideal situation, but we weren’t too discouraged yet.

It didn’t take long to get that way though.  Zeke fell first, then I did.  At least it was steep enough that it wasn’t as hard to get back on our feet.  Zeke fell again and I can’t remember if I fell again or not, but we weren’t going to be able to continue at this rate, we hadn’t even made it 100 yards.  It was just too steep to be packing this much weight.

I told him that I was going to take one quarter out of my pack and leave it and he should do the same.  He agreed that we should lighten our packs, but he thought we could just carry the other game bag with us and be able to set it down to help stabilize ourselves.  I’m not sure if it first happened by accident or what but we realized that if we just threw the game bag a few feet in front of us that it would roll down the mountain 50 or 60 feet until it hit a tree, rock, etc. and stop.  Then you could make your way down to it and repeat the process.   I have the TAG Caribou game bags and they are pretty sturdy but I did realize that they might get ripped a little as part of this process, but at around $10 per bag it was going to be worth it.  They were getting dirty, but were holding up amazingly well after the first few rolls down the mountain.

We were both still falling although we weren’t so overloaded to where it was scary like it was at the start.  I would alternate between going down backwards or sideways to turning around and lunging a few steps to grab a tree to stop myself from getting out of control going down the mountain.  At one point I was going down backwards and slipped and ended up sliding about 20 or 30 feet on my belly before I was able to get stopped.  During that slide my rifle ripped the hanger off where it attached to my pack so I had to redo the straps to hold my rifle on.  Also during that slide the antlers popped the strap and came off.  The strap was extended too far and only had about ½” of webbing to hold it and that’s why it came off.  I adjusted it a little tighter, got everything strapped back together and on we went.  This was becoming the longest 600 – 700 yards of my life.

It was getting very close to dark and we were still not to the creek yet.  We had consulted a picture that I had taken to try to make sure that we weren’t going to end up cliffed out at the bottom and I was actually pretty confident that I had us going in the right direction for a smooth trip down to the creek.  About that time I toss my game bag out in front of me and it starts rolling, and rolling, and rolling…  It rolls out of sight and a few seconds later we hear a loud SPLASH!  We were excited because we were finally to the creek.   Or at least within a couple hundred yards.  Zeke tosses his bag out in front of him and again it rolls and rolls and rolls, out of sight but this time there isn’t a splash.  Hmm…

We continue down and it is as steep as it has been the entire time.  We are holding onto trees for dear life as we move down after the bags.  Down lower the snow is more shaded and consistent so we are having to do everything we can to keep from falling.  Maybe 50 yards or so farther down and the strap on my pack pops off again and the antlers fall off.  It was so steep they actually started rolling down the mountain.  At first I laughed, but as they started to gather steam I quit laughing pretty quick.  They are cartwheeling down the mountain and before you know it they are gone out of sight as well.  Again, no splash.  Not sure what to think about that.

We kept on going down, going from tree to tree always careful to keep a tree below us that we could grab onto.  I was starting to second guess the route we were taking and hoping that we weren’t going to get cliffed out because it was going to be a nightmare if we were going to have to climb back up what we were coming down.

Another hundred yards or so and Zeke hits a nice game trail!!!  I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so much joy at finding a game trail before in my life.  The snow had melted off the game trail and it was very easy walking compared to anything we had experienced in the last several hours.  A nice zigzag and we were down to the creek before we knew it.

Now we needed to find the game bags.  We had heard one splash so we figured we would just walk down the creek until we found it and the other one should be close by.  Hopefully the antlers would be close by as well.

We made it about 10 yards down the creek and this is what we found.

There were cliffs on both sides and a 20 – 30 foot tall waterfall!  It was pretty much full on dark now and this was a heartbreaker.  It's hard to describe how low it felt, but it was a deep down knot in the bottom of the stomach kind of feeling.  We were both very tired and not really liking any of our options that we had ahead of us at this point.  We shined our headlamps around and couldn’t see the reflecting strips from the game bags at the bottom of the falls, but we were pretty sure at least one of them was down there somewhere.  

One option was just hanging out there in the dark until morning when we could see and although that was the easiest option as far as physically demanding, it was the least appealing one to either of us.  We really needed to get back to camp to check on the horses and we didn’t have any bivy gear to speak of and very little food as well although I guess we could have cooked up some elk.  I didn’t even think of that option at the time.

Another option was to backtrack up and around the ridge that we had come down to get to the creek bottom in the first place.  That had actually been a pretty tricky descent though that involved us having to backtrack a few times to get around some cliffs and waterfalls.  

The last option would be to try to get back up on the first ridge that we had been on the day before and either go back up and around or simply hike the reverse route that we had when we had gone after the bull the day before.  That seemed like the best option, but first we had to find a way up and out of the creek bottom.

We dropped our packs and Zeke scouted ahead of us to see if we could get out on a game trail that he found and I went back where we had come from to see if I could find the antlers.  Zeke was gone about 15 minutes or so and came back with great news that the game trail was indeed going to get us up and out of the creek and at least in the direction we wanted to go.  I spent the 15 minutes or so unsuccessfully looking for the antlers.

We loaded up our packs and started up the game trail.  Very tired, but we had a plan and were making progress.  It was pretty tough going as we gained elevation with heavy packs, but the game trail was nice.  Of course about ½ way up things fanned out and the game trail petered out.  This is where having a GPS with previous tracks showing is a lifesaver.  I could see the path that we had taken the day before and it was just over 1/3rd of a mile away.  We just headed for it, cross hilling as much as we could so we didn’t have to gain any unnecessary elevation.  It was pretty rough going, but not too bad and before you know it we were back on the path from the day before.

We backtracked down to the bottom of that draw and started up the other side.  This was pretty steep going and we were only making it 50 or 60 yards before we were having to stop and catch our breath.  We ended up on some loose rock/shale stuff and that got almost impossible to go up so we ended up having to skirt around it.  We finally got back up the ridge that we had started out on that morning.  Now all we had to do was go back down the ridge to camp and get through the spot that we had both commented on that morning that we didn’t want to have to come back down it in the dark.  One thing for sure, it was now full on dark.  

Here’s the path that we ended up taking.  I actually took this picture the day before not realizing that we were ever going to be crazy enough to end up on that far ridge.  The green dot is where I shot from, the red dot is where the elk died.  The yellow line is the route that we took to get down to the creek, then skirted around that ridge, down into the draw then back up to the top of the ridge that we started from and then down that ridge back to camp.  The skips in the line are where we were out of sight behind a hill.  Somehow it seemed even farther in the dark.

After what we had already been through, the area that we had commented on not wanting to go back down in the dark was a cake walk.  Easy peezy.  Just a steady hike down the ridge and following the track on my GPS we were doing really good.  Very tired, but making it without too much trouble.  We ended up back on the same game trail we had come up and were back down before too long.  It was a lot easier going down than it had been going up, even with a little bit of weight in our packs.

We ended up getting back to camp at 11:15.  Very tired and hungry.   Doing the math on the GPS trip computer we only ended up hiking 7 miles that day but it was possibly the hardest 7 miles I’d ever hiked in my life.  I didn’t manage to log the elevation gain, and I’m sure it wasn’t that impressive either, but we both felt like we had been through the ringer.

Zeke went to mess with the horses and I went and filtered water and worked on boiling up some water for supper.  By this time I was pretty tired of filtering water, but I wanted to eat and all we had was dehydrated food so filtering water was what I did.  It was also a drag to have to go get the food off the meat pole and re-hang it each time, but this time we had some actual meat to hang back up with it.  We were both very happy to be back in camp safe and sound, no injuries and all the horses were there and camp seemed to be fine as well.  It was after midnight when we crawled into bed, we discussed the best option for the next day and decided that Zeke would go back with me to get the meat and hopefully find my antlers and then we would get back to camp and pack up and head out.  Zeke said that we needed to be working on packing up camp no later than 2:00 so if we weren’t able to find the antlers by noon we were going to just have to leave them.  That didn’t sound like a very good option to me, but I was hoping that with daylight and a good nights sleep we wouldn’t have too much trouble finding everything.

I wasn’t worried enough that it kept me awake or anything.  We both slept very soundly and woke up the next morning when it was light outside.  More water filtering, another mountain house breakfast and we were ready to go retrieve the meat and antlers.

Again, our unfamiliarity with the area left us with no real choice but to start out back the way we had gone in the day before.  We had looked back at some pictures I had taken and were pretty sure we would be able to get past the waterfalls at the bottom and get to the creek bed, but after getting taken out by the unknown waterfall the night before we were not sure what to expect after that.  Here’s the route that we took in yellow.

One we dropped down into the creek it didn’t take too long before we hit our next obstacle.

We thought we had gotten around the 2 waterfalls at the bottom but evidently there was a 3rd one higher up.  It wasn’t near as daunting in the daylight though and with nearly empty packs it was just a matter of skirting up and around it.  It looked like that would be an easy spot to get back on the ridge on our way back down too.

Once past that waterfall, things were pretty easy going.  We were constantly going back and forth across the creek, but it wasn’t very deep and other than a few icy spots it was pretty uneventful.

We started getting pretty close to where I had marked the waterfall on the GPS the night before and we were both hoping we would get all the way to the bottom and find the meat and antlers with no problems.  Everything had gone very smooth so far.  So of course we turn the corner and find another nice little obstacle.

I think it was right about this point that my feelings really started to change about waterfalls.  What I had always regarded as nature's beauty was now becoming another obstacle that we were going to have to deal with.  The falls were only 10 feet tall or so, but that was too tall for us to climb up, especially with the deep water at the bottom of them.  No problem, just go around right?  

That’s exactly what we did, but going around wasn’t exactly a cake walk.

I was really impressed with how good Zeke’s dog was at climbing.  He would just get a good run at it and scramble on up.

We got around the smaller falls and started back down and there were both game bags laying in the creek.  They were actually coated in ice from the overnight stay so from that perspective they were fine, although the bag with the front shoulders in it had ripped open and you could actually see them laying there. 

That part was way easier than we were expecting.  We were just over a mile in from camp and about 1,000’ of elevation gain and we already had both bags of meat located.  It was just a short scramble down to them and we had brought new bags to swap them out into so that part went really well.   One thing you might notice in the picture, the cliff behind them is 60 – 80 feet tall.  No wonder the first game bag (the one on the left with the hindquarter in it) made such a splash the night before!

Now that the meat was located, we started looking for the antlers.  In no time at all Zeke calls out that he sees them.  It took me a little while see them, but no doubt, we have the antlers located.  

This is one of the many pictures that I took that I am ending up using to illustrate something that wasn’t the intent at the time the picture was taken.  Somehow I didn’t take a picture of the antlers stuck up on the top of the cliff so this is as close as it comes.  I took this picture of the waterfall, but the very top left corner is the slide area where the antlers were.  You can’t quite see them in the picture but that’s where they were laying.

That is also where the bags of meat shot off the cliff down to the creek.  It’s a wonder that the game bags held up at all.  

This was a huge blessing.  I had actually prayed about finding the meat and the antlers intact and here it was not even 11:00 the next morning and we had everything located.  Now the trick was getting them!

Zeke started carrying the torn up game bags down the creek and tossing them over the smaller waterfall because there was no way we wanted to load them up and do the climbing that we had done to get around it on the way in.  I proceeded to head after the antlers.

I got back around to the creek and found a game trail going up the other side.  It wasn’t going the direction that I wanted to go, but with the alternative being a sheer cliff face I was happy to find a game trail.  It wasn’t really that bad getting up and over to where the antlers were, a few tricky spots, but nothing too exciting.  I did end up having to go quite a bit out of the way to get around the cliff, but in retrospect if we had made it down in the daylight the night before I think we could have come around that way fairly easily when it was all said and done.  But we didn’t get down in the daylight and doing things in the dark makes it a whole lot harder.

I made it over to the antlers and now had a new problem.  The antlers were in a chute with a decent layer of snow and essentially nothing that I would be able to hang onto to keep from going over the cliff.

The picture just doesn’t look very steep, but there was no way I felt I could just walk up to them and pick them up without slipping and sliding off the cliff.  I tried getting down to them by hanging onto the little pine shrubbery, but there just wasn’t enough to hold onto there so give me the confidence to risk my life.  I ended up staying just on the uphill side of the shrub and got my parachute cord out of my pack and tried to lasso it.
After a few minutes of that I decided that parachute cord doesn’t make a very good lasso and started trying to figure out another option.  I found a decent stick and tied the cord onto both ends and decided that was going to be my best option.  After a couple misses, I got the stick firmly stuck around a few antler tines and started pulling them toward me.  They ended up with the back tines digging into the dirt and not wanting to slide backward, but after a little bit of persuasion I was able to pull them up to me.

VICTORY!  All the tines were intact and I had the antlers and the meat!  I strapped them onto my pack and started making my way back.  Again, the method that I used was going from tree to tree and always trying to keep a tree below me that I could grab onto if I started sliding down the mountain.  Just a little bit of scary stuff and I was able to get back on the game trail that we had come down the night before.  Instead of following it down to the top of the waterfall, I followed it backward and ultimately up and around and back down to the creek where Zeke was waiting.

Looking over everything in the daylight, I realized how lucky we were to end up on that game trail the night before in the dark.  If we had kept going straight the way we were headed it could have gotten really ugly really fast.  I would like to think our method of keeping a tree downhill from us to hang onto would have kept us from going over the cliff, but I’m sure glad we didn’t have to find out.

While I was getting the antlers, Zeke had knocked the ice off the meat and transferred it into new game bags and we were ready to load up and rock and roll back to camp.  Again, following the creek seemed relatively easy, just rocks and some ice for the most part, it wasn’t the thick brush that you find along some creek bottoms.

Heading down the creek in the daylight we were very thankful that we didn’t have to repeat the route that we had taken the night before.  The ridgeline right in the middle of this picture is where we ended up the night before on our hike out after backtracking up and around in the dark.  Hiking down the creek was a piece of cake compare to that!

This is just another picture of the creek bottom.  Not a nice smooth path by any means, but to me climbing over the big rocks and tree trunks is better than busting brush like you have to do in some creek bottoms.  I took some video hiking through some of this but still haven’t looked at it or edited it.  Maybe I’ll get it posted sometime.

Everything went really smoothly on the way out.  By now we were getting to be pros on getting up and down around the big waterfalls at the bottom and in no time we were down.  Here’s a picture of me with the last load breathing a sigh of relief.

We got back to camp and didn’t spend much time relaxing.  As in zero, zilch, nada.  It was a little after 1:00 and we had work to do to get packed up and get back to the trailhead.  I worked on – you might guess it – filtering water and cooking another mountain house meal for lunch and Zeke started working with the horses to get them packed and ready.

Again, this process took much longer than I expected.  I tried to help out, weighing things and helping with the panniers and doing what I could, but time just seems to fly by getting things packed up and ready to go.  Before we knew it, it was 4:00 before we were pretty much packed up and ready to go.  With a 12 mile ride ahead of us and only 2 ½ hours of daylight I knew I was going to get to experience some more night time trail riding.

Here we are all packed up and ready to go.

Headed down the trail.  Zeke was stringing 4 horses and I was riding Salty.  The horse in the back was pretty new to being a pack horse, she is Zeke’s wife’s riding horse and other than packing back in the day that Zeke made the round trip out with his dad this was her first time to be a pack horse.

It took a bit to get going because she kept breaking the lead between her and the horse in front of her.  I think we ended up stopping and retying her lead 3 or 4 times in the first mile.  About the 2nd or 3rd time we got the closest to a true wreck of the trip.  Zeke was just getting off his horse and going back and retying things.  He got off and went back to tie her up when the younger horse crowded up on his horse and the next horse had an opinion on how that was going and they all decided they had opinions and in a split second the entire string is galloping away across a big open area.  I’m sitting there on Salty and offered to jump off and have Zeke ride after them, but he just kept walking after them, whistling and yelling WHOA.  They probably got 200+ yards away before finally settling down and stopping.  Thankfully nothing had broken loose and they were still all together.  Zeke was able to get everything tied back and get them headed back down the trail again so no harm no foul was the end result.  After that each time the back horse broke the lead, I rode up and held onto Zeke’s horse though just to be safe.

Here’s a picture headed down the trail.

After a while everything settled into a rhythm and we started just clicking off the miles.  You end up crossing the Greybull River several times going in and out and by this time the horses were pros at it and it didn’t even phase them.

We crossed paths with a guy coming in on foot going after a bighorn sheep solo which seemed like a herculean undertaking to me.  He looked pretty loaded down headed in, I couldn’t imagine hauling one out 10+ miles solo. 

We also crossed paths with Zeke’s friend who had been planning on sharing camp with us at some point.  He had got sidetracked with truck breakdowns and work problems and several other things and was just coming in that evening with his wife.  We were headed out with his pack horse (the white one) so there was some negotiations on bringing the pack horse back the next week for him to be able to pack out an elk and the rest of camp.  One  more stop along the way to retie a loose pack saddle due to a broken breast collar and no other issues all the way back.

We finally got to the trailhead a little after 9:00 PM.  My friend Mike and Zeke’s wife had texted my satellite messenger asking when we were going to be at the trailhead, but we had told them that they didn’t need to come out and we were fine.  We were getting close to the trailers and Zeke shouts out “Hey, that’s my wife!”.  We were taking a trail between too different parking areas and they were driving her pickup back around looking for us and drove right by.  Zeke went ahead and took the pack string back to the trailers and I turned around and headed after them. 

That actually ended up being pretty fun.  The horse I was riding wasn’t exactly thrilled to be turning around and heading away from the rest of the horses, but We went off at a trot and I was just standing in the stirrups and we ended up catching up to them right at the last parking area before the road stops.  My horse was neighing loudly pretty much the entire time. They headed back to the trailers and I followed right behind them, my horse still neighing away.

They got a little bit ahead of me and we were still at a trot and I was pretty proud of myself on my riding when she decides to bust out into a full gallop.  Needless to say, galloping along in the dark had never been an item on my bucket list, but if it had been, I could cross it off now.  We ended up getting back to the trailers almost at the same time and it sure was nice to see them.

They had stopped and picked up some Subway sandwiches for us and a huge bottle of diet coke for me and told us to just eat and they would take care of the horses.  It was hard to just sit there and let them do all the work so we helped a little, but it sure was awesome that they were there to help out.  I very happy to see them even though we had said that we could handle it and they didn’t need to come out.

We made it back to Mike’s house late that night and all that was left was packing up and heading back to Texas.  I had left the ATV’s with Mike after the last scouting trip and then brought my Ranger up there on this trip so I had 2 ATV’s and my Ranger there.  I had actually measured everything out and figured out that if I elevated the back wheels on my Ranger that I could tuck one of my ATV’s on the trailer behind it and put the other ATV in the back of the truck and on paper it would fit.  It took a little bit of maneuvering, especially getting the ATV on the back of the trailer sideways, but I was able to get everything loaded and ready to head back to Texas.

I had left home on Friday the 19th of September and was headed back home on October 5th, 17 days later.  I was tired, had a few bumps and bruises, but was very thankful to be headed home with a nice mountain goat and a bull elk.  I ended up driving home through the night with a short rest stop and was home safe and sound less than 24 hours later.

I was very ready to see my wife and son and they actually seemed happy to see me too!

That’s going to be it for now.  I would be happy to try to answer any questions anyone has or if anyone has any advice to give me I’m more than willing to listen.  I still might add some video clips if I can get them looked at and uploaded.  I have a few clips of me riding the horses  for sure and I’ll have to go back and check if there is anything else worth adding.

For sure the video portion of the hunts is what I need to do more work on.  That part really is hard to step back and do.  I think I could do it if I wasn’t the one carrying the rifle, but for these hunts that was the essential ingredient for me.

Sorry if some of this is a little disjointed as I started and stopped writing it several times over the last several weeks.  I'm sure I missed putting some stuff in there and probably put a whole lot of things in there that no one really cares about, but I just tried to document everything I could.

Hope you enjoyed reading it.