The first time is often special.
My first hunt for elk was one of those times. It was an experience that inspired me to start writing about my outdoor experiences.
The hunt took place in September of 1985. My brother, Rob, and I hooked up with some friends who lived in Council Idaho. They pointed out some good elk habitat along the western border of Idaho and set us free to explore and learn about bugling for elk.
First Elk Hunt
I bow-hunted for elk this year. It was my first time. If you’re like most of my friends, I imagine that you’d like to know if I got one. My usual reaction to this question is a quick reply that leaves my mouth before I even have time to think. In this case, I think we’ll both enjoy it more if I tell you my story first, because the answer is the story.
My elk hunt was two weeks long and my brother Rob and I planned this hunt for almost a year. We started out with absolutely no elk-hunting experience. All we knew was what we’d learned from my Larry D. Jones elk-hunting tapes and what our friends had told us. Our friends lived in western Idaho and they knew their territory well. At least we had somebody to show us around. During the course of the first week we didn’t hear any elk. We hunted for three days before we saw one and that was in the middle of a snow storm. We were told that elk hung out in the timber and that they didn’t come out much during the day - we were convinced of that after a few days hunting.
On the fourth day, Rob shot a bull which had four points on each side. It was giant compared to the mule deer and blacktail deer that we generally hunted. The bull had walked right up to him and posed for two broadside shots, the second of which hit him in the heart. The fact that Rob had been successful fueled my desire even more.
At the end of the first week I heard my first genuine bugle, and it captivated me. I could hardly stand it. I called home, cancelled everything and said I was staying for an additional week. It didn’t matter what anybody else wanted me to do, nothing was going to take me away. My brother and Idaho friends were done hunting and had to go home, but I didn’t let the bother me. I told my friends in town that I’d be out there at “No-tellum Creek” hunting and not to worry. I’d stop in every couple of days and tell them how it was going unless I got one, in which case, I’d ask them to help me haul it in.
It got a little quiet out there at night, but I kind of liked being alone. During the day it was great. I could do anything I wanted so I spent a lot of time sitting and listening and blowing on my bugle, making all kinds of crazy sounds, trying to sound like an elk. Hunting with a group had been great, but hunting alone was even better. Just about every day I’d hear one of two bull elk calling off in the distance. I couldn’t tell how far away they were. Sometimes it sounded like they were miles away and other times it sounded like they were right next to me. For the most part I could bugle and get them to bugle back from within a few hundred yards. Calling to them was pretty exciting, but after a couple days of frustration, I realized it wasn’t going to be easy to get closer to them. I chased ‘em up and down, tried to get down wind of them and even tried to get up wind so that I could get in the right spot when the wind would shift. I tried to hunt from above them and tried to hunt below them. I only had occasion to see elk three times, and that was only a glimpse as they departed from thirty to forty yards away into the brush. I hadn’t even seen a horn until after ten days and that was a twenty-five yard glimpse of a herd bull that got my scent and ran off.
It got down to the last day of hunting and I spent the morning listening to a couple of bulls bugle back and forth. I lost my nerve when they moved downwind of me. A grouse rustled in the brush and threatened to flush at any moment. The forest was bone dry and every step I took crackled and popped.
Finally, I sneaked away making sure that I didn’t spook them. I figured that I’d have another chance at them in the evening. When I got back to camp, I was pretty tired and decided to rest. It was maybe ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, and I wanted to save energy for the evening hunt, so I loaded the jeep and got everything ready to go because I knew that when the evening hunt was over, I’d be heading home.
I decided to drive the jeep up a rough little road half way up the mountain, get up where it was pretty close to where I’d been hunting, lay down in the shade, and take a few pictures of birds and maybe take a nap until hunting time. The wind was starting to blow pretty hard and it was getting kind of cool. It seemed like winter-time, in fact, it felt like maybe a little snow storm might be about to hit. The birds seemed to be all gathered up in flocks, bunches and mixtures of birds: warblers, grosbeaks, juncos, a few sparrows. .. I sat there and tried to take a picture. About all I could capture on film was a junco. The warblers wouldn’t stay still, even though they were close.
A couple kinglets got five or six feet away, but they wouldn’t stay still either. The wind was howling and I kept thinking about how hard it was going to be to hear a bugle. Hell, for the last week, I’d been hearing elk bugling all day long and had a hard time figuring out whether it was really elk or just my imagination. I lay down on the mattress, but had a hard time relaxing between thinking about hunting and wondering whether I should be on top of the hill. Whenever I did manage to get elk off my mind, a bird would fly by, and I’d attempt a few more pictures.
I kept hearing a sound off in the distance. It didn’t really sound like and elk, but it could be. One note, then another, it was the right pitch. I even thought it might be a hunter playing with his bugle or wind whistling in the trees, maybe nothing at all. Then I sat there a while longer and figured that if it was an elk, it wasn’t going to go anywhere so I kept resting. The sound kept on coming – over and over again. It was a high whistle, two notes long, drawn- out notes. And, then the wind blew a little harder and it seemed a little colder and it was obvious that winter would be here soon.
All of a sudden I concluded that the sound was a signal for me to get up on top of the mountain. I grabbed my mattress and threw it in the jeep, grabbed my pack and adjusted my clothes the way I liked to have them. I figured that I’d better get up there. I couldn’t sleep anyway, so what the hell. I grabbed my bow, my bugle and made sure I had my diaphragms. I put my face paint on hastily and suddenly felt invigorated….thought I had a chance. There was no need to hurry. It wasn’t that far too where I wanted to hunt. A few hundred yards up the hill I came to a spot where an elk had been thrashing around in the trees. There were about five little trees with bark rubbed off. I decided that this might be a good spot to bugle, so I sat down, not in a big hurry. The elk weren’t in a hurry.
I bugled a couple of times over the course of five or six minutes. Nothing happened so I sat there for another couple of minutes. Sometimes it took ten or fifteen minutes to get an answer. I waited about fifteen minutes and nothing happened so I decided to head on up to the top of the ridge. Normally, the wind would be blowing up the hill this time of day, but it seemed as if the weather change was causing it to blow a mixture of up-hill and side-hill. Maybe that would be an advantage – maybe not. I got to the top of the hill. It was hard to say what time it was. I didn’t have a watch, hadn’t known what time it was for a few days, but it was maybe 3:30. Anyway, it seemed like a pretty good time for elk bugling.
At the top of the ridge, I pulled out my bugle. I’d pretty much forgotten about the sound that I’d been hearing earlier. I blew a little elk tune, just a couple notes. Sure enough, that sound came again, and it didn’t sound too far away either, maybe three to four hundred yards around the hill. I put the bugle back in my jacket, got up and walked up along the top of the hill, being careful not to go too fast, making sure to stay out of sight. I didn’t want to take any chances, because this was it. I felt like it was the shootout at the OK Corral…the time had come.
So, anyway I got up there moseying along the top of the ridge. I had a feeling that the elk would be straight down below me. Sure enough, I didn’t even have to blow on my bugle – the elk started singing away. It was making all kinds of crazy sounds. First he would make a whistle with a little toot on the end, then he’d’ go for a while and sound like an entire orchestra. Eventually he would go back to the little whistle again. In the meantime, it was making a good opportunity to sneak down the hill. I wanted to try to get ahead of him a little bit and make sure the wind didn’t favor the bull.
When he bugled straight down the hill from me, maybe 150 yards away, I knew that this was going to be a heck of a chance. In the previous two weeks, I had done just about everything wrong that I could do. I’d fallen apart a few times in the last couple of days, but now everything was in my favor. The elk didn’t know I was there.
I had the wind to my advantage, good quiet grass to sneak on, big trees that shut out almost all of the bright sunlight. No excuses now. If there was ever a time that I was going to get him, this was it.
I was ready. Two weeks of preparation was about to pay off.
I took painfully slow steps, six inches a step, maybe four inches a step. I put my foot down, heel first, then the middle of my foot, then my toes. I took one step at a time, looking to the right, looking to the left, not moving my arms, barely moving my eyes. Maybe fifteen minutes went by when I sensed that I was at the spot where the elk had last bugled. Hardly moving, I went for ten more minutes straight down the hill nearly motionless, maybe as quiet as the elk. Then I realized that I hadn’t heard him for fifteen minutes, maybe twenty.
The thought came to me that he might have sped up. I didn’t think that he could have scented me, but I’d been mistaken before. The way the wind would gust, you’d never know for sure. I looked around carefully. The wind had stopped and, for a moment it was stone silent. I looked everywhere, but the elk wasn’t in sight. All of a sudden I began to worry. Maybe he’s gone. I reached for my bugle and realized I didn’t have to blow it very hard. In fact, I preferred not to blow, but decided it might be best to toot out a soft bugle. I puckered up and put my tongue on the diaphragm. After two weeks of practice, I had it down pretty good. I put the top of my tongue on the diaphragm and let out a perfect little bugle, just two notes. One, then another a little higher, it couldn’t have been better. Everything was perfect.
That last note had barely escaped my tube when the bull elk let out a roar that could have put a lion to shame. If I had been a bull elk, I’d have gotten the hell out of there. You could tell that this guy meant business. That elk had been standing in the brush, maybe forty yards from me. His roar totally unnerved me. I forgot everything I ever knew about elk hunting, probably wouldn’t have even been able to remember my name. I began to make a series of errors. I ran to a tree to hide, couldn’t even think to draw my bow and shoot. The elk came running and stopped right in front of me, at about twenty-five yards – looking around for his adversary. The minute I moved a muscle it was over. The big bull saw me, turned, trotted a few yards and then stopped at about forty yards and looked back over his shoulder displaying what, to me, were massive six-point antlers.
There I stood squealing away on the bugle like and idiot. His horns looked like they were four feet high and three feet wide, an awesome sight. Only the second bull elk I’d every seen, and it had taken me two weeks to see it. In thirty seconds it was all over. As the bull walked up the hill and silhouetted himself on the horizon, I realized that if I’d kept my cool a little longer, I might have tagged him.
Now I’m sure that there will be more close calls before I actually bag a big bull and who knows how long it will take. But one thing’s for sure, I’ll be out there trying with everything I’ve got. My hunt this year was a satisfying as any hunt I’ve ever had, successful or not. I entered the world of a bull elk for a few minutes. For those few minutes I was a bull elk, bugling and grunting swaggering through the woods daring other bulls to come near and I’d been put rightfully in my place by the King of the Mountain.
That’s was the end of story for that year.
Rob and I archery hunted for elk, self-guided, in Idaho, for the next sixteen years. Before we gave it up, we managed to take home several nice elk including three that qualified for the archery record books. After we reached camp, with the meat and horns of the bull Rob killed in 2001, we agreed that our self-guided elk-hunting days were over.
Elk are almost always found away from the road in a remote spot. Hunting them with back packs is for young men with stout legs and healthy feet.
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