The anticipation had been mounting. After a few unsuccessful elk hunts without even seeing an elk, I was optimistic that this would be my lucky day. We had gotten the down-low on a nearby location that is only about 30 minutes by vehicle followed by a nearly vertical, one hour hike. I knew today was going to be my day.
Accompanying me was Josh. This would be his first day on a dedicated elk hunt. He had the fortune of harvesting a mule deer two days prior on opening day of the Montana rifle season. Having never hunted elk before, Josh was looking forward to putting in the effort of trying to find some elk. He was bringing along his grandfathers rifle for the elk and a handgun for fun. Of the things we had in common, we both had never seen an elk while elk hunting (obviously Josh hasn’t since this was his first day).
Josh picked me up around 4:30 am and we set out into the dark. We nervously drove to the parking area with high-hopes that no one would be there. A huge sigh of relief came over us as we got to the spot without a vehicle in sight. Now came the easy part, a 1.5 mile hike with roughly 2000 ft of elevation gain in grizzly country. We threw on the packs and up we went.
Going up was steep to say the least, but the below freezing air kept us cool. The plan was to take the hike up at an easy pace and get to the lookout before sunrise. I have a feeling Josh was feeling the mental side effects of grizzly country as he was using his tactical flashlight as a makeshift spotlight. Then we saw eyes reflecting the light back at us from maybe only 100 yards away. We both paused for a moment until we confirmed the beast was merely a skunk. We continued our trek to the ridge making sure not to get sprayed.
I was keeping a close eye on the time making sure we were holding a good enough pace to get to the spot before shooting light. FYI – shooting light is 30 minutes before sunrise and thirty minutes after sunset. Within this region of time is when it is legal to shoot a game animal. As we labored closer and closer I could finally see the ridge. Excitement and anticipation were felt with that sudden urge to put the head down and grind to the finish. This is when Josh alerted me to his need to take a growler. A growler is a term
I heard from the folks over at themeateater.com for taking a shit in the woods. For whatever reason, it seems to fit this story perfectly.
The first step is admitting you have a problem
It felt like a gut punch, surely it did to him as well. We still had ten or so minutes left before shooting light, but with the growler we would not be making the cutoff. We were so close. Without being in that exact glassing location our hunt would surely be ruined. Now here is where I admit to having a problem. When it comes to fishing and hunting, I make a plan and I do everything in my power to stick to that plan. If things don’t go to that plan I get pissed. Okay, look, I know I have a problem.
As Josh walked off into growler territory I moved slightly uphill to get to a better vantage point. I sat there scanning the hillside in search of movement while “patiently” waiting for Josh to come back out. Right at shooting light I heard the sounds of the most pitiful attempt at an elk bugle I’ve ever heard. No, not a hunter in our exact location I thought.
We had the perfect plan. We were supposed to hike to this secluded drainage and be the only ones there. We were supposed to spot elk at first light. There were supposed to be elk everywhere. And surely, there wasn’t supposed to be someone learning how to bugle on the ridge above us at sunrise on the third day of rifle season! I sat in dismay wondering what was taking Josh so long, hoping he would hurry out so we could figure out plan B. Another high-pitched attempt at a bugle rang out adding salt to the wound.
Moments later a shot erupted, then another followed by a third. I thought to myself how in the world did that hunter call in an elk with such bad calls in so little time?! This is the point I realized I was sitting on the side of a mountain without a clue of what the hell I was doing. Sure, I watched all the Randy Newberg videos, but that doesn’t really replace experience. I also thought I was smart enough not to use a call – most people warn about calls just scaring elk away rather then bringing them in. And there I was, on the side of a mountain pretending to know how to elk hunt. Not too long after the three consecutive shots I heard the discharge of a smaller caliber gun go off from the same area – what sounded like a handgun to me.
Its better to be lucky than know what you are doing
Once I heard the handgun go off I knew the lucky hunter wasn’t some dweeb trying to learn how to bugle. It was the hunter who went to take a growler. Yup, unbeknownst to Josh was that the area he chose to fertilize was the same general area a group of elk bed the previous night. Josh was taking care of business when he heard an elk bugle only 100 yards from him. He wrapped up and crept towards the elk bugle, and there she was, a beautiful bedded cow staring at him. In the first 15 minutes of shooting light on Josh’s first day elk hunting he steadied his rifle on the cow elk. Delighted with the opportunity, Josh started to relax to take the shot. He then noticed an elk move behind the cow. He adjusted his rifle up to the second elk. As it turned out, the 6×6 bull elk with a sore throat was standing broadside. Josh made three great shots and put the elk down.
After a quick victory lap, I made my way down to Josh. By this time he had already gutted the elk and had it mostly quartered. As this was the first elk either of us had ever cleaned, we were taken by surprise by the sheer size of the animal. At this point we realized how much work we still had to do and an eerie silence fell on us with only the sounds of butchering breaking the constant buzz of the wind through the trees. To maximize the load efficiency we decided to bone out the meat. We carried all of the meat to a lonely tree on the side of the canyon. It was a place we could easily glass from afar when we came for the second load. Rather than send Josh in on bear duty…
It was a slow and careful walk down the steep incline. We were surprised at how much harder it was going down than up. Once we reached the truck, we had to use our phone-a-friend card, and luckily, the person who gave us the hot tip for the area was able to help us with the second pack-out. And when I say help, I mean pull out the most weight. He deserved it, though, for giving us such a great spot. We were back at home resting by 10 pm and ready to get back to work the next day, albeit a little sore.
This was a surprising outcome to our first day elk hunting in Montana. Wow, what an introduction. I look back at the hunt and get pretty embarrassed at how frustrated I got with the situation. It is hard not to get frustrated, especially when you’ve placed a bunch of make-believe pressure on yourself. I get caught up with the idea that if I am going to spend this much time away from my family, work, etc. I better be successful. And there is the problem. The definition of success must change, at least for me. Success can’t be measured by how well my plan was executed. Success needs to be measured by the adventure of the experience, the uniqueness of the experience and the happiness achieved by the experience. I can say, that from this experience I have gotten all of these things and many more. If I ever have another experience that goes as the outhouse bugle, I would be so lucky.