By Jimmy Laner
As a new hunter in the western landscapes, it can be a daunting task finding huntable animals in accessible places. It can be even harder when you’re going to a new place that you’ve never actually set eyes upon. As is the beginning of my foray into the elk mountains this fall.
At the beginning of my search, I affectionately referred to the places elk live as “woods” simply because I didn’t really understand what mountains were just yet. As most know, those “mountains” sure do look a lot less steep on Google earth than what they actually do in person. I covered miles upon miles, mountain upon mountain looking for the signs that would tell me elk live here. I can honestly say that I found more moose and mountain goats than I did elk at first, but that finally changed about a month before the Idaho archery opener. Once I found the spot that I needed with the sign I wanted, it simply came down to finding the time to get out there and explore the area during hunting season.
On my first trip into the elk mountains, I was fortunate enough to be tricked by two hunters into thinking there was a war being waged between a couple of rutted up bulls hellbent on winning the affections of a hot cow. From all of my turkey hunting experience, I should have known right away that the bugles I was hearing were not if fact quadruped critters, but rather the biped variety. Getting close enough to figure this out, I was met on the trail by another group of hunters that seemed rather annoyed at the rut fest happening in the drainage just below where we stood. They had backpacked a few miles into the area the night before only to find the place overrun with several hunters. I had trudged across creeks and shale slides for about the same distance to find my reward of multiple hunters running all over the place, so I felt the collective pain. Ah, the life of a public land hunter. They were extremely polite, and decked out in some of the best gear on the market. We chatted a bit and I found out they were all from the west coast in Roosevelt elk country. It didn’t take me very long to realize that I recognized the voice that I was speaking to and the names of the other hunters they were sharing a camp with. I won’t name anyone here, but this person just so happens to be one of the most well respected call makers in the country.
He and his group explained that they were going to hunt the rest of the morning back in the direction I had just hiked in and then hitchhike (hopefully) to the top of the mountain where their trucks were waiting. With the amount of people that were stomping through the timber in the direction they had just come from, I offered to give them a ride in exchange for letting me hang around while they hunted their way back the opposite direction.
My reward for doing so was that I got to see firsthand what a seasoned elk killer can do with a mouth reed and bugle tube. We walked back to a spot where they wanted to throw out a location bugle and boom- right on cue a bull popped off… about 1,500 vertical feet above us. So we did what any level headed individual would do at this point- essentially run up the mountain continuing to call to the bull (by this I mean they call to the bull, as I was not about to ruin their chances with my squawking). So up the mountain we go. Watching the interactions between the callers and the bull was pretty impressive to say the least. I had never been fortunate enough to see a calling sequence quite like this since I’m so new to the game, but it was fun to get to be a part of a mature bull coming into a challenge bugle looking to beat the hell out of a youngster for encroaching on his territory and harem of cows. Although none of the three bows in the group were able to get off a shot, it was well worth the time and effort of going up that mountainside- smelling, seeing, and hearing a bull approaching, even if I only got to see his head and antlers from thirty yards distance scanning the area for his aggressor. After he realized something just wasn’t adding up, he turned the other way and skedaddled up the hill never to be seen again. We made a quick stop for a trail lunch, shot the bull about shooting bulls, and talked about just being happy to play the game- as another group of guys that were born and raised hunting are known to talk of. We laughed about how bad we all smelled and then headed back to the truck. Once we got to the top of the mountain, said call manufacturer was gracious enough to give me some calls for my trouble- even though it was really my treat to get to learn what little I was able to absorb from their elky interactions. All in all, it was a great morning and I was glad to make the small connections to a few other good dudes in the outdoor world with myself.
Two weeks later in the same general area, I was skirting a ridge glassing the opposite side of the drainage above a few wallows when I heard a stick break on a bench just below my vantage point. I heard some cow calling and quickly realized there was someone below me working his way up the mountain to my level. Not five minutes later, I spotted the caller just fifty yards up the trail from my position. I approached slowly, not wanting to startle him or any other animals that might be in the immediate area (like the 5×5 I was at full draw on the weekend before…).
We got to talking about hunting and where all we had been exploring, doing the usual sizing up of one another and not being entirely truthful about what we’ve seen and where we’ve seen it. We talked about bowhunting, target shooting, mutual friends, workplaces, wives, kids, dogs- you know the usual, casual conversations you could have with a complete stranger.
I pride myself in being able to make a pretty accurate judgement call on any strangers I meet, whether it’s at the local gas station or in the woods, so I came to the quick conclusion that this guy seemed like a really good person. He must have somewhat liked me as well, so we got each other’s names and exchanged Instagram handles. We wished one another luck and we went our separate ways, hoping to run into an old herd bull on the way out.
It wasn’t until later that I really realized who I had just talked to. I came to find out that the person I was speaking with has contributed to numerous high country mule deer archery books, killed just about every big game animal in the country, and is probably one of the best target archers in the west. Talk about humble- not like many of the celebrity hunting “professionals” that you see on Instagram. Just a solid guy with a killer instinct- the ultimate predator if you will.
The last day of season, I ran out for an abbreviated morning hunt. I really didn’t hear or see much- most of the elk were pressured enough that they have gotten back into deep holes in the timber- somewhere that only a suicidal solo hunter would dare to shoot an elk and face an all day pack out. Walking out the trail on the way to the truck, I ran into a guy carrying a recurve over his shoulder heading in for his afternoon hunt. Looking back on the situation, I really wish I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to head back home. Who knows what he did or who he was. From the way things had been going so far in the archery season, he was probably the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But who knows. Maybe he was just an ordinary person out for an ordinary hunt, just like myself. Regardless of what it was, I hope he had as much fun as I did chasing bulls through that timber this season.
The elk archery season has come and gone and I’m truly blessed for the wife that deals with my early mornings, the animals that play cat and mouse with me in the mountains, and the people I meet on the trail. I’ll miss it, but it’s only about 10 months from now that I’ll be chasing elk back in the high country again. I just can’t help but think- is it September yet?
You can follow Jimmy Laner on Instagram @idaho_archer