This epic weekend spent with the Mountain Man is logged into my life book as time well spent. It was opening weekend for elk on the mountain so naturally Tristan and I were on our way to elk camp on Friday night, armed with rifles, tags and excitement. There was a flurry of activity when we arrived, chatter planning out the morning hunt and prepping gear. We decided on a hunting strategy and hit the sack with alarms set and minds too busy to sleep. We awoke to darkness. That is always a good sign on opening morning. Coffee was drank, gear was rounded up and we set out in that blackness with high hopes. We were headed to a clear cut with a good vantage point and lots of elk history. Hints of sunlight tried to scare away the shadows but the heavy clouds were brave and refused to retreat for some time. Finally, enough light broke through and we were able to begin our hike into the damp lushness of the forest. It felt so good to be out there traipsing through the beauty as if we belonged there in that spot all along. When I am in those places I feel like I am finally home. We enjoyed a nice hike to the clearcut and stayed there awhile, glassing and searching the area for elk sign before continuing on. We ended up making a nice thorough search through the area and while finding sign of recent elk occupancy, we determined they were no longer in the area at that moment and headed back to camp.
The afternoon was dedicated to rounding up some firewood. Since this activity put us in the heart of elk habitat again and at the wise suggestion of the Mountain Man, we brought the rifles along on the journey. We hopped in the truck and took to the dirt road on a mission. We worked quickly and had a full load of wood in the truck in no time. On our way out of the area we kept our eyes open for any sign of elk on the looming hillside opposite us. The Mountain Man has a trained game eye and picked up on something at the top of the hill over 1000 yards away…elk. We stopped and glassed up at them. There were a few cows along with one bull in the group. Gear was grabbed up and we started the arduous trek up the hill…mountain…it was steep. We trudged along at a steady pace in order to get to the top quickly but still be able to make a steady shot once we crested the hill. What seemed like a never-ending ladder of rocks and grass finally topped out and we were met with a gorgeous view. It feels as if you are on top of the world up there. We still had a short walk along the top of the ridge before we would be directly above the elk. We snuck along trying to avoid the dried balsamroot leaves that act as a natural alarm for wildlife, alerting them to the presence of anything walking in the area. Constant scanning of the hillside below us revealed nothing but yellow mountain grasses, timbered areas and steep ruddy country. Finally, I looked down through a brushy patch and froze…something dark was looking at me. I moved my head slowly, trying to make out the form…it appeared to be an elk head and neck but I wasn’t sure. When it moved I was convinced and hurried to bring up my gun. Suddenly I realized it was a spike…off limits. He turned on his hock and ran and as he did a group of cows bedded behind him sprang to their feet and fled also, disappearing as quickly as a frosty breath. We knew the stalk was probably over but continued on in hopes that there were others nearby…no such luck. We finished the hike back down the mountain and knew we would be returning there come daybreak. The mountain was covered with elk sign and it was obvious they liked this spot. We went back to camp and got some sweet sleep. Up again before the sun with coffee in our bellies and ambition in our souls we made our way back to that ridge top. We stalked around the area making a lot of elk sign discoveries but determined we had effectively cleared the area of the elk the day before.
As we began to work our way back down, another friend on this morning’s hunt with us, spotted a bull a long ways off. He was just casually feeding below a small patch of bald, winter ready aspen. A hill between us and the bull seemed to be the best approach to getting in close enough for a shot. Haste was made, hills were climbed and lungs were worked until we were a few steps from coming into the sight of the bull. Tristan had a bull tag so he got low and snuck the last remaining feet. I knew the instant he saw him as he froze for a moment before getting into prone and ranging the still feeding elk. Three calculated shots shattered the stillness. The bull disappeared behind a patch of young firs and didn’t come back out. Tristan said every shot felt good and he kept shooting only because the bull had not reacted to the shots at all. We watched the hillside 400 yards away just waiting for him to step out. The Mountain Man and Tristan decided to head over to the other side and see what they could find while Bill and I kept an eye out from our vantage point. Once they made it to the place the bull was grazing it took only a couple minutes to find him piled up in those fir trees with three perfect shots placed right behind the shoulder.
We took some time to just enjoy the scenery, company and story as snowflakes began to fall. Gutted and hanging in the barn this bull began to tell us his story as we skinned him out. We discovered signs of an epic battle between him and a rival bull. A battle which he undoubtedly lost. It was evident in the gore wounds he had in his shoulder and the hock that was rendered useless by extreme swelling. He had been in this condition so long that his hindquarter above the massive hock was gaunt and atrophied. That is why he had not lost all of his velvet and appropriately earned himself the nickname, Ragged Raghorn. This winter would have been very difficult for him if he had survived it at all and it felt nice to know he had been able to enjoy the last warm day on the mountain this year. His life ended as the first flakes began to swirl and the wind turned bitter and biting. Nature can be cruel but sometimes things just seem to make sense.
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