Backcountry Idaho Elk hunt
The first half of September had already come and gone. The days are noticeably getting shorter. In those first few weeks I was lucky enough to have been apart of three successful bow hunts! The first two hunts my father and I were able to take nice mule deer bucks. However, the last hunt I was on was an archery Bull elk hunt where my buddy took a huge 350 Washington Bull! That elk hunt had elk bugles echoing in my ears and huge herd bulls chasing cows in my dreams. With Darrick’s elk hunt still vivid in my memory it was now time for me to head to Idaho with an elk tag in my pocket. I had been planning this Idaho hunt for a solid two months. The plan was to take a string of horses into Idaho’s unforgiving backcountry for ten days; my two buddies Chris Swanson and Jeff Bruce would be hunting with me.
SO IT BEGINS
As we arrived at the trailhead I was super excited. This spot Jeff had hunted in the past and even had some luck and shot a nice 6x6 bull. With it being his spot and his horses Jeff lead the way down the trail as Chris and I followed. Twelve miles later We Arrived at the same spot Jeff had camped before. With the last couple hours in the day we set up camp as I told stories about Darrick’s Washington hunt, Jeff told his stories about elk on all the different ridges that lay below our camp, and Chris told stories about all the close encounters he had had in Washington this season and just didn’t quite connect with an elk.
As any hunter knows sleep is nearly impossible the night before you go hunting, this night was no different as all three of us tossed and turned all night. But as the sun crept up over the horizon that morning we could hear elk bugling below us and we suddenly no longer cared about how tired we were. We could tell there were at least two different bulls bugling back and forth and we figured one was a good herd bull. Chris and I couldn’t take it any longer and we took off down the ridge and headed into the jungle of thick timber, trying to close the distance between us and that deep-raspy bugle below.
INSTANTLY INTO ELK!
As we head down the ridge conditions were perfect. The wind was gently blowing in our face as the thermals brought the aroma of elk urine up the canyon. We could smell elk everywhere, and kept running into saplings torn to shreds from rutting bulls. The bugling battle below us continued and we just kept creeping closer and closer. Chris would let out an occasional cow call now and then to help cover any twigs we snapped making our way though the trees. After dropping about 400 feet in elevation we hear twigs snap in front of us. Chris was up first and he knocked an arrow and readied his bow. He Let out another cow call and within seconds we see a tan flash of hair moving in the trees, Chris draws and out steps a spike. Chris isn’t opposed to shooting a spike. Although after his tuff luck in WA earlier in the season he was sure temped! However, after a tuff mental battle Chris opted to pass on the bull and only because it was the first day and there was still bugles echoing in the canyon below us. After he lets down his bow he turns back to me and says what we all say after we pass on an animal: “hope I don’t regret that later”.
FIRST DAY LUCK
The spike never did know what we were and he just moved off without spooking and alerting the other elk of our presence. So we pressed on and continued to drop elevation, and the bugles of the herd bull were getting a lot closer. Still using the same hunting tactic of just cow calling now and then to cover our noisy travel. All at once we were seeing fresh sign and smelling that unmistakable smell of elk, we knew we had to be getting really close! Chris and I had dropped quite a ways down at this point and were almost to the bottom of the canyon. At this point travel was difficult due to dead fallen trees, thick underbrush, and steep terrain dropping straight down to the creek below. With the smell of elk in the air we were much more cautious and alert expecting to see an elk around any tree. Then I stepped on a twig and it popped pretty loud. Next Chris followed my snapping noise with a cow call. Then all at once we hear movement not 40 yards in front of us. Chris was a couple steps in front of me and could see antlers coming through the brush and instantly draws his bow. The bull pauses for a good thirty seconds then took the last few steps that Chris needed for a clear shot. At no more than 12 yards Chris lets loose and the arrow disappears right behind the shoulder of a nice five point bull!! I was so happy for Chris especially after such hard luck that he had been having in WA. What was crazy about the whole thing though is the other two bulls were still bugling and fighting over cows below us. There was still lots of elk in the canyon and 9 days left to hunt!!
September has cold crisp mornings followed by hot burning afternoons; too hot to just hang meat in the tree. So Jeff and Chris loaded the horses and mules and hauled Chris’s bull back to the trail head, then all the way into town to keep at the meat locker until the end of the hunt. This gave me a day by myself to hunt which was fairly unproductive and frustrating because it seemed like everywhere I went the wind would switch and be blowing right at my back.
The next day wasn’t any better for me but Jeff came back to camp with some good stories about some satellite bulls he ran into but opted to pass on. Jeff passed on three bulls that day! That afternoon a stormed rolled in and it rained for two days completely changing the hunt. The bulls shut up and completely quit bugling. Because of the changed behavior we had to make a little different game plan and pretty much still-hunt these elk. What I mean by still-hunting is get into areas where the elk sign is fresh and sit until a bull walks by. Still-hunting is a good tactic and I know lots of people kill elk this way. However, its just not my favorite tactic for I am a spot and stock type of hunter. So Jeff told me to go sit where he had ran into those satellite bulls before. Well all three of us decided to go there and we picked one of the few openings that was in that area and sat at the top of it. The opening was probably 150 yards long and 200 yards wide, perfect area for the elk to come out and graze. I am not kidding you we were not sitting there for even an hour when Jeff looked up and a rag horn bull stepped out of the trees and began feeding. Well I started looking for shooting lanes and ranging different trees and bushes that I assumed the bull would walk out from behind. And wouldn’t you know it he did walk out from behind one of the bushes I ranged at 55 yards. 55 yards is well within my comfort zone and in my mind this was a dead elk standing. So I settled my pin and let fly. Whack!! The bull spins and takes off into the trees. From the sound of imapct Jeff and Chris though I drilled him. But I knew better for I had watched the arrow fall short and hit a log! I knew what happened right away, I had forgot to compensate for the bull stepping out from behind the bush putting him at approximately 65-70 yards. Frustration sets in and I knew better than that since I had done that exact same thing on a bull the year before! But Chris and Jeff reminded me that this is bow hunting and all you can ask for in bow hunting is a chance! Luckily it wasn’t a giant bull so I was able to bounce back rather quickly and continue on with the hunt. Jeff said he was going to go check out a different ridge and parted ways with Chris and I.
Textbook calling senquence
Chris and I went back to camp that afternoon to check my bow to make sure it was on and to get started on dinner. All of the sudden over the two way radio we hear Jeff say: “you guys have a copy?”. Chris answers “yeah man what’s up” Jeff: “well I am over here by the rock point and I got a bull that answered my call over on the other side down towards the bottom. I think he sounds like a good one. I am gonna go kill him”. Then the signal kind of cut out as Chris and I wished him luck. There was only an hour of daylight left, if that, and we were not sure he was going to get it done. So Chris and I made up some chili mac with some grouse that I had shot at camp that evening. Bed time rolls around and still no sign of Jeff, we assume that he connected with the bull and is probably hanging it up for the night. Sure enough! Jeff rolls in covered in blood and tells the story to us saying it was a Textbook calling sequence and the bull worked perfectly! Jeff said that he bugled off the rock point and a narly-deep sounding bugle answered from a tree patch below. Knowing that Jeff was running out of light he took off running at the bull through the trees trying to sound like another bull coming to a challenge. Once Jeff neared the bottom he let out a challenge bugle and the big bull screamed back. Jeff then counter bugled and cut the big bull off. This made the bull furious and he came charging in! Jeff made a few adjustments and got into position and came to full draw. The Bull stepped out and kept walking right towards Jeff. 30 yards, 20 yards, when the bull got to 15 yards he let out a long drawn out bugle with loud chuckles at the end. Jeff said it was a bugle he would never forget. As soon as he quit bugling WHACK! Jeff puts it right in the boiler room! It was a great bull, a nice 6X6!
As Jeff Packed his bull back to the truck Chris and I put in a solid last day effort. We hiked all over the countryside trying to locate a bull. Finally as we sat down to eat lunch I let out a cow all and we hear a soft chuckle not 300 yards below us. It was on! Well this was the herd bull and we worked him hard and tried every trick in the book but still couldn’t get him away from his cows. We did get a glimpse of him at about 150 yards through the trees and he was a nice 6x7, just a Stud of a bull! I am sure he didn’t get to be that big by being dumb either.
After chasing that bull around Chris and I went back to camp and began to pick up camp as we reminisced about the week. All three of us really got everything we came for. Yeah I didn’t get a bull, but 2/3 elk tags notched on an over-the-counter-tag archery hunt is still really good! And I even had a shot at a bull. So, overall there were no complaints from any of us. We had an amazing trip into untouched wilderness and came out with some amazing stories. As Jeff, Chris and I rode the horses out; we couldn’t help but talk about next year and if we would have the chance to return to the Idaho backcountry together.