Striking Gold in October’s Elk Hunt
By Gary Lewis
There comes a tipping point. You can throw up your hands and go home or you can come at the problem from another angle. In the Burnt River country you can see where dreams made it to the tipping point. Here they took gold by pick, by pan and by water blast.
The names that prospectors gave the features of the land speak of hope, hard work and homesickness: Texas Butte, California Mountain, Dixie Creek, Eldorado Pass, Gold Ridge.
A hanging tree, a weathered Ponderosa pine, bears mute testimony to frontier justice. A broken down two-room house of ill-repute stands where lonely miners were separated from their metal.
The towns that sprang up in the rush for gold are all but gone – only foundations and chimneys remain. They all reached a tipping point – the place where people made the decision to stick it out or head home. Some went broke, others made a living, a few made fortunes.
Our problem was that we were two-and-a-half days into a five-day hunt and we hadn't located the main elk herd yet. But we were getting close.
We were on the trail with Steve Mathers of Battle Creek Outfitters in the Burnt River Mountains. Bill Moe and I carried tags good for any elk and I'd passed up a shot at a cow elk on the first day. Since then we'd seen several young mule deer bucks, blue grouse, wild turkeys and Hungarian partridge. No more elk. It was time to try something different.
The elk had gathered into large groups, according to one cowboy we spoke to. It was up to us to find them.
We looked for elk on the edges. The edge of meadows, where canyons rose to saddles, where tree lines gave way to alpine, where lava flow ran into timber, where mountain mahogany met the timberline. Mostly, we looked for the tipping point.
"Coyote!" Bill said.
Steve slammed on the brakes and I rolled out of the truck, tipped the bipod into play and prone, found the coyote bouncing through the sage. He was over a hundred yards away, about to crest the hill when he stopped and risked a look back. My crosshair drifted into his vitals and I took two-and-a-half pounds of pressure out of the trigger. And tipped him over.
There is a feeling among some hunters that you don't shoot the coyote because you might spook the elk. I've long believed that you shoot the coyote to deserve the chance at the elk. Regardless, I knew we'd found our tipping point.
Ten minutes later we turned a bend in the road and stopped. Peering through my 10x42 Alpens, I scanned the ridgeline.
We found them against the sky. Three cow elk stood sky-lined over 800 yards away. Steve backed the truck around the hill, out of sight and parked. We climbed to the top of the ridge and, on our bellies, glassed the skyline.
Elk were strung for hundreds of yards in both directions, in bands of eight to ten in each of the draws above us. A big bull strutted back and forth among his cows. Several smaller bulls orbited, moving in and out of the mountain mahogany and aspen thickets. A bugle drifted from the timber. Two hours of daylight and time to make a play.
The wind was not in our favor. We'd have to make the approach from the west and the breeze would carry our scent straight to the elk. There were some beeves in the way and we let them ease off before we slipped up the hill. More elk were on the hill in front of us. We backed down the hill and went further west up a canyon and over the top. Light was fading fast.
The next canyon had water. With the cold air moving down the mountain our scent would be swept downhill instead of into the herd. I crossed the creek and looked back. Steve was right behind me. On top, the wind was blowing to the elk. I took out a bottle of Elk Bomb and sprayed a cloud to cover my scent. Sky-lined now, I tipped my hat off and skinned on my belly through the sage. Two elk were on the far hillside. Both quartered away, looking uphill. I signed to Steve for the range.
"Three-twelve," he whispered, between ragged breaths.
Behind the rifle, I eased into the shade of a mountain mahogany and took a rest on a low-hanging limb. The crosshair bounced with my pulse and settled for the high hold. I squeezed and rocked with the recoil. 40 elk streamed over the hill toward us, a five-point in the lead, followed by dozens of cows and more bulls. Daylight was gone by the time we made it to where the elk had been.
My elk traveled 85 yards and came to rest on a hill just above the road. It was the next morning when I returned. Temperatures in the 20s kept the meat from spoiling overnight.
Before I began the good hard work of carving the meat from the animal, I climbed back up the hill to get my hat and saw the herd again. 14 animals fed on the hillside above me, about 200 yards away. Two nice bulls were in the group. I took some pictures and continued on my way. Less than five minutes later, I heard the boom of Bill's 270 Winchester. Bill and Steve had been stalking that herd while I was taking their pictures.
There is still gold in those mountains. You can see it in the groves of October's aspens in the heads of the draws. A few miners work claims for color and shine still shows in pans washed in the creeks. Next time I draw that tag, I'll take a page from the history of the country, put in the time it takes to reach the tipping point, and try to make that good hard work pay off again.