Mining the Wilderness for Elk in Archery Season
By Gary Lewis
At the crest of the mountains where the John Day River begins its journey to the Columbia and the Powder River flows east, a rusty wheelbarrow stands silent testimony to the history of our region. Chinese immigrants once struggled to earn their way in this new land and grizzled miners pulled their fortune from the unforgiving granite.
We climbed almost 1000 feet in the first hour, emerging in a basin atop the ridge, the tops of our legs burning and our lungs gasping for air. Stunted pines and hemlocks perched in the granite outcroppings and green timber stood straight and tall in the protected saddle that led to the other side of the mountains.
We set up in a grove of young pine trees, then put two shooters out in front while the other four pulled back. After a few minutes we began to call, mimicking the sounds of a group of elk with calf calls, chirps, and mews. Within minutes, a spike bull ran in and stopped about 20 yards, turning to run when he spotted one of our hunters behind a tree.
After the initial call, we split into two groups of three and hunted the draws to the north and south, setting up to call in each drainage. We saw more grouse than elk, though and watched mule deer feeding in the aspens.
The next morning we climbed again, into another drainage. Where the creeks come together, we headed to the right and moved up on the benches, calling softly to suggest we were a small band of elk on the move. On the third bench, we set up in a marshy area where the pickerel weed grows tall and the downed timber creates a tangle of cover that easily concealed the three of us.
15 minutes into the calling we heard a clatter of hooves and rolling rock on the ridge above. We strained to see them through the bleached skeletons of dead timber on the slope. A bull screamed at us, part mystical bugle, part Black Angus bawl, as if to demand we show ourselves before he came any closer. Todd bugled back, but the bull went quiet again.
We located where the bull had called from, pinpointing a bench high above us, then withdrew, planning to come back in the late afternoon to call him again. Between 10:00 and 2:00 we climbed another 800 feet to lunch and nap in a grove of twisted pines where the mountains met the sky.
Storm clouds gathered while we slept and lightning crackled in the sky as we made our way along the ridgetop. For a time, we discussed seeking shelter below the ridge, but the burned timber didn't seem a logical place to go as the winds were building and limbs were snapping.
For a moment we paused to marvel at the ancient abandoned wheelbarrow perched at the crest of the ridge. Who had decided that a wheelbarrow would be useful up here? And who had left it when it was just too hard to push anymore? What treasure were they pushing?
We used the ridge as cover, approaching the big bull's bench from above. In a draw, we called again. If the bull had been there, he would have heard us. Set up along three different elk trails, we waited in vain. After the calling sequence was over, we followed along the ridge and found the trail of the bull that had screamed at us in the morning.
After the bugle and our answering calls, instead of coming in, the bull had hooked downwind of our calling position. We found his tracks and those of his six cows. They led to an overlook where the elk had looked down on our set-up and listened to us. With the wind blowing from us to them, they caught our scent.
Their tracks led off the ridge, clearing deadfall and young pine trees in a single bound. The tracks told the story. We had tricked the elk, but the ultimate joke was on us, because for six hours we had hunted a herd that had left the area.
It took almost an hour to negotiate the downed timber that the elk had cleared in less than five minutes. I gained a new measure of respect for these animals we hunt who survive constant pressure from bears and lions, who endure deep winter snow and forest fire, and are so hard to find in September and October.
While we hunted a herd that wasn't there, the other half of our party was on the other side of the ridge, set up on the tree line.
Troy Neimann set up beneath the arms of a weathered hemlock and watched Rob and Todd Hakala blend into their surroundings using the camouflage of fallen trees and stunted pines.
Troy began to call, mimicking the plaintive mew of an elk. Todd and Rob answered, creating the illusion of a small group of feeding cows and calves.
The bull came out of the draw at a trot. He swung his head from side to side, looking for the source of the cow calls. Before Troy could draw, the elk headed straight for him. Pinned down, without a shooting lane, all Troy could do was watch. But Todd was able to draw his bow unseen.
For 15 years, Todd had hunted elk with his bow. For 15 years, his dream of taking an elk with his bow had gone unfulfilled. He'd successfully taken deer and other game, but he wanted an elk and here it was.
The arrow streaked away, connecting the hunter to his quarry. Hit too far back, the elk headed down into the trees. Shadows lengthened and the hunters marked the trail for the return in the morning. By late-morning the next day, Todd and Rob had found the bull. Todd was able to notch his first elk tag and they started the three-mile hike out carrying the meat on their backs.
That evening we sat in camp and watched the sun going down on a season we'd all remember. I looked at the tops of those mountains and marveled again at the hard work and the confidence that drove those early miners in that unforgiving country. I'm thankful that the elk outlasted them. And thankful for the struggle that validates our pursuit of treasure in the wilderness.