Idaho, September 2nd, 2017 - I wasn't planning on elk hunting this weekend until literally last Wednesday. I was going to hunt deer closer to home, but I figured this weekend would be a good scouting trip for later this month. Thursday night I threw my pack together and got everything I needed set aside so I could grab and go after work.
I skipped out of the office early, and was able to make it to the mountain with enough time to setup my shelter and do some glassing before sunset.
I only saw one elk (a young 5x5) Friday night, but he snuck past me at 50yds without giving me a good shot. I didn't hear any bugles or other elk sounds. There was absolutely zero wind, which made it eerily quiet. There weren't any bugs or birds making sounds either. With the almost full moon on top of the silence, it was one of the strangest nights I've ever slept outside.
I was up and at it around 5am and got to the spot I wanted to glass from 30 minutes before shooting light. I found several groups of elk, and tried making my way to the closest herd before the thermals switched. There was almost zero wind and you could hear a church mouse; moving in close was pretty much impossible. I made it to within 200yds before the elk showed me how important cardio is. They moved across the valley faster than I'd ever be able to, and they were gone.
Since it was so quiet I figured my best chance of killing something would be to sit in a pinch point that had 2 wallows and several trails skirting the edge of the meadow. It was also pretty warm, so you never know when something will come down to water.
Off to the right, and tucked away from the large meadow in the picture, was a nice thick patch of grass which had a lot of elk tracks and droppings in it. The wind was perfect for anything that would come into the large meadow or the opening to my right. So I nestled myself between 3 large spruces and got comfortable.
Sitting in one spot is not my favorite thing to do, so I spent the time playing with different settings on my camera. Around noon, while I was taking some long exposure shots of the flowing water next to me, a large bull with a split G3 came out on the other side of the meadow. He was the biggest bull I had on trail camera, and he looked a lot bigger in person. He was too far for a shot, and there was no way to sneak closer.
By the time I put my binoculars back in the harness, picked up the camera, and realizing (after pressing the shutter) I had the exposure set WAY too long, the bull was gone. He slurped some water, laid down in the wallow for a few seconds then left. I missed the shot with my camera. Rookie move.
Other than seeing the big bull, the day as a whole was utterly boring. The only sounds were the occasional squirrel dropping a pine cone or barking at me. I split my time between napping and snapping pics of everything around me.
I was happy to be in the woods. No emails to answer, no technology to distract me (other than my camera), and no sign of other people. I was alone with my thoughts, and enjoying the solitude. It was the most peaceful 8 hours of my life....
Until I heard a branch break on the other side of the creek, and saw an antler through the trees.
I don't know if the animal was bedded right there or if he somehow snuck in without me hearing it. Regardless, I ranged the spot I thought he would walk through. As I ranged it, he stepped into view through my rangefinder and stopped to tickle his antlers on a small fir tree. 61.7yds. He looked familiar.
I dropped the rangefinder, adjusted my slider, and drew back. At full draw I chuckled inwardly as I realized I hadn't set my feet properly. I didn't want to cut corners and possibly mess up the shot, so I let down my bow, fixed my feet, and went through my shot sequence properly this time. I floated my pin on his chest and executed a crisp release. The familiar pop of a double lung hit was matched with blood coming out of both sides as he turned and ran up the hill out of sight.
A few seconds of running, a cough and the sound of lungs deflating were followed by the crash of a large animal falling down a steep hill. It was silent for a few more seconds, then animals were running everywhere. Some went up the scree slope above the meadow. While others ran through the thick woods. I knew the animal I shot was dead, but I always proceed with caution after a shot. Hearing all of the animals take off put a small amount of doubt in my mind, but I was confident in my shot.
I don't know when it happened, but sometime between shooting my first deer when I was 12 and now, I've gotten over the adrenaline rush. If you'd have seen me shooting this animal, you wouldn't have been able to tell if I was even excited. In the heat of the moment I block out everything and focus entirely on accomplishing the task of killing the animal in front of me. I am definitely excited, but I don't feel any of it. I wouldn't make a good TV hunter.
As the mental video of the shot and post shot events rolled through my mind, I took a knee, exhaled for the first time in a while, and then sat with my back against the large, old spruce tree I spent all day under. Over the next 20 minutes I sat taking it all in and reflecting on my life's events which brought me to this point
As a kid growing up in WI, images of hunting in the mountains only existed in magazines, TV shows, and my dreams. My passion for hunting has burned bright since before my first memories when my father took me hunting and fishing. Since then I've walked far more wilderness than I ever dreamt I could, and I've killed animals in places I didn't even know existed. I have been extremely blessed to have experienced as much as I have. Tucked away in this remote drainage, far away from the places that lit my passion, I was living my dream.
After finding my arrow, I texted my buddy on my Garmin inReach, and took up the blood trail. Momentary doubt set in as I didn't find much blood for the first 20 yards. I took it slow to avoid bumping him. I could have mistaken a lung hit for a liver hit, and didn't want to mess it up. 50 yards into the tracking job the figurative faucet turned on and my doubts were gone. Another few paces of easy tracking and there he was. He rolled about 20 yards down the hill and died less than 50 yards from where I arrowed him. I couldn't have been more happy with him and the experience.
He's the same 6x6 I got on my trail camera in mid August.
And then the work started. This bull was 4 miles away from the truck with a 2k foot climb in between. I packed my first load back to camp that night and slept until 6am before continuing the pack. I did it in 3 loads and it took 15.5 hours to get the last load back to the truck.
To summarize, I cannot express how grateful I am to be able to hunt these amazing beasts. Those of you who were born out west and grew up in the elk woods are truly blessed. Having relocated to the West from Wisconsin, I am constantly humbled by the vast wild places and the animals that call those places home. Getting it done solo in an over-the-counter unit on public land is what dreams are made of for many kids back east.
If you're on the fence or have always wanted to go elk hunting don't be afraid to JUST DO IT! You don't need expensive gear, a guide, or someone else's spot. You just need dedication and determination. You may not kill something at first, but I promise you'll find what you came for. You will succeed in some aspect of life simply through the experience of hunting the mountains.
-CJ Steffen, Average Joe Hunting