Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Spike Only, REALLY?

Last year's 2nd bull season was a blast, if you enjoy wilderness camping and no elk.  We did manage to eat 4 pounds of Tillamook Medium Cheddar Cheese and a 3 ft beef stick with other tasty morsels, but mostly we just enjoyed the country, the company, and eventually the constipation.  But my boys put 42 miles on their boots in 4 days of hunting and only saw 4 cows a mile and a half away.  I hunted a less remote unit the first season and killed a spike.  This caused minor upheavals and the desire to kill a branch bull was outweighed by the chances of killing an elk; I had seen many more elk than 4 in the few days I hunted.

Not too many years ago, before hound hunting was banned in Oregon, we had good populations of deer and elk.  With unregulated predator numbers the hunting has deteriorated to a bleak existence.  When we moved back to Oregon the kids were excited.  They have heard the stories of successful hunts, they have seen the pictures and all the antlers hanging in the shed, they have also spent enough time in the mountains to know that NE Oregon has what it takes to be a hunting mecca.   Having lived and hunted in Wyoming makes this fact even harder to accept; they have seen good hunting, they know it exists, they know what good country looks like and they understand habitat and carrying capacity.  NE Oregon has the country, the habitat, the space, we just don't have the herds we once did.

Corey is a JV football player and his last game is today, October 25th, the second day of the first bull season.   He didn't hunt yesterday because he has to be at school to play, so it was just Tyler and Dad.  We decided to hunt where I killed my bull last year.  The snow this year was close to 8 inches deep, it was fresh, new powder that silenced most of our stumbles on the steep hillside.  The air was crisp with a winter-like bite.  The clouds hung heavy on the mountain top with intermittent fog/clouds keeping our visibility down to a minimum; it reminded me of my first elk hunt that happened on these same ridges Tyler and I hunted yesterday.

That hunt took place 28 years ago, when I was 12, and my dad had been out scouting for me and had found a nice bunch of elk with a lone spike.  He had given up bull hunting by that time hunting cows every year.  He knew the chances of killing a late season cow was better than an early season bull and with 5 kids to feed and a big freezer to fill antlers became less important.  I could have drawn a tag with him, but I wanted a bull.

Dad didn't argue or even try to persuade me to hunt cows with him, all I got was an, 'are you sure?'  So, with limited time off, one horse, and me in school dad found a herd of elk on Mt. Emily for me to hunt.  We borrowed uncle Sig's 4x4 truck to make it through all the snow we had that year and dad and I left EARLY; it was a good thing too.  A tree had fallen in the night and Sig didn't have chains, an ax, or even a jack in the truck.  Dad used his bone saw to cut the tree through and then manhandled it out of the way, just far enough to the truck through; we were still on time.  To put this in perspective the tree required cutting from both sides to get all the way through.  I sat in the old, tan Chevy and roasted in my winter clothes while dad worked hard to make sure I was successful.  I remember on the trip dad hit a bump that jostled us so bad I bounced off the seat and hit my head on the crossbeam that vehicle manufacturers conveniently place right where your head would hit if something like that happened.  We got a good laugh out of it and I got a nice goose egg.

The elk were right where dad had bedded them the night before, except the spike had wandered off.  When we spotted the elk in the draw we made a mad dash down hill so I had a clear shot through the trees.  I remember dad slipped and fell, sliding down the steep hill on his back side looking completely in control.  He jumped up, rifle ready and in good shape, waiting for me to catch up and make the shot.  I remember giggling from excitement!  It was funny to watch my dad eat it, but I remember thinking how cool it was that he was so natural in that setting.  The fall would have flustered most men and the recovery would have been awkward and difficult in the deep snow with a pack frame on, but not for dad, it was like it was an everyday occurrence, a mild interruption to an otherwise normal day..........I wanted to be just like him, I've always wanted to be just like him!  Because of the time he spent with me I'd have so say I have come pretty close.  Today I was him and Tyler was me, but this time there was a spike in the herd. 

Tyler and I dropped off the top, made our way through an alder thicket, and side-hilled around toward the thickets to our south.  We were half way there, I had stopped and was having a good conversation about life with Ty, when he spotted a bull below us; he saw the antlers move as the bull turned its head. We glassed the area good but never did see another elk.  The bull, just 60 yards away, finally trotted back from where he came.  We hustled along finding a small clearing torn up with elk sign; we'd bumped a good sized herd.  We moved slowly through the trees glassing as we went and finally heard the calves talking ahead and a little above us.  We circled above them but found our path would take us through an old burn where we'd be in the open, so we dropped back down and continued along our original path.  

Ty spotted them first, 10 or so elk, feeding in the trees above us; despite the swirling wind they never smelled us.  We stood still and I glassed the heads looking for spikes.  All we saw were branch bulls and cows.  A 6-point finally noticed us and stood statue still watching us for 5 minutes, completely in the open and less than 75 yards away.  It would have been an easy shot and Ty whispered he wished we were in a unit branch bulls were legal, but we weren't and had to be content just watching.  Soon we had 3 branch bulls in front of us with a "spike".  He was definitely a yearling, but he had a crown of 3 tines on his left and a forked antler on his right so all we could do was watch.  It took close to 10 minutes for the elk to finally get nervous and move off behind us, where we all came from.  I found a spike just as they were leaving but it was through thick cover and Ty didn't have a shot.  

We tracked them down and I spotted 2 of the branch bulls in thick, new-growth trees at the top end of the draw.  I soon found other elk and finally found the spike.  Ty and I belly crawled through the snow to a good shooting position. Ty was freezing as the sweat had dried, the wind was blowing, and he was layered for hiking, not sitting in the snow watching elk.  The bull finally was clear of the cows and Ty put a well placed bullet into its chest; his follow up shot was a little too far back, but sealed the deal.  The bull walked out of sight and we waited....................there wasn't a sound from him going down in the snow, but cows ran up out of the thicket of small trees he'd entered and looked back, nervously. I told Ty he had his bull; elk don't act like that unless something is wrong.  

I left Tyler to watch and make sure a wounded bull didn't slip away while we looked for  him.  I could smell him before I saw him, he hadn't gone far.  We quickly called everyone on the cell phone (its amazing how easy it is to communicate with the world with today's technology) and took some pictures.  The pack out wasn't bad, two trips each, and we were home before dark.  

Two days later we jumped those elk again, this time with Corey.  We tracked them across another mile of county and I finally found a spike in thick trees.  Corey and I crawled through deeper snow to a vantage point above the thickly treed draw the elk had stopped in.  He had to snake a bullet through a huge Doug fir halfway to the elk as well as the opening in the trees immediately around the bull.  The bullet was deflected and his follow up shot was just a click; he had ejected the spent shell but failed to move the bolt far enough to grab the next one.  There was no blood and we followed the elk to edge of private property a mile from where he shot.  We jumped a HUGE 6x6 in the trees on our way back to Ty but never caught up with the spike again.  We enjoyed a hot fire, some food, and the scenery before climbing out of that hole to where the truck waited.  We went bass fishing on the Snake River the next day instead of hunting elk again; it was Corey's choice.  It was an incredible day of fishing with lots of smiles and pictures.   Our freezers were pretty much full and Abbie still had a deer tag to fill, we had two elk already in the freezer and the Swedes were coming for the 2nd bull season; we had time to fish.   

I often think of that day with my dad 28 years ago, specifically when I look at the outline of the mountain or talk of elk hunting.  The fact that I didn't get a bull that day, that someone below us, without a tag, shot 4 bulls out of a big group we were watching at 250 yards is inconsequential to me now.  The most vivid memory I have is of my dad sliding down the hill in the deep snow and the excitement I felt to be with him, sharing the experience and being allowed to love what he loved and to make memories, ones that would one day be stories I could tell those that would listen, of a wonderful day that shaped me as a hunter and more importantly as a father.