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Accurate Powder
Rifle Magazine
July - August 2003
Volume 1, Number 4
Number 4
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Elk photo by Gary Leppart
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Experienced elk hunters in my native Montana do not camp where they intend to hunt. Conversation, firewood-splitting and horses neighing drive off nearby elk. Within a couple days, mountain winds circulate the various camp stinks even farther. Soon you’re camping in an elkless canyon.

Nearby elk were one of many things that made the camp at the head of the Prophet River so different. “Camp” is perhaps not the right word for a small Canadian village. Log and frame buildings were scattered across the clearing for perhaps 300 yards, beside a corral capable of holding 20-odd horses. Below camp lay an airstrip that averaged a plane a day. Half a dozen men, two women and a big dog talked, barked, rang bells and shouted at horses all day long. We had electrical generators, a hot shower, propane cook stoves and a radio-phone. It was a “wilderness” camp only because it would take an experienced wilderness wanderer several days to walk to any other particle of civilization.

Yet we were surrounded by elk. We often saw herds traveling the ridge behind camp, and as September progressed these included mature bulls. The bulls usually showed when guides and hunters hunted elsewhere. The cook would glass the elk and that evening report on how many legal 6-points she’d seen during the afternoon.

This might have been discouraging, except we also saw elk every day, often several mature bulls. A week into my 10-day hunt, Donny Davis and I rode up the steep, thick-timbered hill behind camp, our horses’ hooves cutting through the fresh prints of the “camp grizzly,” the bear the German shepherd barked at every night when the bruin tried to steal moose quarters from the meat house. The prints indicated a bear squaring more than 7 feet. Toward the ridge top we rode over the tracks of the wolf pack that had howled from the airstrip just before dawn.

When the trail leveled, we dismounted and started glassing the south-facing slopes. Soon I heard a bull bugle, and then Donny found them, way the heck up in the goat rocks above the grass-line. Through my 8x42s I saw the pale tan of the herd bull and a vague impression of long antlers and then the darker cows and calves, bedded on slide-rock like Stone sheep. As I looked the bull tilted his head back, and a few heartbeats later another faint bugle floated down to us. Donny couldn’t hear it, but I caught the high notes, though not the growls and grunts that normally flank a mature bull’s whistle.

”Six for sure on one side, maybe seven on the other,” Donny said, looking through his spotting scope. He looked at me, black eyes amused in his walnut-brown face. “Think you can hit him from here?”

I smiled. Early on I’d told him I wouldn’t shoot at a bull more than 300 yards away with my .300 Winchester Magnum, and only then if everything was absolutely perfect: the bull broadside, the angle not too steep and only the slightest of breezes. Donny had been fine with this until we got close to our first legal bull, about 24 hours before.

We’d been riding down the south slope of a main ridge when we heard a bugle. We followed the elk-music to a spruce-topped knob above a cliff, then tied the horses and eased through the trees. Below us a huge chunk of limestone had sloughed off the mountain several centuries ago, forming the cliff. The limestone slid half a mile, becoming another low ridge, parallel to the valley far below us. In the half-mile groove between our cliff and the limestone ridge were a pond and scattered stands of spruce and aspen. Soon the bull bugled again.

”There he is,” Donny said. “Six point! Coming through the trees on the other side of the pond.” Soon I saw him too, a big, heavy-antlered bull. He stopped on the shore of the pond and bugled, then grunted several times, muddy belly heaving like a miniature earthquake. Donny got out his range-finder. “It’s 285 to the far side of the pond.”

It looked farther than that. I raised the .300 and compared the bull to the reticle of the 6x Leupold. The math came out to 400 yards. “Let me see that thing,” I said. Donny handed me the magic laser machine, and I took a reading off the bull. “Four-oh-five,” I said, handing it back. “You must have ranged one of the treetops in between.”

Donny looked through his binocular again. “Big bull,” he said, hopefully. Evidently other hunters had been willing to shoot at distant elk. I shook my head. Least among my reasons was the fact that this was a “draw-blood” hunt. If a wounded animal got away, it counted as a kill. More North American outfitters use this system every year, which cuts down tremendously on long-range barrages. I’d paid for a two-animal hunt and had already taken a moose. If this elk got away wounded, my hunt was over.

But, again, this was the least of my reasons. I simply don’t shoot at game I’m not sure of killing with the first shot. Due to a random universe, sometimes it doesn’t work that way, but I always try to hold up my end of the deal: to kill cleanly and not take chances because of antler-lust or eager companions. The sun had already disappeared behind the western ridges, there was no time to find a way down the cliff, and an erratic wind curled through the knobs and ridges. On a level shooting range I could guarantee putting every bullet into an elk-heart target at 400 yards with this rifle, even in a steady breeze. But not here, not now - so the rifle stayed in my lap.

Donny cow-called but the bull wasn’t interested. He probably had some real cows in the timber. Soon he wandered across the ridge on the far side of the pond, and we mounted our horses and rode to camp, in darkness for the last hour, thoughts of grizzlies keeping us quite alert even though the day’s hunt was definitely over.

A day later Donny made his joke about shooting a bull at close to a mile, and I smiled. We decided to see what the elk would do as the sun headed down. Soon a cow stood, evidently a little stiff from sleeping on rocks, and then the rest rose too. They wandered downhill to grass and started feeding, the bull following. After a few minutes the bull started pushing them across the face of the mountain above us. “Six by seven,” Donny whispered, and looked at me. I shook my head again. “Too far.”

Many hunters believe that killing a September bull with a rifle is easy. Before this hunt I’d only done it with a bow, because few American states allow rifle hunting during the peak of the rut. Yet here we were, surrounded by elk, and after a week I had yet to load the chamber of the .300.

Part of this was because of British Columbia’s regulations: six tines on one antler. This was fine with me, for I didn’t travel to the northern wilderness to shoot the typical raghorn often taken on public land in Montana, even on horseback hunts. But I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to shoot even an illegal bull. Most elk ranged above timberline, often far beyond the last particle of stalking cover, and by now most of the 6-points had cows, so weren’t tempted by a cow-call, much less a phony bugle.

The only thing to do was keep hunting. Hunting rutting 6-point elk is a game of patience. You keep playing the game, betting that eventually chance will bend your way. Luckily I’d taken my moose on the second day of the hunt, so we had some time, though a week and a half passes astonishingly fast in good hunting country.

The next day was our soft deadline, the last day allowing enough time to easily pack the meat to camp. We rode down the Prophet before dawn, Donny on Apple the Appaloosa and me on O.J., the black horse. (During the past decade, black horses named O.J. have turned up in almost every hunting camp in the Rockies, exactly why I don’t know.) We rode over the glacial hillocks of the big moraine just below camp, then switchbacked down the face of the moraine for nearly a mile. Here the river flowed pale green over a cobble bottom, so clear it seemed shallow, but the waves almost touched our stirrups as we rode across. Then we entered a big stand of spruce on the flat river bottom, emerging on a mile-long meadow just as the sun came over the mountains. The frost broke the light into tiny multicolored stars, and I had to squint against their brilliance.

Halfway across the meadow, Donny reined in, pointing to the binocular around his neck. I nodded and dismounted. We spread our rain gear on the frosty ground and glassed the suddenly sunlit mountain to the north. Soon I heard a faint bugle. “There,” I whispered, pointing.

Donny nodded, too deaf to hear. The bull bugled again, and he nodded even harder. “I heard that one,” he said. “There, below that burn.”

I looked and found the bull, almost as pale as September grass. “I see cows, to the right.”

Donny nodded. The bull paused in the yellow light between aspens. “Five on one side,” Donny said. “I can’t see the other.” We waited, crouched like two gnomes in the cold meadow, half-listening to our horses chomping grass as we watched the bull. He raised his head and bugled again, and I plainly saw five tines on both antlers. So did Donny. ”Shoot,” he said, and we mounted up again.

Below the meadow the trail turned into a long draw that paralleled the river, full of the gray trunks of burned aspen and spruce. Some blocked the trail, and we often had to steer the horses carefully past gray spears. The draw met the river again where the water cut through high limestone cliffs. We rode across, then followed game trails along the broad cobble field on the other side, the river-canyon too narrow for any sandy bank. The horses walked slowly on the rocky trail. I didn’t blame them.

The canyon opened into a broad willow-meadow. This looked like moose cover, and was, a good bull trotting away from us into the timber. After an hour we reached a log cabin, door torn off and Plexiglass windows punched out. “Another grizzly,” Donny said, sighing. “This is where Gordon had to kill that sow two weeks ago, when she was stalking him.”

I nodded. The cabin roof was decorated with horned and antlered skulls. The interior was decorated with bear crap. Donny sighed again. We cleaned up the interior some, then went outside and sat in the sunshine and ate lunch. By now it was too warm for game to move, so we took a nap, both rifles with chambers loaded, one at my hand and the other at Donny’s. The odds of two human-hungry grizzlies showing up at the same cabin were slim, but grizzlies do like cabins.

After an unrestful nap, we mounted up and rode toward the river again. “We’ll check out the hot springs,” Donny said. “Animals lick there.”

We tied the horses to some spruce 100 yards from the river, then sneaked through the trees to the bank. Across the river, in the shadows under the steep mountain, a house-sized dome of sulphur and calcium rose from the riverbank. On the breeze I could smell the familiar rotten-egg stink of a Yellowstone geyser. On top of the dome stood a pair of ewe Stone sheep, a cow and calf elk, and a cow and bull moose.

”Pretty good bull,” Donny whispered. “Too bad you shot a little one.” He knew full well my moose had larger antlers. I poked him in the ribs with an elbow. We sat there an hour, until all the animals wandered away. Now we barely had time to hunt our way back to the main camp, and even then would probably ride the last hour in darkness, hoping the camp grizzly came late to the meat shack. We rode back past the cabin and into the willow-meadow. A small rain cloud curled over the river-canyon beyond. As we dismounted and pulled on rain gear, a bull bugled ahead of us, close enough for even Donny to hear. We tied the horses and pulled rifles from scabbards and headed that way, stopping often between deadfall and willows to glass. ”There’s a cow,” I said, pointing to a ridge 600 yards ahead.

Donny nodded. “Let’s wait.” So we did, and soon another cow and a bull wandered among the willows. “Sss! Another five-point.” Donny looked at me, finally feeling a little pressure. I shrugged. “Let’s ride.”

The rain passed by the time we returned to the horses, but we kept our rain gear on. The shower had dropped the temperature 20 degrees. We rode slowly, not expecting much on this moose flat, and a bull elk suddenly screamed from the nearby willows, toward the river. Donny turned and looked at me. “Which way?” he whispered. I pointed. We sat there, smelling the pleasant perfume of wet horses, and the bull bugled again.

”Let’s go,” Donny said, and we quickly dismounted, then eased through the willows for 100 yards. Donny cow-called. The bull screamed back immediately. Donny waited, then called again, and the bull answered, closer now.

”Find a place,” Donny said, and I nodded, knowing exactly what he meant. Downwind to our left was a triangle of big spruce deadfalls, in the center of a 150-yard clearing. We could wait inside the triangle, and the bull would have to show himself. Even if he didn’t see a cow when he emerged from the willows, he’d have to check out the far side of our blind.

We crawled into the deadfall, and I placed my day pack on one of the trunks, resting the .300 on the pack and then testing the setup, aiming at the line of willows 75 yards away. I nodded at Donny and slid a round into the chamber. He nodded back and cow-called again. The bull screamed, followed by three braying grunts. A half-open lane allowed us to see perhaps 100 yards into the willows, and in a moment I saw willow-tops jerking down there. “He’s right there,” I whispered into Donny’s ear, pointing.

He looked and nodded, then called again. Pale tines rose into the shadowed air above the willows, and I could see the rearward V worn by 6-point bulls. “I think he’s a six,” I whispered.

Donny nodded. “Let’s make sure.” He called again and the bull grunted most unmusically, then walked between two willow patches, his side orange now in the fading dusk. “Six,” Donny said. “Get ready.”

There are some moments in the hunt where your heart feels as if it’s flopping in your chest like a beached salmon, yet everything around you remains completely still: the instant when geese set their wings, or when the white antlers of a whitetail buck float through the oaks as he comes to the dead buck’s antlers in your hands. But a bull elk magnifies all this, like an interior lens that allows us to see far backward into our neurons and guts, yet at the same time farther into the blue shadows all around us. And all you can do is wait, while the salmon whacks your ribs.

We waited, catching erratic glimpses of the bull’s tines above the willows, or a touch of pale orange. He taught another willow a hard antler-lesson, and then his head and neck emerged from the greenery, and he bugled again, a miniature geyser of saliva visible through the scope of the .300.

”Can you hit his neck?” Donny whispered.I shrugged. “I won’t shoot him in the neck.”

He nodded, accepting, and waited. The bull turned back into the willows and Donny cow-called softly again. We could see ivory tines moving toward us now, and I leaned forward again into the rifle, finger on the front of the trigger guard. The bull stepped into a notch along the edge of the willows, shoulder fully exposed, and the .300 went off without any consciousness of moving finger to trigger.

The bull plowed through the willows to our left while I tracked his antlers in the scope. The tines started to slow, and he walked into another opening and stood there broadside, his shoulder bright red. I aimed for the red and shot again, and the bull staggered backward, stiff-legged, and again all we could see were antler tips, but now they slowly tilted into the willows. I heard a branch crack and then the valley was as silent as its shadows.

”Good shooting!” Donny shouted, but I had already jumped over the deadfall and was running to where the antlers had disappeared. Rounding the last willow patch, I saw the bull lying with his back toward me, red on his ribs. I approached from the rear, away from the big hooves, and touched his obsidian eye with the .300's muzzle. The eye did not blink, and I slid the cartridge from the chamber, then knelt down and touched the stiff, smooth hair of his side, only vaguely hearing Donny walk up.

By the time we had him field-dressed the sun was down, perhaps two hours of twilight left. The main camp was twice that far, the hot springs cabin an hour behind us.

Donny looked at me. “We could stay at the cabin, but then we’d have to ride back to main camp for packhorses, then tomorrow ride back down here and pack him back. We’d still get in after dark.”

I nodded and thought a little, though not much. “Let’s head home.””We’ll have to ride hard,” Donny said, looking at me. I nodded again. I’d been in the saddle nine days.

We rode through the river canyon, then crossed the river and started up the draw through the burned trees. By then the pale-gray trees were the only things really visible. O.J. trotted eagerly, headed home. Ahead I saw a dead spruce alongside the trail, its point aimed right at O.J.’s chest. I reined him to the left, and he turned - but not his rear legs. The spruce-point headed for his right flank, and I shouted, “NO!” reining in hard. The spruce slid under the rear cinch before he stopped, and I held on tight, expecting a real rodeo.

But O.J. only quivered for a few moments, then backed up slowly. By then Donny was beside us on Apple. “What happened?” ”He turned his front, but not his rear.” And then I heard something that sounded like a half-open water faucet.

Donny heard it too. He jumped off Apple and looked under O.J. “He’s bleeding bad, inside his leg.” I dismounted and held O.J.’s reins while Donny got his big flashlight. The blood ran in a twisting stream, pooling already on the trail.

We talked very earnestly for what seemed an hour and may have been three minutes. With a bleeding horse we definitely couldn’t stay at the cabin amid grizzlies. In fact we couldn’t stay anywhere except the main camp, because a grizzly can smell fresh blood for miles. We decided to double-up on Apple and lead O.J., hoping he hadn’t punctured a femoral artery.

Donny rode behind me, holding O.J.’s reins, and we started off. Every 15 minutes we’d stop and listen to O.J. bleeding. The last twilight left us at the next river crossing, and when we started across O.J. balked. Donny suddenly grabbed me hard around the waist with one arm, and I could feel him jerking the reins with his other. I grabbed the saddle horn and held on, connected to O.J. by the two arms of a Cree Indian guide. Finally O.J. started walking, and Donny dragged himself forward onto Apple’s rump.

When we were on the path again on the far side of the river I started giggling. ”What’s so funny?” Donny said. ”I wish I had a photo of you stretched out above the river between two horses.” Donny snorted, and then I could feel him bounce as he started laughing too. “Yeah, that would be a good one.”

We rode through the big meadow and the trees beyond, then started up the moraine, taking turns hiking ahead with the big flashlight, leading O.J. I went first, stopping halfway up when my legs started to tire, and realized I couldn’t hear running blood. Donny got off Apple, and we looked under O.J. The bleeding had stopped.

”Good thing,” Donny said, as I mounted Apple. “We’re close to camp, and that damn grizzly might be out.” It was past 10 o’clock now, the moon starting up. The moonlight wouldn’t make any difference to the horses, but it made us feel better. At least if we met the grizzly we could see him.

At the top of the moraine, we doubled up again, and started to tell each other our life stories, quite loudly, in case any nearby grizzly was interested. Every spruce and willow-clump had a grizzly-shaped shadow underneath, but none moved.

In an hour we saw the faint lights of camp, and then the big floodlight near the corrals flared on and horses whickered. Soon we could hear people shouting to us, and we called back. When we rode into the light and dismounted, it felt as though we’d crossed an angry lake in a small boat, my legs unsteady off the horse. The folks in camp had guessed that we’d stayed at the hot springs cabin so weren’t terribly worried.

Late the next day, with my elk in camp and O.J. healing, Gordon invited me on a hike up the hill behind camp, to get some exercise and glass for wolves. This sounded good after so much riding, and we left an hour before sunset, not seeing any wolves but feeling quite noble about the exercise.

It was early twilight when we started down, and when within hearing distance of camp, I looked down to see fresh grizzly tracks over our uphill tracks. I was about to mention this to Gordon when he shouted, “There he is, the son-of-a...,” and a dark brown grizzly turned to look at us, perhaps 40 feet away. We raised our rifles, but the bear ran off the trail and into the brush. ”Thank you,” I whispered, too low for Gordon to hear. “Thank you for waiting a day.”

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