Nonhunters just don’t understand. They don’t believe that an animal the size of a horse can stand before you and, seemingly without movement or effort, vanish like smoke in the wind.
But elk not only disappear; they can remain invisible even when close enough to hit with a lobbed rock. In fact, of the two animals I think about most often when I daydream about last hunting season, one I never saw and the other vanished as soon as I realized I was seeing it.
I was bowhunting for elk with B-Bar-C Outfitters on an immense public wilderness in Idaho’s Bitterroot range. There are two directions in the Bitterroots-up and down. The mountains are so steep that hunting there you alternately feel as if you’re climbing a ladder that never ends or downhill skiing without skis or snow.
Our camp of wall tents was nestled in a valley a full day’s ride from the nearest trailhead. Each morning we mounted mules in the dark and rode high into the mountains to avoid the brutal climb out of camp. Once we reached the hunting area, however, the real work began. We’d tie up the mounts and hike for miles, searching for elk, climbing from drainage to drainage through thick timber and jumbled deadfall.
It was the last day of the hunt, and I was tying up my mule when an elk bugled somewhere in the drainage below us. My brother Frank, guide Todd Earp, and I dropped off the ridge and into the tag alder. As we broke into some timber, a bull answered Todd’s cow call with a shrill bugle. He was much closer than we had thought. Without words, Todd’s face told us the bull was coming. Frank, in the lead, set up next to a fallen tree. There was nowhere for me to go, so I just sat down and hid below the thick hucklebrush.
I couldn’t see, but I could hear it all: Todd’s cow-calling, the bull’s bugling, the thud of approaching hooves, and finally, the thwack of Frank’s recurve as it launched a cedar arrow and the loud stomping of the bull as he crashed away.
Frank couldn’t have asked for a closer shot, but something had gone wrong.
“I didn’t have a shot until he was right in front of me,” he said, “and when I drew, he saw me.”
Movement so close had panicked the small bull. He’d spun on a dime and bolted as Frank reached his anchor point and released. As we looked for the arrow, another bugle sounded below us.
Todd and I left Frank to search for sign of a hit, while we went after the second bull. He had run the raghorn up to us and was taking his cows up the other side of the drainage. We followed fast.
Hurry Up and Wait
This side was somewhat open, with stands of trees scattered throughout brush and meadow. The bull bugled steadily. Early-morning thermal drift carried our scent back down the hill. We found a good spot and set up on him. Todd bugled, and the bull wailed back. We waited.
He bugled from higher up. We ran after him and set up again. He answered, then took his cows even farther up the hill and bugled. We played this game at least four times-bugle, set up, wait, run, bugle, set up, wait, run. With this frantic start-and-stop chase, we quickly climbed over 1,400 vertical feet from the bottom of the drainage to the top of the mountain. I was doubled over and sucking wind hard and loud. Todd, who can climb like a cat, tried to get me to keep quiet.
On top the wind was swirling and erratic. Todd bugled a few times and got no response. We listened and rested awhile before deciding to head back to help Frank.
As we turned to leave, our bull bugled from the back side of the mountain. Without a word, Todd and I dropped down after him.
The sun was higher; the thermals had reversed. The gentle breeze blew into our faces as we slowly moved down into heavy timber and a thick undergrowth of hucklebrush. Todd bugled, and the bull immediately replied with a bugle and a series of deep, angry grun. He was very close.
“He’s gonna come this time,” whispered Todd. I set up on my knees in front of a blowdown and waited, panting into my face mask. My thigh muscles, exhausted and cold and wet with sweat and dew, cramped like knots. I tried to ignore them and waited.
Then I saw him. He was behind some brush only 30 yards away. I saw his eye, his muzzle, a flash of heavy antler. No matter which direction he moved in, I would have a clear shot. I focused hard through the leaves and branches but eventually realized that I was no longer looking at an elk. The elk shapes had just melted away.
“He was right there,” I said to reassure myself as much as to tell Todd what happened. “Did he see me?”
“I saw him too,” Todd whispered and shook his head. “We didn’t spook him. They’ll just quietly cruise in, and if they don’t see what they are looking for, they’ll just sneak right back out.”
I was trying to understand how a 700-pound animal could disappear behind a stand of brush that didn’t look big enough to hide a dog when a bugle echoed below us.
We circled back and dropped farther down, checking the wind and trying to work close. The early-fall undergrowth was head-high and extremely thick. I could smell the musky odor of elk.
Todd softly cow-called, and the bull bugled right in front of us. We set up where we stood. I heard the heavy thump of hooves on earth. The bull bugled again, so near and loud that I winced. Then came the sounds of scraping and branches shaking as the bull raked a tree. Hidden behind me, Todd broke branches and rubbed a large stick against a tree trunk to mimic the noise. As the bull continued to rub, I heard tearing vegetation and hoof steps in another location, then the soft chirp of a cow. I swore I could even hear breathing, deep and deliberate, like a dog searching for scent.
But as hard as I looked, I couldn’t see any elk behind the green screen of undergrowth. I was as blind as when I had listened to Frank shoot.
After an eternity of listening to elk bugle and rub, step and feed, Todd quietly came up behind me and touched his nose. The wind was okay, but we were so close that it was only a matter of time before the elk smelled us, and they weren’t coming any closer. With sign language, he indicated that we should move to a particularly thick stand of brush about 20 steps in front of us. It sounded as if the bull was somewhere behind it.
We crawled to a depression right in front of the brush. Todd raised up and peeked over. His face froze. Slowly he sank back down in the hole. He spoke without sound, and I read his lips: Cows, right there. Bull behind.
Low to the ground, I peered through the brush. Several sets of legs stood less than 10 yards away. I could have hit them with a stick.
I got ready to take a snap shot, but there was no way to make a play at the bull without spooking the cows. Trapped on the edge of the herd, we huddled in the hole for a couple of minutes until the inevitable happened.
The ground thundered around us as the elk crashed through the timber. They’d winded us.
Instead of being disappointed, Todd and I laughed and jabbered about sneaking into the herd. My arms shook, and I was happy in the way that comes only after such a close encounter with wildness.
We hiked back over the mountain and found Frank. He had found his arrow, free of blood. A clean miss.
We were gone for so long that he was sure we had killed the elk. When we finished telling the story, he asked what kind of rack the bull wore.
Todd and I shrugged.
“You mean the two of you were close enough to hear the bull breathe and walk and you don’t even know what his antlers were like?”
Sometimes even hunters can’t understand.
B-Bar-C Outfitters, 877-620-7428. To hunt elk with Todd Earp in Montana’s Bitterroots, contact White Mountain Outfitters, 406-961-4615.with Todd Earp in Montana’s Bitterroots, contact White Mountain Outfitters, 406-961-4615.