F&S Classics: Any Elk Is a Good Elk
With experience comes the inescapable conclusion that every bull is a trophy
“Any Elk Is a Good Elk” first appeared in the September 1976 issue.
I WAS DOWN, wallowing in the frustration that comes when your hopes run out of time and you must settle for second best. I even wondered why I’d tied those little elk antlers on the front bumper for all to see, except that it’s the custom in our part of the country. I sure wasn’t bragging about them.
And I was hungry. tired, and cold a good part of my problem so I stopped at the first town for dinner. As I got out of my rig I glanced at those antlers on the bumper. They certainly weren’t the royal bull I’d planned on, but…
“Congratulations,” a voice interrupted my thoughts. “Looks like you got a good one there.”
I’m sure the old-timer meant well, and wasn’t prepared for my reply, but I couldn’t see anything great about a yearling bull, and replied with a brusque, “Hmmph, it’s just a spike.”
I went on in to eat, slid onto a counter stool, and stared blankly at the menu. My mind was wandering back over the past few months and all my great expectations.
I wanted a trophy bull elk pretty badly, so I had chosen my area and guide with care. The Snake River unit is one of the better places in Oregon, and Calvin Henry is one of the best guides. He knows his game and his country, works hard for his hunters, had a good camp and equipment, and has a high hunter success ratio each year. I smiled, remembering how after I’d booked my hunt I felt that big bull was nearly in my sights.
“Coffee? The waitress startled me.
“Oh, yes. Black.”
I hadn’t really paid much attention to the menu, but glanced over it quickly and ordered roast beef. Then I settled back to sip coffee and daydream.
I’d driven to Cal’s base camp on Lightning Creek, and met Cal and his assistant, Linn Hatton. The other six hunters were already there, so we had a complete round of handshaking. Like myself, they were all Oregon residents: Fred and Gene Jerome from Hillsboro; Ken Rigdon from Canby, Bill Claussen from Cottage Grove, and his son, Bud, from Salem; and Tom Childers from Eagle Point. In the kitchen I met the camp cooks, Cal’s wife Mary Ann and her sister, Monica Proudfit.
The actual hunting began with no waste of time at 4:30 the following morning. Man, was it cold and dark! But everyone was eager, so we rolled out at first call, dressed, and staggered to the kitchen for breakfast.
Cal and Linn had gotten up a couple of hours earlier to saddle the horses, so we left right after we ate, and let me tell you, there aren’t too many things that can feel colder than a frosty saddle.
We rode several miles up Sleepy Creek, meeting dawn along the way, and climbed a steep trail up Jakey Ridge. Snow on the upper slopes made the going a bit spooky, so some of us elected to get off and walk, to stretch and warm up a bit an excuse I’m sure many noncowboys use when they feel safer on foot.
The plan was to ride to the ridge tops, then hunt down through the timbered draws and pockets while Cal and Linn took the horses back around to meet us below. Ride up, hunt down-a good way for elk.
Cal described where each of us was to go, pointed out landmarks to insure our not getting lost, then left us to head our respective ways.
My route was down a sharp ridge, to watch for elk that might be pushed from one timbered draw to another. Others would still-hunt the brush or guard similar ridges.
I’d chosen the open ridges because I like to take lots of time to sit and glass, soak up the solitude of that vast country, and enjoy the meager warmth of the November sun.
I grinned now, remembering that I’d spotted maybe two dozen deer that first day—including a couple of dandy bucks—but didn’t see one elk. Hadn’t I also seen two magnificent bull elk during deer season?
The others jumped elk from the dense cover and a couple would have been easy shots, except that nobody saw horns…all cows and calves. One large, lone set of prints I cut farther down indicated that at least one bull had slipped out, unseen by any of us.
We met in midafternoon by the warming fire Cal and Linn had going, exchanged stories of the day, and mounted up to race darkness back to the ranch. Darkness won.
At the ranch we quickly cleaned up and headed for one of the most welcome parts of any day-dinner.
“One roast beef,” the waitress again broke into my thoughts.
I forgot about elk for a few minutes then, filling the more immediate need of day-long hunger. It was a good meal, but nothing to compare with those served up by Mary Ann and Monica at the ranch.
Regardless of how a hunt goes, whether game is taken or not, and regardless of the cold, wind, rain, or snow that beats on you all day long, it is all past and forgotten if the meals at day’s end are good. Ours were great.
A DUSTING OF SNOW greeted us the second day, with more falling as we rode out. Dawn would come later, and indeed we were halfway up the Butcherknife Trail before we really met it.
We hunted Windy Ridge and the draws back down to Sleepy Creek. At one point I sat motionless on a rocky point above an open, grass covered hillside and watched eleven elk ease out of the basin on my right, ahead of Bill, Bud, and Tom, and cautiously cross below me at a range of a little over 100 yards. Each elk, as it appeared, was centered in my riflescope, but I couldn’t grow antlers on any of them.
But what a sight! Such things, always an important part of any trip afield, make all the early hours, cold saddles, and complaining muscles fade in importance.
Later I learned that Fred could have taken a good-sized black bear, but had chosen to just enjoy watching it amble along. Most of us saw coyotes, grouse, lots of deer, and other wildlife every day. There’s more to hunting than bagging your game.
The spitting snow of early morning didn’t amount to much, and since we really didn’t have much on the ground, I asked Cal about it, and how it affected the hunting.
He explained how they’d had the usual late-October snows and how the elk had moved into the Lightning Creek drainage on schedule, coming down ahead of the storms, from the higher country to the south. The week before the season opened, Cal scouted his territory and counted hundreds of elk, including many nice bulls.
“But then,” he shook his head, “about two days before the season opened, we had a jump in temperature, with warm winds and rain, and the snow simply evaporated. The elk headed back for the pole thickets in the higher country. We haven’t had enough weather again to push them down, so hunting is a lot rougher.”
Each day we eyed the skies, hoping those clouds would thicken and turn into a real storm, but though we kept getting spit on, it didn’t come heavy enough or soon enough.
My waitress had poured a couple of refills, and now that I was nursing a fresh cup over an empty plate, she asked if I’d like pie or anything. I chose huckleberry.
“Sure, why not,” I smiled. I was comfortably full now, rested from the day’s work, and was content to just dawdle over my meal. It was warm in there and I was in no hurry.
And I was feeling better. Food, warmth, and rest can improve your outlook on most anything.
I needed all three after that hunt, for it’d been rough. We got plenty to eat, and though 4:30 never comes late enough in the day to suit me, I guess we got enough sleep. But even if you dress for it, the daylong pounding of wind and snow can eat through and chill you, especially if you are standing, watching a string of cows cross an opening. hoping that big bull will follow. The fact that he doesn’t just makes the chill bite deeper.
Each day we saw elk and each day we saw tracks of elk we didn’t see. The ones we saw were cows: the tracks of the unseen indicated bulls.
But the hunted bull elk has to be one of the most alert, cagey, woods-wise animals we have. As big as they are, and as intently as many capable hunters pursue them, the statewide success ratio in Oregon the past few years has run only 13 to 14 percent. If you get an elk—a big bull, small bull, or cow—as often as every seventh year, you’re doing better than average. No elk comes easy.
THESE THOUGHTS filled my mind as we mounted up for our last day. Cal had explained that we were going to hunt uphill this time because it was too far to get horses around and up top. It’d be more work, but was the only logical way to hunt that particular area that we were headed for.
As we rode up the Lightning Creek Trail, Cal had us drop off at various draws, to hunt them to the top and back. The one I was assigned was described as extremely rough, but with a good strip of timber to hunt. The others rode on up the trail and then I began my climb up the draw.
In this country the south slopes are barren of timber, for the summer sun bakes them with heat too intense for trees or brush to survive. But the cool norths and sheltered pockets hold timber, and there the elk are.
My general technique was to climb the off-side; the open, grassy slope, then ease to the ridge-crest now and then to search the timber. I was alone, so there was nobody to help me, or foul me up. That draw was all mine.
The wind was vicious all day, with showers of snow to emphasize that nature still had control of things. The open ridge was a brutal place to be, and I knew all too well why the elk were holed up in the heavy stuff.
All morning I worked my way up the grassy side, with frequent pauses to glass and search the timber and brush. Finally I was within a couple of hundred yards of the top of the draw. The crest of Haas Ridge was just beyond that.
I decided to stop and eat lunch before working out this last pocket, for I guess I was already resigning myself to making plans for another year.
AFTER A GOOD REST I eased to the ridge crest one final time and peered into the shadow and gloom. Nothing. The strip of timber was quite narrow there near the top, and I noted I could easily take anything that might break out the far side. Maybe I should roll a few rocks.
I spotted a good, basketball-sized rock to my left and climbed down to it. I laid my hand on it to push, and glanced down the slope to see just where it would roll.
There, directly below me, a good 100 yards down, stood a cow, rubbing her head against a small fir. I pulled the rock back into a solid position and quietly sat in the snow beside it. As I did I noticed a second cow, lying in the snow maybe 10 yards from the first. I glanced at my watch and noted it was just 2 minutes past noon. I had lots of time.
I searched every shadow with binoculars, found nothing more, but decided to just sit and wait to see if anything developed.
In time, the one cow quit scratching her itch and wandered off to feed, simply melting into the heavy brush. Eventually, the resting cow got up and casually disappeared. With nothing to watch, the minutes oozed slowly by, and I became painfully aware that my fanny was soaked from the snow. But I was determined to sit, regardless of discomfort, and just wait it out until I was sure there was no chance of a bull.
At 12:43 I glanced at my watch and wondered if I’d be smart to give it up and roll that rock, but as I looked back down into the timber I spotted one of the cows coming into view again. As before, I put the binoculars on her.
A spike, browsing calmly on brush, had materialized. He wasn’t the huge royal elk I’d wanted, but it was the last day, hunting was rough, and…
I centered the crosshairs on his shoulder and squeezed off a shot. The roar boomed through the canyon and echoed from the ridges. Then silence.
Below me, nothing moved. I sat, at the ready, for several more minutes. I was sure of my shot, but there’s always a chance of a deflecting branch.
Finally I cased down the hill to where my bull had stood. There was no sign of blood and his tracks led downhill in great bounds.
I followed them for maybe 25 yards, spotted a small splotch of blood, then found him, piled up against a fir. The shot had been true, dropping him quickly.
Once I was sure he was dead, I fired the prearranged signal shots, then got down to the work of dressing, skinning, and quartering. By the time I’d finished and scrambled down off that mountain, daylight was gone. Linn had taken the other hunters on back to camp while Cal had waited to ride back in the dark with me.
The following day, Cal, Linn, and I took the horses up Haas Ridge along the top, down the canyon to my bull, loaded him on two pack animals, and packed him back down. It was a grueling 7 hours in the saddle.
And now, as I sat in the restaurant, thinking over that hunt and other hunts, my thoughts took on a different perspective, and I realized that as tough as elk hunting is, getting any elk is an accomplishment.
Suddenly I remembered my shortness with the old-timer out front and started to get up, embarrassed and annoyed at myself. But the old-timer was just coming in the door. I smiled and waved him over to the stool beside me.
“Buy you coffee? I feel better now.”
His smile indicated he understood, and he accepted.
“Didn’t get the big one, huh?”
I shook my head.
“Well, I know how you feel. I used to hunt those elk, every year. But the country is tougher than I am now, so all I can do is dream about it like a lot of things.”
He laughed at his own joke, then continued. “And I’ve taken my share, but there were lots of years I found nothing, when those elk outsmarted me and I came home empty. I learned to respect elk like I respect no other game animal. They’re the greatest game animal in the country,
“So when you said, out front, that yours was just a spike I shrugged and went on. But then I got to thinking, and I came back because I wanted to pass on one word of wisdom. Don’t ever use the word ‘just’ in talking about an elk, be it a big bull, a cow, or a spike like yours, because any elk is a good elk.”