Musings of a Middle Aged Rookie

3darcher2

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Aug 21, 2018
Messages
171
Location
NE Pittsburgh, PA area
I wasn’t sure I’d put a write-up on here but after thinking about it I decided there might be some tidbits in here that would help some guys (or girls) shorten the learning curve or save a headache along the line after finishing up my archery hunt this year. Background – third archery elk hunt DIY. One in 1999 (successful in AZ with partner), one in 2020 (solo return to western hunting disaster in CO) and this one. This was a solo early archery hunt in what most would call a very mid-tier NM unit, certainly not the Gila or 34/36 or the Caldera. Nevertheless, it was NM, and it was a good tag with a lot of public land.

This wound up being a truck camp hunt. I arrived on Sept 4 midday, and the season was well underway after driving 1700 miles from PA in 2 days. I had a couple spots picked out from research and online scouting and headed to the closest one to start. I did see a 6x6 about 30 mins before dark on day one but had no way to close the gap and decided to come back the next day. I did notice during my hike up the mountain, pretty much the only half way recent sign I saw was within 200 yards of where I saw the bull. The next day was a walk in the woods, no sign again, big storm blew in during the late afternoon and blew me off the mountain. A quick trip the next morning told me all I needed to see, which brings us to lesson number 1 – if you don’t see either 1) ELK or 2) a LOT of fresh sign, move on. There’s plenty of places to look beside in the same spot that didn’t have elk yesterday or today. I moved 20 miles to my next spot.

Lesson number 2 – the west is BIG. Three western hunts in the last three years and I am still amazed how compared to PA, nothing is easy. The mountains are often super steep or just go on forever. When you want to go “just a couple miles”, that’s a lot different than walking 8 laps at your HS track. Not to mention if you’re an easterner you’re going to find yourself 5000’+ higher in elevation than home. It’s the same driving – you want to drive to a place that’s 6 miles away? It might take 45 minutes driving 15 miles on some USFS goat path to get there. And the nearest gas station is likely an hour away, so a jerry can or three is a good idea. Realize nothing happens easy or fast in the west.

If you are going solo, lesson number 3 should be obvious, but BE CAREFUL and recognize your abilities. Have an exit strategy planned. Carry an inReach or Spot or what not. The west is not the place to take things lightly. Remember lesson 2? On night 4, I was coming down a well-established trail after dark still a mile from the truck. I caught the toe of my boot on a root as my body was committed to taking the next step. My foot couldn’t get out and down I went, hard, landing on my right hip, shoulder and my bow. I laid there for a few seconds before getting up and was relieved to find that I seemed OK and my bow was in one piece. Still, I was sore and I took the next morning off to check my sights, etc. I did crush my stabilizer, but the bow survived intact. It’s easy to see how this could have gone a different way.

Lesson number 4 shouldn’t be much of a surprise to any WKR, but it’s be persistent. DIY elk hunting is physically (and mentally) and it’s easy to take a day or two off when there’s time left. Remember the CO disaster I mentioned in 2020? That’s what I thought then too, and in retrospect, it was a cop out. Admittedly, being at 10,000’ by yourself in the middle of nowhere with no experience can be daunting, but the only way to get experience is to keep at it. On this trip there were a few other campers around, but truthfully, I didn’t know if they were hunters because I only saw one other group of hunters in the woods and that was less than a half mile off the road. In fact after I got my bull down and packed one quarter, I stopped in the next camp down the road and asked if they were hunting and they said yes. Since it was the 12th and second season ended the 14th, I asked if they were here for second season. No they were “hunting” first season. Never saw any of them leave the camp (a couple 5th wheels and a big trailer) and they said they were unable to help pack, as I don’t think they had a pack or pair of boots between the whole crew. They suggested I go down to the next camp since they had horses. Before I left them, they asked me what I had and I said a nice 6 point. They looked at me like I was either lying or a sorcerer, no one could pull a bull out of there. They were right – if you never leave camp, you’re probably not getting anything. Can’t get a buck (or bull) at the truck!

A few other points. This was three trips west in the past three years including a mulie trip. I find I lose my appetite at elevation. Same thing happened in CO. Admittedly, I am way overweight, but I lost 16 pounds in two weeks. Not that I ate nothing, but I forced myself to eat some stuff. I still averaged no more than 1000 calories a day while hiking 8-10 miles a day and a couple thousand feet elevation gain. I also drank a lot of water/Gatorade type stuff. Even with that, I think I was underhydrated and also low in electrolytes because I got some ridiculously painful middle of the night cramps in my hammys a couple times. I don’t know if others have this issue of no appetite but after three times it’s clearly real.

Next, and this seems pretty obvious, a bull elk is a big pile of meat, and it’s a ridiculous amount of work to pack one out. Give yourself every advantage you can – get good meat bags, have a good knife, and have a plan what you are doing. I suck at sharpening knives, so I have an Outdoor Edge for a backup but I did the whole skinning/quartering with a Cutco serrated drop point, and it was sharp the whole way. I did a gutless and it was my first time – I could do better next time for sure. One thing I hadn’t considered was my right hand was cramped so bad from pulling the hide while skinning, at one point I couldn’t even open my thumb.

Realize the plan starts before you shoot – one day I was hunting about 4 miles from the truck and I thought to myself, what am I doing here? Even though I’ve read this warning before there I was. There was no way I could have gotten a bull out of there. The thought you’ll get one and figure out how to get one out afterwards is a pipe dream if you are in too deep. In the end, my packout was almost two miles and almost all downhill, and even then packing elk on your back is not easy and you need to be prepared to work hard. After packing one front quarter and a backstrap on trip one, I immediately looked for help. I had to get that bull out quickly and I knew I couldn’t make three more trips that day. I was lucky after getting shut out in camp 1, the next camp had two fellas from CA who jumped right into action with their horse and packed my hindquarters and backstrap on the horse while I packed the other front quarter. Without them I’d have been in trouble. And take a look online and plan on how you are carrying antlers – that was the worst load. Heavy, unwieldy, you’ll wonder how an elk gets through the woods. It took me an hour and thirty-five minutes to pack out 1.8 miles downhill and I was afraid to put it down. At that point, I don’t think I could have picked it up again. Trekking poles were my friend. Finally, make sure your pack will do what you want. I hunt with a Badlands Superday which I love but I need to totally revamp my pack setup (currently an older Dana Design) for moving meat and antlers. My first elk trip to AZ we hunted run and gun with ATVs and literally rode quads and a trailer right to the bulls. That was nice but it caused me to really underprepare mentally and physically for the challenge ahead. Plus I was 35, not 58 😊

Finally, don’t be afraid to be aggressive and be confident. I listened to a bunch of @ElkNut podcasts on the drive out and being confident was a common thread. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Those are just some ramblings from my limited experiences. They are just mine. You western guys might think I’m nuts, heck some of you easterners too. Some of this might never apply to you. I claim no expertise, I’m simply giving you some of the stuff I ran into. Sift off what you want and pitch the rest and remember, all advice comes with a money back guarantee!
 

Silveroddo

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Apr 13, 2019
Messages
321
Just did my first Archery Elk hunt this year, solo. I'd say you nailed the main points. I can relate to all of it. I was at the top of the mountain 5-6 miles back just to see the country and could smell elk, but knew I'd be in over my head to shoot something back in there. I gave myself 10 days, after some serious good fortune in running into some locals who let me hunt with them for 2 days before they headed out, I'd say I hit my stride about day 5-6 and was into elk almost every day for the rest of the hunt, but had I only had 5 days to hunt it wouldn't have come together nearly as well as it did. When in doubt prepare to the highest degree you can and go do it, realizing your limitations and acting accordingly, boots on the ground is priceless.
 
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3darcher2

3darcher2

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Aug 21, 2018
Messages
171
Location
NE Pittsburgh, PA area
Well heck i wanna hear a breakdown of the encounter now too.... Do tell how it unfolded

At your request, after my first couple days, I moved to a different area in the unit midday. I did see another 6 point bull that evening, but it was 225 yards across the meadow and for 5 seconds. The next day I made the 4 mile deep hike and it was this night I fell coming out. A long day with no elk but a bugle or two. Still that area was again looking light in sign, so I headed another direction. Finally in the afternoon I got on a bugling bull. I followed two hours and got up to the fringe cows and probably within 150 yards but never got a look at the bull. On my trek, I started getting into a lot of hot sign, walked through his bedding area, and started getting a good feeling. I told my wife that night I finally felt like I really had a chance.

Next day I returned to the same general area in the predawn and waited for some bugles. I was not disappointed. After moving in to within 200 yards, I realized I had made a rookie mistake. I decided to change back to a first finger over the handheld for this trip. I forgot to put my release on in the morning, and I also hadn’t put my backup release in my pack. I had two bulls bugling within 300 yards and no release. Back to the truck with no bull. That evening found me back again in the same general area at 430 waiting to hear a bugle. They fired up shortly and I made one of my biggest mistakes of the trip here. I had the wind, and the nearest bull was going crazy. He was bugling back and forth with a bull across the valley further away from me. I snuck in to inside 100 yards, never seeing the bull. Somehow despite not seeing any other hunters, this bull was calling so frequently and so differently, I convinced myself it was another hunter and the bull further away was the real bull. I circled the “guy” but ran out of light trying to get in on the other bull. As I walked off the mountain in the near dark, the “guy” was still bugling his head off and I realized that was a bull. It seemed plausible at the time but in retrospect, it was a horrible decision. My hunt could have been over right there.

I should add, I am a terrible caller, so I really just tried to work the wind and sneak in and see what happens. Next morning that “guy” was bugling about 200 yards from where I left him along with another bull 500 yards the other way. I went after the other guy because of the wind. I was able to close the gap in pretty well, but eventually I wound up chasing him into the only other hunters I ran into the woods. There were three of them with two dogs and some less than stellar cow calls. The bull’s next bugle was 500 yards away. That ended my morning.

That evening I was once again back in the same ¾ mile area and listening when the “guy” fired off first. I was again within 300 yards but I had bad ju-ju with him and it was early so I waited. About 20 minutes later two bulls started bugling up the mountain a couple hundred feet up and 600 yards away. I worked my way up until I was between the two on the downwind side. To my right was the bull presumably I had chased in the AM as I was close to the same spot. To my left and further up the hill was another bull who sounded smaller, so I focused on the right bull. After 40 minutes of these two going back and forth, neither would close in so I threw in a couple bugles. Eventually the bull to the right faded away, but the one to the left kept bugling every 5 minutes or so. So I worked up 200 yards to close the gap in half. I picked a spot and set up where I had a good view and had some cover. I bugled once and he answered immediately. I waited and he bugled again. Then 5 minutes later again and I answered. Boom, there he was, 100 yards out. I could see he had a good rack and from that point focused on a shot. He came in around 80 and proceeded to destroy a poor pine tree. I had left enough cover that it was plausible the bull (me) was there but just not in view. When he went behind a bunch of crap, I broke the branches off the big Ponderosa I was standing under and bugled. This did not make him happy. He came down and strutted back and forth with no shot opportunity around 50 but I was sure he was going to come in. Being a lefty, he started to approach to my right which would have brought him upwind of my with a 20 yard shot and I was pumped. Of course he started that way and spun around to come in from my left. I ranged the tree where I figured he’d come out, 42 to the tree. Very limited blowdown here and I guessed he be about 36 if he followed the flow of the land. Here he comes now and I am set. My Spot Hogg 2 pin is set on 30 and 42 – just bracket the vitals and he’s mine. I make a nearly fatal (to me) mistake. I realize he is going to be behind cover for about 15 yards and it’s wide open. So I close the gap about 6 yards while he’s moving. Good idea, but I did not bump to the 30 yard pin. I was at full draw now and he stepped into the open right where I thought. I still had the wind on a quartering angle. In the wide open, I did what any whitetail guy would do. I made a mouth bleat and he stopped in his tracks and when he did, I hit the trigger. I’m sure it wasn’t a pretty shot to watch but it went right on to the spot my 30 yard pin was which was high in the lungs. He spun and took two big bounds and stopped. Then melted into the little swale in front of me. I could see the whole other side and knew he didn’t leave. He made one big huff/sigh and broke a couple branches over the next 15 minutes but I couldn’t see him. It was starting to spit rain, it had been thundering for the past hour off and on and it was 40 minutes until dark. I decided to sneak down to the hit area. Laying there was 15” of nock end of my Axis 5mm 300. That mean 17+” of my arrow and my 125 grain Slick Trick standard were in the bull, but zero blood. I stood there and glassed the bottom for 10 minutes and realized all of the sudden I was looking at his rack. He looked stretched out like he was dead 50 yards away. At one point I thought I saw him twitch but I wasn’t sure. After a few minutes I decided to slide two steps to the right for a different angle and in doing so I snapped a twig. I looked up and there he was struggling to stand. He got up and I immediately realized what a stupid mistake I had made. I had no shot as he stared me down, but he started to move to my left and there was an opening. Tree at the back of it was 52. I dialed up 50 and nocked an arrow. He got his head and rack to the opening and I am in the wide open. He looked at me and then, magically, a full size bull elk just melted back into the swale. I heard another huff and a couple twigs snap over the next 15 minutes. I circled left to try to change the angle but I never saw him. As light was running out and with an hour plus hike, I backed out left him there.

The next morning, I returned and despite wanting to stalk in and glass, as I got closer I couldn’t take it. I slowly snuck in from downwind and suddenly I could smell the barnyard smell strong. There he was, 10 yards from where I last saw him. What a relief and a rush all at once. He’s a very pretty 6 x 6 with crazy thirds and I couldn’t be happier. I actually was able to get cell service and pulled up YouTube to watch the gutless method as I did it. I will add I am 6’5” and left home at 287 and I struggled to move this bull even enough to do the gutless. In the videos the first thing they say is have a friend help – no one around except me and a couple ratchet straps.

Lots of things to go wrong and lots did but just being in the woods gives you a chance. I kept working at it and just refining what I was doing, and that and a WHOLE BUNCH of luck paid off. It would not be possible for me to overemphasize how hard this was physically for an old out of shape easterner with a bad knee. I came home completely destroyed physically, but that made it even a better memory.

I’m hooked, again.
 
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3darcher2

3darcher2

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Aug 21, 2018
Messages
171
Location
NE Pittsburgh, PA area
Here's one last thing. Pretty much everyone takes pics with their phone nowadays. Me too, but by myself, I should have had one of those gizmos that hold your phone and can clamp or wrap around something. I propped my phone on my pack and well, got what I got. Not the quality I would have liked, but here's a couple pics of the end of the rainbow. The packout pic was taken by the CA guys and is the best pic I have of the thirds.
IMG_0174.jpg Cropped 2.jpg Recovery.jpg
 

Jethro

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Mar 2, 2014
Messages
496
Location
Pennsylvania
Here's one last thing. Pretty much everyone takes pics with their phone nowadays. Me too, but by myself, I should have had one of those gizmos that hold your phone and can clamp or wrap around something. I propped my phone on my pack and well, got what I got. Not the quality I would have liked, but here's a couple pics of the end of the rainbow. The packout pic was taken by the CA guys and is the best pic I have of the thirds.
Great story 3d. Your phone gizmo comment made me laugh. I own a clip shot and a blue tooth shutter button. I also had luck in NM and had an opportunity to take a grip and grin selfie only to realize my gizmos were 1900 miles away in my basement. Congrats.
 

lyingflatlander

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Sep 25, 2017
Messages
189
Location
Wisconsin
Awesome story! Theres lots of take aways from your experience. In my opinion the best write up for the year thus far. Thanks for sharing!

“Every experience brings new questions”.
 
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3darcher2

3darcher2

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Aug 21, 2018
Messages
171
Location
NE Pittsburgh, PA area
I felt like I was there. Good show bravo.

Thanks, the final afternoon was a little surreal for me and very vivid in my memory.

At one point when he was coming down the hill and walked across in front of me about 80 yards out he almost looked like he was displaying his rack like a bull moose slowly waving it back and forth. I felt like I wasn't the hunter but a cameraman looking over my own shoulder filming a hunting show. It was weird and there's obviously no video but I have that swagger and view etched in my mind. I guess I just couldn't believe this was happening so quickly after all the encounters that went south.

Fortunately I returned to my body and my senses and finished the job!
 

kfog

Newbie
Joined
Nov 23, 2021
Messages
7
awesome write up! as someone just getting started in the research phase of western hunting, it is a great read.
 

live2huntelk

Well Known Rokslider
Joined
Jul 17, 2013
Messages
414
Location
Ohio
Congratulations. Great write up. Not far from Pittsburgh… I hunted solo as well… may need to collobrate for potential future hunts.
 

shwacker

Junior Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2022
Messages
17
Thanks for sharing! Echoes a lot of the experience of my first elk hunt last year. I'm familiar with being in the mountains, and I think that would be the biggest challenge for someone coming from the flatlands. Being somewhat comfortable to have energy and motivation to hunt is key.
 
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