Knowing that the next morning involved a search-and-recovery, we weren’t too keen to make sure our stopwatch’s alarm was properly set – not that we needed one. We had bulls bugling within 150-200 yards of camp from 5 AM onwards, and we decided to make a quick play on them at twilight before the sun would give us full light in resuming the search for my bull.
We pursued the elk herd for about 30 minutes before their climbing and our chasing led to a high country meadow framed by a deep canyon below and a steep mountainside above. They were nearly pinned down and I dropped back to start cow calling. It quickly became apparent that just being another cow was going to get us nowhere as there were plenty of other cows in the herd and they were being very vocal. Using the bugle and arming myself with “antlers” to start wailing on the nearest beetle-killed pine, I took on the role of challenging bull. It worked. Within seconds, a bugle arched over the ridge and was drawing a bead on my location. Realizing the situation, I dove downhill and pulled in behind Pete’s location to draw the bull on a better line. Somehow, the plan worked. Pete sent a perfect uphill arrow 40 yards to the big bull, and we watched as the bull bailed off the edge and down into the deep canyon below with his last gasp.
We back-slapped, high-fived, and took some quick pictures before hiking back down the ridge to resume the search for my bull as it was now an hour after sunrise. It almost seemed like disrespecting the unbelievable hunt that had just occurred, but we both had discussed it the night before. My tag was cut – recovery or no recovery. All the signs added up to a dead bull – the sound of lungs popping, the angle of the shot, the bubbles in the blood. No part of the equation suggested anything otherwise, it was just a matter of finding the bull. We’d give the recovery a solid 3 hours of effort before turning back to Pete’s bull for butchering. It wouldn’t be long before the rising sun would be glaring down in the deep cut where his bull now lay, so we really had 2 clocks working against us at this point.
(I just have to point out our camo patterns…lol! We love being those granola boys with the bows and then rolling back through the trailhead parking lot a week later under a heavy pack-load of meat.)
We spent about an hour around the 15-20 yard blood trail looking for that next spot of blood, but we never found it. We then starting running 25-yard wide transects up the mountain, around the mountain, and back down again. Eyes to the ground and to the side. Nose to the air hoping for a whiff of rutted-up bull. Ears to the wind expecting a raven to short-circuit the haystack search at any moment. Here’s a picture of the thick spruce regeneration that we forced to search in. Even 10 yards away, an elk could remain undetected. Just about the worst area on the entire mountain for this to be happening.
Around 11 AM, we knew that the other bull was now top priority, and we re-climbed the mountain, drew our knives, and start butchering. To quote some words we heard later on in the hunt, we “made the bears and coyotes mad!” We took everything. Neck, shanks, rib-roll, heart, everything. Pete joked that there wasn’t enough meat to stick your knife in when we got done with him. You’d have thought the elk was laying 1/4 mile below a 2-lane road except we knew the truth – we were 10-12 miles back! Ugh, reality…
We finished our task, hung the meat in the shade, and went back down to resume the search for my bull which we knew by now was probably spoiled. One time for just one or two seconds we both got a whiff of something foul. However, the wind was shifty and gusting and we couldn’t pin down a definite source direction. Now I was the one on the roller coaster. On one hand, we were packing meat off my buddy’s great bull, but on the other, I knew my hunt was done with but without a bull in hand. Elk hunting mostly sucks and is basically one giant roller coaster, don’t ever let someone tell you anything different.
After a couple more hours of discouraging and fruitless searching, we had a topo map brainstorming session. How exactly are we going to get this bull off the mountain? There were 2 obvious choices, and after much debate, we opted for Plan A. Haul meat straight up, through one saddle, through another saddle, run the ridgetop, through a final saddle, and descend 2 miles to a marked trail. We figured it was roughly 5 miles total one-way, but we would also be double-hauling loads which meant 2 days sounded like a reasonable goal. From there, we would still be 8-9 miles from the trailhead, but bumming a ride out on some horses and or hiring an outfitter to complete our pack-job should be just a formality at that point.
The rest of that day was spent packing one load about 2 miles up to a timberline campsite. Threatening storms kept us in camp the last few hours of daylight, but we were able to finally unwind and process the events of the last several days over heaping portions of campfire-roasted elk sirloins.