We jumped off trail within a half-mile of the trailhead and began our bushwhacking ascent. It was a grueling climb, hand over hand grabbing vegetation and shrubs, two steps up 1 slide down on scree, nasty kind of hike. But it was the price of admission to a secluded series of basins that was over 9 miles hike through similarly unforgiving terrain from another direction – it seemed a cost worth paying.
Some mid-climb raspberries gave us a needed boost and we were tramping through decent elk sign and closing in on the top with 2 hours remaining in daylight. Perfect timing, now to be rewarded with some elk rutting action!
Our hope was to hunt over a trail that appeared to connect 2 massive basins via a tight saddle. 4 years ago, one of our buddies hunted this spot and had a cow walk by within archery range. Unfortunately, the connecting trail didn’t appear real active and a closer inspection revealed an even worse type of sign. Boot tracks!!! Morale crushing discovery. We bailed on our “stand” hunting idea and started to canvas the mountain throwing cow calls and bugles into every nook and cranny…no response. NO RESPONSE!!!
We were physically high on a mountain but emotionally and mentally low as a valley. There was nothing to do but find our old camp spot from 4 years prior and hope a few bugles would echo through the night, perhaps indicating some semblance of promise for the morning.
The one bright spot of the day’s hunt was stumbling onto 19 bighorn sheep rams. Some bruisers, many 1/2 and 3/4 curlers, and a few sickle horns. 2 of them were definitely book-class animals though. Spread out over a 200 yard stretch of alpine meadow, we enjoyed close interactions with a few different subgroups for almost 45 minutes.
We climbed up on top of the mountain after dusk, peaked out to watch the lunar eclipse and touch base with our wives via sketchy cell coverage. It was quite the sight, but the evening air was also eerily quiet. Nary a bugle to be heard. We slept soundly and woke in the morning to descend back to the truck and come up with a Plan C. Somewhere down the mountain, we bounced 2 cows from their beds and heard a bull pipe up within 2 minutes. He was screaming – as hot as we’d heard in almost a week and he was coming! Cow call, cow call, he’d bugle. At one point, we could hear his huffing breath as he rolled off the last rise on the steep slope. We were going to be rewarded with a shot opportunity, and I was pretty sure he was coming in on a string.
He was following a hot cow, nose on her rump every step of the way. Bugling, huffing, glunking, all worked up… We knew instantly we were at the mercy of the cow’s next dozen or so steps. Unfortunately, she lined out down the mountain instead of closing from 75 yards to within a reasonable shot distance. He was gone before we knew it – a good bull that left our hearts pounding with excitement, so CLOSE!!
So close yet so far. Nothing to do at that point but hike down the mountain, hoping for another chance encounter, but knowing deep down that we needed a mental break from the hunt. Hotel time. We arrived back at the truck by late morning, found some real food, and bunked up in a hotel that night to recover physically and, more important than that, mentally. We had to hatch a Plan C and fast.