As my head lamp threw out an eerie green light that danced down the game trail we were on, I reviewed the game plan in my mind. We planned to climb the mountain near our camp in the dark and be at the bedding area shortly after daybreak. With any luck, we would catch some unsuspecting elk heading to their beds.
We were taking a diagonal approach to the top and walking slowly to keep ourselves from sweating too much. Lesson number one…sweat equals stink.
As every hunter knows an elk’s sense of smell is its number one defensive tool. In areas frequented with elk that are somewhat use to occasional human scent and the danger it implies, proximity is important. If an elk catches your scent close, it’s adios—-see you later. If the smell is faint, they still leave for safer grounds, but take their time doing it.
In areas where elk seldom encounter humans, one sniff and away they go. These areas are wilderness areas or vast private ranches where humans don’t often venture.
One mile into our walk, we stop to take off a layer of clothing and put our lamps away. Twilight fades away and we begin to make out objects without the aid of artificial light. We are still a good distance from the summit, but well below it.
Suddenly Joe stops and says,” I smell elk!”
Yes, elk give off a definite pungent odor and when you’re close it’s pretty strong. The whole sense of smell factor goes both ways. At first, I can’t smell it, but soon, the scent filters down. We now cautiously continue as daylight lights up the mountain.
Walking is anything but easy as the mountain, though it has a gradual grade, has a lot of ravines that open up into tentacles that work their way down the hill to the flat lands. The vegetation is a combination of oak trees, oak brush, pinon juniper, aspen and jack pines.
If we encounter elk it will be at close quarters. 200 yards later, we think we hear a cow mew. 25 yards later it’s definitely a cow call and not just one. We are closing in on a herd.
We decide to stay below the herd and continue to parallel them. We still can’t see them, but we can hear and smell them. We go up and down a few ravines and still no visual contact. We approach the ravines with caution, because they open up and sometimes we have to hustle across open areas to keep from being detected.
As we climb down and across the third ravine, Joe drops to a kneeling position and I follow suit. Above and to our left, two cows and a calf are slowly feeding and moving to our right. We continue to hear cow calls above us and to the right. It’s a big herd. We wait until we can only see their butts, then we move with them. In the meantime we hear our first bugle several yards above us and to our right. The bull wants the cows to pick up the pace.
As we enter our fourth ravine, we catch a glimpse of a large set of antlers moving between the trees, the bull is herding the cows. Moving in seems like it would be mission impossible as we are able to see parts of cows in numerous small openings above us.
Carefully, we start to cross another opening, when Joe drops down again. Two elk bodies are framed in the dense oak brush. A step or two in either direction just might give him a shot. At what, we are not sure, but it is an elk and the hunt is either sex.
Meat in the freezer is our priority even though a big bull is traveling with the herd and I’m sure several satellite bulls are also in the vicinity. From experience a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, so we wait for the opportunity.
We both have arrows nocked and focus on the oak brush 30 yards away, above and to our right. We are vulnerable as we are in the edge of a large opening.
A twig snapped loudly behind me and to my right—IT seems only feet away!
Joe turned around first, looked at me and mouthed spike!
I slowly start to turn so that I can draw. I know as soon as Joe sees me draw he will cow call. Hopefully the spike will pause long enough for me to get a shot. As I slowly turn, I can see that he is looking up and back at the two elk in front of us. I take in a big breath and start to draw when…..
BOOM!!! A high-powered rifle fires from behind us and all hell breaks loose—the spike drops on its tracks, his legs flutter for a moment, then he dies. The mountain explodes with elk scattering everywhere—then silence.
Once he realizes what has just happened, Joe jumps to his feet, runs and hovers over the spike and hurls a barrage of “choice words” at the poacher who just killed the spike in a bow-only hunt and only feet from where I am.
The coward (Joe had several other words for him), of course, never makes his presence known. Apparently he spotted the spike, and unbeknownst to him, never knew we were in the vicinity.
After checking my drawers, I join Joe and though still angered, somewhat shaken but relieved we were not hurt, we decide to continue our hunt. We also mark the area and hope to find a game warden to report the crime.
If there was one positive, our camo must have been pretty good. The poacher had no idea we were there before the shot. We were not able to find a game warden, but did report the incident later.
We did return to the scene of the crime two days later, but the bears, coyotes, mountain lions, buzzards, crows and even bees had wiped the area clean. Only a few bones and skin remained. Nothing goes to waste in the back country.
In 35 years of hunting, we have never encountered a close call like that one and hope we never will.