Over the years I have done plenty of bonsai trips (for a definition of bonsai check out page 40 of my book, Backcountry Bowhunting, A Guide to the Wild Side), but I will say none quite as hardcore timeline-wise as they one me and my oldest son, Tanner, just embarked on. I love pushing the envelope, going for broke and let the chips fall where they may. That being said, the plan I had for Tanner’s first elk hunt was in a word, “aggressive”. Some might have a different word for it…like, stupid.
Like many kids, Tanner is actively involved in sports on top of the typically busy life of a high schooler…he goes to school at 7 a.m. and gets home from football at 7 p.m. Taking the entire 5-day season off to elk hunt wasn’t even close to an option. Not to mention the fact that my vacation time for the year was all but gone. This meant that minutes after Tanner left the field of his high school’s state playoff clinching win at Mapleton on the Oregon coast this past Friday, he took off his pads, cleats and helmet jumped in the truck and we were off to the other side of the state. The Hell’s Canyon area in was our destination. Did you know that Hell’s Canyon is North America’s deepest river gorge? Yup, even deeper than the Grand Canyon. In other words, big country.
We left Mapleton at 10:15 p.m., swung by the house in Eugene on the way, to get our hunting gear, loaded up on Red Bull, 5-hour Energy drinks and sunflower seeds and hit the road. Some 10 hours later, at about 8:30 a.m., after driving all night, listening to music and talking we pulled up to the trailhead. We were joined by my good friend, Shay Mann, who wanted to share in Tanner’s first elk hunt and two cameramen who were there to capture this hardcore backcountry elk hunt all its cinematic glory for Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s TV show on Outdoor Channel, Elk Chronicles. The show I am lucky enough to host.
I thought it would be a great story to share as in my mind, this hunt, a draw hunt for spike bulls only (Snake River unit) here in northeast Oregon which never sells out (51 first time applications in 2007 for 330 tags…it is a tough hunt!), is the perfect adventure for a young elk hunter. An awesome setting…true mountain elk hunting and for a kid, I think a spike bull is a hell of a trophy.
One thing that should be made clear, this hunt is not one to be taken lightly, especially in November. Looking back now I can assure you, there were times when this hunt was brutal mentally and physically, for me let alone a young teenager. It was the test that I knew it would and wanted it to be. A character building experience to be sure. But also, it was memorable and like all backcountry adventures rewarding beyond a level I could ever capture with words. There were times when I am sure Tanner hated hunting, hated the mountains, hated elk and probably hated me. But like all of us know who are drawn to the mountains, those feelings are temporary. And just as conversely powerful are the feelings of satisfaction, pride and love for all things wild when you take on the backcountry and come out loaded down with meat and antlers.
Here is the deal. I think all kids should experience out of their comfort zone challenge every once in a while. I sure as heck wish I had. I didn’t kill my first backcountry bull until I was well into my 20’s. When I was 15, like Tanner, I don’t think I even knew what a wilderness was. I was soft and weak compared to him. Backcountry hunting has changed my life and I think it can have the same impact on almost everyone that loves challenge. I can guarantee you, Tanner’s football practice this week in preparation for state will seem like nothing compared to our weekend on the mountain.
Finally, I will get off my soapbox and cut to the chase. Incredibly, Tanner almost got it done the first day. We drove all night like I mentioned, packed in 5 miles to base camp where we dropped our extra gear before heading in 4 miles deeper to find elk. Just before dark, after a long two mile stalk, losing elevation every step of the way, deep in the canyon Tanner’s chance to tag a nice spike faded with the waning light as rain doused us. He was pretty depressed. No kill, no sleep and we were in a hole miles and miles from camp, wet and tired. We didn’t get back until almost 10 p.m., some four hours after that last light encounter with the herd. We ate and exhausted, basically slipped into unconsciousness for a short nights sleep.
The next morning we found a big herd a few miles below camp. It was Sunday now, Nov 2nd, the last day of season. Time to get serious. After moving in as close as we could, we started to glass. The herd was in a timber patch, spread out over nearly a half mile. There was a big bull (at 220 yards in easy rifle range…the any bull tag for this area takes 4 points by the way) and lots of cows. We were hoping there was at least one lonely spike.
With the frigid wind steady in our face, it took four hours of intense glassing, looking at the same cows over and over, trying to turn them into bulls, before a spike was finally revealed (see the red box in the accompanying photo). He was bedded in the timber with two cows and a calf bedded within about 20 feet of him. There were a couple more cows about 40 yards below feeding in a small meadow. Tanner and I moved slowly towards a rock outcropping that I believed would give him a great rest. Without the jutting rock, the hillside was very steep which I felt would make shooting real tough straight a crossed the canyon. It took time for us to move over the 100 yard of wide open as the big bull busted us. We sat on the hill, heads down peaking under our hat brims for about 30 minutes, until the bull was satisfied we weren’t a threat and bedded.
Finally, we got to the outcropping where I took off my pack and laid it down over the rocks. Tanner’s opportunity would not be a chip shot. Because of the timber, the only way to get a bullet into the bull would be with a shot a cross canyon. A shot I ranged at 340 yards. Because we were slightly uphill the rangefinder said to shoot for 321. Given Tanner’s performance on the target range I knew he could do it. Just before the hunt he had shot an amazing three shot group of 3/4″ at 100. I told him, “Alright buddy. It’s time to make it happen. Settle in real good, take your time because that bull is not going anywhere, relax and slowly squeeze the trigger. Put your cross hairs three inches below the bull’s spine, right on the shoulder ’cause he is quartering-to a touch.” Rambling now, I added, “Relax….squeeze very slowly and be surprised by the shot. You can do it.”
The .280 Ruger M-77 Grandpa Larry, my wife’s dad, won at the local RMEF chapter banquet last year barked and bucked. I studied the bull through my binos and wondered, did he miss? The bull barely moved and the cow just feet away didn’t flinch. The bull’s front leg stretched out a bit, he raised his head up like he was looking towards the tree tops and I thought, that is kind of weird? Tanner asked, “Dad, did I get him.” I worked my optics feverously and whispered, “I don’t know buddy, put another shell in.” And then, the bull’s head hit the ground. Tanner crushed him.
The bull barely flinched on impact and didn’t even get up. Tough to do much of anything with a blown up heart I suppose? It was an amazing shot. In fact, the cows around the spike didn’t even get up until we started talking. They didn’t know what had happened. I gave a thumbs up to Shay as a big smile, ripe with relief, augmented by a hint of exhaustion, spread a crossed Tanner’s face.
On a day and a half hunt, on the complete other side of the state, after his football game he had bombed bonzai style into the backcountry and killed his first bull elk. He road the roller coaster of emotions every backcountry hunter knows oh-so-well and came out on top. Against all odds. Yup, just we way we like it because as they say, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.” Not only is not everyone doing it, but no one is doing it.
Besides, Eric Carlson and his son Morgan, talented and extremely helpful hunters both of them, who are friends of famed packer Barry Cox, owner of Del Sol Wilderness Adventures, who Shay now works for, there was absolutely no one back there. Miles and miles of country and not a sole besides the guys in our camp. Eric and Morgan were hunting as Morgan had a spike tag as well. He too killed a spike the day before Tanner. They were in there almost a week and didn’t see anyone the entire time in the mountains we were hunting. Now that is the way I like it.
You can be rest assured Tanner, Truett when he is 12, and Taryn after that will be looking over Hell’s Canyon country in search of a good eating spike in the years to come. It is the perfect elk hunt for our next generation and man, for a guy like me, watching my son learning to elk hunt, the way I love, in country that demands respect, that is as good as it gets. My heart wells with pride thinking back on it now. I love the draw of the backcountry, as life is real simple back there. It is tough country where you earn your breaks…no shortcuts to success. On his first elk hunt, I can’t help but think my son took a big step towards becoming a man. A man that is sure to love elk and the mountains they call home.
For anyone interested in this hunt get a hold of Shay at Del Sol Wilderness Adventures. His contact info is below. Barry has to be one of the most experienced outfitters in Oregon and no doubt one of the most talented horsemen in the country. I have to add to that Shay, man, has come a long way. He is as hardcore as they come these days. Back in 2002 he had never been in the backcountry before I conned him in, I mean gave him a great opportunity, to film me mule deer and elk hunting for Eastmans’. Since that time he has grown to love the rugged mountains so much so that he quit his job in Eugene, works for Barry and lives in a cabin out of Joseph, Oregon on the edge of the wilderness. The mountains called to him and he answered with passion. Watching him help break down Tanner’s bull, work with the horses and in general get around the backcountry like a wily veteran is pretty impressive. This year behind the bow…he arrowed a real nice wilderness 6×6 in the Eagle Cap and a big 4-point buck in the Nevada backcountry…the dude has my respect and I am proud to call him a friend.
While we did have to pack Tanner’s bull to the top of the ridge, Barry’s packstring took it from there. After hauling a quarter to the top of a steep ridge, Tanner shrugged off his pack, as Barry lead his horse down the spine and said, “Dad, thank God for Barry.” I said, “You know what buddy, I have said those exact same words myself over the years.”