October 28, 2010
Twenty- Five Years Of Bowhunting Rocky Mountain Elk Leave The Author ILL Prepared For The Pacific Northwest's Elusive Roosevelt Elk
Forget the business of Slams, it was simple wanderlust, a desire to experience anything untried, that placed bowhunting Roosevelt elk at the top of my wish list for so many years. I'd long contemplated driving west to hunt abundant public lands on my own, but reliable information had proven surprisingly elusive. Hiring a guide to tip the odds had remained a financial impossibility. In time I met archery hunters who lived in Roosevelt country who had experienced some amount of success. Hunt trades were discussed, several plans set into motion, but one thing or another always dashed those prospective adventures.
Roosevelt elk habitat is well interspersed with mazes of logging roads. To find scattered herds you cover as much country as possible. This is accomplishments from vehicle, making the hunt less physically demanding, but no less mentally draining.
The false starts only made me more determined to turn Roosevelt into a bowhunting obsession. I'd also adjusted to the notion that the financial end was not as hopeless as it once was, so for the first time I called a reputable booking agent for assistance. This brought Oregon's Ken Wilson, Spoon Creek Outfitters, into my life, and gave me hope. The year before Ken had posted nearly 100-percent shooting opportunity, nearly 50-percent kill, with a good number of tagged bulls making book--all this accomplished with "civilian" shooters. I've guided New Mexico elk hunters for something like 23 years, taken a dozen or so archery bulls myself. I know a thing or two about elk hunting. My problem, it seemed, was solved. Only if you believe in the Easter Bunny'¦
A Different Breed
This much I know about Roosevelt: They are found only in the wet, dripping coastal ranges of the Pacific Northwest. This encompass habitat from extreme northwestern California (where tags are tightly controlled) through extreme western Oregon and Washington (with over-the-counter tags available) and north to British Columbia's Vancouver Island (where the biggest bulls live but limited tags mean hunts run from $12,000 to $15,000). These challenging rainforest environments include limited visibility and (typically) non-stop rain.
On average, Roosevelt elk sport much smaller antlers than their Rocky Mountain cousins, though the very largest bulls can score in the 350s and 360s (the highest-scoring Rocky Mountains 40 to 50 inches more). And while 225 inches will get your name into archery record books, 260 inches is required to enter Rocky Mountain elk. Roosevelt make up for their smaller antlers with notably larger body mass, a combination of lush feed and mild winters often creates live weights in excess of 1,000 pounds. Tips about hunting them remain blurry, washed in half-baked myth.
Time To Hunt
It was the third week of September when I arrived at Ken's; perfectly timed to take advantage of rutting activities. Through some forgotten oversight I arrived a day and a half early. Ken, more pointedly my appointed guide, was still occupied with other clients; which meant things weren't going well. I wasn't overly concerned. In fact I was more than happy to hunt on my own, unlimbering at my own pace until my guide had shaken free. After all, I was in prime elk country, pre-scouted by a Roosevelt guru. The greater apprehension arrived via the discouraging hunting report. After a couple weeks of concerted effort no one had killed an elk. It was extremely dry, half the country was closed to fire danger, many of Ken's leased timber properties suddenly off limits. Without rain to cool things off, and just as importantly quiet the woods, we faced possibly the worst hunting in years.
In the dark morning, parked at an inconspicuous roadside pullout, Ken's directions were explicit, but also lacked certain detail: I was to stalk the defunct logging skid, slowly and quietly, and pause occasionally to bugle into the black forest at various cuts. Eventually I was supposed to reach a reseeded area where a nice five-point had been seen.
In the dense, restricting cover of Oregon's Coastal Range plenty of calling becomes part of September bowhunting. Despite common myth, Roosevelt elk are quite vocal, it's just that heavy cover makes them more difficult to hear and for them to hear you.
Light slowly oozed into the land as I slipped down the defunct road and began to grasp what I was in for. I was quickly swallowed by dark, enveloping forest. Forest isn't really an apt term, this was more of a jungle! I anticipated an opening where I might have planted myself to glass but the forest only grew more dense. I was readily getting a crash course in the claustrophobic pretexts of bowhunting Roosevelt elk.
Deeply cut trails showed recent sign, still-wet splashes of urine. I directed my bugling tube into darkness, cringed, and produced a squealing bugle. The cringe was involuntary, earned after years of bowhunting call-shy New Mexico bulls. Bugling, even cow calling, has become a sure way to literally blow your hunt at home, a truth that follows in most western elk states. Of course, I was only following instructions. This country is steep and densely inaccessible, but also public land well interspersed with roads.
The calling business was a surprise. It has always been my impression that Roosevelt elk simply weren't talkative, actually that they hardly called at all. Long conversations with Ken had revealed that quite the opposite was true. In fact, calling is how most Oregon Roosevelts are tagged. It's the nature of the habitat that likely created this long-held myth. In the swallowing coast range confines hearing elk talk is simply less likely; bugles quickly soaked up by thronged vegetation. The greater surprise is that even the biggest bulls in Roosevelt country respond to calls, to bugling. In fact, if it weren't for this fact few would be tagged at all.
Oregon's Coastal Range and its large expanses of old-growth timber can make a man feel small. The author stays on red alert after him and his guide, Ross Morris, encountered a small band of cows, but no bull was tagging along.
My own bugle produced no results so I carried on, emerging onto open clear-cut littered with smoking-hot elk sign and abruptly out of road with several prime morning hours remaining. Wit
h no response to my continued bugling I plunged into nasty forest, creating as much clamor as a herd of spooked cattle.
It turned into an interesting morning; crashing through that impenetrable cover blindly, following trails that quickly vanished into tangles of thorny blackberry brambles, playing my bugle to a seemingly empty theater. It resembled no elk hunting I'm familiar with and I had to admit I really needed a guide.
Senior guide Ross Morris shook his head knowingly while I related my morning's frustrations. He reminded me yet again that this was not Rocky Mountain elk hunting. Only after a couple days under his tutelage would I fully understand the gist of his words. Bowhunting Roosevelt isn't the physical dodge I attempted to make it. Roosevelt hunting's a game of chess, covering ground, yes, but doing so smartly. Most importantly, you don't go to Roosevelt. Roosevelt come to you. In those dry conditions especially, in that jungle-like brush, going to them was essentially fruitless. It was a complete reversal of everything New Mexico had taught me.
And then I did succeed in coaxing a Roosevelt to me, only to find I was still a world away from success'¦
During five days of bowhunting the author was taken from agony to ecstasy, his first hunt for Roosevelt elk going from hopeless to successful in a matter of a single morning
I got the bull going after spying a cow at the edge of abrupt cover in another of Ken's scouted hotspots. I produced a subtle bugle and the bull responded immediately. I began slowly, mixing squealing bugles with cow calls, feigning a traveling herd. The bull was buying it.
The elk closed the gap quickly. Enthusiastic cow and calf chirps arrived on the wind and I discerned breaking limbs and thudding, excited hooves. They were just over a lip of pushed earth at the clear-cut edge, just inside swallowing forest. They couldnt have been more than 40 yards away but I saw no part of them. Then I blew it. I became impatient and more insistent with my calls. And the forest grew conspicuously quiet. I circled and got that bull going again but the light was going fast. Again I heard, breaking branches, excited cows, but no tell-tale tan. And then it was dark and finished and with it my vain aspirations of impressing the experts.
Come morning I had my guide. We traveled a labyrinth of logging roads, parked well back from landings or inconspicuous road bends, stalked road edges to bugle into sudden clear-cuts. We quietly trekked blocked logging skids, bugled at odd intervals, but turned back when the skids abruptly ended. Ross knew of secreted, fern-blanketed benches that traditionally harbored elk. Then we fought brush a half mile or more, choked on fern dust, and emerged to produce a couple bugles that fell on seemingly deaf ears.
It became apparent that the Roosevelt's demeanor more closely mirrored that of whitetail deer than nomadic Rocky Mountain elk. Fresh sign was everywhere, but the elk themselves remained invisible. We were hunting on faith gained through scouting. Ken and Ross spend endless hours during summer months locating elk concentrations, and particular bulls, glassing open clear-cuts, attempting to establish patterns, determining if new logging activity has created or destroyed hotspots. In short, it's the kind of scouting that holds little reward at home. Rocky Mountain elk seldom camp out on a single swatch of ground long. Roosevelt are simply less inclined to wander. Even with hunting pressure they are more inclined to hunker down than seek greener pastures. For this reason alone we concentrated our efforts on a relative few locations to the point of tedium.
We spent more time in the truck than hiking. For the hunter used to streching his legs, it became somewhat monotonous. This was not the physcial game of bowhunting elk at home, but something more mental in nature.
During four days we discovered one bugling bull that was completely uninterested in our calls. We approached seven or eight cows and a single spike in three separate encounters. At home I might average six to eight encounters for every shot opportunity, making bowhunting success a game of numbers. In Oregon we certainly did not rack up anything close to such figures due entirely to weather, or more accurately, lack thereof. The writing was on the wall, and the odds appeared long on returning home with a Roosevelt bull.
At home those elk would have been long gone. The day before Ross had tossed a bugle into a familiar canyon head. It came as a shock when the bull bugled in retort. Ross tried him again with the same results. "We're in business," Ross said, beaming, though darkness was descending quickly, the bull well out of reach. "He'll be here in the morning," Ross assured, reading my mind. To guarantee sleep would prove impossible, the bull sent one last bugle ringing down the hollow before we retreated. But with first light we could amazingly make out distant tan grubs scattered across the grassy swamp. This was my last chance and my reaction after so many desperate days was to bail off that mountainside like a starving coyote. Instead we loaded up and drove down blacktop. Ross knew of a relatively passable trail to the clear-cut our elk occupied.
The bull was talkative, even his cows gossiped busily. As we slipped forward a second bull joined the festivities. We quickly set up on him; Ross faded back while I guarded a narrow cut at the swamp's edge. The bull showed at 50 yards, a just-legal three-point. I wanted a Roosevelt badly, but I had glimpsed the herd bull and was gripped by greed.
But the small bull suddenly received our scent and ran straight into our herd, stirring up trouble. Remarkably, the melee saved us and the elk remained. It was time to get aggressive, this much Rocky Mountain elk had taught me. I moved in a quiet sprint. The black-antlered five-point was marshalling a dozen or more cows, prodding them toward swallowing cover that would end it absolutely. I saw him through alder gaps, fervently rounding up reluctant laggards, bugling and panting through open mouth. I ducked into cover and rushed forward, taking advantage of the temporary chaos, the wind holding. The range I popped with laser range finder was discouraging but something I had certainly prepared myself for.
I snatched back the string as the bull paused between clumps of brush and fir. I swept the proper pin onto his chest, checked everything before allowing the string to slip away. My insides twisted as the bright arrow arched in slow suspension. It dropped in and piled through ribs and then I started dancing. Ross appeared and I grabbed him in a bear hug, releasing the frustrations of a mentally-exhausting week.
ched my bull with a full understanding of how lucky I had been. Roosevelt just might be North America's toughest archery trophy. The steep, jungley terrain's certainly a part of that, the secretive nature of animals evolved in such a dark and obscuring place make them tough too, but I have also come to understand Roosevelt hunting requires as much mental toughness as Rocky Mountain elk requires physical stamina.
No doubt about it; Roosevelt are different.
Editor's Note: For more information on bowhunting Roosevelt elk with Spoon Creek Outfitters contact Bowhunting Safari Consultants at (800) 833-9777, www.bowhuntingsafri.com To watch the action unfold for yourself, look for this hunt soon on the Men's Channel's "World of Hunting."