My best theory was that the elk went up in smoke. We had, after all, been watching the ash-gray skies of western Idaho for the better part of a day as we drove toward McCall, Idaho. Forest fires had consumed hundreds of thousands of acres in the weeks before our arrival, and the smog from those burns still draped like a blanket over the mountains.
Even though our camp was a comfortable distance from the blazes, blaming the smoke for the disappearance of big game made as much sense as anything else I could come up with.
Elk are maddening in many regards, but in no way more than in their ability to disappear from the landscape. Remember, these creatures are as tall as a one-ton truck, at times as loud as air horns, and smelly enough to locate simply by walking downwind of them. I don’t care how rugged or oxygen-challenged the landscape, such animals should not be able to evaporate for days at a time.
But evaporate they had, despite the appearance of good elk sign right outside our camp.
That camp, a cozy affair tucked into a pine grove in the Payette National Forest, was there courtesy of outfitter Jack Kummet. I had hunted with Jack two seasons before and had taken a wonderful bull. Enamored by the country and Jack’s operation, I convinced three of my buddies to join me in a drop-camp hunt with Jack last fall.
Drop camps, of course, are advertised as the poor man’s alternative to the guided hunt.
And I think the group we assembled had the skills required to do a drop-camp hunt justice. Our clan consisted of my cousins Scott and Stuart, and my good friend Mark Stimets. We all have extensive whitetail bowhunting experience, are in decent-to-great physical condition, and are capable woodsmen. Three of us had done a do-it-yourself (DIY) hunt the year before and had been bitten by the elk-hunting bug. And since none of us could afford a fully guided hunt, we thought a drop-camp hunt would be a good compromise. Jack was interested in growing this part of his operation, so he was eager to try out the drop-camp option.
We planned our hunt for mid-September, the peak of the rut. We left the Midwest on a Thursday afternoon and drove 24½ hours nonstop. Late Friday afternoon in McCall, we ate, grabbed a hotel room — we’d called ahead to reserve two rooms, a fortunate idea since firefighters had besieged the town — and met Jack at the trailhead Saturday morning. Here are six lessons our group learned from our week of drop-camp hunting.
Lesson One: Pack Stock are Supreme
The year before, Scott, Mark, and I had done a DIY elk hunt in Colorado, where we packed everything to camp on our backs– a lot of work. So we watched with pleasure as Marvin, Jack’s head packer, wrapped our duffle bags in manties and lashed them onto horses. Weight was not a problem. The loads simply had to be balanced, and the horses carried them with little more than a sigh.
Even better, the horses and mules carried us the five-plus miles into spike camp, allowing us to save our energy for hunting. I was fortunate to ride a mule so surefooted that riding him was like slow-cruising in a drift boat. The ride in and out alone nearly justified the cost of the drop camp.
Lesson Two: The Cook is King
In old-time logging camps, the cook was the undisputed boss — insult the cook and you could get tossed out of camp. Ditto in drop camp. When you are hunting the mountains, eating well is essential not only for energy but also for high spirits and camaraderie. Pick one hunter to be the chief cook — cousin Scott was our chef — and stay out of his way.
Other group members take care of other chores.
aming one cook simplifies what can be a complicated task — choosing a menu, shopping, and packing groceries. If this chore is split among several individuals, chances are that someone will forget his share or goof-up a meal. If you’ve ever hunted all day in the high country and returned to camp to find the day’s menu blank, you know the true meaning of mountain sickness!
Lesson Three: Get Hotline Help
Outdoor writers like me routinely urge hunters to call references before booking any hunt. That’s especially sage advice for drop camping. I’ve heard many horror stories from hunters burned by outfitters offering self-guided hunts. And once your host drops you off in camp, you’re a long way from the better business bureau. Even "cheap" elk hunts are expensive, so do your homework before spending your cash.
Reputable outfitters will give you references (make sure you specify drop-camp hunters), so call them. Ask questions such as: Did the outfitter supply good camping gear? Was the camp in a safe area? Was game abundant? Did the outfitter check on you as planned? Did he haul meat and gear as promised? Obviously no outfitter can guarantee success, but the good ones are experts at controlling the things they can control — comfort, safety, and quality of the hunting area. Drop-camp hunters should expect the same effort as fully guided clients.
Lesson Four: Grab Good Gear
If you’re a DIY elk hunter, you probably have the gear you need. But if you’ve 1) always used a guide, or 2) never done this before, you need to acquire quality equipment. Most drop-camp outfitters supply a tent, stove, cooking gear, and cots. The rest is up to you.
Cheap boots and cotton camo won’t cut it. Above all, buy mountain-worthy clothing from head to toe, good boots, and a quality sleeping bag and mattress.
A number of elk hunting books contain complete gear lists. On the short list of must-haves for our group were a basic survival/medical kit, a GPS unit, and butchering supplies. Fortunately we didn’t have to use the medical kit, but the other items proved their worth on the same day, as Mark and I set off in one direction, while Scott and Stu went another. Within a couple of hours, my cousins had shot a nice spike bull, and Mark and I hiked into some unfamiliar territory as a heavy fog fell on the mountains. While Scott and Stu used the butchering kit on their bull, Mark and I used the GPS to help us find camp!
Lesson Five: Get in Shape
Yes, the horses and mules carry you, gear, and meat (you hope), but while hunting you rely on your legs and lungs for locomotion. If you haven’t trained before the hunt, you are going to hate your body when it won’t carry you toward a hard-bugling bull. Before your hunt, run, walk, lift weights, swim — whatever. I’m convinced the exercise you choose is not nearly as important as the frequency.
However, I do feel that any exercise that most closely simulates mountain hunting — long walks on moderate-to-severe slopes — prepares you best. But the old saw, "Something is better than nothing," definitely holds true. You will simply hunt harder and enjoy yourself more if you are not exhausted or, worse, injured, during your trip.
Lesson Six: Do Your Scouting
My hunting partners and I are no different from most late Baby Boomers — technology fascinates but baffles us. That’s why I’m impressed that we actually scouted on our home computers a month before heading west. While this will elicit yawns from the 20-something crowd, it should inspire older folks. If my group can scout via PC, anyone can.
Over the summer, we talked several times with Jack about where he would place us.
Thanks to the fires, which destroyed not only Jack’s base camp, but other outpost camps and corrals — and his main guiding area — our designated area proved to be a moving target.
Finally able to nail down a spot for us, Jack supplied some basic place names and coordinates. With that information, we used Google Earth and TerraServer, two free Internet mapping services, to locate aerial photos of the hunt area. My cousin Scott and I — we live 150-some miles apart — spent several evenings identifying good elk habitat by logging onto these websites and chatting over the telephone as we studied our respective computer screens. By the time we arrived at camp, we had a familiarity with the area that led to more efficient hunting.
If you like to hunt on your own but lack the pack animals or time to get deep into elk country, drop camps offer the perfect compromise. Once the outfitter drops you off at camp, success or failure rests on your shoulders. I, for one, like that challenge. However, I also like to know that meat packing will not rest on my shoulders. Indeed, the drop-camp option offers the best of both worlds — even when the elk go up in smoke.
The author lives in southern Minnesota. He is a full-time freelance outdoor writer.