For a Hall of Fame football star and Congressman, the Idaho backcountry bore a vast depth of pleasure - and pain.
By Dwight Schuh, Sr, Editor
THE DAY WAS SEPTEMBER 11. Steve Largent and I had left camp before daylight and hiked uphill out of camp toward an Idaho mountain basin that, for years, I had wanted to explore. Right after first light we hit several meadows with grass and springs, the kinds of places that always attract elk. Frost glistened off the grass and shrubs. If ever a place and time were perfect for elk hunting, this was it. I called as we climbed, sure we would be into elk at any moment.
Two hours later we reached the top of the basin where elk tracks circled a shallow lake. We sat down to rest. The mid-morning sun glinted off the lake and soothed us with pleasant warmth, melting the frost, melting patches of snow left by an early-September storm. We called and listened. We were in elk heaven, at complete peace. We did not know - how could we know? - that other people in the United States, at this very moment, were not at peace.
From that upper lake we followed a creek drainage downhill that would lead to our camp. We found fresh sign - droppings and big tracks - in a large meadow and, again, we called expectantly, knowing elk had to be close. But we couldn't roust them. So we continued on down to camp. I was mystified. Where were all the elk? I couldn't explain it. But this futility wouldn't alter our game plan. We would dial another one.
STEVE HAD TAUGHT me that concept - dial another one. For 14 years, Steve played wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. As he pointed out, on some plays a team gets stopped at the line of scrimmage - or loses yardage. When that happens, players can't get discouraged or question their game plan. They just dial another one until they hit on a play that works.
In a sense, elk hunting is similar. You start out with a game plan, just as we had that morning. That basin was a place I'd mapped out well ahead of the hunt and felt sure would be a winner. In football terms, however, we'd lost yardage. But we would not be discouraged. We had a sound game plan. We would stick with it. We just had to keep dialing another one until we hit on a play that worked.
As we relaxed around camp the weather was calm and warm. Peaceful. Had we known what was going on in the world, we would have felt no peace. But we did not know. Insulated by miles of Idaho wilderness, we languished in the beauty of the mountains, our only concern dialing up an elk.
And at 4 p.m. we set out to do just that, heading south from camp along a timbered bench that led down toward the main trail. We'd seen fresh elk tracks there on the way to camp, and we saw them now. But we didn't get so much as a squeak from a bull until 15 minutes before dark. Then, in response to my umpteenth bugle of the afternoon, a bull wailed far away in the dusky woods. It was a beautiful sound. We hurried that direction but were unable to reach him before dark. So we just listened for a while, enjoying the sweet music, as darkness settled around us.
I HAD FIRST MET STEVE LARGENT on a deer hunt sponsored by Mathews Archery in Wisconsin with Bluff Country Outfitters. At that time, Steve had hunted whitetails in his native Oklahoma and elk a couple of times in Colorado. But he had never killed a big game animal with his bow until he arrowed a big doe on that hunt in Wisconsin. Let's put his response into perspective. As a professional football player, Steve had caught 819 passes and 100 touchdown passes, both of which, at the time of his retirement in 1989, were NFL records. He was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1995. After retiring from football Steve ran his own successful public relations business, and then, in 1994, was elected to the United States Congress and was re-elected for three more terms. (At this writing, he has resigned from Congress to run for the governorship of Oklahoma.)
For a guy with that resume, you might think shooting a doe would be pretty mundane stuff. Such was not the case. After taking that deer, Steve smiled for two days straight, and he bubbled to anyone who would listen about every detail of the shot. You would think he'd just caught a Super Bowl-winning touchdown.
I figured anyone that enthusiastic over his first deer had to be a good guy. So when he mentioned an urge to take an elk some day, I invited him to join me for a few days in my home state of Idaho. Thus it was that on September 9 Steve flew into Boise, and on September 10, with three pack llamas in tow, we hiked 8 miles into the backcountry and started dialing.
THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 12, we were headed west out of camp by 6 a.m., hoping to find the bull we'd heard the evening before. Less than a half-mile from camp, we heard bugling far out ahead of us. We were in business. We waited a few minutes and I cow-called lightly. The bull responded. Much closer. We raced downhill to cut him off. At a small opening we hid in some thick trees and called. It was a good situation - hot bull, first daylight, close to camp. We expected good things to happen. But a half hour of calling brought no response. The bull had probably smelled us. Instead of good things, we'd just educated an elk. Dial another one.
Heading on west, we climbed to the top of a ridge and sat glassing into a vast canyon. The wind was fierce and calling seemed futile. But after blowing my bugle, I heard a faint whistle. It seemed to come from a saddle on our ridge.
"Let's ease down that way to check things out," I said.
The saddle was a quarter mile down a steep slope, and we stayed off the backside in the timber so any elk below couldn't see us. When we got to the saddle, we found several beds there with fresh urine in them and a rub tree so fresh the sap had scarcely started oozing.
Again we blinded in. This one was a cinch. The bull had definitely bugled from this saddle, perhaps from the bed I was standing in. But a half hour of calling brought nothing but the sounds of gusting wind in the whitebark pines. Whether the elk had smelled us, seen us, or just wandered off, we didn't know. But he was gone now. Dial again. We hunted out the top of this same ridge until 2 p.m. By then the sun was blazing, and not only were we getting tired but we knew no self-respecting elk would be moving under these conditions. So we stopped for some lunch and rest.
But I was soon getting restless. I've always believed you can't get 'em if you don't keep after 'em - keep dialing so to speak - so about 2:30 we eased over to the north slope of the ridge.
I cow called lightly, and a bull answered from across a basin below us. It was a sweet sound, but I didn't get too excited, knowing we'd never call that bull in during the heat of the day.
"Let's just slip quietly down this slope into his basin," I said. "We'll just have to be patient, but maybe we can get him cranking when the evening cools off."
"Sounds good to me," Steve replied.
The initial descent of 300 yards was very steep, almost cliffs. We tried to move quietly, but we couldn't avoid rolling an occasional rock. Even though he was a half-mile away, the bull apparently was hearing these slight noises, because pretty soon he bugled. And then again. He seemed to be heating up.
We'd got about halfway down the steep grade when Steve whispered, "There he is!" The bull was standing at the edge of a treeline a quarter mile below us. He bugled, and continued our way.
"I can't believe this," I whispered. "Looks like he's coming up here to meet us." A big boulder field lay between the bull and us. He wouldn't cross there, but clearly he was circling around the boulders to angle up through the trees. "Get down there about 50 yards and hide. I'll try calling him to you."
As the bull went behind some trees, Steve scurried downhill and knelt beside the trunk of a big tree. At my first cow mew, the elk bugled angrily, and then again. He was coming straight at me. And Steve was directly between us.
For some moments I could not see the elk. But when Steve drew his bow I knew things were getting serious, and when his bow went off the elk lurched downhill into my view. Fifty yards below Steve, the bull stumbled and rolled down through the boulder slide. Steve and I raised our arms in victory. Of all the crazy events. Over the past two days we had hunted prime country at the prime times of day amid red-hot sign and had gained zip. Now we stood in the midst of a near-vertical boulder field under a blazing sun at 2:30 in the afternoon admiring Steve's first elk. If you just keep dialing...
With the hot weather, we skinned and quartered the elk quickly and placed the meat in the shade of trees down the hill to cool. We left there about 7:30 and reached camp about 9 p.m.
THE ELK LAY ON the far side of a high ridge from camp. Looking at the map we could see the easiest way to retrieve the elk would be to drive around to the next drainage over and to come up from below. So early on September 13, we packed up camp and by 8 a.m. were on the trail back to the truck. It was a beautiful morning, and we talked about families and hunting and football as we walked down the trail. We were having fun. About 10 a.m. a helicopter flew overhead. Fire helicopter, I thought. A few minutes later the chopper came back down the valley. Didn't go very far, I thought, still not giving it much thought. But when the chopper came back up, more slowly this time, Steve and I looked at each other.
Steve Largent and I first met in Wisconsin on a hunt sponsored by the Archery Manufacturers and Merchants Organization (AMO), Mathews Archery, Dart International, and Bluff Country Outfitters, the first in the AMO's Congressional Archery and Bowhunting Program. The purpose is to educate and enthuse Congressmen and other influential leaders about bowhunting, the archery industry, and hunting issues in general.
During the trip, Steve, along with AMO Executive Director Jay McAninch, Peter J. Dart, and yours truly visited the Mathews Archery plant in Sparta, Wisconsin, and then hunted with Jim Brush of Galesville, Wisconsin, and then with Bluff Country Outfitters.
Steve, who took his first deer with a bow on this trip and got an inside view of the bowhunting industry, came away excited about bowhunting. From his attitude, it was obvious a program like this can go a long way toward generating political support for bowhunting. In 2001, the program was disrupted by 9/11, but many more hunts are planned for future years. Our thanks should go the AMO, Mathews, and other corporate sponsors.
In addition to Steve's doe, Jay McAninch took a nice 8-pointer with Bluff Country, and I came, oh, so close... But that's another story. To plan an excellent whitetail hunt, contact: Tom Indrebo, Bluff Country Outfitters, S1751 State Hwy. 88, Alma, WI 54610; (608) 685-3755; www.bluffcountryoutfitters.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
"They're looking for us," we said in unison.
We climbed onto an open hillside, and soon, as the chopper hovered overhead, a note drifted down:
"Congressman, a national emergency has occurred. We'll land in a meadow below and wait for you."
"Either the president has been shot or we've gone to war," Steve said. As an afterthought, he added, "Or it could be some terrorist activity."
When we reached the helicopter a mile down the trail, the crew handed us some newspapers. We were shocked. This couldn't be. But it was. Steve needed to contact his congressional office in Washington D.C.
"I'll fly to the Forest Service office with these guys and make some calls and then meet you at the trailhead," he said. He climbed into the chopper and disappeared over the horizon. Dazed, I thought, He won't be back.
I was right. About 2 p.m., a Forest Service worker met me at the trailhead and handed me Steve's pack. Steve had flown on to Boise and from there to Washington, D.C.
EARLY ON SEPTEMBER 15, I drove around to the next drainage, saddled the llamas, and headed cross-country. Rain had fallen hard during the night, but now it had stopped and had turned to fog so thick I could scarcely see 100 feet. After stumbling around, thoroughly lost, for 2 hours I found a route that would take me up to the elk. When I finally reached the kill site at 1 p.m., the fog had started burning off and the sun sneaked through in bright, warm shafts, and steamy water vapor shimmered from the sodden ground. The meat was just as we'd left it.
After boning out all the meat, I loaded the llamas and started back down. The sky had cleared and the brilliant woods were full of pine scent and other good smells. A grouse flew into a tree and I nailed it with my longbow. In no hurry, I stopped often to rest the llamas and soak in the beauty of the moment. How fortunate I was. Surrounded by lonely mountains, soaking in the warmth of an autumn sun, packing out elk meat, I was living the perfect moment.
At the same time my stomach churned with despair. Clearly I could picture that chopper lifting off with Steve aboard and could imagine the horrid reality it repre
sented. People were hurting. America was hurting. No depth of wilderness could insulate me from that pain. It was a terrible feeling.
Yet I felt a profound hope. America does not wilt. America dials another one. Even deep in the Idaho wilderness, I could feel victory in the air.