November 04, 2010
In the Pacific Coast Range, the canyons are vertical, the brush is dense -- and the victory is huge!
This is the myrtle tree my bull was rubbing only moments before I shot him. Each time Ken would call, the bull would attack the tree. Roosevelt elk, like the bull and cows below, live in the Pacific rainforests from northern California to southern British Columbia.
On the tenth day of a seven-day hunt, I finally got my chance. My guide and good friend Ken Wilson of Spoon Creek Outfitters had located a tremendous Roosevelt bull elk herding cows in the lush, old-growth forests of the Coast Range in southwestern Oregon.
"Lon, if you sneak down this logging road, you'll end up across the canyon. Those elk will be just above you on the right," Ken whispered. "I'll stay here and watch the show!"
I hustled down the skid road until I was just below the rutting elk. Easing along, glassing and listening, I finally picked up movement and, through my binoculars, saw a big bull and a cow in the dense ferns as they circled each other like two boxers at the beginning of a title bout. For a moment they disappeared, so I repositioned for a better look and was then stunned to see them in the breeding position.
When they broke free, I was even more stunned -- the cow had mounted the bull! In all my years of hunting, I'd never seen anything like that.
This odd scenario made me pause right when I should have been ranging and shooting the bull, and before I could react, the two elk meandered back up through the rainforest toward the rest of the herd.
Paralleling them while watching for other elk, I sneaked ahead 200 yards on the logging road until I was sure I was ahead of the herd. Then I slipped off my boots, donned my stalking socks, and eased into the old-growth forest.
Moments later, a spike bull and cow ambled through the giant ferns less than 20 yards away. When they'd passed, I sneaked through the rest of the herd and finally managed to relocate the bull and hot cow just over the lip of a knoll.
After ranging the broadside bull at 43 yards, I drew and began to aim. But before I could settle the pin and release, the bull nudged the cow. She dashed off into the understory, and the rutty bull stayed right on her tail.
In a flash, my first real opportunity at a trophy bull disappeared like a magician's rabbit.
That ended my third Roosevelt elk hunt, and all I had to show for my efforts was a backpack full of close calls. My respect for these animals was growing. Roosevelt elk are not easy!
Over the years I'd developed a special bond with Ken Wilson, his wife, Judy, and their head guide, Ross Morris. Normally, I'm a do-it-yourself bowhunter. However, Roosevelt elk live in a mind-boggling, convoluted patchwork of old-growth timber, clearcuts, and reproduction forest -- reprod -- along the Pacific Coast from California to British Columbia. To complicate matters, in Oregon the habitat is a checkerboard of private farms, timberlands, and homesites, interlaced with vast chunks of public land. It would take a lifetime for an individual to figure out where he could legally hunt.
Perhaps worst, the logging road system resembles the bloodshot capillaries in a drunken man's eyes. You never know which roads end as dirt banks, which trails actually go through, or which lanes end at locked gates.
My friend and guide Ken Wilson and I spent many hours glassing with binoculars for elk feeding and rutting in clearcuts, natural meadows, and reprod.
That's where Ken's experience and knowledge come in.
On one hunt, we located a dozen elk feeding on a log landing. It would have taken us days to get to the elk on foot -- which I would have intuitively tried to do on my own -- and all the thorns would have torn us to sheds. But in about 35 minutes, Ken drove a circuitous route and parked the rig about a quarter mile above the elk. From there I was able to sneak in among the herd to get within 28 yards of a decent bull. He needed to take only one step forward to give me a shot. Of course, he didn't, and then a cautious cow picked me off, and the entire herd thundered away.
Early in my fourth Roosevelt elk hunt, Ken and I spotted a dandy bull and a bunch of cows in a farmer's field before dawn. Ken suggested we head for the old growth where he suspected the elk would rest during the day.
Creeping through the timber later that morning, we managed to ease within 25 yards of the entire herd of bedded elk. Unfortunately, they heard and saw us just as we found them, and they blew out of there like a covey of 600-pound quail flushing every which way.
Later that evening, in the waning light, we glassed a herd bull with thick, dark antlers.
Guide Ross Morris draws a map in the dust on the hood of a truck as he, bowhunter Chuck Ballweg (center), and outfitter Ken Wilson plan their afternoon's hunting strategy.
We couldn't get to him before dark, but Ken knew exactly where we needed to be in the morning, and at daylight we were padding down a logging road toward the spot where we'd seen the elk.
Just as Ken looked down to read tracks in the dusty road, I noticed a young bull feeding at a curve in the trail ahead. We knelt and waited as the raghorn bull ambled toward us.
Suddenly he stopped at 30 yards to inspect the two weird blobs. Slowly I drew my bow and waited for him to turn. He wasn't the mature bull I'd hoped for, but at this point in my Roosevelt saga, this youngster looked pretty tasty!
The elk just stood there, trying to gauge the danger. After a couple minutes, I began shaking so badly I couldn't aim effectively and had to let down. The bull still didn't run, but eventually his curiosity gave way to fear, and instantly he was gone.
With that, we continued our search for the herd bull and shortly glassed him in the same spot as the night before. Right away he answered Ken's realistic bugling, but we both knew he would not leave his cows. We would have to press the issue.
It took me four trips to the Oregon Coast to get a shot at a mature bull. All that effort gave me a huge respect for Roosevelt elk, and bringing down this beautiful bull filled me with a huge amount of pride.
Because the logging road made a big loop, we thought it would take too much time to hike around. So we cut cross-country. Mistake! The elk were only about 250 yards away, but it took us longer to drop down into this near-vertical stream drainage and cross 200 yards of reprod than it would have taken us to walk the long way on the road.
Finally, battered and torn, we closed the gap until elk were snapping twigs and browsing so close I could hear their lips smacking. Unfortunately, the foliage was so dense I never even glimpsed a patch of hair or an antler, and we finally decided to back out and regroup.
That afternoon, we returned with Ken's head guide, Ross Morris, and his client, Chuck Ballweg. Again, we glassed the same elk in the same patch of reprod, and we agreed that Ross would stay back while Ken, Chuck, and I moved in.
Once again, we pussyfooted close to the elk but could not lay eyes on them. To see elk at long range and then to never see them at recurve-shooting distance produces a weird combination of excitement and frustration
When Ken set up and called, the bull answered immediately, and for the next 20 minutes the bull screamed just 20 yards from us. At times, we could feel the vibrations from his guttural growls and chuckles. Several times I'm certain he came within 10 yards of me.
Still, I never saw him!
Finally, he chased a cow out into the open, and as I raised my bow to shoot, the cow saw me and instantly sprinted back into the heavy cover. About then, the wind swirled and the jig was up.
That night rain fell hard, turning the parched countryside into a literal rainforest once again, and the next morning we headed to new country where a big bull with a goofy brow tine reportedly lived. No one had seen this elk for a month or so, but he was big enough to warrant our exploring his known haunts.
At dawn, we spotted some elk in a near-vertical clearcut, but despite our best efforts for the rest of the day, we were never able to get on them. So Ken and Ross devised a plan for the following morning -- apply bugling pressure to the bull from two sides, hoping he'd take a stand against one of our teams.
At daybreak, Ken and I were deep in the old growth while Ross and Chuck approached the elk's core area from the top of the clearcut. As they slithered in on the herd, they set up and started to call. Unfortunately for them, the bull decided to run, not fight -- and ended up right in our laps!
As soon as Ken bugled to the approaching elk, the bull responded with an odd, drawn-out squeal, followed by a throaty chuckle. When Ken heard where the bull bugled from, he knew exactly where the bull was headed and where we needed to be. We eased through the fanning ferns, slimy slugs, and rugged old Douglas fir trees.
In western Oregon's jungles, getting a clear shot can seem impossible.
The next time the bull answered, he was much closer. Ken whispered, "He's less than 150 yards. We'd better set up here." I tiptoed down the hill and knelt with a big tree behind me and a rotten log with a snarl of branches in front. Quickly, I realized there was no way I could thread an arrow through the tangle in front of me, so I backed up the hill a couple of yards to clear up my shooting lanes.
At the bull's next squealing bugle, my heart sank. He sounded much farther away. Just then, Ken slowly cocked his head and, with a barely perceptible point of his right index finger, indicated the bull was close.
Shortly, a super-loud bugle verified Ken's adamant gesture. Upon Ken's next call the bull charged up the hill and attacked a myrtle tree just 28 yards from me. Although I couldn't see the bull, I watched the top of the poor tree sway with every hook and jab of his antlers. If the bull showed himself, I'd finally get a shot.
Each time the bull stopped hooking the myrtle tree and warily looked around for the challenger, Ken would cow call, and with each cow call, the bull would start raking again. This went on for several minutes before the battered tree finally quit shaking for good.
Suddenly, a couple of branches breaking to my right cued me to twist on my knees and get ready to shoot. When I saw antlers with ivory tips bobbing above the ferns, my jitters vanished, and I focused on the task at hand. As the bull sauntered behind a tree, I drew.
Ken cow-called and the bull stopped, right behind another tree. No shot!
I let down and waited. Moments later, the bull strode closer, into an opening. When his eyes went behind a tree, I drew again. After a gut-wrenching pause, I could see the bull's shoulder through my peep. One more step and I'd have a clear shot.
Just as the bull's body cleared the tree, he started to angle away. I picked a spot, and in a flash the white fletching of my arrow disappeared into the bull's chest. He sprinted a few yards, but when Ken cow-called, the bull stopped for a few seconds on wobbly legs, and then went down!
When I approached the bull and saw the odd-shaped 6x7 rack of near-Boone and Crockett proportions, I was tickled with such a unique trophy, and I was awed by the bull's body size. Ken and I conservatively estimated his live weight at 1,000 pounds.
Over four seasons, I'd spilled gallons of sweat, battered my way through miles of thorny coastal jungles, and suffered endless frustration. And I'm glad for it all. Every painful moment in Oregon's rugged Coast Range only raised my respect for the Roosevelt. And as I looked at that magnificent bull on the ground, it rose to an all-time high.
Author Lon Lauber, a regular contributor to Bowhunter, hunts across North America from his home in Spokane, Washington.