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It Takes a Village to Hunt Backcountry Elk

You might be the one to loose an arrow, but the contributions come from many.

It Takes a Village to Hunt Backcountry Elk

Our elk hunting team took time for a photo before saying goodbye to my wife, Des, after the first week of elk hunting.

This summer, I was fortunate enough to draw an elk tag in an area my brothers and I have hunted off and on for the past six years. On years when we didn’t draw the tag, we would backpack into the area, scout from a distance, and learn the elk’s patterns and habits. It’s not often that nonresident bowhunters are able to repeatedly hunt in such a special place. To say we feel blessed would be an understatement.

We decided to hunt the last two weeks of September — a week later than previous years — and we were prepared to spend the full two weeks in the mountains if that’s what it took. My brothers, Matt and Scott, my wife, Dessirae, and I reached our trailhead camp early on the afternoon of September 17. The midday arrival allowed us plenty of daylight to put our packs together, eat that last real meal, and acclimate for a full day before heading up above 11,000 feet for the first six days of our trip.

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This is sunset on a Day One filled with anticipation.

Like most years, Day One proved to be one of the most challenging. Living in Kansas at 1,500 feet in elevation, the acclimation period tends to be a rough transition for the first few days. The altitude adjustment coupled with an eight-mile pack-in with over 60 pounds on your back can make you question your sanity. Every year, we joke that it’s a good thing we have short memories. Joking aside, our team maintains positivity. Negativity burns energy we aren’t willing to waste. Bowhunting elk in this area presents enough challenges as it is.

Once camp was established, we began our ascent to the top of a basin we call “Jurassic Park.” Like in years past, the joint was hopping with multiple shooter bulls and lots of rut activity. The challenge, as always, was figuring out how to get stickbow close. Our go-to approach is to wait for the right, consistent wind direction, then drop-in to the rut frenzy from above. Although we’ve become better elk callers the past few years, we’ve never relied on calling alone. “Wait for your set,” as the surfing community says. Be in the right position, wait for the elk to sound off, then drop-in on them.

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After a full day of rain and fog, my brothers and I head back to camp.

Days Three and Four brought torrential rain. After spending most of Day Three hiding under tarps, we chose to wait out the Day Four monsoon in the Kifaru Sawtooth tipi. Hitting a bull and losing the blood trail in the rain wasn’t an option for us, and the forecast was supposed to be great after the storm passed. Patience hasn’t always been our strong suit, but as we’ve seasoned, we’ve learned that educated decisions typically end better than pushing the issue.

Day Five was going to be a huge day once the weather broke. We left the tent in the dark, but with enough light to make out objects across the landscape to ensure we weren’t going to push elk off the top of the mountain. Making our way into a basin we call the “Amphitheater,” we planned to get into a saddle before the elk started their descent back into the timber, haze them from above, and try to call one back to us. This worked perfectly on multiple satellite and raghorn bulls, but we just couldn’t call any of the older-class bulls in close.

The team made the entire loop around the mountain and ended up in the bottom of Jurassic Park at last light. After a short debrief, we began the grueling 1,500-foot climb out of that hole and back toward camp to lick our wounds. We were discouraged at our lack of opportunities that day, although we observed some of the herd bulls’ patterns that would prove beneficial in the days to come.

On Day Six, Dessirae was planning to pack out and head home. We’d decided to hunt that morning, break down camp, and escort her back to our base camp. This would allow us to take a halftime break to restock our food supplies, eat at a restaurant, and discuss our strategy for the remainder of the hunt. Taking a hot shower, eating good food, and spending an evening with the wife before she left the following morning was exactly the breather I needed.

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My wife, Dessirae, and I take a midday break on the way to our initial basecamp.

After kissing the wife goodbye on Day Seven, I went straight back to our base camp and presented the plan to my brothers. Without hesitation, they were on board for packing straight back to the Amphitheater. We had acquired too much intel on the elk patterns there and had to capitalize on it.

We wasted no time getting packed back in, dumping the gear, setting up the shelter, and mobilizing toward the Amphitheater. The prevailing wind was again southwest, which was ideal for the direction we’d be approaching from. The herd bulls had been pushing their cows along the top two benches in the evenings, so we decided to hunker down on the top bench in hopes they’d read the script and come in below us. We had ample cover to drop benches quickly, if needed.

As bowhunters, we always have a plan, but the plan will often require modifications. Thirty minutes into our original plan, the bottom of the basin erupted with what sounded like 10 to 15 bulls screaming relentlessly. After dropping a couple benches to get a better read on the bulls’ location, we listened intently for 20 minutes. “Listen to what the world is trying to tell you,” is a phrase I’ve heard in the past from men much wiser than me. At that moment, that phrase rang truer than ever before.

Without hesitation, I told my brothers to drop their packs and we bailed off into the bottom of the basin. We were familiar with the terrain and knew of a tight pinch-point where we thought this rodeo was going down. On the descent, we ran into younger bulls but just blew right past them — we knew we had to get to the source of the rut-fest.

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After a few minutes of hurdling rocks and deadfall as we charged downhill, we found ourselves within 60 yards of the chaos. I quickly nocked an arrow and hunkered down in a small group of dead pines to wait patiently.

After an hour and a half of the most intense elk action we’d ever witnessed, one of the herd bulls we’d seen fight three bulls off that evening pushed his hot cow right into our laps. They were within 15 yards for a few minutes, but the bull only provided quartering-to shot opportunities. I had already been at full draw three times when he finally pushed his cow out of the trees while screaming repeatedly in our direction. I leaned out to slip a perfectly placed arrow right behind his shoulder. Watching that arrow disappear into his vitals will forever be engrained in my soul.

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Here, I am wearing a permanent smile just before the reality of breaking down my bull set in. We spent over a week hunting hard and living out of a backpack, but all that effort is worth it when you can pose with a bull elk like this one. I am thankful for all my friends who helped make it happen.

Within seconds, my brothers were at my side, and we heard the giant bull crash down the hill. My brothers made their way down to the bull first, and we documented my reaction as I made my way to the incredible beast. After retrieving our packs, we immediately began breaking down my bull. Scott and I started in on the bull as Matt built a meat pole, took pictures, and built a fire. By 10:30 p.m., we had the meat hung and began our climb out of the basin. With our bull on the ground, the weight on our shoulders had been lifted.

Everything from that point on was only hard work, which is what my brothers and I strive for daily. The only concern left was ensuring that we got the meat back to our camp safe and sound.

Arrangements were made prior to the hunt with a couple of good friends with horses. They were familiar with the area we were hunting and agreed to come in to help retrieve the meat if we were lucky enough to tag a bull. We made the call to our packers, Justin and Kim, but they had prior engagements in the morning and wouldn’t be able to come until the next day. My brothers needed to get back to work, so we broke our camp down and headed back to base camp.

Early the next morning, I headed back up the trail to get in front of the horses, as they were coming in from another direction. I knew my legs couldn’t keep up, so I wanted a head start. Within a few hours, we’d made it to the bull and found the meat just as we’d left it. Before loading the meat, I told the guys I needed to sit down and eat something. I was out of gas from the hike in and the eight days of hard hunting. Justin reached into one of the game bags, grabbed a tenderloin, and began cutting slices. He said, “Here, eat this.” The three of us ate nearly half that tenderloin, and within minutes I felt like a new man.

We sat in the basin for nearly an hour, talking about life and just enjoying the moment. It was completely astonishing to me that they would take time out of their schedules to pack miles back into the mountains just to help me. I will be forever grateful for these men.

We loaded the pack horses equally with the deboned elk meat and secured the panniers. I carried the head out, as the skull and antlers can poke the horses and cause unnecessary issues. Carrying antlers off the mountain is an honor and the least we can do to show our appreciation for the bull’s giving his life.

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Our packers, Justin and Kim, collect some sunshine before rigging the horses to pack my elk off the mountain.

Justin and his pack horse took up the trail, and before Kim gave his horse the kick to take off, he looked back at me. Kim, being a fellow traditional bowhunter, knows the trials of the task we had accomplished. No words were necessary — the look in his eyes told me he was proud of us, and he was honored to be a part of it. There is no doubt that this day bonded us for life.

As I watched the horses carry the elk meat out of sight, I couldn’t contain my emotions any longer. Tears swelled with pride as I followed the cowboys out of the basin, feeling like the luckiest soul on Earth. Five individuals had given me their time, knowledge, and energy to help make my hunt unforgettable.

I would never have attempted to hunt that deep in the backcountry without my brothers at my side and the cowboys willing to come in and pack us out.

It’s going to be hard to pay them all back, but I’m darn sure going to try.

The author lives in central Kansas with his wife, Dessirae, and three daughters, Brooke, Rylie, and Danni. He has an obsession for traditional archery, big whitetails, and backpack hunting in the Rocky Mountains with his brothers.

Author’s Notes: On this hunt, I used a Stalker Stickbow 62-inch Coyote w/ longbow limbs, Easton Axis 340 shafts, and 150-grain Magnus Stinger broadheads. Other gear included Sitka Gear apparel, Kifaru Muskeg 7000 backpack, LaCrosse Lodestar boots, Swarovski SLC 10x50 binoculars, and a Marsupial Binocular Pack.

A special thanks to my wife for spending a full week with us, enduring the elements. One can’t explain what these hunts mean to us, so I was very grateful to have her experience it firsthand.




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