Jan 16 2024

Counting Myself Lucky

It’s Tuesday, October 10 as I write this, and I am freshly back from a four-day hunt for bears and cougars in eastern Washington. I drove over Thursday to grab a spot for my family, which included my dad, my brother and his daughter, my brother-in-law and two of his boys, and a couple of hunting buddies. I wanted to secure a camping spot since Saturday was the opener for muzzleloader elk season. While I have an archery tag for elk (and hence could not hunt elk during muzzy season since it is weapons specific here in WA), I still wanted to just get out and enjoy all that is hunting camp.

I arrived on a gorgeous day with clear blue skies, mid 60s in temp, and a light breeze. I have been coming up to this area for well over 20 years, and have taken many elk out of the steep canyons or helped pack them out. After setting up my meager camp of the American flag and a tent, I decided to do some predator calling. My plan was to use an electronic caller during the weekend in the hopes of enticing a cougar or bear, of which there are plenty in the area.

I set up in a rugged canyon with ravens calling high above, seemingly in anticipation of the feast that was soon to come this weekend in the form of gut piles by the successful hunters. In front of me, the canyon broke free of the slope of the hill and gave way to scree fields and wind-twisted pines, and far below near the creek that seeped out of what seemed to be solid rock, birch eked out a living. It was a quiet afternoon, and I knew the sound would carry far and wide, so I had a good feeling about the set. For an hour I called using deer fawn distress of varying degrees, but to no avail. Except for the occasional hawk dive bombing or raven circling and landing while trying to figure me out, all was quiet.

After another set of similar results, I headed to camp and made a dinner of mule deer hamburgers while contemplating my plans for the morning. I went to bed, listening to the elk bugle and mew in the woods that surrounded me as the coyotes sang nearby. The symphony of the night was a welcome solace from the burdens of modern life. I fell asleep gazing at the stars.

The following morning, I went to another creek bottom that, once again, seemed to start just bubbling out of rocks from some unforeseen buried garden hose. It trickled out and supplied enough water to turn the ground into a wallow soup where elk would frequent and bears would eat what we call “rosehips”. It drained down into a mature stand of trees that were choked with brush and brambles, which looked very promising. Placing my back against a tree, I had a great shooting lane of a game trail to my left and right and could see a decent distance down the drainage for at least 75 yards or so. This time around, I used a rabbit distress call and remained as still as possible for over an hour. But once again, nothing came in.

Now, the beauty about calling—or hunting for that matter—is that you are not always successful. So when I have a set that doesn’t produce, I tend to not get frustrated. I just head off to greener pastures. Throughout my wanderings from set location to set location, I’ve come across various signs of bear activity from torn up stumps to rolled logs and rocks. Anytime I find signs of bear action, I tend to stop and analyze it for a few moments. How fresh is it? What was it after? Is there more sign around? I want to learn as much as nature can teach me, but I must be open to listening to the story and slow myself down.

I headed back to camp and by then my family had arrived, so I helped my dad set up camp. It took time, but by the end I had time for an evening call session. I crossed a large sage flat riddled with the remnants of an ancient eruption (lava rock covers the ground and does not allow for any sort of even walking). Every step seemed to want to roll my ankle or stub my toe, but this is life in this region. I once again followed another creek bottom which rounded a finger of a hill and then plummeted deep into the canyon below. This is where we’ve often found elk bedding down for the day. I could hear them below, bugling as the rut slowly came to an end. I was surrounded by bear-torn stumps of varying sizes. A few years ago in this very gully, I watched a bear skirt an elk herd within 70 yards and the elk did not even react.

This time around I was going to use a hand call, one I had not used before called a javelina distress. I sat against what remained of an ancient pine tree, tucked myself into the shadows, and began to call. I started off slow and then increased my pace as time went on, while magpies and blue jays confirmed I sounded like dinner. They landed around me, cawing and squawking, adding realism to the scenario, and I grinned silently to myself. Now and again, I could hear a squirrel chirping his alarm and I hoped that he was not yelling at me, but scolding a predator he was looking down upon. But alas, another bust.

As time went on that weekend, I would find similar areas: brushy draws with water, ponds, or basically any spot I could think of that contained some sort of water. I would set up and call for over an hour. With each set, my anticipation grew greater and greater, the odds increasing in my favor as time passed. After all, I have about a 30% success rate calling bears in, so by that logic I was getting close to some action.

I returned to camp and listened to my brother-in-law describe how they spotted a nice black bear first thing in the morning, and he and his two boys (12 and 8) spent the rest of the day playing cat and mouse with it. The boys loved it, despite no shot. The excitement in their voices was worth the trip alone. It seemed that our destinies had somehow been switched as they saw a bear and I had seen elk—each of us seeing the target animal the other was after.

Once again, we were greeted with an amazing night sky void of light pollution. The glory of the universe unfolded before us as we once again heard an elk bugle in the distance and a lone coyote give out a rather lonely howl. No response came to him. My days were spent going from place to place, calling where it looked good, keeping quiet where I thought I should just watch, and wondering what I was doing wrong. It was in these hills, after all, that I called my very first bear using nothing but a cow call while I was archery elk hunting.

Once I returned to camp again, I was bombarded with more tales of bears from my brother and our buddy, Gary. While looking for elk, my brother and my niece were hiking and came upon a nice chocolate black bear running head-on towards them. It ducked behind some trees and then, instead of coming out where my brother was anticipating, it went behind some brush and continued to walk about 40 yards broadside (not running, but at a fast walk). My brother used his judgment and didn’t shoot at a moving target. Afterall, he was teaching his daughter how to hunt, and we all know that a stationary target is always preferred. Avoiding a wounded animal is a priority. So, the bear walked to safety. 

Gary was working a brushy draw when under 40 yards a bear stood up in the brush. As Gary raised his muzzleloader, the bear turned and bolted. So, another bear got another free pass. I listened to the stories with envy but excitement for each party. Seeing my niece smile and retell what happened about the running bear was a delight. The light in her eyes and broad smile painted the picture of a memory I am sure will last her whole life.

And so, we came to the next to last day. My little brother found what is often called a “dead head”, meaning an animal (usually a deer or elk) that has died one way or another. Tucked into a small cove of dark pines laid a very nice 7-point bull elk. The ground was cleaned of pinecones and needles from all the bear and scavenger activity. Much of it had been picked clean while a jerky-like hide remained, covering what was left. He marked it and let me know the location due to the possibility of some bear returning. So I paid it a visit the following morning. They had sat on it the evening prior hoping for a bear themselves, but no luck.

The next morning was cloudy and cool; a change in weather could be felt and seen. I crept slowly into the area, and a coyote appeared not 40 yards out. He looked at me, ran about ten yards broadside, and stopped. I pulled up my rifle and had him in my sight, but I hesitated. The rifle I was using would leave a large exit wound on the yote and, in reality, I wanted to get close to the dead elk to see if I could catch a bear having breakfast. As he trotted off, I realized he was there with purpose. Not 70 yards further from him, I snuck up to a bull, about 10 cows, and a few calves. The bull was easily within 40 yards. I watched them eat and meander as I stood motionless for several minutes before the wind kissed the back of my neck and they trotted off.

As I came upon the bull carcass that my brother had found, I was amazed how hard it was to find, even with an OnX pin drop for the location. The shadows of the pines blended perfectly with the antlers and low hanging branches. I was told there was a very nasty smell to the creature, which is how my brother found it from over 200 yards out. But, thanks to Covid, I can’t smell much of anything since 2020. At least I was blessed with that superpower. You could see where bears had been around it, but it appeared to have not been messed with for a while. Regardless, I set up and called about 80 yards out from it, with the hopes of calling in an orbiting predator.

But, once again, ravens and birds of prey appeared to be the only thing interested in my calls. I thought to myself as I went back to pack up camp, “I could use a little luck. Any luck.” And that is when it dawned on me: I was lucky. I got to spend time with undisturbed elk on numerous occasions that weekend. I watched as birds circled over my head singing various songs and calls. I listened to the serenade of the coyotes at night while contemplating life and existence as I gazed upon the endless vastness of space. I saw the joy in my niece’s and nephew’s eyes as they hunted with their dads, listened to my father’s aging laughter around the campfire, and spent time with hunting partners I rarely see. So, if I was gauging my luck in success as far as tags filled, it would have been a low score. But if success was in things that are intangible and truly mattered, it could not have been measured. My hope is that your season is met with as much success as mine has been so far. Happy hunting, my friends.