Last Moment Elk

How often did your mom or dad remind you that waiting until the last minute to do something was foolish and always had a price? Over the decades. I have discovered that – even if you start early – taking until the last moment to accomplish something does, indeed, have a price. It will likely be well worth it, but there is a price.

I could probably cite several examples, but a couple Washington State end-of-late-season master hunter permit elk damage hunts are currently in my head.

A decade or so ago, I got an early fall start on the elk damage season in Paradise, but was pulled away to deal with various family issues. Once I found time to resume looking for a fattened-on-some-rancher’s-haystack cow elk, there were precious few days left in the damage hunt ending on 31 December. The days slipped by without finding the elk which were raiding haystacks at night and disappearing into the hills before first light.

Dawn of the 31st found us watching 40 elk a mile up a steep draw above Cooke Canyon north of Ellensburg. Six inches of fresh snow lay under still, clear, 5-degree air. “Okay,” I said. “I think I can get on them, but that’s a long way up in bitter cold, and a long way back down with a big lead cow. How is that going to happen?” “No problem,” partner said, “we have permission here, and we can get the four-wheeler up to it.” Thus began a very long and very cold stalk.

A bit over two hours later, I was able to make a good prayer and a perfect shot on the cow that seemed to be in charge of the group. I was atop a ridge overlooking Cooke Canyon, a mile down below. Cell phone confirmation of the downed elk met with “Oh, actually, we can’t get the four-wheeler to that spot… Just drag it down to the canyon and I’ll meet you there with the truck.” I was hard pressed to move the big field-dressed cow even on the snow and downhill. As luck would have it, a younger master hunter – for whom sainthood awaits, I’m sure – volunteered to climb up and help. Somehow, in that bitter cold and snow, we got the elk to the bottom by mid-afternoon.

The price? Sheer exhaustion, and frostbit toes and fingers that continue to be pretty sensitive to very cold temperatures, no matter how well clothed I might be. Worth it? Of course…

A bit over a week ago, on January 20, 2020, the late-season master hunter permit elk damage hunt on the U.S. Army’s Yakima Training Center ended. Homey and fellow master hunter permit holder Wee Clogston and I have been actively pursuing cow elk on the Training Center for a time now. These are elk which, early in the fall, raid crops in Badger Pocket and move before daylight up onto the Army ground. Later in the fall, they are moving onto and off ag ground to the south, and often drifting across traffic on I-90 above Vantage.

This was one of those seasons during which we were able to spend some early fall time on the Center, but then sidetracked until late November. In mid-December, we were able find elk and I filled my tag. Wes’ elk suddenly became an almost impossibility. Over a number of trips, we found the elk harboring in a central Impact Zone – off limits to hunting – and not venturing out.

Once off-and-on snowfalls began, we were able to find where a few elk were moving, but were unable to actually locate them. Over several unsuccessful (other than always enjoying being on that amazing 325,000 or so acres of federal ground) January hunts, the 20th began to loom larger. Thus, predawn of the last possible day of the late season, we checked in at the gate.

Morning was a repeat of our previous trips. On a hunch, we said more prayers and moved up to the area where we might find any elk who had recently crossed over I-90 in the recent snow. A couple other master hunters reported seeing elk and tracks, and one fellow was on his way back to a draw to help his buddy extract an elk. Things were looking up.

We found fresh tracks and tried to figure out where the elk went. As probably every hunter knows, when you are scanning big country there are myriad bushes and rocks that look just like elk and deer (“rock elk,” “bush elk,” etc.) – until you get binoculars on them. On the other hand, when you actually see critters, you know instantly. Suddenly, there they were.

We worked our way around to get ahead of them, and Wes took off on a stalk. They were moving away and he had no shot. After a couple more unsuccessful sneaks, we moved to where we thought they might be and Wes headed for the edge of a deep draw. Through my binoculars, this time, I watched him shoot down – way down – into the draw. It was just before 1 p.m.

By the time we figured out where we were, and I had hiked back to the truck, returned with the game cart, and had his young cow loaded and secured to it, the afternoon was waning. We were burning daylight.

Somehow, we horsed that loaded cart three-quarters of a mile up out of the bottom of that snowy draw to the top, then made the quarter-mile downhill to the truck. We closed the tailgate on the tagged and loaded elk about the time it went full dark.

Price? Two exhausted hunters in their seventh decade of hunting. Worth it? Duh…

Hmmm… When does NEXT season end?

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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