It was Sunday afternoon on the 5th day of the center fire rifle elk hunt. All I had was spike and cow elk tags and I could only take a cow if I were in a small unit about 70 miles from home. I hadn’t been hunting for several days because my old truck needed a new starter motor. I came close to spending the night at a place and time I didn’t want to spend the night. I was prepared, just preferred not to. Truth is, my wife would have worried herself silly. I know she thinks I’m too old to go out in the middle of nowhere by myself, but spares my feelings by not saying it.
I usually don’t hunt on the weekends because my schedule allows me the opportunity to hunt during the week, so I try to avoid the crowds as much as possible. But since I missed hunting on Thursday and Friday, I was anxious to get back out to see what I could see. Like most folks, I can’t put a spike in the freezer if I stay at home and the number of hunting days for big game are too few to waste.
I have a little honey hole that I go to when I don’t have a lot of time. It is about a 10 mile drive from the house and about 30 minutes of huffin’ and puffin’ to hike up a tight little canyon to a pair of ponds that are surrounded by a mix of aspen, mountain shrubs, conifers and sage. I have never seen people there, but have seen a few boot prints along with dog and horse tracks. Not many people travel there mainly because the canyon is narrow enough that ATV traffic is prohibited, not that that means much, but so far, I have never seen ATV tracks past the gate. The trail is a little rough and it’s about a 400 foot elevation gain to the 1st pond. Point is, the area is not far from the road and we have always seen game of some kind.
I used to think that mostly grouse hunters went there, but the last time I was there, I found someone’s trail camera on an aspen overlooking the upper pond. I waved my hat in front of the camera several times so he would know that he wasn’t the only one that hunted the area. If the camera had been there a while, he had probably seen me walk up to the pond during the Mule Deer Muzzle loader hunt.
When I arrived at the trail head parking area, there were other hunters preparing to head out. Since the group (4 teenagers and and adult) were riding through the gate on on 2 ATVs (4 kids; no helmets) and a Suburban, I knew they were headed in a different direction than me, but talked to them a minute just to make sure.
Last time out, I had hunted at 9,200 feet, but today I was hunting low. The trail head was about 6,800 feet and the 2nd pond is about 7,250. If I hustled, I had just enough time to get the saddle above the pond which was about 7,550 foot elevation.
On the way up the little canyon, I flushed a Ruffed Grouse. I watched him rocket away down the canyon and around the corner and made a mental note to come back with the shotgun when the elk season was over. I had flushed three Blue Grouse in one day several weeks earlier, but that was farther up the ridge.
As I passed the 2nd pond, I noticed lots of fresh elk sign. There were tracks, pellets and small trees and shrubs that were totally destroyed as the bulls cleaned the velvet off and practiced with their new weapons. All good signs if looking for Bull Elk, but not always a good place to look for spikes.
This time of the year must be both exciting and confusing for the little yearly spike elk. This would be the first time they would show any interest in the girls, but at the same time, the big bulls would start to look at them as rival males and not as just calves. They would be run away from the herd for the first time.
As I climbed toward the saddle, the clouds above looked very ominous, like they were about to let loose with lightning, so I decided not to climb so high and started working my way around the hill into the wind. I needed to find a place to watch and get still very soon. I decided to go to a lower saddle that came off the main ridge at a 90 degree angle. From there, I could watch the pond at about 300 yards and also see into another opening on the other side of the ridge where I had seen elk funnel into before.
I was still working my way up and over to my ambush site when I say movement through the aspen. I checked with the binos and saw nothing at first, then several seconds later, saw the 2nd and then the 3rd elk move through the opening. I am sure the first movement I saw was also an elk. After a few minutes, I got good looks at all three elk, all bulls, a 6×6 and 2 5x5s coming down through the aspen at about 500 yards. It was just a few minutes before sunset and no sunlight was shinning on the hill. This seems to be more evidence that elk are turning into vampires and are destroyed if hit by sunlight.
I worked my way closer to them in between gaps in the mountain shrub and oak brush and saw them again through gaps in the aspen on a ridge at 350 yards. The 6×6 bull had separated from the others and was in front walking quickly. I soon lost sight of him behind a hill. He could still be going toward either pond.
I was still watching the two 5×5 bulls on the ridge and got caught out in the open by the 6×6 bull, but he didn’t notice me as he was on a bee-line to the pond. He walked out in the open sage straight to the pond and started drinking. The boy must have been real thirsty. That could have cost him his life.
I was about 200 feet up hill above the pond and ranged him at 315 yards. I just stood there in the open and watched him. About a minute or so later, the two 5×5 bulls came out of the trees at the same place, but I was spotted instantly by one bull, that alerted the other bull when he froze. If he snorted, I didn’t hear it. Soon they were both staring at me.
I have heard it said about White-tailed deer that they can see you or hear you and be able to forget about it. But they cannot forget if they smell you; game over. This is also true for mule deer and elk. I just stood still while they looked at me. The large 6×6 was still drinking and one of the younger bulls wanted to forget me and go to the water, but other was still staring at me. Finally, they turned around a walked back into the trees, only to circle around to the pond through the aspen instead of the short cut across the sage.
The three bulls drank for several more minutes and I took some video which turned out to be very poor quality because the light was already low and it was windy. All fun stuff to watch, but it didn’t look like I was going to get to see a spike today.
The two 5×5 bulls began to spar. From my spot, I could easily hear their antlers clashing. They went at it for about 30 minutes as it the light began to fade. They were making little squealing sounds as if they were getting excited about the fight, but were afraid to make too much noise. I sat down behind a bush to watch and listen and hoped a spike would appear from somewhere, just to see what was going on.
It was getting fairly dark, but I could still see well with the binos. I noticed a very dark shape climb up the dam and go to the pond. That was a moose. So there were three bull elk and a moose (sex?) at the pond. I don’t see the 6×6 anymore, but the 5x5s were still going at it.
Soon it was almost completely dark as the storm clouds were shutting out the sunset. I looked like is was going to rain and it was way too dark to shoot even though there were a few minutes left of legal hunting time. Wow. I’m sitting here watching 3 bull elk and a moose all under 325 yards.
It sounded like the fighting had intensified. They were still making the constant little squealing noises, but the sound of crashing antlers had become louder. I stood up and looked toward the pond with the binos. I could still barely see the two 5x5s going at it, but there was also a 2nd moose, and the two moose were also fighting. That explained the louder antler clashes that I had been hearing. The 6×6 elk had come back out of the aspen toward the moose and was just standing there watching them fight, like he was watching a tennis match. His head would swing right, then left, then back right as one bull moose pushed forward, then the other pushed back. I got the feeling the moose were old friends or even brothers. They were identically matched.
I just stood there and watched and listened until it was way too dark to see anything. I could barely see anything more than a few feet away. I hated to disturb the elk and moose party, but my only way home was on the other side of their pond. I started walking slowly down the hill toward the pond. I had a headlamp, but didn’t want to pull it out yet. I figured that my un-stealthy movement through the shrubs would alert the elk and moose long before I got there. I didn’t expect to see them again.
I moved very slowly in the dark and took about 15 minutes to work my way down to another little saddle just above the pond. Before I crested the hill, I pulled my headlamp out of the pack and packed away all my other gear. Before turning on the lamp, I crested the hill and the elk were still standing there about 60 yards from me. They gave me the big snort and took off back up the hill where I saw them come out. I heard them crashing through brush and the sound of their hooves hitting downed trees for several minutes. The moose must have slipped away down the hill into the thick cover below the pond.
It took me another 45 minutes to make my way back down the trail to the truck. As I took off my gear and put it in the truck, I was thinking how lucky I was to get to watch bull elk and bull moose fight at the same little pond. To make it all the better, I can get to this little pond in less than an hour from my easy chair. Even though I came up empty again on the spike, I was glad I made the effort to get out. If I ever draw a bull elk tag, maybe I’ll get to see a spike.
There was no sign of the Suburban or the ATVs when I got back. I wonder how their hunt went. I am guessing they drove up the little box canyon, never getting off the ATVs and saw nothing. If they had asked me what I saw, I would have told them the truth. “I got nothing”.