They should be right up ahead.... Just over this rise. I hope Cody's in position...
Ducking and weaving, I made my way through the low Junipers on the hillside. It was midday, and the snow clumps that had settled in the branches from the previous storm were just beginning to melt. The occasional "thwump" from a falling clump of snow would send me into high alert each time, convinced that it was an Elk. The terrain was difficult to say the least. Mud caked boots provided little to no traction on the melting hill face and each step threatened to send me tumbling down the hill. That couldn't happen. For this to work, we needed to be quiet. Surprise was the only way we'd pull this off.
With my radio in hand, I tried Cody again.
"Cody..." I whispered, "You ready man?"
I was answered with nothing but the crackle of radio silence.
"Piece of shit radio", I muttered to myself as I shoved it back into the ALICE pack. Quietly, I got back to my feet and stared down the hill. Somewhere, in the Juniper thicket below were Elk. How many, I hadn't a clue. But there was no where else for them to go. They HAD to be here. "...Showtime"
Silently I worked my way down the hill and into the thicket. With my head on a swivel, I kept my eyes peeled for any movement. I made it about fifty yards in and suddenly....
Elk! Two of them, in fact. A cow and calf about 60 yards away on a small rise. They hadn't noticed me yet, so I took a step further. A twig snapped up the hill in front of me and I spotted another about 80 yards away. Another step and I hear snow crunch to my left. A spike. This one just 5 yards away, casually chewing cud and staring at me. The whole situation was odd. Save for the strong breeze and the spike chewing his food, it was pretty silent. Serene, even. Nature at its finest.
Then my phone went off. On loud.
Elk on Elk on Elk
It had been an insane Elk season so far. By the final day, most of our hunters had already tagged out and were busy drinking whiskey and telling tales around the lodge. The other guides and I, however, were functioning on very little sleep and energy drinks to make sure our last few hunters filled their tags. For the past 4 days we'd been going balls to the wall. Elk down all over the place. Spotting, tracking, recovering elk. All day. Every day. But there were still a few tags to be filled, and we'd be damned if we didn't give those hunters the best chance.
We were hunting a slightly different area than last year. And since we were blessed with snow a few days prior, the Elk had been all over the place. Snow equals Elk, and this was obvious by the hundreds that were being seen every day. That ridge a few miles away? Elk. The ravine leading up that mountain? Elk. Crossing the road in front of us? Elk. Elk in the ditch. Elk in the bed of the truck. Elk riding shotgun. Bumping into Elk. Elk watching you pee. Tripping over Elk. Elk...Everywhere.
In the brief periods of time where I wasn't helping recover Elk, I spent it on a hill called "The Kitchen". From this hill, most of the valley could be seen. To the east was a long ridge line that followed a flat valley, and that ridge line is where we placed most of our hunters. We'd see Elk every day down in the valley, and it was around this area where most of our kills had been. A few unlucky Elk were the ones who'd ventured just a tad too close to the western ridge of the valley.
The rest of the herd? Oh, we watched them. Trust me. All day long, all the way across the valley on a Juniper covered hill called "Yellowstone". It was on this hill that the Elk felt safe. They rarely left during the daylight hours. The problem with hunting Yellowstone? It's essentially an island in the middle of the valley. There isn't a real good way into or out of Yellowstone without being spotted by the herd.
It was frustrating, to be honest. Seeing Elk all day, but not being able to do a thing about it. It's sorta like being able to see fish, but not being able to hook them. And those are the kind of things I lose sleep over. But we had a few tags left, we knew where the Elk were, and it was the end of the season. Time to make some moves.
The Push for Yellowstone
By the last day of the season, the guide's bunk room was looking a little rough. Filthy, mud and blood covered clothes lay strewn about. Spent brass rolled around on the floor, fluorescent orange apparel was scattered about, and wet boots sat near the door, complete with their wet socks. The guides themselves didn't look much better actually. Nick looked like he'd had "that 2:30 feeling" for the past 3 days. Cody would occasionally zone out and give the 1000 yard stare mid sentence. Aaron had developed a weird tic a few days ago and would occasionally mutter something Elk related in his sleep. I had actually begun to devolve as a person, slowly becoming more and more Elk like. My speech had begun to slowly turn more and more into grunts and clicks. My clothes smelled just like them. Hell, -I- smelled just like them. And if you've never smelled an Elk before...It's not exactly great. We were in rough shape.
But we awoke the morning of the last day with a refreshed, caffeinated energy and were excited to finish out the season. Before leaving the lodge, we all got the run down of the day ahead. The lead guide explained to us what was going to happen. We were pushing them off of Yellowstone around noon. Aaron, Nick, and some of the other guides would help get the hunters in position. Cody and I would do a walking drive and push them toward everyone else. Once all the hunters were in position, the guide spotting on The Kitchen would give Cody and I the signal to start pushing.
Excited to see how this all played out, we got dressed, geared up, and ready to go.
I should note my hatred of snow. I despise being cold and it's just a giant white nightmare. But since Elk like it, and by this point I'm practically half-Elk, I suppose it isn't that bad. In the mornings, however, I can never tell if I'm shaking from the cold, or the Monster Energy that I just chugged. Regardless, Cody, Nick, Aaron and I loaded into the freezing cold Can Am, and hauled ass to The Kitchen to wait on the sunrise.
One Elk was shot that morning before the push. The other hunters held tight. They'd been briefed on what was going to take place, so they patiently waited until mid-day for the show to begin. A little bit before noon, Cody and I hopped back in the Can Am, and drove around to the far side of the valley. From there we parked and began to hike up the backside of Yellowstone. This is where we had to be careful. We needed to split up, but still be in contact so Cody handed me a radio. Once we were in position and got the signal, we'd make our move. But first we had to actually -get- into position. Quietly we weaved our way through the Junipers and got closer to our destination.
It wasn't exactly hard to tell Elk had been nearby.
It's a good thing I smelled like an Elk, because the whole backside of the hill reeked of them. There were obvious spots where they'd been feeding, bedding, everything. The place must've been crawling with them. As accustomed to the high-altitude as my Elk-Lungs had become, I was still at least a quarter human. So I stopped to take a drink of water. I also realized that I was drenched in sweat. Amazingly enough, the only thing I was wearing was a long jon top and some camo pants. But even with all the snow on the ground, I was about to keel over. So I took off my shirt and stuffed it into my pack, then wore my fluorescent orange mesh vest haphazardly over my shirtless body. It looked odd, but no one aside my Elk brothers would see me. My looks didn't matter.
I Am The Elk
Fast forward 30 minutes and I'm now standing face to face with a spike elk, calmly staring at me and chewing his food.
This isn't what's supposed to happen. They're supposed to run.
I took another step, then it happened. My cell phone started ringing.
God forbid Verizon give me -any- signal around the ranch. Seriously. Close to 200,000 acres and I can't get a damn bar of signal on any of it.
Well...99% of it. Apparently Yellowstone gets great reception. Maybe that's why the Elk all congregate there. They've got 4G.
I winced and fumbled around in my pocket for the phone. Max volume, and the highest pitched, most obnoxious ringtone echoed through Yellowstone. I look at the name on the phone: Roscoe.
Roscoe's the senior guide who was sitting a couple miles away spotting for me on The Kitchen. He'd apparently lost sight of me and decided to give me a call. My spike friend had now stopped chewing his food, and was simply staring at me with that look you give someone in a movie theater when they forget to put their phone on vibrate. Calmly I answered the phone.
"Hey Roscoe", I whispered.
"DIDJA STORT POOSHIN' YIT", he replied with an incredibly thick South Carolina accent.
Pausing to look at the Spike right next to me, I answered
"I'm uhh...I'm workin' on it".
"AIGHT WAIL YOO N' CODY STORT. WEIR REDDY"
And with that I hung up the phone with Roscoe, turned my phone on silent, and put it back in my pocket. The Elk was still just standing there, glaring at me. Actually, upon looking around, all of them were. They were all just listening to my conversation with Roscoe.
Why aren't they running? It's like...It's like....No. It can't be...Can it?
The transformation was complete. With the last shred of my sanity gone, it was apparent. I'd been accepted as one of their own. I was in the herd.
I am the Elk.
Try as I did, the Elk never full broke me. I remembered what I'd come there to do. It was go time. But there was one slight issue:
They wouldn't move.
I tried hitting a Juniper to make noise. All they did was watch me. I jogged forward. Still nothing.
What the hell?
Up ahead I could see more of the herd. They were swarming inside Yellowstone. And amongst them all, I saw him. An absolute monster Bull. The biggest I've ever seen by far. I got just a quick glance before he ducked behind some trees ahead. But still, the majority of the herd was just watching me. I, however, had finally seen enough. It was long past time. I'd lost contact with Cody a while ago. It was time to really start pushing. So I did the only thing I could think of...
I sprinted straight at the nearest cow and calf. To add to the display I began screaming jibberish and waving my hand above the air like a madman.
"LAST CALL $%&#ER'S!!! EVERYBODY OUT!! GET! BE GONE!! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!" followed by a series of hollers and a colorful line of profanity as I tripped down the hill.
It was like roaches scattering after turning on the light. Elk practically exploded. They were coming out of the woodwork. From behind boulders, underneath trees, everywhere. The herd was MUCH bigger than I originally thought. Getting back to my feet, I kept sprinting down the hill toward them. Limbs snapped of Junipers as the Elk scattered. Rocks skittered down the hill face as they tried to get traction in the muddy snow. And amidst my heavy breathing and violent cussing, the steady rumble of trampling hooves could be heard.
Just a few yards away a cow and calf darted out in front of me. Suddenly from my right, another spike broke through a Juniper, nearly crashing into me. The Elk was so close I seriously could have slapped him on the ass as he went by. I watched the bulk of the herd disappear over the next hill, and head straight for my hunters. But there was a small problem. About 1/6th of the herd broke left, and were going the wrong direction toward a slightly smaller hill to the south called "Little Yellowstone" (creative, I know).
I couldn't let that happen, so I gave chase. Jumping over rocks and logs, slipping through the snow and mud, I raced to cut off the rest of them before they reached Little Yellowstone. Fun fact about Elk: They're stupid fast. Ridiculously quick, in fact. I had no chance in hell to catch them. But for whatever reason, the herd actually turned. Maybe it was because they shirtless, screaming maniac was still running right where they were planning to go. Maybe it was because of the rifle shots I could now hear echoing through the valley. Who knows? But the important part was that they were well on their way to the hunters, and the crack of rifles in the distance meant that my journey to become full Elk had not been in vain. I got a quick picture of the herd just after they turned. Sadly I wasn't wearing my GoPro for the moments just prior.
I eventually gathered myself and worked my way back to the Can Am to meet with Cody. We drove back to The Kitchen and caught up with what was happening on that side of the valley.
Elk were down, and from the sounds of it, almost everyone had filled their tag. All the guides split up and began running around recovering animals. One hunter actually joined Cody and I in the Can Am and while driving to track someone else's Bull, we spotted out a legal bull and our hunter was able to fill his tag.
The next few hours were a blur as hunters continued to fill out tags, and I lost count how many animals I field dressed. As the sun was beginning to dip low on the western horizon, I ran into Aaron and Nick again.
"Everybody good?" I asked as we pulled up next to them.
"Oh yeah. Dude...Lee shot a monster", replied Aaron.
"Really? Like, how big?"
Nick's eyes got all wide and he just shook his head. "Big...We're going to go get it in a minute"
Eventually we got all of our hunters loaded up, Elk ready to roll back to the skinning shed, and our gear put away. It was about that time that the other truck came rolling up with Lee's bull.
"Holy shit...", was pretty much everyone's response. It was massive. And to make it even sweeter? That was the bull I'd gotten a glimpse of on Yellowstone. Lee was grinning from ear to ear and everyone took the time to congratulate him on the bull of a lifetime. Hero pictures all around, and by far, the best way to end a season that I can think of.
For information on hunting on the ranch or with me, please visit their website at http://www.rrranchco.com/
Note: My apologies for taking such a hiatus in my writing the past couple of months. I was absurdly busy in the Everglades and just couldn't find the time to write during 70+ hour work weeks. Good news is that I've now moved and am in prime fishing habitat in a new part of the state. Looking forward to the coming stories. Thanks for reading!!