First Elk, First Roosevelt

okie john

Junior Member
Joined
Apr 30, 2017
Messages
11
Location
WA
Until 2016, I had a perfect record on Roosevelt elk: I got skunked every time I hunted them. But Paul Ockerman and Roosevelt Elk Outfitters (http://rooseveltelkoutfitters.com/ and Search) helped me change all of that.

Once I turned 55, I realized that I have maybe 10-15 years of big-game hunting left. To make the most of that, I decided to make several classic North American hunts, and given my perfect record on Roosevelts, I decided to start with them.

Roosevelt elk are significantly bigger than Rocky Mountain elk but their antlers are smaller. Like all elk, they're strong and tough. If wounded, they move to the lowest, nastiest cover you can imagine (more about that later) to die. I would have been happy with a record head, but my real goal was the kind of head that a veteran Roosevelt hunter might see out of the corner of his eye in a dive bar and say, "Yeah, that's a pretty good bull."

And that's exactly what happened.

The Outfitter
I have no financial interest in Roosevelt Elk Outfitters, but Paul and his team took great care of everyone on the trip and I want to pass the word along.

Two of Paul's brothers are guides. All of them grew up hunting blacktails and Roosevelt elk. They focus on the smartest ways to get results, and they hire other guides who know the game, how to hunt it, and how to lead hunters.

I had hunted in the area before, but Paul still made sure that I knew exactly what I was getting into. Pre-hunt communication was clear and Paul answered my questions quickly. He talked openly about some of the problems that other hunters had faced on earlier trips, and everything that he told me came true on the ground. And when we got a last-minute chance to hunt in a better area, he contacted me immediately and we jumped through the administrative hoops to make it happen.

Melissa is Paul's wife. The elk head on the far left in the main room of the lodge is hers so she knows her way around Roosevelt elk. She didn't hunt on this trip, but ensured that everyone had hot home-cooked meals, huge lunches, and clean laundry. She also added a level of general grace and elegance that you don't often see in a hunting camp, and she was a huge contributor to the overall effort.

Paul and everyone on his team were low-key, respectful, and focused on making sure that the hunts went well. One of their goals is for everyone to leave a better hunter, and that definitely happened. In short, it was like hunting with family members--the ones you actually like, not the jerks.

The Area & Conditions
I can't be specific about the area area hunted, but I can say that it's on a public-access tree farm in Washington state within 100 miles of the Pacific coast. The area we hunted is walk-in only: nothing motorized is allowed past the gate. It's also full of elk and you can buy tags over the counter.

Hunting on tree farms is a special treat. This is how a tree farm looks at lunch time on a beautiful western Washington fall day:



[/sarcasm]

You're not seeing full-grown trees in this image. Most of these are just a few years old, and you can easily see elk between them if the fog isn't too thick. The closest ridges in this image are a very long rifle shot away, and you can spot game much farther than that.

During elk season, temperatures hover between freezing and about 50 degrees. Rain and fog blow in from the Pacific regularly. They may pass in a few minutes or linger for days. Weather is typically dry 10% of the time, with light rain 65-80% of the time. The rest of the time it's like getting sprayed with a hose. These are ideal conditions for hypothermia, so top-flight rain gear, long underwear, and boots are essential. The rainy weather means cloud cover, so dawn comes later, dusk comes earlier, and twilight at each end of the day lasts longer.

The ground is rocky and hilly. Much of it is very steep. The soil is loose, footing is treacherous, and movement is difficult. The hills are covered with tall timber, impossibly dense brush, and clearcuts of varying ages and sizes. Creeks and streams run everywhere, feeding numerous small rivers that drain into the Pacific. There are two very good things about tree farms: they have lots of roads, which bring organization and wayfinding to vast areas even if they don't always go exactly where you need them to, and the elevation is low: from sea level in the west to about 2,500' ASL as you go east.

You have to spend a lot of time on the ground to know where the elk are in tree farms, and Paul and his crew have more than done their homework.

The Guide
Jeff (Page Not Found | Facebook) was my guide. He's a former Infantry scout, and he has guided over much of northern North America, including bear in Alaska, deer in Saskatchewan, and waterfowl in the Dakotas. He was easy to work with and deeply experienced. He also saw a lot of game that I didn't, then talked me on to it quickly and easily. His expertise and patience made this trip a success, and I'd hunt with him again in a heartbeat.

The Hunt
Overall, Paul and his team prefer classic spot-and-stalk hunting, and they switch to still hunting through timber if the situation dictates. But we're talking tree farms and not Jack O'Connor, so "spot and stalk" doesn't mean "above the timberline." Mostly it means "trying to stay dry while getting a view of the opposite hillside":


I met up with Paul, another guide, and two other hunters at a range on the afternoon before the hunt. We checked zeros and got to know each other, then headed to the house. Dinner the first night was superb, and afterwards Paul conducted a comprehensive pre-hunt briefing to get everyone up to speed on what to expect, game regs, the particulars of the area, and his style of hunting. Then we grabbed our lunches and went to bed.

We got up at 4:00 AM on Opening Morning, ate, and were headed out by 5:00 AM to get into place by dawn. Jeff and I climbed to a hilltop in pouring rain. Just after sunup, we spotted a dozen cows and a spike (but no bulls), then moved to glass an area where he had seen bulls the day prior. The wind and rain picked up, so we pitched a tarp to stay dry. We caught sight of the bulls again, but the fog blew in a few minutes later and we lost sight of them before we could confirm that they were legal. We tried to move toward them but couldn't get across a rain-swollen creek, so we went back to the house.

Daylight Savings Time ended the next day and elk don't set their clocks back, so we got up at 3:30 AM and were on the road by 4:30. Jeff, one other hunter, and I walked into a different part of the area. The other hunter then decided to sit on a clearcut for the rest of the day, so Jeff and I went back to the lodge, got mountain bikes, and drove to the other side of the valley we had been glassing the day before. Then we dropped the truck, rode 2-3 miles past the gates, then dropped the bikes and moved a couple of more miles deeper into the area. From there, we sat at the top of the drainage we had watched the previous day and glassed for a few more hours.

Around 4:00 PM, we moved to a lower ridge to glass into a part of the drainage we hadn't been able to see from our first vantage point. Right away, we spotted what looked like two legal bulls half a mile away. They were feeding toward a logging road a couple of hundred yards from them. Jeff got out the spotting scope and confirmed that they were legal, so we started moving. 400 yards later, we realized that I wouldn't be able to shoot, so we decided to move around the long way and try for a shot from there.

We moved back up the hill, dropped some gear, then hooked around and started to close the distance. The heavy cloud cover meant that night was approaching quickly, so we began jogging. I trusted Jeff to find the bull and confirm that it was legal, so I focused on getting my rifle ready and on controlling my breathing. A few hundred yards out, we slowed down. A few minutes later, Jeff found the bull again and we crept closer. After a few minutes of stalking, Jeff peeked around some brush, confirmed that the bull was legal, and ranged him at 110 yards.

"Find a rest and shoot," he whispered. I looked around and saw nothing but salal and sticker bushes.

"No rest. Gotta shoot offhand."

"OK, but do it now."

So I peeked around the brush, fired offhand, and broke the bull's spine. He tried to get up, so I shot him until he went down and stayed down:





It took three hours to quarter him. By then we had been up for 18 hours, so we stacked the meat on logs and covered it with a tarp to keep it dry, then packed the head, backstraps, tongue, and heart down to the truck, which took a couple of more hours. We got back to the lodge around midnight. It was a long day, but it could have been a lot longer: this bull fell at the edge of a very steep, brushy draw. Had he gotten into that, we might not have found him until much later, and getting him out would have been a lot harder.

Hunters & Rifles
I used a battered 1962 Browning Safari in 338 Winchester Magnum with a fixed 4x Leupold and 225-grain Nosler Partition handloads.

Probably not the best rifle for rain country, but it worked like a champ:

I chose this rifle because I found myself in a bind at the last minute. Clearly it did the job, but it was a poor choice for this kind of hunting. Even though it was glass-bedded, I worried that the constant rain would warp the stock and shift my zero. I also would not repeat this hunt with a 4x scope. It was fine for the shot that I finally got, but a bit more glass might have been very helpful had a longer shot been required. The 338 loaded with Partitions worked fine, to no one's surprise.

One of the other hunters was a Ranger-qualified former Infantry officer and Iraq vet. The day after I left, he dropped his bull at 300 yards with a Weatherby Mark V in 300 Weatherby Magnum, an old Weatherby scope, and 180-grain Weatherby factory ammo. Another hunter had killed decades worth of Rocky Mountain elk with the 270, 280, and 30/06. For this hunt, he chose a Remington 700 Classic in 35 Whelen, a 1-5 Leupold in Leupold QR mounts, and 225-grain Sierras handloaded to 2,600 fps. On the last day, he (wisely and honorably in my opinion) passed up a quarter-mile shot and went home empty-handed.

This brings up the common misconception that Roosevelt elk hunting is a short- to mid-range affair. Not so. You can certainly specialize in brush and timber with lever guns, heavy round-nose bullets, 19th-century cartridges, and other old-school brush busters. But it’s not all like this:


This is actually classic mountain hunting, it just doesn't take place at classic mountain elevations. It makes sense to use a scoped bolt-action rifle and a high-velocity cartridge with a flat trajectory and lot of punch on the far end. Add the horrendous weather, and the last hunter's choice suddenly looks really smart.

This guy was very experienced. He hunts regularly all over the US, and he chose a Sako A7 Roughtech Pro in 300 Winchester Magnum with a VX-6 Leupold and Hornady factory ammo. He had trashed another rifle on an elk hunt a few years prior, and he liked the Sako because it was cheap, rugged, and accurate. He could slip through the timber with the Leupold on a low setting or crank it up for a long shot. And when his moment came, he got down in to prone, put his rifle on his pack, and shot his bull at 320 yards. For what it's worth, he and his guide had hunted together for several years, and the guide uses a nearly identical rifle. Maybe they're on to something.

Pre-Hunt Training
In case you haven't picked up on it thus far, hunting on tree farms is exhausting. Nothing can make it easy, but preparation can make it hurt a little less. For six months before this hunt, I worked on classic strength stuff in the gym: deadlifts, squats, chin-ups, overhead presses, lunges, etc. I felt the benefit of this most at the end of the second day, when after 14 hours of hiking and climbing in cold, wet weather, it was suddenly time to make fast, precise shot in low light, then spend the next six hours helping to skin and quarter a bull elk, then start to pack it out. That said, I didn't do anywhere near enough road work, which will change before my next hunt.

I also trained hard at the range. Once I settled on a load and zeroed my rifle, I focused on shooting fast pairs offhand. The brush here is so thick that we often see game at very close range and have to shoot before it vanishes. Tracking is hard, and with the chance of something as big as an elk disappearing into a slippery, steep-sided, thorn-filled hole, you want to drop them as fast as possible. Along with working on fast pairs, I shot at 50 and 100 yards from a post rest, and at 200 yards from improvised rests in case longer shots came up. I would have trained at longer distances, but my range is only 200 yards long.

Despite the conditions, hunting Roosevelt elk is extremely rewarding. If you decide to give it a try, then you really need to call Paul Ockerman and Roosevelt Elk Outfitters.

Let me know if you have questions.


Okie John
 

Slingshot

Junior Member
Joined
Apr 29, 2017
Messages
30
Location
Montana
Congratulations and great write up, hopefully more stories to tell like this one. One of the many reasons I joined this forum.
 

LostArra

Senior Member
Joined
May 9, 2013
Messages
2,288
Location
Oklahoma
Great story John

But all Okies keep elk liver with that tongue and heart :)


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