Labor Day to Thanksgiving - Not Just a Timeframe, But a Mindset

WTFJohn

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Joined
May 1, 2018
Messages
36
Location
CO
Like everyone else on here; I had lofty goals for the 2018 season - I was going to be that small fraction of guys that were successful in busy & overhunted OTC units. I was a rich man with 4 tags in my pocket; an early rifle season bear tag, an OTC 3rd season tag, a 4th season cow tag, and an OTC w/caps bear tag for the same area as my cow tag. With big bears and even bigger bulls on my brain, I spent most weekends throughout the summer hiking and fishing my way through possible areas to hunt.

Despite hundreds of miles covered, I didn't turn up a single bull and didn't find a bear until I was 1/2 mile from the truck on my last scouting trip and stumbled across one (almost literally) in a berry patch. I had found some good bear sign though, and was still feeling good about my odds for success as I packed my bag and got everything ready to go.



I hiked in the day before bear season opened, anxious to get camp set up and start hunting the next day. This was my first time deliberately hunting bears; and I had absorbed as much information about their habits as possible from podcasts, books, and the internet; but nothing teaches you like the real thing.

The sun rose on September 2 to find me perched on some rocks glued to my binos trying to find any signs of life in the valley below.



After hours of fruitless glassing, I got restless and decided to still hunt along a ridge and work my way back towards camp. I found quite a few mule deer, but no bear sign that was fresher than a few days. Once I got back to camp, I traded my .45-70 for a slingshot and went out after grouse. It turns out that I am not a good shot with a slingshot, for 2019 I will partner with neighborhood kids to get my aim down. Abandoned the grouse plans and cooked some MH instead, then another restless night hoping for more luck the next day.

Almost straight out of camp the next morning I found myself next to a dead moose calf that was still warm; and then promptly got charged by the momma moose out of the willows. She stopped her charge at about 5 yards as I ran backwards, hoping she wouldn't follow and force my hand.



After that encounter, I started to still hunt my way back towards the truck. By 1:00 I was back at the truck and doing what I could to beat Labor Day traffic back home. I reached out to the game warden about the calf, he went in and did a necropsy and found a dislocated shoulder and confirmed that I could legally hunt over the calf for bears if I wanted to.




Thankfully it was a short week, and Friday night I was strapping on my backpack and lacing my boots; heading in from a different trailhead to the same area I had been in the weekend before. The hike in had my hopes up, I seemed to be in constant fresh bear scat and ravaged berry bushes. As I set camp up near this promising area, I was treated to a beautiful sunset down the valley.



Continued in next post...
 
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WTFJohn

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May 1, 2018
Messages
36
Location
CO
Early alarm. Pack camp. Scarf down a breakfast bar. Hike. Realize the blow down is too thick to make it up to where I want to be. Settle for an outcropping nearby and get settled in. Regret not being in the sunlight, warming up. Cow call a few times.

And then, elk. From almost a mile away, I watch a nice bull climbing up a steep avalanche chute and then continue on up the 1,000 ft canyon wall, never slowing or stopping. I took a few pictures through the binos, then gave my dad a quick phone call to tell him (I've been trying to get him to elk hunt, figured it would motivate him).



A few minutes into our phone call, two rifle shots ripped right over my head and impacted a few hundred yards behind me. Like someone hitting a wet towel with a baseball bat, I heard the impact of both bullets and the crashing sounds of a wounded animal. I scramble off my rock, hanging up the phone and frantically waving my orange. A few moments later, I spot the hunter that had fired. We are able to make visual contact with each other and I am able to hear them yell "Bear" across the canyon. They began to work their way down and then back up again, while I halfhearted searched the brush nearby for a wounded bear.

Hunters are dead center in this shot, above the main cliff band. They shot over my head by about 40 yds, hitting a bear a few hundred yards behind me (2nd pic)




Being that it wasn't my bear, I wasn't too invested in finding it; so back to the binos I went. As I went to settle down behind them, I was drawn back across the canyon where I had seen the elk. A black blob was nose down, following the elk's path almost step for step. There was no mistaking it for anything else, it was a nice bear. I watched it for a few minutes as it climbed higher and further away from me (and the truck), then went back to looking for one a bit easier to get to.



I kept glancing back at the bear I had found, and after disappearing for a few minutes I saw it again. However this time it had made the fatal mistake of going back down hill. I studied the terrain and was able to discern what I thought was a game trail by finding a seam in the tree tops. I assumed the bear would take the easy way and stay on the trail all the way down to the creek bottom, so I began to move that way. With all of my camp gear on my back, it was tricky to move fast enough to get ahead of the bear.

After I moved 0.8 miles, I lost sight of the bear. I frantically studied my map to find a spot where I could get a good vantage point, and once I found one I moved with a newfound sense of urgency. I dropped my pack 30 yds back from the edge of the bluff, crawling with my binos to peek into the creek bottom below.

It stood on it's hind legs, buried to it's armpits in a berry bush; tearing limbs and leaves off as it mowed down berries. I was in awe. Finally, a bear, doing bear things. A legal bear. My mind began to race towards what needed to happen next. I scrambled back and got my rilfe and range finder. A quick lase and I came to the conclusion that 300 yds was out of range of my open-sighted .45-70 rifle.

By now, the bear had become bored with the berries and had turned it's attention to a nearby stump. I watched in sheer amazement as the bear tore into the stump looking for grubs; three good swipes and the stump had been reduced by more than 2/3s. And then just as abruptly as it tore into the stump it began to wander up the creek bottom. I knew this was my opportunity to close the distance to under 100 yards.

Again I studied the map and the winds, deciding on a path that would keep a series of rocky outcrops between me and the bear while we both worked up stream. I knew that the creek bent towards me about half a mile up, and I hoped that I could beat the bear there. The last 40 yards to get to my ambush point were used to get my breathing under control and make sure I was playing the wind right. I stepped slightly into an opening, expecting to see the bear at 60-80 yards below and in front of me. I was wrong.

A brown blur to my left caught my attention. A furry hip disappearing behind a rock; I shouldered my rifle and half a second later the bear came into full view. 21 yards away, it took two steps to get around the rock and then a tree. The right front leg came forward, giving me a clear shot thru the vitals. The impact rolled the bear in place, then it got up and took off for the trees behind, struggling to make progress. I sent a few texts and shed some layers while I waited 30 minutes; the incessant barking of a squirrel just inside the trees let me know exactly where the bear had fallen.






Then the real work began. Fighting off flies and yellow jackets, I got the bear skinned and quartered over a few hours, then began to pack everything out. The first load was most of my camp and most of the meat, 4 miles to the truck. On my way back in for the second load, I found another bear just 1/2 a mile from the truck.



The second trip in was also the final trip, I was able to get the last few camp items, plus the final meat bag and the head/hide. Total hiking distance for that day was over 16 miles and worth every step. I've been blown away by the quality of the meat, and have enjoyed introducing friends and family to bear meat (we did a bear roast for one of our Christmas meals this year). It's a tag I'll continue to get every year, not just for the meat but for the experience of hunting such a cool animal in such amazing terrain.

To be continued...
 
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WTFJohn

Junior Member
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May 1, 2018
Messages
36
Location
CO
With my bear tag filled, I took the time to do some skeet shooting and a little duck hunting before the seasons started back up in October for 1st Rifle.



For first rifle this year, I went to meet up with some friends of the family at their cabin. Their property is almost 2 miles off the road in a prime area of National Forest, and hopes were high to fill a few cow tags and maybe my 2nd bear tag as well. Rumors of a cinnamon-blonde bear in the area really got me excited, and made sleep the night before opener a little tough.

Morning came, and we all separated to go hunt. I stuck to the lower elevations looking for bear while they went a little higher for the elk.



We had agreed to meet back at the cabin for breakfast around 10, but at 9:00 I heard two shots and knew someone had done the deed. I headed back early to offer a hand in cleaning the elk, and on my way I stumbled into a grouse. A quick pistol shot to the neck and I had it in hand.



After we ate, I partnered up with the other guy who had a cow tag and we headed off to try to find either a bear or elk.



After an hour or so, we cut some pretty fresh bear tracks and began to follow them. They led us right into two other groups of hunters, so we reset our plan and began to work a different hillside. Just after we agreed that it felt elk-y, we came across two cows 30 yds away. Matt made a quick shot, and 10 minutes later we were quartering it out and drinking victory beers. We each took half the cow in our packs and beat feet the 2.5 miles back to camp, getting back just before the cold front & snowstorm hit.



The next morning I was the only one awake as the rest of the tag holders had punched out. It was bitterly cold and with fresh snow on the ground, I felt good about being able to track a bear. Three miles of hiking later and the only sign I had seen was deer tracks (and the deer that made them, including a doe with a GPS collar).



I called it a day and began the long drive back home. My cooler wasn't totally empty though, as I had the grouse & was gifted a backstrap as a thank-you for helping haul the meat out. And the weekend was nowhere near a bust, as I expanded my hunting area, made new friends, and got to practice putting the sneak on a few herds of elk before shooting the grouse.


To be continued...
 
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WTFJohn

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36
Location
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2nd Rifle was spent trying to be a productive member of society, but it was to no avail. I lay in my warm bed at night, wishing I was in a cold tent alone somewhere. Every free waking hour went towards figuring out where I would hunt 3rd season bulls.

Finally it was time to go, and I wasted no time getting to 9,500 ft and hiking in. I had lofty goals of getting to a deep canyon where I figured no one else would want to go. Less than two miles from the truck and with the sun starting to set, I came across fresh mountain lion tracks and decided I was better off setting up camp sooner rather than later. 30 minutes later I had camp set up and a fire going in the stove. I processed some extra wood knowing there was a storm coming in that night, and went to bed.



I was woken a few hours later as the winds picked up and the snow started to blow. I ended up out of my shelter a few times having to add more snow to the sod skirt to keep the wind out. With almost no sleep and over 8" of fresh snow on top of what was already there, I decided the next morning that I needed to move to a lower elevation. There was no way I could get where I wanted to be from where I was camped.



After hitting up a gas station for some candy and coffee I headed to the second area I had picked out prior to the hunt. Snow was falling here, but the only snow on the ground was mainly confined to the north facing slopes. I tracked a few groups of cows, then as the weather worsened I saw a lone bull in the most perplexing spot. He was between me and the trailhead, (1 mile, 1/2 mile away respectively) in a wide open meadow just feeding to his heart's content. As fast as I could; I tore my camp back down again and moved off after him. He must have had a cow or two in a late cycle, as I could hear him bugle once I had moved closer.

The weather cleared as I approached the meadow, but the wind was not in my favor and he either blew out and down into a canyon or was headed there anyways; I never saw him again.

The next morning I was slow to get going, and arrived at the trail head almost half an hour after I wanted to be there. Cussing myself (and maybe to punish myself), I headed off down into the canyon where I assumed the bull had gone the evening prior. It was steep, thick, and very slow going. By noon that day I hadn't found any fresh sign and had seen lots of hunters. Time to go somewhere else.



The next week was spent agonizing where to hunt; my two primary spots were both a bust. I settled my sights on a new area further west, hoping the cold weather and snow had forced them to start migrating. A long, convoluted series of county roads got me back to some BLM land that I had found with OnX. I parked and began hiking, stopping when I came across the first elk kill. I could see the tracks from multiple herds coming across the hillside, and could see two other locations where others had been successful in the prior weeks. I sat down and told myself if it happened here before for others it might happen here again for me. As I stared off into the distance, I realized I was staring right at a large herd of elk. Binos up and maps out, I concluded they were all on private land; but my idea of moving west was validated by finding so many so soon.



With daylight fading I headed back to town, thinking I would apply the same idea (terrain,elevation, etc...) closer to town and maybe have more luck without the drive time. The next morning came, and the sunrise found me learning the hard way that I should've stuck with the elk I had already found. All the sign was old where I was, although I found fresh bear tracks and a freshly used den. Lesson learned: Don't leave elk to find elk. At least it was pretty.



Another hike out while fretting over where to go. I spent a good while at the truck with paper maps and OnX, trying to discern where to make my last stand. I studied the terrain and the elevation, trying to think about how I would get to where I knew the elk wanted to be (winter range). I finally committed to a location over 40 miles away that I hadn't laid eyes on and began the drive, trying not to second guess myself along the way. The miles ticked over, and finally I was shifting into 4 wheel drive and getting off the main road. I found a secluded area to pull off that also afforded me a commanding view of a large mixed public/private valley below. From this vantage point I immediately started finding elk. First I saw the tracks; thousands of tracks beat into the snow and mud. Next I started seeing the bedded elk, enjoying a mid-day nap in the sun.


Another few minutes of looking and I finally turned up a nice bull 2 miles away feeding through the aspens. I began to work my way down the ridge I was on, intending to use the terrain to mask my approach. I had covered over a mile when two ATVs came driving down the exposed road, running most of the elk onto private. I shared my thoughts with both ATV riders, then started hiking again to a secondary spot I had picked out that overlooked a small pair of creeks.

With 45 minutes to go before sunset, a UTV drove right up to where I was glassing from and parked. A father & son got out, and again I shared my extreme displeasure with having them there and the noise they made getting there. After a discussion with the father, I agreed if there were multiple bulls (the son) could shoot first since he was shooting a suppressed rifle and I would take the 2nd shot. I told him all bets were off with a single bull, may the first man win. 10 minutes of legal light left and a raghorn stepped out at 258 yards. I was beat fair and square on the shot, and the son made a perfect hit. We said our goodbyes and I began the cold, steep hike out.

I replayed everything in my mind hundreds of times, trying to find where I was too slow, wondering if I would get another chance, wondering if I should have made a bigger deal out of the situation since I was there first, second guessing everything I had done, from getting a late start to the missed opportunity at the end of the day. I went to bed that night resolved to get redemption the following day, the final day of the season.

I was awake before my alarm went off; and was out the door within a matter of minutes. I had a full head of steam, I knew there were bound to be lots of elk where I had been the day before. I tempered my confidence by listening to the Failure is not Fatal podcast (Hunt Backcountry maybe?).

When legal shooting light came, I was already a mile from the truck and moving slow. I could hear the elk in the distance, and as the gray dawn light got brighter I could make out their forms just a few hundred yards away. I quickly set my tripod up and began looking for a legal bull. After 15 minutes I had counted over 40 cows and a few spikes, but nothing I could shoot. Then the wind swirled and they got a slight whiff of me and began to walk out of sight and down towards private property. I was able to discern which elk had smelled me first and used that knowledge to my advantage, playing the wind in my favor as I worked towards my intended glassing spot. Once there, I spent a few minutes getting settled before getting back on the glass.

To my right was a single elk feeding in the trees, roughly 300 yards away. At first glance I did not see a rack, as it was head down behind some brush. I panned back a few moments later and counted 4 tines on the left side. It was a legal bull 300 yds away, but I was not sure about the property line. A quick reference with OnX and some geographical features confirmed he was on public land. I quickly canted my binos over and rested the rifle on top to make a steady rest, held for the bullet drop and squeezed the trigger.

Hit.

Reload.

Fire.

Hit.

And he dropped. As I exhaled and reloaded, he stood back up and began trotting downhill quartering towards me. I could see he was hit, but I wasn't in the mood to do much tracking. 2 more shots (both on the move) and he was down hard ~35 yards from where he was first hit.

As I walked up on him a few minutes later, I had an odd experience - ground growth. I had seen his left antler and counted 4, when I walked up I realized he had broken the left side and was actually a 5x?. I was beyond ecstatic, and after taking a few minutes to enjoy the moment I began the real work.





All 4 shots hit a little high and back, almost in the no-man's land. In hindsight, the first two shots would have been fatal but would have taken a bit. The second two shots were quartering to and did the trick, with the second shot on the run being instantly fatal. Credit to Randy Newberg here - If I can see him and he's still up, I'm shooting him. Two hours after pulling the trigger, I was hiking out with the first of four loads. It was a steep and miserable pack out, and I can't wait to do it again. Somewhere in here I should mention that you should have tire chains and know how to use them. I left mine at the house like an idiot and had to call in a favor to have them brought to me.

To be continued...
 
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WTFJohn

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May 1, 2018
Messages
36
Location
CO
With a bear and a bull elk under my belt, I was feeling like I had checked the boxes I really wanted to tick off this year; but I still had an unfilled bear tag and a 4th season cow tag. A few days of reality, and then I was back in the woods again; this time with a partner. I decided to bring my girlfriend along to try to fill my cow tag, and so we headed out near where I had killed the bull 4 days prior. In the predawn light, we watched as ATVs dropped off hunters all throughout the area we had intended to hunt, so we stayed back and watched things play out hoping we might be able to make something happen if the other guys pushed the elk out.

We watched for over an hour as elk would get near, then see or smell the hunters and head off down to the private land. We spent the rest of the day and the following day trying to find a group of elk that were semi-easily huntable and relatively unpressured with no luck, but we found lots herded up on private ground.



Fourth rifle season closed with my last two tags unfilled. It also closed with me having a full camera roll and a full freezer. I spent dozens of days and nights in the mountains last summer and fall, chasing heavily hunted animals through some pretty inhospitable terrain. I got to spend time with some of the best people I know doing things that we love in some of the most beautiful terrain around. I also hiked hard enough with camp- and meat-laden packs to find my own limits, and then try to push past them. I was challenged mentally and physically, trusting that I would be able to outwork the others on the mountain.

Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't; but just like the calendar went from Labor Day to Thanksgiving my hunts went from laboring to being thankful for a successful season.

It's February 18, 2019. 30 weeks until next Labor Day when this all starts again.

 

Saylean

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Joined
Jun 11, 2015
Messages
42
Great write up and congrats on all the animals (including the grouse!). Good stories and good meat, cant ask for much more. I hope you have the same success this year!

Douglas~
 
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