Timberwolf Mountain
Erik Miller

Be the Rookie: Elk Camp!

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For me, hunting started small, then grew, and now I’m totally hooked.

Growing up in North Idaho, I had a small amount of exposure to hunting just from proximity to other friends and a hunting community. I took my hunter’s safety course, sighted in a couple of rifles, and went hunting a couple of times for grouse and deer. My group deer hunting trip amounted to me sitting at the top of a draw in winter, freezing my ass off and watching a hill for what seemed like eternity.

I didn’t go hunting again for many years. I did, however, join the Marine Corps and became an expert marksman. The Marine Corps course of fire includes distances of 200, 300, and 500 yards fired from the standing, kneeling, sitting, and prone positions. In order to qualify you fire 50 rounds, each worth up to 5 points for a total of 250 possible points. A score of 220 or better earns you an expert marksman rating. All this training endeared me to iron sites and would ultimately drive my choices for shotguns (Winchester 12 gauge) and rifles (Winchester 94 30/30).

Enter college, family, and career for the next few years . . . and hunting became something that happened somewhere else, back in Idaho or Montana maybe. On a job in Oregon, I ran into a few tech guys who liked to go duck hunting by kayak. No kidding, tech guys who duck hunt on a river in a kayak. I said I would like to go, but I didn’t have a license, kayak, or a shotgun. The Admiral — the founding member of the group –told me that he had me covered for the shotgun and the kayak and he even helped me with getting the appropriate tags and licensing. On my first trip, I pulled a duck in full flight out of the sky over my kayak which was drifting about 3 mph down the Willamette River on my first shot with a borrowed 12 gauge. I was hooked — no going back.

Fast Forward Through Ducks and Deer

Fast forward a couple of years, through lots of great ducking trips, as well as a few deer hunting trips, to now — my first Elk Camp.

My group headed up to Timberwolf Mountain on the Thursday before opening day to set up camp. I had intended on going up Thursday as well but a few family priorities presented themselves and I had to beg off until Sunday. I would have to drive up in the family minivan, too. I took a little heat for that, but it was the van or nothing, and nothing isn’t an option. I was pretty amped up to get hunting.

When I arrived, there had been no elk sightings yet by our team four (plus myself). The unit is a spike only unit, meaning you can’t shoot bulls or cows. Each morning, we pretty much set out in our own directions from camp. I didn’t know the crew well enough to suggest any team or paired hunting. Hell, I didn’t even really know the area well enough to know if it would be good to hunt that way in the first place.

But I was out there, hunting, and that’s what really mattered. Sometimes a guy just has to get out from under a roof and get after it.

The first day I was quickly frustrated by the number of people in the woods. I ran into another group of five shortly after I dropped into a nice draw. Flipping a 180, I headed up the draw, over a road, and up into another draw with lots of potential. By Wednesday most of the camps and people had disappeared. I made a mental note that it might be better to actually go mid-week instead of opening weekend.

Tracking Elk

Tracking was an interesting aspect of elk hunting that I hadn’t counted on. I pretty much assumed I would ramble around the woods until I spooked one and then try to track the herd or elk from there — not the best plan, but hey, it was something. Since I was carrying my Winchester .30-30 without a scope my distance was limited. That’s my style though — I’m not interested in dropping an elk from a thousand yards.

In the beginning I mixed up the deer and elk trails. The difference is that an elk trail looks like a man-made hiking trail while a deer trail will go under and through brush and low hanging tree limbs. Elk are big and require more space and they tended to have bigger, more meandering trails. You can tell from the prints which direction they headed — and my small amount of experience says they tend to head straight down scary craggy drops that humans shouldn’t attempt. Especially when a guy is hunting by himself.

The scat was another tell tale sign I learned from, which, after looking at hundreds of piles, you can get pretty good at estimating time and urgency. For example, wet warmish scat is fairly new. Steamy scat is really new. Scat spread out in one direction means you spooked the animal and it was moving. Multiple piles of new scat means a heard. What I really should have learned from that scat — but didn’t — was that I was moving too fast, making too much noise. Elk can smell and hear so much better than humans its just ridiculous, and they’ll take off way before you can see or hear them.

Lessons learned: Slower is better. Quieter is better. Spook and chase does not work well for elk.

Day 4: The Last Day

On my final day of hunting (the fourth day for me) I had just hiked along the side of a very long draw and sat down to watch a couple of smaller draws and take a break. I figured out that about 15 minutes was the max time that I could handle just sitting and watching. Of course, I need to improve on that smallish time frame for next year. In this situation, I had set my rifle on the log next to me and pretty much relaxed for 15 minutes.

But then I got antsy. As I stood up, I heard a snap behind me. As I turned quickly, of course, I spooked a four-point bull elk just 15 yards away. Wow. A couple of things amazed me. First, that large elk made almost no sound as it took off on the run — I heard two snaps right when it took off and that was it. Second, it completely disappeared in less than seven seconds. Gone baby gone. I thought about attempting to track it but logic prevailed — we were hunting spikes only.

Lesson learned: Move slowly. Look around after sitting for awhile before you get up — and do that slowly and quietly, too.

After my final day at elk camp, I was talking with a buddy who had been hunting the same draw with me. He let me know I had spooked an elk from about 150 yards up the draw, at first light. He couldn’t say if it was a spike or not, but the lesson just kept getting hammered in: slow down!

One Elk and Lots of Recharging

All-in-all, elk camp was great even though I didn’t fill my tag. The morning after I left, one guy in our group filled his tag. During his hunt, his scope fogged internally and he barely made his shot after a lot of lens rubbing. Just saying — I like the iron sites better, no fogging. But he did make the shot. As for me, I met and hunted with new hunting buddies that will become long-time friends. I saw some amazing views, and I was closer to myself and nature than I have been in years. I went home energized. I don’t know every man, but for me, I’m saying a spa or resort has nothing on elk camp when it’s time to recharge.

Lesson learned: Elk camp and hunting is better for me — and my friendships — than anything else I have attempted.

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