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Author: Cameron Hanes
There is a difference between interest and commitment. When you are interested in something you do it only when it is convenient. When you are committed to something you accept no excuses and produce only results.
I uncovered this quote a number of years back, which I believe aptly describes my approach to bowhunting trophy backcountry bull elk. Bottom line-you must be committed! Simply put, there are no shortcuts when hunting the wilderness. And with that mindset, when pursuing Rocky Mountain elk with bow in hand, I always head straight for Oregon's Wallowa Mountains. These pinnacles of Northeastern Oregon are plain and simply awe inspiring in their appearance. Out of respect for this grandeur, they have received the nickname, "The Oregon Alps", an obvious comparison to the legendary mountains of Switzerland. The imposing snow covered summits, high alpine meadows, bare granite peaks, ridges and U-shaped glaciated valleys will always be protected in their pristine state by the boundaries of The Eagle Cap Wilderness.
This is Oregon's largest designated Wilderness area, its borders stretching 30 miles by 60 miles. Inside this protected sanctuary, the wilderness is home to a bevy of big game animals; bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mule deer, bear, cougar and Rocky Mountain elk, to list a few.
Wilderness is defined as an area that "generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable." The forces of nature, in the process of creating this unique country, also created thousands of acres of outstanding elk habitat. Smack dab in the middle of country with as much wild character as any Oregon has to offer, this classic elk habitat is home to its fair share of trophy class bull elk.
Which brings me to what kindles my interest in this wilderness, and I will sum it up in four simple words. Big, remote, trophy bulls. Now don't assume that I mean bulls are lurking behind every tree or bush. This wilderness is huge, and if you're looking in the wrong place, you can wear out a pair of boots without so much as seeing an elk. For those who are up to the supreme challenge of hunting big country elk, I will share the tactics and strategies that have made my hunts successful. My backcountry hunting experience is not exclusive to The Eagle Cap Wilderness, as I have had successful big country adventures in Alaska, Idaho, California and other wilderness areas within Oregon.
I believe the ability to successfully hunt elk in Oregon's most remote, expansive and rugged backcountry starts in your heart. If you plan on venturing miles back into some of the harshest country in Oregon, with the hope of harvesting a trophy class bull, the "need to succeed", should have been burning in your soul long before you pull up to the trailhead. The mental challenge of wilderness hunting is easily as formidable as the physical challenge. I have hunted this wilderness for a number of years and each fall, for days on end I face many trials and tribulations in my quest for a trophy class bull. In no special order I deal with; fatigue, sleep deprivation, unforgiving country, the ever-present threat of merciless weather, seemingly eternal solitude, sore feet and the frustration of pursuing extremely high-strung animals. If you head into a challenge like this half-hearted, the chance of success is as remote as if you would have stayed at home. And after a few days of stumbling around the backcountry with anything less than a full plate of purpose and desire, you'll wish you would have had stayed at home.
Some will say that you don't have to endure this much to harvest a bull elk. I agree that certain areas have higher concentrations of elk, but with that comes a higher concentration of hunters. To me, wilderness elk hunting affords me the right mix of trophy bulls and hunting pressure. I believe that for one to endure and realize success in the wilderness, you must be focused on but one objective: to harvest a trophy bull - period. To set and achieve a goal such as this builds confidence that, of course, includes hunting, but goes beyond it as well. Once you have all of your mental ducks in a row it is time to concentrate on strategy.
The key strategic element to successful wilderness hunting can be summed up in one word: efficiency. To be efficient in a wilderness setting means to be mobile. I achieve this by having my camp on my back at all times. Traveling to and from camp each and every day is not only a waste of time but is also an unneeded depletion of that ever-precious commodity, energy. In the not so distant past, I would leave base camp two hours before light in the morning and return two, sometimes three hours after dark. This was a tremendous squandering of energy. When I decided to bivouac out, and never concern myself about where I was as long as I was in elk, potential harvest opportunities increased dramatically.
Recently I obtained what is called a "Bivy Sack" this was a key ingredient in my master plan of mobility and efficiency. A bivy sack is a compact waterproof shelter that a sleeping bag will fit snuggly inside of. The sack is constructed of GORE-TEX® fabric and each seam is waterproofed with GORE-TEX® seam tape. Couple a bivy sack with a top quality sleeping bag and pad, and you could virtually survive any hand Mother Nature may deal you. This is a tremendous asset in obtaining the peace of mind necessary to be completely focused on your mission, and not be distracted with worries of being huddled under some old snag somewhere when a torrential downpour hits.
A recent wilderness elk hunt paints a pretty clear picture of how proficient you can be in a wilderness setting when you have mental focus and a sound hunting scheme. 'Opening Day' in prime elk country and the season looked to start out with a band. I immediately glassed up a nice 300 class 6 x 6 in the company of four cows and a spike, approximately a half mile away and directly across the head of the drainage from me. After glassing for a short time, it became apparent that the small herd was headed down to the cool timber near the creek to bed for the day. I would have to close in on the bull from the top, so I decided to grab a bite to eat and bide my time until the sun's warmth sent the mid morning thermals rushing upward. The bull never bugled, as he wasn't yet feeling the full effects of the rut. He did, however, stop and tear up a tree or two as he picked his way down the rocky slope.
Not long after downing one last Power Bar and swallowing the last of my iodine-purified water, the bull disappeared into a thick clump of timber. I crossed my fingers that he would bed in this small patch of timber, because it was not in the bottom of the canyon but more up on the sidewall, where the sparse timber was broken up by intermittent meadows and rock outcroppings.
I glassed this timber patch intently for upwards of an hour, until I was satisfied the bull had not slipped away. By that time, the sun had finally come up and warmed the bottom of the drainage enough to send the thermals on their daily trek up the canyon.
Prior to beginning my stalk, I picked landmarks and laid out a path of travel that would take me into bow range of the big bull. Having distinguishing landmarks is of the utmost importance on any stalk, but in this big open country, size and distance can be very deceiving, making it even more critical. I felt confident in my planned approach as I made my way to the, "white tree with the broken top" which was directly across a small meadow from the bull's selected bedding area within the timber patch. The wind stayed steady as I slowly eased my way down off the canyon rim and into the bull's sanctum.
Within about 45 minutes, I was standing under my broken topped tree, straining to see into the shroud of darkened timber that the bull had slipped into an hour and a half ago. Bringing my binoculars up, I was about to begin picking apart the shadows for a tine or flicker of movement when I heard an elk rise to its feet. I could see the shape of the motionless bull on my edge of the timber patch, but still almost completely obscured by the low hanging limbs of his timbered fortress. My mind raced, trying to calculate both his and my next move. I thought about trying a "quick draw McGraw" reading with my Bushnell laser rangefinder on something, anything in his immediate vicinity. Instead, I decided to rely on my own yardage-judging prowess as to alleviate the chance of getting caught off guard in crunch time. His next move led directly to his demise, as he stepped clear and offered me a 43-yard quartering away shot.
After the shot, I hit the cow call a few times to try and relax both him and his small herd. The rest of the herd never really knew what had transpired and sort of just ambled off in a state of confusion. With an arrow nocked, out of habit I suppose, I sat down and replayed the shot and the bull's reaction in my head a thousand times, while staring blankly at the tip of my broadhead.
The blood trail told the story of a mortally wounded bull hit by a razor sharp broadhead that entered the quartering away elk mid-body, dissecting through the liver and one lung, finally coming to rest on the far shoulder. I knew that it would be a short tracking job long before I saw my bull lying in his last bed, a short 100 yards from where he stood when I shot.
Although I harvested this bull on the "Opening Day of the season, I had truly been hunting him since the moment I first stepped into the woods with a bow in tow, some nine years ago. And finally the weight of the moment allowed me to fully appreciate the feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment that comes with the harvest of a long sought after trophy.
One thing is certain, whether you are hunting lands checkered with logging roads for monster Roosevelt's or the sweeping horned mountain monarchs of the remote backcountry, increase your odds by leaving the crowds behind. I don't have any sure fire tactic for success on these amazing beasts, as my entire stratagem revolves around hunting unpressured, unsuspecting animals. Bowhunting is difficult enough when it is you against the animal, one on one, as you are on his home turf. But, when you throw in every other Tom, Dick and Harry into the mix, as so often happens when hunting easily accessible areas, the odds of you lashing your tag onto an ivory tipped beast just dropped dramatically.
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