Unguided Elk Hunting

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elk hunting
A very large elk stands along side a river bank calling.

Elk hunting public land is a cross between high school track and Psychology 101. You will be competing with other elk hunters, and that becomes another game in itself. The elk will be over pressured and skittish, maybe even long gone onto nearby private ranches. On the other extreme, quality elk hunts on private land can be extremely expensive. Some top elk hunting ranches now get for as much as $12,000 for a five-day hunt. The only remaining option for an elk hunter wanting to enjoy top quality elk hunting on a working man's salary is to marry into a ranch family or apply for every possible limited access hunting public land.

Bowhunter Joe Jordan from the Twin Cities of Minnesota has been going out west to elk hunt for 22 years. He knows that the best way for a person of average means to enjoy above average elk hunting is to take advantage of the draw system in limited-access units. In fact, this year alone, Joe will apply for seven limited draw elk hunts. Last year Joe's name came up for a highly coveted unit in Wyoming on only his fifth year of applying. His research showed that while the odds for drawing were fairly low (less than 3% success); the unit was among the best for trophy bulls in the entire state. Joe's great fortune carried over into mid-September when he made the trip west.

"Elk hunting in the mountains alone with a bow, especially in grizzly country, kind of scares me," said Joe Jordan. "To be honest, I like that. You realize quickly that you're not necessarily at the top of the food chain. This kind of mental and physical test heightens your senses and produces gratification like nothing else."

As soon as Joe realized he had drawn the tag he bought a new bow, shot thousands of arrows, and spent months studying maps. Joe called everyone he could think of from local taxidermists to state biologists to motel owners. He even called Jim Zumbo. Few people knew much about the unit because no one Joe talked to had ever drawn a tag to elk hunt it. He covered one whole wall of his house with aerial photos of the entire unit. Joe's Wyoming elk hunt was bordering on obsession.

When Joe finally set foot in the area on September 14th, the terrain was less steep and more open than he had pictured. The first thing Joe saw when he broke out his binoculars that day was a grizzly that would easily go 500 pounds. In the same field of view was the biggest black bear that he had ever seen. But, no elk. For two days, Joe kept moving and glassing, trying to learn the lay of the land.

Grizzly bear in elk country
Hunting elk in Grizzly country can be a bit unnerving, but some people enjoy the added excitement.

Joe split his time between sleeping in his vehicle at the deepest access point he could reach and sleeping in his tent next to an old trappers cabin that he actually found while studying aerial photos of the unit.

Joe slept on the mountain the second night. The star-filled sky turned cloudy as a cold front moved in. Like turning on a light switch, the bulls started to bugle. Joe heard noises that made his hair stand - screaming wails and Jurassic roars! Before daylight, he climbed up a drainage to the west, and as the sun lit the slopes he made out the blonde shapes of elk through the mist. On every open hillside, Joe saw elk - over one hundred. The largest herd bulls all had at least twenty cows that they tried to corral as they ran off satellite bulls. He saw sparring and violent fighting and his daily grizzly.

Joe's strategy evolved as the elk hunt progressed. He picked the largest bull he could find and then tried to stalk it. After several unsuccessful stalks he realized that elk calling was the wrong thing to do and he began going in silent. The swirling mountain wind was also a challenge and the reason several nice bulls eluded Joe's arrow.

It would take a half day to make a good stalk and every time Joe got close it went sour. After three days and dozens of miles, Joe started to get dejected. The mental side of elk hunting alone was taking its toll. A trip out of the high country into town and an encouraging phone conversation with my wife was just the lift he needed.

Joe continued to elk hunt hard and by the sixth day he was onto a giant bull nicknamed the Growler - the second biggest Joe had seen all week. The day dawned with fog hanging low in the valleys and the bugles echoing and bouncing off the rocky hillsides. With new ambition and a fresh layer of moleskin on his feet, Joe made his way by sound. He could easily make out The Growler from his distinct bugle. He was somewhere on the ridge in front of him. As Joe stalked, he hoped the sun would break through and warm things up. But, instead it started to drizzle. Great!

Joe made his way up a drainage, out of sight from the elk, with a strong wind in his face. As he came over a rise, Joe noticed a small dark brown shape on the ground 50 yards ahead. It was a grizzly cub. The safety came off his bear spray and he just about filled his polypropylene. Quickly and carefully, Joe did a two-mile end around to get back in front of The Growler and his cows again. He learned the hard way that you can't chase them, you have to get in front.

After crawling up a ravine, Joe suddenly found himself pinned down less than thirty yards from the whole herd: three satellite bulls on his right and probably 35 cows eating and bedded directly in front of him. The drizzle had now turned to snow but he could easily make out The Growler at the far edge of the herd. A fir tree ten feet in front of him made the perfect ambush.

From there Joe would wait until the big bull got up and came over to run off one of the satellites. He hoped that would bring him close enough for a shot. Holding his breath, he made it to the tree. Just then, a cow got up and started feeding towards him. Moving so slowly Joe's muscles ached, he bent low and stepped backwards to get behind the tree. All of a sudden, a huge hissing explosion of yellow gas shot out in front of me. When Joe had bent over, his belt hit the bear spray trigger and a cloud of mace immediately engulfed him.

Joe felt so stupid that he laughed out loud, and then he quickly came to realize why this stuff is so effective on bears - it literally sucked the air out of his lungs and caused his eyes and nose to run like a faucet. The spray was all over his clothes and when he looked through his binoculars, the eyecups made his eyes tear up. Maybe it was because of the snow squall or the strong wind, but the lead cow only barked and looked curiously at the now-yellow pine tree. None of the bedded elk so much as stood up.

Behind the cover of the tree, Joe washed his face with drinking water. Three hours later, he was still standing in the same spot, cold, wet, full of bear spray and ready to give up. As if God smiled down on him, the sky opened up and the sun came out. That was all it took for the big bull to get up and restart the job of chasing satellites - one of which, a small 7x7, was only thirty yards away. The Growler made his charge, tore up a small pine tree, bugled and then stopped broadside at 42 yards.

Joe Jordan Bull Elk
Joe Jordan killed this 362 4/8" Wyoming bull on public land.

Joe doesn't remember drawing, aiming or releasing because these acts had become so instinctive, but everything felt right and his arrow hit perfectly. The herd erupted. Joe ran into the open to keep the bull in sight, and as he came over a small rise, he could see him getting unsteady. Joe was standing right in the open when the small 7x7 made a mad dash at the big bull that he sensed was now vulnerable, goring the fatally wounded bull and pinning him to the ground. As the new herd bull stood tall, the bull expired at his feet. The end came with such a rushing flurry of activity that after so many cold hours hiding behind the tree, long days of hard elk hunting and impatient months of planning Joe was suddenly overwhelmed. He had to sit down while his brain tried to process it all.

The sun was out and Joe was shaking like an aspen leaf in the mountain breeze, but not from the cold anymore. For a long time he sat alone next to his bull on the mountain. Over the ridge, a new bugle came from the timber and it seemed like the world started turning again with no witness except himself to the drama that had just unfolded.

The sounds and the smells of Joe's solo elk hunt are still fresh in his mind - the kind of dream he wish he could have every night. Joe and his dad had always wanted to elk hunt this area together, but he passed away two years ago. He had instilled in him an eternal passion and appreciation for the outdoors. They were the perfect team. Someday, if lightning strikes twice, Joe hopes to return to the mountains of Wyoming, not alone but with his young son. Joe can't wait to pass on the heritage and listen as he tells his stories.

Joe's bull scored 362 4/8 Pope & Young points.

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