From Raghorns to Riches

An special draw elk hunt in Idaho’s Unit 37, Big Lost Wilderness, gave us four seasons with warm summer sun, firgid winter temps, gale-force winds, snow and fog, forty-five miles of steep mountain terrain, botched stalks, and sleepless nights. What we took from it? Incredible scenery, solitude, mental and physical health, and in the end, a hard-earned, beautiful raghorn bull elk and heightened sense of respect for the wilderness.

Read the full story in the Spring 2019 edition of Strung Magazine.

Raghorns to Riches (2)

Raghorns to Riches (3)

Elk in the Abyss

Published as a series in the Milton-Freewater Valley Herald, August 9th and 16th, 2019.

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Friday, October 28th, 2016, at 10:00pm I was startled awake as my lovely wife, Ali, bailed out of bed in a mad dash for the phone. We are early-to-rise, early-to-bed folks, and our friends typically don’t call after about 7:30pm; therefore, we instinctively assume that late night phone calls are emergency related and most likely regard our families back in Virginia. As Ali’s tone of voice changed from nervous to confused, then relieved, I realized no one was dead or dying. When she handed over the phone, I was delighted to hear the voice of my friend, Larry Lamb, on the other end.

               “What are you doing tomorrow?” Larry asked.

“I was planning to take the setters out for a pheasant hunt in the morning.” I replied. “What are you doing?”

“You want to go on an adventure?”

Anyone living in elk country knows that when a friend with a pack string calls during elk season in what you regard as the middle of the night to ask if you want to go on “adventure” before dawn the next morning, there is likely to be a significant, and possibly unpleasant level of effort involved.

               “Sure, Larry. What’s the game plan?”

“Aaron has a bull down in the Wenaha and asked if I could help him pack it out. I won’t lie, it’s down in a hell hole and we could really use another back for packing. Still interested?”

“Sure, Larry. What’s the game plan?” I repeated, unflapped.

“Be at the house at 6:00am to help catch the animals and saddle and load ‘em up.”

“Yes sir. See you in the morning.”

Aaron Anderson is one of Larry’s longtime hunting buddies, and one heck of a good guy. I met him for the first time a month prior on our 2016 Wyoming pronghorn adventure. For the second time in four years he drew a Tucannon-Wenaha Wilderness branch-antler bull elk tag in southeast Washington, and luckily tagged out earlier that morning on a dandy old bull. The Wenahas are a rugged area of the Blue Mountain range between Oregon and Washington. It does not compare to the Rockies in regard to elevation and high mountain cragginess, but make no mistake, the few thousand feet elevation difference between creek bottom and ridgeline characterize the Wenaha with steep, exposed, rocky slopes, sheer cliff outcrops, and deep, dank, brushy draw bottoms fit only for the wild animals that inhabit them; hence, a 350-inch bull in this country is not uncommon. What’s more, an over-the-counter elk tag only allows spike bulls or cows in southeast Washington (depending on weapon choice), making the wilderness a prime trophy area for Aaron’s tag.

Having lived in Washington since 2011, I have only dabbled in elk hunting. I prefer early archery season for a cows in September, but generally failed to spot any elk among the approximately 53,142 other elk hunters in this small corner of the state. Unfortunately, friends like Larry have been hunting elk their entire lives, but never ask a portly Virginia boy to join the hunting party or assist with a pack-out. I love horses and have plenty of experience caring for horses, but little saddle time overall. I understand horses and am confident in the saddle, but my eastern upbringing must make me a liability in elk country. This logic justified my suspicion that I am the last-on-the-list, much needed back for a painful and likely frightening pack out.

Dropping the phone, I jumped out of bed and headed down to my “deer room” in the basement to gather my frame pack, head lamp, knives, and water bottles. I didn’t want to risk forgetting something in the morning, but once back in bed, I barely slept throughout the night. My stomach flipped and my mind raced with excitement and anxiety, running scenarios of pack string wrecks, cliff scaling, and wishing I was dead while scrambling up an 87-degree scree slope with 100 pounds of elk on my back. I never had a real elk hunting experience, but that was about to change. I suspected by this time the following night, if I survived, I would know 100% if I really had the grit to hunt elk; something I desperately needed to find out.

I awoke with a start twenty minutes before the alarm at 4:43am. Rolling out of bed, I hit the “on” button on the coffee pot, and slipped into my boots. I let the setters out for a quick morning pee, filled a travel mug full of freshly brewed Rey’s Roast from Dayton, WA, and headed to the truck. The Tundra roared to life and I flipped on the fog lights for the 40-minute drive to Larry’s through an annoying fog. Swinging into Larry’s driveway, I rolled down to the barn where Larry had the trailer hitched and was waiting for me to help catch the pack team.

With head-lamps ablaze, we strolled down to the paddock where Larry had erected a nice chute down to the run-in shed where he feeds. All the animals were finishing breakfast as we opened the top end gate for our initial approach. Most of the team is well seasoned as Maggie and Bubbles are about 30- and 40-year-old black mules, respectively. Larry buckled the halter and lead rope to Maggie, who is slow, steady, and mountain savvy. I led Maggie to the trailer to tie her off for saddling while Larry followed up with Katie, a squatty and portly blonde mule with a barrel twice the girth of her body length. I chuckled as she waddled up to the trailer with a disinterested look, ears laid back in disgust, although calm and gentle as could be.

On our second approach, Larry handed me the lead rope hooked to Freckles. Freckles is a large brown and white, dappled paint gelding who would serve as my trail coach this day. Freckles and I have a past ride together under our belts and I trust this horse with every hoof step. Freckles, similar to Maggie, is a seasoned packing and riding horse in his mid-twenties, and big enough to handle a behemoth like me. Larry followed with Riley, a medium sized chestnut gelding with a gorgeous white blaze down his nose. Riley is the squirrely bastard of the bunch, flinching and jerking with every move. I was glad Larry would be the one to steer him, but Larry has a long history with pack horses and is fit for the task. With the string all tied off to the trailer, we saddled them, loaded them, threw the saddle bags and panniers into the forward tack compartment, fired up the diesel and turned the heavy-duty Chevy toward the mountains.

It was a gorgeous October morning with a slight cloud cover, but early morning sun broke through with the promise of a perfect ride out the mountain top to our tie-off and descent “trail”. Unfortunately, the forecast was calling for rain by 2:00pm in the Walla Walla Valley, which we all knew would hit us in the higher elevations sooner as the moist air condensed against the western slope. We cruised the hour and forty minutes into the trailhead with ease and gawked in awe (at least I did) at the volume of campers and pickups that choked the parking areas and camp sites along the road in the Umatilla National Forest. It was opening day of the general elk firearms season, so the masses had descended to battle over the eleven spike bulls that can legally be killed in the immediate 600,000-acre area. (That’s likely a gross overestimate of the number of spike bulls in this unit of southeast WA.)

At the trailhead, we spun a u-turn, then pulled up next to a 24-foot travel trailer that Aaron called base camp for nine days prior. Although our goal was to fulfill a taxing chore, our “hellos” were heartfelt and Larry and I shared a moment of jealousy and congratulations while ogling the beautiful, heavy, chocolate rack with sweeping tines, ivory tips, and beams that could seemingly have stretch back to the bull’s tail. The top of the beam between the G5 and the split crown had a unique swoop to it where the antler arched down on both sides. I wanted my own set immediately. Then, just as quickly as we caught up, we climbed into the saddle and set out across the ridge spine for the hour and a half ride to the top of the draw where the bull lay a thousand feet below.

The ride out was amazing to say the least. The trail was easy with little elevation change, few windfalls, and no creek or cliff crossings, just beautiful views of deep canyons, rock outcrops, the fall greening of the open slopes, and the golden hue of larch scattered among the evergreens. I was reminded of a line I read in a book titled The Greatest Hunting Stories Ever Told. In his chapter, Spirit of the North, Thomas McIntyre wrote about larch while on a moose hunt in Canada.

“While the needles of the tamaracks died off in their own fiery-yellow manner, the always dark spruce stood reservedly back from it all, looking down on this spectacle of deciduousness and having none of it.”

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I enjoyed the ride immensely and relaxed in tune with Freckles’ rhythm, but nearing the end of the mountain, I looked down the canyons where the finger ridges and walls above the creeks dropped sharply into the thick, black bottoms, and my anxiety of what lay ahead jarred me back into an unfamiliar, but comprehensible reality. A quarter-mile from our tie-up, Aaron led Maggie over to the east side of the ridge in a large meadow. Larry and I followed. Arron then turned to us, pointing down into a wilderness abyss to the creek bottom at a cluster of glowing yellow larch. “There he is.” Aaron exclaimed. I could feel my thighs begin to burn.

While tying up, the wind picked up, so we wound the string into the trees where we could shelter them and stow some gear for a warm, dry ride out in the looming 34-degree rain. I shed my tee shirt and stowed it in a saddle bag, and stowed my heavy jacket in a pannier that we would later fill with the bounty won through God’s grace, the life the bull gave for Aaron’s perseverance, and the intense work that we were about to endure.  Wriggling back into my sweatshirt, I donned my frame pack with a bottle of water stashed on the shelf, took a GPS point of the pack string location, and dropped off the side of the mountain. Beginning our initial descent, Aaron looked back with a smile. “How do you guys feel about cliffs?” He asked.

Our descent was approximately an hour long down nearly vertical slopes, through numerous rock outcrops, along slick, muddy rims with loose granite shards, and through the dim, soupy draw bottoms thick with serviceberry. As for the cliffs, Aaron is afraid of heights, but not Larry or I. What I don’t like is trying to negotiate a sheer cliff face. Luckily, we managed to avoid all sheer cliffs by scrambling around and down the bony ridge spines. The real challenge lay within the final approximately 200 feet to the elk, which fell just above the creek bottom. Here, the terrain changed from painfully negotiable to seemingly impossible. We painstakingly placed each step to ensure that our footing would hold while using grass, evergreen roots, and serviceberry branches to maintain balance and distribute weight. Each step down increased my mental anguish, intensifying the anxiety of making the ascent with a loaded pack. If there was ever a time consciously swear off elk hunting for life, this was it.

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Finally, just after noon, we arrived at the elk. And as perfect as timing can be, the chill-to-the-bone rain set in on cue. Aaron spent the day prior quartering and skinning out the skull for a shoulder mount, so the work to be done this trip was simply grab the back-straps and other loose cuts, and bone out and pack as many quarters as we could manage to carry. Larry and I clambered a bit further downhill to grab a couple quarter bags and a hind quarter Aaron had hung, while Aaron began boning out a shoulder under the shelter of a massive Doug fir (one of the few places to stay dry and work on three square feet of flat ground). We made a couple trips up to where Aaron was working, ending with the cape.

Within an hour we had the shoulders, a hind quarter, and all the other loose meat split between the three of us, leaving only the cape and one hind quarter for the following day. None of us wanted to come back down here, but we decided it was better to leave a light load for a second day than take too heavy a load and risk injury. Besides, my thighs were burning by the time we arrived at the elk, and I silently wept inside, imagining the brutality of the ascent. Our packs averaged somewhere between 60 and 80 pounds, and I estimated our total load weight to ballpark between 180-220 pounds. That’s plenty for a desk biologist who hadn’t hunted as hard as he should have during the archery season.

As quickly as we dropped into the hell hole, we turned around to begin the ascent, praying (at least I did) along the way for strength and sure footing. Our steps were short and deliberate and our progress slow and unsteady for those menacing first couple hundred feet. I lead the team, clawing on hands and knees at times, using anything anchored to the ground for stability and leverage. We all agreed to take it easy getting out of there, but there was nothing easy about it.

In the draw bottoms, the downed serviceberry branches were slick and gummy from moss and years of grass decaying over them. On the ridge spine, bare soil was greasy from the rain. The soil was squishy and caked on our hands like pie crust dough with gritty, sandpaper-like granite shards.  My cadence carried me five to ten feet where I could locate the next object or flat piece of soil large enough for a foothold.

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Down-ridge about 20 yards were Larry and Aaron, carefully picking their way up behind me as I relied on my GPS track log to keep me on-trail. Ascending the bottom quarter of the climb felt like climbing Satan’s staircase in an attempt to escape the clutches of a hell frozen over. We clambered and clawed our way up one handhold or foothold at a time. Most footholds were the backsides of grass clumps where long, slender-bladed grass as dark as the shadowing evergreens held itself firmly to the mountain side, determined to keep the light soil layer and other vegetation intact.

The going was slow and I speculated it would take us about three hours to reach the pack string. Where the terrain was too steep to climb, I fell into the edge of the draw and used the serviceberry to my advantage where it was rooted deep enough to pull myself a little further up the mountain. Stopping for a break after another five feet of elevation gain, I heard Larry shriek below, followed by a few muffled obscenities. Aaron asked if Larry was ok, to which he replied yes, but he nearly lost his place on the mountainside and was afraid he may take out Aaron in the tumble.

We continued the struggle on hands and knees for another approximately 20 to 30 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Finally, I picked up an elk trail and broke out across the face of Satan’s staircase, which ended as we weaved our way up through a rocky outcrop and stood firmly, without fear of a slip, on a slope that was still absurdly steep, but manageable.  Breaking over the top of this vertical nightmare renewed our drive and we mounted the remaining mountain side with fresh confidence, and surprisingly strong legs.

The remainder of the climb was slow, but our progress was steady with better footing. We even managed some conversation along the way. I was enjoying the scenery again despite being soaked to the bone in sweat and rain. I always find it interesting how different a mountain looks while climbing up compared to shuffling down. Breaking down over the tops of the rocky outcrops pays a mountain little justice as looking over the top masks height and cragginess, but the outcrops and cliff faces loomed intimidatingly overhead on the ascent.

About half- to two-thirds of the way up, the reality of how long and steep this climb was began to work on our mental status, but we were still going strong and the terrain only became more forgiving as we neared the crest. Reaching the only small outcrop with a semi-flat top brought a sigh of relief. On the way down, we discussed walking the mules down to this spot which was about 300 yards from where the stock were tied. Without a word of dropping the packs and going for the stock, we boldly continued with renewed drive. The worst was over.

We could see the high mountain meadow on the ridgeline to the north and we bore north-northeast toward the light. Another blessing of the day was that an old burn that swept through this area left few windfalls, the majority of which were in this final stretch. Continuing on, we carefully stepped, hopped, crawled, and slipped across the decaying, charred, and spikey evergreen logs as we side-hilled around the finger ridge rim.  With a short push through elderberry saplings, we broke into the bottom edge of the meadow and my right thigh began to cramp just above the knee. Impeccable timing.

We quickly closed the gap to the stock and shed our packs, which made a solid thud as they connected with the soft ground. I made for Freckles and looked around to see that we all had one thing in mind. Pulling out rain gear, we shed our wet cloths, dried our heads and arms, and slipped into something more comfortable for the ride out. It was 3:30pm and we made haste in loading the bulging quarter bags into the panniers, hoisted and hooked the bags onto the packsaddle, and lashed down the empty pack frames on top. The stock were sheltered nicely among the trees and we didn’t even notice the wind as we finished our hike up the mountain. However, as we untied and led the string out of the timber, the cold wind settled on our wet fingers and faces, stinging with the near freezing needle pricks of late fall.

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Mounting up, I settled into the saddle, resting my hands across the horn, completely at peace and feeling at home. Taking in the dreary grays of a low ceiling, the bright greens of freshly growing grasses and forbes that feverishly sprout with fall rain, and the calming dark green of the evergreen forest, I can understand how my grandpa and uncle must have felt when they entered the wilderness of Idaho for the first time. My uncle has yet to leave it, and I assumed that by now, my grandpa had returned for eternity. The ride out was quiet, aside from a little encouragement for the stock.

The horses were eager to get back and Freckles knew the trail fairly well as he had hoofed it all week, not just this day. I let him lead, and although I have the utmost confidence in him, I took notice of his curiosity and lack of attention to the trail at times.  As we covered the mile back to the main trail, I gave Freckles a couple suggestions to either follow Aaron and Maggie, or choose another route to reduce the potential for eye impalement or being swept off the saddle by a large, low-hanging branch. Freckles accepted my direction with aplomb and kept me unharmed, even comfortable while weaving through the timber and over the windfalls.

Once back on the main trail I allowed Freckles his complete freedom to roam and was amused at his desire to check out meadows, grab a yarrow snack, and basically meander across the mountain. Sometimes he even stepped slightly off trail on less traveled soil if he anticipated a slip in the mud. We plodded along in silence until the trailhead appeared, and while we had all enjoyed the experience, we had long passed the twelve-hour mark of this adventure, and the cold rain had fizzled our spirits.

Approaching camp, we carefully rode up to the trailer and tied off the critters. We made quick work unloading the elk and packs, then removed the harnesses and bridles and trailered up, leaving the saddles attached for warmth. Aaron invited us into the travel trailer where we shared a beer, some of Larry’s venison jerky, and a couple laughs, reminiscing of the day and Aaron’s hunt overall.

It was an awesome experience with some great guys, and I dare say I plan to put in for this very elk tag, now knowing the brutal physical demands and risks. Luckily, Aaron’s bull went down where it could be reached, but there is potential in this country to have one hell of predicament on your hands if a bull runs or takes a nasty tumble. This was my test to see if I could hack it as an elk hunter. I passed.

Larry, Aaron, and I shared a congratulatory and thank you man-hug, then Larry and I hit the road. I wouldn’t return tomorrow as Aaron had a replacement back lined up, but Larry and the stock would make a repeat performance. As we bounced down the mountain road toward home, my mind drifted off to my own challenging, successful hunts for mule deer, and the fire that burns so deep sparked to life. I will see this trail again next summer.

Thankful for the Opportunity

Fall sparks a time of reflection and thanks, and the Thanksgiving holiday is a perfect time to be thankful for our public lands and natural wonders.

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Published in the Waitsburg Times, November 7th, 2019.

The month of November is a special month. Not only because it’s like an extension of October in the Walla Walla Valley, or that the late season big game hunts are open. Rather, November offers a time of reflection as winter approaches and we gather with friends and family to give thanks. Given my love for fall, I spend many cool evenings reflecting on the outdoor opportunities I have been afforded over the years, and the magnificence of our nation’s natural resources.

One extraordinary September evening a decade ago, twelve hours to the southeast of Waitsburg, I stood amid the roar of the Maison River in Yellowstone National Park. The sun had settled peacefully behind the western peaks while the cool humidity of fall sank into the river bottom. A soft, white haze began to form about ten feet off the water as the cool air from above fought to smother the moderately warmer temperature and moisture rising from the river.

To my left was a pewter-colored, house-sized boulder with a massive log jam against the upstream side. The river had undercut the boulder and placed a couple logs on the downstream edge as well. The twilight cast a dense glare across the river surface, but climbing up and standing atop the boulder, I could peer down and see a few very large mountain whitefish in the eddy on the downstream side. They darted swiftly in and out of the flow beneath the shelter of the logs.

Time was wearing thin, so I dropped back into the river on the thalweg side. There was a glorious seam near a gravel bar across the current, and my size 18 Adams was destined to be picked up by a feisty rainbow or brown trout. Preparing to cast, I stripped out a fair piece of my floating line and began loading the rod with short casting motions. Glancing to my left, the sight of my beautiful little blonde girlfriend, Ali, waist deep in the current and laying out a dry fly with her golden locks trailing behind her brought a warm smile.

I stood momentarily entranced in the scene of my future bride fishing the Madison, but my revelry began to fade with the faint sound of a cow elk mewing, and then another, and yet another. Spotting movement behind Ali, I gawked awestruck for minutes as the dark evergreens under the fading light began to writhe with elk. Big, tawny bulls with rich, molasses manes, raghorns, cows and calves maneuvered among the trees on the opposite river bank. They slowly fed and drink directly opposite us as we remained stone still. I felt a fleeting sense belonging, as if welcomed into their world. We were just part of the woodwork.

Ail Fitzgerald fishing the Madison as a bison watches

Daylight vanished with my rod held at my side. I simply stood there and drank in every precious moment of that scene as the final shred of visibility faded around a couple fly fishermen engulfed by the ambient tumbling river and the screams of rutting bulls. We climbed from the chill of the river, stripped out of our waders, and fired up the heat in our rig as we returned to our West Yellowstone hotel. That trip was noteworthy for a number of reasons, all of which are owed their own story, but fishing the evening hatch on the Madison will remain one of my fondest memories of Yellowstone, and early dating with my wife.

Recalling that moment on the Madison conjures another elk story, only this one occurred an hour from town. It was modern firearm deer season and I had packed into the Wenaha, spiked a camp, and hunted the high ridges with my buddy, Marvin, in hopes of spotting a good mule deer buck and making a move on him.

It was frigid for October and spitting snow. The Eagle Caps appeared as two small, snow-covered hummocks to the distant southeast. The atmosphere lit up around the peaks, pink as cotton candy from the few straggling rays of sun clutching the horizon. I could feel darkness approaching; an impenetrable cloak meant to shield the world from its own inhabitants.

In years past, I had seen mule deer in this meadow, and packed a buddy’s elk on a pack string after clawing our way up from the jagged bowls of the canyon bottom. My only encounter this day was cutting the tracks of a lone cougar and wolf, both on the same meadow trail, and both the diameter of a softball. Worn out and cold, I headed for camp only to suffer the fitful sleep of fall wilderness tent camping.

Awaking the next morning, the sky was incredibly clear with a billion shimmering stars. Within an hour, the warmth of golden sun would breach the eastern tree line to end my frozen torment for eleven glorious, yet laborious hours of searching for backcountry bucks. Standing peacefully over the hiss of my pack stove, as the soothing aroma of hot coffee curled up, tickling my mustache, I stared wide-eyed at the first twinge of pink kissing the low horizon.

The black silhouettes of surrounding evergreens stood tall and firm like the sentinels of dawn. And unexpectedly, a bull elk let out a single bugle, not 100 yards from camp. His guttural squeal echoing around the edge of the meadow sent a chill down my spine, prickling me with goosebumps.

Unexpectedly, tears welled up and my throat went tight. Emotion and memories ran wild. Regrets of moving away from home and family; gratitude for the loved ones I have been blessed with; shame for the times that I failed my loved ones; and bewilderment over all of the undeserved blessings I have been afforded, to include the opportunity to hunt our nation’s wild, public lands. My love of the wilderness, fish and wildlife, and my thirst for these experiences are owed to my grandparents and the heritage they passed on.

Such emotion spurred by a single supremely placed and timed elk bugle. We never found our mule deer buck, but time in the wilderness, no matter how long or short, offers some form of profundity and reward otherwise.

Recollections of wilderness adventures arouse further memories of the most beautiful high mountain lakes I have ever had the good fortune to lay eyes on, just a day’s drive south in northeastern California’s Sierra Nevada range. The John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness areas provide astonishing scenery, hiking, and one of my bucket-list trout species, the golden trout.

Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over, and across jagged granite perched me 11,300 feet above sea-level. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake about a mile and hundreds of feet below. The gray walls of the high peaks reflected off the deep blue of the lake. The solemn green of the pines cast deep contrast against the light granite with a dappling of brilliant goldenrod from sparse quaking aspen and grasses changing with the season.

Turning around, I faced the Treasure Lakes. Thirteen-thousand-foot Mount Dade peak loomed overhead to the south. A permanently shadowed, remnant snow pack, dusted gray by the wind, was feeding the lakes. Below the shimmering surface of the crystal-clear depths lay pure California gold.

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Sizing up the lake, I tied up a size 14 hare’s ear wet-fly on my four-weight. Stepping down onto a boulder along the lake’s edge, I rolled the olive-green sinking line into the depths and began retrieving the fly with short strips. My breath, still labored from the climb, or maybe just the elevation, was sucked away completely as the line jerked tight between my fingertips; the fly engulfed as it slowly sank on the pause between strips.

A moment of panic overwhelmed me as I realized I was playing a trout I had obsessed over landing on the fly for decades. Kneeling on the flat boulder, rod tip held high overhead, I softly cradled my first golden trout in the frigid alpine waters. An awesome spectacle in a small package with a rich auburn belly, buttery yellow flanks, and olive-sized parr marks. A scene so perfect I will never forgive myself if I fail to relive it again in the near future.

We are incredibly fortunate for the opportunity afforded us by visionaries like Teddy Roosevelt, who realized the importance of setting aside public lands and parks for our enjoyment. The beauty of our public lands, our right to explore them, not to mention the most spectacular pieces of our nation being preserved for the public rather than privatized, is a true blessing.

Of equally good fortune, Waitsburg is a central hub to more than a dozen National Parks and Monuments within a day’s drive, not to mention the myriad state parks.

Think of Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks with peaks towering sharply above the Montana landscape. When was the last time you saw the turquoise depths of Crater Lake or traversed the prickly, jagged lava beds of the Newberry Monument in central Oregon? How about experiencing the tranquility of looming redwoods along the northern California coast, or the picturesque formations protruding from the Oregon beaches? Have you ventured over to Mt. Rainier National Park or Mount Hood to ogle the glaciers and marvel at the history and architecture of the historic lodges? All of this awaits at arms-length.

As we share in our Thanksgiving feasts, late fall turkey, deer and elk hunts, and make new memories with friends and family, take a moment to give thanks to those responsible for setting aside our public lands and parks. Thank our fellow taxpayers and sportsmen and women for contributing funds to the operation and maintenance of these lands. Thank our military brethren who serve to ensure our freedom and opportunity to enjoy our nations specular resources. And thank your friends and family who, alongside you and I, work to perpetuate this rich wilderness heritage.

Shed Hunting the Wheat Country

Published in the East Oregonian, March 21, 2020.

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March is a fine time to work a bird dog on the Palouse. With the upland season a couple months past and the snow freshly off the wheat fields, my girls and I took to a secluded parcel for a run and maybe put up a rooster or two. A bitter wind howled across the emerald green of the thriving winter wheat, battling the warmth of vibrant sunrays cast sharply from a bluebird sky.

Approaching an island of black locust and wheatgrass about 20 acres in size, a white object caught my attention. Beneath a golden fold of grass mashed flat from its former snow blanket shone a heavy chunk of what appeared to be bone. “How sweet would it be if that were a giant shed!” I thought to myself as I approached. You can imagine my surprise when I unearthed the only drop-tine whitetail antler I will ever lay hands on, complete with a split brow tine and soda-can base circumference.

The antler was weathered and cracked and had clearly lay there for several years. I wondered where that buck had come from. There was no other cover for miles and we were nearly 20 miles from a brushy river corridor in any direction. How had that buck dodged the modern firearms seasons so many years to put on such character?

I may never have such fortune to stumble upon a better shed in my lifetime. Whitetails are known for their adaptation to postage-stamp, patchwork covers. True to form, this guy clearly followed the playbook, shedding where no one would think to look in a relatively tiny and inaccessible patch of cover.

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Bagging elk sheds is exciting, but in my experience, it’s deer in the wheat country that offer the best shed hunting. A solid rule of thumb is to seek out bedding and feeding areas. South and west aspects are the warmest this time of year and typically offer better food sources. Deer spend the majority of their time in these areas and are more likely to shed there. While well-worn travel routes are hard to pass up, I have found so few sheds on trails that a nice walk or the occasional small forky antler is about the main prize.

You can dodge the masses by knocking on a few doors and maybe find some ground all to yourself. Small woodlots and eyebrows with a few trees to provide a windbreak should be given fair inspection. Deer will paw at the ground around these trees to create flat beds on steep slopes.

Deer generally shed their antlers from late December through March. Mule deer tend to yard up in large, visible groups on the open, grassy slopes, while whitetails commonly feed in the unseen crevasses of wheat fields this time of year.

Cabin fever pushes most big game hunters to wit’s end by now, and the prospects of shed hunting are too inciting to ignore. However, there is an ethical consideration to early shed hunting. March on the Palouse can be a deadly month for wildlife as they have hit rock bottom on fat reserves and food sources. A year like the present causes little winter kill as snow accumulations is minimal and temperatures are generally mild. But tough years with lingering deep snow and single-digit temperature can take its toll on a deer herd.

Trumbo - Shed Hunting (2)

Waiting to hunt sheds until about the time that spring gobbler opens is a best practice to leave critters unperturbed when they cannot afford to suffer additional stress and energy expense. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn’t enforce restricted shed hunting seasons, but does offer tips to keep wildlife healthy, such as not pushing a herd too hard or pursuing them over consecutive days. One advantage to shed-hunting the wheat country is being able to spot sheds in stubble or green wheat with binoculars before hiking through feeding or resting critters with nothing to show for it.

Additionally, respect for public and private land and landowners is paramount. Sheds are the property of the landowner where they fell, requiring permission to collect them on private land. If you run a shed-hunting dog, ensure that it doesn’t run deer or elk as you hunt for antlers.

Bottom line: shed hunting is a lot of fun and a great way to get outdoors, kick the cabin fever, and grab some sun and exercise while waiting on spring gobbler or fishing seasons. Load up your pack, grab the binoculars, and enjoy the warmth of the sun on your back for a welcome change from winter. You just might find that shed of a lifetime.

WDFW Revising Game Management Regulations

Published in The Waitsburg Times, February 20th, 2020

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February 6th, The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) opened the public comment period on proposals to update regulations for a variety of game hunting opportunities, as well as the proposed 2020 hunting seasons. Among the proposals, two changes in particular have potential to influence hunting opportunity in southeast Washington.

The proposed elimination of several elk areas due to the success of depredation hunts and overall population declines include what the proposal lists as area 1011 for Columbia County (present regulations show this area as 1010). Additionally, area 1082 in Asotin County is proposed for elimination.

Proposed changes to cougar management and harvest are the most significant. Presently, WDFW uses the mean (average) cougar density across five years and five research projects throughout the state to set Population Management Unit (PMU) maximum harvest or “harvest guidelines”. The WDFW developed four options (rewritten here for clarity as alternatives) for adjusting cougar harvest guidelines and propose extending hunting seasons in areas with high cougar/human conflict.

1) Alternative 1 – Status Quo. No change with the exception of changing the harvest guideline from being based on a mean density to being based on a median density for studied populations. The rational for this proposal is that the mean density includes outliers (abnormal extremes) in the data that may drive the mean and harvest guidelines higher or lower than what is appropriate for a given population. The median is simply the middle number in the range of density estimates, which is influenced less by outliers than the mean.

2) Alternative 2 – Similar to status quo, but proposes to use the median density calculated only for adult cougars that are 24 months or older. This option reduces the harvest guideline slightly, but sub-adult cougars harvested under this option would not count toward reaching the guideline and informing season closure for a given PMU.

3) Alternative 3 – The harvest guideline would increase for units that exceeded the harvest guideline by December 31 at least once in the past five years. This alternative assumes that cougar density is higher in units where this occurs because hunters are encountering many animals and quickly reaching the harvest guideline. The new harvest guideline would be based on the highest harvest in the past five years.

For example, in two PMUs, harvest guidelines would be adjusted so they do not exceed an assumed density of 4.15 cougars per 100 square kilometers (62.1 square miles). This would keep the density within an acceptable range based on research conducted in the western United States. This harvest guideline would include adults and sub-adults.

4) Alternative 4 – Same as Alternative 3, but considers only adult cougars that are 24 months or older in meeting the harvest guidelines in a given season.

The “non-status quo” Alternatives 3 and 4 are intended to extend hunting seasons where higher harvest is warranted and where human/cougar conflicts are higher.

The complete set of proposals and 2020 season dates are available for review at https://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/regulations/season-setting, as well as an online comment form. The public comment period closes February 26th. As a steward of the public’s wildlife, don’t miss your opportunity to participate in this important review process.

 

 

LETTER TO THE EDITOR ON PROPOSED COUGAR MANAGEMENT REGULATIONS

Upon reviewing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) presently proposed cougar management regulations, there are considerations I believe the general public should have more clarity on regarding the science behind the proposed alternatives.

Scientifically, there are cautions with every alternative, all for the same reason; setting and managing “harvest guidelines” appropriately to maintain healthy cougar populations. The example given in Alternative 3 that relies on a target population density to inform harvest guidelines is the most scientifically defensible method and should be the standard across cougar Population Management Units (PMU). The harvest guidelines may be set with the intention of maintaining a healthy population density (e.g. 4.15 cougars per 62.1 square miles) in all PMUs. This is implied, but not necessarily clear in the proposal.

Alternative 3 may also result in higher harvest in PMUs where harvest exceeded the guideline by December 31st at least once in the prior five years. Our local PMU 10 includes Game Management Units 149 (Prescott), 154 (Blue Creek), 162 (Dayton) and 163 (Marengo). The 2019 harvest guideline for PMU 10 was 4-5 cougars. Total harvest in 2016 was 11, 15 in 2017 and 18 in 2018; as high as three times the harvest guideline. It appears that higher harvest may be warranted in southeast Washington.

The PMU 10 harvest numbers likely offer a clear example of why WDFW is proposing to set the harvest guidelines on the median population density rather than the mean. There may be a low population outlier that is keeping the PMU 10 harvest guideline lower than it should be.

The “non-status quo” Alternatives 3 and 4 are intended to extend hunting seasons where higher harvest is warranted and where human/cougar conflicts are higher. A perfectly acceptable proposal. Extending the hunting seasons will shift the removal of a proportion of problem cougars from WDFW responsibility to the general hunting public. As a hunter and steward of public resources, my first instinct is to ask how the hunting public can help manage wildlife when animal removal is necessary.

Extending the cougar hunting season is solid logic for a couple reasons. 1) Per law, wildlife is under the ownership of the state and general public, regardless of where that wildlife occurs. Transferring agency removal of problem cougars to hunters through enhanced opportunity offers the public greater ability to participate in the management of OUR wildlife; 2) Sportsmen and women buy licenses to have hunting opportunities. Allowing the hunting public to participate in population management increases hunter opportunity and reduces expenditure of WDFW tax- and sportsman-paid dollars that could be better used on conservation programs, for example; and 3) More liberal seasons and additional opportunities may entice additional license sales. This is important because license sales support habitat management that benefits all wildlife, not simply game species, as well as hunter access programs. Over 70% of hunters in the western U.S. rely on public land and public access for their hunting opportunity.

From a biologist’s perspective, WDFW has developed an appropriate array of alternatives to improve cougar management in Washington. Alternatives 3 and 4 appear to be scientifically sound and offer additional benefit to sportsmen and women. Review the proposals yourself and represent your responsibility to the management of public resources by submitting comments on the proposals.

 

Luck, Gravy and Bucks in the Breaks

The digital dashboard clock read 6:10am on November 2nd, day three of a four-day mule deer hunt in the river breaks of Idaho. Time was wearing thin. It was the first morning of daylight savings time. There was plenty of shooting light, yet my eyes strained to evaluate the whitetails striding across the grassy field to the north. Shouldering my rifle, I reached for my shooting stick and passed a glance across the tailgate at my hunting partner, Larry Holecek. Larry has lived in the Idaho panhandle nearly all of his life and has access to some spectacular hunting ground.

We silently advanced across the road into the ponderosas, traversing an old, broken-down barbed wire fence. In about three miles we will have dropped approximately 2,500 feet in elevation and trekked over a rugged piece of river canyon rarely seen by others.  

 Softly entering the timbered ridge, we instantly spooked a small group of whitetails that bounded off nearly unnoticed. Although this was my “big buck” hunt, I was along for the ride. I had no expectations, and killing a good buck was low on the list. I didn’t care either way, but my wife made it clear. If I ate my tag, I faced a severe flogging, murder, divorce, and possibly all of the above. The only guarantee; I would not pull the trigger on an average buck.

The air was crisp and clouds on the run, being herded out of the country by a strong high-pressure zone approaching from the west. With a gorgeous sunrise upon us, the overall scene and day bloomed into prime conditions for a still hunt. Carefully, we hunted down through a grassy ridge spine, relying on a sparse tree line for concealment. Our steps were well placed, like a prowling cougar softly padding behind its prey.

A beautiful November morning in the Clearwater River Canyon

We stalked our way through the first large meadow, stepped up on a rocky bluff and glassed the surrounding ridges. It became clear that hunting through the adjacent draws would be most challenging. Steep, deep, rocky, and thorny were the only discernable conditions and I was unwilling to tackle such a formidable combination. We spotted a small grassy knob about a mile below us, glassed it for a while, then descended for it.

Approaching the middle elevation of the mountain, the browse petered out, like a mountain stream at the height of a drought as it flows into the valley floor. There was little deer sign, but fresh elk tracks and scat, possibly from animals we bumped unknowingly.

“We should move a little quicker down into better deer habitat. We need to get down closer to the river where the browse thickens up again.” Larry explained.

About a half mile further we emerged from the ponderosas and found ourselves on the up-ridge side of the grassy knob we had glassed previously. taking up the remnants of an old road, we dropped over the west side of the knob and wrapped around the down-ridge slope into a draw. A few sparse rose bushes provided minimal cover.

Suddenly, the unmistakable “blow” of a deer shattered the silence, startling us out of tranquility. Snapping attention forward, a spike mule deer bounced out front of us about twenty yards ahead. Larry looked back with a smile and said “You wanna take him?” Returning the joke, I declined the proposal. While perfectly legal, the effort required to get a deer off the mountain made taking the spike inconceivable, never mind the quality table fare. After moments of silently interrogating one another, the spike bounced down into the draw and out of sight.

Immediately, we advanced a few steps, peered down into the draw, finding ourselves suddenly neck deep in mule deer. Through a small opening in the rose bushes I spotted what appeared to be a buck about eighty yards below. Thinking nothing of it, I propped my stick against my stomach and raised my binoculars. As my vision focused on the dozen or so mule deer, one buck in particular grabbed my attention, slamming me into the reality of two dark, sweeping beams spanning well past the buck’s ear width.

The author and Larry Holecek celebrate a successful hunt

My binoculars bounced against my chest as they fell from my grip. In a panic, I groped for the shoulder strap of my old Remington .243, glanced at Larry and said “That’s no spike…!” Larry’s eyes enlarge as he ducked out from the rose bush to get a look.

The safety clicked hard forward as my face settled on the stock. With the butt wedged between my shoulder and pack strap, the crosshairs settled firmly behind the buck’s shoulder.

Breath. Steady trigger pressure. Recoil.

The draw exploded with mule deer scattering in all directions, yet I focused with laser precision on one buck as he loped out of sight, never to reappear. Turning to Larry I exclaimed “That should have been a perfect shot!That’s a damn good buck!” We never saw exactly how big it was, but I had passed on several other bucks the prior days and trusted my gut instinct that he was why came to Idaho.

A raucous erupted from the brush directly below and the buck briefly appeared before vanishing again into timber. A few blurry seconds passed and the mountain fell silent.    

Larry, appearing more excited than I, started down into the draw. I called after him, reminding him that we should wait a moment and start tracking methodically from the point of impact, regardless of the fact that we knew about where the buck should be.

I was cautious, examining everything. There was an unnerving lack of sign. My full confidence in the shot and the fact that my rest was solid provided comfort, yet mistakes when we least expect them. The .243 is fast and accurate, but an eyelash can knock it off course.

The author with his Clearwater canyon muley buck

With no obvious evidence of a hit, we walked his approximate track to our last visual. The location was unmistakable, marked by a small greenbrier bush nearly chartreuse in color. Quite the contrast against the dark orange and black of the fallen ponderosa boughs.

As I scoured the brush for sign, Larry pointed down ridge to a spot where the pine boughs were piled up exposing fresh soil. Guardedly, I move down, noticing a large patch of gray hair on a nearby pine trunk. To our left was a house-sized boulder outcrop, and as Larry and I worked our way around the face of the boulder, something caught my eye.

Stopping Larry in his tracks, I picked up the binoculars and focused in. Concerned over the lack of sign, I wanted to be sure we didn’t make a novice mistake like jumping a wounded buck from his bed. After heavy scrutiny, I breathed a sigh of relief. The large, gray object was in fact a sizeable mule deer buck lying on his belly at the base of a ponderosa. Approaching to about fifteen feet, I made a final examination.

Emptying our rifles, we eagerly approached the large four-point beam rising from the pine boughs. Lying before us was about a 200-pound, ghost-gray mule deer buck with a broad nose and white face. His neck was swollen to about thirty-six inches in circumference from the raging hormones of rut. His chest was nearly three feet deep and his dark chocolate, 4X5 rack rose impressively above his thick, roughly furred brow.

The orange pine boughs complimented by the green of the pines and the gray granite boulders covered in brilliant jade moss made for an awe-inspiring scene. One that will forever remain seared into memory as Larry nor I packed our cameras or cell phones. Unbelievable. And that’s not the worst of it. I must have forgotten my brain this morning as well, for I found I was without a knife and only had my day pack and snacks. Luckily, Larry was smart enough to remember a knife at least.

With the buck dressed, Larry suggested we drag him down the mountain as far as possible. If we could get him close enough to the river, we may have been able to go for the camera and get photos before packing him out, but it was not meant to be. The riverside bluffs were too treacherous.

Leaving the buck, we snaked our way along the canyon wall, Larry ingeniously flagging our trail out with survey tape until we found a way around the cliff faces to the river and derelict rails below. Forty minutes of uncertainty passed as we stepped over crevasses and skirted rimrock sufficient to make a mountain goat pucker. Following a final thirty-foot side down a flat rock face to the tracks, the endeavor was nearly complete.

Scaling the face and returning to the buck, I worked to get him quartered, while Larry headed for the ATV that was about three miles east on the tracks. Once at the ATV, He would go for his son, Dean, and some frame packs. My final gaze upon the buck was lost to my urgency at quartering and packing to the top of the bluff above the river, but I shall never forget the moment I first laid hands on him.

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With the quarters, backstraps and tenderloin laid out, I donned my day-pack and agreed with myself a foolish buffoon for leaving my frame pack and necessary items at home. Upon completing three trips for the rack and quarters, I stashed them at the top of the bluff above the railroad and savored a brief water break before the unmistakable hum of distant ATV bled through the roar of the river. As Dean and Larry arrived, I heaved up my pack, snagged a hind quarter and rack, and started down the precipitous incline that led me to flat ground.

Dean offered gracious congratulations and a fresh bottle of water, while Larry hurriedly took my .243 and ran back up the tracks after spotting a decent muley buck while returning for me (at least I didn’t leave my rifle at home). Dean and I grabbed the packs and clawed our way up the 100 vertical yards, grabbed the remaining quarters, and skidded back down to the tracks.

Trophy hunting has never been my thing, but big muley bucks have captivated me since I moved to the northwest in 2011. I set my sights high and was lucky enough to punch a tag on a muley buck that I am still proud of. The entire event was built around tremendous luck, but you can’t get lucky without effort.

Basking in the memories, I am reminded that engaging in the hunt is far more rewarding than securing antlers and venison. The experience welds a permanent patch in our minds and souls. A minute flicker in time where the world around us fades into the background. The only beings in existence are the hunter and prey. The rest is gravy.