I was encouraged by how much fresh sign we were seeing, and pleased to have laid eyes on at least one cow elk so far. This was Day 4 of my 2020 Idaho Elk hunt.
Aaron and I had bumped into a local guy this afternoon who was more than happy to relay stories of his past success, trends he had observed in the behavior of the local herds, and dismay that he didn't draw a cow tag this year and was only able to hunt an over-the-counter bull tag.
Charlie—as we learned his name to be—was walking fairly slowly through the woods, but nothing about his presentation made you think "ah, this guy is dialed in as a hunter". He was in a heavy flannel and ill-fitting jeans, and if it weren't for the rifle, he looked like he was headed to the back porch to grab more wood for the stove.
But as Charlie told stories, it was clear that he filled his elk tag most years and any year that an elk didn't hit the freezer was a marked failure.
Aaron and I worked our way back to the truck—with little to show for our jaunt. We talked about Charlie and how the number of days he's able to hunt just puts him in position for that little bit of good luck you need to create opportunities.
We hopped in the truck and headed home for dinner. Aaron made the comment "yeah, it always seems to happen when you least expect it..."
And in seemingly Hollywood-scripted fashion, he hit the brakes and shouted "did you see those Elk!?!
I hadn't, I was looking out the passenger side window.
Aaron threw the truck in reverse and we backed up to a small driveway that cut through the timber. There, standing not 20 yards off the left side of the road, was the biggest Idaho bull I had seen during hunting season. He was standing amidst a grazing herd of cows. He picked his head up and looked at us casually.
The humor of the last line spoken was not lost on me amidst the excitement and confusion about what we should do next.
The elk were squarely on private, but we had only just left the public land a moment ago. The elk were slowly feeding and working their way through the thick timber, back toward the public land we had just departed. And they didn't have far to travel—185 yards as I would later measure on OnX Maps.
Aaron had an A-tag, so his season was on hiatus until next week.
I was holding a B-tag, so this was my opportunity to try to make a play on cutting off these elk. We whipped around and headed back to the public land we hoped they would cross over into—excited, and trying to piece together a few rational thoughts.
Aaron dropped me off and I scurried up the hill looking for an inconspicuous place to plant myself to wait and listen. I crested over a slight rise in the terrain, and immediately settled into the root ball of a downed tree to wait and listen. I chose the spot rather hastily and hoped I wouldn't soon regret it.
The timber line that marked the public-private boundary was 8 yards in front of me, and I had pretty good shooting lanes to both my left and right. Patience was the name of the game now. I didn't want to call, because I didn't want the Elk aware than anything with a pulse lay ahead.
If you have ever spent time in close proximity to Elk in the timber, you know they can be loud. They can be silent when they need to be, but when a herd is moving they are snapping branches that send a distinctive "pop" sound through the woods, and sends the Elk hunter's heart into his throat.
After 10 or so minutes of suspense and controlled breathing, I could hear the distinctive branch-breaking of a dozen large ungulates casually approaching. I settled in, talking myself through shot placement.
A few days before this trip, I was listening to the MeatEater podcast, as I frequently do. Janis Putelis had just returned from an archery Elk hunt with the game call maker Jason Phelps. They discussed the controversial "frontal shot", and Jason told Janis that some high number—perhaps four of the last five—Elk he had taken in recent years had been taken with a frontal shot. The anatomy is not nearly as neat and tidy on a frontal shot as it is for the traditionally-favored broadside angle.
Jason had instructed Janis to aim for where the dark brown mane changes colors to the buff-colored hide—so I intended to do the same.
I waited in suspense another 15 minutes or so, having not heard any encouraging sounds since the initial hope-raising noise had occurred. Not wanting my best chance at filling the freezer to slip away, I decided it was time to let out a short mew—a cow elk call. My nerves were high, my mouth was dry, and it's a lot easier to get a perfect cow call when you're driving in your car in traffic with nothing at stake than it is when a couple years of preparation and anticipation hang in the balance.
I was delighted that it sounded reasonably real.
I heard in response... it worked! I almost couldn't believe it. Things seemed to be looking up. The Elk hadn't left, and the cow call got the reaction I was hoping for.
Another stick broke—and another. The Elk were coming my way.
The wind was right, my elbows were set on my knees, I reached up slowly to pull my hat brim down to hide my eyes.
I fought to settle my breathing, as the sounds of hooves breaking deadfall continued to get closer.
This was the last day of either-sex Season for North Idaho, and I wasn't feeling picky, any Elk would do. I was focused on my shot-placement and would take whichever Elk offered me the best shot.
Now the branches were breaking right behind the tree line, and for the first time, I could actually see hints of movement in the trees. Just a few more feet at this point, and I was going to be punching my tag.
I flipped off the safety and pulled the butt of the gun tight into my shoulder, just as the tree in front of me started to shake violently. And then it happened—BOOM—but not the boom of a rifle shot, the BOOM of all of my certainty evaporating. There was no dark mane and buff-colored hide to settle my crosshairs on, only a drab-colored flannel shirt. The creature that emerged from the tree line was no Elk, it was some old-timer with an elk call hanging lazily from his mouth and a rifle cradled in his arm.
I shuttered in horror.
Trying to compose myself—and catch my brain up with what my eyes were seeing—I flipped the safety back on and started waving my hat to make sure he didn't have the same experience I just did—in reverse.
He smiled and gave me a little head nod greeting, demonstrating that he wasn't nearly as shaken by the moment as I was. I got up from my root ball, and we convened to exchange stories of how we landed here.
Turns out, he had taken a long, circuitous walk through the woods, essentially winding clockwise around my position near the downed tree. He was on his way back to the trailhead, resigned to call it a night, when he intercepted my herd of Elk. He didn't know he was intercepting my herd of Elk, he just so happened to bump into them on their path toward my position.
The Elk, upon hearing the Old Timer, had turned 180 degrees and slipped out the other direction, crossing the road 400 yards away, in plain site of Aaron who was waiting back at the truck.
The Old Timer, was vaguely aware that he had bumped something off to his left, but then he heard my cow call off to his right. He cow called in reply, and headed off to investigate. Unknowingly, he assumed the same course my Elk herd had been on and started working his way through the timber into my lap.
Two important details compounded the problem—the fact that the Old Timer was trespassing on private land, and he wasn't wearing a lick of blaze orange. I really had no reasonable reason to think that anybody should be where he was. Had he not chosen a path through private land on his way back to his truck, I could have an Elk in the freezer. Had I not been so focused on the exact spot I wanted to settle my crosshairs, this could have been a tragic hunting accident.
All of which was a sobering reminder that accidents—like Elk herds—happen when you least expect them.