By Michael Deming
Cool crisp mornings, dew on the grass, and the ever-changing colors of the foliage are all prime indicators that it’s time. September is the time of year that every elk hunter anticipates. It’s the time where those big old nasty bulls come out of the dark timber and throw caution to the wind; they let out those distinct whistles we refer to as bugles that let the world know where they are hiding. This is a very special time of year to be in the field with a tag in your pocket. Most states reserve this vulnerable time of year for the animals to more primitive weapons. Archery and muzzleloader hunters get this limited opportunity unless you draw one of the coveted Utah tags, which is more like a once-in-a-lifetime tag than an opportunity that can be enjoyed regularly. Wyoming is one of the few places which still offers this type of hunt with a rifle. It still needs to be drawn in the lottery application process, but is something you can plan on doing every couple of years.
This rifle hunting opportunity is available due to the extreme backcountry nature of this hunt. You aren’t going to just hop out of the truck and start hunting. This is a 25-plus mile horseback ride into the backcountry of Wyoming. The very limited pressure on these hunts is what allows this opportunity to still be offered with long-range weapons.
Since we are non-resident hunters, and this is a wilderness hunt, we are required by law to have an outfitter. We have done this hunt on many occasions and there is nobody better than Jay and Amber Reynolds of Open Creek Outfitters, so when I started putting together a plan for me and a group of friends, I gave them a call and reserved a few spots well in advance. Knowing that it would take me at least one bonus point to draw a tag, we booked for a year and a half out and we still couldn’t get the first week of the hunt that I wanted. Jay assured me that we wouldn’t have any shortage of elk on any of his hunts and would likely have more since the herds should be migrating out of Yellowstone by that time.
We arrived in Cody with our group for the third week of the season. We had one of our Sportsman’s News Pro Member Sweepstakes winners, James Haden, as well as another member, Bryan Dvirnak. My good friend, Bond Isaacson and his two grown sons along with myself rounded out our group of six, which took up most of the camp. The plan was to enjoy an evening in Cody and sample some local cuisine, rest in a warm bed, and have a final hot shower before we would meet up at the trailhead early the next morning. We also had an afternoon meeting with Jay and Amber to stage our gear for the pack train which would leave early the next morning
We arrived at the trailhead about 7:30 a.m. and got everyone fitted for saddles and ready to roll. The 31-mile horseback ride to camp is an amazing experience. The climb is nearly 5,000 vertical feet and when you leave the valley floor, the onset of fall is starting to show itself. However, when we topped out over the pass 7 hours later, I felt like we were in the heart of winter. The wind was blowing forty miles per hour and there was already nearly two feet of snow that had drifts double that.
The view to the west is an elk hunter’s dream; hundreds of miles of pristine wilderness and home to lots of elk, mule deer, and an overpopulation of grizzly bears. We were stopped by one of these majestic bruins going about his daily business about two miles short of camp. The horses are a bit uneasy around them and it was best to give him plenty of space. Jay said that this would be a daily occurrence with the bears and to just be cautious. Nearly everyone in the group had bear spray, pistols, and obviously a rifle for the hunt. So, we had the protection that we needed. It was nice to climb down off of the horse after a solid ten hours in the saddle, especially for those of us who don’t get much of this type of riding.
Large wall tents, a raging fire, as well as some cowboy coffee were ready for us upon arrival. We settled in and got ready for a great steak dinner and a much-needed night of sleep to rest our sore butts and weary bones. Everyone in the group except Bond Jr. and Drew had harvested elk in the past so trophy hunting was the plan for most of us. Our discussion of the weeks plans was interrupted by some unsettled horses due to another visiting grizzly. This was a fairly young female with two-year-old cubs and she was right in camp. This made for a very long night even though I was tired. I slept with my Sig pistol under my pillow and my bear spray next to my bed.
The guides saddled the horses and after breakfast, we rode a few miles to a lookout point. We were all paired up with two hunters to one guide and the plan would be to glass and look for bulls. Jay said that the early winter storm had moved out a bunch of the resident elk and that the park elk were already migrating through. So, spending time behind the glass as well as listening for bugles was the best way to hunt with our current weather situation.
It didn’t take us long to pick up some elk on the move, but unfortunately there wasn’t a bull in the group bigger than 300” B&C. Not anything that myself or James was looking for and the two Isaacson boys were miles away. A huge male grizzly was about five hundred yards behind the group just shadowing them and hoping that someone would pull the trigger on one so he could have an easy meal. No such luck for him and after spending the entire day on the mountain, we had seen about a hundred elk, no shooter bulls, and five different grizzly bears.
The next morning, we were right back on the same lookout. We were getting another good dump of snow and a herd of elk was right below us at 400 yards. You could barely see the outlines of the animals let alone figure out how big the bulls were. It snowed heavily for several hours and dumped about five inches of snow on the ground. By midmorning, it had stopped snowing and the sun was shining and the elk were moving. We spotted a herd of about ten elk and one bull with a good frame on him. By the time I got the spotting scope up, they were about a mile away and stood out well against the fresh blanket of snow. There was a good mature bull pushing the cows and a satellite bull bringing up the rear. Neither of these bulls were what James or I was looking for as we wanted something north of 350, but this was a 330-range bull and Bond Jr. was definitely interested in making him his first elk ever. Junior and Bryan had stopped by our lookout and the timing was perfect to put them on this group of elk. We stayed in position and provided hand signals to get them into a shooting position. The elk were enjoying the warm sun and filling their bellies on the shoots of grass protruding through the snow. It took them thirty minutes to get into position and one solid shot from Bond Jr. to secure this big herd bull.
The radio silence was broken when Bond said “big bull down.” We had watched the experience unfold through the spotting scope and already knew, but the excitement is always fun to share, especially when you are talking about a first bull elk ever and one that was over 330 inches. It’s a good reason to be excited. I would occasionally look back at the photo shoot going on but spent more time glassing for a whopper bull for James and I to go after.
It had been about an hour since Bond Jr. had shot when we heard two back to back shots ring out. I was scanning the hills with my binos to look for a herd of quick moving elk, but couldn’t turn up anything. Who had shot? It was only our group up here. When the radio mic keyed in, it turned out to be Bond Jr. and he was rattled and had good reason to be. They had finished their photo session and had started breaking down the bull for pack out. The rifles were all leaned up against a tree several feet away and they were totally focused on the job at hand. Suddenly, an old silver tipped sow grizzly topped the hill forty yards away. She snapped her jaws once and started heading towards the guys and the dead bull. Bond Jr. was the closest to his rifle and grabbed it and chambered a round. As if on que, she charged at full speed. The bear had closed the gap to twenty yards when he fired a shot in front of her to warn her that this was a bad idea. The dirt spewed over her as the shot hit at her feet. The shot didn’t phase her and she was still coming full speed ahead. Bond racked in another shell and shouldered the rifle as the sow closed inside of ten yards. The bear filled the scope and he touched the trigger when it was fifteen feet away and crumbled it in its tracks. She slid to a stop a mere few feet away from the hunters, which is why Bond and the crew were a little rattled. They had escaped being attacked by a grizzly by just a few feet.
Jay notified the Wyoming Game and Fish immediately with his satellite phone and the guys took multiple photos of the scene of the incident to document it. Needless to say, the dinner conversation is one you don’t often get to have and probably don’t ever want to have. However, it is a very common problem in the greater Yellowstone area with so many bears.
When the Wyoming Game and Fish flew in to investigate the shooting two days later, they informed Bond Jr. that there had been over thirty of these incidents over the past year, which didn’t surprise me since there were four huge boar grizzlies on the elk carcass the morning the helicopter flew in. Literally every herd of elk we saw were being shadowed by another grizzly. The young sow and cubs were into our camp each and every night and even the cracker shells only kept her away for fifteen to twenty minutes. It made for a very exciting week at camp.
There was no shortage of elk though and we were able to put a tag on several good bulls throughout the week and one of the guests took an excellent mule deer buck. Drew missed a bull in the 340-range, which was never seen again, but those bulls in the 350-plus range didn’t show up during daylight hours. The fresh tracks indicated that a lot of elk were migrating at night during the full moon and possibly my shooter bull was in there. However, the backcountry hunt with a great group of friends is what I enjoy the most about this hunting heritage. This trip was almost like a trip back in time; where grizzlies roamed the hills, the glow of the wall tent lit up the night, and the roar of a camp fire and laughter of good friends made another great memory. This is true hunting and some of the best experiences and memories I’ve ever created. I can’t wait for another trip to the backcountry of Wyoming with Open Creek Outfitters.