Our Roosevelt Elk Hunt 2020 – How a Great Hunt Almost Turned Bad
This fall was my first season hunting Roosevelt Elk and was my first season hunting in Washington. Fortunately, I was able to start the hunt with a good friend, Trevor, who grew up in Southwest Washington and knows the area and the hunting very well. We bought over-the-counter archery tags which gave us a chance to do both an early and late season hunt.
In the early season, you are only allowed to harvest a three-point or better bull elk. During this season the elk are rutting, so you have the potential opportunity to call a bull into close range – the ultimate experience for an archery hunt. During the early season Trevor and I called several bulls into close range, but we never could get a clean shot – that’s archery hunting.
In the late season, you are allowed to harvest an antlerless animal OR a three-point or better bull, so I returned with another good friend, Nate, with the intention of spot-and-stalk hunting anything that we could potentially harvest. At this point, it was late fall and our last chance to harvest a big game animal for the year, so it was all or nothing.
Most people who hunt in the northwest think of Roosevelt Elk hunting as hunting in a jungle, and it is. The vegetation is thick and thorny, and it is always wet. Even if it isn’t raining, it is wet.
We started off by car camping and hiking into an area we had hunted during the early season. We found several groups of elk, but they were either too far off or were inaccessible due to that thick, wet jungle that you just can’t slip through to get within range. Without having the advantage of calling them in like you do in the early season, it was hopeless. We packed up camp and moved to a new area, leaving elk to find elk, and it paid off.
Just after we got parked and set up camp in the new area, we could see a spike from our new spot. You can’t shoot a spike, but as we watched, an entire herd started filing out of the trees one by one. It was getting close to dark and they were way down in elevation and across a river, but I decided to scramble down and go after them anyway. Nate stayed behind to save his energy for the next stalk. I wore my Bogs boots because I knew that I might be able to cross the river in them – and I could. It was a huge time saver being able to walk right across the river in a shallow area, rather than taking my boots off or searching for a downed tree to cross on.
As soon as I was on the other side, I was very close to the elk, maybe 100 yards. The wind direction was right, and I could smell their strong, musky odor. For people that know elk hunting, it is exactly what you want – the wind blowing in your direction so that they can’t smell you.
I snuck through the jungle on my hands and knees, ferns over my head, towards the edge of the clearing that they were feeding in. It was quiet. I could hear their footsteps through the grass and every twig that they broke. I had to be super careful to move slowly through the ferns to not let them see or hear me, only peaking through small openings in the bushes to relocate them.
When I got to the edge of the clearing, I knew I might be close enough. I slowly lifted my rangefinder and pointed it at the closest elk – a mature cow that was feeding in a broadside position. She was 60 yards away. In years past, this would have been a very doable shot for me. 60 yards is the maximum range that I am comfortable with, as long as the conditions are perfect. This season, however, I hadn’t practiced as much at 60 yards and had decided beforehand that 50 yards would be my maximum. Anyone who has hunted can tell you that after days of hiking around all day and putting in so much time and effort, it is really hard to pass on a chance to harvest. When no one else is around to judge you for your decisions, it’s tempting to just let an arrow fly and hope your shot is good – after all, your bow is well tuned during that time of year and as long as you make a good shot, it should be on target. But that’s what separates honorable sports-people from those who aren’t – knowing your limits and sticking with them.
I passed on the shot opportunity and chose to watch the elk to see what they did next. The wind was still in my favor, and I hoped that maybe they would move closer to me as they fed. They continued feeding sideways, moving perpendicular to my hiding spot, so I decided to back out and try to intercept them. It was a long slog and felt counterproductive crawling away from the elk through the ferns, blackberries, and mud, but I made it out without spooking the herd and had another chance to try to get close.
This time, I started crawling in again through the ferns when I heard the noise that every elk hunter hates the most – a bark. When an elk barks, it is warning the other elk that something isn’t right – that it’s suspicious of something. I peeked through the ferns and saw the barking elk sniffing the air like a dog sniffs your dinner plate, scanning with its nose. The wind had changed direction and carried my human scent right to their noses, and they all caught wind and ran.
This scenario represents a common hunting dilemma. You can push the envelope and try to rush things, but it usually doesn’t work. You can also take your time and try to be really patient, but sometimes that doesn’t work either. This time, being patient and backing out ended up taking too much time and the wind changed directions and defeated me.
The next day we hastily decided to pack our backpacks and head further in for the night. We packed really light, deciding to share my new Titanium Goat “Tipi” tent. I had never shared this small tent with anyone besides my girlfriend, but my hunting buddy and I felt like we were ready to take the next step. This tent is really meant for one person and their gear, or two people and very little gear, so we decided to bring a tarp to keep most of our things dry outside of the tent, giving us more room inside. The forecast called for a dusting of snow, so it was cold enough to warrant bringing the “Wifi” wood stove.
We hiked in about seven miles and set up camp on top of a ridge where we had an excellent high-point nearby for glassing. The first evening, our long hike really paid off and we got on four or five different groups of elk. Nate got within range of a big bull, but when he drew his bow back his elbow brushed against some vegetation and the bull turned and walked the other way. Even though we hadn’t let any arrows fly, seeing so many elk and getting the chance to draw on a nice bull was enough action to keep our spirits high. We weren’t successful that evening, but we were ready to see what the next morning would bring.
That night, it was cold and wet. It was really nice having two people to alternate tending to the fire throughout the night, something to keep in mind if you are ever deciding whether or not to share a wood stove tent with someone.
When we woke up, we were surprised by 4-5” of fresh snow, not a dusting like the forecast predicted. We quickly realized that our vehicles were waiting for us parked at the bottom of a steep hill. Nate has a two-wheel drive vehicle and his chains were at home. I imagined the sheer cliffs falling away from the winding dirt roads we took in – there were no barriers between the road and a very steep drop. I had taken my 4-wheel drive truck, so we knew that we could at least take my truck out if his car couldn’t make it.
We decided to hunt for the morning anyway, and would head out in the middle of the day because we had work the next day and knew it might be an ordeal getting out. We were also hoping that some of the snow would melt away by mid day. That morning, we again had several chances at elk but were defeated by the common nemeses of archery hunting.
On our hike out, we speculated about what it was going to be like getting the car out – maybe we could pull it up the first hill with the truck, maybe the truck chains would fit on the car tires.
After climbing the grueling hill and returning to the vehicles, the first thing we learned was that the truck battery was dead. The truck battery was dead, and the car with the good battery was downhill of the truck, stuck.
Just weeks before this trip, I had decided to purchase a Superstart Power Pack – a chargeable battery jumper. I dug it out from deep within the bed of the truck, hooked it up to the battery, and it started right up with a heart-warming, strong roar.
Things were still sketchy. The snow had melted quite a bit, alright, and most of the road had turned into a sloppy, snowy, muddy mess. In north-facing and other shady spots, the road was super icy. I’ll never forget driving along the edge of a cliff that day where it was super icy and the road was pitched downwards towards the cliffs. Several years ago I purchased some V-bar truck chains in Idaho and they have paid off profoundly. I have become extremely confident in their performance, even on the nastiest of roads where the snow gets packed down into the texture of an ice-skating rink. These chains really dig into that stuff.
With the trusty chains on the truck, we made the long drive out to pavement, drove into town, and bought chains for the car that was left behind. We drove back out and put them on with plenty of daylight left. We made the drive back out again safely and with both vehicles, and made it home in time to make it to work the next day.
Overall, this trip could have ended poorly if it weren’t for a few pieces of relatively inexpensive gear. I really hope that this story encourages everyone out there to be prepared and stay safe!