Ever since my first hunting trip in 2014 I have been dreaming of going on an elk hunt. My father in law seeded that dream with how highly he speaks of elk meat.
For the last two years, an "over the counter" elk trip has been the backup plan if our group didn’t manage to get a tag in either the limited entry moose or elk lottery draw. In BC there are two areas where elk are so plentiful that no lottery is required, so you can just get a tag "over the counter". Those areas are the Peace River district and the Kootenays.
|Primos Hoochie Mama Cow Elk Call
Two years ago I bought a set of Primos elk calls, and taught myself how to call using YouTube and the DVD that came with the calls. My wife immediately disliked the sound of me practicing chirps and bugles, so it quickly became a task reserved for commuting to and from work. Yes, I was that guy who was sitting in traffic at red lights practicing with a mouth reed. I kept the calls in my truck so that I could get in some practice whenever I was alone.
When the draw results were released in early summer, I was secretly quite excited when none of our group were successful in getting a moose or elk tag. This would be the year! I would finally get to go elk hunting.
Throughout the summer I continued to practice calling while we started to formulate a plan for the trip. Both the Peace and the Kootenays have their own pros and cons, and for both my father in law and me either area would be completely new. We both turned to the internet and google maps to research both areas and help us decide. For the Peace, it's really far away, there is tons of oil and gas plant activity, and it seemed like unless you are on private land, there are few open spaces down low and not much access to the mountainous area. We read a lot of horror stories of the muskeg and bugs, but on the other hand, some of the published data shows a marginally better chance of success in the Peace than the Kootenays. For the Kootenays on the other hand, while they may be closer, from what we read online they sound like they are crawling with hunters during the elk open season and it seemed like there was too much road access and too few places where you could get away from road hunters.
As it turned out, none of the rest of our group decided to come with us, so this trip would just be the two of us. We eventually settled on the Peace and after a call to a conservation officer who used to be responsible for the area, we got some suggestions about where to find animals, but not specifically elk.
The details of the plan took a while to take shape because we didn't know what to expect in the Peace. We discussed glassing, being mobile, taking a motorbike, ATV, car-top boat, inflatable boat, the trailer, tents, and so on. We had a strong feeling that we may need to set up and break down camp a few times while trying to find elk sign. The trail bike was appealing for the ease deploying from the truck and quickly scouting trails and roads, but my lack of experience on motorbikes and the fact that we may have needed to haul something out of the woods a ways made the ATV win out. We carefully weighed all the gear and equipment options.
Whether it is a truck and trailer, or your backpack, it is always a balance between being well prepared and bringing too much gear. I hate the feeling of wishing I had something which got left at home to save on weight and space, but it is also equally frustrating to carry a bunch of gear you never end up using. I think the prospect of having to set up camp multiple times may have dissuaded some of the people from our group from joining us on the trip, but never the less, we didn’t want to commit to an area until we knew there was sign.
In some of the management units around where we were headed sheep, goats, caribou and complicated moose were open as well. I ended up getting all of those tags just in case we stumbled across one of them. However, from everything that I have read and heard, it is important not to get distracted from your target species. We discussed that until we had either a elk or moose hanging, we wouldn’t go for one of the side hunt species. This was primarily an elk trip with the secondary goal of a moose. With the trip being the last two weeks of September, we were concerned that the daytime temperatures could risk meat spoilage and we didn’t want to have to cut an elk trip short because we were worried about losing the meat from one of the non-target species.
As the summer went by, I collected my gear and checked it all out. It was in good condition, but there were a few pressing tasks. The first task was getting my rifle ready. I always follow the same routine before hunting season. It works well for me. During the summer I try to go to the range and practice as much as possible. This summer I managed only two trips to the range for practice, but I made those count. Each trip I sent around 100 rounds down range over the course of a day, allowing my rifle time to cool between groups.
|Best ever group at 300m|
Between each range trip I thoroughly clean my rifle using bench-rest copper solvent and Hoppe’s No. 9. After each cleaning, the next 4 shots have a radically different point of impact. Therefore, I go to the range one final time before the season starts to put a few fouling shots down range and then check my zeros and DOPEs (military term for Data On Previous Engagements). Once I know exactly where my bullet will land at 100m and how much to dial up for 200m and 300m then I am set for the season. After that I don’t clean my rifle or fire it again unless it is aimed at my quarry, the only exception being using a bore snake if I suspect debris has ended up in my barrel.
|Prepping venison "Shepherd's Pie" to freeze for the trip|
I spent the remainder of the summer and the early part of September packing, preparing meals, waxing my boots, and deciding what was going to make the cut to come with me on the trip. It is so easy to have gear inflation. I have decided to limit myself to one rubbermaid tote of gear, one of clothing and the pack that I am going to be wearing, my sleeping bag and a duffel bag of other clothes. It still feels like too much gear, and it probably is, but there is enough space in the trailer to accommodate it. I also decided to bring my meat packing backpack in case we had to quarter and hike out an animal as well as the new addition to my kit this year, a spotting scope. I ended up getting the Vortex Viper 15-45 because of both its affordable price tag and compact size and weight (more on that in a separate post).
|All packed and ready to go.|
|Bright and early, just about to depart.|
At 5:30am on the 16th of September after loading the last of our gear we began the drive North. We talked hunting strategy and made plans on the way up. We made it to Chetwynd that night and stopped at the Chinese restaurant for dinner. After dinner, we started looking for a motel with parking for the truck and trailer. That proved to be much more difficult than expected since so many oil and gas workers were in town. We ended up finding vacancy at the third hotel we tried.
The next day we got up early and headed to Fort St. John to get groceries, booze, water, and fuel. Once those chores were out of the way we headed north to the first of a few options we hoped might be a good spot to camp.
Once we arrived at the first spot, there were a couple of other camps set up in the area, but after a quick discussion we decided to give this place a whirl. We set up camp quickly and decided to go out for an evening hunt.
As a new hunter, it is usually my first time in any area that I am hunting. My plan is always the same when I go somewhere that I have never been before. I usually spend at least the first few days scouting, just trying to find good areas, sign, crossings, whatever. Depending on the extent of the area, I might finish up scouting after a day, or it could be 3 days. I try to cover as much ground as possible, either on foot, vehicle, or by glassing. Once I have a good feeling for the area then I make a plan and choose what I think is the best spot and hit it hard until I am either successful or give up after several unsuccessful days.
|The calf moose on the left. The mother is just in the trees.|
On that first evening hunt, I mostly just burned around on the ATV, looking for crossings and sign, trying to get a feel for the area. That evening I managed to see a cow and calf moose, which was pretty cool. It was good to know that they were in the area. I managed to get a few shots of the calf through my binos. For the rest of the evening I just tried to see what there was to see. There were lots of grouse and there was tons of bear shit. Eventually I had to give up because it was getting too dark, so headed back to camp.
|Sunrise on the first full day.|
Over the next two days I covered an incredible distance and walked up and down many trails trying to find elk sign. There was plenty of moose sign and lots of bear sign, but apart from some old dried tracks, the elk remained elusive. At one point I was hiking down a trail which followed the bottom of a logging slash and saw some movement further up the hill. Through my binos I noticed it was my father in law, so I turned and started to creep my way out. As I walked back towards the trail head, I stepped into what I thought was a little puddle, only to sink in up to my thighs in deep, ugly clay mud which came to be known as gumbo. With a little effort I managed to crawl out. The gumbo was so sticky that even after walking in and out of another trail I felt as though my legs were encased in concrete. Back at camp I stripped down next to the water and spent a few hours washing my gear and boots in the lake.
|The oven in the trailer stopped working so we cooked over the fire that night. Overall, we were well prepared as always and when the water lines froze and the pump died, my father in law had a spare, typically well prepared! There were also some electrical problems and one of our batteries had leaked on the trip up, but nothing that was serious. |
We came to learn that all the roads become “gumbo” after it rains in this part of BC. That stuff packs into truck tire treads and makes travel nearly impossible until it dries out or freezes.
On two occasions I decided to follow a trail into the bush on the ATV. Everything seemed fine at first as I was going along the trails, but then suddenly the front wheels would fall out from under ATV, sinking into the muskeg nearly to the top of the tires. Stepping off the ATV was no better. Both times it happened I sank up to my knees in the muskeg as I tried to find a way to free the ATV. There were no sturdy trees to winch to and going in reverse just dug the wheels in deeper. I trudged my way out of the musket and gathered some sticks and small logs. I pressed them into the wheel wells and while playing the throttle reversed the ATV slightly, sucking the logs under the wheels. After repeating this a few times, I could feel the ATV gain traction as I tried to reverse it out. I could hear my buddy's voice in my head "Pin it to win it!" and so I kept hard on the throttle as the ATV tore its way backwards. Once I got it back on hard ground, I vowed never to let that happen again. Well, it did happen again, one more time, but after the second time I really started to figure out the common denominator. If it is grassy and there are no trees, that is a very bad sign. It is probably muskeg. If there are shrubs and bushes, then it is probably firm enough to walk or drive the ATV.
As I continued to explore the area I came upon a sad sight. Along a trail above the clearing where I had seen the moose cow and calf, I came upon the partially eaten carcass of a moose calf. I had the sinking feeling that it must have been that calf from the previous evening, but there was no way to tell. I walked around it a few times and saw wolf tracks. They had already made short work of the soft innards.
|A sad sight. A moose calf eaten by wolves.|
|A squirrel through my scope on low magnification.|
|Much harder to free hand my phone camera on higher magnification.|
I continued to scout the area the following day and got so far afield that I crossed into the next management unit where the antler restriction increased to 6 points or more. I found a great spot to glass and spent the morning picking apart a mountain side. Unfortunately, I didn't find any wildlife, but I definitely found out that I am happy with my new spotting scope, a Vortex Viper 15-45x by 65mm. It was the right compromise for me between size, cost, magnification, and quality at around $1000.
A few hours later I concluded my glassing and continued on, covering ground, exploring trails, and looking for sign. After a long morning of scouting on the ATV I noticed by fuel was getting low and made my way back to camp. That afternoon I decided to explore an area just beyond where I had to turn around on the first evening because it was getting too dark. As I drove past a gas well, I started to notice some huge wolf tracks and wolverine tracks dried into the muddy shoulder of the road. I rounded a corner which had two trailheads leading off of the road and continued on for another few hundred metres past a pond to where the road dead ended at a decommissioned well head. There was another trail head there which headed down hill. There in the mud was some dried tracks. It was larger than deer, but smaller than moose. I decided that it had to be elk sign.
I drove back to the corner and picked the trailhead which headed east. I set out on foot and started a routine of calling while slowly still hunting my way down the trail. Every fifteen to twenty minutes I let out a few cow chirps or a bugle. Generally, I erred on the side of cow chirps, mostly because of my experience in the Squamish river valley listening to a herd calling to lost cows. After a solid three hours the light was fading, so I made my way back to camp.
That night I told my father in law about the day and the sign that I had seen. He had seen a monster bull moose down by the lake, but it was several kilometres away across the valley, quite out of reach. We discussed the plan for the next day and we decided that I would head back to the same spot where I had seen the elk sign and set up my trail cameras and see if there was anything hanging around there and he would go back after that moose by the lake.
The next day I grabbed my trail cams and headed back to the decommissioned well head. I took the truck and decided to set one of the trail cameras up near the pond. I parked on the side of the road and started to walk around the pond to see if there were any game trails. To my surprise I found lots of fresh elk tracks as soon as I got off the road, right by the edge of the pond. There were several game trails leading off the pond, so I set up one of my cameras at a point where a few of the trails converged.
I continued on a little way and parked the truck near the decommissioned well head. As I got out of the truck, I looked over at a mud puddle in the ditch that I noticed the previous day. I had noticed it because the last thing I wanted was to get the truck stuck the same way I had gotten the ATV stuck a few times. This time, however, I noticed some fresh elk tracks in the mud. I walked over to take a look and my heart started to beat faster. Could this be a wallow?
Bull elk like to roll in mud to perfume themselves with urine during mating season, known as the rut. As I got closer, I started noticing the mud looked like someone had pressed a paint brush into it...it was the impression made by elk fur. The mud started to tell a story. I could see where the elk had rolled, where his antlers had dug into the mud, where he had dug up some of the mud. I was in complete shock. I had stumbled upon an elk wallow in the ditch next to a decommissioned gas well. Elk were in the area. I couldn't contain myself. I had found an area with elk. I was ecstatic.
|The wallow with the fur impressions visible.|
I set up my second camera looking out over the wallow and decided to hike away from the area, down hill, towards the river gully. I spent the next 3 hours hiking and calling my way down to towards the river gully where I suspected the elk may have been hanging out. I got no responses to my chips and bugles, but I wasn't deterred. I knew they were in the area and now it would just come down to locating them and getting a lucky break.
After a lengthy hike towards the river I decided I had to turn back because I was planning to meet my father in law back at camp for lunch. The hike back to the road could be done much more quickly if I de-layered myself of warm clothing and picked up the pace. I tossed my pack down and started taking layers off for the hike uphill back to the truck. Just at that moment, five grouse decided to waddle across the road. It was like I was watching this weird little grouse migration.
After the grouse left, I started the hike back up to the truck. A couple hours later I was back at camp telling my father in law about the wallow and the good feeling I had about that area. We had lunch and I decided I would head back to the area, park further away from the wallow, hike in a short way and set up my little bind at a crossroads of trails and see if I could call in an elk that evening. The temperature was dropping, so I decided to put on my winter gear and boots.
After lunch I headed back out. On the drive to the wallow I started to doubt my plan to set up a blind and sit all evening. By the time I was getting close to where I wanted to park, I had completely changed my mind and decided I was going to do another hike.
I decided to park the truck a few kilometers away from the wallow and stalk my way to it while calling. I pulled over about 800m before the corner with the two trail heads where there was a little pullout. I set about changing from my warm winter boots and winter parka to my lighter hiking boots and jacket. I started tossing gear out of my pack that I wouldn't need for the hike, such as my blind, butt pad, and tripod. My gear was all over the place, but I didn't want to carry any unnecessary weight in my pack. Just as I got my hiking boots on, I happened to glance down one of the two trails which radiated out from the pullout where I was parked and my heart stopped. There was a brown dot. THERE WAS A BROWN DOT!!!
I scrambled to find my binos. My shit was everywhere! Where were they!? This was not supposed to happen like this. On the seat of the truck! I grabbed my binos and was confronted with the sight of a cow elk grazing peacefully about 800m away from me, straight down a trail. FUCK! I was a complete disaster, mid-gear change, mid-repack, it was a complete yard sale, shit was strewn all over the place! I started grabbing gear. I needed this. This, I didn't need.
I needed to be light and quiet to stalk in. I was tossing things everywhere, scrambling to get myself organized. I shut the truck doors quietly, and locked them, but then realized I still had excess stuff. I chucked my butt pad and tripod into the brush. No! I might need the tripod to shoot off of! I scrambled into the brush on my hands and knees to get it and strapped it to my pack.
Shit! Had I scared off the cow in all this commotion!? I quieted myself as best I could and slowly peaked my head out of the brush to see if she was still there. Yes, she was, the brown dot was still there. Crap! Were cow elk really open in this region!? No mistakes! I unzipped my pocket and doubled checked the regulations on my phone, and yes indeed. Cow elk and 3 point bull elk or better are open in this area. Okay... now I need to make my play.
With a hurriedly repacked backpack and whichever gear I had somehow managed to grab from the truck it was time to make a play for this cow elk. In the chaos I had not forgotten my calls. Thank goodness. I crept a little further ahead in the brush and poked my head out again, just high enough to see the cow. I pulled out my Primos Hoochie Mama call. It was now or never.
I gave the call a squeeze and a loud "EEEEE-awwwww" pierced the air. Through the binos I watched as the cow elk jerked here head up. Her ears and eyes were fixed on where the sound had come from. I had the sinking feeling that she would bolt.
To my huge relief she started trotting towards me. CRAP! I had not thought this through! I had nothing to shoot off of! She was 800m away and starting to come in. I wouldn't be able to make that shot until she was so close that I could shoot off hand. Big mistake.
I crouched down in the brush, out of sight, and had to think fast. I saw some trees ahead of me jutting into the middle of the trail. If I could make it to those trees, maybe, just maybe, I could crawl out into the middle of the trail and shoot prone off my bipod. Okay... that's the plan. I poked my head up and there she was still looking my way, but still too far off for a shot, probably 750m. She lowered her head and started grazing again. I squeezed the call again, "EEEEE-Awwww" and her head lifted. Once again, she resumed her trot towards me.
|This is taken standing from the first place I tried to lay prone. On the left, those are the first trees which were jutting out into the trail. I took the eventual shot from 10m ahead of this point laying prone at the base of the tree in the middle of this photo just to the right of that small bush at its base.|
I crouched back down and crawled to my left into the treeline. In the trees I crept ahead about 10m to the where I thought I could make the prone shot. I belly crawled out and popped down the legs of my bipod. As I lay prone it became clear that I was too far across the trail to get a good shot. I was past the middle and the angle was all wrong. There was still one more set of trees another 10m ahead where I might be able to get a shot from.
I started crawling back to the tree line and saw the cow elk, now much closer, probably 600m. She was stopped, just staring at where I was. I squeezed the call again and she resumed her walk towards me. This was happening, but I still had nowhere to shoot from.
I made it back to the treeline and advanced to the next set of trees and bushes which stuck out into the trail. Ahead of that point there were no other bushes or trees jutting out into the trail that I could hide behind. The trail was as straight as an arrow and this was the last place that I could set up to take a shot. It would have to be there. I belly crawled behind the trees and bushes out from the treeline at the edge of the trail until just my rifle and head poked out into the middle of the trail, keeping my body concealed behind some bushes. It was perfect. I was looking right down the middle of this trail with no obstructions, resting on my bipod, as stable as it gets.
Through the scope I started to watch the cow elk. By now she was around 500m away, still too far for me to shoot. I checked my turrets and dialed up for 200m. That's when I realized, I had left my range finder in my parka, back in the truck. Shit. I would have to estimate the range.
As I lay prone looking at the cow elk through my scope, I gave another call, and like each previous time, she resumed her progress towards me. Whoa! There was another elk with her! It was a bull!
Within seconds I was counting tines. 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, definitely a 4x4, maybe more, definitely legal, 1-2-3-4, yep, for sure. Change of plans, I decided to go for the bull.
Each time they slowed or seemed to lose interest, a squeeze of the Hoochie Mama got them both trotting towards me. Seconds felt like hours as they came towards me, the bull always a few paces behind the cow.
The bull carried himself quite differently than the cow, his presence was regal and dominant. Both majestic animals, but the bull's presence was quite impressive.
They closed the distance until their images filled my scope. They seemed close, very close. I guessed it was 100m and waited for my opportunity. They were both walking towards me head-on. And then my moment came. The cow went left and the bull stopped. He turned, right, quartering on. I put the cross-hairs just behind his shoulder and squeezed. BOOM!
As I regained my sight picture I couldn't see the elk. I had just taken a shot at my first elk. I sent a message to my father in law saying that I had just taken a shot at a bull elk. I got up, chambered another round and put the safety back on. I walked back to the truck to give the elk some time. I dropped off any unnecessary gear and made sure I had all my essentials for field dressing. It was just after 5:00pm.
I took my time. It felt like an hour, but I couldn't handle waiting any more. It was 5:20pm. I started to walk up to where the elk had been and there, I saw him. He had fallen a few feet from where he stood when I took the shot. As I approached, the cow bolted out from the trees into the middle of the trail, just past where the bull was lying. She looked back at me for a split second before starting to run off. I tried to call her to keep her in the area for my father in law, who also had a tag, but she never stopped. A few minutes later my father in law arrived. If this ever happens again, I will wait until he gets there so we can stalk up together. I never expected the cow to stick around. My eagerness meant we missed the chance to punch my father in law's elk tag. Anyways, we were still elated.
Before we set to work, I pulled from my backpack a couple of mini-bar size bottles of Glenmorangie Quita Ruban scotch that had been rattling around my pack since my first hunting trip. I had them to celebrate my first deer with my father in law, but in all the excitement I had forgotten. 4 years later it was time to celebrate another first. We took photos and toasted our success. Then the work began.
When we got finished field dressing, I noticed that there was no bullet exit hole. It would be a neat memento if I could find the bullet. It was starting to get dark at this point and grizzlies were in the area. I gave up on finding the bullet in the gut pile and we began the short haul out to the road. Luckily it was a straight shot to the road. As it turned out, he was 250m from the road according to the GPS. My shot was 225m. This just reinforces my opinion that most people, me included, can't estimate range and range finders are essential for any shot beyond about 250m, not to mention, most people shouldn't be taking shots further, me included. With the help of the ATV and some blocks, we managed to load the elk into the bed of the truck.
We got back to camp and set to work skinning, quartering, and hanging the elk on the game poles. By 2 am we were finished, exhausted, and in need of sleep. We stumbled into the trailer, too tired to have dinner and just collapsed.
The next morning, I finished cleaning off the last bits of hair and we wrapped the quarters in game bags.
Over the next few days we took a more leisurely approach to the hunt. We went out looking for moose and elk, or any other species that we had tags for. I even went back to the gut pile in hopes of finding the bullet when I went to get my cameras back. There was nothing left but some wet ground where the gut pile had been and there were only photos of me on the game cameras unfortunately. We went after grouse a few times and made a great grouse curry.
While we had been there, a bunch of good 'ol boys rolled up and set up what they called "Hobo Junction" next to us. It was an impressive mobile village of trailers and tents. They were a bunch of guys in their 60s to 80s who go to this spot each year as an annual tradition. We went over a few times and shared stories and drinks. They were great.
After a few days our worries about warming weather started to come true. We watched the forecast and daily temperatures climb and decided that we needed to cut the trip short to ensure there was no risk of the meat spoiling.
We spent one day scouting around and went to some of the other places we had considered camping if this place had not worked out. We saw twenty plus stone sheep, a black bear, and white tailed deer that day.
The next morning was really warm as we packed up. We loaded the elk and headed south. We stopped in Fort St. John and got dry ice which we put near the meat. It helped keep the temperature in the trailer low during the day for the drive home. We decided to one-shot it and drove non-stop through the night, arriving at Sumas Meats just after they opened the following morning.
A few weeks later I got the call to pick up the meat. It was just after Thanksgiving. As I was loading the nicely packaged meat into my truck, I found a little scrunched up piece of butcher paper. They had found the bullet.
|I kept the case and was lucky that the butcher found the bullet|
The first meal I made with my elk was steak. I wanted to taste it with as little seasoning as possible to really understand the flavour. It was everything my father in law had said it was. It is the best meat there is. Slightly better than moose, I think. It was a trip of a life time and now I am hooked on filling the freezer with elk.
|Something I learned is that elk have ivory, upper teeth which are vestigial tusks.|
|I removed and saved the ivory so that one day I can make some earrings for my wife from them.|
|Every time I look at these antlers I will remember this trip as the amazing adventure which filled my freezer with the best meat there is.|