Elk Hunting: Return to Hell’s Canyon

Return to Hell's Canyon with Steens Wilderness Adventures

Having had a fantastic time a year ago using all the advantages of a first class outfitter, my hunting buddy Sean and I booked another trip with Steen’s Wilderness Adventures again this year. We are taken into a beautiful roadless wilderness by horseback while mules hauled all of our gear.

This year, we packed in about 10 or 12 miles to our camp. By GPS, it was also about a thousand feet higher than last year, right about 6,000 feet ASL.

Once we got to our camp area, Ruston Draghn and Riley Steen set up our 15×15 wall tent with wood stove, tables, chairs, and cots.

It had been snowing off and on the week before we arrived. That was good news and bad news. Snow means cold and I don’t like cold. It probably stems from being caught unprepared in a snow storm in 1976 that earned me a mild case of frostbite. But that was better than the guys that got medevaced out. Their helicopter kinda crashed injuring all of them. But I digress.

The good part about the snow is that it makes locating and tracking the elusive Rocky Mountain Elk easier. Blood spoor also shows up quite well if a poor shot is made and we have to track a wounded animal. Added bonus: the meat gets natural refrigeration once an animal downed. I say animal, because we had tags for elk, bear and cougar.

Unfortunately, we weren’t tagged for wolf. We ran across a bunch of their tracks. Here’s one next to a .300 Win Mag round.

We arrived in camp fairly worn out. I swear I’m gonna buy a gel pad for my saddle one of these days as I suffer from a chronic case of noassatall. We were a day early, so after we got camp set up the way we wanted it and cut some firewood, it’s was off for some scouting.

We only packed pistols in case we ran across any bear or cougar. Friends suggested I secure my magazine with Gorilla tape after last year’s experience with a bear in camp.

Return to Hell's Canyon with Steens Wilderness Adventures

We hiked around the area for a few miles, finding some good game trails, but very little sign of elk. The country was wild and rugged. We both voiced concern that a wounded animal could run down hill making for an exhausting pursuit. We vowed to try for a high neck or head shots as it looked like it would be a very bad day if we had to chase an animal down there.

We returned to camp just before dark to cook up some ribeye steaks and portobello mushrooms in a creamy garlic sauce, with diced potatoes with fried onions. That’s right…five-star dinners every night for us.

Sleep though, was interrupted by shivers as the temps there were getting down into the teens. As we only had the availability of four mules, some of our gear got left behind for the next day. One of the 40-gallon totes had my cold weather gear in it. Oops.

Again, I don’t like the cold. So we got up every couple of hours to keep the wood stove stoked. Last wake up was 3:45 a.m.. so I decided I’d just stay up, getting the coffee going and cooking up a hearty breakfast.

Once that was done it was time to see if all that time on the treadmill the last four months has done me any good. We grabbed our day packs, rifles, binos and boots and hit the trail. I bought a really nice detailed map of the Snake River Unit, so with knowing our position via GPS, we mapped out a circle designed to cover a decent amount of varied landscape.

As it turned out, that hike was farther that it looked on the map. We saw some good game trails, and signs of elk…we just didn’t see any elk. Lather, rinse, repeat.

So we picked a different trail and route to cover different areas for the next day, putting in close to 10 miles. And just as the sun was setting, we quite literally bumped right into a herd of Wapiti as they were exiting a thick wooded area headed over the edge to feed on the grasses.

We were hunting in a spike only unit. That means the elk has to have no branching antlers. (One can have a fork, but not both antlers). We couldn’t see any spike bulls, just a bunch of cows. In the half full category, at least we found a herd. That was enough to sustain us as we put in the three miles back to camp using our headlamps.

We spent another cold-assed night as another day had passed without the remainder of our gear getting delivered. We used the next morning to eat, gather firewood, (the chainsaw ran out of gas…you guessed it, the gallon of premix is with the last portion of our gear), and rest up for an evening hunt. As we know elk can be somewhat habitual in their behavior, we planned on being where they we’d seen them the night before to set up an ambush.

For the gear geeks out there, Sean carried his Weatherby Custom Shop .300 WinMag. I had my Savage Model 16 stainless in .300 WSM. We were sporting identical scopes, Leupold LRP 6.5-20 X 50’s.

Sean shoots the 180 grain Swift Scirocco bullet at a bit over 3,100 fps. That rifle of his can shoot quarters at 300 yards. I’m chambering Hornady ELD-X 200 grain pills at 2,770 fps. Ol’ Betsy can produce sub-half-inch groups all day long.

We hiked out the three miles to our ambush site and picked out a couple of well concealed positions. The wind was in our favor and we were on a small hillock with a good view, Sean to my left. If they come out on my side, I’ll take the first shot with Sean as my backup. Vice-versa if they come out on Sean’s side.

We quietly waited the two hours till sunset, munching on trail snacks and sipping our water. I had my Walkers Game Ears on to, hopefully, get a heads up on any movement before we can see them.

I was shivering in the cold as a shot rang out to my left, momentarily confused as my Game Ears tripped off. I stood up and looked left to see movement in the short field in front of where Sean was. Looking through the scope, all I saw was a cow at about 80 yards. More movement, though, and I spotted a spike bull.

I moved the crosshairs down to the chest, he’s broadside milling about from the shot. I aim for the opposite shoulder and put a round in him, then heard another muffled shot. My bull is still milling around in confusion so I put another round in his chest. He stopped in his tracks as I heard Sean yell out, “STOP SHOOTING”!

I can’t see Sean’s full field of view, so I don’t know where his bull is, but right then mine went down. He better have, as I just dumped around 6,000 pounds of energy into his chest.

I walk out the few yards to the clearing at about the same time as Sean. Then it dawned on me as I see one spike bull lying in the cheat grass. We’d both shot the same bull. This magnificent beast took more than 6,000 thousand pounds of force — two .300 WinMags and two .300 short mags before dropping. Damn, these critters rival the tough plains game of Africa.

Sean said a prayer of thanks for the harvest.

Then the work began. As a couple of experienced hunters, we both experienced violent brain farts. We have none of our normal prep gear. Neither one of us had our meat packs. It was about there miles back to camp and almost dark. All we had were our knives, some 550 paracord and game bags.

We decided to quarter up the bull and hang the quarters there, text the outfitter via Garmin eTrex. During the gutting process, we salvaged the heart and liver for friends. Then we bagged and hung the quarters in the trees. Hopefully well enough above wolf level.

It worked. The next day, our outfitter arrived late in the day to retrieve our meat. It kind of ruined our evening hunt. But at least he brought our chainsaw gas. Bonus! That saved time and effort cutting firewood for the stove.

We spent the next couple days of the season putting some serious miles on our boots to no avail. We never saw any more elk, though we heard them from time to time. Walking back to camp in the dark the last night, we bumped into a herd. Apparently they don’t like noisy, smelly idiots with headlamps. Go figure.

We stopped and listened as the  herd went crashing away into the woods. They can be as quiet as ghosts, but when they get spooked, it’s a herd of bulls crashing through the proverbial china shop.

Back at camp, it was a dinner of salmon filets stuffed with rice and crab meat, grilled asparagus in EVOO, butter and galic, and salad wedges. If you’re going to eat, you might as well eat well.

We may not be back next year as we have an invitation to hunt bear on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. In the meantime, I look back at my photos of that beautifully rugged country and smile while I make a not to pick up that gel saddle pad.

Aim small, miss small

comments

  1. avatar million says:

    “As it turned out, that hike was farther that it looked on the map.”

    don’t it always

  2. avatar strych9 says:

    Diagnosis: noassatall.

    Treatment: Squats. Lots of them. Shitty but at least it isn’t surgery.

  3. avatar Ing says:

    These stories always make me want to go hunting. But I don’t have the $$, the fitness level, or the gumption, so hunting for stories about hunting is all the hunting I ever do. 🙂

  4. avatar Philthegardner says:

    … no gas for the chainsaw… for firewood.
    Dagnabit. Nobody told me I could bring power tools. Sometimes the 21st century wants to tap me on the shoulder to remind me that the 70’s ended already.

  5. avatar ironicatbest says:

    Well I’m happy for you Tom. Seen Elk until you got the chainsaw running, eh..

  6. avatar miforest says:

    very great!

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