This year, my lifelong hunting buddy and I decided to make a change and quit trying to find the elk in the thick forests of the Oregon coast. We put in for “spike-only” tags in the breaks of the Snake River Wilderness. This is an area that has some wide open grassland prairies. Spike-only means that the harvest can only be a young bull elk. One or both antlers can only be a spike. One side can have a fork, but not both sides.
For gun gear, I settled on my Savage model 16 stainless rifle in .300 WSM for elk hunting. Since grouse, chukar, pheasant, and quail are also in season, I took my old Winchester 20 gauge, too. For general protection/camp carry, I packed my GLOCK model 40 MOS sporting a Vortex Viper red dot sight.
Since the trip was in a motorized-vehicle-prohibited area, we booked with an outfitter who took us in by horseback. The horses carried us humans while mules packed our gear. After driving through the town of Imnaha, it was an uphill gravel road for a bunch of miles to a temporary camp. Guns, gear and food loaded, it’s six miles north to a preset camp with tent, a wood stove, and cook stove.
We arrived in good spirits. After unpacking our gear, we tok a hike with rifles and spotting scopes. It was the day before open season on the elusive Wapiti. In this area, there are Rocky Mountain elk as opposed to the big Roosevelt elk we see at the coast. We took our rifles because bear and cougar are open season, and we both had tags.
The area we landed at is near the end of Windy Ridge, about 5,000 feet up in elevation. Our ridge runs north and south. To our left, is about a 2,000-foot drop at about a 30 degree angle. Straight ahead is a gentle up and down undulating hog back ridge. We were able to spot a heard of about 30 head as they fed. The lead bull was either a 5×5 or a 6×6 handsome critter. There were also at least two spike bulls in the mix.
We spend the late afternoon watching their habits as they fed and interacted. The wind was perfect for us as it was blowing left to right at 15 to 20 miles per hour and the herd was lasered at 1,250 yards.
I couldn’t manage a photo of them because my Phone Skope didn’t want to stay aligned on my spotting scope.
The elk were on the far bald knob, behind the dead tree. We watched as they milled about and finally got to bed in the timber for the right. The plan was to be within 400 yards in the morning and put the smack down on the two spikes.
We woke the next morning well before first light and made our way to the closest knob to where the herd went to bed. As light made its way towards our ridge, we watched as the last cow and calf walked back into the woods. It seemed as though the wind is still a constant. The cow and calf were only 40 yards away and had no clue we are sitting so close. They were tail end Charlie to the herd.
Even though it was close to no moon, they seemed to have fed all night and beat us back to the deep timber for their bedding time. Crud…back to camp. Oh well, time for a good breakfast and a bit more rack time. Elk seem to bed down during odd times and we figured it was best not to push them. If they caught our scent, they could have been in Idaho by morning.
After a nap and lunch, we headed back down the well-used game trail to a spot near a few dead snags to watch for the heard. Luck was on our side…we spotted one of the spikes. As I pulled my rangefinder up to get the yardage, he walked back into the woods. We saw him for a fleeting three or four seconds.
The next day was the same as the first, only they have moved farther out on the ridge. At least I got my exercise. Three miles in the morning, three miles in the afternoon.
The next morning we were up before the dawn, down the familiar game trail again. We spotted the heard again. Only now, they were on the parallel ridge to our right. And farther out again. They seemed to graze on the grasses and walk at the same time. Add another 1,200 yards distance and the fact that to get to their new ridge, we had to hike downhill a half mile then up the hill, then out.
Ugh. I’m done in. So is Sean. We decided to head back to camp and cook a good breakfast for some much-needed energy. Bacon, potatoes with onions, spam and some killer coffee. After a good belly full, we decided on a noon nap.
The wood stove is kicking out some good heat. As I’m lay on the cot, I was awoken by the sound of Sean operating a chainsaw, or rather, his snoring, I heard the sound of firewood kindling being knocked over outside the tent. Fearing a camp robber in the form of a raccoon or other critter, I reached under my pillow, (yes, I take a memory foam pillow while camping), and grabbed my G40. I racked the slide as I tip-toed towards the tent door, turning on the red dot.
Unfortunately, my feet crunched and crackled the plastic tarp on the tent floor. Dang it!
I eased out the tent door in a low ready with a two-handed grip and what what I saw momentarily startled me. A full-grown bear, rear legs on the ground, front legs on our “splitting log”, staring at me. What startled me even more was the color of his fur. He was almost blonde!
I pulled the pistol up several degrees and centered on his chest, pressed the stock trigger and heard a click. A moment later I feel the loaded magazine hit my right foot. I watched for a millionth of a second as the bear ran away.
Now, I normally don’t cuss. It takes a bit to get me to utter a curse word. It was a habit purged I with a granddaughter in the house. But I shouted “FUCK” as I chucked my pistol towards my cot and reached for my .300WSM.
Sean stopped sawing fir wheels and wondered, “What the fuck?” I yelled, “BEAR!” as I grab my rifle. Sean crawled off of his luxurious queen-sized air mattress and grabbed his custom .300 Win Mag and followed me out the tent door.
I saw some movement out about 20 or 30 yards, so I ran the trail parallel to where the bear was. As I come to a stop, I saw him out into some serious blowdown.
As he heard me at the same time, he stopped and turned back to look back at me. Big mistake. It was a snap shot at what later turned out to be 32 yards. I centered the cross hairs just behind his left front shoulder and pulled the trigger. He bowled over the dead tree he was standing on…and then started running away. I racked another round in the rifle as the bruin disappeared into the pixie stick jumble.
Sean was a few steps behind me and couldn’t quite see when he Yogi stopped, but did see him leap away after the shot. We decided to wait several minutes before starting the search. I knew from my mind’s instant replay that the shot was a good one. But I was also in my camp slippers with no coat. Sean was pretty much the same, so we headed back to the tent to get dressed for the search and retrieval.
Here’s a view from the tent door to where the bear was. His front feet were on the short log, seven long steps away.
After donning boots, hat and coat, we headed back to where I last saw Yogi. We used tracking tape to mark where he was and any signs he made. Disturbed ground here, a freshly broken branch there. No blood. Anywhere.
That doesn’t surprise me too much as bears tend to get really fat during the fall and that fat plugs up bullet holes. On a hunt years ago, Sean and I hit a rather large bear at least seven times and never saw a drop of blood.
We spent over an hour working our way through, over and under the massive blow down forest, GLOCKs at low ready for the unexpected. The search paid off when I finally spotted him. He’d crumpled up in a small triangular space. I was amazed by his beauty and gave thanks for a successful harvest.
His back hair was three to four inches long and very thick and his claws were very impressive. We rigged up a carry pole with ropes to get him out, gut him and get him back to camp to skin him out. We guessed his weight at around 300 pounds. He’ll make for some tasty steaks and summer sausage.
The skin went to the taxidermist, the meat to be processed, and the skull to a place where they use bugs to clean all the tissue. After seeing the pictures of the bear, my daughter has laid claim to the finished rug for her room.
In Oregon, it’s mandated that after harvesting a bear, its skull must be taken to a Department of Fish and Wildlife office to allow a biologist to remove two teeth, (premolars), for study. The biologist estimated this bear’s age at between eight and ten years old, a very good age to be harvested. He was almost too old to keep spreading his genes.
We saw elk herds every day of our hunt, but they were always too far out, or on the next ridge over. After not seeing any elk in the coast range for the last three years, we know where we’ll be next season.