Deer Hunt Turned Elk Hunt
By Thomas Witherspoon
The last few years, I’ve been a successful archery elk hunter, but I wanted more. I hadn’t harvested a mature mule deer yet. However, I’d seen several deer in the past that I’d had encounters with that were very mature. Hunting in the deep, dark timber elk woods of eastern Oregon isn’t always ideal for using the typical spot and stalk methods used to harvest mule deer. This year, I decided I was going to explore Oregon and find locations that suited more of the typical spot and stalk locations.
In June of 2018, I started my scouting. I had found several locations on the typical e-scouting that we all use these days. I started walking into these locations each weekend all summer long, checking feed, water, and bedding. I had found what I thought was going to be my honey hole – a good basin with water located in it.
Fast forward to opening weekend of the season when I started the hunt with my buddies, Tom and Rodney. We had some deer patterned in a basin, and we decided to divide and conquer. Tom started on the far side of the basin opposite of us. We had spotted some elk and were flagging Tom into them. On his way, he got a shot off on a solid buck. In short order, Tom had his first archery mule deer, a solid 4-point. When we located the deer in the timber, a fellow archer had already found and started processing the animal for Tom. In a short time, we had our celebrations and such. The weekend was gone, and with that, I decided it was time to hit one of the other basins I had patterned.
I hadn’t seen a soul all summer while scouting in this location. I had several bucks on the radar in the area, thinking I would stand a chance at one of them. As I arrived at the trailhead, it was packed! I decided I had better pull up my bootstraps. I walked into my favored basin to find a wall tent base camp and elk hunters bugling in the middle of the basin. I had seen elk all summer off and on in this basin, but now none were to be found. The deer had done the same as well, so I went back to the drawing board as the weekend faded. I had told myself that it was too early to give up on the area completely. I had found another basin while scouting that I thought might hold deer and I had seen elk in it as well, but I thought for sure it would be pressured too easily.
That night, I walked up to the rim for a last light viewing. I didn’t find many human tracks except on the main trail, surprisingly. I perched up on a big rockface looking into the basin, and there was my quarry I had in mind to find. I didn’t have enough time to make a move, but I had all week to plan for them while working at my day job.
I had a coworker, Jason, who had taken up archery hunting deer the last couple of years and I invited to come hunt with me. I really like hunting with beginners or people who need guidance because I didn’t have someone to rely on growing up to show me the ways. We took off from work early that Friday, got to camp at a reasonable time, and booked it up to the rim where I had found those bucks the weekend before. Sure enough, those bucks were right on time. Jason couldn’t believe me when I spotted them with my naked eye. They weren’t 50 yards from where I had seen them the weekend before. We eagerly made plans of how we could stalk them in the morning.
That night was a restless one. I had finally come so close to my goal. As we walked up towards that rim one more time in the dark, we saw headlamps. I told Jason, “They are going to see those bucks, so we’ve got to make a move on them at first light!”
We raced down the ridge to just above the last known location of the bucks. Jason spotted a cow elk down the ridge as we were slinking into the timber. Shortly after, they spooked and raced away. The bull was bugling, gathering his cows. Soon, they had headed off the ridge into another basin. As they topped the ridge, I let a bugle out to see what would happen. As I did, the bucks came out of some reprod into the open not 200 yards away. We watched them intently as they moved towards the timber. We knew we had no chance to intercept them, and our best plan was to watch them bed and hope one slipped up and bedded in a good position. I asked Jason what his thoughts were on where to glass the bucks from, and he pointed across the basin to a bench below the ridgeline. I agreed, and we hiked our butts off to get there.
We set up our optics and started some Mountain House breakfast and coffee. Watching these bucks meander through the timber pockets, Jason heard a bugle on top of the ridge and some cow calls.
I commented to him, “That’s got to be those hunters we saw headed up that ridge this morning.”
Not five seconds later, Jason saw the elk headed down the hill. I scrambled for my Phelps Amp call in case I needed to stop a bull. My bow and rangefinder were in my hands as I was kneeling. The cows were running full tilt downhill. I thought we might be run over or blown quickly due to it. I saw the bull in the back and whispered to Jason, “I’m going to kill that bull. He’s mature enough to make the pack worth it.”
I had ranged the tree line at 60 yards as the cows trickled by. I judged that they were all coming through about 10 yards short of that. I didn’t have time to adjust my single pin, but I had a secondary pin on the sight at 45 yards. I knew I could hold high on that pin and drop into the vitals of the elk. He finally came down the mountain to us. I mewed at the herd after I drew back. He froze in his tracks perfectly broadside, and I loosed my arrow. He turned and ran, and his herd followed. We knew he was hurting. I left everything and followed him to the ridgeline, thinking I needed to watch him enter the timber. As soon as I topped the ridge, he was bedded in the shade not 30 yards away. I tried to draw on him, but he busted. I missed in the process but knew he was going to bed again quickly. When he did, I stalked in slowly and put another quick shot in to end it. I raced back to Jason at the packs, and we ate some breakfast and enjoyed coffee quickly before the work began.