C.A.S.T. and Blast
By Hunter: Sydnie Cloward, Story by: Jason Cloward
I guess it’s more of a cast and twang.
The weekend started with my daughter, Sydnie, and me having the opportunity to volunteer for the CAST for Kids fishing event up at Strawberry. It had been a few weeks since I had been to Strawberry, so I got off work a little early on Friday and we headed up to make sure we still knew how to catch a fish. The event was being held on the Soldier Creek side, so we got a campsite secured and put the boat in the water. I thought the smoke in the valley was bad. Boy was I wrong. The Dollar Ride fire had been a lot more active the last few days, and the smoke was thick. We almost couldn’t make out the dam from the boat ramp. After a few hours of catching fish, we headed back to camp to get ready for the next day.
Saturday morning, we met up with a family and headed out to see if we could repeat what we did the day before. Isn’t it always the case of you should have been here yesterday? We fished for kokes early and I was surprised at how good they were still biting. We were only able to get one in the boat, but six others got off right at the back of the boat. We spent the rest of our time trying to catch cutthroat but could only get a few to bite. It ended up being a fun day for everyone, even if it was a little slow.
After the fishing, we dropped off the boat and drove up to the cabin. It had been a little over a month since we'd been up there. The last time was on the 3rd and 4th of July, sitting at the G Spot and watching the mountain burn. It was a long couple of days watching our neighbors’ cabins go up in flames. We very fortunate. The fire burned about half of the property and came within six feet of the cabin. As we drove up the front side of the mountain, I had a little hope as it looked like it had missed some of the area to the west. Maybe our hunting spots were still okay?
As we came around the first bend, we were greeted with nothing but black in every direction as far as we could see. It was extremely depressing to drive past the burnt cabins and all the scorched land, somewhere I’d spent most of my weekends for the past 20 years. We already knew our cabin had made it through the fire, but it was nice to see it for our own eyes.
We unloaded our gear and got the two-person tree stand together. We had plenty of time to go check and see if our spot was okay and if the elk were still using it. Again, it was a depressing ride through the once green hills. Every turn, memories would flood back of blown stalks, grouse hunts, and my first deer with a bow. All gone now. Eventually, the black gave way to green and it looked like we would still have somewhere left to give it a try. We decided first to check out a waterhole we had had good luck at in the past. As we got close, I could see someone had left a salt lick and a game camera 20 yards away from my tree stand. Not a good start. My brother wouldn’t be hunting this year, so he said we could set our stand up in his spot. As we hiked down in, it wasn’t long before we saw that maybe plan B wasn’t such a bad idea. The trails were worn with elk tracks and there were beds all around in the tall grass. This just might work. With the help of my brothers and sister-in-law, it didn’t take long to find a good tree and set the stand up.
Sunday, we spent the day shooting Sydnie’s crossbow, making sure it was still shooting well. The winds kicked up in the afternoon and blew ash everywhere. I sure hope the vegetation grows back quickly. That evening, we looked at pictures of elk and talked about where to aim in different scenarios. It would be a long night of excitement waiting for the morning.
At 4:30, the alarm went off and I didn’t have to say a word. Sydnie was up getting her gear ready. Today was finally the day. It took a little longer than I planned to get to the tree stand. It was already starting to get light, and we wouldn’t be needing the headlamps. We quietly made our way through the trees and climbed into the stand. It was warm, too warm. I was worried the elk wouldn’t be moving, but we sat and listened and looked for any sign of an elk. The wind was blowing a little harder than usual, and it was impossible to hear anything coming. We had time to range all the trees and look at all the trails coming and going, wondering which direction they might come from, if they ever came.
After about two hours, our legs were falling asleep and the 4:30 wake-up call was starting to wear a little on Sidney. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a reddish patch of something that wasn’t there before. Just as I got my hopes, up a doe stepped out of the bushes. While it wasn’t what we were after, it sure got our hopes up again. We stayed in the stand until 10:00 and decided to head back for some lunch and a much needed nap.
That evening as we were driving back to the stand, Sydnie looked over and said, “We are going to see an elk tonight.” While I hoped she was right, I didn't want to get her hopes up too much. I’ve spent way too much time in a tree stand to know you can go for a long time without things going your way. At about 7:30, just as it gets to be that magic hour, I looked to my left and just like that there they were. Two cows were slowly feeding our way about 65 yards out. I tapped Sydnie on the shoulder and slowly pointed in their direction. At first, she didn’t see them, but I could tell as soon as she did. Her eyes got big, her hands started to sweat, and her whole body started to shake. I tried the best I could to settle her down when I noticed she wasn’t the only one shaking. We had been working hard for this moment, and it was so close. The cows slowly fed toward us at an angle that would put them almost behind and to the left. I wanted to help her move to crossbow into a better position before they got too close and busted us. As she set the crossbow back down on the rest, it made a quiet “plink.” Both elk looked right at us. The gig was up. It was heartbreaking to watch them turn around and walk back the direction they had come from. While we were sitting there whispering about what we would do better the next time, we both heard the unmistakable sound of a cow call straight behind the stand. I slowly turned my head to see if I could see the elk. Nothing. For the next hour, we listened to cow calls, logs snapping, and even two halfhearted bugles getting closer and closer, but it was finally too dark to see. It would be another long night filled with what ifs.
Tuesday morning was our last chance because Sydnie started school the next day. The pressure was on, but once again, Sydnie said we would not only see an elk this time but today she would get one. She was right the night before, so this time I agreed. Today felt good. We made it to our parking spot before light, and as we grabbed our gear out of the truck, I could hear cow calls in the trees just behind us. We snuck down to the stand, with reminders of every snapped twig that the elk were close. The smell of elk filled the air. It was hard not to skip down the trail. As we sat waiting for it to get light, the sound of a herd of elk slowly got quieter. Had we bumped them out before it was light enough to see? Unlike yesterday, it was perfectly quiet. We should be able to hear anything way before we saw them, right?
At 6:45, there was a dark spot. Now it was gone. It was still early enough that I wasn’t sure if my eyes were playing tricks on me. Now I saw a tan spot, but again it was gone. I looked through the binos. Nothing. I ranged a tree by where I thought I saw something at 71 yards. Ten minutes went by without a sound. Just as I gave up, I saw an elk pop out of the trees at 45 yards, then another. They were still in thick cover, and Sydnie couldn't make them out. They fed at a snail’s pace and finally came out far enough that Sydnie could see the first cow. They were headed for the same trail as the cows from yesterday, so I helped her slowly swing the crossbow to the left. At 40 yards, it was still too thick to get a shot. I start recording on my phone. Then the second cow decided she wanted to take a different trail, the trail that would bring her right in front of us. This was a good thing, but now we must reposition the crossbow without getting busted, again. With the phone still recording and the adjustments made, I noticed the other cow had us pegged, but it was too late for her friend. One last range at 30 yards and she was quartered towards us. I didn't dare try to tell Sydnie to change her aim. I had to hope she listened when we were looking at pictures. Just as I thought she would shoot the cow, it turned its neck to lick its side, then back forward. I whispered, “Now,” and the bow went off followed by the sound of an arrow finding its mark. The cow spun and ran 20 yards before stopping and looking around. It was only a few declines, but it felt like minutes before she slowly staggered and fell to the ground. Sydnie had her elk.
Usually, I wait in my stand to give the animal a chance to expire. This time, we had to wait because we were shaking so bad I don’t think either one of us could have climbed down. After some phone calls to Mom and Grandpa, we went to check out her elk. We decided to run back to the cabin, grab our stuff, and pick up my dad to help pack the elk. This way, we wouldn’t have to drive all over the dusty roads with an elk in the back of the truck. As we hiked back to the elk, Sydnie told Grandpa for the tenth time how everything happened. We looked up to see something black running away. That almost looked like a bear running away from where the elk went down. As we got closer, we saw that a bear had drug the elk down the hill about 20 yards and started eating the hind quarter. In all the deer and elk I’d shot, some not even recovered until the next day, I'd never had a problem with bears. This bear had to have come along just after we left. My dad stood watch as I hurried and gutted the elk. It was only a few hundred yards from the road, so we were able to cut it in half and drag it back to the truck. We hurried off the mountain to get ice and get the elk cooled down.
The DWR gets a bad rap, sometimes even from me, but I’m very grateful that they have programs for people like my daughter to be able to do the things I enjoy. Sydnie was born almost two months early, and we later learned that she had cerebral palsy. I spent a lot of time the last 12 years worrying about all the things she wouldn’t be able to do or enjoy. Today, she proved a lot of people wrong, including me. Tomorrow, we can go back to struggling with school, being teased, doctor’s appointment, surgery, and being different. Today was Sydnie’s day.