Pain or Pleasure
By Tom Ostrander
ID, CA, Mule Deer
Following the death of Aristotle, Epicurus gained popularity for his notions of pleasure and pain. Epicurus taught that pleasure is good and pain is bad. Furthermore, he taught that pleasure and pain are the final measures of what is truly good and bad. It is quite apparent that Epicurus never packed out a dandy bull elk miles from the trailhead. Many of us engage in the practice of staying in shape year round just in case we draw that one special tag, the tag you would endure possibly both physical and mental pain in order to be able to punch. For hunters, pain is not bad. Normally, it is a constant companion in the pursuit of anything worthwhile or special. Staying in shape, especially at my age, requires acceptance of the fact that pain, although I like to refer to it as discomfort, is part of the equation.
So what does one do when early summer hits and not one of your numerous multi- state applications have been drawn? Talk about mental pain/anguish. All those hours running, climbing, lifting, etc. just to be ready. Unfortunately, it's a familiar scenario to many. This year, my first reaction was, “Seriously, how can I not draw a single tag with a decent amount of points in most states?” Followed by, “There is always next year.” Unfortunately I know the latter statement is not always true. Having lost both my parents within nine months of one another due to cancer and Alzheimer's a few years ago, I am periodically reminded of my own mortality. I am pleased to say that this defeatist type attitude was short lived. In no time, I was on the phone with Isaiah Joner of Huntin’ Fool asking about available hunts for this fall, not looking to gamble on next year nor waste the “discomfort” of prior training.
True to form, Isaiah had a great option available - a primitive muzzleloader ( #11 percussion caps, loose powder, and iron sights) hunt for bull elk on horseback in November with White Cloud Outfitters. About the time that I had just finished talking to a reference for White Cloud and was ready to pull the trigger on this hunt, a good friend, Tim Salsbury, called with an opportunity to hunt mule deer in California. Upon further review, the California option seemed to be solid with a good number of deer and limited hunting pressure. In the matter of a few days I had gone from having no fall options to two great opportunities. How does one choose between two great hunts? Oddly enough, the answer came to me during a Saturday morning workout. I had been going over the dates of each hunt in my head and realized that they were perfectly aligned for a back-to-back hunt. The opportunity to be challenged by both the White Cloud and San Gorgonio Mountains in a 10-day period was too much to pass up.
The first morning in the saddle, I was met with an amazing sunrise. The Idaho skies do not disappoint. Within 30 minutes of sunrise, we met our first 6x6 on the way to the top of the ridge. Caught out in the open, all we could do was appreciate his enormity as the sun illuminated his pale yellow hide. By mid-afternoon, Calvin McGowan, an accomplished guide and now friend, had located three bulls within stalking distance. Keeping the wind to our favor and sticking to the timber, we were able to close the distance to 200 yards. The pungent smell of the bulls added to the excitement. All that stood between us and an opening day bull was a skinny shale field that extended the full height of the mountain, not something that a Michigan hunter has much experience negotiating. The crossing was less than stealth-like, resulting in three very alert bulls at a distance of 160 yards. Having put away my traditional muzzleloader over 20 years ago in favor of a modern day scoped in-line, I was not confident in taking the shot with the now somewhat relic smokepole.
On day two I was introduced to the concept of “trust your horse.” No less than 90 minutes before the creator would begin to apply color to the darkened canvas, we were in the saddle heading up the mountain. However, with it being so heavily overcast, I could not see my horse's head, which was a mere few feet away. Although somewhat apprehensive, Lonesome became the recipient of my trust and the reins. By mid-morning, Calvin had once again spotted two bulls in their beds. Another well-planned stalk was devised. This time, it was not distance that left us lacking but the endless array of conifer branches seemingly blocking all paths of my 295 grain lead projectile. Although the wind remained true, the bulls sensed something amiss and vacated their bedroom promptly.
Later that afternoon, Calvin again spotted a bedded herd of cows with a few raghorns and a nice 5x5. The stalk was on, and the final approach dictated a belly crawl through the snow to overlook a small opening, which we hoped the elk would later feed into. Calvin had predicted their movement correctly. As is normally the case, the cows fed out first.
“Here he comes,” Calvin whispered.
Although I had a good rest, I mistakenly hesitated, hoping he would feed a little closer. I had practiced out to 120 yards, but the bull made his appearance a little beyond that. Unfortunately as he drew near, it was as if the herd came to his rescue. Cows would position behind him, and as he moved, calves and cows would shadow his path, making an ethical shot impossible. On the hike back to horses, I experienced a twinge of that pain thing. My guide had worked so hard to get us in on the herd. Maybe I should have shot at the first opportunity. Although painful at the time, these decisions define who we are as hunters. As a note of consolation, upon returning to the trail head later that evening, I attempted to discharge the muzzleloader to allow for a fresh powder charge the following morning. "Pop!" went the first cap. The second cap, "Pop! Bang!" The pain of traditional muzzleloaders.
A few days later found us hunting a different drainage. Early morning temps were in the single digits. Although painful to the exposed skin, we knew elk would be on their feet, a good thing. Not long after sunrise, Calvin again focused his binos on a single bull across an expansive ravine on an adjacent slope. Plans were quickly made to circle around the bull and come up on the backside of the mountain he was on. Not totally green to horses but never having rode such steep, snowy slopes, I was just contemplating my exit off the horse should a misstep occur when Calvin’s horse suddenly lost his footing and began sliding down the steep slope. Both Calvin and his horse recovered quickly. In a nonchalant way, Calvin looked back at me and said, “We should probably walk our horses from here”.
Unfortunately, the snow base increased to the point of being impassable. Plan B. “If you are up to it," Calvin began, "we can make our way down the slope and climb up the facing slope in hopes of sneaking in on him.” Without hesitation, my response was, “Let’s go.”
I knew it was going to provide discomfort to the max. Nothing pained, nothing gained. The steep and snowy descent was nearly 1,500 feet followed by an equally difficult climb of the same elevation. To my amazement, Calvin navigated us right to the recently vacated bed of the bull. There was that wonderful stinky musk of a bull. Carefully, we followed his tracks, pausing every few steps to survey the slope ahead. Without warning, the bull jumped up from his second bed and began sidehilling it at a trot. I did my best impression of trailing bull without the long legs, lung capacity, or sure-footedness. After about 70 yards, we both came to a clearing on the slope. (For the record, he made it there before I did). With lungs burning and heart pounding, I immediately awkwardly sat/laid on the steep slope, attempting to gain a steady rest. The bull stopped to look back. With hammer cocked and iron sights floating all over the bull’s chest and beyond, I simply watched him turn and slowly slip around the mountain. With my legs tired, my base layer drenched in sweat, and my pack feeling twice as heavy as it did before the stalk, I left that mountain with such a sense of awe, a feeling of accomplishment, contentment, and a heightened sense of getting it done next time. We had made a difficult hike and closed the distance on a truly remarkable animal. It was one of the most difficult, and yes painful, stalks I had made in a long time. However, the experience was anything but bad. True, there wasn’t the pleasure of sitting behind such a regal animal as pictures were taken, no delicious steaks in the freezer, and no perfectly captured shoulder mount for my den. Having met the challenge of getting within such close quarters of him, my resolve to persevere and attack the next stalk with as much enthusiasm was even greater. Pain teaches you things about yourself. It serves to prioritize and provide clarity as to what is important from what is not. I have always appreciated the saying, which I believe has a military lineage, “Pain is merely weakness leaving the body.”
The following days left my body with substantially less weakness. Each day, at least one stalk would be attempted. Getting close was not the problem, getting close enough was. After two months of being chased by bow and arrow and then rifle, the elk were less inclined to allow “unknowns” into their comfort zone. The last afternoon of the hunt ,Calvin once again located elk over a mile away. Once in the saddle, we were able to close the distance to the herd with no more than an hour of daylight remaining. Not long after dismounting our horses, we could not only smell the rutting bull but were witness to the most vocal mid-November elk I have ever encountered. With daylight fading, we quickly covered the ground necessary to be in range. We had hustled into a timber patch with a draw immediately to the north. The bull was sounding off every 20 seconds or so. It was apparent he was moving his harem out of the timber and up the draw. Of course, we had planned for the elk to feed down into a lower meadow. We made a mad dash up through the timber towards the elk. Not wasting any time, Calvin softly cow called to the bull. I was on the sticks, ready to make some smoke. The bull answered immediately but had no inclination to change directions. You can imagine how successful we were trying to gain on a herd that had plans to be somewhere else. As light faded, we began our climb to the horses. Throughout our hike and even after pointing the horses homeward, the bull could still be heard. I am not sure if he was bidding me a defiant and painful farewell or was extending an invitation to play again next year. What I do know is, unlike the teachings of Epicurus, the pains endured during the week were a key ingredient in making the overall hunt one of the most pleasurable experiences one can enjoy.