By Nate Creek
Every family has a tradition or two, and my hunting family is no different. We have hunted together for several years, and often, we may go weeks without more than a text here and there, but when November rolls around, we get together for our fall tradition of hunting elk. Starting the week of Thanksgiving, we meet, make a plan, and hunt all week long for big bulls migrating out of the high country.
This particular fall, we found ourselves with warm weather, not much snow, and minimal elk movement. 3:30 a.m. wake ups, horses saddled, and many miles in the dark turned up no bulls the first few days. The evening after Thanksgiving, we found a herd of cows with two raghorns. On years like this, any bull is a trophy, so the next morning, we left super early only to find ourselves two hours later riding across the same windblown slope they had fed on the evening before with not an elk in sight. They had blown out of the area. Maybe it was a grizzly, a pack of wolves, or just bad luck? Back to the house we rode for some leftover turkey and a game of cards around the kitchen table. Time was spent reminiscing about the great bull we killed in 2010, the horse wreck we had in 2013 on Trina’s first outing with us, and the bull we killed in 2015 when the snow was two feet deep. Great memories and great friends, that's what a tradition is all about.
On the second to last day of the season and with a little desperation setting in, we trailered downriver to hunt a different area with hopes of turning up a bull. As we struck out again, I got a call from my brother-in-law as he had located a herd of elk he believed to have at least one, if not two bulls, in the group. After more turkey and another round of cards, we rode off from the trailhead to look for the group. Not even 30 minutes from the horse trailer, we saw them piling out of the trees to feed on a hillside. As we rode above the elk, a storm blew in. With spitting snow and hurricane winds, we snuck to within 450 yards of two legal bulls. Knowing all too well that if we screwed this up we would probably never see them again, we decided to back out and leave them for the last day of the season.
After a sleepless night wondering if we would find them again, I was up before my 3:30 a.m. alarm with horses caught and waiting for Hank and Trina. As we rode out under a calm, starry sky, I thought about the past week of hunting and just how much fun each and every day in the mountain is.
It was now or never. The herd was a half-mile up the drainage from where we had left them. We galloped to a knob, jumped off, and started looking for a bull. Hank held the horses and ranged the elk across from us, saying, “230 yards to the closest one." They were up and starting to move. With a cow tag in her pocket and it being closing day of the season, Trina took rest on the shooting sticks and pulled the trigger. Elk down! I quickly grabbed my binos and started looking for one of the bulls we had seen the night before. With cows going left, right, and everywhere, I couldn't find one. As I was about to give up, I glassed a big slope to our left and whispered to myself, "Big bull.” I pointed at him in half disbelief and said, "That's got to be a 360 bull." After a five-second conversation about Hank and Trina taking care of the cow, I was on my horse and the race was on. There was an old logging road we had used before to get to the top of the next hillside, and I ran my sorrel horse as fast as we could travel. As I neared the top, I could see the tail end of the group heading over the ridge. I bailed off and prayed that the bull was bringing up the rear. I looked them over quickly, no bull, but after a deep breath and a second look with my bare eyes, I saw a big yellow hide. Another glance with the binos confirmed it was him. A guess on yardage, a rest on a dead log, and then the shot echoed across the canyon and so did the whop of my bullet hitting home. I waited for Hank and Trina before I rode over to the bull.
As they came riding up, I told them, "I shot a small raghorn as the big bull was over the ridge.”
Not sure if either of them believed me, we made our way to the bull. It was all smiles when they saw the big horn sticking out of the sagebrush. We had some high fives and pictures and then the real work began to halve the bull and get off the mountain. I am extremely blessed to spend each fall hunting horseback with my good friends in some of the best land around. I look forward to this November and another year of carrying out one of my favorite traditions.