A Change of Luck
By Jeff Mitchell, Hunters Jeff Mitchell, Asim Malik, and Brandon Tirado
In October of 2018, three California guys headed to Idaho for a wilderness elk rifle hunt. There was Asim, a passionate and lifelong hunter and outdoorsman who was the instigator and organizer for the trip; Brandon, a former collegiate football player half my age with all of the strength and enthusiasm of youth; and me, who had first been exposed to and fell in love with hunting a few years prior when Asim invited me to tag along on a backcountry wilderness bowhunting trip as part of my post-divorce midlife crisis.
We packed up the truck and drove straight through to the trailhead we had selected for a wilderness area in our unit. We arrived in the dark and sacked out in the muddy field next to the truck to sleep. I woke up partway through the night to fresh snowfall and hastily rigged a tarp over us to keep our bags dry. Snow and cold would set the theme for the remainder of the trip.
A four-mile on and off trail hike with our gear and five days of food led us to a camping spot we had selected on the map with sweeping views of the surrounding valleys and ridges. We spent the next four days glassing, calling, freezing, and trudging all over the area without any luck. We saw plenty of sign and would spot some elk on distant hillsides, but it would take hours to get to their location. By the time we reached the area, we didn’t have an angle to glass and had no idea which of the hundreds of patches of cover the elk were in. The elk weren’t vocal at all, not calling and not responding to any calls we made. After four days of this, we woke up to eight inches of fresh snow and zero visibility from a storm that blew in. We made the decision to get out of the backcountry; we were pushing the line between type II and type III fun a bit too much for our own safety as backpack hunters.
We made it back to the truck and found a motel in the closest town. After showers, laundry, a hot meal, a good night’s sleep, and a general explosion of dirty and drying gear in the room, we felt like new men. The next morning, Asim called Huntin’ Fool from the motel room to obtain recommendations for other likely spots to hunt in our unit. We were looking for terrain with better visibility and tighter topography, something where we could hopefully spot elk and close within rifle distance while still being able to maintain sight of them. Jerrod at Huntin’ Fool was a huge help, spending over an hour with us on the phone offering encouragement and advice and recommending several areas in the unit for glassing and camping. After navigating some very muddy, rutted “roads,” we made it to the closest spot he recommended that evening.
The following morning, we awoke on a frozen sagebrush tundra with limited visibility due to lingering snow and low cloud cover. Nevertheless, we headed out to begin glassing, hoping to see some sign of elk. By mid-morning, visibility had cleared and we headed up a narrow timbered canyon. Sure enough, we spotted some elk! Brandon attempted a stalk but spooked them when he was forced to cross an open hillside. Fortunately, we quickly spotted another herd of 30 or so with one large bull and several smaller ones bedded in the open on the opposite ridgeline. We started down the canyon to attempt to get closer and found ourselves near the bottom with a view of the opposite ridgeline. A few of the smaller bulls were bedded within shooting range at approximately 425 yards. Unfortunately, they were only visible by their skylined antlers emerging out of the surrounding sagebrush. We opted to remain there rather than risk spooking them by trying to climb the opposite canyon wall to get closer. We decided I would attempt a shot. Brandon was only confident out to around 200 yards, and Asim was holding out for a bigger bull than the ones currently visible. I set up prone, shooting off my pack on the half-frozen, muddy hillside to prepare for a shot if and when the bulls moved. After two or three hours of waiting and many false alarms of antler tossing, one of the bigger bulls actually stood, silhouetted perfectly broadside on the ridgeline and paused for just long enough. I put a single shot through both lungs, and he dropped immediately. Not a bad shot for someone who had never touched a rifle until a few years prior!
Asim and Brandon ran over from where they had been watching. I heard Asim excitedly calling for me and saying, “Rangefinder! Rangefinder!” The herd of elk, in their confusion after my shot, was actually coming down the hillside towards us. The large herd bull was out in the open now at close to 500 yards away. Asim got into position, wounded him on his first shot, and then dropped him with another. After this, the herd really started to scatter. Another bull crossed the stream at the bottom of the canyon and continued towards us where Brandon promptly shot him in a meadow at around 150 yards. We went from six days of freezing, hiking, glassing, and calling with no success locating and closing in on elk to tagging out with three bulls down in the space of 15 minutes. Not a bad change of luck!
It took us until past dark to skin out and quarter the three animals, leaving the meat bagged on the hillside a short ways from the carcasses. With the snow on the ground, we weren’t worried about spoilage and had to take our chances with bears and other predators as there were no large trees close by from which to hang the meat. We trudged through the hills and frozen tundra by headlamp for four or five miles and made it back to camp at the truck well past 10 p.m. For the first time in my life, I actually got to navigate by the stars. We were taking a GPS bearing and then trying to keep the North Star in constant orientation over our shoulders as we hiked through the featureless terrain to keep our direction in the dark.
It took us another two and a half days for the three of us to ferry the meat back to the truck, moving around 1,200 pounds in the process. We now have freezers full of meat and a true sense of accomplishment from a successful self-led wilderness hunt in demanding conditions. Many thanks to Asim and Brandon who made this hunt possible and to the excellent guidance and advice from Jerrod at Huntin’ Fool!