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Elk Hunt

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PHOTO BY MICHAEL RUEBUSCH

By Michael Ruebusch EBS CONTRIBUTOR

I clicked on my headlamp as I stepped out of the truck into the early morning air. It was about 5 a.m. on Sept. 2, opening day of the Montana archery season. The air was cool and the landscape was dark. I fastened the buckle from my pack around my waist and started off. The red glow from my headlamp made it possible to see my immediate surroundings, but I couldn’t yet see the climb up the ridge that was in front of me.

There is something about stepping into the mountains all by yourself when it’s pitch-black out that makes you second-guess your reason for being there. My reason was elk. Little did I know an hour and half later I would be face to face with 700 pounds of screaming bull elk.

The hike up the ridge took a little longer than I expected. The forest was covered in a minefield of dead and fallen trees that made it nearly impossible to make my way through quietly. After about an hour of playing leapfrog with fallen logs, I made it to an old logging road that would lead me around the north side of the ridge, and position me directly above the herd of elk that I had spotted feeding in a meadow the night before. I knew if I could make it to that spot quietly I would be able to cut them off as the herd made its way back to the timber from their nightly feeding grounds. The only problem was the timber was so thick I couldn’t see anything below me. 

PHOTO BY MICHAEL RUEBUSCH

As I am anxiously trying to locate the herd in my binoculars, I hear the faint and unmistakable call of a cow elk about 300 yards off to my left. I swing my binoculars around in a panic and spot some cows making their way through the dense timber.

“There they are,” I said to myself under my breath. “I knew they would come back up this draw.”

Then I hear it. Anyone who has hunted in the woods of Montana knows that sound. The screeching, high-pitched whistle that pierces the entire mountain side and send shivers down any hunter’s spine—The bugle of a bull elk. Usually the cows will lead the group through the trees back to a bedding spot somewhere they feel safe, and the bulls will follow behind pushing the herd. I had to close the distance and get in front of them if I was going to be in position for a shot. I didn’t have much time. I knew he was close.

I threw off my backpack and started my way along the side of the mountain trying to avoid all the fallen logs and loose rocks all the while keeping one eye on the approaching elk. I made it about halfway to where the animals were when they started to pour out of the timber and cross the open logging road I was standing on.

In the wide open road, I never felt so exposed in my life. The elk were making their way up the side of the mountain, but were also heading toward me, which means I was right in their eye line. My instinct was to dive behind the closest cover I could find—into three tiny little sapling pines no taller five-feet high. I was pinned down. Helpless.

Every elk in a group I estimated to be fifty in number was looking right in my direction as they filed across the road. Then I saw the bull; a nice young bull with five-by-five antlers. Definitely a shooter. Then another five-by-five bull steps out about ten feet behind that one, then two more smaller bulls.

“Holy crap!” I said to myself. “There’s more than one bull in here!”

My breath intensified and my adrenaline pumped through my body. I managed to stealthily pull my range finder from its pouch. Eighty-five yards: definitely out of range.

“What do I do?” I whispered. I can’t move or I’m sure to get busted by any one of the hundreds of eyes all around me. All I could do is sit and watch as they make their way into the timber and up the slope above me.

Just as I was about to slide over and take a peek I hear the snapping of sticks and rustling of bushes immediately to my right. I turn my head ever so slowly and spot a cow elk standing right on the other side of the tiny saplings I was tucked behind. She was looking right at me. I thought I was busted for sure. Then came a loud crash of sticks, what sounding like tree branches snapping in half. The cow made a sudden move and disappeared from view. I turn my head fully and all I can see were large, dark brown antlers of a mature bull elk with ivory white tips pointed into the air.

I couldn’t believe it. Standing less than 10 yards away was a beautiful mature bull elk with gorgeous antlers on full display and I can’t even move. I don’t think he knew I was there but he was looking right at me, his gaze piercing into my soul. We looked at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Then, as quickly as he came in, he began to make is way directly away from me. I was able to stand up on shaky legs and get my range finder on him. Sixty-five yards—right at the limit I would feel comfortable shooting an elk standing broadside in perfect conditions. But he was facing away from me, only showing me his rump. I tried to move closer, hoping he would turn and present me with a shot. It never happened. He trotted off with two of the last cows in the group, around the ridge and out of sight. I never saw them again the rest of the morning.

What is it about the chase of big game? What compels us to wake up at four in the morning, drive for hours and hike for miles up steep mountains in the dark? Is it the scream that echoes through the trees when elk are jacked up from the rut? Is it the sunrise that creeps over the mountain to reveal the beauty of the landscape that we are so lucky to have access to? Is it the smell and sounds of the forest?

For me, it’s the game of wits with a creature that has millions of years of instinct guiding its every move. That morning for me it was that moment when I looked straight into the eyes of that amazing animal and he looked right back into mine. Maybe I will get lucky and see him next time I step into the elk woods of Montana.

Michael Ruebusch is an avid hunter, and is the video director at Outlaw Partners.

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