2008 Elkhorn Spike Hunt

I have always felt it wise to try to capatilize on the present opportunity. More simply, when life gives you lemons…well, you get the idea. Such was the case in June of this year, when the ODFW website showed I had not been successful in drawing the coveted Wenaha #2 tag for bull elk. My dismay was replaced with glee, however, as the site indicated I HAD drawn a goat tag.

A successful mountain goat hunt came and went and I found myself smack in the middle of October with a decision to make: Did I want to scrub elk hunting this year? Or, should I make the best of the situation and seek a surrogate elk hunting opportunity. Again…lemonade.

And so, November found myself and my ever-present hunting partner Scott heading across the state toward the Elkhorn Mountains with over-the-counter spike elk tags burning holes in our pockets. Scott was intimately familiar with the country we’d be hunting and I was gradually learning the idiosyncracies the terrain possessed. After a deer, mountain goat, and three bear seasons afield in the Elkhorns, I knew two universal truths existed: the views would be amazing, and the topography would be abusive.

A late drive Thursday night found Scott and I setting up camp at 1:30AM on Friday. Camp for this trip would be the standard wall tent fare. There is something about a seasoned wall tent and wood stove which screams, “Elk hunting going on here!” After a quick night’s sleep, we finished setting up the rest of camp during the day on Friday. The season would not open until the following day, so we had plenty of time to relax and plan for the next day’s hunt.

Elk Camp 2008

Elk Camp 2008

The plan of attack was simple: We would hit the base of the main draw we planned to hunt at 6:00AM the following morning. An hour’s hike would lead us along one of the larger streams in the area and place us squarely between two large ridge heads. We would hunt around the main ridge head and travel back down the opposite ridge. The elk in the area are generally found in one of three large draw systems. If we did not locate good sign (or preferably live elk) in this draw, we would attack one of the others the following day.

With a plan firmly implanted in our minds, I set to preparing my gear for the following day’s hunt. I would be using my custom Remington M700 in .308 Winchester, a rifle which I had used to harvest a mountain goat in the same general area only two months prior. My Badlands 2200 pack would also make a repeat trip to the Elkhorns, as it had served me very well in both packing gear in and packing meat out.

Remington & Badlands:  The Deadly Duo

Remington & Badlands: The Deadly Duo

The following morning met us at 5:30AM with 40-degree temps and neither rain nor snow. Scott and I headed up the gravel road which led from our camp to one of the Elkhorn Mountains’ peaks. At a bend in the road, we found our trailhead and began the slow, dark hike into the hunt area. The first two miles were relatively mild, gaining only 1000′ in elevation from the 5100′ at the trailhead. After crossing a small stream, we stopped for a quick drink of water and a snack. We would need all the energy we could muster, as the trail had ended and the real work was about to begin.

The Hard Work Starts

The Hard Work Starts

Now the real work would begin. The gradual gain in elevation we had experienced would now consist of steep climbs to small saddles between the ridges. Another hour passed. Scott and I stopped for another quick break, both to catch our breath and to enjoy the small glimmer of sunlight which threatened to break out from behind the overcast skies. We had covered another mile or so, earning each of the additional 1000′ in elevation we had gained. Small pockets of snow covered the ground, clinging to life in spite of above freezing temperatures. They showed little sign of the presence of elk, deer, or other game animals, but as we had not yet covered even a fraction of the hunt area, this observation did little to dampen our spirits. And with views like this, you’d be hard-pressed to even try to wipe the smile from my face.

The Vast Expanse

No Easy Way In

We slowly began picking our way through the timber, sidehilling below the ridgeline. With Scott in the lead, we began methodically and meticulously disecting the surrounding terrain.

As Scott neared a feeder draw, he stopped short and motioned me to do the same. After a moment of stillness, Scott whispered, “Elk.” Pointing toward the draw, Scott explained he had seen at least one elk feeding slowly uphill. Unable to ascertain sex (given the fleeting glimpse he’d been afforded), Scott suggested we both head up the hill to begin stalking the animals on their own level. As I hadn’t seen the elk in question, I told Scott I’d remain at my present elevation. He’d climb a bit higher and begin the stalk.

My rationale for the plan was simple: Two vantage points doubled our chances. I suspected two humans crashing through the brush would drive the elk downhill and remove any chance for a good shot. If Scott was busted, I’d likely get a shot. As Scott is very experienced in the woods…well, I suspected he’d be doing some shooting shortly.

Scott began climbing and put about fifty yards between us. Suddenly, I heard thundering hooves draw toward us from the trail we’d just covered. I gave Scott a quick “pssst!” and motioned toward our backtrail. Immediately, my vision was filled with elk! There were two, then four, then eight. When the last of the herd clustered into view, I was staring at twelve elk within seventy yards of me! My heart raced.

The lead cow busted me, though whether by noise, scent, or sight I’ll never known. As she rallied her family away, I proned out, dialed my Leupold 2.5-8×36 scope up to its highest magnification, and began to pick through the herd. Cow…cow…cow…cow…SPIKE! Off snapped the safety as my crosshairs found the quartering away shoulder of a healthy spike elk. As he turned to trot downhill, I eased the slack off of the rifle’s trigger and broke a clean shot. The 165gr Nosler (the same bullet I used on my mountain goat two months previously) found the bull, who dropped and was still immediately.

Now…for a moment of honesty. I was absolutely certain of my target immediately prior to the shot, having comfirmed his sex using my scope. There was no doubt as the shot broke my quarry was lawful. After the shot, however, my confidence waned. The bull had fallen with his head behind a tree. As such, from my vantage point approximately one hundred yards away I couldn’t confirm my supposition. My stomach knotted as Scott walked down to me. “I’m 95% sure that was a spike,” I told him. Scott laughed and muttered something about good odds, I think.

As I approached the bull and rounded the tree, I was relieved to find his head sported a pair of foot long spikes. My first bull, indeed, was a boy! Though the need for second guessing was nonexistent, I suppose its a part of my personality to do so.

A True Trophy

A True Trophy

I’ll say this: Anyone who hunts elk under DIY and public land conditions knows the trophy value of even a diminuitive spike such as this. They are amazing creatures capable for secreting their huge frames and musky scent into the most formidible terrain. A true trophy, indeed.

After the hard work of breaking a big elk down into smaller pieces was complete, Scott and I began the long, arduous task of packing “nature’s perfect protein” off of the mountain. Multiple trips, a few falls, and lots of breaks were all part of the adventure.

Another Trip for the Badlands

Another Trip for the Badlands

Back at camp, Scott and I stored the meat, changed our wet and bloody clothing, and cracked open two well-deserved beers. It was 4:00PM. Beside a roaring campfire, we toasted to good fortune and hard work. Scott, you see, has been on a bit of a roll in the Elkhorns. The last four people he’d introduced to the area killed bulls on their first trips. A full and complete understanding of the area and its animals has afforded Scott with the ability to put hunters smack in the middle of game, an attribute I both admire and envy. As the afternoon gave way to evening, I smiled contently and allowed myself to make an admission: Taking my first elk hadn’t deadened my addiction. Rather, it had stoked a burning fire …and urged me to begin thinking about the next season even as this one remained in its relative infancy.

An Obvious Metaphor

Campfire

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About the Author

Matt Thomsen

Matt Thomsen

Matt Thomsen routinely spends over seventy days afield each year during Oregon's hunting seasons. In addition to chasing bear, deer, elk, coyote, waterfowl, upland game, and the occasional sage rat or two, Matt was fortunate enough to draw one of seven annual tags and harvest a Rocky Mountain goat in Oregon in 2008.