Some friends said I was crazy…some said dumb…but for some reason I had this itch that had to be scratched.  The #1 item on my hunting Bucket List was to backpack into the back country of Montana, find a mature bull elk, harvest him with a my bow,  pack it out and as if I needed to add another level of challenge to this adventure, try to capture it all on film completely solo.  I knew trying to pull this off at retirement age would be extremely difficult because the two most import tools I would need to pull this off were semi-young legs and a strong back.  As I started my journey into my thirties, I knew my window of opportunity was quickly passing and this bucket list item would have to get crossed off now. There was something alluring to me about hiking into the unknown with only your food, shelter, and weapon strapped to your back, and having no idea when or where you would finally find that target animal. I wanted to see if I really had the physical and mental abilities to handle the elements of Mother Nature, the fatigue of the mountains, and the self-discipline to handle it all on my own. 

                  In the spring of 2013 I started my Montana adventure by planning a shed hunting/scouting trip. I spoke with a friend from the area, and we looked over some maps and mountain ranges on Google Earth. He pointed out a few areas he had seen elk in previous years. With over 30 million acres of public land available in Montana, having a little direction on where to start looking was crucial. With GPS in hand and boots laced up tight I headed to the mountains to learn and explore the ground that I would hunt come early September. The shed hunting/scouting trip was a success. I stumbled across a few elk sheds and discovered some great rut sign from the previous fall.  More importantly my mind and body were being prepped for the terrain and distances I would hike each day. A little concerned that the best rut sign I found was about 7 miles in, but I knew putting in the extra couple miles to get past normal boot traffic areas, could create some great opportunities to reach non-pressured elk.

                  Hunting out west “DIY style” or “Do It Yourself style” unprepared is a recipe for disaster.  Without proper training and an assessment of your physical abilities a 7-day backcountry hunt could become a dangerous, even life-threatening situation you don’t want to be in by yourself. The mountains will chew you up and spit you out before you even realize it was a bad idea. Unless you are a fitness trainer by profession or in the gym 24/7, you must put together some type of physical endurance training to help prepare you for the hiking fatigue and elevation differences.

I stayed pretty active in the summer months, so my off season training regimen wasn’t too extensive.  My workouts mostly consisted of long bike rides through the hilly country roads back home in Wisconsin, some scaled back cross fit workouts, and playing competitive softball all summer.  It’s difficult to replicate what the mountains actually dish out, but anything I could do would help.

Because this was a solo hunt every piece of gear that I would need had to be on my back. If I wanted it I had to carry it. This is when you really separate the items into the “I want” to bring pile, and the “I need” to bring pile. When you’re carrying all your gear every day of the hunt, every ounce matters. Forking out the extra money for light-weight and quality gear is critical.  Some of the essential items that I try not to skimp on are as follows: the pack itself, tent, sleeping bag, water filter, GPS, jet boil, boots, and of course my hunting clothing.  If you would like to view a copy of my gear list and what brands I chose to use on this hunt, click on the link Gear List.

I rolled into the trail head of the mountain range I would hunt around noon the day before the season opened.  My goal was to bike in about 4.5 miles on an old 2-track dirt path only assessable by foot, bike, or horseback.  Dump the bike and hike in another mile and a half to an area I had scouted that spring.  With a couple hours of daylight left I would glass the rest of the night and hopefully locate something and come up with a game plan for the next morning. I located a few small bulls in the distance that night. Nothing that was going to make the cover of Elk Magazine but a few candidates I would keep an eye on in the morning if they were still around. I knew this early in the season the bulls would not be as vocal as they would be in about 2 weeks when the rut is in full swing.  So my plan was to keep a low profile and spend a lot of time behind the binoculars and spotting scope.

                  I woke up the next morning to some incredibly thick fog.  As I poked my head out of my tent, I literally could only see 30 yards in front of me.  Not the ideal situation, since I was planning a whole morning of glassing.  I decided to slip out of my tent, make a little instant oatmeal for breakfast, relax against a tree, and listen, hoping to maybe hear a distant bugle or anything to give me some sort of a direction to start once the fog lifted.  The early morning fog turned into late morning fog.  It wasn’t until 11:00 am that the fog slowly started to break up where I could start seeing the valley below and the mountain side across from me.  I hadn’t heard anything the entire morning, so I decided to sit tight for a while and glass all the area I could see.  It was still an overcast day and the sun wasn’t beating on the mountain sides yet, so I was pretty optimistic that there may be a few animals still on their feet.

                  Thirty minutes after the fog lifted I couldn’t believe what I saw. There across the valley on the side of the mountain I spotted a giant herd bull standing in a little area of new growth in the middle of a large burned area that was the result of an old forest fire. As I continued to glass around him, I counted 6 cows and 3 calves, as they weaved in and out of the downed trees and brush.  The grassy area was short enough that I could see the elk if they stood up but tall enough that if they laid down I would lose them.

                  Finally after about a half hour of feeding through the burned area, they laid down about a half mile from me straight across the valley.  The stalk was on. I crossed the valley and reached their side of the mountain. The hard part was yet to come. With 10 sets of eyes and limited cover between us, getting within bow range was going to be tough. There wasn’t enough cover for me to call him over since he could see everything within a half mile of him. I slowly belly crawled my way to within 100 yards. During this time he got up once, readjusted in his bed and laid back down facing directly away from me. This would have been absolutely perfect had he been by himself, but I was still battling 9 other sets of eyes.  With the wind in my favor I slowly inched my way through knee high brush and knocked over trees. I got within 70 yards but still did not have a clean shot since he was facing directly away from me. My options now were limited. I didn’t have enough cover between us to get any closer without one of the cows spotting me. I decided to sit tight and let them make the next move. I hoped he would get up and walk around his cows and present me with a shot. Unfortunately the wind betrayed me and decided to switch directions blowing up the mountain directly at the bedded cows.  It didn’t take long before one of the old veteran cows got a snout full of sweaty mountain hunter and the gig was up. You could tell they didn’t know exactly what was going on but they knew something wasn’t right. The whole heard got up and marched up the mountain side and out of my life. I was amazed how fast an elk can put a mile between you and them with little effort.

                 

Bummed out about the results of my efforts, I was still fired up that I had had a close call with a great bull only hours into my hunt. I knew the middle of the day would not bring much action since the sun had broken through the clouds and was pumping out some early September heat.  I used the next couple hours to hike my way over to another vantage point just over a mile away, fix some lunch and send a few text messages back home to check in. Cell phone service in the backcountry is typically nonexistent but luckily I found a few high spots that gave me just enough signal to send out a couple messages. The one requirement from my wife when I am gone on these solo trips is to check in at least once a day so she knows everything is alright.

Things stayed pretty quiet for most of the afternoon so I worked the ridge back towards the same spot I started at that morning to settle back in where I slept the night before hoping to return with about an hour of daylight left to do more glassing. Four hundred yards into my hike I came over a little rise and spotted a lone bull 150 yards in front of me with his head down feeding along the edge of the timber.  I quickly dropped to my belly and crawled back down behind the little rise. I was certain he hadn’t seen me since he kept his head down and continued to graze.  With the wind blowing straight up the mountain I knew if I could stay above him I shouldn’t have any issue with him smelling me. As fast and as quietly as I could I snuck up the side of the mountain about 40 yards to blend in with the trees and locate him again. He was 100 yards from me and progressively feeding in my direction.  To avoid having to grab my range finder again and minimize any unnecessary movement I quickly ranged two rocks, one at 40 yards and the other at 50, out in the grass in front of me so I would have some type of distance reference if he worked his way past me. I had a pretty good gage of distance if he stayed around those rocks. Before I knew it he was 75 yards from me and still moving at a steady pace. With no time to grab my tripod I quickly set my video camera on the ground in front of me and focused it on the spot I anticipated the bull would end up broadside in front of me. As I looked up again the bull now was walking directly between the two rocks that I had just previously ranged. Knowing the exact distance was 45 yards I drew back and settled in. Softly I gave out a cow call to get him to stop. He heard me and stopped directly broadside glancing over in my direction. “WHACK”….Instantly I knew this blood trail would not be long as I watched my arrow bury up to the fletchings right where I held my pin. I quickly grabbed my video camera and filmed him as he ran along the mountain side blood already coming out of his mouth and nose. He ran another 100 yards before he tipped over into the yellow grassy meadow. “WOOOHOOO” I hollered, as I turned the camera on myself to capture and savor this moment of excitement. The adrenaline had kicked into full gear as my camera shook uncontrollably in my hands.

 With a Texas-size smile on my face, I rounded up my gear as quickly as I could and headed down to examine the bull I had just harvested.  As I started down out of the tree line my jaw dropped and my hand quickly went to my bear spray canister as I noticed a black bear sow and her cub walking up the side of the mountain. Equally distanced between the bull and myself she was oblivious as to what just took place. I stood there quietly and hoped she would continue to work her way up the side of the mountain and avoid any confrontations. However, she slowly started to angle in my direction. At 60 yards and closing I decided to make my presence known while I still had some distance between us. “Hey Bear”… “Hey Bear”… I hollered. She quickly snapped her head in my direction and stood up on her hind legs to peer over the meadow grass. With the camera still rolling and my other hand on my bear spray, I figured she was debating 2 options: Either charge at me or turn and flee. Thankfully she chose option 2 as I watched them scurry up the mountainside and disappear into the timber above me.  With my adrenaline on full tilt now, I worked my way down to the elk periodically peeking over my shoulder just in case I had anymore visitors.

With only 2 hours of daylight left I quartered the elk and hung it in the trees away from the carcass.  With the adrenaline still rushing through my veins I decided I might as well use the energy I had and hike back the 5 ½ miles to the truck that night, empty my pack and start fresh in the morning.  So by the light of my headlamp I loaded up all my camping gear, the tenderloins and back straps, and started the long trek out of the mountains. Arriving at the vehicle just before midnight I iced the meat and set my alarm for 6am. It seemed that just as my head hit the pillow the alarm was going off. With an empty pack and in a little more relaxed state of mind I started my march back into the mountains to retrieve my elk and to finish the final leg of this self-inflicted challenge.

Nervous about what I would find when I got to the meat, I was happy to discover nothing had touched it that night. Not even the carcass. Four backbreaking trips and 13 hours later I collapsed at the vehicle with my final load. It felt so good to lay there knowing I didn’t have to go back “one more time”. With the feeling slowly starting to return to my quads and back I could only sit there and smile as the sense of fulfillment ran though my body.  The best saying I’ve ever heard that best describes the process of a do it yourself elk hunt is…. “It WILL be painful…it WILL take time….it WILL require sacrifice….it WILL be worth it!”

 

~ And yes I WILL be back out next year ~

 

Predator Athlete

Ben Vazquez

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