I wouldn’t call it sleeping in, but we didn’t get up as early as the previous day because we didn’t need to rendezvous with Jawn’s dad on this second morning of the hunt. Having successfully filled his tag the day before, Jawn’s dad was doing what any smart man would do on a Sunday when the rain continued to fall: he was not getting up at 3:30AM.
As we drove into the hills above Kendrick we accepted the fact that it was going to be another wet morning, but we hoped that unlike the previous day, it wouldn’t be foggy. And then we ascended into a fog bank so thick that we couldn’t have seen a white fogline on the right side of the road even if there had been one. Jawn moved his foot from the gas pedal to the brakes and we slowed to a crawl, meandering up the twisting road toward the ranch. With our hopes of a fogless morning dashed, we parked and napped for an hour or so as rain pelted the roof of the truck. When
the sun came up the sky lightened enough to make out shapes in the dim light of dawn, we pulled on our jackets and faced the inevitable fact that we were going to get wet, again. I knew that my boots, which had dried out overnight, would not resist the moisture for long; my rain pants, ventilated from having waged battle with the rose hips and Idaho Mesquite from the day before, didn’t stand much of a chance as a waterproof barrier.
Suck it up. Proceed. Complain silently.
Not too long into the morning we hiked the ridge above a stand of timber, and in much the same fashion as the day before, Jawn’s eagle eye picked out a heard of elk bedded down in the timber a couple of hundred yards below us. His keen vision picked out a spike bull that I shortly thereafter determined to be a spike bull with a few extra branches: a 5 point…
But first let’s jump ahead a few hours to the drama of afternoon. The rain had subsided and the clouds lifted, making for an overcast but not unpleasant day. Micro, Jawn and I hopped on the quad so that we could cover ground more efficiently as we sought a particularly remote corner of the ranch to scout for elk. There was a very good chance that the remnants of the herd that had scattered earlier in the morning may have high-tailed it to this area. We held out hope for another shot. Another elk. With Micro and Jawn comfortably enjoying the padded seat of the Polaris, yours truly was perched on the front rack, the steel bars of which conflicted with my boney arse as we bounced along a “road” through the woods. I’m not convinced that being seated up front and therefore able to anticipate every bone-jarring bump before we came upon it did me any good or not. I’m thinking ignorance may have been bliss as I acknowledged my fate several times, “This is going to hurt”. It was a relief when we reached our destination and set off on foot. Even on legs weary from having hiked many miles already, walking was a welcome change.
The country surrounding us was thick with brush, and looked like a great hideout for a herd of elk on the lamb. For several hours we walked and stopped. We checked natural watering holes, glassed hillsides, and peered into steep draws that pointed downward toward one thing: that damn river. The Potlach River, named for a Native American ceremonious feast. When the wind silenced itself, one could make out the whisper of the river. It called out to me, tauntingly. What are you doing up there with a rifle, you silly man? I’m sure that Micro and Jawn heard nothing but the voice came to me again. You ought be down here with a fly rod, for I have many fish eager to accept your imitation bugs. I tried to block out the voice and concentrated on looking for elk, but the river was unrelenting and hurled one last insult. You know, there may even be steelhead in my waters. We didn’t see an elk all afternoon, and in fact the ranch seemed strangely devoid of any animal activity save for the raucous celebration of the crows that had found the gut pile from the day before. And a distant voice from below that seemed to be laughing.
Jumping back in time a few hours to the morning. The bull was bedded down with his body at a angle to us such that it didn’t present the perfect shot. No problem, as rarely do game animals present the perfect shot. I took my time and rested the forestock of my rifle on a rock ledge, giving me a nearly perfect, steady rest. Looking through the scope at 9x power, I could count the tines on the bull. He wasn’t any sort of Boone & Crockett record, but I was neither Daniel Boone nor Davey Crockett. I dialed the scope down to 3X and the bull became smaller, but not too small: he was only about 200 yards away. Steelhead. As I lay the cross hairs toward the right side of his body, between his shoulder blades, I took a deep breath. Come ply my waters. I exhaled slowly. There are many naïve trouts for you down here. All tension left my body. Visions of fruitless elk hunts past flashed before me. Not many anglers take the time to fish my waters. I was calm, collected. There would be meat in the freezer this winter, and a handsome rack above the fireplace mantle. I was steady as the rock upon which rested my trusty 7mm Magnum. At the same time my index finger pulled against the trigger, a Potlach River steelhead rolled before my eyes, taking a skated October Caddis before running downstream toward the Clearwater River…
My shot flew an inch too wide to the right. The bull, and the rest of the herd, was gone.
And I finally know what Norman MacLean meant when he wrote, “I am
taunted haunted by waters.”
A few weeks back I ventured to the great state of Idaho seeking to harvest an elk to feed my family this winter (I talked about my pre-trip thoughts here in the event that you
ignored missed it). My quest for meat began with a cross-state drive to Lewiston, Idaho where my buddy Jawn lives. From my home it’s a little more than 5 hours, which used to seem like a long drive. Several fishing trips to Montana will put things into perspective, and the drive to Lewiston is now considered child’s play.
I stopped at the edge of the Palouse, which happens to be at the top of the Lewiston grade, to take in the views. From this vantage point one can see the entire Lewiston/Clarkston valley 2,000 feet below, and the great confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers and beyond. The two rivers are more like lakes than the free-flowing rivers that Lewis and Clark would have encountered when they passed through the area in 1805. Dams and two hundred years of development will do that to a place, I reckon. Still, it’s a beautiful area, though it could be made even more beautiful if a few dams were torn down.
I was careful not to get too close to the edge of the decaying scenic overlook that the state of Idaho doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with. As it turns out, Idahoans believe that if you’re not smart enough to stay away from the edge then you probably deserve to fall off. Culling the herd, as it were. We need more common sense policies like that. Idaho for President in 2012!
Anyhoo, back to the matter of hunting elk. Jawn has birthright access to private land in the hills of Idaho, the closest town being Kendrick (population: not very big). He’d been out scouting previously and had seen animals. Elk, even, which is always a good thing when going elk hunting. The property we were hunting has the stuff on which elk require to thrive (and disappear): forested land. And plenty of it, like a coupla thousand acres. There’s access to plenty of water thanks to a particular river, so it’s no surprise that elk should do well here. We’d be hunting in a GMU with a special season where any elk could be harvested. Slam dunk, right? Meat in the bank, as it were.
I had hunted on this ranch long enough ago that I didn’t remember the lay of the land. That was back before there was an internet, but of course now there is an internet so the night before our hunt Jawn pulled up Google Earth and showed us what our game plan would be. The ranch has open land where cattle graze, steep brush-choked draws, rolling slopes and yes, a river runs through it. The Potlach River. As Jawn pointed out the names of various draws we’d be hunting over the next two days, my mind kept coming back to the river. “Ever fish it?” I asked. He had, but not much. “Any Westslope Cutthroat in there?” He said there were rainbows. And steelhead spawn in the river as well. “Steelhead?!” I said out loud, or perhaps I thought I said it out loud. Could be the rainbow are actually steelhead smolts. Maybe not. Jawn hadn’t given it much attention from a fishing standpoint. It’s not a big river, but via Google Earth it looked worthy of my time. Perhaps another time. I was here to hunt elk, not cast flies. Not even elk hair flies. Had to get fishing out of my head. A good night’s rest would help with that.
I rarely get a good sleep the night before a hunting or fishing trip, but this first night was particularly lacking in ample hours of quality rest. It’s not that we stayed up particularly late–we didn’t. But on Saturday morning we awoke at an ungodly hour thanks to the fact that my other buddy, Micro, forgot to adjust his watch to reflect the fact that he was no longer in the Mountain Time Zone. I heard him get up and start rustling around in the dark, a fuzzy-eyed glance at my clock revealed that it was 2:15 am. I let him get halfway dressed before pointing out that we had another hour to sleep (needless to say that next hour went by rather quickly). After a breakfast that was eaten more out of acknowledged necessity than gnawing hunger, we piled into the truck. At 4:30 we rendezvoused with Jawn’s dad at a local truck stop, and under the cloak of rain-soaked darkness we headed into the hills. Did I mention it was raining?
In less than an hour we dropped Micro and Jawn’s dad off at one location on the ranch before Jawn and I proceeded up the road a few clicks. The plan was for them to hike in and take up a vantage point along the edge of a wheat field, while Jawn and I pushed in from the top. As we slogged through a field of waist-high seed grass toward the top of the hill, I couldn’t help but think that this must be what it’s like to walk through an automatic, brush-free car wash. By the time we reached the top of the rise our pants were soaked through, and I felt my feet beginning to get damp as well. Apparently my 10 year old waterproof boots which had never failed me before were telling me it was time for new boots. I had rain pants, but they were, of course, in my pack. Putting them on now seemed a silly thing to do, but something I did nonetheless. At least it wasn’t cold (unless you were wet). I believe I mentioned earlier that it was raining. Well, it still was.
Accompanying the rain was a blanket of thick fog that reduced our ability to see. For those not of a hunting persuasion, think of fog being as the equivalent of wind to the fly angling person. We had a vantage point high on a ridge overlooking what was allegedly a thick stand of forest, below which was supposedly the wheat field where the others had by now taken up position. We could hear scores of turkeys gobbling and yelping, and several cattle mooing as they’re known to do, but we didn’t hear any bull elk bugling or cow elk calling. And we couldn’t see anything beyond a distance of about 40 yards. Not ideal for spotting elk in the thick brush 200 yards below us.
Jumping ahead a couple of hours, we met up with Micro and Jawn’s dad and told them what we’d seen earlier in the morning, which amounted to nothing at all. They’d not seen any elk either, which was not surprising because the idea had been for Jawn and I to spot elk, take a well-placed shot and harvest an animal, while at the same time pushing the rest of the herd out below, where Micro and Jawn’s dad would hopefully get a shot. In a perfect world we’d have two animals down and the rest of the day would be spent packing meat and beating our chests in celebration. Since that wasn’t quite how it turned out, we devised another plan of attack as the rain lightened. The next few hours would see an improvement in the weather, and the hunting.