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CampFire Tales

Scott Irving

Western Washington Antlerless Elk Hunt

As I write this article it is late winter, with yet another Pacific Northwest storm bearing down on our home. It’s a great time to sit by a warm fire, and reflect on last year’s hunting season. Our freezer is full as my son and I were fortunate enough to harvest 2 elk and 1 deer. We also have a few more geese and some silver salmon to finish off before we start all over again in a few short months. Yes it was a good year afield for us and this is the story of our antlerless elk hunt in Western Washington.

This hunt actually began about 8 months before we set boots afield when the new hunting regulations came out. We eagerly await this time because this is when we can begin planning our hunts for the year. Last year we decided to apply for Successantlerless elk tags in Western Washington. The drawing odds are always tough, but we each had a few points and thought our chances would be pretty good. A few weeks later we found out we were indeed successful, and so began the planning and research stage for this hunt. I had not hunted this specific unit before, but with the season still several months away I had plenty of time to research and scout to determine where we would hunt.

What I always begin with, prior to hunting a new unit, is Google Earth. This is an amazing tool that is right at our fingertips. It doesn’t matter if you are hunting a favorite spot you’ve been to a hundred times, or a brand new one, Google Earth will take you wherever you want to go and let you peek into the particular game unit from above. I also really like to look over maps of the hunting area so that by the time hunting season starts I have a good idea of the topography, timber stands, and clear cut locations in the unit. One of my favorite methods of hunting in Western Washington is to hike in behind locked gates on either Forest Service roads or private tree farms where hunting is allowed. After locating a few of these locked gates within my hunting unit, then I have really begun to narrow down my hunting area. Most guys don’t get more than a mile from their trucks, so if you are willing to hike in, the further you go the fewer hunters you will see out in the field, plain and simple.

Summer and fall quickly passed and before we knew it, there were just a few days left until the season opened. I would start this hunt out by myself since my son had finals coming up in school and couldn’t go the first week. So with the tent trailer loaded and hooked up to my truck, I began the 120 mile trip south from our home. As is typical for winter in Western Washington, it was raining hard the whole drive down. It continued to rain while I set up camp and throughout the night. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to find the rain had stopped. Hopefully this break in the weather would hold for a few hours on the first day of my hunt!

After coffee and some venison sausage and eggs, I got the truck loaded up with what I would need for the day and headed out to hunt. It was still dark when I left camp but I wanted to get an early start since it was about an hour’s drive to where I wanted to go. I arrived at the gate and was happy since there was nobody else there. I would be the first one to hike and hunt this area this morning. It was still Scott and a Great Elk!dark when I began hiking in to a clear cut I had scouted a few weeks earlier. The hike in was uneventful and daylight broke with some misty, foggy conditions typical for this time of year. The temperature was in the high 30’s and I watched this clear cut for several hours. Unfortunately, all I saw were a couple of blacktail does and fawns that crossed through about an hour after first light. Not a total loss, but no elk. I decided to hike back to the truck and go back to camp for lunch as I was only in about a mile and a half. I then planned to return here for the evening hunt. I saw a lot of tracks and sign on the way out so I wanted to give this spot a good look in the late afternoon and evening.

While driving back toward camp I spotted a really interesting side road that I thought might be worth a look. I hadn’t gone 200 yards when I saw a bunch of really fresh elk tracks where they had crossed the road, probably that morning since there was no water in them. I decided to park the truck, grab my rifle and pack, and follow the tracks as quietly as I could. Perhaps they were just a few hundred yards off the road and bedded down for the day. There was very little hunting pressure and very few vehicles driving around in this area. In fact, I hadn’t seen another human all day. I grabbed my rifle, quietly shut the door to my truck and set off after the elk. This was some really dark timber and just what elk look for when finding a spot to bed down for the day. If they weren’t pressured I thought I had a good chance of catching up to them. The forest was very still and with all the rain yesterday, it was not hard to walk quietly. There was no wind. I still hunted after these elk for over an hour when the wind appeared out of nowhere. It doesn’t matter how quiet you are when elk hunting, if they can smell you they are gone. I decided to back off because the wind was at my back and not in my face. It was pointless to continue.

I was less than a mile from my truck and decided I would turn around and hunt my way back. The wind would be in my face, so I decided to go real slow and quiet and see what might happen. As tempting as it was to quickly cover the distance back to the road and something to eat, a friend of mine once taught me to be just as patient and quiet on the way out as you are on the way in. This was to prove very fruitful advice for me on this day. As I hunted my way back, I heard a branch snap in the distance off to my left. It wasn’t super close, but was close enough to let me know I wasn’t alone in this patch of woods. After making a couple of soft cow calls, I slowly began working my way through the timber in the direction of where I heard the branch snap. After 20 minutes or so, I worked my way to the edge of a large opening in the forest when I saw 2 cow elk. One of them stopped and presented a shot opportunity. I quickly got into a good shooting position and fired. Both of them ran off to my left, crashing through the timber. I felt really good about my shot placement and after waiting a few minutes, I decided to walk over to where I last saw them and start looking for blood. After a few minutes of searching, I found my elk, still breathing, but laying down about 15 yards away. I finished the job and thanked God for this amazing day.

It took me over 5 hours to get this animal gutted, skinned, quartered, and back to my truck. I was later able to estimate the weight of this elk at around 450 pounds A long successful day in the woodsbased on the amount of meat I got to the butcher. These critters are quite a job even when you have a partner to help you; however, they really present a challenge when you are by yourself. Yet this is the kind of back breaking work we dream about all year. Too often tags go unfilled, and while all hunting trips are good, we really have to be thankful for the ones when we bring home meat! To be continued……Stay safe and good hunting!