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The Luck of the Draw

By Darren Abersold

Hunting the Tule Elk of

California’s Grizzly Island

 

Fourteen years ago the Calif. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife went to a points system that allowed hunters who didn’t get drawn for a special big game tag to build up points, in hopes of better odds in the draw the following year. I have been putting in for elk, antelope, and bighorn sheep since the start of the program. When you consider the years I put in for a tag before the points program, I have been applying diligently for over 30 years. This year it payed off. I finally drew a coveted California elk tag. I also drew a California antelope tag this year, but that’s another story. To top it off, the tag I drew was for one of the coveted Tule elk that roam the Grizzly Island Wildlife Refuge. The fact that it was a cow tag instead of one of the three or four bull tags given each year didn’t take away from the excitement. I was finally going to Grizzly Island to see the huge trophy bulls, and hunt a cow that call the Tules of Grizzly Island their home.

Of the three species of elk in North America, Canada, and the Rocky Mountains, the Tule, and the Roosevelt, the Tule elk is in my opinion, the most interesting. First, they inhabit only a small amount of territory located in North Central California. Their range is limited to a small area around the grass and marshlands of California’s central valley and the grasslands of the central California coast. Second, they are on average smaller than either of their more well-known cousins with bulls averaging around #450-#600 and the cows around #350-#450. Lastly, a big mature bull’s antlers tend to be more prone to webbing and non-typical forms than say the Rocky Mt. elk. Their antlers also grow to such proportions that on a truly huge bull, it makes one wonder how it even holds its head up. Especially when you consider that a big Roosevelt bull might weigh in the 1,000 lb. range and have antlers about the same size. As you can imagine, this uniqueness make them a very sought after game animal to the hunter who wants to hunt a new species. This also, as you can imagine, makes it extremely hard to get a tag to hunt them.

There are three basic ways to acquire a Tule elk tag. First, is to try to buy one of the few tags available from one of the private ranches blessed to have them. So, if you have an extra $20,000-$30,000 lying around you can go and enjoy a hunt for a truly huge bull or spend $3,000-$4,000 and take a cow. Second, you can bid on a bull tag through the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife’s drawing and again spend upwards of a couple college educations. Third, you can do what I did and wait patiently.  

This year when I opened the web page to see if I had drawn any special tags I expected to see the same old thing “Did not draw.” This time I saw something different. It had a “Y” under the draw column followed by “Grizzly Island Cow Period 3.” It took a while to sink in. I knew I had applied for that tag, but never expected to draw it. To say I was blown away by what I saw would be a gross understatement. Within minutes I was on the internet looking up everything I could on Grizzly Island and their elk herd.

Part of that cyber scouting was to ask for information through a number of on-line hunting forums. Enter Mike. As luck would have it, of the eight tags for that season, all cow tags, six general and two youth, Mike’s son (Matt) had drawn one of the youth tags. Over the next month or so, Mike and I talked back and forth via emails. Like all good fathers, he wanted to see his son succeed at getting his cow. It would be Matt’s first elk hunt and like the rest of us that drew a tag, it could literally be a once in a lifetime hunt for Tule elk.

I had only been on the refuge at the camping area for a short time when Mike and Matt rolled up in their blue Dodge pickup. We hit it off right from the get-go. We kind of knew each other from our email conversations, but...you just never know until you meet them face-to-face. In this case there was no worry, Mike is a great guy. You could tell he really wanted Matt to have a memorable hunt. Matt on the other hand, I don’t think I ever saw him without a grin on his face and even his quiet, respectful disposition couldn’t hide the excitement of what we all knew tomorrow morning would surely bring. Like myself and a few others, Mike and Matt planned to camp right there on the refuge. The orientation meeting was still an hour or so away so we passed the time setting up our camps just kind of getting to know one another.

Hunting the Grizzly Island Tule elk isn’t your normal elk hunt. The hunt’s purpose is to keep the number of elk on the island to a sustainable number. You are going to see a lot of elk and your chances of harvesting one is close to 100%. You still have to get out there and hunt, and trust me you can’t just walk up to them. They are still wild animals and they act like it. Spook a herd and you may not see them again. Although you are hunting an island, it is only an island because of a river on one side and a network of slews on the other. The elk can and do come and go as they please, but because of the incredible habitat of the twelve square mile paradise most choose to stay.  

Being that they are Tule elk, a truly unique species indigenous to only a small part of California, the refuge continues to study them. After you get your animal on the ground someone from the wildlife department will come and retrieve it from the field with quads and trailers. They take it back to camp, weigh it, take several measurements and a tooth, before the hunter is even allowed to field dress or skin it. The whole process only takes about half hour so there is no worry about meat spoilage. After they are finished, it’s the hunters’ responsibility to skin, dress, and/or quarter the animal. Unconventional yes, but a very good way to control the herd, manage and study the herd, and offer hunters a chance at a special animal.

The hunt is run by Orlando Rocha the wild life biologist, Elk program coordinator Joe Hobbs, and was overseen by game warden officer, JP Keiser. Together they ran the orientation meeting where officer Keiser checks your weapons and ammo (non-lead bullets only) and goes over some of the rules of the refuge. Orlando then takes over and gives a brief history of the Tule elk and covers the need for continued study of the animals we harvest. On our hunt we didn’t meet Joe “the legend” Hobbs until the elk were brought to the weigh station back at camp. He and Orlando oversaw the “study” part of the process and made sure the meat was utilized to the fullest by the hunter. Together, along with other employees and volunteers, they put on a hunt like no other I have ever seen. The hunt, start to finish, for the eight of us went off without a hitch from the wild life department’s side and was done in a professional yet fun enjoyable atmosphere.

After the meeting we were free to roam the refuge and do some scouting. The refuge was closed to the public and we had the entire twelve square miles to ourselves. In all, counting those who brought along a non-hunting companion, I think there were twelve of us. Twelve people on 13,000 acres of prime elk habitat. Elk were everywhere. There were eight here, five there, twenty out in the field, another dozen in the Tules. It was amazing. The bulls were in full rut and were screaming all over the place. Every little herd had a herd bull with smaller bulls hanging around the edges. Some of the bulls were absolutely huge. Although almost impossible to draw, I couldn’t help but think that a select lucky few will draw the coveted bull tag and get to take one of these monsters a few short weeks later after our hunt. I chose to drive the six mile loop and just see where they might be hanging around. In truth, you could park at any of the designated parking areas and see or hear elk. Like I said, this isn’t your traditional elk hunt.

Back at camp after dusk, the place was rumbling with excitement. I think we were all a bit surprised at the number of elk we saw. We all kind of found out where the others were headed in the morning and figured out our own plans. It worked out very well and I never heard of anyone interfering with anyone else during the hunt. Mike and Matt had their plan, as did I, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to help Matt get his first elk. They didn’t need my help. Mike was more than capable of helping guide Matt to his first elk. I almost felt like an intruder just for asking, but I did anyway. That decision was most likely the best decision I will make this entire hunting season. They were both very open to the idea. I didn’t know until later, but opening day and maybe the following morning was the only time they had to hunt due to work and school conflicts. I guess it’s true...it never hurts to ask. It was truly an honor and pleasure to share this experience with this father-son team.

The following morning our hunt started much the way it ended last night, with bulls bugling from several different directions. Shooting light found us down a levy path looking out into a huge Tule patch for signs of elk. It didn’t take long to find some. A big bull was wandering down a Tule row way out in the field in front of us. Looking behind him we saw more elk. They turned out to be two cows and two yearling calves. All the calves were weened by this time so even if the cow and calf were together we were given the okay to take one. The hunt was on. Working our way down the levy we were able to cut the distance to about 250 yards. Being this early in the hunt, and not really knowing how spooky these elk were going to be we decided to push our luck and try to get closer. Finally at 180 yards the cows spotted us hunkering down in the swamp grass.  

We discussed our options. It was Matt’s call. The elk would be all his. Since he was the one pulling the trigger, we could shoot from here or try our luck and get closer. He decided we would try to get a little closer. It only took about two more steps to find out just how skittish the elk were going to act. They took off across the field and the last we saw of them they disappeared over the levy several hundred yards away. So now we knew. This wasn’t going to be the “shooting carp in a barrel” hunt we thought it might be.

After spotting another herd and being cut off by a flooded field and a slew, we headed back to the truck. Once there, we looked across the road and saw another herd way out in another field. With binoculars we could also see a refuge issued orange vest on the other side of the elk. It looked like the hunter was right on top of them but the shot never come. The elk moved off, maybe spooked by the hunter, and headed toward one of the other designated parking areas that already had trucks parked in it. We decided to trail way off to the side and far behind as to not interfere with another hunter. It seemed possible that if a shot was fired the herd might come over to our side of the field where we could get a shot, but that didn’t happen. Although we did see another orange vest at that end of the field, no shots were fired, and the herd wandered on.

Back at the truck we heard the sound of the quads approaching. It was Orlando and one of the volunteers headed out to recover a downed elk. He told us that there was a big herd hanging out near parking area #3 so we decided to go check them out. We found the herd with no problem. They looked to be in a great spot for a stalk and appeared to be within about two hundred yards from a levy trail that would hide our approach if we stayed low. What a fun stalk. By low, I mean we duck walked, crawled, and slithered for about 400 yards until we were at our desired spot. Problem was with the brush we were hiding behind; Mike and I couldn’t get a good reading with the rangefinder. It’s tough to judge range in the open fields lying almost flat on the ground, especially when I had never hunted elk in such open ground with nothing to really gauge size by. Flat out, I misjudged the range. From our position hunkered down low behind some saw grass I told the guys I thought it was about 200 yards. Looking back, it must have been closer to three. Matt decided he wanted to take a shot from there so we got into position. Matt was shooting off a monopod steadied by Mike and I was shooting off my rifle mounted bipod. Matt would take the first shot, and then I would follow with a shot of my own.

Matt’s shot rang out with no effect on his chosen cow. I had a cow picked out as well and took my shot soon after. Mike and Matt kept an eye on their cow which stayed off to the right of the herd with a few others, but mine ran right into the middle of the larger part of the herd. Now, we were in a pickle. Last thing we wanted was to shoot again and chance hitting the wrong animal. The herd didn’t know where the shots came from and milled around for several minutes. One animal stuck out. She would stand stretched far forward and you could tell she was hit. Although I didn’t see any blood I was 92.3% sure it was my cow but I wasn’t going to shoot again until I was certain. We watched for a long time as the herd slowly wandered farther and farther away. We were hoping to see two cows suddenly fall over but that never happened.

The field we were hunting was huge. The herd finally settled down again half mile out, but still in sight. From all we could put together, Matt had missed his clean, most likely hitting low because of the extended range. Mine on the other hand was definitely hit. I didn’t know where or how bad, but I knew what I had to do. Again we discussed our options. Do I go alone, or do we try to get Matt another shot at this herd? Once again, we left it up to Matt. I knew from the lay of the land and several huge patches of Tules, that I could get within Matt’s shooting distance so I was pleased when he said he wanted another chance. Worst case scenario would be that we alerted the herd before we could get Matt in position and I would go ahead and finish off my cow.

We dove off the levy and made haste for the herd. The Tule patch was in a perfect position and we cut the distance quickly. Once at our pre-chosen patch we, once again, found we were too far away. Another Tule patch was off to our right. We slowly made our way over to it, again closing the distance. This time we were in business. With Matt behind me, I peeked around the last Tule and saw a fat old cow off to the right of the main herd. Ducking back, we devised our plan. Matt would get low and work his way out from the Tules until he could see the cow. I would follow. Once I located my cow, Matt would again take the first shot and I would follow as soon as I had a clean shot on the cow I had hit earlier. The plan worked perfectly...mostly.  

At the shot, Matt’s elk dropped, and I mean dropped dead! Like a rock! It was one of the only times I have ever seen an elk killed that quickly. Matt had broken her neck and as they say, “She never even heard the gun go off.” Shortly after Matt’s shot my cow separated from the herd enough that I felt comfortable shooting. I was again sitting with my bipod down and felt steady as I line up the shot. Squeezing the trigger, I lost sight of the elk with the recoil, but heard a satisfying smack as the bullet hit right behind the shoulder. She didn’t drop! The herd ran to the left, so did I. I could see a levy berm fifty yards ahead and figured that is where I would make my stand. As I was running I pushed the button that would shorten the legs of my bipod and when I reached the levy I had a perfect bench rest steady position. My elk was easy to spot. There was blood running down her side about two inches behind the shoulder half way up. “How was she still alive?” This time they were further out. I lined up about two inches above the last shot’s bullet hole and shot again. This time the reaction was different. She fell like the rug had been pulled right out from under her and never moved. Our hunt was over.

Upon reaching my elk I found that my first shot had hit her through the front leg and into the brisket but not high enough to get into the chest cavity, which was another confirmation that our first shots were farther than we had thought. I remember thinking, “I’m glad we are hunting here and not in the Rockies. I would have lost this elk for sure with that hit.” You could have covered my last two shots with a silver dollar. I felt truly blessed. Not only did I get the opportunity to come here and hunt the Tule elk, but I left knowing I had finished the job I started when I took that first shot an hour ago.

High fives and handshakes, along with many smiles and laughs, followed as we waited for the guys to retrieve our elk. You should have seen the expression on Matt’s face and the proud dad standing right there with him. An experience of a lifetime for these two and I was right there to take it all in with them. Thanks to Mike and Matt for letting me be part of it. Your memories should last a lifetime. I hope, Mike, when you are old and sitting in the rocking chair on the porch with Matt, you will look back on this day and say, “Now that was a good day!”

Unconventional and unique? Yes, that’s about the only way to describe it. Not your typical elk hunt but, not your typical elk. These are Tule elk, the Tule elk of Grizzly Island, and it was certainly worth the wait.