Essays on hunting and fishing. The first time a bugle is heard in the wild. The pull of a rainbow late in the evening sun. The flush of a wild rooster against a cloud canvass. These stories explain why hunting and fishing are the ultimate form of wildlife conservation and spiritual preservation.
Away From the Things
Hunting a new state or a new area can be trying. Usually by the time you find what you’re looking for, the hunt is nearing its end. It takes days and miles to scout the land, find the game and determine habits for that particular time frame. There are tools today that make this task a little less daunting. Google Earth. Hunting services like GoHunt, Huntin Fool, and Eastman’s provide insider tips and area break downs per season, weapon and trophy potential. I’ve had varied luck with these and I use them often. But usually the best hunts I’ve found have been the ones I’ve scouted on my own first hand and determined for myself what suits my hunting needs and desires. There seems to be no substitute for boots on the ground or eyes on the hillsides. Or the hunts that have come completely at random. An obscure lead followed and pursued. No expectation but imagination. Increasingly for me, my shining priority is seclusion. In the old Tom Hanks movie, Joe Versus the Volcano, Meg Ryan asks Tom where they are going at end of the movie.
“I wonder where we’ll end up.” She says.
“Away from the things of man, my love. Away from the things of man,” Tom responds.
That’s what I’m looking for mostly. A world where the things of man have not permeated themselves onto the things of mother nature. This is why hunters don’t want to see other hunters when they’re hunting. It’s like seeing an ex-girlfriend when you’re on a blind date. The former reminding you of reality and ruining your elusions of a perfect and unfettered future with the latter. There are no perfect hunts. Only perfect memories. If the hunt ends in success, we paint over the imperfections with on overall satisfactory grade. If the hunt is not, we tend to gloss over the small moments of bliss that are surely there. Something as simple as a hot coffee on a cold morning. And more and more the reflective scorecard of a hunt for me seems to rise and fall with the sightings of the human race and not the sightings of the game I’m hunting. This is not to say I wish to hunt alone always or that I dislike other hunters. Many of my hunts are solo trips but hunts with good friends and family can be extremely enjoyable. But the company needs to remain light. Something between 1 and 5 if I had to put a number to it, perhaps on rare occasions 6, but any more and the hunt creeps towards party hunting. Hordes of orange vests sweeping a field from one end to the other like a rabbit round up or rattlesnake drive - the sole purpose extermination instead of selective harvest. In these scenarios some of the men or women are people I’ve never even heard of, much less seen before. I distance myself from these hunts. I do not wish to initiate a friendship with a stranger holding a shotgun. I’d rather get to know them a little better before we walked rough country with loaded weapons. Although you can learn almost everything you need to know about a man by the way he carries a 12-gauge and the direction he points its muzzle. But no, I’d rather know intimately the men and women I share the field with. This feeling is also rising along with my wish for isolation. Time is limited. Today time in the field seemingly more so for most. Why would I spend my precious time, the time that I’ve set aside to do the thing in which I love, with someone casual? Isn’t the company as important as the season? Isn’t the friend as valuable as the tag? Hunting buddies are like good bird dogs. They’re damn hard to come by, you only get a few per lifetime, and when their gone you drink good whiskey to their memories. And if you don’t have a good friend to go hunting with, going alone is the next best thing. Meaningful is the word I’m chasing when I go hunting. A meaningful experience. Everyone gets to decide their own formula for this. For me I strive to be away from the things of man and bring a good friend if I can to enhance the taste.
I tried to work out the equation of this formula when I moved back to Idaho. Before I knew it, half of September had been spent loading moving trucks and signing real estate contracts. In The English Major by Jim Harrison, the main character Cliff references Thoreau’s sentiment of “a man [doesn’t] own the farm, the farm [owns] him.” I have appreciated this since my youth on a tractor in western Oklahoma and I would extend it into real estate. At one point in the last few weeks I was under contract for three houses. It felt like three straight jackets. They are a devil necessity in today’s life and although part of my nomadic spirit wants to find a cabin like Thoreau or go fatally Into the Wild like Christopher McCandless; my dutiful side looks at my wife and three daughters and decides they need the best roof over their heads money can buy. And so it is and so we are blessed and so I yearn to be away from it all if only for a little while.
I researched over-the-counter units for the last 3 days of archery elk season and bought a tag at the regional office of Idaho Fish and Game. I questioned whether or not it was even worth going for such a short time frame but that is the rationale of a civilized mind. The true hunter, the ancestral hunter, goes whenever he can and in complete disregard to the duration. He goes when the opportunity presents itself. It doesn’t take a day to pull the trigger. The good news was that since I hadn’t claimed residency in another state in the year and a half I’d been away, I still qualified as a resident and therefore resident license costs. This made me happier than the selling of my New Mexico cabin - the simple victories sometimes more understandable to me than the large ones. Also I was very sad to say goodbye to my family cabin. It was owned by my grandparents and father who are all now dead. Financially it was another necessity. I’m growing to loath modern necessities. I made stops at Cabelas and the grocery store and then drove north towards Salmon. It didn’t take long for me to find mountains and hunters. I drove all day until I found a place to myself. I pulled into antelope country around dark with mountains looming in the background. Suddenly a bull elk ran in front of me and I had to slam on the breaks to keep from hitting him. I was rocked out of an unconscious, radio induced, road coma. He was a good bull and I drove a few hundred yards further and camped in the pitch black. By camped I mean that I opened the back of my topper, boiled a mountain house bag of chicken gumbo and went to sleep. This was a trial run for pickup camping and although I had to turn diagonal to fit my 6’2 frame inside the bed to close the door and window, it was surprisingly comfortable. I slept better than I did in my new house on my new bed. The next morning, I got up early, boiled coffee and tried to find the bull. I spotted him within the first ten minutes. He was a tall dark object surrounded by a sage brush prairie. I went slow and crawled to a slight ditch and then I followed him for a few hundred yards. At first he was trailing three antelope doe through the valley, an act I witnessed the previous morning. Both species are infused with rut at this time and I wonder if there is some lustful confusion taking place. Eventually he distanced himself from the antelope and for a moment it looked like he was coming my way. Then he turned and walked slowly and steadily across an entire valley and up and into the timber on an east facing mountain slope. I had seen four-wheeler lights the night before coming out of the high country but for the next three days I had the entire range to myself. I marked the point where the bull entered the trees and that evening I put myself in position for ambush. As I crept uphill I heard sudden hoof thumps against the dirt and I looked to see a solid 7x5 chasing two spike bulls around two cows. They stepped out of the tree line at 70 yards and I drew in anticipation but they stayed hidden behind scattered pines and fed away from me. I let down my draw and waited. Soon the herd bull appeared with more cows and again they stayed just out of range. He was large and mature and his points were short but his main beams were long and his rack stood tall against the sloping horizon of the grassy slope. I made a desperate move before they fed out of sight and a cow barked and the 7x5 threw his head back and ran into the timber but the herd bull kept his eyes only on the cows and he corralled them downhill at a steady pace. I was able to follow without spooking them further and when we all converged towards the bottom of the wide-open slope I heard another bugle and looked to my left to see a six-point standing alone on the ridge to the north. I stopped and the herd bull with cows bugled. The new bull, which turned out to be the bull I almost hit with my pickup, bugled back and walked directly at him. When he dropped into a swale, I sprinted to put myself in position between the two. But I stopped too short and the wind was dead wrong. At 140 yards the light colored 6x6 smelled me and trotted back to the ridge he came from and then disappeared off the other side. The herd bull took his cows the opposite direction and I was alone with the night as it covered us all.
Later I lay in my pickup bed again and with the topper windows open I listened to bugles all night. One to my left and one to my right in wonderful report. It was the two bulls I had just ruined my chance on and they never seemed to join each other and then I was asleep. I was woken repeatedly to whistles that sounded just outside my window. Some were real and some were a wonderful dream. There is something incredibly soothing about listening to elk bugle in your sleep. Those that live in the high country get to listen to it every year. At our cabin in New Mexico we heard it nightly for a few weeks. But that was in a resort area and the elk were unhuntable. These were educated elk on public ground. That was in a 3-bedroom 3-bath loft and this was in the bed of a 2011 Ford with a cracked windshield. That was at home with my family. This was alone in the wild. I don’t want to say one was better than the other. I don’t want to make a choice between bugling elk and mountains and family and solitude. I just know that it felt good to be there.
The next morning, I hiked several miles but could not find any elk. They had gone to bed early and before the sun. I heard a few bugles in the trees that evening but again no sightings. The third and final day I hunted a different drainage and found a deep throated bull on a north facing slope covered in spruce and pines. I waited until I was sure he was bedded for the day and then I went back to camp for lunch. I returned in the afternoon. Just before leaving the truck I heard him bugle again along with another, lighter pitched bull on the opposite slope to the west. I skirted the edge of the wind and went very aggressively to the bottom of the canyon, below the last place I heard the mature bugle. The sun was still high and I passed the time by worrying about the wind and catching flies with my hands. Not showering in 3 days was apparently grossly evident to the flies and they swarmed and deafened me with their buzzing. I closed my eyes and sat with my palms up and my legs crossed lazily. When a fly landed in my palm I shut my fingers. I missed a few but caught 11 and felt a Zenic pride even though the flies were all smashed. It was an odd and primal game. There is an undeniable aspect of meditation when the hunt is in its essence. There is complete focus and singular vision and nothing in the world is in your head other than the hunt in front of you. A Zen-like pursuit. Even in times of wait, there is only the singing of the wind and the chiming of the trees and if you close your eyes you can very easily go to the same place Buddhists go and find the same peace preached by doctors and therapists and celebrities. Hunters are not so different than truth seekers. We are in fact seeking the ultimate truth. The fact that something has to die in order for us to live.
The bulls bugled in their beds to each other most of the late afternoon. Then silence prevailed for over an hour and I assumed the bulls had caught my wind and lingered off. Then antlers smashed 100 yards up the canyon. A collision of bone that rattled through the pines and echoed down the drainage. The sound jarred me and I was glad to know they were still there. The two bulls had been trading insults all day across the canyon and now they backed it up with a fight. I should have gone immediately towards them but cover was tight and where I stood there were two open shooting lanes – a known advantage I was uneasy to give up. I thought they would come down hill as all the elk I had seen the last two days had done. But all the elk that I had seen the last two days were not all the elk on the mountain. They were simply all the elk that had gone downhill which is the only reason I was able to see them. Other elk certainly went up hill. I didn’t consider this blaring truth when I waited on the two bulls fighting. The next time I heard the bull with the higher pitched bugle, they were another 100 yards up the canyon. They were traveling up the mountain with the wind in their face. I tried to catch them but couldn’t keep up. I called to them and they answered but did not turn around. I raked branches on trees and cut my fingers on the breaking wood and the growling bull turned his head and called back to me but he didn’t turn his legs and he walked up the mountain until the light was gone and the hunt was over. Until the season was over. I walked back down the drainage and towards my pickup camper. It was a few miles away and I made myself walk slow. I was happy. I never laid eyes on the bulls but I was in their world for an entire afternoon and evening and I was a part of their lives. They didn’t let me see them but they let me hear them. Let me feel their presence. That’s what they gave me. Perhaps it was one of them who game me last year’s antler. On my way out I almost stepped on the right side of a six-point shed. I had hunted elk in new country and they had given me an antler and the thrill of the chase. The mountains had given me views I had never seen before and the incline had given me exercise and the thin air had given my lungs good use. The only thing I didn’t have was meat and the shot of the bow and the trailing of blood and the insatiable joy of shining a light across freshly died cape.
In the end I found what I was looking for. What I needed most. I had gone away front the things of man and lived among the things of elk. After 3 days of walking alone in silence I hit the highway and sped to the limit of 75. I found it hard to drive that fast and stay straight. I had to slow down. I tried to listen to the radio but found the music too loud and turned it off. I had fast food when I got into town but found the taste unnatural and unsettling. I found my wife loving at home and tried to express the hunt to her and what it meant to me but couldn’t find the words. I still can’t. Maybe they’re out there still, lingering between the hoof prints of old bulls. Maybe I’ll find them on my next hunt. Wherever that is. And it doesn’t matter how long it is either. It only matters that I go.