twirling dot another twirling dotWade's 2008 Wyoming Elk Hunting Adventure

In November 2008, I visited my friend JohnD in Jackson Wyoming for my first hunt ever: elk. This is my journal from that trip. Blacktail Butte in the Grand Teton National Park figures prominently, and is shown in this photo taken facing North on the highway. The airport is to the left a few miles away (it's out of frame), the Tetons are to the left (west) while Blacktail Butte is seen on the right (east) about 2 miles away. Blacktail Butte was so named because one side of it is pretty much clear (the south end where we hunted) and the other end is covered with very dark evergreens, and being on the north side is shaded and looks almost black. I thought that was neat.

Monday, November 10: Day 1
      If you go north from Jackson on Rt.189/191 about 6 or 8 miles, you find the Jackson Hole Airport. Just east of the airport is a big flat expanse of land at the base of a small group of hills poking out of the flat land. That's where we were hunting today. Google maps will find the Jackson Hole airport easily, and you can view the aerial photos of the park,'s pretty cool. (Click on the jpg to the right to see a larger version.)
      As a group of 5 people in 3 vehicles, we were late getting going today, not arriving at the parking area on Mormon Row next to Blacktail Butte until nearly 6:45am. It was not quite dark any more, and though legal timewise (half hour before sunrise at 07:10), there wasn't really enough light for me to think about shooting something.
      Before we'd walked 300 yards from the truck, John and I saw two elk at the base of the butte on the east side, but they were too far away and moving North fast. One does NOT attempt to chase an elk once it is moving. That would be like trying to catch the wind. We saw no more elk all day. We parked on the west side of the moraine which is commonly called the "bench top" edge and hiked east along the hill bases (about 2.5 miles) to meet the other guys. Two of the other guys mostly hung out at the far end and watched there for the day. You could see the airplanes landing from their vantage point. It was pretty cool. There's a 60-foot drop from the table we were on to the valley floor. Photo 385 is facing south from their position. The third fella along, Bill, spent the day hiking up and down the hills on his own. Nobody else reported seeing anything.
      At one point, John went ahead, and I sat and watched. I took that time to get a self portrait next to a dead tree. There's limited hunting in this area, and the elk, bison, antelope, mule deer, and moose use this as a travel path between grazing grounds. The area looks like a feed-lot: lots of churned dirt/mud, and poops from each of the aforementioned beasties. Bison poops are as big as a 2-quart saucepan! Sort of super-sized cow-patties. I figured it would be really bad to step in one, but once they cool and dry out a bit, they're just "used grass" as John put it, and it's kinda like stepping on a sponge.
      Lots of fog this morning, and spitting snow, around 30 degrees, but no wind to speak of. Light rain on and off the rest of the time, after it warmed up a few degrees. Never saw the Tetons today, though they are out there. Hopefully they'll be revealed tomorrow, or at least while I'm here. I layered my clothes, and it worked well: while standing still I was a little cool, while hiking with John (who walks the same 7-minute-mile my Grandpa used to walk), I was a little warm. I adjusted by taking off the hat and flipping open the glove/mittens. It worked out great. Plus, we come home to John's house every night, so warm showers are never more than a few hours away. The new winter hiking boots from KEEN worked well, and my feet were warm and dry. The boots did seem to be heavier by the end of the day than when I started. %^)       After a little bagged lunch prepared by John's wife, Carolyn (Thanks!), John showed me some of the other areas we have access to. We saw bison, antelope, and moose (some with big racks) in the park, and various bull and cow elk in no-hunting areas. My photos of them sucked, though. I'll try again later with a real camera and a tripod.
      Carolyn made elk tips, among other for our yummy supper. Despite looking like just a big deer, elk has none of the venison gaminess to it. It's really tasty low-fat meat with a little more grain to it than steak. Hopefully the whole family will get a chance to try some soon.

Tuesday, November 11: Day 2
      Today John and I went back to the same place as yesterday: Blacktail Butte. I did not understand exactly what a "butte" was before: It's a sharp little hill in the middle of a flat area, unconnected to other mountains. Now I know. We saw lots of tracks to show the quarry has been there...we just didn't see any. There was a herd of about 40 bison in the SE corner of the park and we gave them a wide berth. They were just hanging around, standing and lying down. Kinda cool. John had to leave at 10 for a meeting, so I hiked up to the top of the butte, and across the south end to the east side where Bud was hunting. The tabletop at the bottom of the butte is about 6600 feet elevation. The top of the butte is another 1000 feet up. The Tetons are around 11,000ft, and about 5 or 6 miles to the west. So, I hiked up there. Being a sea-level sort of guy, I was gasping for air due to the elevation. Yeah, yeah, that's it. Once on top, it was fine. Windy and in the low 30s, but walking was a lot easier. I didn't see the elk today, but I saw plenty of Elk droppings and tracks. I know we're in the right neighborhood.
      I like the walking around more than the sitting and waiting. I'm still getting used to the whole "still hunting" technique: Hike to where you think the elk might pass by, be still, and wait for them. I like moving around more. But maybe I'll get used to it as time passes.
      After that, Glen took Bud and I up to his favorite area. Another mile or so hiking down to the Snake River. No elk, here either, but LOTS of tracks. Many very fresh. Some on top of hunter's tracks from today. Hmmm. Just missed 'em. From the north side, Blacktail Butte looks like a sleeping rabbit (some of the locals call it "dead bunny butte") with the little ears to the east (left in the photo) and feet on the right (west).
      On the equipment front, the little pop-off see-through plastic covers that came on the scope optics leaked enough moisture to impede vision, so a better replacement was in order: solid flip-open covers. I got some yesterday afternoon. By the end of today's hiking, though, I'd broken the eyepiece cover off. It apparently flipped open and snapped off while I was climbing around. John has little rubber caps that we put on the barrel in case we slip/fall, you don't get a barrel full of dirt. Finger cots work, also, I'm told. The Bushnell Elite 1500 rangefinder I got off ebay for about 35% discount has worked pretty well, but it needs a really flat/reflective target to get beyond 1100 yards. On the brushy angled hillside here it caps out at about 850 yards. I can point it at a dumptruck on the highway, though, and get out to 1200. I have yet to see anything return a reading at 1500 yards, though.

Wednesday, November 12: Day 3
      It was 33 degrees F and snow this morning. It was nice as snow, but turned to rain by 10am, and pretty much stayed rain all day long. Bud and I went to a different area this morning called Schwabacher Landing. It's about 5 miles north of Blacktail. We hiked about a half-mile off the road through sagebrush, and down the hillside to the piney forest and spent some time hiking slowly and quietly through the woods, and eventually stood next to a branch of the Snake River for an hour or so in the snow. No elk. As my mentor and friend would say, "There they are, gone." I saw my first bear-poo. The snow wasn't collecting on it, but it wasn't steaming, either, so it was a couple hours old. Makes ya think, for sure. No bells in it, so maybe it was black bear, not grizzly. (See the first post here for the background on that difference.) I got my bear spray. And one shot of .308. Administer as necessary. Bud says they come around looking for gut piles from hunters' field-dressing their kills. Big black hairy buzzards. That's what they are.
      Today's flora tidbits: There are lots of aspen here, they look a lot like slightly greyish birch. Their leaves are small and circular, and there's a fair percentage that just won't fall off, it seems. They snap back and forth in the wind, sounding like hail on a tin roof when you're in the middle of them. Also, sagebrush really is "sage" in color. Go figure. Every tree, bush, and vertical protuberance starts to look like an animal from a distance. One fencepost with wire looped on it (from a dismantled fence) looked like an emu at a distance, yesterday.
      The Tetons were formed by tectonic plates colliding. The western plate pushed up over the eastern one, making a gentle sloping west side, but a really sharp east side (the one I see from here). The eastern plate got pushed under the western one, bringing down the elevation, and the gap has filled in over the years with rubble, making the fairly flat plain between the mountain ranges. The buttes I mentioned yesterday are essentially high spots that still poke out above the dirt level. The action is still going on, and the Tetons continue to grow slowly. I thought it was interesting.
      After visiting the river a while with Bud, we went back to Blacktail. I hiked across the lower flat, then through some of the little ravines at the edge of the table. Then I hiked back to the road, and Bud picked me up. The day was not a total waste: I found a quarter on the road while waiting for Bud. We went home for lunch, and I made a couple phone calls. That all took an hour or so. It was still only 2pm, so I figured I needed to go do something. I went back to Schwabacher and tried my new Wiggy's boots during a shallow stream crossing: All dry to 5" deep. I did not try deeper. %^) They are mostly rubber on the bottom, though, so they aren't really suited to rough hiking - not enough support. They are dry and warm, though, and just fine for snow and gentle trail work. While on the island at Schwabacher, I saw a whole slew of fresh tracks, but it looks like the herd just ran through. If you're not there at the right 5 minute timeframe, fuhgeddaboudit.
      So, another day done. Another 5 miles or so hiked. It's not really hard exercise and so far no muscle cramping or anything, so I'm hoping I get away with it all, despite the elevation. By the end of the day, though, I am sick of picking my feet up over the sagebrush. The toughest part is that the new winter hiking boots chafe my left leg a bit. The right fits PERFECT. Go figure. Time to get ready for dinner. I think there's chili. Mmmm.

Thursday, November 13: Day 4
      This morning was low 40s, with the wind blowing 20mph steady, gusts to 40mph or so. Oh, and rain. Don't forget the rain. JohnE says he doesn't think he has ever been so wet. By the time JohnD and I hiked to his favorite spot on Blacktail, my windbreaker pants had soaked through and my jeans were sopping wet. I failed to wear longjohns today, because it was so warm. I hadn't considered the windy rain. Then my gloves got soaked through. Dangit. On the plus side, my Wiggy's boots did a good job of keeping my feet warm (though my pants wicked water down to my socks), and the LLBean lined windjacket I brought kept me completely dry up top. We sat and waited a while but no luck. Nothing moving. A couple hours of that was enough, and we went to sit in the truck and warm up.
      You can park at the southern edge of the hunting area and watch to see if anything comes over the butte that might be worth chasing. So we did that a while. Bud called to say he had seen a group of four to the east of his location, but by the time we got there we saw nothing. The rain had let up some by then, and a patch of sky cleared over us, creating the rainbow across the south side of the butte. It was lovely. I don't think my photos do it justice.
      JohnD and I went home and got dry clothes then went back out to the same place. The wind was blowing pretty good most of the time, but it was not cold, and the rain had pretty much stopped. We walked north across the table-top, and watched the south side of the butte for an hour or so. We watched the clouds tearing by, with the Grand Tetons ducking in and out of the clouds. Very pretty. No elk, though. JohnD pointed out the really sharp "Death Canyon", with Open Canyon and Granite Canyon to the south.
      Since the elk travel through the area we have permits to hunt in to get from their summer home to the National Elk Refuge, we are essentially waiting to catch them during the move. Sadly, it has been warm and not very snowy so far. They don't make the move in large numbers until it gets snowy and cold enough in their high ranges to cover the grass, so they're not really moving yet. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed.
      Since there's no elk to watch so far, I've enjoyed watching the bison herds and several moose (mostly in ones and twos). Two of the other guys saw a wolf on the hayfields to the east of the butte. They said he was every bit of 3' tall.
      We could see Sheep Mountain, which all the locals know as "Sleeping Indian". My photo sucked, so click here for a better one.

Friday, November 14: Day 5
      "Gros Ventre" is pronounced by the locals as "Grow Vondt." It's the name of the road that runs along the south side of Blacktail Butte. I decided that despite seeing lots of tracks at Schwabacher Landing, I would stick with JohnD, since he is THE MAN on hunting in this area. So we went in on Gros Ventre about a mile or so, then parked on the side of the road in a little pulloff area. The day started in the high 20s but it warmed up at least 15 degrees through the day. The skies were crystal clear, and I was able to watch the sun work its way down the snowy Tetons to the west as it cleared the hills to the east. It was pretty cool.
      Once parked, we walked the 3/4 mile in to the tabletop (or bench-top, depending on who you're talking to), but John went to the left 10 degrees, and I went to the right 10 degrees, such that when we attained the upper level of the flat, we were 600 yards apart. That put us about 400 yards south of the butte edge. We got there at about 6am, a half hour after legal hunting, and already there were several little specs of orange advancing ahead of us towards and up the butte. I figured that's OK, since the visibility is over 1,000 yard either way from the middle. As long as we leave a few hundred yards between people, it shouldn't be a problem. At least not much of a problem. Where I'm from, a 150-yard shot seems pretty long. Out here, though that's considered close-range, and most everyone zeros their rifles at 200 yards. It's common to hear about 400 yard shots, and John says his longest was 602 yards. With a standard rifle! Yikes!
      In my hands, my Thompson Center Encore single-shot .308 (made in Rochester NH) is known to be reliable out to about 300 yards (that's the longest range I have available to test at). When I planted myself, therefore, I ranged out the 300 limit, determined not to take a shot that was too long for a reliable hit. We saw the same nothing... nothing... nothing... that we'd seen all week. About 8:50am, I saw a group of 6 animals advancing down the butte going south. They were pretty big, but had a bound to their leaps that looked kinda like deer. They were more than 500 yards away, so I was out of the game, but I figured John would knock one down. He didn't. He never even fired a shot. He later said they approached as close as 120 yards to his position, but they were "mule deer", which are bigger than any deer I'm accustomed to, and NOT part of our license. So it was a good thing I didn't try for them. It did get my blood pumping, though, to see them running by over there.
      I realized then that I was pretty choppy about getting the gun off my shoulder and getting on target, so I practiced doing that a bit. This rifle is so short and light being a single-shot action, that I can wield it like a pistol: reach over with my right hand and grab the thumb-hole stock, swing it off my shoulder, flip open the optic covers while kneeling, cock the hammer, plant my left elbow on my left thigh in some fashion and get on target. I practiced a number of times and thought I was doing pretty well. Turns out, maybe not so much.
      About 11:30, I saw John walking my way, so I headed over to him. We met in the middle, and sat at the edge of an irrigation culvert and had lunch (packed again by Carolyn, Thanks!). After an hour or so, John said, "Let's walk along the benchtop a ways, and then loop back," so we started heading SW slowly. We stepped up the side of the irrigation ditch, and about 120 yards in front of us (maybe even a little closer at first) was a group of big 4-legged creatures going NE that looked to me like elk, but what do I know? I pointed and said, quite surprised, "Look!" I honestly was not sure if these were elk or the now large in my mind mule-deer. But John said excitedly, "Yup, that's them!" and pointed east down the ravine and said, "Go that way." Who am I to argue? I went that way. I kept looking back to make sure I had correctly understood that he meant we could shoot these guys, and he was clearly intent on doing so, so I kept going. He had told me that I would get first shot, since I was the guest, visitor, and first time elk-hunter and all. Some of the group of cows and calves slowed, with a few even stopping completely to look around, their left side broadside to us. John said, "The big one at the rear is yours....take your shot....there's your shot..." He showed the patience and restraint of a saint as I fumbled with getting the bipod deployed, fumbled with getting it set on the edge of the berm, then readjusted to get over the grass, got on target finally, sqeezed the trigger and got NOTHING. I forgot to cock the hammer. D'oh! Well, that's not what I said, but you get the picture. I cocked the hammer and the one I had been looking at had moved on, and John calmly reiterated "Take your shot...There's your shot." I found a new target, checked to make sure it didn't have any spike-antlers, got lined up again and squeezed the trigger. Bang! A complete miss. John then moved forward ahead of me in the ditch and took a shot, while I reloaded. I looked up and realized he had moved forward and was nearly in my line of fire, and though I was confident I would clear him by 10 feet shooting to his right at the one I could see, it wasn't _that_ important, ya know? I moved forward to get almost even with him and farther to the side, and lined up again on the last one standing around after checking for spikes through the scope. Squeeze. Bang (I barely heard it, and I never felt either shot on my shoulder at all). Slight pause, and Thud! WooHoo! That's the right sound!
      Turned out we got a cow and her calf. John gutted the calf while talking me through what he was doing. With a little coaching I gutted the cow. He's a good teacher, and I didn't get hardly any blood on me, and none above the wrists. I can't imagine doing that in the dark or rain. Man, would that suck!
      Lots of folks still drag their animals out by hand: tie a rope on them and pull hard. Really hard. For a really long time. Then pull some more. It works best if there's snow and you've got a sled of some sort. Rumor has it that 200 pounds at the start grows to about 2,000 lb after pulling it through a mile of sage brush. The alternative is to call "You Tag 'Em, We Drag 'Em," an outfit who comes to you and charges a $100 or so to drag them out with horses (no motorized vehicles in the park, so no ATVs to do that work). I decided I had nothing to prove, And John allowed as how he had nothing to prove, either, so we got them on the line and they said it would be about 30 minutes. I can't imagine doing this without cellphones to coordinate everyone. I guess that makes me the hunting equivalent of a gentleman farmer. I got the job done without killing myself by spending money. I guess I'm OK with that.
      The calf looked progressively smaller as time wore on, but everyone I talked to was enthusiastic, saying "A calf is good eating! It's veal. Very tender," or words to that effect. It's about as big as a full grown deer back home.
      The Drag'Em folks took their sweet time getting to us, but after an hour and a half plus, they did get there and at a leisurely pace got around to doing their thing. Bud came over with the old pickup to put them in and with all the hands there, it was pretty easy to get the girls into the truck. A park ranger stopped by and inspected our ID, hunter safety cards, licenses, and tags. I sure am glad I followed all the rules! There's no place to hide out here in the middle of flatland!
      John and I carted the girls to the processors and ordered stuff to be cut and packaged. John's cow will hang a few days before they cut her to help tenderize the meat, but calves don't need that. Besides, I'm leaving on Tuesday the 18th, so my calf will be cut on Saturday, frozen over Sunday, and ready for pickup on Monday. I'll figure out how to get it home then. Possibly as checked baggage. I was told to expect 100-120 lb of meat including steaks, tenderloins, roasts, hamburger, etc. (NOTE: It turned into about 70lb. Oh well. That's still plenty.)
      I get to hang out for the next couple days. I'm going to go sightsee a bit tomorrow and borrow a nicer camera than I have been willing to drag around the hunting grounds and see if I can get some nice shots of Grand Teton and all the rest. Since I no longer have a tag, I should not be walking around in the hunting area, as that may be interpreted as "driving the elk", which is illegal unless I have a tag. So I'll do the tourist thing while I'm here. There's no way to speed up the processing, so I really can't come home early.

Sunday, November 16 and beyond
      Yesterday (Saturday) was Day 6 of my trip, or Day 1AE (After Elk). With my tag now spent, I planned a fairly relaxing day: I borrowed a nicer camera from JohnD and drove around the area taking pictures. Though the weather was clear, it was really calm, and the Grand Teton (the tallest of the 3 Tetons) was a little bashful, and never completely unshrouded itself. I was a little disappointed by that, but on Day 7 they were clear, and having looked at the results from both days, I'm not sure the clouds don't add something to the whole scene. The nearly full moon was out just over the mountains early, which I thought was pretty neat.
      On the north side of Blacktail Butte is an old barn that appears to be unused now. I'm told it is the most photographed barn in the valley. I don't doubt it. I took some, too, both days I was running around with a camera. %^)

      I filled out the last of the paperwork for Wyoming Game and Fish, which included delivering the front two teeth from my kill to their headquarters in the little envelope they provided. I'm sure it's related to herd management, but I have no idea how it works. "Game and Fish" still sounds funny to my ears, coming from NH, where it's the "Fish and Game" department. Go figure.
      I have learned that mature elk have a pair of canine teeth which are called "ivories". These can be found nowhere else in nature. Who knew? Most hunters save them and make jewelry of some sort (rings, pendants, etc) from them. My little one did not have any ivories yet, so none for me this time. Click here for some examples of such jewelry.
      I saw more bison, including one walking slowly across the road. I'd hate to hit one of those big shaggies with ANY vehicle. I did not get any good photos of the Pronghorn Antelope, but I could see them in the fields. I also saw numerous moose, mostly in ones and twos, but all far off the road when I have had a camera available. The locals seem to think their moose are smaller than ours, but having looked at them, I'm not convinced. They look just as big and ugly as ours. On Monday I saw some female bighorn sheep.
      On Saturday while driving around taking pictures, through the magic of cellphones, I learned that Bud and JohnE both had their elk down, so I meandered over to where they usually park, and found JohnD's older pickup that I knew they were borrowing. There was a gentleman and his 14 year-old daughter just dragging their second elk out with horses as I arrived. It was her first hunt and her first elk. You go girl! One of them had a radio collar, and the game warden showed up to remove it, and said he'd send them a printout of where the cow had been for the past year. That's pretty neat. I helped them drag their two cows into the trailer. I got more blood on me and my shoes doing that than I had while cleaning ours yesterday. Clearly John's field-dressing technique is a little more advanced than this guy's and I benefited from his expertise. The fellow said he was an outfitter, and apparently he's a guide, too, so you'd think his field-dressing technique would be honed pretty well, but I guess it's not as common as one might think.
      The guy with his horse went back to the base of the butte and brought JohnE's elk out, but the horses were tired and he wanted to get home, so Bud had to wait for the We Drag 'Em team. Those guys took more than 4.5 hours to get there, and it was another hour before they got his elk towed to the parking lot. Time still has a different meaning to people out here than back home. Both Bud and JohnE got good sized cows. By the time we horfed them both into the bed, it was a truck full of elk!
      We finished up there about 2pm. I figured I'd take the opportunity to do a little of the tourist-thing, so I drove into town and walked around for a couple hours. It's a western-themed touristy place with a center square and lots of shops around the edge selling clothes, boots, souvenirs, and several fine art galleries. There's one shop with every kind of animal you might imagine stuffed and mounted, from a grey squirrel ($200) to a polar bear ($30,000), lions, sheep, otter, wolverine, elk ($2,000), deer ($900-$1500), bison, cape buffalo, wolf ($4000), pheasant ($320),'s pretty cool. The artwork on display in the galleries was mostly not to my liking, and the stuff I liked was out of my price range, so I think I may just pick out a few favorites from my photos and print them up for hanging on the wall.
      Day 7 is another rest day. After the morning photography run, I cleaned the gun, folded laundry, and wrote this little epistle.
      On Day 8, Monday, JohnD showed me and JohnE some of the places tourists rarely find, including a bunch of great views off the eastern end of Gros Ventre Road (the cabin they used for filming the movie SHANE, the lower and upper slide lakes, the Red Hills, and the Grey hills), and the top of Shadow Mountain. Very awesome. I could sit all day at any of the places we stopped and just be.
      As of today, my elk meat is being shipped home, I'm all packed, and I'm leaving tomorrow at 7am local time to go to BOS, so this pretty well wraps up my Wyoming Adventure. It's been a lot of fun, fairly relaxing, educational, wonderfully scenic, and I got to meet some good guys, but I can't wait to get home. I'll have to think about getting a deer tag in NH now. They cost only $22, and are a good excuse to walk around in the woods, which is a pretty good way to spend the day, if I may say so, myself. Until next time, Peace. -W

The Tetons from Shadow Mountain. Aren't they lovely?

The cabin used for filming the movie "Shane."

Facing EAST on the Gros Ventre Road. The Red Hills on the left, Gros Ventre River on the right, and a horsefarm on the flat between.

Facing WEST on the Gros Ventre Road, east of the Red Hills. The Gros Ventre River below.

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Created 17NOV2008, Last modified on 17NOV2008