The hair on the back of my neck was standing on end. We were completely surrounded by a frenzy of bugling bulls. We had a big herd bull in a clearing in front of us with a large herd of cows, and the satellite bulls were circling and screaming in frustration all around us. A bull was raking a tree a few yards in front of us. We could hear the crashing of antlers from bulls fighting just out of sight.
The big herd bull we had dubbed the Thoroughbred was feeling the pressure from his tormentors and began his usual routine that earned him his nickname, taking his cows and running. Only this time we thought we had him. The bull and his cows were in a box canyon surrounded by vertical cliffs, with us blocking his escape. We thought finally one of us would get a shot.
Suddenly we heard rocks rolling. We looked up and saw the Thoroughbred pushing his cows straight up the rock face. I wouldn’t have thought a goat could have made it up that cliff, yet here was a herd of elk traversing the face. The Thoroughbred pushed his cows over the top first then stopped toward the top of his climb and in a regal pose bugled in defiance and celebration of his triumphant escape. Standing with our bows in our hands, my hunting partners and I just shook our heads and smiled in appreciation of this unforgettable experience.
We had backpacked seventeen miles into a Montana wilderness area, and two and a half weeks later we hiked out without an elk, but knowing we had experienced one of the greatest hunts of our lives. It was the perfect elk hunt.
That was twenty years ago, just prior to the reintroduction of the wolves into our western mountains. All of us have hunted elk since, and none of us have experienced the elk numbers, the intensity of the rut, the trophy quality, and the relaxed demeanor of the elk that were the hallmarks of that hunt. I thought an elk hunt like that was a thing of the past. That is, until last fall when I arrived at Ruggs Ranch in central Oregon. I had met ranch owner John Flynn at the Dallas Safari Club show in Dallas. We talked about the ranch and all it had to offer and lined up a late fall hunt.
Ruggs Ranch head guide Adam Sande kept me wound up all summer with trail camera photos of herds of the big bulls roaming the ranch. I had to push my hunt at Ruggs later than planned due to the birth of my daughter Eliza. I had missed the birth of my son when he arrived early while I was away on a Cape buffalo hunt. My wife was very understanding about that one, but I figured she might not be amused if it happened a second time.
I arrived at Ruggs in early November with only a few days to hunt, and pulled up in front of their beautiful log lodge. I was greeted by the smiling staff and we hauled my gear to a room in the lodge. Since we weren’t heading up to the elk camp until the next morning, Adam suggested we experience some of the bird hunting that Ruggs is famous for. With another guide, Pete, and a couple of dogs, we headed out. We saw pheasants everywhere on the drive out, and after unloading the dogs it was but a few yards of walking before we had our first point. The dogs flushed the bird on command and we had our first rooster in the bag. The abundance of birds was such that we would only walk a few yards before we had another point. It wasn’t long before our coats were heavy with birds and we headed back to the lodge.
Ruggs has the most amazing birdcleaning facility I have ever seen, where the birds are cleaned and vacuumpacked. We dropped off the birds and headed into the lodge where we were greeted by Executive Chef John “Cookie” Kulon, who served us an unbelievable meal that would be tough to beat in a five-star restaurant. Stuffed to the gills, I climbed into bed, anticipating the next phase of my hunt—elk camp.
The next morning we headed up from the grassland plains where the lodge is located into the pine-covered mountains where the elk camp is situated. It was the nicest wall tent camp I have ever experienced and the best thing about it was Chef Cookie came with us. This is the first elk hunt I have ever experienced with an executive chef. The glazed pork chops and fresh salad sure beat the ramen noodles, jerky, and granola bars that are the usual fare on my elk hunts.
We situated our gear and headed out to glass for elk. The ranch consists of more than 80,000 acres of beautiful rolling mountains, timbered canyons, and open parks—a free-range elk paradise. Adam spotted a very nice bull in a distant canyon but there just wasn’t enough daylight to go after him, so we headed back to camp and made a plan for the next day’s hunt.
Breakfast was still on the table when we heard our first bugle of the morning. Quickly finishing the excellent meal, we headed out in the direction of the bugles. We could hear the cows and calves calling in the clearings ahead. We still-hunted along the timber’s edge, trying to close in on the herd. Suddenly we spotted elk topping a rise. We sat, pinned down, until they made their way out of sight, then continued to move. We came over the rise and moved down into the timber toward the herd. We could hear elk calls everywhere and could tell this was a huge herd. Before long, cows and calves began to appear below us, working their way through the clearings. They just kept coming and coming, cows, calves, spikes, and occasional smaller bulls in a parade that seemed endless. As the huge herd made its way past us we became aware we were completely encircled by elk — just like that long-ago day in Montana.
I kept my rifle trained toward the first opening that allowed a shot. Anticipation was killing me as I waited for a big bull to step into the opening. We were all grinning from ear to ear but trying not to move and spook the herd. This mass of elk — hundreds of animals — streamed past us for more than two hours. We saw numerous bulls, but none of the big ones presented a shot. We followed slowly behind, hoping to get a shot at one of the big bulls, but eventually we were forced to back off as they were heading for their midday bedding grounds.
After lunch we headed out to another area not far from camp. We hadn’t walked far when we came across a good bull feeding in a small clearing in the afternoon sun. I glassed the bull and although he was a very nice 300-class bull, he was a 5×6. We were heading into the canyon where we had glassed the big bull the night before, so we decided to hold out. Still-hunting through the timber and along the canyon, we saw mule deer and cows and calves, but not the big bull we had seen the previous night.
The next morning dawned clear and cold. We headed up to another part of the ranch where there were several huge parks with water holes. The terrain was beautiful and far less steep than the elk country I’m used to in Idaho and Montana. We made our way across a ridge leading to a steep canyon where the guides see a lot of the big bulls in the late season. Finding a good vantage point, we began glassing the canyon. After glassing for a while and not spotting any bulls we started working our way down the canyon. As we approached the edge of a large clearing, a handful of elk suddenly stood and retreated into the timber. From the thundering sound of hoofs and the swath of churned ground in their wake, there was no doubt of the size of this herd. We followed along in their tracks for a time but they had blown out of the valley and up onto a high plateau.
After lunch and an afternoon nap we headed toward the plateau where the herd had gone. We had barely stepped out of the truck when we ran into elk. It seemed elk were behind nearly every bush and now our biggest problem was going to be getting to the plateau where the bulk of the herd was. We would move a few yards and get pinned down by more elk. Fortunately, these elk don’t see much hunting pressure and with a lack of predators they are much more relaxed than public-land elk. They would catch us sometimes right out in the open but usually after staring us down for only a few minutes they would resume feeding and move on.
Elk were calling all around us but the bulk of the bugling was up the canyon toward the clearing on top of the plateau. The sheer number of elk was both fantastic and frustrating. We knew there were big bulls in this herd because the guides had seen them a few days before my arrival, but we could make no progress trying to navigate this minefield of elk. Several small bulls would feed in and out of sight between the trees, but we could never get a good look at the big bulls.
Darkness was slowly creeping in when we finally made it to the rim of the plateau. We knew this was going to be our last chance before my hunt ended. Elk were in the clearing but we knew we were only seeing a small portion of the herd. Several small bulls were feeding and chasing cows in what must have been the secondary rut, but no big bulls were in sight. Finally we had to make a decision. The light was fading and so was my hunt, and I really wanted an elk for the freezer. The moment was now upon us—shoot or go home empty-handed.
I picked out a bull in the clearing and took the shot. The herd thundered off for what seemed like an eternity. We made our way up to the crest of the ridge, hoping to spot my bull; we knew any sign he left would have been wiped out by the herd. As we crested the ridge, there lay my bull about 100 yards off. He was far from the biggest bull on the ranch, but we couldn’t have cared less. To have simply spent so much time surrounded by elk was amazing. Even as we began to field-dress the bull, the rest of the elk resumed talking not far away. Being in the midst of so many elk in such a pristine setting was something I didn’t think I’d experience again in my lifetime. I was glad to know the good old days of elk hunting still exist in places like Ruggs Ranch.
After field-dressing, we leaned back against the warm bulk of the bull under a beautiful star-filled sky and reminisced about the past few days. I had just experienced another perfect elk hunt.
James C. Reed.
The story originally appeared in Sports Afield, November-December 2015.
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