“How hard can elk hunting be, right?” I chided to my son as we planned our elk hunt just three weeks prior to our departure. After decades of ignoring elk, my attention distinctly shifted towards the big ungulates in early August 2019. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate elk, but I never had the inroad giving me the confidence to go. Several factors this year gave me that confidence.
In the spring of 2019 we took our mules northwest for a do-it-yourself bear hunt in Montana. It would be the first time I’d traveled with stock across the country. The twenty-four-hour road trip was a true expedition. I killed a bear on the fifth day of the hunt after putting over 55 miles on our mules. I knew we could use the same systems for hunting the backcountry for elk.
On the bear hunt, I also picked up my first elk shed. It was a sign. The rough, ivory-like antler was mesmerizing, and when I brought it home my wife liked it. “We need a big one hanging right there,” she said pointing to blank spot on the wall. “You know, a real one.” She meant one that I killed and had the skull attached. With her brow furrowed, a moment of realization and confusion erupted in a question, “Why haven’t you ever killed an elk?” I was in shocked, shamed and spurred to action in the same moment. Something had to be done. Within a few days I ordered my first elk calls and was making loud obnoxious noises in the office. Did it sound good? I don’t know, and I still don’t.
Our System for Hunting Off Mules
Though it might seem counter intuitive, our system for using equines requires an ultra light gear setup. You see, most Western horse/mule hunts require both a riding animal and a pack animal. Despite what you may think, these animals are limited in what they can carry. You don’t want to pack much more than 150 to 200 pounds of dead weight on an average sized mule if you’re going very far. However, a live rider is different than dead weight and they can tolerate a bit more. I weigh roughly 170 pounds, my saddle weighs 30 pounds, and I typically carry between 55-65 pounds of gear in order to keep my mule from being over burdened. Why? Because I want a simple setup with one animal. I want to ride and pack on the same critter. This is why I still need ultra-light gear.
It’s not just the weight of the gear that matters, but it’s the actual volume. When riding and packing gear on the same critter space in invaluable. That’s why the Nemo/First Lite Recurve tent was a game changer for our system. This tent is half the volume of my former tent, and weighs much less (1 pound 11 ounces). In the past, my sleeping bag has been the largest volume item I carried, and I even had a pretty good one. On this hunt I carried the Nemo/First Lite Scout 30 bag. It is notably smaller than my previous of similar insulation. Both of these items were critical in reducing overall volume.
My son Bear is thirteen years old and has grown five inches in the last six months. For the first time in his life he can walk as fast, or faster, than me. I decided to pull him out of school and let him be my sidekick on this hunt. He’s ridden mules a lot, but never like this. This would be his first serious backcountry hunt. I knew it would either make him or break him, and I thought I knew which one it would be.
To make a long story short, we hunted 4.5 days on some heavily pressured public land in Colorado in an over-the-counter unit. It took us three days of riding to find some elk, but when we did the action heated up quick and fast. After riding approximately 26 miles in the first two days (per our OnXmap), we started finding fresh droppings, tracks and rubs at about 10,000 feet elevation on day three. That evening we slipped in with the wind in our faces and did some light cow calls. Like magic, within five minutes we heard sticks breaking and saw two bull elk coming towards us! The sad part is that I didn’t fully know the regulation about a five-inch brow tine qualifying a bull as legal. Both bulls likely had brows that long, but I was only counting points looking for four points on one side! It’s either four points or a five-inch brow in Colorado for a legal bull. Long story short, I didn’t shoot either one though they were at 8 and 18 yards respectively. After a stare down the bulls boogered off and our hunt was effectively over. I guess that’s the price you pay for planning a hunt in such a short period of time.
Overall, the hunt was incredible. My time with my son was invaluable, and we both learned a lot. In four days we rode over 40 miles and found elk in some big blocks of public land. We’re elk hunters now, so we’ll be back.
Born and raised in Northwest Arkansas, Clay Newcomb is writer, film-maker, mule-skinner, hound trainer, artist, conservationist, and trad archer. He is also the owner and editor of Bear Hunting Magazine. Check out the film Clay made about the hunt here.