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August 2018
Story by Todd Opdahl
State: Idaho
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

As the application season came and went, my 2017 Idaho fall hunting season began just like every other year, with a wallet full of over-the-counter, general season, public land archery tags. By mid-summer, after receiving my final “Unsuccessful” letter in the mail, I decided it was time for an adventure.

My first phone call was to my dad. After all, he is the one responsible for this hunting addiction. It began with hours on the Minnesota farm tree stands hunting for whitetail and evolved into our trips out to the Colorado and Wyoming mountains. It’s what drew me to move out west and pursue my hunting dreams. I told him I was thinking of doing a twoweek backcountry archery elk hunt with pack llamas. He had two words for me, “Do it.”

The next big obstacle was time. I filled out the paperwork with my employer to take a leave of absence for the entire month of September. My explanation for this leave of absence was physical and mental health restoration. I guess it just had a better ring to it than, “It’s hunting season!” As soon as I got the green light, I made a call to Beau at Wilderness Ridge Trail Llamas and rented some llamas.

As September quickly approached, my good friend, Jim, was able to get time off as well and wanted in on the adventure. A week prior to opener, we did an overnight llama orientation with Beau and spent some time hiking into the Tetons. We got to practice loading and unloading the llamas numerous times as well as learning several plants to avoid and other helpful hints from Beau, the llama whisperer. We picked up George, Belvidere, Marshall, and Granite (the llamas) on August 28th, and the next day, we loaded them up and headed back into the high country.

The day we hiked in, the temperatures peaked at 85 degrees, forest fire smoke filled the valleys, and it was all met with a blazing full moon at night. After setting up camp that evening, already soaked through with sweat, we knew we had a challenging hunt ahead of us.

The first nine days of the hunt were much of the same. Temperature highs were in the mid 80s, and it was smoky. We averaged around eight miles each day, hiking on foot and leaving the llamas to graze back at camp. Of the 900 bugles we heard, 3 didn’t come from my bugling tube. We only saw a handful of elk, none of which were interested in what we had to say. By 10 a.m. every day, we were drenched in sweat, my feet smelled as if they were wrapped in a rotting carcass, and with every deep breath, I inhaled 12 flies and a lungful of smoke. Morale was low, to say the least.

After relocating camp for the third time, we decided to hunt our separate ways to cover more ground. On day 10, I headed to the top of the mountain and followed the ridgeline for miles. I bugled down every valley along the way and was met with silence every time. I finally came to the mountainside I had previously looked at on Google Earth. It was north-facing and filled with thick timber. It was 2:30 p.m. as I crept 60 yards below the ridgeline, checked the wind, and did a sequence of bugles and cow calls. Nothing.

I sat down on the ground in the shade and sulked. After 10 minutes of pouting, I heard a distant twig snap. I got to my knees, nocked my arrow, and listened. After a few minutes of silence, I let out some quiet cow calls, which were immediately followed by a screaming bull. He was close! I cow called again, scurried about 30 yards closer, and dropped to my knees. As soon as I got into position, I saw him. He had his head down and was walking right at me. He stopped at 43 yards and let out a gnarly bugle. As soon as his head went back down, I drew my bow back, undetected. Sweat was beading down my face, flies were taking full advantage of my motionlessness, and I knelt there at full draw, watching this bull walk towards me through my peep sight. I could hear him breathing as he walked through the timber. At 10 yards, he stopped, lifted his head, and screamed right in my face. This was a moment I had been dreaming of my whole life. As I settled my pin for a frontal shot, he pegged me and tore off. I started cow calling and stood up, still at full draw. He finally stopped at 40 yards and looked back to investigate. I had a heavy quartering away shot, so I settled my pin on his opposite shoulder and let my arrow fly. The “thwack” echoed in the trees, and I watched my arrow bury into the fletchings. He ran full steam ahead down the mountainside and expired right next to a willow patch. After nine and a half days of sweat and silence, it was over. It was 3 p.m. on September 7th, 86 degrees, and I had just filled my Idaho over-the-counter elk tag at 9,000 feet. I couldn’t believe it! Due to the extreme heat, we packed everything onto the llamas and began our eight-mile hike back to the truck.

After tending to the garden back at home and spending time with other buddies, trying to help them fill their tags, I decided to buy a second tag in Idaho. I had the time, so why not? I bought a tag for the same unit and went to a spot that I had been looking at for a while. I hiked back in with enough supplies on my back to last me a week and was greeted with the first real snowstorm of the fall. After I set up my spike camp and huddled in my tent, I had a hard time believing I was just here two weeks ago and it was almost 70 degrees warmer.

The next morning, I crawled out of my tent and was greeted with 16 degree weather and six inches of fresh, quiet snow. I bundled up and began my 2,000-foot ascent up the mountain. It was cold, but it was beautiful. I got to the top ridge around noon and ripped off a bugle on the backside. Three bulls answered me. One was fairly close, and I spotted him chasing a cow all over the mountainside. It was amazing to watch. They disappeared over the ridge where I had heard another bugle, so I started hiking that direction. Every bugle along the way was answered, but I stayed aggressive and continued to get closer. I ripped a bugle, crept up 30 yards, got in position, and waited. It took about 10 minutes before he finally appeared. Trudging through the fresh snow in the glaring sun, he stopped and raked a small pine at 40 yards. I could feel the wind in my face as he turned and kept coming closer. As he walked behind a tree, I drew back and settled my pin. He finally stopped broadside at 15 yards. It was a perfect shot, and I watched him fall over after 60 yards and about five seconds.

I immediately fell to my knees. I had feelings of excitement and achievement, but they were almost overshadowed by feelings of sadness and guilt. I had just taken a second bull’s life in 15 days. Elk are the kings of the mountains and such beautiful, majestic animals. I don’t believe these feelings make me less of a hunter, rather more of an ethical hunter. It will not stop me from hunting and only makes me cherish it more. I said a prayer, walked over and put my hands on the animal, and got to work. Beau came through again and lent me George, Jasper, and Jackson to help me pack my bull seven and a half miles out of the mountains and back to the truck.

I spent 21 nights under the stars and in the mountains in September. I had vivid dreams every night. My daily stress dose of heartburn was non-existent. I left refreshed, in top physical condition, and with a clear head. My physical and mental health had been restored, at least until next September.

Idaho Elk Hunting