Elk hunters expect days of loneliness

Elk hunters expect days of loneliness

Rich Landers The Spokesman-Review

Usually I don’t call phone numbers listed in newspaper classified ads unless I’m looking for bargains.

But this time I was searching for the hunter’s soul.

During the drive home from elk camp last week, I had plenty of time to analyze the cost-benefit ratio of elk hunting and concluded once again that it tends to be out of balance, particularly when you return empty-handed.

So I felt as though I was being summoned by a kindred spirit when I unpacked my soggy gear, oiled the .30-06, and settled into the recliner with the newspaper and saw the following ad under “Sporting goods:”

WANTED: ELK, need to fill tag, plz call (509) 981-3849.

If there were such a thing as a class-action classified, about 40,000 Washington elk hunters could have shared the $11 cost of that two-line ad.

I thought it might be a gag perpetrated by giddy hunting buddies to publicly humiliate the camp’s one luckless hunter.

But the ad was no joke.

“I’m an avid hunter,” said Rob Carey, a local golf course maintenance worker who answered my call. “But elk have escaped me forever. It’s so hard to find guys to go with. I don’t mind hunting deer or pheasants alone, but it’s not smart to go elk hunting alone, especially in big timber.

“And it’s even harder to find a good place to go. I mean a good place where you have a chance of getting an elk.”

The 41-year-old hunter had succinctly laid out most of the reasons would-be elk hunters spend season after season on the couch instead of out looking for a fresh set of tracks.

Carey said he’d heard that some landowners have problems with elk coming in and damaging their trees and haystacks. “I was hoping a herd might be causing a nuisance and maybe I could help them out.

“I don’t mind being a hit man with a tag.”

Halfway through the season, Carey realized that if the ad were to have a chance at working, it would have to run in the dead of winter and maybe in a category like “Hay for sale,” or some place a rancher with an elk problem might be more likely to see it.

“I only got a couple of calls and they were from hunters who were looking for elk, too,” he said.

“I knew it was a long shot, especially this time of year.”

The long shot – that’s what hunters take when they’re desperate.

Most elk hunters have been there.

If I don’t draw one of Washington’s special elk permits, I don’t even call it elk hunting.

I call it elk speculating.

When my speculating buddy, Dick Rivers, calls before we head out to elk camp, he always double checks to make sure I bring my map and compass, two items I forgot years ago on the only foggy elk hunting trip in which I really needed them.

Most of all, he checks and rechecks to be sure I bring plenty of food, wine and a good book. In the last couple of years, he hasn’t even asked if I’ve packed my knife, meat saw or game bags.

Only 12 percent of Washington’s 47,015 modern firearms elk hunters filled tags last year.

About 80 percent of the 5,500-some elk harvested in this state were taken by the minority of hunters who drew special bull or antlerless elk permits, a treat that’s eluded me for four years.

The last time I drew a special permit giving me access to a branch- antlered bull in the Blue Mountains was the last time I put elk meat in the freezer.

That’s why they make tofu, Rivers tells me.

We look like a couple of paranoid bird watchers when we’re out elk speculating, sitting there in the woods with our ought-sixes across our laps, looking through binoculars at the chickadees flitting through the trees above.

We see a lot of cool birds during elk season. That is, when we’re not snoring.

We’ve both had Steller’s jays, nuthatches and other birds land on our boots and even our rifle barrels as we sat motionless, snoozing against a tree.

I’ve tried praying for a spike bull to run a hundred miles or so from wherever they hide during hunting seasons and commit suicide by magically appearing in one of the shooting lanes we’ve pruned through the forest brush.

But even God has trouble putting antlers on a chickadee.

The highlight of one cold, drippy wet day last week was reaching my numb fingers for a little warmth deep into my coat pocket and finding a Halloween candy bar from a year or two ago. It was hard enough to be used as a projectile in a muzzleloader, but it kept me occupied for an hour or so as I gnawed and sucked it into submission.

Still, I hope Rob Carey and others like he continue to search and find a way to get out for a season of elk speculating.

Despite the lack of game, I felt like I was actually hunting as this year’s rifle season wore on, but only because I was reading a book called “The Greatest Hunting Stories Ever Told,” edited by Lamar Underwood.

The book soothed the bruised provider portion of my male ego.

Even the “Greatest” hunting stories included tales of sportsmen who came home with nothing but a grin to show for their hunt.

SIDEBAR: PRIEST LAKE Kokanee update Gary Rudie, an angler who has lived at Priest Lake for 40 years, sparked last Thursday’s column with his enthusiasm for the red revival of kokanee he saw spawning along the sandy shorelines. On Monday, Idaho Fish and Game Department researchers confirmed his optimism with shoreline spawner counts three times greater than last year at this time, indicating the fishery that crashed years ago is starting to rebound.

You can contact Rich Landers by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5508, or e-mail to richl@spokesman.com.

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