People often ask me what my favorite story subject is. Until recently, I always hemmed and hawed around and said I didn’t really have a favorite, that I just liked being out, and bla bla bla, yada yada yada. I was serious. I have enjoyed all of the subjects I’ve covered during my 10 years with NEBRASKAland, either for the people or critters involved, the places they took me, or the cause they supported.
Now my answer is a short, three letter word – elk – and the subject of the cover story in this month’s magazine titled “Return to the Plains: Elk Comeback Not Yet Finished.”
My fascination with elk began when I was in my teens, likely due to the intrigue of hunting in the mountains. An elk hunt was on my mind when I bought my second rifle, a 7mm Remington Magnum when I was 20 or so. A poor college student at the time, I had no idea when I might be able to afford an elk hunt, but I wanted to be properly armed when the time came, just in case I couldn’t afford to put another rifle in the closet.
It would be 17 years before that day came and I swung a late-season cow hunt in northwestern Colorado. I still had only one rifle, not the same one, but a 7 mag just the same. That successful hunt reignited a desire to get serious about hunting elk. My next hunt added a heaping load of fuel to that fire.
In 2007, after 12 years of finding nothing but rejection letters in my mailbox, I finally found an envelope that contained my coveted, once-in-a-lifetime Nebraska bull permit. On the fifth day of the season, I harvested a beautiful 6×6 bull. On the first day, I lost an equally impressive bull. Between that heartbreak and the elation that came with success, I saw elk every day, called in my first bull on my first attempt with my pack bugle, and generally became hooked on elk hunting.
When I returned to Lincoln, I promptly added “Elk in Nebraska” to the list of stories I was working on. I began making contacts with landowners I knew had elk on their property, and tracking down others I didn’t yet know, and told the boss what we often do here at the magazine: “When I get the photos, you can schedule it.”
My elk photo safari began in December of 2008 on the one place I truly wanted to photograph them: the North Platte River Valley near Lewellen. Not once in the countless times I’d driven across the river on Highway 26, either on my way to hunt geese or to college in Chadron from my home in Ogallala, did I ever imagine there would be elk in that country. But in two of three trips to John Orr’s, I left with elk photos. On a winter shoot in 2008, I followed fresh elk tracks in the snow into the canyons to find a pair of bulls one day, and on the next froze in the teeth of a north wind on a single-digit day while laying on a hillside across a draw from a herd I’d followed off the alfalfa. That evening, after I bumped the herd moving in for more photos, I watched one of those one of those odd animal behaviors anyone who spends lots of time in the outdoors is sometimes lucky enough to see. As two mature bulls sparred playfully, a spike walked up and presented his antlers as if to say, “Can I play?” Two days later, I watched that same spike pace back and forth in front of a fence separating the alfalfa and the canyon, refusing to jump it and follow the rest of the herd. Kids.
My only failure at Orr’s was two summers ago, when I went west hoping to photograph cows and calves. I glassed six crossing a meadow from a distant hilltop the first morning, but never saw elk again, and left only with blisters, mosquito bites and a new appreciation for my Thermacell after spending the beginning and end of two days in that wet meadow.
Last September, I was back at Orr’s, parked on the road, lying on the hood of the truck staring at the stars and listening to a half-dozen or more bulls bugle incessantly. The next morning, I used a cow call and bugle to draw the bull you see on the cover of the issue into camera range. Paint the cottonwoods white and you’d think you were in a mountain aspen stand. Had I known he was going to circle me when he left my frame, I might have gotten a photo of him bugling 30 yards or so behind, but instead was forced to listen from the cattail slough I was hiding in. Had I packed a diaphragm call, I might’ve been able to get him to do that while he was still in front of me. I sure wasn’t going to move and grab the one around my neck.
The next morning, I spent several hours working my way through the maze of willows and sloughs to get close to the only bull that bugling in the entire bottom. One call sequence brought that young bull in at a run.
With more than enough North Platte River elk photos in hand, I headed to the Pine Ridge. My first evening was a bust, as I only spotted a lone cow elk from a distance. That was more than I saw the entire second day, however. Finally, on the third day, I found a herd on an alfalfa field southeast of Chadron, a photo of which leads the story. As always, an elk herd visible from the road tends to draw a crowd, and a half-dozen of us watched as a herd bull kept a satellite at bay.
The next morning on Jody Stumpf’s near Bordeaux Creek, I attempted get behind a herd feeding on another alfalfa well before dawn. But while skulking through the woods, listening to the sounds of antlers clashing and bulls bugling, I spotted the shadowy outline of a massive bull in the woods ahead of me. I didn’t spook him, but didn’t try to get closer either. That same bull was headed down a trail toward the post I took, but did an about face when cows began talking behind him. But I was happy one bull, the mud-caked one in the story, decided to walk past. With all of the talking going on that morning, I’m betting I could’ve called one of the bulls in the herd closer, but Jody’s wife, Judy, had a landowner permit to fill, and with the season just a week away, they didn’t want me pushing the elk, which I completely understood.
My safari also included two trips to Mark Johnson’s near Nenzel. The first was a bust, made in February 2008 when I’d hoped snow in the forecast would bring elk out of the Niobrara River canyons to Johnson’s pivots. It didn’t snow, they didn’t come out of the canyons and I couldn’t find them when I went in after them, but I did have a nice hike. I’ve already told you about my second trip in an earlier blog., Hunting with A Camera. Elk in the Sandhills? I like the idea.
I used no blinds or stands to capture the photos in the story, only a binoculars, a ghillie suit, boot leather, and occasionally calls. When all was said and done, I was successful on more days that I tried to photograph elk than not. I don’t know if that makes me lucky, good, or both, but I’ll take it. I do know that I couldn’t have done it without the help of the landowners who granted me access to their property, and even served as my scouts. Whether you’re hunting with a gun or a camera, effort spent scouting is usually directly proportional to success.
I know I’m glad elk decided to return to our fine state. I just wish I didn’t live so far them. But that could be a good thing. I could see myself spending way more time than I should hunting them with a camera. I’m hooked to the point that I’m going elk hunting this weekend and I don’t even have a permit. Long-time friend Gregg Sweley does, though, and since he kept me company on most of my Nebraska hunt, so I’m returning the favor, hoping I can help find him a cow (like me, he already punched his Nebraska bull tag). That will get me my fix until I can draw my own cow tag, the Nebraska Super Tag or add five more preference points for the hunt I’m planning in Colorado.
I’ll have camera in tow this weekend, of course. Maybe I’ll get that photo of a bull bugling in my face that I really wanted for the story. I tried to talk the bosses here into pushing the publication date back further so I could keep trying for that shot. But they’re no fun. Not nearly as much fun as elk, anyway.
You can read my story and see more photos and information that we didn’t have room for in the print edition at http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/nebland/articles/hunting/elk_return.asp.
See you out there.