Fortification Elk Hunt
|Firearms - Rifles/Guns|
Fortification Creek is located in North Central Wyoming, in a pocket of BLM land. This pine and cedar-covered country covers more than ten sections and is made up of rough breaks, rim rocks, and deep, cedar lined draws. There is little water. The parcel has been declared a wilderness study area, and the only motorized traffic allowed is that of the lessee, who can access the country to check fences and livestock.
The Fortification country, as it is called, is surrounded by private ranches, and during the 50s some of these ranchers requested that elk be planted in this tract of BLM land. The elk did well in the rugged country, and by the mid 1980’s limited hunting on the herd was allowed to maintain a population of around 200 elk. The elk season runs for nine days, and there are 70 licenses issued, 35 any elk and 35 antlerless elk only.
In 1986, my husband talked me into applying for an elk permit in this rugged, difficult to access country. With so few licenses issued, I was amazed to find that I had drawn an any elk permit. The next step was finding a rancher to let us access the property.
Getting permission to hunt on the land could be difficult unless one had an‘in’ with someone who owned one of the surrounding ranches and leased the BLM country for grazing sheep or cattle. When I hunted in the area there was a small herd of feral horses as well.
A friend of ours knew a man who owned a sheep ranch that bordered the country, and he agreed to take me in for my hunt. Due to the road-less status, we would hunt on horseback. Using the one back road, Greg took in the tents and equipment and set up the elk camp near some sheep corrals, so we could keep the horses there.
The ranch lay on the far side of a narrow bridge strung high above the Powder River . Greg’s horse took to the bridge easily, but I was riding my husband’s horse, Sage, and she wasn’t too thrilled about going across the narrow span.
“We have to use the bridge. There’s quicksand down there,” Greg said.
I knew the sluggish Powder River was filled with quicksand holes, so I finally convinced Sage to make her way across the bridge. After that it was easy. We trotted down a road that had been built earlier in the year for a water line into the back country. In many places the earth had dropped away and left large sinkholes along the line.
We arrived at camp late in the afternoon. It was a wall tent complete with a wood stove and a hot plate for cooking. Two cots were set up, and we had the sleeping bags tied on back of the saddles. Greg had driven in with coolers of food and drinks. It was a cozy looking elk camp, in spite of the fact that we were on a wide sagebrush plain, not on a high mountain meadow. The low-sided wooden corrals smelled faintly of sheep, but there was grass inside and Greg had brought in hay. We unsaddled and fed the horses hay and packhorse cubes, and got some cans of soda to drink. I undertook the cooking that night and found some hamburger and potatoes and made a hash for supper. Later, we shared the cooking and clean up chores.
The tent was cozy with the warm fire and the Coleman lantern Greg brought. The mantles glowed softly.
Before Greg retired, he turned down the lantern, and I watched the mantle go from white to orange and then wink out. We could hear coyotes yammering and howling, and the wind whispered across the grass.
Morning of opening day came, and with it clouds filled with rain. Rain lashed the tent, and water ran down the hillside. We brought the saddles inside and anything else that rain would hurt. We could barely see the hills a half-mile away.
“No hunting today. We couldn’t even see an elk.”
We had to be satisfied sitting by the fire, reading novels. “What kind of a guide are you,” I teased. “Not even a deck of cards.”
“I know. I wasn’t thinking.” He was wandering around the tent, lifting the flap to see if the rain was letting up. It hadn’t. I always have books, and I loaned Greg a paperback.
We wiled the rainy day away reading. By the next morning, the skies had cleared, and we were up at daylight, saddling up and by the time the sun was up we were on the ridges, looking for elk.
We stopped on a high ridge near a water tank to let the horses water. “This was put in to better utilize the pasture,” Greg said. “The elk use them too, especially in hot weather.”
“This is quite the country,” I said, taking in the panorama as my horse drank. Rugged hills and deep, rough draws dotted with cedars and pine trees. To the west rose the Big Horn Mountains . Eastward the hills, some shale topped, went on and on toward the Black Hills country.
I heard the drone of a plane. Above us, a small plane swooped low.
“I’ll bet someone is scouting for elk,” Greg said, grinning at me. “I hate it when they do that. They should be out here on horseback if they really want to hunt elk.”
I agreed. There were few roads, but the sky was open to all. If they spotted elk from the air, they could radio to the hunters on the ground giving them location. Not exactly fair chase. I don’t like to see people who are just out to ‘kill’ game. I wanted the entire hunting experience, which is what I got. Actually, we did not see any other hunters in the area where we were hunting, compare that to Jackson Hole , where sometimes there appears to be more hunters than elk.
We reached our hunting country by mid-morning. “The best way is to walk these draws,” Greg said. “The timber is too thick to ride in.” We tied the horses and walked down a steep hillside. The cedar trees scented the air.
“Sometimes you can really get them upset,” Greg said, drawing on his experience as an elk hunter. “You’ll find a track and walk it and when they feel threatened, you’ll see where they have stopped and pawed the ground and peed.”
We walked all day, but didn’t even see an elk. We saw tracks and sign, but no bull elk. We did spot a small herd of cows and calves, but we let them go, hoping for something with headgear.
We hunted for four days, and although we saw sign, there were no elk. We rode back to the ranch house empty handed and loaded the horses for the trip home.
Day 5 - Mother and Daughter Elk Hunt
After Greg had to leave, there was still one day of the Fortification season left. Getting permission to go into the same elk country, I invite my mom, who also enjoys hunting and especially getting out in the outdoors on horseback. Giving Sage a rest, mom and I load up her horse, Redwing, and my father’s horse, Dynamite, who was a little calmer in all situations than my Arabian, Gazelle, or either of the youngsters I was also riding at the time. We left early in the morning, before daylight, and arrived at the ranch around sunup.
“If you don’t get something today, it’s finished isn’t it?” Mom asked as we unload the horses.
“Yep. I hope I find something today,” I flipped the reins over Dynamite’s head.
“We have to take them across that bridge?” Mom asks, eying the narrow sheep bridge that spans Powder River . The bridge is not only narrow but it arches high above the muddy, slow moving river.”
“Sage and Greg’s horses went. It might take a little persuasion.” Only a little, once the horses saw we were ok with the bridge, they stepped gingerly across.
As we rode, from the ranch, I filled Mom in on the first four days when I was camping out, and the fact that we hadn’t seen anything but a small herd of cow elk with calves, and I had was holding out for a bull.
“This is pretty country, isn’t it?” Mom comments as we ride up a deep draw. “What are the holes in the road?” Redwing nervously skirts a sinkhole in the road.
“Mr. Mitchelena put in a waterline last summer. That’s where the ground settled. We have to watch those sink holes.” I tell her.
“I’ll bet the water has undermined a lot of the dirt covering the line. I hope the horses don’t break through,” Mom worries.
I hope the horses are smart enough to avoid undermined ground.
Riding through the cedars and the deep draws is enjoyable. The air is fresh and scented with cedar and sage. But, we haven’t yet seen any elk.
We ride deep into the Fortification. We see deer and a small herd of half-wild horses that a rancher is running there until he takes the time to either train them or sell them. They run as we approach, wilder than the deer. Mom glances at her watch. The sun is high overhead. “How about some lunch?”
We have packed sandwiches and cokes for lunch. We find a spreading cedar tree and tie the horses to the tree, unsaddling them to give them a break from the ride. The ground is soft and dusty under the tree. To the west we can see the Big Horn Mountains , and to the east we see the Black Hills . Between is the rough, broken, cedar-lined draws and rocky outcrop that, somewhere, harbor elk.
“This is interesting country,” Mom says, chewing on her sandwich. “It is sure rough; those draws are deeper and rockier than on our ranch.”
After about an hour’s rest we saddle the horses again and ride along a high ridge, still looking for elk. The ridge is long, and we ride to where a neighbor’s fenceline stops our progress. It is now 3:00 p.m.
“We could ride down in that draw, but it’s pretty rough,” I tell mom. “Greg and I rode in there two days before, and we did see elk sign.”
She looks at her watch. “It’s getting late; we have a long ride back. I don’t really want to be here after dark, especially with those sinkholes in the road.” We agree to turn around and ride back.
Half-way back, I spot the buff and brown color of an elk. It is a bull, with a nice five-point rack, grazing in a small swale. It spotted us about the same time and started running. I kicked Dynamite into a gallop and we scrambled down the ridge in a shower of rocks to get closer. The elk stopped for a minute. I jumped off and drew grabbed my .270. I threw the reins to mom and sat down on the side hill, taking a steady rest. I aimed quickly and fired a round as the elk started to disappear into the cedars. I knew it was now or never. The shot echoed across the draw, and the elk dropped. He wasn’t dead. It took two more bullets to end his suffering; the first bullet had taken him in mid-spine, dropping him instantly.
I could hear mom talking to the horses. They weren’t used to rifle shots, and I had left her in charge of making sure we had transportation back to the ranch.
“Easy, Redwing, Dynamite. You’re ok. Easy.” The horses quieted. Without them, we were afoot in strange country, a long ways from anything. After several shots, Cynthia downed the elk, and by then the sun had set and we only had a few minutes of daylight left. I held the horses while Cynthia gutted the elk.”
He wasn’t a large bull, but a five-point was a decent trophy. We admired the trophy for a while, but it was now getting late, and I still had to gut the bull. I had downed and gutted deer and antelope, but nothing had really prepared me for the size of this beast. I had a big job ahead of me.
My hunting knife looked rather puny for the job ahead, but it was sharp, and easily did the job. As I wanted to save the cape and eventually have my husband, a taxidermist, mount the head, I didn’t slit all the way up the neck, which necessitated nearly crawling inside the elk to get the lungs and heart. Dark was coming, the sun dropped behind the hills.
“It’s getting dark,” Mom said.
“I know.” I was a little concerned about riding out of this unfamiliar backcountry after dark. Finally, I was done.
“Once you get him gutted, how are we going to get him out?” Mom asked. It was full dark by this time, and no moon. We could barely see each other.
“We can’t cut him up and pack him out tonight,” I said. For one thing, we lacked the necessary tools to quarter the elk, and boning him out would take way too long.
“We’ll have to leave him overnight and take our chances with the coyotes feasting on him. Maybe yhe landowner can come back in the morning with a pickup to help me get him out.”
I propped the cavity open to keep the meat cool, and lay my hunting vest and an extra t-shirt on the carcass to (hopefully) keep the coyotes off of it until morning. I hated to leave my trophy, but I really had no choice. Now, the important thing was getting back to the ranch house safely in the dark.
“It was a dark, dark night,” Mom remembers. “There was no moon, just starlight. There are no streetlights or yard lights or any light in that back country. I suggested that we spend the night, even if we had to sleep on the ground. I didn’t want to ride back and chance the horses stumbling or maybe falling in those sinkholes on the road.”
I was rather for the idea, but I suggested we ride as far as the sheep corrals where Greg and I had camped. There was no tent, Greg had broken down the camp, but we could at least put the horses in the corrals.
With no moon, we could barely see our horse’s ears. The stars were brilliant, but gave little light. We kept to the road, and walked, not wanting to chance going faster. After riding for about an hour, we topped a ridge and saw the most welcome sight I have ever seen.
Mom adds her memories of the night, “We had ridden to the top of a ridge, and saw the most welcome sight, headlights. A pickup was parked near the sheep corrals. I prayed that he wouldn’t drive away and leave us here in the dark. It was the landowner, and we caught up with him before he left. Thank the Lord.”
Carefully, thinking that any minute we would see the vehicle wheel and drive away, we rode to the corrals, catching the landowner just as he was preparing to leave.
“I got an elk,” I said.
“Glad to hear it.” The landowner said.
“I was wondering if we could leave the horses here in the corrals overnight, and come back and get the elk in the morning.”
“Sure thing,” he said.
We unsaddled and turned the horses in the corrals, making sure they had water. The inside of the pickup was warm compared to the coolness of the night. I told the landowner about the hunt, and thanked him for letting us go into his lease.
The next day, I went back to the hunting country, and directed the landowner to the elk. From there it was easier than I expected. The landowner drove to within a few feet of the elk, and it didn’t take long to load him in the back of the vehicle. He dropped me off at the corrals and drove the elk on it to the ranch. I rode back, leading Redwing. Seeing the numerous sinkholes in the road, I was grateful for his being at the corrals the night before. It would have been a tense ride in, worrying about that road in the dark.
“It would have been a scary experience with all those sink holes. We knew the horses would be anxious to get home, and wouldn’t be watching the trail as close. I was so glad that the landowner was out in the pasture and that we found him.” Mom said.
“I sure enjoyed that hunt. Especially since she got something. That was really neat. Especially since Cynthia went with a guide the first three days of the season and didn’t see a bull, but when her and I went out we found one. It was a neat experience for two women hunters. That was an awfully big animal for a woman to gut out. I’m glad that the landowner could come and get the elk, there was no way that Cynthia and I could have packed the elk out on horses, it was just too big.”
Looking back, it was an experience of a lifetime, and to date, it is the only bull elk I have ever taken. Mom is getting older now, and suffers from shoulder pain, so it was a blessing that we could have that day together and take a mother-daughter elk hunt.
© September 2006
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