Wiltz: Luck was on my side in Wyoming
I'll turn 76 years old in April. For the past 15 years, I've wondered when I've booked a hunt, "Have I bitten off too much? Can I handle it physically?"
I know I'm overweight, and I have peripheral neuropathy in my legs. Walking is not easy for me. Well, I've been lucky, and I've done just fine ... that is until last month's Wyoming elk hunt. I failed to keep up, and it almost cost me.
On Sunday, Dec. 3, Casey Johnson came to our Meeteetse, Wyoming motel room. He would be my guide for the next three days on the cow elk hunt I had booked with Wood River Outfitters. Casey would prove to be strong, athletic, and extremely knowledgeable when it came to elk behavior.
During our pre-hunt motel room session, I learned that the Yellowstone herd — 2,000 to 3,000 of them — was wintering on Carter Mountain, part of the Absaroka Range. The elk were hopefully on the flat beneath the mountain, and in all likelihood, a cow elk would stand and look at me from 65 yards. Casey would be back at 6 a.m. to pick up Mike Hall and me in his quad cab Chevy.
On Monday, the elk weren't standing around on the flat. In fact, we didn't see any elk. At mid-afternoon, we spotted the elk — 2,000 to 3,000 of them — on the east side of Carter Mountain. They appeared to be moving northward and they appeared to be descending. Casey didn't want to disturb them. If they fed on the flat that night, I'd probably get an easy shot the next morning. As we observed them through binoculars and spotting scope, we could see five wolves working the herd perimeter.
On Tuesday, Dec. 5, six inches of fresh snow was on the ground. The herd was now somewhat scattered in the foothills and if I wanted an elk, we would have to go after them on foot. Casey and I left Mike in the pickup, and then angled northwesterly in a side-by-side ATV that had been left on the flat. We parked the ATV and soon began our ascent of the foothills. I was wearing heavy insulated coveralls that made my climbing difficult. We spooked a cow moose and calf as we moved upward through a brushy creek bottom.
Soon I was struggling, and the 8,000 feet elevation compounded my problem. Casey told me that he would go up ahead and scout as I labored up the foothills. I became nauseous and balancing was increasingly difficult. But I kept repeating to myself, "Roger, you're no quitter." I continued to make upward progress.
Casey returned 40 minutes later. A small bunch of elk was bedded up above, and I would have a 250-yard shot from the distant elevated ridge. But I was too slow, and they moved before we got there.
Casey took off again, but this time he carried my rifle. He also let me know that he had never before carried any hunter's rifle. Now he gave me a set of telescoping walking sticks he had in his pack. I was to keep climbing up. When he later returned, he had good news. I'd have a 150-yard shot, and I'd have two to three hours to get up there. I was confident I could make it this time. And then Casey took off ahead of me for a third time.
When he returned a half hour later, he told me that a strong wind had come up, and that the elk would begin to regroup and head back up the mountain. The good news was that he knew their route, and that if I could get back to the ATV quickly enough, we could head them off and wait for them at the pass. Casey returned my rifle and took off on a dead run for the ATV, which was two miles beneath us. I was to get to the base of the foothills as soon as possible and I made the descent without stopping to rest. It left me totally spent and slightly nauseous.
Casey picked me up. He drove southward on the flat, and then we headed west and up the foothills to the base of the mountain. Casey parked the ATV beneath the rim of a south-facing bank. When I topped the rim, the elk were filing by in an upward direction about 80 yards below me. All of the elk kicked it into high gear when they saw me. It resembled a western movie cattle stampede — a moving sea of brown and antlers.
Without thinking, I picked out a cow on the inside edge and followed her in my scope's crosshairs. I swung a foot ahead and touched the trigger. When the herd cleared, a dead cow lay in the trodden snow. That shot was the most foolish I've ever taken in my life, as the consequences could have been disastrous. I was darn lucky.
See you next week.