June 07, 2023
My first hunt for Roosevelt elk began as I imagine most hunts in southeast Oregon do—with a delayed start due to heavy fog. In the dark before dawn, Shawn Skipper and I had hopped in outfitter Jody Smith’s truck and climbed out of the deep valley with the idea of finding some high ground to glass the surrounding clear cuts. But that idea was quickly abandoned as the first rays of sunlight failed to penetrate the dense, wet air. Smith managed a five-point turn on the tight, winding switchback, and headed back down, hoping the rising sun and warming temperatures would help lift the fog.
Skipper and I, along with a few other friends, were hunting Rosies—as the giant-bodied elk are affectionately called—just a few miles inland from the rugged Oregon coast where Smith had secured some prime, private elk country. Here, the mountains rise out of the sea, with old-growth pine forests lining the driftwood beaches mere yards from the Pacific. This is timber country, though the industry here has taken a downturn due to heavy-handed environmental oversight. Limited logging had created some fresh clearcuts, but most of these hillsides were covered in older trees and the thick, lush undergrowth you’d expect to find in such a rainforest.
With the plan to glass those few clearcuts dashed by the area’s persistent weather pattern, Smith instead parked the truck next to an abandoned barn and led us down a hard gravel road, our crunching steps the only sound cutting through the otherwise quiet dawn. Visibility was increasing slightly with each moment, but it was a relative amount, going from 15 to 20 yards, to 30 and then maybe 50. On the side of the trail, I stepped over a giant Aminata mushroom. The large red dome covered in white spots—like something straight out of “Alice in Wonderland”—added to the ethereal ambiance. I wouldn’t have been shocked to see a top-hatted rabbit bouncing into the fern-covered ditch.
I WONDER WHICH WAY I OUGHT TO GO?
Like Alice, I was a little bit lost. All I had read about Roosevelt elk led me to believe we’d be hunting them in the thick timber, hoping to just catch a glimpse of them ghosting through the fog-shrouded trees. Getting a clear shot was a pipe dream, so rare that experienced elk hunters in the Pacific Northwest counted encounters—much in the way grouse hunters in the Northeast count flushes. Years may go by before they finally punch a tag on a mature Rosie bull.
Smith himself had added to this legend of the all-but-invisible Roosevelt. Though we had only met the day before, I had interviewed him for an article about elk hunting a decade ago. He told me that most of his clients show up expecting to take long shots at elk in open woods, but that was not the case here on the coastal side of the Cascades. “The cover here is so thick, I give them an up-close and personal experience,” said Smith.
Though it was 10 years old, that quote was at the top of my mind as we walked along the gravel road. On our left was an overgrown meadow with a shallow creek snaking through it, which I only knew because I could hear its faint murmur as it coursed through the grass. To our right, rose a near-vertical hillside studded with Alaska cedar, redwood and Douglas fir trees. The undergrowth—pine duff weaved with ferns, vines and other shrubs—looked nearly impenetrable. I was pulling in deep breaths, exhaling only slightly to oxygenate my blood and prepare my flatlander’s lungs for the climb into that steep, dense brush. My mind was already imagining an up-close encounter with a bull, and I remembered to reach down and turn my Leupold VX-6 HD scope to the 3X magnification setting. No need for 18x in Roosevelt country.
So, when Smith stopped and put his binoculars to his face, I was more than a bit confused. And when he lifted his left hand and pointed deep into the fog that was slowly lifting from the meadow to our left, that confusion turned to surprise. Smith was gesturing far down the long valley and silently mouthing the words: “Two bulls. Good ones.”
IT WOULD BE SO NICE IF SOMETHING MADE SENSE FOR A CHANGE
Hunting coastal country, and its ever-present, ocean-inspired weather patterns, is a true test for good optics. Few pieces of glass, no matter how good, can see clearly through what amounts to wet curtain, but my Leupold BX-4 Pro Guide binos were able to pull two large blobs through the gloomy light. Sure, they might be elk, but just as easy could be brush or boulders. Heck, they might have been two old Volkswagen’s left to rust for all I could tell. Until they started moving.
The more I strained to see, the more confusing the situation got. The fog would lift, then drop again. The moving brown blobs turned gray, then almost black. They stood clear as day, then faded into the mist. Two elk became one, then none as they disappeared altogether. Was Smith hallucinating? Was I? Somehow he was able to get a range—just under 300 yards, though I had a hard time believing we could even see that far in this fog.
Smith motioned me to get closer as he and Skipper stayed behind. A lone stump—cut chest high and as big around as a dinner table—sat between me and the elk. If I could just make it there, it would serve as a perfect rest for my Browning X-Bolt. The one benefit of the wet weather is the soft ground that muffles footsteps, but I still managed to get tangled in a hidden fence. The metal twang reverberated up the valley. I could only hope the wet air would deaden the sound, but when I looked through my binos, the elk seemed to quicken their step toward the dense cover of the surrounding mountains.
Finally, I made the stump undetected. The elk had slowed their trot. I snapped the bipod legs into place, settled my chest against the tree trunk and verified the range at little more than 200 yards. I turned the CDS dial—married to the ballistics of the 6.8 Western cartridges stuffed in the magazine—somewhere between 2 and 2.5. At 3X, the scope’s view was wide and bright, but I needed more magnification. As my heart thumped an increasing beat, I cranked the zoom and peered through the glass. At 18X, the reticle jumped in time with my heartbeat. I took a deep breath and split the difference, setting the scope to 9X. Still, the reticle wavered, but now in manageable time.
Sometime after dawn, it was finally getting brighter as the sun burned off the fog. Both the bulls were now clear in scope, and I shifted from one to the other. They were about the same size—two nice 5x5 bulls, though the size of the body made the racks seem shockingly small atop their wide skulls. I deemed the first bull as the bigger of the two, but before I could break the trigger, the second passed behind him. Oh bother. I took a deep breath and willed them to separate.
My bull—or the bull I hoped to shoot—dropped into the creek bed, then emerged. Light now, with nearly full sun, he loomed large in the scope. The reticle danced across the brown chest and as it crossed the midpoint, I squeezed the X-Bolt’s trigger. Water exploded from the elk’s shoulder as the bullet impacted the wet hide. The bull took a single, staggering step backwards and I heard Smith behind me: “Hit him again.” Before I could settle in for a second shot, the bull tipped over, everything disappearing in the tall cover, except for one side of its rack that rose above the grass.
I GIVE MYSELF VERY GOOD ADVICE, BUT I VERY SELDOM FOLLOW IT
Every time I walk up on a dead elk—and I’ve walked up on a lot of them—I’m always amazed by their size. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bull or cow, my first thought is always: “What am I supposed to do with this?” But when I walked up on my very first Roosevelt elk, the body was so big—nearly 1/4 larger than a Rocky Mountain elk—I was struck dumb.
Was this another hallucination? Could an elk really be so large? And mind you, this was not a true giant Roosevelt—just a nice, mature bull. I can’t wrap my head around just how huge a record-book Rosie would be.
I also couldn’t wrap my head around how fast my hunt was over. I’m well-known for shooting the first legal animal I see without worrying about antler inches or record books. It happens so often, that before every hunt I must tell myself: “Wait. Be patient. Take your time.” But I hate failure and I love fresh venison and I usually, at least, make it to midmorning of the first day before pulling the trigger. All my hunts are guided by the adage “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”
But here, now, I was no more than an hour, and likely a bit less, into my very first Roosevelt elk hunt and my tag was punched. And, though it was incredibly short, the hunt was nothing like I imagined it to be. But that’s the great thing about hunting, isn’t it? No matter what you think you know about how things are going to play out, no matter how much you read and research, out there, in the mountains, once you go down that rabbit hole, anything can happen.