September 05, 2023
Write down the gate code. This is assuming, of course, that you’ve obtained permission—like I did—to hunt elk within a gated housing development. I’m not joking. For the last nine seasons, my go-to Roosevelt elk honey hole has been a patch of swampy timber accessed by a parking strip at the end of a cul-de-sac in a gated residential community.
It’s not quite as urban as it sounds. Yes, the entrance to the community is guarded by a stately electronic gate and laced with asphalt roads split into cul-de-sacs every hundred yards or so, but 90 percent of the lots are empty. The builders laid the roads just prior to the 2008 housing crash, and despite the infrastructure of sidewalks, lamp posts, and even fire hydrants, most of the cul-de-sacs stand vacant. Undeveloped. Eerie, at times, like one of those abandoned Soviet towns that haunt Siberia.
But vacant lots grow chest-high grass in Western Washington. And with a 400-plus-acre swamp of impenetrable cedars and deadfall bordering two sides of the development, this overgrown vestige of suburbia has become a sliver of elk paradise. So, write down the code, punch it in the keypad, and watch the gate to the elk woods glide open.
Charm the yoga moms. Like I said, the community was 90-percent undeveloped. The 10 percent who DID live there, though, included one suspicious young mother who made a habit of waiting by my car to give me the ol’ stink eye when I returned from my late-summer scouting trips. “You trying to catch the moose back there again this year?” she asked, nodding toward the timber. “Uh, yes,” I replied. “I walk here every day,” she cautioned. “Don’t shoot me!” “Ha!” I replied, before realizing she wasn’t joking. I resisted the urge to explain that archery hunters don’t often mistake pink-shirted bipeds in spandex for elk, but instead added soberly: “No, I won’t. I’ll be very, very careful.”
Lips pursed, she gave a curt nod and began to walk away. “By the way,” I called, flashing a smile as she turned to look at me. “Your tomatoes look like they’re thriving this year. And well done with the dahlias. Blue-ribbon garden, for sure!” Gotta keep the locals happy if you want to kill an elk.
Pack Benadryl. After two fruitless seasons chasing elk in the gated community, I decided to beef up my scouting efforts. I began dumping two buckets of apples and a block of salt in front of my game cameras once per week, starting in July. The extra effort paid off. My cams began to pick up more photos of elk, and I was delighted to see several bulls were showing up regularly.
One day, when I pulled up to my parking spot at the end of the cul-de-sac, I was greeted by the sight of a dozen commercial beehives standing just 50 yards from my treestand. Apparently, the same generous landowner who had given me permission to hunt elk on his lot, had also given another neighbor permission to start a bee farm there. Whatever, I thought. They’re just honeybees. Nothing to worry about. And for three weeks, I was right. I minded my business, the bees minded theirs…no problems.
But this was also the summer in which I had decided to adopt a bold (in hindsight, ridiculous) new haircut. For you younger readers, it looked something like the rapper Macklemore’s iconic ‘do. For you older guys: You’d probably call it a mix between a “high and tight” and a “gaudy bouffant.” Basically, I asked the barber to shave the sides of my head down to the scalp, but leave the top long. Then, every morning, I would blow dry the front of my hair until it crowned my forehead in an impressive eight-inch “poof.” Plenty of hairspray held it in place, and it flounced and bobbed with my every step like a wounded magpie. I never felt cooler. Until the bee incident.
As I was lugging a sack of apples to the stand in the late-August sun, a hapless honey bee—just minding its business on its route to the hive—somehow slammed into my bouffant bangs and got tangled in them like a fish in a net. I tried to slap it out. But the more I slapped, the deeper the bee sank into my luscious locks, all the while sending out some sort of distress signal to the rest of the hive. Before I knew what was happening, I was covered in bees: In my hair, down my shirt, up my shorts (did I mention I was wearing a pair of VERY abbreviated denim cutoffs?). By the time I had sprinted back to the safety of my car, my hopes of having children one day were evaporating in the searing pain of stings to my nether region. So, if you want to kill a bull the way I did, pack the Benadryl. And maybe some Tylenol. You’re gonna need it!
Screen the trail-cam pics before you show your kiddos. Five years into my big-bull quest, it seemed like it was finally coming together. A thick-horned 5x4 bull had been hitting my apple pile with some degree of regularity. Since the landowner had assured me that he had given no other hunters permission to access the property, I felt comfortable waiting for ideal wind conditions before hitting my stand.
Except when I checked my cameras one last time before the hunt, I was greeted by the smiling face of another hunter. In MY spot. In front of MY camera. Giving the lens a dramatic, full-extension, one-finger salute. I never saw the 5x4 again.
Just give up…for a while. The experience with the trespassing hunter was disheartening. But nowhere near as much as what followed for the next three seasons. Two years in a row, I had monster bulls showing up on my trail cams. And two years in a row, the neighbors shot the bulls first. It was like some strange voodoo or witchery. The bulls would be hanging around my treestand for weeks leading up the season: Eating apples, bedding, urinating on themselves…you know, bull stuff. Then inexplicably, come opening morning, they would show up in the neighbor’s field. KaTwang! Bull down. Season over, basically.
Until the third year. That year, as I sat in my treestand on opening day, it all came together. A bull stepped out from the maples. Thick neck. Ivory tips. Six perfect points to a side…he was the bull of my dreams, and he was standing broadside at 35 yards. He even blasted a bugle as he stood there, just to add to the mystical aura of it all.
And in the next five seconds—as I watched the bull turn wildly after my shot and spring back into the woods, healthy and alive—my spirit was utterly broken. I didn’t hunt again that season. I didn’t hunt the next season either. I just couldn’t get back on the emotional roller coaster: The thrill of scouting a bull, seeing him on camera, formulating a plan…and then having it all fall apart just inches from completion. It was too much for me. I was done hunting elk. Maybe forever.
Bring a couple preschoolers. It was my four-year-old son who convinced me to get back in the game, along with my three-year-old boy. “We want to hunt elk,” they said. “I don’t know,” I said. “Take them to that spot you used to hunt,” my wife said. “But I haven’t scouted, or put out apples, or cams, or anything,” I said. “They don’t know that,” she said.
And she had a point. The boys wouldn’t care if I shot an elk; they’d just be happy to get out in the woods, on a “real” hunt. And it was 2020, the year of COVID restrictions, so any excuse to get out of the house was a good one for a family with three kids under the age of four (Note: As it turns out, the beestings may have increased my fertility).
So off to the woods we went, this time with a muzzleloader rather than a bow. We changed stand locations as well. Since there were three of us, I decided to set up in an abandoned childhood treehouse on the edge of the open grass. The shooting lanes weren’t ideal, but the structure of the treehouse would hopefully keep us hidden. And lo and behold, on that first night out, we actually saw an elk: A spike, cautiously browsing in the neighbor’s field at dusk. The boys were elated, and as we walked back to our minivan that night in the gathering dark, I noticed something had changed within me: I wanted to come back. I wanted to kill an elk.
Master the four-minute reload. When I returned to the stand two days later, I didn’t expect much. After all, I’d spent a grand total of zero hours scouting, zero days on stand prior to the night with my boys, and my dad and uncle and brother-in-law had hunted all 17 days of the archery season at this spot with zero legal bull sightings. My expectations were low. I was relaxed, Zen-like, as I sat in the treehouse.
Then, I heard a limb snap back in the timber. And then another. A cow appeared at the edge of the trees, 100 yards out, scanning the clearing. She cautiously stepped into the open, followed by a line of 15 cows and calves. In the very rear, grunting and trotting and herding like a sheepdog, was a bull. Not the bull from two years earlier, but every bit its equal. More mass, less length…with six perfect points to a side.
The bull stepped clear of the cows, lowered his head to graze… KaBOOM! When the smoke cleared, the elk stood still. Like statues. No sound. No movement. RELOAD. RELOAD. RELOAD.
My brain was repeating the command like a meltdown siren, and I frantically began patting my pockets for my spare ball-and-powder containers. The frantic moments that followed were some of the longest of my life as I dropped my ramrod, spilled my powder, fumbled my primers, and somehow managed to get that sucker charged and loaded and resting in place for a follow-up shot in what felt like seven minutes, minimum. Inexplicably, in all that time, the elk hadn’t moved. I hadn’t dared look up while I was in the process of reloading, but sure enough, there they stood—105 yards away, still as statues. I thought I saw a patch of red expanding behind the shoulder of the big bull, but I wasn’t certain. I took aim, breathed…
Give it a decade. On average, the success rate in the general season elk area I was hunting is right around 11 percent. Which means, having hunted for a decade and killed one branch-antlered bull, I wasn’t extraordinarily skilled, or unlucky, or anything. I was extraordinarily average. But you know what? As I stood over my bull that evening and ran my hand over its antlers—thick as my arms at the bases and stained red by the resin of cedar—I realized that there’s nothing wrong with being average.