It’s 3AM on Friday October 25th and I’m wide awake in a tiny yellow tent, heart pounding because I was recently awoken by ear piercing screaming. Thankfully it’s the screaming bugle of a bull elk and not Mark or Jerud! I’m exhausted but excited as I’m fulfilling one of my goals for this trip. My three goals for this trip: 1. Don’t sustain a serious injury 2. Hear an elk bugle 3. See an elk.
By 3AM on the second night in Kentucky I’ve already hit one of my goals. Over the next few hours I’d slightly doze off between bugles as a bull worked his way through the portion of the property near our campsite. Hearing a bull bugle is like hearing a turkey gobble, you can’t really appreciate it until you hear it in real life and at close range. It’s not just the volume of the bugle but the tone and the reverberation in his chest that makes it so amazing as I’d find out around 6AM when once again I’m stirred awake by a bugle, but this time it’s much louder. It continues to get closer, I can hear Mark and Jerud stirring in their tent and we exchange a few words in whispers because aside from a light breeze and elk bugles it’s silent. Shortly after 6 I decide there is enough light to see a little so I very slowly unzipped my sleeping bag, then the tent and rainfly. It was a chilly night so as I emerge from the tent my bare hands go from a nice warm sleeping bag to sub-freezing concrete as we were camping on some remnant of the the past mining activity. I slowly crawl on my hand and knees to where the concrete meets the grass and I can hear Mark and Jerud stirring and whispering in their tent. As I get to my knees and peak above the grass looking down toward the old road a sleeping bag unzips and all hell breaks loose. A dozen large bodies thunder down the road and crash into the brush. Either me peaking above the grass, the sleeping bag unzipping or some combination of both scared the herd of elk that was only 40 or so yards from our tents. I had assumed that it was a lone bull as I hadn’t heard anything else move or call and I even thought he was much further up the road. So although it was still dark I counted that as seeing elk and I’ve hit 2 of my 3 goals! The first in the list though was still to be tested.
As we got out of the tents Mark hastily got ready as several other bulls sounded off in relatively close range. Unfortunately Jerud had an emergency and I had to drive him just past Lexington to meet his wife so Mark had to go at it alone this morning as I’d be on the road for the next 6 hours or so. Jerud and I hung around camp for a while waiting for the action to calm down around camp so as not to disturb Mark’s morning hunt. We got on the road and talked hunting for the next few hours and after meeting up with Jerud’s wife I raced back to the property to see what had transpired. With spotty cell phone signal Mark was able to get a tweet out that he had an encounter with a bull at 43 yards! Of course he only had a cow tag but it only made it harder for me to drive the speed limit on the way back.
As I returned to camp I got the full story from Mark about his morning hunt that involved an encounter with not only a nice 5×5 bull but a lone cow as well. You can read that full story in Mark’s Part II write up! After we had some lunch and packed for the afternoon we didn’t have high hopes of seeing much because we had figured they were all bedded waiting for dark to move again. Our plan was to check out a watering hole with some fresh beds and see if anything came to drink mid-day. Unfortunately as we made our way there a late 90′s F-150 came flying past us down one of the old mining roads and as we both chanted “turn right, turn right” he turned left where we were headed. We stood around discussing what we should now do and we affectionately nicknamed the man Jim Bob and I joked that he was just a typical local with an Earnhardt forever hat. As we discussed what to do he came flying back down the road but this time stopped to roll his window down and exchange small talk. We got a little intel from Jim Bob and headed back to our original destination making him aware of our plans so as to avoid him if possible.
We made the short hike to the pond and slowly made our way up one side of the hill above the pond toward where we had seen fresh beds the day before. Since there is no way to make a silent ascent Mark was doing some cow calls on the way up. As we neared the top I heard something moving and paused. I tried to whisper to Mark to slow down but as soon as I did I hear “Y’all sounds good I thought you’s was a cow coming up here”. Our buddy Jim Bob had circled around and met us at the top for some reason. After another 10 minutes or so of attempting to understand his version of navigational terms and exchanging some additional awkward pleasantries we were back on our way to distancing ourselves from Jim Bob and looking for elk. Perhaps the most comical thing about our interaction is that precisely as I predicted he was indeed sporting a Dale Earnhardt number 3 hat!
We covered more ground and found more promising sign and while we couldn’t glass a ton of land we decided to stick to one hillside with a decent view just to see if we could find where they were moving. Unfortunately some guys on a four wheeler had different plans. They circled the area a good 5 or 6 times. They finally came right by us and we chatted quickly. They were bowhunting for whitetail and had seen a lone bull elk and a whitetail buck with a busted rack. After all the commotion we decided to just get back to camp to get warm and eat.
Friday night was again less than restful only this time instead of the pleasant interruption of elk bugling it was coyotes. We’d seen the tracks and scat on the roads and heard them faintly the previous night but tonight they were having a party right where the elk had been before. It got down to the low 20′s or upper teens that night but luckily my Teton Sports Tracker bag kept me nice and warm. Not a lot of exciting things happened Saturday. We covered about 12 miles of steep climbs and steeper descents. We uttered the phrase, “well at least it won’t be the stupidest thing we’ve done today” several times and each time the following action usually qualified as the stupidest thing we had done up until that point. We both stumbled, fell and slid a few times but luckily neither of us sustained any real injuries. By the end of the day I was well on my way to meeting all three goals by not sustaining any injuries. That afternoon as we made our way to the far southern end of the property we found more sign, some big mama black bear tracks and we again met a local cruising the roads in a four wheeler. I nicknamed this fella Paw Paw Chaw. He was an older guy, very nice and happy to relay his knowledge of the property to us and his navigation terms made sense. Although he did have about a 3 pound wad of chewing tobacco in his lip. Our discussion somehow made it from bear to elk then to how his grandson lost a finger in a boating accident. After we parted ways with Paw Paw Chaw I jokingly asked Mark if he thought it was a wad of chew that big or a tumor!
Saturday night we discussed the plan for the last morning. We were conflicted. We were so encouraged by the activity of the previous morning but then again so discouraged by the amount of ground we had covered without seeing anything but a lone whitetail buck at the end of the day. We decided to hit the piece of the property where Mark had the encounters with the bull and the cow. It was bordered by the main road, the entrance road and the current mine which was off limits. We sat around our camp fire after enjoying some nicely grilled steaks that Jerud had left. We were completely exhausted but anxious about our final morning.
We got up, had a quick breakfast and headed out as soon as there was enough light to get moving. We made it to our destination quickly. At the base of the hill we thought they’d be bedded on we triple checked the wind and slowly started to make our way around so that we’d have the wind in our face as we approached the crest of the hill. As we got to the top I stayed back as Mark moved in. As he got closer the wind shifted a little and then a gust blew straight at our backs and the unseen herd of elk that was maybe 20 yards from Mark on the other side of some brush thundered down the side of the hill. We were frustrated with the wind but we had finally found some elk! We got to the top and decided to wait about 30 minutes let things settle down and see if the wind stabilized. After a break we went ahead a ways then cut down the side of the hill to double back with the wind in our favor and try to locate the herd. We again made a steep descent to a very old road and worked our way back. The fallen leaves made it impossible to be quiet so as we neared where we thought they had gone Mark was hitting the cow call every few steps or so. We came to a bend in the road and we both had a good feeling. We had hoped to see them in the road or just below us. We crept closer and again the herd thundered off. We had been busted from above. They had only moved maybe 30 yards from the original spot and had caught us walking in. We were again frustrated but at least we had found them. We climbed to the top and tried to locate them again but after getting busted twice they had moved on.
That was the end of our Kentucky elk hunt. We both had a decent drive ahead of us so we packed up camp and hit the road. I had an absolute blast on this hunt and will remember it for a lifetime. It was my first elk hunt, i got to enjoy it with Mark and Jerud who were both great folks to have in camp and i accomplished my three goals. The only problem . . . I’m slightly obsessed with elk now . . .
I know you’re sad that the story is over but there’s more. I have a couple more posts to go over some lessons learned from the trip as well as a review of some awesome gear!