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Fair Warning

October 1, 2005

Published as: “Fair Warning” North American Hunter. October 2005
FAIR WARNING
By Perry P. Perkins

The woods were still and silent in the predawn darkness, every twig that broke under our boots, or brushed our shoulders seemed deafening.  With each snap and crackle we would freeze, our lips forming silent curses as we waited for the telltale thunder of elk crashing down the canyon wall to cross the river and leave us far behind.  A moment would pass, then two, and all would remain calm. 

Taking a deep breath we would resume our slow ascent through the woods to the top of the ridge.  We could hear, faintly, the murmur of the Miami River on the far side of the canyon rim and, occasionally, the soft rustle of the animals feeding on the moss-shrouded plateau above.  The top of the ridge formed a shallow bowl of old growth firs, looming high above the perpetual gloom of the forest floor.  In the shadow of these giants, the ground was deep with fallen needles, thick hanging moss, and clusters of pasty white mushrooms.  The mushrooms were what drew the elk to this ridge each night to feed until just before dawn.  A heavy tangle of scrub brush and vine maples blanketed the steep ascent on each side, thick enough to give fair warning if anything approached their feast.

The first morning of elk rifle season Van Zallee and I had risen, well before dawn, and hiked up the river valley to the base of the ridge.  October in Northern Oregon is frosty and our breath clouded in the moonlight as we hiked.  The property we were hunting belonged to Van’s in-laws and extended over the point and down to the river’s edge.  An hour of worming our way slowly and almost silently through the dripping brush had brought us to within fifty yards of the mossy clearing.  The first gray of dawn was just seeping through the tree-tops.

I eased a foot forward and grimaced as another twig snapped.  To our left and above came the sound of something rising to its feet, a split-second pause, and then a steady bounding retreat up and over the top of the hill.  Not quite the headlong rushing panic that means the game is up, but just the cautious repositioning of instinctive prey that seemed deafening in the silence of the forest.  We froze again and Van leaned forward, whispering in my ear,

“Elk?” he asked.  I shook my head. Trying to peer through the half-dark toward the sound of the animal’s flight.  “Blacktail, “ I whispered back, “Deer.”

Spooking an animal into a noisy retreat can be disheartening after a long quiet stalk, and this was my excuse for blundering ahead the next step or two through the clutching vine maple.  That’s when the REAL sound came! From the top of the ridge to our right came a sudden onslaught of shattering branches, like a multitude of huge boulders rolling and crashing down the canyon.  Not towards us, of course, but away towards the safety of the river.  I brought the butt of my .280 to my shoulder, barrel down, and thumbed the safety just in case, then came the real heartbreaker.

The whistling bugle of a bull elk is a mighty thing.  To hear if from a couple of hundred feet away, in the frigid twilight of opening morning is very nearly a religious experience. For a moment the woods were silent again, as if in awe and respect of the bull’s warning as it echoed across the canyon. Then came another volley of tree splintering charges, and the bull was gone, and the rest of his harem along with him, escaping the dark plateau and the best intentions of our skulk. I thought I could hear them, barely, splashing across the shallow Miami, but it was probably just my adrenaline charged imagination.

We hunkered down in silence and, as the woods around us grew lighter and colors begin to seep into the surrounding woods, I could see that Van’s eyes were as wide as my own. His frame tensed and coiled, waiting, hoping to hear another sound in the woods above.  None came.  Resuming our trek up the hill, we swung west to skirt the flat, hoping that our absence might give us another attempt, later in the week, on the herd that fed there.

Working our way around the bluff, we came across the spot where the blacktail had been bedded down, before we had pushed it over the hill.

How could I have been so dumb?  Any elk hunting book worth it’s ink will tell you that a spooked deer doesn’t necessarily mean spooked elk.  (I had most of these books at home on my shelf, so I should have known!).  Deer spook for any number of reasons and sometimes, seemingly, for no reason at all.  Any animal that shares it’s range with deer, especially those in the thick forested Cascade Range of the blacktail deer and Roosevelt elk, take the flight of the deer as a warning surely, usually pausing for several moments to assess the danger, then will resume, with greater caution, it’s activities.  Had I paused long enough to remember this, we could have rooted ourselves to that spot for the next ten minutes or so and let the elk return to their feeding, unaware of our presence. In their heightened state of alert, however, the sound of those maple branches sundering beneath my boot was all of the grist they needed to confirm that all was not right with the world and turn tail for the next county.

Several hours later, disappointed but somewhat the wiser, we found the spot where the herd had come down out of the trees and crossed the river. The sandy soil was churned up and spotted with the fist-sized prints of many elk.  As I knelt beside the river and traced the cloven outline with my fingers, I thought back on my two previous elk seasons, hunting far down in Southern Oregon near the California border.  I had seen a lot of cows, and some of them quite close when a herd of them were spooked down into my cover from a high ridge, but I had seen no antlers.   That day, I had found a small pond in a basin between two high bluffs, with a freshly torn trail skirting one bank.

Twenty yards of open meadow led from the thickly forested hillside to the edge of the water, with another twenty to thirty yards leading back into the trees.  Kneeling in the brush on the far side of the meadow, I found a good rest for the fifty-yard shot and settled down to wait.  I found out later that one of my hunting partners had decided to skirt the ridgeline above for the next valley and had walked right up on a dozen cow elk bedded down on the side of the hill.  When they spooked, the direction of their escape led them right down the hill behind me.  The sound was like someone had rolled a school bus, sideways, down through the trees at my back and with my heart hammering in my ears, I had my rifle up as I searched the fleeing russet bodies for the glint of horns. The elk burst from the woods just yards to my right and left, following the trail past the pond and back up the far side of the canyon.  There had not been a single antler in the dozen.  Once they had disappeared into the far tree line, I had to safety my rifle and lean it against a tree until my hands stopped shaking and the slamming of my heart against my ribs began to ease.

Now, a year later, I had come so close again. Aside from the many videos I had watched, this morning had been the first bugle I had heard in the woods and something in that call  cemented my desire to bring home a bull.

But I didn’t bring one home this year.  One of the guys in our party did shoot a very large spike, only to have a huge branch bull saunter out of the woods in front of him after he fired.  The spike was divvied up and meat was packed in the freezer, so there was some victory in that.  Still, as I wait the long months until I can again go into the woods and hunt my elk, I imagine that opening morning bull, a hefty 5×5, no…bigger, surely a 6×6 at least, and the whistling echo of his bugle breaking the morning silence comes to me again and again.

Next year, I’ll return to that plateau, to climb through the wet vine-maple in the magical first light of opening morning and this time, I hope, I won’t give fair warning.

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