Photo: Elkhorn Mountains in Eastern Oregon, October 2016
It may not happen every year, but when it does, it’s pretty special. Some sort of unique opportunity for me to go to a different part of the state or a different part of the country to recreate. Good fortune this week sent me east, about as far east as I’ve ever been hunting in Oregon, to the North Powder Basin. I thought that I was in for slam-dunk elk burgers all winter.
Well, you know how the saying goes, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I was hunting on a damage control tag for what was supposed to be more like grocery shopping than hunting. I can’t admit to being a sportsman every year.
It’s a long story I won’t go into, but elk numbers in eastern Oregon are exploding, but access to these private ranches, forestlands, or ranges where large numbers of elk reside this time of year, is becoming more challenging by the year. We’re still quite fortunate here in Oregon, we have vast amounts of public land, but they’re not always cervid-laden like the alfalfa fields in the lowlands of the high desert.
This makes successful hunting all the more challenging for those that can even find the time to do it anymore. Like so many other outdoor activities, it’s becoming a lost heritage, maybe of epidemic proportions and consequences, but we’ll save that issue for another blog post.
After missing a perfect broadside shot nearing dusk, my friend and I set up pre-dawn in a strategic location where elk were certain to travel through after they got done mowing down what was left of the alfalfa feed. After all, my partner put me on the perfect shot the night before, I just managed to blow it, all by myself. The previous night, the ridgetop above the alfalfa fields had a herd of well over 100 bugling, rambunctious bulls still feeling the call of the rut.
Well, when dawn finally broke, there was not hide nor hair of what was supposed to be. My friend, determined to justify my 280-mile trek east, was set on sending me home with fresh, organic elk. I was fully supportive of course.
When the elk didn’t show the next morning, I was oddly excited to burn some calories and cross big elk country in pursuit of what was surely just beyond the next ridge. Well, you can guess how that story went also. The herd that we had been watching the night before after traipsing across several different types of substrate was still 2.5 miles away. Clearly above the “pay-grade” of an overweight, under-exercised fishing guide that just spent the last 2 months running a boat and sitting on my rear-end.
The hunt was over, but failing to even realize it, my goal was once again met. Get out, go explore a new area and experience new things and you won’t even have to learn to appreciate all that our great western states have to offer, it’ll come quite naturally to you.
When my wife was surprisingly disappointed that I wasn’t “bringing home the bacon,” I told her it was far from a wasted effort. I saw my first wolf ever, a huge golden eagle spooked from a nearby tree, for the first time, I hunted elk in the rut (even though the big bulls were off limits on this hunt), saw a bighorn sheep close to the highway and got to see some incredible country that you just can’t comprehend behind a computer. It may certainly be the highlighted trip of my year.
This trip wasn’t planned, (when going “grocery shopping” on a damage-control hunt, you have to be on the ready at any drop of a hat) and I can’t say I was fully fulfilled, but it only invested me deeper in the conservation of our incredible natural resources. Whether by land or sea, forage fish or cervid, with a growing population, a changing climate and who knows what other detrimental factors lie ahead, anyone who enjoys fish and wildlife, consumptively or non-consumptively, has a duty to protect what makes our lifestyle unique.
We’re still months away from New Year’s resolutions, but as our ecosystems go into winter hibernation, opportunities abound for conservation measures that make a difference. Whether you show up for a hearing, toss salmon carcasses into under-nourished watersheds, or simply introduce the younger generation to an outdoor opportunity, these species and places won’t conserve themselves, despite their best efforts. Make it a point, before the weather really gets crappy, to enjoy and preserve our natural resources, no matter where you are. But most importantly, go somewhere you haven’t been, do something you never have, and enjoy the experience as if it’s your last.