Returning to Jackson Hole this December brought mixed emotions. There was anticipation of large herds of elk migrating from Yellowstone as witnessed in years past along with the stark reality of last year’s adventure, unfilled tags, especially my one time bull tag.
This year’s trip would be different, there were no bull tags, all meals were pre-packed as there would be no restaurants and of course we would be back in bear country. Planning our trip again in mid December we hoped the bears would be resting peacefully in their winter den and the elk would be on the move heading for their winter sanctuary, Jackson Hole Elk Refuge.
Arriving in Jackson around 4:30 a.m., after truck bound for 20 hours straight, it was time for a couple of hours of sleep. Parked along the river bottoms of the Gros Ventre river, there was relief that driving conditions had been great and the 1,158 mile trip was uneventful.
A six mile morning hike on day one helped stretch our legs and started the conditioning for several days of climbing in higher than normal elevations. The temperatures of -6 below to highs in the mid 20’s made for perfect hiking weather.
As afternoon approached, CJ, John and I decided to find out if our favorite hunting area was free from grizzly activity. Tracking down a Park Ranger and bear biologist we were happy to find that Grizzly No. 399 and her four cubs (yes four cubs) had vacated Blacktail Butte and were on their way north for the winter.
The news was exciting. Blacktail butte not only was our most productive hunt area over the years but the view from up top is spectacular. (See photo) Before we knew it the three of us had climbed three quarters of the way up the east side of the butte. As sunset approached a large elk herd started to filter out of the heavy timber from the tree line above.
Soon after, John was able to connect with a nice cow elk. Dropping down a steep ravine and back up the rugged hillside we reached the elk 20 minutes later.
As John and I prepared the elk for dragging, CJ spoke out, “We have company guys.”
Three hundred yards to the north a grizzly appeared. Within seconds CJ called out, “There’s 2,3,4 no 5 bears!”
We knew immediately it was 399 and her four cubs, who from all accounts is well known for not wanting to interact with humans, yet had no problem growling at me six years ago when John and I stumbled upon her with two yearlings. At the age of 24 years we hoped see was more curious then hungry.
Concerns were expressed but the decision was we would try to scare her away before abandoning the elk. After several minutes of yelling and waving our arms 399 gathered up her cubs and headed back up the hillside. Two and a half hours later, in the dark of the night we were back at the truck with our first elk of the trip.
Day two, as two magnificent 6 x 6 bulls trotted through, stopping 31 yards away, all I could do is take pictures and wish this experience had been last year when I had a bull tag. CJ would tag a nice cow in the very same spot several hours later. Two days, two elk, we were on a roll.
The next three days would be a different story. Hiking eight to nine miles a day, there was very little sign of new elk in the area. We even hiked up Blacktail twice knowing that somewhere amongst the heavy timber, 399 and her cubs were bedded down for their mid day nap.
We had to laugh one afternoon as we again spotted 399 and her four cubs up on the south ridge of Blacktail. As we drove around the east side of the butte we stopped to see why a dozen vehicles were pulled over. A bear enthusiast explained that three hunters had spotted the bear and her cubs a couple of days ago and they were all there hoping to get a glimpse of her. We explained that we were the three hunters and that we just spotted her five minutes earlier several ridges over. Some of the largest camera lenses I had ever seen were packed up and on the move.
Day 5, after watching a herd of elk, which had crossed the road from our hunt area to a no hunting zone 15 minutes before shooting time, bed down a mere 100 yards off the road, we were left a little dejected.
We decided it was back to Blacktail as our new found bear friends had notified us that 399 had moved over to the refuge to feed on several bison gut piles from the previous day’s hunt.
As luck would have it we received a call on the way to the parking area. Two thousand elk were reportedly leaving the refuge and heading down to the river bottoms. As we headed down the highway we could see cars parked on both sides of the bridge from a mile away. There was no doubt something extraordinary was happening. We reached the half mile turnout to the east which was the legal hunting boundary and made our way into the alders.
We watched as hundreds of elk followed the refuge side of the river heading east. Just when it looked like nothing would cross the rapid waters of the Gros Ventre, we noticed what best could be described as a cloud of fog rising from the river basin. What we saw was not fog, it was the breath of several hundred elk running directly at us. By the time they reached the top of the small incline from the river bottom they were a mere 50 yards away. Our remaining five tags were filled in a matter of minutes.
It was great to return home with an ample supply of lean elk meat again but more importantly with the memories and another exciting adventure.