Updated: May 13, 2021
Allow me to use this blog as a bit of personal hunting journal for a bit, if you will. Every archery elk season provides us with countless learning experiences, new terrain to explore, excitement and frustration, and usually, a reminder to remain humble in your approach to western big game hunting.
I was unsure what the 2020 archery elk season would hold, as this year has quickly become one of my least favorite of all time. Things started out just like any other season, but the unstoppable train wreck that is the current year would end up having its say before the season was over.
The season started out much like the entirety of the 2019 season left us: hot, dry, windy and quiet. If you have ever tried to locate and hunt elk based almost entirely on calling in thick timber, you know that these conditions are about as least conducive to a successful bow hunt as it gets. Things did turn around pretty quick, however. Weather started looking a bit more like fall early on, the wind was willing to spare us in the mornings at the very least, and lo and behold, the elk started talking (or at least we started hearing them).
Every season I learn a ton of new things about elk hunting and my personal approach to it, and every season one lesson seems to stand out as the primary takeaway from a month of hunting. This year, I learned that I am becoming a bit complacent and lackadaisical in my elk preparations as I approach a decade as a Wyoming resident.
That's not to say I've stopped preparing for elk season by any means. I am still a voracious consumer of any books, articles or podcasts relating to the subject of hunting elk in the rut, and I still drive my fiancé insane throughout the month of August with my indoor bugling. This year, it was my boots-on-the-ground preparation that was wanting.
After several years of archery elk hunting and uncovering a small collection of decent spots, I will admit to being guilty of resting on my laurels. When it comes to spots to hunt elk, more options can never be a bad thing in public land hunting. I was happy with all of my spots this year, but if the elk weren't bugling, or someone beat me there, I would find myself caught flat-footed and unsure of what to do next. I had plenty of spots picked out on maps, and they all looked great, but hunting a location in theory and hunting a location in practice are proving to be two wildly different things.
My biggest takeaway from the 2020 archery elk season: if you have the luxury to scout locations before the season, do it. My mindset of exploring a new location for the first time by hunting it during the season made for a lot of early morning drives down dark roads that we had never even seen before. More than once, this resulted in a complicated five-to-seven point turn around on a tight forest service road in the predawn darkness. More than once, it resulted in us calling a "plan B" after sunrise. This is all precious time that I will not be wasting in September 2021.
Every elk season leaves me wanting more, and this one was no different. This is not to say that the 2020 season was a failure by any means. We were fortunate to experience multiple call-ins, a couple days of full-on bugle fests, several shot opportunities just barely obstructed, and our friend, Dan Johnson was able to take his first bull at ten yards after a few years of hunting his absolute ass off. We laughed, we cried, we loved, we learned, and by the last week of the season, 2020 had proven to have taken hold as we watched significant portions of multiple units we were hunting go up in flames during the explosive Mullen Fire.
All we could do was watch from a distance for the final week of the season as the fire exploded from 2,000 acres to 15,000 acres, and then again to 30, 50, 90,000 acres. As I write this, the fire has grown to over 160,000 acres and moved into Colorado. With the tremendous amounts of deadfall and beetlekill in the Medicine Bows, forest fires are inevitable and probably necessary for the health of the forest, but it is sad to see it happening all at once. Our hearts go out to all of the firefighters on the front lines, and to all of the wonderful mountain communities affected by this monster.
As the fire pushed us to explore new terrain we had not yet hunted, we were able to start getting an idea of just how much country we were yet to hunt. I do sometimes struggle with a scarcity mindset when I consider the rising popularity of western big game hunting, and the seemingly dwindling public land to do it on. Watching over 150,000 acres of it burn in less than a month really exacerbates these thoughts. But getting out and looking beyond the handful of trailheads I had gotten used to, I was reminded of just how much country, and wildlife, is truly out there.
Every September, I'm pretty sure I go through the five stages of grief when chasing elk, and it does always seem to come to a close with a calm acceptance. Whether I was successful or not, the last day of the season always seems to bring some clarity and perspective. Generally, by October 2nd - 3rd, the period of reflection is over and I am back to preseason preparations as if it were August 31st.
Archery elk hunting doesn't seem to be something one just dabbles in. It seems to either turn into something you try a couple times and decided isn't for you, or you go down the path that I am currently on - full blown addiction. I now know that I have a problem, I'm just not ready to address it. Only 329 days to go.