Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant
My 2018 general season elk hunt here in Utah was rough. General season hunts are rarely, if ever, a sure thing, but the whole process got upended thanks to a completely incompetent regional Forest Service office.
Bad management decisions led to the worst wildfire of the year for Utah – and most of the 103,000 acres it scorched were right through the heart of the unit for which I had tags. I wasn’t able to access the areas I scouted, or other areas I’ve seen elk in before. It felt like starting a brand-new hunt, which isn’t what you want to do on opening day. Thanks to the fire and land closures by the Forest Service, though, I didn’t have much choice.
I didn’t draw a bull tag, but I drew a cow tag and bought an over-the-counter spike tag. In Utah, you can typically hunt spike elk on any general season cow unit. While I rarely go hunting just for spike elk, having the extra tag along is always nice because it means I can harvest two elk in the same season when I have a cow tag.
Over the course of the hunt, I kept a rough journal of how things went, what I saw, and of course, whether or not I was successful. What follows are my field notes – raw and unedited, for the most part – about this year’s elk hunt.
Well, the Forest Service decided to close the whole unit down to any public access. Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant
They let the fire burn out of control, then I have to suffer the consequences of their questionable management decisions. I was really disappointed and angry at that point.
Anyways, I don’t know where I’ll be able to hunt, or what parts of the unit I’ll even get to access. I don’t think I’ll hunt the opener, either. I’m gonna wait and see how everything pans out.
I skipped opening day and went fishing up in Wyoming instead. I caught a 24-inch rainbow on a dry fly, so it wasn’t a complete bust. That fish ate a size 16 BWO, which was pretty cool.
I did get out today, on the southern end of the unit, down by Bear Canyon. It’s one of the few open places left. I’ve never hunted this far south, and I didn’t see anything in four hours of hiking through the rain. Talking to a couple of my buddies, it sounds like the hunt’s been this hard for everyone.
I didn’t scout down here, and the terrain is different than the canyons I planned on hunting further north. But I didn’t plan on a forest fire or on losing access to my public lands, either.
My buddy Lynn has a spike tag too, so we got out on a small wildlife management area on the west slope of Mt. Nebo. It’s a tiny piece of land that didn’t get shut down after the fire.
We saw a bunch of deer – mostly does, but a couple of two-point bucks. Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant
There was tons of elk sign, mostly droppings and track, but they were a few days old. And I couldn’t tell if the tracks were headed higher up the mountain, or down lower into the valley.
Lynn and I got into one hell of an adventure today. I spent a bunch of time looking at topo maps and talking to other hunters who have a tag for this same unit. A couple of mountains on the south end of the unit look promising, so we went down to investigate. Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant
There was just one problem, though – a big storm socked in right around 7,000 feet, and as soon as we got up there it was a complete whiteout. We’d driven the side-by-side through a foot of fresh powder and got up on this ridge that looked like a good place to glass from. It would’ve been if the storm hadn’t been so bad we could only see fifty feet in front of us.
So we abandoned that spot, drove another hour or so south, and ended up dropping off a ridge down into a valley with a few lakes and streams. We saw a cow standing in a field of pristine snow, and Lynn and I both got excited like kids on Christmas. We’d moved to a different unit where we could only shoot spike.
The cow moved further into the field, and the rest of the herd followed. We glassed, and didn’t see anything with horns. Then the big bull stepped out – a good five point pushing 300 – and he had the herd of 30 or so cows to himself. There wasn’t a spike to be seen.
Three hours and two miles of hiking through the snow later, we left the mountain with nothing to show for it.
This was the last day to fill my spike tag. I’ve spent time on the southern end of my unit, hoping to find a spike with some cows. I heard through the grapevine that a herd had been running around the valleys by Hop Creek, a spot I’ve never hunted. I went over there and saw something moving in the trees a few ridges from where I was glassing.
By the time I got to that ridge, I’d lost almost all my light and couldn’t find any promising sign. I think what I saw was a cow, but it could’ve been a deer. I’m doubting my abilities at this point.
This is two years in a row I didn’t fill my spike tag.
It’s been a long week or so. I’ve gotten out in the evenings, glassing and calling on as many different spots as I could. The Forest Service FINALLY opened a bit more of my unit, but the fire torched that area and it doesn’t look like anything’s stuck around.
I still haven’t seen an elk on the unit I have a cow tag for. It’s getting depressing. I know a few other guys are having similar luck, so at least it’s not just me.
Well, I wanted to hunt the last day, but apparently my body had other plans. I got stupid sick over the weekend and couldn’t get out of bed – much less hunt. It looks like this is the second year in a row I’ll be eating tag soup.
It’s frustrating because if the Forest Service hadn’t locked me out of my public land, I could’ve gotten into some elk. I know it. But I guess this also shows the need to scout more of my unit in the future, not just the spots I’m used to hunting.
I still had fun though, so I guess that counts for something. Right?
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Sporting Classics Daily, American Angler, Trout Magazine, Hatch Magazine, and other national publications. Spencer is the Owner/CEO of Cutthroat Creative Media. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.
Sorry you had a bad experience. Looks like from your pictures that the area was in a late succession stage conifer encroached aspen anyway and needed a high intensity fire to regenerate the aspens, in which elk love (fire/forest ecology 101). Come back in the years to come and and it will probably be an elk heaven. Hats go off to all the firefighters.
Sorry you had tough luck. I had a general season bull tag and a control cow tag this fall. First time hunting in Utah. Harvested a 5x5 and a cow. Happy with my Utah elk hunt. It snowed nearly every day and the area was beautiful.
Thanks for the work y'all did on the fire. That county is tough, nasty, rugged terrain that's hell to hunt - and worse to fight fires in. It needed a fire big-time, but not at the end of the worst fire season in years, with no precipitation in the forecast. David Whitikend, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Director, deserves to be fired for this bad choice. But he's a fed, and he's above the reach of local folks like me. I know a handful of other guys and girls who worked this fire, and it was amazing to see how well y'all did given the crap you were thrust into.
Yeah, I've had so many shots on elk now that the late-season opened up. I should've hunted where I am now earlier this season! Thanks for the comment.
I enjoyed you write up! I was on one of the local Hotshot crews here in Utah that was on the Pole Creek/Bald Mountain Fire. To say it was mismanaged is the understatement of the decade! Having a back up plan for our hunting area is grossly overlooked, and a back plan to the back up is out of this world. After reading this though, I will start having at least 3 other options. Great story. Thank you