Snubbing the Cubs for elk: Hunter bags his first bull as team wins World Series
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists 11 criteria for possible alcohol-use disorder. The presence of at least two criterion indicates a possible drinking problem, and if drinking is swapped for hunting I’m rapidly developing a different disorder, one often referred to as elk fever.
I was born in northwestern Illinois and didn’t start hunting until my first years attending the University of Montana in Missoula. While 2016 is my sixth season hunting big game, the Chicago Cubs have been a constant throughout my life. I watch nearly every regular season game.
So that brings me back to the DSM-5. The psychiatry manual states abuse could be present if an individual has given up or cut back on activities previously pleasurable, important or interesting in order to drink. Last week the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years, and I didn’t find out until two days after game seven because I was elk hunting.
For years I told family, friends and fellow Cubs fans I’d be in Chicago if the Cubbies won it all again. I even requested the week of the World Series off this year to maintain the possibility of a road trip home.
So I faced a conundrum when Gazette Outdoors editor Brett French approached me to take part in a weeklong backcountry elk hunt the same week as the Fall Classic. The Cubs had already won the National League Championship in six games against the Los Angeles Dodgers. I knew I was going to miss the last four games of a series I have waited my entire life to watch. On the other hand the possibility of a Montana wilderness elk hunt had never been greater.
I spent my first five hunting seasons marching through public land hoping for a lucky encounter with an elk herd, jealously liking the photos of my Facebook friends’ bulls and eating my unfilled elk tag come December. Like all Cubs fanatics I told myself next season was the one.
I took a couple days to soul search before committing to the backcountry hunt and spent the days leading up to the trip meekly explaining my decision to fellow fans and other regulars at Tiny’s Tavern where I spent countless hours watching the lead-up to the North Siders’ deep playoff run.
Seeking a signal
The area we planned to hunt in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness near Ennis is a deep drainage surrounded by tall ridges and peaks. The chance of picking up enough cellphone reception to stream game audio was slim, but I packed a newly acquired external battery good for three full charges and a battery operated AM/FM radio to hedge my bet.
On the Friday of game three we hiked three creekside miles to meet two new acquaintances, old school hunters from Absarokee who packed most of the supplies in on horseback — John Simmons and John Chepulis. The men had been hunting the drainage longer than I’d been alive, and while I’d never harvested an elk they had shot dozens. I had a lot to learn.
Over the next week I enjoyed my first taste of hunt camp. The work was exhausting. Hauling water up to camp and cutting firewood proved wearying after hiking miles every day looking for wapiti. We ate large meals, drank good whiskey and carried on long conversations about hunting and how the wilderness and its game populations have changed through the years.
But I never found a cellphone signal, and every night I failed to find the Cubs game on my radio save for a fuzzy AM broadcast of the last three innings of Game 4 that left me with the knowledge that Cleveland led Chicago three games to one. I didn’t receive another update until we reached the trailhead and its cell service the following Friday.
We hunted hard most days and slept in on some, but Brett and I managed to cover an average of eight miles a day in steep terrain. With only two days of hunting left in the trip we finally discovered a few fresh tracks yet had not seen a single elk. The trip’s outlook began to match Chicago’s chances at a comeback.
On the morning of game seven we decided to climb a ridge with grassy openings that looked like sweet spots for grazing elk. We trudged up more than 1,000 feet of vertical gain while scaling the “Bald Face Hill,” as the old timers called it. That’s when we finally cut fresh tracks in the previous night’s snow.
Brett said the pair of meandering tracks looked to be a cow and a calf. We took pains to keep quiet as we worked our way through the thick timber in pursuit of them, but lost their trail where the snow melted in a clearing. That’s where we opted to part ways. Brett picked up the tracks downhill, and I pushed through the woods at the top of the ridge.
I saw no sign and my tired feet were clumsy, tripping over downed trees and snapping branches with my toes. Despite my mistakes this was my day. Movement in a clearing caught my attention. I couldn’t fire my .308 rifle fast enough when I saw the brow tines on a five-point bull in a clearing 75 yards uphill.
The Chicago Cubs never crossed my mind while we went to work on that bull. I never thought I’d see a bull on public land, and here I’d tagged one. In comparison a Chicago Cubs World Series seemed more likely and turned out to be less personally satisfying.
We reached camp 10 hours after the shot with the shoulder-straining hindquarters in our day packs. It took less time to forget my mid-haul vow never to shoot another elk and the aches of the post-kill hike. Unfortunately we had to hike the route the next day to retrieve the rest of the bull, with the horses helping to pack the meat the final distance.
I now have more meat than I can eat in a year but I’ve already started planning next season’s hunt, this time around the World Series. I hear the Cubs are favored.