In a social media enriched world full of endless stories of success, epic adventures, and grandeur – it is my pleasure to bring to you one of the rarest adventure stories of its kind: an unsuccessful Ryan Lampers hunt.
Yes – you read that correctly. If you have read other articles that comprise the “Failure Series” then you already understand that in addition to deriving knowledge from our failures, the purpose of these articles is to prove that nobody is infallible. One of the social dilemmas of the modern world is the perceived success showcased on social media that make many people feel like they don’t measure up.
Everyone is a success. Everyone is happy. Everything is perfect.
But things aren’t always what they appear. Behind the scenes, many hunts aren’t as glamorous and didn’t go as flawlessly as they are portrayed on social media. This series brings forth the “behind the scenes” into the light. Even Ryan Lampers, one of the most successful backcountry hunters to ever wander the Rocky Mountains, has a laundry list of unsuccessful hunts punctuating his evolution as a hunter.
“I’d like a redo” were the words used to begin this particular story of an unsuccessful archery elk hunt. As he recalled the torturous drive home with an empty cooler and unpunched tag, I could tell that he still felt that he has some unfinished business in that unit. They had never been in that country before, but had heard there were strong numbers of elk amidst lots of hunting pressure. For those that follow @Sthealthyhunter, then you already know that “highly pressured” areas and “new country” are common themes and not something that deters Ryan. As long as there is enough ground to get away from the crowds, then he’s always able to carve out a small piece of the unit and find a honey hole. There’s a big bull in there somewhere.
It was a very experienced crew of hunters that teamed up to try and tackle this unit. It was a ten day hunt and everyone had their own style, strengths, and techniques to bring to the table. Even amongst the best of friends, finding synergy over the course of a long hunt can be a challenge. With this in mind, the crew split up and headed off in seperate directions with plans to rendezvous in a few days at a base camp. Some finely tuned e-scouting had left them with a list of areas to begin checking off.
(Check out Treeline Academy to learn about Mark Livesays E-scouting Masterclass)
When I think of archery elk hunting during the rut, I think about bugling from a ridgeline and hearing a raspy old bull chuckle back at me. There are many different approaches, none of which are “right” or “wrong.” Certain tactics work better than others during specific circumstances. For instance, constantly locate bugling may increase your odds of finding a “hot” bull when you are trying to harvest any legal bull. Others like spot and stalk, sitting a wallow, or ambush hunting out of a treestand. Others want to pick a fight with the biggest baddest bull on the mountain and have him come charging in.
I’ve noticed a theme that is consistent amongst some of the best elk hunters I know who consistently harvest older age class/mature bulls year after year. In terrain that features at least some open country, they hunt them like archery mule deer and use a stealthy spot and stalk approach. They only locate bugle whenever absolutely necessary to get the bull to give away his location as they stalk into position.
Area number 1 was a fairly high location that proved to be too dry as a result of the weather conditions that year. It was obvious that because of the lack of food, the elk sign was poor so they headed off immediately for a new area lower in elevation. As they went lower, the challenge of this unit began to sink in. There were boot tracks everywhere.
The elk needed to be lower in elevation because that’s where the food was. However, that’s also where the trails and most of the people were. This unit, which is already considered to be a highly pressured unit with substantial hunter density, was condensed down to even a smaller area for everyone to share. Under these circumstances, it was going to be even more imperative to find unmolested elk. With the amount of hunting pressure, the elk were getting called to from every direction. When human pressure is very high in an area, sometimes elk can be found in more secluded draws away from the “ridgerunners” and locate bugling. The next few days consisted of checking some deep, dark holes trying to physically lay eyes on some bulls.
The biggest problem with this tactic was that at the lower elevations, the terrain was not as conducive to physical sightings or spot and stalk. They did find some elk, but would only be able to catch glimpses in openings. Three or four days of cruising country later, their efforts toward finding undisturbed elk proved to be fruitless. They just could not find the elk “hideaway” they were looking for – so it was time to call an audible. They decided to head back to the rigs and head to a new area altogether.
Area number 2 was partially isolated by water. As a natural barrier, sometimes non-wadeable rivers present an opportunity to find some untouched country. The group headed out into the new area and after a few days realized that this area was also very heavily pressured. As it turns out, people were coming in by boat. There were multiple treestands and heavily used human trails, but also blood trails heading off away from the treestands. So, by day 6 or 7, the crew was headed back to the rigs… again…. to head off to a new location.
Bombing into area 3 was a long haul – about 9 miles from the rig. At this point in the hunt, the group is about a week into some hard hunting. That’s a week of dehydrated meals, countless miles, endless steep hillside climbs with full packs. It is at this point that most people bow out of a hunt. Some of the crew was worn down and had just about been walked to death already. This is the point where you chalk it up to “too much hunting pressure,” “poor conditions,” “the elk just weren’t talking,” “it was too dry,” etc.
For the next level hunter, this is the point in the trip where the rubber meets the road. Deep in a canyon and down in the thick of the timber, finally – a rut fest. In between them and the rut fest, out walks a little fuzzy horned spike elk. One of the crew members who hunted with a trad bow put on a great stalk, a clean shot, and killed the spike elk. At this point in the hunt and with the number of tags remaining between the crew members, this was an opportunity at some tender meat and a punched tag that could just not be passed up.
The spike harvest did not impact the rutting activity that was ongoing in the canyon, so an hour before dark, they split up and dove into the canyon. There were at least three different bulls going off and they were able to close the distance. They got in tight and were able to draw a few bulls in to some calling. One bull in particular was a beautiful, mature 5×6 bull. He was playing ball and working into their setup. Although confident in his ability to take this bull, after a good look, Ryan had decided to play the situation conservatively and let this 5×6 live another day. This was going to be the spot where they put some bulls on the ground. There was a much bigger bull in the canyon, and taking this bull could potentially blow out the whole canyon.
Approaching the end of the 10 day hunt, the hard work had finally paid off. The bulls were going nuts all night as the rut fest ensued outside their camp. The remaining days looked promising.
The following morning, everyone had one particular big bull on their mind. With four separate archers, they put together a solid plan to kill this bull. Able to coax the herd bull into 40 yards but just barely unable to get a shot, the bull proceeded back to his cows and off he went. Under most circumstances, this would not be considered a loss. The bull never busted them and still had no idea they were there. There was still time to move back in on him. However, that evening, a few unsuccessful setups later, the cavalry came charging in. A big horse camp settled right into that basin and everything fell apart.
The bulls went quiet. All of a sudden there was pressure all over: people bugling, guys sitting at wallows, non-stop cow calling. Just when things had finally begun to come together, it all unraveled.
On day ten, everyone prepared to pack out. Everyone that is, except for Ryan. Although completely out of food, he was nonetheless determined to make it happen. If they would just fire up like they did before, he knew he could get in on that big herd bull. He bummed any remaining food off of the other guys and headed further into the mountains as everyone packed out.
On day 11, he was able to get in tight on a quiet bull that he had spotted. He saw him push through an opening in the timber. He had an idea where he was bedded – although not an exact location. In this situation, putting a stalk on the bull in his bed without giving away your location is ideal. When you don’t know where they are though, you need to try and get him to give up his position. Even just a midday squeal, chuckle, rake, or a challenge would do the trick – but this bull just refused to give up his location. Maybe the quiet nature of this bull was one of the reasons he reached such an old age to begin with. The stalk came to a halt early without the ability to zero in on the bulls location in the timber.
Day 12 (of the 10 day hunt) was a stretch. Exhausted and out of meals, it was time to pack out. On the way out Ryan heard a squeal that he recognized as a bedded bull. He took a gamble on where that squeal had come from and decided to make a move as a Hail Mary. As it turned out, the bull was exactly where Ryan had guessed he would be bedded – on a little bench in a stalkable location. He was a decent 6×6. Not a giant by Ryan’s standards, but a solid 300 class bull. He stealthily made his way into this bull who was still unaware of his presence. At about 80 yards and closing as he watched the bull in his bed, he looked down and there were two cows needed closer in the brush looking right at him. The gig was up.
Many of us can relate to hunts like this where things just don’t go our way. No matter how hard we seem to work, how far we hike, or how high we climb – the stars just don’t align. There are things we can control and things we cannot. At the end of the day, it is possible to do everything right and still come up short. Put the odds in your favor and let the chips fall where they may.
Our successes and failures are equally important to learn from. Here are some of the main takeaways from this one:
Make hay while the sun shines. There are times to be endlessly patient and times to be aggressive. There were two days during the 12 when they had opportunities to capitalize. There were cows in heat, rut-crazed old bulls, a beautiful opportunity at a 5×6, and only one tag was punched. Hindsight is always 20/20. The action can turn off just as quickly as it turned on – so it’s never safe to assume that being conservative will offer more chances. When you have a chance to make the move, trust your gut and go for it.
Carefully select your hunting crew because personalities and strategies do not always align. Just because someone is an excellent hunter or your best friend doesn’t mean you’ll find synergy in the elk woods. The only reason this crew could make it 10 days in the elk woods together and was able cover those miles was because they were able to work well together. But even at that, there are still conflicting opinions and decisions that are made differently out of respect for someone else’s opinion. Be careful not to ignore your gut instinct. Hunting with others of a similar skill level can be hard and things can sour quickly if you’re not careful. When someone is unable or unwilling to continue hiking further, it makes it twice as hard on the others to keep going. The most important attribute to find in a hunting partner is the willingness to do whatever it takes.
Don’t be greedy. There are few instances where a standard should be set for what quality animal is worth harvesting and what is not. It’s up to each individual to determine their purpose and intent of that harvest. You hear things like “don’t pass up on the first day what you’d be happy to take on the last.” There’s a difference between being greedy and not settling for something that is below your goal. My recommendation is to decide your standard before the hunt and to stick to it. That standard might be a certain age class, a certain antler size, or simply a legal animal. To each their own.
It is easy to make decisions differently when the camera is on you. Whether you think you personally would or not, most people act differently when on camera. Decide beforehand what is more important: punching the tag or getting the harvest on camera, because it may come down to that decision. You don’t want to have to make that decision on the fly.
Stay mobile. For many people, it’s too much work to pack out of an area only to pack right back in somewhere else. It’s hoping and praying that the elk move into the area or decide to play ball today and come into a bugle. If the elk are not there, go find the elk.
Those that are willing to stay and endure are often rewarded. But even 12 days in the elk woods and many miles a day, there is never a guarantee. But maybe that’s why even after a grueling hunt, we keep coming back. For anyone that looks at Ryan Lampers instagram page and thinks how lucky he must be to stumble across the quality elk, deer, and bear that he puts on the ground regularly – reread the details of this story. Understand that the work and effort that went into this hunt is not an exception – it’s the norm. It seems that the harder you work, the luckier you get.