Wyoming Elk: Day 2

It's been hot during the bugle season in Wyoming, so Trefren Outfitters' guides Tim Trefren and Greg Kriese decide we should leave the high country and slog deep into the dark timber to find shaded-up bulls. We've seen bulls in an old burn, and decide to go after them. It will mean leading our horses through shin-busting blowdown and picking a trail through blackened trunks. But we'll do anything for a big Wyoming bull.
We sit one last evening on the edge of an aspen clearing, waiting for a public-land bull that never materializes.
So the next morning we leave the ridges of the Wyoming Range behind and head downhill to the tangled thickets of the spruce-and-lodgepole timber. The weather is turning cooler, and I hope that activates the elk.
But this is no place to ride. We dismount and lead our reluctant horses through a maze of blackened timber.
The biggest obstacles are the blown-down trunks, lying across the ground in random angles. It takes us an hour to go 200 yards.
Every critter in these parts must hear us crack branches and curse out loud, but we start seeing more wildlife than we've seen on the sun-baked ridges. A spruce grouse poses just out of arm's reach.
And an old mule deer watches us pass from his perch on an open hillside just above the blow-down jungle.
After a couple hours of labor, we finally spot an elk. He's a 5x5 bull, watching us from a bench over the valley.
We strip rifles from scabbards and get ready. He's only about 500 yards away, but seems more curious than alarmed.
Tim and Greg size up the situation, and start to blow some gentle cow calls.
Meanwhile, my hunting companions--CVA's Chad Shearer and the NRA's Kyle Wintersteen--crouch behind the horses, hoping that the bull comes to 300 yards to Kyle can make a shot with his CVA Apex in .300 Win. Mag.
Unfortunately, the bull won't cooperate, so we continue to slog through the blackened timber.
But it's my turn to score. I spy a lone cow on a distant ridge and decide that my muzzleloader is no match for this situation. I trade for Kyle's .300 Win. Mag., and stalk toward the elk. She's alone, and offers me a broadside shot. I take it.
We quarter the elk in the field and tie the quarters around the saddle horn of my horse, Marble.
Finally, we break out of the dark timber of the valley and start the long trail back to camp. The trail doesn't seem quite so long with meat on the horn. I'm happy with the success. On public land at the height of the season, you take what's offered, and this cow will be wonderful table fare, earned hard and honest in some of the toughest country of the West.
The town square in the middle of Jackson is a shrine to elk. Arches at the four corners are framed by shed elk antlers, picked up on the National Elk Refuge just outside town. Just seeing this quantity of sheds got my blood rising for my own encounter with elk south of town.
I'd be hunting with Trefren Outfitters, one of the most respected backcountry outfits in the Wyoming Range, and we'd be hunting spectacularly rugged country at the very head of the remote Greys River. Even better, I'd be here at the very peak of bugling season, just as the aspen are changing to gold and orange.
Three generations of Trefrens: Tim, Sr.; Tim, Jr., and 6-month-old Cameron take a rare break in the shade of a canvas wall tent.
Tim Trefren, Jr., in his element, the backcountry of the Wyoming Range.
And Tim, Sr., in his, the camp's well-appointed tack tent.
This was the view that greeted me as I drove into base camp, well after sunset on an October evening. Rows of canvas sleeping tents anchored by a long, warmly lit cook and dining tent. We'd be sleeping on the valley floor, but up well before light to ride saddle horses 3,000 feet uphill to the high ridges above camp.
I'd be hunting with CVA's .50 Optima muzzleloader. This is any-rifle season in Wyoming's backcountry, but I opted for a blackpowder rifle in the hopes that I'd be able to bugle a bull in for a close-in shot. Here, CVA's Chad Shearer strikes a classic wall-tent pose with his Optima.
My first day on the high ridge. We spotted more hunters than elk. And it's warm, so warm that bulls aren't even bugling.
With a 3-9 Konus riflescope, my Optima is lethal out to 200 yards. Beyond that, I'm going to let an elk walk.
Chad is equipped with an arsenal of elk calls, from high-pitched cow calls to diaphragm calls to mimic bull bugles. We're ready, but the bulls are strangely silent.
Tim takes a break from trying to lure a bugling young bull into range. After three days of highs in the 80s--even at 10,000 feet--we're all starting to get a little discourages.
But then we come across this memorial. It's a tribute to the elder Tim's brother, Bob, who helped him start this outfitting business back in the 1980s.
The words put our puny struggles with cooperative bulls into sharp perspective.
Meanwhile, Tim has introduced us to one of his guides. This is Greg Kriese's pickup. He's from northern California, but lives for Wyoming's big high-country mule deer.
Greg gets right to work, helping us glass high basins for low-light bulls. We see a few scattered head, but they're active only in the very last light of the evening and the first few minutes of morning. Then they shrink back into the cool dark timber.
We decided to hike into some remote basins, and encounter plenty of bear sign along the way.
But this is ultimately a horseback hunt, and all of Trefren's guides are skilled wranglers.
Tim Jr. grabs a saddle to throw on one of the dude's horses. Trail horses here have to be a capable mix of stout and conditioned to pull the sort of elevations we cover in a single day.
And the horses have to be mild enough to tolerate a wide range of riding abilities.
We toe our dusty hiking boots into stirrups to cover tens of miles a day in search of cooperative bulls.
Many of the places we ride don't have trails, so we bushwhack through downed timber and cross dozens of streams.
The trails we do encounter are pulverized to dust. It's dry, hot, and we are all wishing for an October snow to concentrate elk in open parks.
It's so hot, in fact, that a candy bar I toted in my pack is so melted the only way I can eat it is with a spoon.
While the October sun beats down, we cover miles of handsome country.
When the horses heat up, we walk, leading the stock behind us through quaking aspen groves lit up with golden leaves.
We continue to see fresh sign, which encourages us that the elk are still here. But they're hard to hunt when they're gathered in the dense timber.
After five days of dark-to-dark hunting, we decide to trail back to the base camp. I'll try to return to the Wyoming Range in late October in the hopes that the weather will turn cool and bring the elk out in the open.
I don't want to go. This is some of the most gorgeous country I've ever hunted. Plus, I've gotten over my saddle soreness, and I'm ready to ride for another week. As I'm trailing down, this thrown shoe seems an ominous sign. I'll come back when conditions are better suited to hunting, not just riding.

Wyoming in the autumn is synonymous with bugling elk and purple mountains, in this case the high Tetons. Hunting Editor Andrew McKean spent a week chasing public-land bulls from horseback in the rugged Wyoming Range south of Jackson Hole.