By: Randy Tucker
The Spread Creek drainage is a little slice of heaven situated between Togwotee Pass and the entrance to Yellowstone National Park at Moran Junction. As the name indicates, it is a wide, open valley that follows the creek in the high altitude of western Wyoming.
It’s also an area with a high concentration of wapiti, or elk, in the common vernacular.
Huge herds of hundreds sometimes cross the area, and small bands of elk are common in the open meadows and tree-lined hills.
We set off for a four-day adventure one season. My dad, my brother-in-law Matt, and our friend Larry settled into an open area off a gravel road late one Wednesday afternoon in October.
It was a general, any elk area, meaning we could hunt with just an over-the-counter tag. Any elk, bull, cow, or calf was fair game.
Setting up camp didn’t take much with Larry’s fully self-contained gooseneck camper. We unhooked the truck, raised the four jacks to level it, and we were all set.
I was eager to get moving and set out on foot to the west.
The camp was at about 6,800 feet, with the surrounding ridges rising another 2,000 feet.
It didn’t take long to find elk sign. There were tracks and droppings everywhere. It snowed the day before we arrived, so the tracks were fresh.
Reading droppings are an important part of stalking big game. Some of the oval, grape-sized elk pellets were cold and frozen, but others were still pliable, and my heart jumped when a couple were still warm, indicating elk within the last few minutes had passed through.
Picking up the pace, I spotted a small herd with a couple of young bulls in the mix. Unfortunately, I was upwind of them, and they smelled me at about the same time I saw them.
Scent is another often forgotten aspect of hunting; in a dense forest, you can smell elk, deer, or moose long before you see them. Elk can smell humans much better than we can smell them, but the scent of urine, sometimes mixed with sweat from a herd bedding down overnight in a grassy area, is a visceral sign of game.
The herd kept moving. I plotted a path, hoping to cut them off. It didn’t work. They disappeared in the gathering darkness. I was a long way from camp, with just a few supplies, no source of light, and only the stars to guide me in a few minutes. I knew exactly where I was, but had to find a cardinal point to traverse my way back to camp. It might seem counterintuitive, but climbing a little higher towards the east gave me the vantage point I needed to spot the lights of the trailer in the distance.
Slipping, sliding, and doing a little hurdling, I fought my way back down the mountain. As the darkened hike continued, a full moon broke over the horizon, lighting up the entire valley.
Dinner was ready when I arrived, and the news of the elk on the ridge was a welcome story.
We decided to head out the next morning just before dawn.
We were all sound asleep when my dad woke up, started banging pots and pans, while yelling, “Get up boys, we’re burning daylight.”
It seemed like we’d just gone to sleep. In reality, we had. It was 3 a.m., and the full moon reflecting off the snow had fooled my dad into thinking the sun had already risen. As the smell of frying bacon began to fill the camper, Matt rolled over and said, “It’s the moon — it’s still the middle of the night.”
A false start, but a funny one.
We drove a bit, hiked a lot, and saw nothing the second day.
I pride myself on seeing almost every mammal species in Wyoming, but I hadn’t seen a wolverine, and still haven’t, in the wild. As I set up on the convergence of two ridgelines to survey the area with my binoculars a loping, dark animal moved across a meadow below about a mile away. The binoculars weren’t powerful enough to tell what it was, but my heart raced when the thought of a wolverine in the wild came to mind. My Remington .308 has a 6×18 zoom scope attached. I put it on maximum view, wedged it against a fallen tree to steady it, and the wolverine became a wolf.
Wolves are common across most of the western half of the state after reintroduction, but this was an original inhabitant, one that officially didn’t exist according to the experts, long before the first Canadian pair was introduced in 1995.
Wolves are fast, long-distance runners, but they have a distinctive gait, and this one matched the videos I’d watched of them in the wild.
No elk on the third day either.
On the last day, we packed up camp, then drove off to a final area for a few hours hunting before we returned home. Feeling a bit frustrated, I only hunted a couple of hours before putting my rifle back into its case and settling in to take a nap while waiting for the other guys.
In my semi-conscious state, I looked through the windshield, and there they were, a line of elk walking single-file 50 yards in front of the truck. What luck, but my rifle was under the rear seat of the truck.
As quietly as I could, I eased out of the front seat, opened the rear door, and gingerly removed the .308 from its case.
Most of the herd was gone down a draw, but a single spike bull remained. I took aim, but only dark brown fur filled my scope, still set at 18 power. I rolled the gun over onto its side and took a wild “John Wayne” shot. It missed. The young bull was gone, and so was our weekend hunt.
No game for us this time, but a lifetime of memories in one of the greatest wild areas remaining in the lower 48.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.