Some Share Public Lands Better than Others

By Patrick DurkinNovember 14, 2018

For 13 years I’ve been bowhunting elk in southeastern Idaho’s national forests, and recently felt spoiled when realizing I hadn’t encountered another hunter since 2012 on the mountains of these vast public lands.

Perhaps befitting “lucky 13” superstitions, that streak ended with a clout seven days into this year’s hunt. After that solitary first week, I had eight hunter-on-hunter encounters the next five days, more than doubling my total from 2006 through 2012. Stranger yet, one individual accounted for five of this year’s interruptions.


Idaho’s steep mountains provide great opportunities to bowhunt elk on publicly owned national forests.

When the guy stumbled into my setup near an elk wallow Sept. 17, he was close enough to talk. In the previous two encounters, my waves from across small meadows made him veer off. As he approached my hiding spot with neither awareness of me nor pretense of stealth for our third encounter, I considered my greeting.

Should I channel Will Geer, the actor who played a grizzly hunter/trapper in the 1972 movie “Jeremiah Johnson,” starring Robert Redford? When Redford’s character accidentally intrudes on the old guy’s setup, the frustrated hunter/trapper yells: “You’re the same dumb pilgrim that I been hearin’ for 20 days, and smellin’ for three! I am Bear Claw Chris Lapp; bloodkin to the grizzer that bit Jim Bridger’s a- -. YOU are molesting my hunt!”

cow-elk at wallow

A cow elk drinks from a water-filled wallow.

Instead, though, I waited till he was within 20 yards and said, “You sure do get around.”

He looked startled, and then asked, “Is there a wallow over there?” He pointed toward the mudpuddle of an elk wallow I was watching. Brush screened it from his view. I confirmed it was 25 yards ahead. He said he’d been scouting this area “all summer,” and understood this is public land. He also assured me he was as “disappointed” about these continued encounters as I was.

“I understand,” I replied. “Stuff happens.”

He then moved on, saying he would head over the mountaintop.

I doubted he was all that “disappointed.” My friends and I set up camp Sept. 7, and “our man” and two companions arrived at dawn eight days later. The threesome then parked their boat beside ours, walked through our camp 100 yards up the creek bed, and continued up the valley beyond.

public lands- elk-rub

Bull elk often rub their antlers on pines as thick as a man’s leg.

My buddy Mark Endris, who sleeps till dawn before fishing trout, didn’t look out of our tent as the boots crunched past at first light. He assumed I had started late for some reason.

About two hours later, two of them reached the mountaintop meadow I’d been watching for 90 minutes. I pegged them as inexperienced hunters. Rather than sneak to the meadow’s edge and screen themselves in brush to “glass” with binoculars for elk, they simply strode into the opening before pausing to look.

I waved from about 150 yards away. After spotting me, they discussed things between themselves and departed up the opposite ridge into the forest. Seconds later, as if knowing I was wondering where they’d came from, Endris text-messaged me to say a boat was parked beside ours, and hunters might be heading my way.

About an hour later the third hunter appeared where the previous two departed. He either didn’t see me waving or ignored me as he walked downhill, descending the route his companions had ascended.

The man’s companions hunted elsewhere after that encounter, but “our man” continued parking beside our boats and walking through our camp each morning. He persisted even though he encountered me or my buddy Chris White regularly over five days in or near the highland meadow 1.5 miles northwest and 1,300 feet above camp.

Therefore, I doubt his disappointment rivaled ours. He had broken no laws, of course. These are public lands and no one can command him: “This spot’s taken. You’ll find plenty of great elk the next creek down. Go explore it.”

At least that’s what we did five years before. From 2006 through 2012 we camped and hunted two miles downriver from our current site. But when we arrived in 2013, other hunters were camped in “our spot,” so we continued upriver 2 miles, even though we had seven two-week hunts of knowledge invested in our original site.

We just don’t think it cool to park beside another man’s boat, traipse through his campsite, and risk “molesting” his hunt.

Do most public-land hunters agree? Well, “Dreadlocks Dave” does. Here’s that story:

The night before “our man” entered into our elk-camp’s infamy, I heard twigs breaking and leaves rustling as something approached my setup along the mountaintop meadow.

A bowhunter sneaked out of the pines and laurel brush minutes later, dreadlocks bunched and bristling atop his head and between his neck and backpack. I whistled and waved. He looked around, spotted me, waved back and approached. We exchanged names, embarrassed smiles, and guarded scouting reports about nearby bulls.

The young man then asked how long I planned to bowhunt the area. When I said we’d finish Sept. 21, he replied, “Well, I’ll stay out of here until you’re gone.” I thanked him for the courtesy, and he continued up the mountain.

public lands - cow-elk-looking

A young cow elk scans the area before stepping into a clearing to drink from a small hillside spring.

We haven’t seen him since. I like to think the hunting gods helped Dreadlocks Dave arrow a bull the next day. Those things happen. In 1989, for example, Endris and I spent an autumn afternoon building a ground blind in the Ottawa National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The site was a mile from camp, and required careful navigation in the dark, given that handheld GPS units weren’t yet available.

I arrived a half-hour before shooting light on opening day. Ninety minutes later, a hunter walked past 50 yards away, strode with purpose toward a big white cedar, and plunked down like he’d been there often.

I startled him when approaching to ask if this was his traditional stand. He said it was, so I packed up and retreated to a stand nearer camp. Two hours later I shot an 8-point buck as it trailed an estrous doe that passed a minute earlier.

Such experiences make me think fate rewards folks like Dreadlocks Dave. And something tells me he’s a happier person than “our man” will ever be.

Patrick Durkin
President at Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association
Patrick Durkin is a lifelong bowhunter and full-time freelance outdoor writer/editor who lives in Waupaca, Wisconsin. He has covered hunting, fishing and outdoor issues since 1983. His work appears regularly in national hunting publications, and his weekly outdoors column has appeared regularly in over 20 Wisconsin newspapers since 1984.
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