It was difficult to see if the bird was fully cooked, but based on how long it was on the fire, we were pretty sure.
My wife took her first bite of the grouse and completed the cycle. She had arrowed the grouse earlier in the day and now, between fits of light rain that threatened to turn to sleet, we ate.
On some level, it was a successful hunt, but when you’re hunting elk in Wyoming and you’re eating grouse, it’s not exactly the success you’re looking for.
The idea was to give my wife a proper sendoff in Wyoming by calling a bull elk within bow range. She earned her master’s degree there. She learned to hunt there. We had great summers there as she chipped away at her Ph.D. We returned there after we were married in June for the summer, and spent time backpacking in the Big Horns, Wind River Range and Yellowstone. But when I returned to Alaska to start school, she remained to continue working until she moves up for good later this month. So, the plan was an elk blowout to close this chapter.
There were a few problems, however. The most obvious being that I was the one with the bugle. Outside of attempting to mimic the bugles of the pros on YouTube, I had never called to a bull elk let alone called one in. The second issue ended up being that peak rut had apparently ended two weeks before I arrived, when my wife had called in a 6-point bull to within 20 yards while she was hunting by herself. But it came in too fast and too quiet, and she didn’t manage to get a shot. I was sure we’d get another chance when I was down there. She had an encounter. All we had to do was go back there and finish the job.
But the silence was disturbing. We saw tracks. Found beds. Even smelled them a few times, but they wouldn’t make a sound, and we became the hapless hunters at the mercy of luck. In fact, we saw more moose than elk.
So, a few days in we were eating bird on an elk hunt.
As we did, I wondered how it went down in that brush earlier in the day. In a few more seconds, they would have been in the clear. My wife and I would be past them and they would have been safe. But one couldn’t help it. It flushed and flew into a tree leaving its comrades still in the bush making the tell-tale grouse noises that signaled us.
I wondered how it went down. Were there quiet grouse whispers between the nervous one and the others?
“Be cool, be cool.”
“I can’t take it, I’m taking off.”
That one lived, another didn’t. Two others escaped. It made me wonder just how much luck plays in these things. How many times have I thought I knew what I was doing, but was really just lucky? Does it matter? Would the grouse luck jump species to an elk?
We had a few encounters, but none involved an elk making a sound. They were almost shocking encounters. After so much anticipation, waiting and walking, seeing one suddenly at 35 yards as we were quietly walking through the woods froze us for long enough for the bull to escape. We also saw one at 65 yards on the last day of the season, but only part of it was visible between trees and brush. Later that day the season ended and we retreated to camp.
However, with the first of October brought the rifle season for mule deer and my wife took a beauty.
We will both miss Wyoming, her more than me since she invested so much more time there, but there are more than enough opportunities here for us to find success, on our terms or not, and luck in whatever form it comes.
• Jeff Lund is a freelance writer based in Ketchikan. His book, “A Miserable Paradise: Life in Southeast Alaska,” is available in local bookstores and at Amazon.com. “I Went to the Woods” appears twice per month in the Sports & Outdoors section of the Juneau Empire.