This story is a tribute to my outfitter buddy Jack Wemple who passed away recently.
It was textbook. In an hour, when shooting light arrived, the Idaho elk season was about to open. Jack Wemple and I were on our horses, riding through the rugged backcountry of the Selway Bitterroot wilderness. A bull elk bugled in the distance, and we headed his way. It was slow going as we rode through the darkness, allowing our horses to pick their way along the trail. If all went well, that bull would be wearing my tag. At the time, I had no idea that we would be involved in a wild pursuit, the likes of which I’d never experienced before. The upcoming adventure was definitely NOT textbook.
The late Jack Wemple was one of the toughest, savviest wilderness outfitters I’ve ever known. He lived in Montana, and hunted the backcountry in both Montana and Idaho. On this hunt, we’d be based out of his Idaho tent camp. After driving to the trailhead, we packed horses and mules and made the long ride to camp along with his wife, Shirley, a great wilderness camp cook. Opening morning was about to happen, and I was restless after that wonderful meal and short night, even though I was snuggled in a warm sleeping bag.
We were in the saddles long before sunup, and rode silently along the trail. Jack was headed to his honey hole, a spot where his hunters had claimed many bulls. When we heard the first bugle, Jack stopped his horse and listened intently. The forest was absolutely silent, not a breath of a breeze, though light rain was falling. We dismounted and slipped through the forest, making our way to what Jack called the bedding area. He explained that this spot was where elk preferred to spend the daylight hours. It was thick, offering plenty of cover. Suddenly an elk appeared in the timber. It was a bull, a five by five. Herein was a dilemma. The elk had a decent rack, but the hunt had barely begun and I knew the area produced bigger bulls. I opted to pass, and hoped I wouldn’t hate myself at the end of the hunt. Jack agreed with my decision.
We rode on again, following trails in the virgin forest. Then we heard another bull bugle. Jack listened, trying to determine where the bull was.
“He’s a good half mile away on the next mountain,” Jack whispered. “We’ll have to tie up our horses just ahead, work our way down the slope, wade the creek at the bottom, and then climb the other mountain. Hopefully he'll still be there when we arrive. You up for some exercise?”
I muttered something to the affirmative, and we rode on, listening to the bull as he bugled at 5 to 10 minute intervals. Jack didn’t want to try calling to him until we closed the distance considerably.
After tying the horses, I eased my Winchester .30/06 out of the scabboard, and we slowly worked our way down the mountain. The bull continued to bugle, and then grew silent. “I want to get closer before I talk to him,” Jack whispered. “We need to cross the creek and move up the mountain a ways. I figure he’s at least a quarter mile above the creek.”
The stream was nasty slippery, but we made it across without a mishap. In places the water was knee high, but I wasn’t unhappy. A bull elk awaited, and that was plenty rewarding for the precarious crossing. We waited at the edge of the creek after we crossed, hoping to hear the bull bugle one more time so we could get a fix on his location. After 15 minutes of listening, we heard nothing. Jack was just about to make a call when we heard a bugle, but it was all wrong. This was a different bull, and it sounded like he was back from where we’d just come from. He bugled again, and again. Decision time. Do we continue toward the first bull who had now turned quiet, or turn around and head back up the mountain we’d just descended? The bull sounded like he was very high up on the slope.
Jack and I looked at each other as the bull continued to bugle and grunt non stop. I mean, it was constant, almost no pause. I’d never heard anything like it. The bull was obviously moving. We couldn’t tell, but he seemed to be walking on a contour around the mountain.
Jack didn’t need to explain why he urged me to follow him up the mountain we’d just descended. This noisy bull needed our attention. The creek crossing was a bit more eventful. In my haste to cross, I slipped on a rock and slammed my knee on another rock. I saw stars, but I wasn’t about to falter and mess up the pursuit.
“Maybe we can cut him off and set up an ambush,” Jack whispered. “You up for a fast hike back up that mountain?”
“Do I have a choice?” I said with a grin. “Let’s go.”
The bull continued to vocalize, still non-stop. In all my years of hunting elk, I’d never heard anything like it. His urgent calls compelled us to hurry, climbing upward as fast as we could go. My leg muscles ached, my knee was on fire, and my lungs were rebelling, but I kept climbing, closely following Jack. We gasped for air, desperately tried to keep our footing so we wouldn’t trip and slide down the steep slope.
Because the bull was so occupied with bugling, and because the wind was right, we weren’t making much of an effort to be quiet. Besides, the light rain had dampened the brush so it was soggy instead of being brittle, allowing us to move with less noise. We continued to close the distance, knowing we weren’t very far from the elk.
“We ought to see him any second,” Jack whispered. “Get ready to shoot.” At that we saw the bull just as he moved into sight. I shouldered my Winchester Model .30-06 and, with a great deal of difficulty, willed my lungs to allow me to catch at least one good breath, and squeezed the trigger. The elk went down instantly, and he rolled on the steep slope into a tree, dying with his back on the ground and his feet in the air, completely upside down. He was a beauty, with 6 points on each antler.
As we prepared to take pictures, Jack made a startling discovery. He pointed to a fresh, deep gash in the bull’s head, squarely between and just below his eyes. It was a puncture wound, no doubt caused by a fight with another bull.
“That’s why this old boy wouldn’t shut up,”Jack said. “He was mad at the world, and was either looking for sympathy or another bull to fight.” I believe Jack was right, and I wondered what the other bull in the battle looked like. But there was no time for much pondering. We had work to do. Night was coming on and we had a huge animal on the ground to deal with. Camp was a long way off, but we transported the meat and antlers with no mishap, which was no surprise. Jack was one of the best wilderness packers I’d ever hunted with.
Rest In Peace, my friend.