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Landers: Before, during and after, hunt can be epic

Big-game hunters, or at least the ones who seem to get the most out of the sport, are adept at building the suspense for weeks and digesting the related outdoors experiences long after their tags are filled.

“I’ve been scouting for elk and will be quite a bit throughout August and into September,” reported Jeff Holmes last month.

Holmes, who teaches English at Eastern Washington University, pinpointed his hot spot as Elk Mountain. “It’s right next to Cutthroat Creek,” he joked, allowing only that it’s an elk barnyard in the dark woods of northeastern Washington.

“I haven’t seen a live elk yet,” he admitted after three hikes into a couple of basins, “but I’ve been hiking in the middle of the day near their clearcut feeding areas so I don’t bump into them. There’s tons of sign developing in the higher elevations, including lots of bull tracks.”

You get the picture.

Eight weeks before the start of the muzzleloader elk season, Holmes was already wearing boot soles, feeling for tracks, squeezing turds, clearing shooting lanes, fantasizing and working up a lather like a hormone-charged bull, back arched and ready to liberally spray scent all over its belly.

But the emotions were kept in check by the inevitable diversions of devoting close scrutiny to the game.

“This is a horrible huckleberry year, and the number of torn-apart logs I’ve seen is unprecedented in my experience,” he observed, noting that he’d already seen two black bears by mid-August.

On Aug. 26, Holmes treated me to another report.

“I just came back from three days of scouting and extensive ground covering. Elk everywhere, but found the Mother lode yesterday, provided wolves don’t move in.

“It is, frankly, other-wordly excellent elk habitat that is chocked full of bulls, too, based on lots of tracks. I smelled elk strongly twice yesterday, even in the middle of the day.

“The energy up in that basin is amazing. We see cougar and bear tracks like nowhere else; wolves last year.”

The mixed message indicates Holmes is a pro. He’s predicting the elk hunting will be great, but he’s also planting seeds for excuses in case of a bust.

“By the way,”he added, “I just had two close encounters with bears in berry patches on Elk Mountain, one of which was terrifying and involved a roaring bear 20 feet away behind some alders.

“The bear, which I never saw but was ever-so-clearly a bear, stomped its feet, growled, woofed, and came toward me before turning around and woofing away several yards before walking back up the trail I’d just come from!

“The creepy part was that my scent was blowing right in its face for the 45 seconds or so this bear was holding its ground and bluffing.

“I puckered on my return trip later that afternoon when I had to come back through there.”

Holmes said he carries two cans of pepper spray when solo-spooking around in the northeast woods.

On that day, for the first time, he had both cans in his hands with the safety caps off.

For most hunters, that could easily be the high point of the season – before the season even starts.

But on Sunday, still nearly a month before his elk season, Holmes was out scouting Elk Mountain again, this time with a bear tag, a muzzleloader and a buddy.

Indeed, the opportunity presented itself, with Holmes at a stand and his buddy next to him with pepper spray in case of the unlikely but possible appearance of a grizzly.

“A black bear showed up ready to eat and aggressive,” Holmes said, noting that a cloud of smoke and a 338-grain platinum aero-tip slug dispatched the bruin with lights-out quickness.

“My accuracy tends to improve at 12 yards.

“I thought I’d be more conflicted about shooting a bear, but after calling it in and seeing its aggressive arrival to the sounds of my dying fawn call, I am less sad than after I shoot a deer.”

The two men field processed and backpacked out the bear’s cape, boned-out meat and about 15 pounds of fat Holmes gleened from the bear’s back and haunches.

He rendered the fat into a gallon of bear grease he’s been using for waterproofing, baking, and cooking – and staying nourished and subdued until the elk season, still three weeks away.

Contact Rich Landers at 459-5508 or