It was the second day of the second-season hunt when I found the herd at the bottom of a steep clearcut four klicks east and 41 floors from the gated road at the edge of town.
Drawn to the lip of an old log landing by the faint snap of brush, I froze in awe at four elk browsing near the edge of a treeline 120 meters distant. In the deep shade of late afternoon, their tan-colored shoulders and broad rumps stood out like landing lights on an airplane while other features blended into a colorless background.
This was the moment of truth, the grand finale to the best hunt ever. I’d argue what made it so was the timber company’s locked gate of crash-resistant steel and a bulletproof padlock. With vehicles barred to car-hunters and their twangy radios, the forest turned silent and primeval.
Over 190,000 acres of Hancock Forest Management timberlands in the Trask, Stott Mountain and Alsea game units are open for year-round hunting access — by foot, in most cases — through 2021, thanks to a state fish and game access and habitat program.
Sealing the entrances may be the greatest development in coast hunting since the smokeless cartridge. Other hunters seemed rare as butterflies in November; the only two I encountered, a husband and wife chasing general-season deer, appeared a cut above in matching camo and composite .308 rifles.
But I wasn’t alone. According to an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife study, there are about 7,000 elk in the rugged central coast hunting units of Stott Mountain, Alsea
The elk population, estimated to be about 60,000-70,000 statewide, was dense enough in the Northwest Zone to produce an overall hunter success rate of 33 percent in 2017. Two Saddle Mountain units northeast of Lincoln City drew about 2,000 hunters who decked nearly 300 bulls, including 34 racks of six-plus points, according to an ODFW survey.
The absence of other hunters was an unexpected gift in my territory, however. The clutter of human background noises that can be heard a mile away yielded to the stillness of a coast range forest where signs — like scat, prints
I tracked the growing sign over a ridge that dropped into a large watershed with a plantation of third-generation fir surrounding a clearcut the size of Boeing Field. Thanks to industrial tree-farming, the Oregon coast can offer shooting as open as any on the high desert – though that hardly matters if the wind is behind you and the elk get a whiff.
I walked slowly to the edge of the landing and peered into the canyon below, where a slight movement brought the picture into focus. The familiar sight of these massive animals — 700 to 1,100 pounds, typically — on a golf course or pasture is incongruous and zoo-like. But this was the flank of a wild herd in its element and my heart raced.
Soon enough, I counted three cows and a young bull with some headgear, but spike or antler? My hand reached slowly for the binoculars as the wind stopped, then picked up to cool the back of my neck. A cow stopped browsing and looked directly at me, as though I were the only person in the stadium.
In an instant, the forest below erupted with bleats as the herd and its protective bull called the outliers to safety. The display of feral communication was staggering, and I watched as the cows and bull reluctantly and noiselessly disappeared into the woods.
It was the best hunt ever.