Preface by Jeff Holmes;
Story by Jerrod Gibbons
Omak’s Jerrod Gibbons is one of the Northwest’s better-known guides, and is one of the rare breeds in Washington who hunt and fish with clients year-round. Gibbons also fishes and hunts for pleasure, but in recent years he’s spent a lot more time guiding clients and building Okanogan Valley Guide Service into a nationally known outfit than he has hunting for himself.
“Trigger time,” as he puts it, can be hard to come by when clients must always come first.
But the stars aligned for Gibbons in 2014 in more ways than one. Along with getting engaged and then fishing over epic Chinook and sockeye salmon runs from late spring through summer, Gibbons drew two of the state’s most coveted big game tags during one hunting season. His quest to fill those tags – while also guiding anglers and tagging out scores of clients on mule deer and whitetail bucks – follows.
I WAS HALFWAY through a banner 2014 spring Chinook season on the Icicle River and newly opened Wenatchee River and was on the water with clients when I heard the good news: results were available for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s special permit drawings! I forced myself to stay focused on my guiding, limited out my clients, and beat feet for the Safeway lot in Leavenworth, where I could pull up the WDFW website on my phone. Having a whopping 23 quality elk points, I was pretty sure this would be my year to draw the coveted Dayton elk tag, but I was nervous as I clicked through the site.
“SELECTED,” it said for my Dayton tag! I remember my tiredness from guiding disappearing and me smiling from ear to ear. I quickly scrolled down to see if I had drawn anything else, which I knew would be a long-shot based on what I’d put in for. To my shock, I again saw “SELECTED.” I looked to the left and saw “Mountain Goat, North Lake Chelan.”
“Are you kidding me!?!” I remember screaming, jumping out of the truck and prancing around like a little kid. I got some crazy looks, but I didn’t care. The rest of salmon season in North-central Washington went without a flaw. Guiding is always a tough business, but big numbers of fish, booked hunts with clients, and my own two amazing tags made the summer of 2014 a lot easier to enjoy.
Almost immediately, I anticipated the challenge of filling these tags while being a full-time hunting and fishing guide. I started thinking of areas to cover and made a lot of phone calls. I have a well-known fishing guide buddy, Richland’s Dan Sullivan, who had drawn the Dayton tag, and knew of others who had. Since the season started Oct. 20, the day after general rifle deer ended, I knew my scouting would be limited by my heavy guiding schedule. Sullivan introduced me to Ben Hill of Vancouver, a new friend who also knows the area. We made plans to hunt together in October when my schedule allowed.
FIRST, THOUGH, MOUNTAIN goat season, which opened Sept. 15. But with no way of scouting the area from a rig, we had to plan on scouring maps and taking a boat ride up Lake Chelan. We were only able to schedule two trips uplake due to guiding for salmon six days a week from July 1 through Aug. 30. That much guiding is a lot of work, and needless to say the summer went quickly while working hard and dreaming of hunting season. Meanwhile, our early archery guys started on Sept. 1, so we had to work in our evening scouting and setting trail cams in mid-August after getting off the water.
Through a mix of strategy and good luck, our early bowhunters tagged out quickly, going five for five. This allowed my right-hand man and best friend, Josh “Stump” Unser, and I to backpack in for the goat opener. We’d seen only one in our previous two scouting trips, so we didn’t have much to go on, but we planned to be there for a week and had another buddy drop us off far uplake where we had seen the goat during scouting. We ended up seeing that very nice billy goat again, but it had relocated into an area where no man should ever be. The terrain was so treacherous that it required little thought to know it was not worth risking our lives for this animal. So we continued hiking high above the lake to the crest of the peaks, covering as much ground as possible.
After four intense days exhausting every nook and cranny we could realistically reach, we called good friend Scott Rowe on the satellite phone for pick-up the next day. This was by far the most gruesome hike of my life, and I was beat. North Lake Chelan goat country is the steepest terrain I’ve ever been in, and limited water made it very tough. We were there only four days and immediately began to think of when we could go back with season ending at the end of October: the same as my elk tag. I knew time would be tight and my family life would be short. Having a good woman to understand that these were tags of a lifetime made it a little easier.
Stump and I returned to Omak with no goat and began to get back to work scouting deer for our muzzleloader and rifle seasons. To keep a long story short, we ended up tagging 96 percent of our clients out with 100 percent opportunity. It was a very good general season that would get better. My guiding schedule left three days for family hunts, and the 2014 highlight until this point was helping my daughter and wife tag their first deer!
AFTER TYING UP loose ends at the end of deer season and packing for the Blues, my dad, Stump, and I headed out for Dayton to meet up with Sullivan and Hill. It was now my turn to pull the trigger, and I was feeling rushed and nervous from not having much opportunity to scout.
We met in the town of Dayton and headed to a cabin in the mountains they had lined out. We met the rest of the crew that was there to help, and they made me feel really welcome and like I was on a guided hunt. The crew didn’t have any smasher bulls pinned out yet because it was really warm for this time of year. Elk were active all night, and our only opportunities would likely come the first half hour in the morning and the last 30 minutes in the evening. The rest of the time, elk were in the timber, bugling very seldomly as the rut was pretty much done.
On day one, we went down a ridge from the top and immediately got on a thumper bull. He was 1,300 yards out and across the canyon. Stump and Hill were both in great shape and basically took off at a jog. Me, I tried keeping up! Getting to 400 yards and trying to find a hole in the timber was almost impossible. We got on the cows, but the bull had already slipped into the timber. We decided to try again that evening and he didn’t come out, nor did he the next morning, so we decided to relocate to another draw. This time Sullivan took us down another ridge to walk out to a road below. Hill had located a bull there previously while scouting and decided to give it a shot.
Weather came in that evening and the elk began to come out of the timber really early. Spotting a few cows and small bulls, we kept working down the ridge. A tremendous bugle erupted as we walked, and we scanned the canyon and spotted a good bull. Sullivan held me off from shooting it, wanting me to make sure it was a really good one. With a goat tag in my pocket and seven days left in season, I was feeling a little pressure to get my goat. I leveled down on this elk and watched him at 465 yards. He was a perfect 6×6, the biggest bull I’ve ever seen through my scope. Sullivan sized him up and told me it was a decent bull, but there were bigger ones around. Looking at Stump, my goat-hunting partner, I decided to take him. With the video camera set up behind me, I pocketed the shot right behind the shoulder. The bull ran downhill and piled up in a windfall.
We had a ton of work to do, so we called Hill and the other guys to meet us with the pack frames. A total of five of us cut and packed him. We went a mile in the dark through the thickest, steepest crap I’ve ever been in. It took us three hours to get off the mountain, even with another hunter meeting us at the bottom of the canyon! By 11:30 at night we were in the rig heading back to the cabin. I slept in and went back to Omak the next morning after making some awesome friends I’ll have for life. I felt truly blessed for the opportunity I had had, but now was goat time.
A DAY AND a half later, I was headed for a boat ramp on Lake Chelan. Stump and I met up with his dad, Dave Unser, who has a 22-foot Thunder Jet. The game plan was to glass from the boat, find one and get dropped off to pursue. Of course, late October’s weather didn’t work out, as we had 4-foot rollers Saturday and Sunday, along with fog – we saw no goats. We set up camp on the south shore and glassed what we could.
On the morning of the 27th while going downlake, I spotted a glowing white spot. It was a goat, about halfway up the steep terrain, visible from the lake. I was unable to get a scope on him to size him up, so we put a plan together.
Up the hill Stump and I went. It took us three hours to get to the location we wanted, and sure enough, we got close enough: 426 yards. I had a broadside shot at the billy while he was bedded down, and I took it. I missed, hitting a hair low, but he stood up, and three shots later I had my goat! It’s amazing footage, and some of the best I’ve seen.
After another 45 minutes of hard hiking, I got to put my hands on the thickest and softest coat I’ve ever felt. We boned him out and made our way down the hill to the boat. After riding back to camp that evening, we had fresh goat steak and sockeye fillets we brought from summer fishing. It was a fitting celebration of perhaps the greatest hunting season of my life – and one I likely won’t ever repeat. Never again will I draw two quality tags in one year and then fill them both within five days. It was flat-out awesome!
I thanked Dave Unser like he was my other father, and we headed back to Omak in preparation for our late archery season, where we succeeded with 100 percent opportunity and a 95 percent harvest ratio, including some whomper raffle bucks. We also filmed two TV shows in 2014, one with Cabela’s American Archer and one with Western Extreme. Both will be on the Outdoor Channel this spring and fall of 2015.
Speaking not only as a hunter, but as a Washington fishing and hunting guide, this was one of those years I will never forget. I made some lifelong friends, my freezer is full, and I harvested some terrific animals together with clients and friends! NS