Mountain Man: Minnesota Hunter Leaves Home for Elk

Sunday, December 27, 2015
Frank Koshere was alone, carrying his bow, hiking high in Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains, when he stumbled into an elk-hunting spike camp. Koshere, who lived in Superior, Mont., then, was looking for elk, too.

As he passed through the camp, he inquired softly, “Anyone home?”

The flap of a canvas tent flew open, and Koshere saw a grizzled old character lying on a cot. The first thing the man said to Koshere was, “How old are you?”

“Fifty,” Koshere told him.

The old man — an elk hunter, too — called Koshere into the tent for a chat. As it turned out, the old man was originally from Superior, too. The two talked for some time. Koshere, who now lives in Fredenberg Township, Minn., north of Duluth, had plenty of time. He had set aside a full month — solo — for his first Idaho elk hunt. Somewhere in the conversation, the old man suggested that Koshere come back for a December muzzleloader hunt.

That’s how it began.

Koshere, now 64, was back in the Bitterroots again this fall — his 15th year in a row, back with his black-powder rifle, a .50-caliber Thompson/Center.

He has learned some things since that encounter with the old man in the tent. In the past 15 years, Koshere has taken 14 elk in Idaho’s high country.

Always, he makes the trip alone, pitching a canvas tent with a woodstove at 7,800 feet, getting his water from a creek, collecting his firewood, covering 5 to 10 miles a day on foot at elevations up to 10,000 feet. He hunts exclusively on non-motorized lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service.

The mountains have taken hold of him.

“I’ve got to keep going back as long as I can,” said Koshere, now retired after a career as a water quality biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

A Novel Idea

Koshere can tell you where the seeds of his elk hunting took root. He was 12 years old, growing up in West Allis, Wis.

“I read A.B. Guthrie’s T he Big Sky, ” Koshere said, sitting before a woodstove with his wife, Karen, at their home on a December evening.

The 1947 novel is about the Oregon Trail, Montana and the mountain men.

“It triggered something in me to think about the mountains,” Koshere said. “I read everything about mountains I could get my hands on. I remember how the kid was taught to shoot a buffalo with a muzzleloader. That inspired me.”

He didn’t get to the mountains until he was well into his 40s. Now, he never misses a year.

He hunts solo because he likes the company.

“I’ve always been kind of an individualist,” he said. “If people haven’t tried traveling alone — it opens up a whole new experience. When you’re alone, people are very helpful and accept you as an equal.”

He’s been befriended along the way by a few other elk hunters, by an Idaho game biologist and by Ron and Lance, father-son horsemen from Idaho who sometimes hunt with Koshere.

An Evolving Hunt

Contrary to the solo nature of his hunting, Koshere is an outgoing guy for whom conversation comes easily. He learned about elk hunting because he wasn’t afraid to reach out, to ask questions. He also is meticulous in his preparations. He and Karen begin packing the meals he’ll take to the mountains a month before each fall’s trip.

When he talks about his hunting, he starts a lot of sentences with these words: “I’ve learned.”

His methods and practices have evolved over the years. He typically drives to about 7,800 feet and pitches his 8-by-8-foot canvas wall tent with its titanium stove. He tried “cold camping” early on, but it wasn’t practical. Without a woodstove, he couldn’t dry his hunting clothes each night.

He didn’t know how to hunt elk in the beginning, how to spot a herd high on a ridge and somehow get within 30 to 80 yards to make a good shot.

A Day on the Mountain

He starts each day by using binoculars to glass the peaks up five or six drainages from his camp. He is in no hurry. If he spots elk, he will begin loading his daypack with essential gear — a small tarp, cloth bags for meat, camera, knife, a few extra 460-grain conical bullets, food, water, emergency bivouac supplies. Over time, he has pared the pack’s weight from 30 to 22 pounds.

“When you’re hiking in the mountains, you don’t even want lint in your pockets,” he said.

By late morning or midday, he begins hiking. Up. Fifteen hundred to 2,000 feet up, covering three or four miles, where he glasses for elk again. He had to learn that, too.

“I didn’t realize how far you had to go, how steep you had to go, how high you had to go,” he said.

The elk are usually bedded down at midday. Sometime from 2 to 4 p.m., typically, they’ll get up and move to feed, he said.

“That’s when I make a move on them,” Koshere said. “They might be only two miles away, but you might have to hike five miles to get in position.

Everything worked right on a recent hunt.

“It was late afternoon,” Koshere said. “I worked my way in, slow-stalking. I spotted them bedded with my binoculars.”

When he was close, he stood for 10 minutes, hidden by trees, looking for individual elk.

“There were four within range,” he said. “I knew they were going to get up.”

One cow was at 82 yards. Koshere uses a rangefinder to know exactly how far he’s shooting. Finally, the cow stood up.

“She turned 180 degrees,” Koshere said.

He steadied the Thompson/Center on a pair of cedar shooting sticks — think of a tripod without one leg — that he had made. Koshere pulled the trigger, detonating the black gunpowder. When the smoke cleared, he couldn’t see the cow.

“I waited half an hour,” he said. “I walked over. She was lying right there.”

Getting It Home

People often ask Koshere how he drags his elk out off the mountain.

“In little pieces,” he answers.

He never field-dresses the elk he shoots. He skins them and butchers them on the spot. Light is often fading by this time. He is never able to carry all of the meat back to camp the same night. He leaves the meat there overnight, arranging it on his tarp and erecting a scarecrow made from his shooting sticks and an extra shirt. Before hiking down to camp, he marks the territory in the same way a wolf would. Only once has another animal tampered with the meat, Koshere said, and not much was taken.

Over the next day or two, he climbs the mountain again and hauls down the meat and the hide, which he has tanned once he’s home. Koshere might travel 30 miles in three days, packing out his meat.

He always shoots cows. He has no desire to shoot a bull just to display its antlers.

“The prize is the meat,” he said. “You can share it with family and friends. You can enjoy it year around.”

Organic Food

He served elk one night when he was dating Karen, a nurse practitioner. She was sold. She emptied all of the beef from her freezer and gave it away.

“(Elk) is as natural as you can get,” she said. “It’s not corn-fed and antibiotic-infested. They’re animals out living on their own, not penned up.”

She has become a muzzleloading hunter, too, seeking whitetails closer to home.

“She’s good,” Koshere said.

No whitetails were taken by Frank or Karen this fall. But with two elk in the freezer, meat is plentiful.

Now, the training begins for next year’s hunt. Cross-country skiing. Putting up firewood. Hiking many days with a 15-pound pack.

Koshere recognizes that not everyone would want to devote so much preparation, so much physical effort for an elk hunt.

“I don’t see what I do as remarkable or extraordinary,” he said. “This is doable by anyone who wants to do it. That’s the thing about doing these trips - we’re capable of so much more than we ever imagine.”

Face-to-Face with a Mountain Lion

On his first trip to Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains for elk hunting, Frank Koshere had a five-minute staredown with a mountain lion.

He had been hiking a steep elk trail near treeline when his eyes caught something brown coming out of the shadows of some trees. “Elk!” he thought.

He had been hunting a week and a half and hadn’t shot one.

But something wasn’t right about the shape. Perhaps it was a deer, he thought.

Then a large male mountain lion emerged from the shadows 30 feet away from Koshere.

Koshere had his black-powder rifle in hand, a .50-caliber Thompson/Center, loaded and ready. When the lion didn’t move for several seconds, then a minute, Koshere thought about taking out his camera for a photo. But the camera was in his daypack, and that would have meant unslinging the pack and digging for the camera.

Trying to make himself more imposing, he grabbed his muzzleloader in both hands, raised it over his head and stood on his tiptoes.

He took stock of his situation: He knew what the muzzleloader in his hands represented: “One shot and an iron club.”

Koshere and the cat did not break eye contact for nearly five minutes, when Koshere saw the lion’s eyes dart briefly to the side. He calculated that the lion was thinking about an escape.

The lion bolted, and Koshere never saw it again. But he looked over his shoulder frequently for the rest of the day.

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