Among the gold

Autumn in Wyoming is a season of splendor. The landscape and wildlife emerge from their lazy days of summer for a final celebration before hunkering down for the lengthy winter. Deciduous trees transform from deep greens to brilliant hues of orange, yellow and red — splashing hillsides and creek beds with brilliant colors.
Not only are the trees soaking up the final reserves of light before casting aside their leaves, the rest of the ecosystem is busily storing energy before the resources dwindle away. The natural world feels gripped with a sense of urgency to soak up the last rays of fall sunshine before the earth is tilted away from the sun and plunged into the harsh, short days and long winter nights once more.
Bears feed on plump berries, their dark black and brown pelts easy to spot amidst the collage of green and red foliage. Squirrels scamper along tree branches, hurriedly caching nuts for the coming winter. Marmots busily build their fat reserves in preparation for hibernation. 
Brook and brown trout take on their brilliant spawning colors. The slash of red along the jaw of a freshly caught cutthroat trout is stunning against radiant golden leaves reflected in their waters.
Ruffed grouse, blending seamlessly with mottled brown and yellow leaves of aspen groves, hide from hunters.
We humans eagerly partake in the fall festivities of feast and harvest through hunting, fishing and photography. The backdrop of fall colors makes for unforgettable big game hunts.
Like many Wyoming folk, fall gives me an unmatched sense of excitement. I can’t help but revel in its colorful spectacle and the pinnacle of wildlife activity.

Bulls of fall

During autumn, antlered ungulates like elk, moose and deer participate in a courtship display well known to hunters, photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. While does, cows and their young take advantage of the cooler temperatures to forage throughout the day and build their body reserves, bulls and bucks challenge one another and chase after harems of females. 
Watching elk during the fall rut is a family affair for me and my dad, Mark Gocke. As a photographer and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department education and information specialist in Jackson and Pinedale, he’s learned a thing or two after decades of observing and photographing the elk rut in late September.
On one such outing, the early morning air felt brisk as I stepped outside and hopped in the pickup. I glanced at the neon lights on the dash of our F-150 which read 29 degrees Fahrenheit, 6:24 a.m. The Milky Way was still painted across the indigo sky as the truck rambled on in the darkness.
“They need a nice, cold frost to really get them bugling,” my dad said of the bull elk returning from their alpine summer range to seek harems of cows.
I could make out a stand of cottonwoods off to our right as my dad slowed the truck to the side of the road. I rolled down my window, and a rush of cool air flooded my face again.
“They like to feed in the open sage through the night and then cross this road and head up into the timber just before sunrise,” he said.
We sat in silence for a few moments watching the glow on the eastern horizon grow brighter. Then I heard the first bugle, a high pitched, clear, unearthly sound that rang through the brisk, morning air. A pause, then a challenger responded in the distance. As the light slowly spilled over the horizon, a string of cow and calf elk emerged from the cottonwoods. The sun illuminated their steamy breaths. The golden leaves glittered above their heads. They paused to graze for a moment before a bull rounded the corner and began to push them toward the road. He paused to let out another screaming bugle, and then turned at a trot to escort the harem across the road and into the timber, right on schedule.
There is a sense of urgency to breed now, before winter hits. The rut is the culmination of a long summer foraging in the mountains — coats full and bright, a fresh pair of antlers rubbed free of velvet, muscles toned and strong — before the test of another Wyoming winter. These first freezes remind the elk of their mortality. There is a sense of pageantry during the rut, set against the brilliant fall colors as the ecosystem seems to celebrate another summer come and gone.

Ruffs in color

While there is no greater excitement than chasing the bugling elk and rutting mule deer around the high country, it is the quest for grouse in the yellowing aspen groves that continues to capture my attention like no other hunt.
I think back to the sound of rustling trees overhead as a soft breeze brought a cascade of golden leaves tumbling to mix with dry dirt and grass below. We sent our family’s two Labrador retrievers crashing through the underbrush; their panting breath mixed with the sound of excited tails whacking dried foliage. Suddenly, there was a burst of movement and the blurred gray form of a ruffed grouse rocketed from a stand of serviceberry. I trained the bead of my dad’s old Remington 870 Wingmaster on the rising bird and squeezed off a shot. The sound reverberated through the golden aspens as I saw the gray blur spiral to the ground. I reached out my hand to receive the bird from the mouth of the black Lab. The gray and white speckled feathers blended easily with the mottled yellow and brown of the aspen leaves littering the ground below. We enjoyed fresh grouse for dinner that night. It’s a unique mark of fall to eat what was killed that very day. 
I like to think of fall in Wyoming as the golden hour of the year. It’s the brief period when the world seems to hold its breath and marvel in the beauty of another year of life. Golden light bathes the landscape; it illuminates yellow and orange leaves, gleams off healthy summer coats, and reflects from cold, clear streams. Like a painting trimmed in gold, the wildlife engage in their greatest dramas and begin to gather and make their way to the low country. But as the fall nights grow colder and the deciduous trees shake off their golden leaves, we are all reminded that nothing golden can stay.

- Emmie Gocke has grown her love of running, skiing, hunting and rollerblading over the course of her 22 years; in her 23rd she hopes to take up the fiddle. She continues to enjoy fall outings searching for wildlife with her father, Mark Gocke. This is her first contribution to Wyoming Wildlife.
- Mark Gocke is the Game and Fish information and education specialist in the Jackson and Pinedale Regions. He is an avid photographer who continues to pass on his wildlife knowledge and love of the outdoors to his children. 
Photographer Info
photos by Mark Gocke

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