In 22 years of October hunting in the southern Cascades, Steve Nicovich can count on two hands how many shots he's fired at a Roosevelt bull elk, even if he's wearing mittens.
There's the one that dropped a 4-point in 2009 near Lemolo Lake. Then there's the miss at a huge 6-by-6 in 2006 near Diamond Lake. And the 150-yard shot at a three-point near Elephant Mountain in 2003.
"I've always been close," he says.
Yet being 1 for 22 still puts Nicovich at a 4.5 percent success rate in the Cascade general bull elk season, which isn't bad considering that in recent years as few as 2 percent of rifle hunters have slapped their tag on an antler tine.
So why is he smiling?
The night before elk season has a way of making every glass look half-full, even though it really is 98 percent empty.
"I'm definitely stoked," says Nicovich, 34, of Sams Valley. "I'm always stoked before elk season. I always think I'm going to be part of that 2 percent.
"Otherwise, it would be too depressing," he says.
The quest to become one of the 2-percenters begins Saturday in the Cascades for thousands of hunters who spend a week of their lives each fall trodding miles and miles through the mountains — even though most of the bull-shooting will happen around an elk-camp fire.
But then again, this could be the year.
Healthy bull ratios mixed with some early rains and high-elevation snows mean the south Cascades are as ready as ever to host a breakout season not seen yet in this millennium.
Now, if it would only snow a few inches tonight ...
"That would be ideal," says Mark Vargas, the Rogue District wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Let's just hope we get that and get away from that 2-percent figure.
"I'm shooting for 4 percent or 6 percent," he says.
The Cascades' bull season perhaps is Oregon's last great general season, when any non-felon older than 12 with $42.50 can buy a tag before tonight's 11 p.m. deadline and become an elk hunter Saturday morning.
Even though the vast majority of hunters see their season as little more than a weeklong camping party, there is still a magical magnetism that has hunters believing a huge, branch-antlered bull will end up in their cross-hairs one ridge or clearing away.
"I've been hunting elk since I was 12, and I'd say it kind of overcomes me," Nicovich says. "It's the absolute one time of year to have my vacation. Everything is planned around elk season."
Like most general-season hunters, Nicovich knows he could go elsewhere and increase his odds of success. He could spend a few months of his salary as a FedEx driver and head to Colorado, or a day's wages on gas to reach Eastern Oregon. But he's unfamiliar with both.
"The odds of success would be considerably better, but you'd still be flying blind," he says. "It's the devil you know versus the devil you don't know."
That familiar hell for Nicovich is the high-elevation forests around Lemolo and Diamond lakes, which draw bulls from the Mount Thielsen Wilderness Area. He's hunted it religiously since John Erceg, his friend and this weekend's hunting partner, dropped a bull there in 1999.
Some years, the elk never seem to leave the wilderness.
"There have been years we've never seen any elk," Nicovich says.
But the thought of simply being among them remains exciting.
"Just the rush of seeing elk, oh, boy," he says. "Just to catch a glimpse of a bull without getting a shot off is great."
That's what Nicovich has been telling himself since last year.
A huge bull with antlers big enough to get Nicovich into Oregon's Record Book of Big Game Animals walked up on him last season.
"If he would have come 30 more yards toward me, I could have shot him," he says.
But the bull took off, with Nicovich close behind. But never close enough.
"I did see one of his antlers in the trees once, though," he says.
Other times, the crashing he has heard through the forest brings exhilaration and disappointment.
"You hear a thump, thump, thump, and you think, 'This is going to be it. This is going to be it,' " he says. "Then it's ... 'cow, cow, cow. No bull. Damn it!' "
But even that gets Nicovich primed for another week in the woods chasing that dream of joining the 2-percenters regardless of the odds.
"I can't wait to get out there," he says.