Elk Hunting: A Function of Time and Luck
Glassing up hill I strain my neck to view through dead timber. Like a bunch of intertwined skeletons the trees offered little respite. Out of nowhere an ear and antler fills my view. A double take confirms it’s not an aberration. A third look and a glimpse of a royal tine the size of a baseball bat takes my breath away.
At 167 yards the bull is well within rifle range. But if I move my head an inch either direction he disappears from view. My heart is racing. A mix of emotion floods my body. Raw enthusiasm due to the knowledge that a world class animal and I were in each others presence surfaced to the top. Below simmered the nagging thought that this was never going to work out.
I was right. Sneaking a bit closer, trying to find a shooting window larger than a shoe box, the bull sensed my presence, casually got up from his bed and vanished.
Six miles deep into the Wilderness, and on the first full day of a weeklong hunt, my confidence only grew. We were in elk. My dad and I had spent the morning on the opposite side of the valley and had glassed the bull we just encountered, along with several others. Given enough time and a little luck the odds of having an encounter go our way seemed promising.
Minutes later we sat on an exposed knoll with a view into one of the expansive valley’s few non-timbered meadows. Only a couple hours of light were left and elk started to bugle. Most we never saw. Up a high side drainage I noticed a handful of cows working down a burned face. More bugling came from the same direction. Despite our good vantage point I wanted to take a chance and move toward the elk I could actually see.
Side hilling for a half mile I worked to the edge of a meadow, cross canyon from where I had last seen the cows. Quickly I located a rag bull followed by the cows. Still a bit out of range I worked to move closer. Slinking to the base of a lone tree I laid down my pack and watched as elk milled in the burn.
A small six point revealed himself. The distance was on the edge of my comfort zone. Branch antlered bulls were all that were in season and I would have been happy with any legal elk. Awkwardly perched on a side hill I laid down my pack and looked for a shot. There wasn’t one. Charred branches and remnants of a once dense forest protected the bull. As light began to fade I was beginning to resign my self to trying another day.
Moments before pulling the plug a loud bugle pierced the crisp evening air. A proud herd bull appeared from behind a false ridge. Stunned, I was momentarily frozen as he rapidly gathered his cows and began pushing them up hill. My mindset changed instantaneously. This was an all together different animal and I wanted to seize the opportunity for a shot if possible.
Making quick decisions I noticed an opening, maybe two body lengths long, just uphill of the bull. If he walked that direction it would be my only chance for a shot. I had just ranged a spot nearby at 330 yards. I didn’t have time to take another reading. Propping my pack against the tree I rested my gun on top of the internal frame and slumped down, aiming up and across the canyon.
As the bull stepped into the opening I tried to let out my breath while lowering the crosshairs just below his back. The moment I squeezed the trigger everything went black. Frantically, I attempted to locate the bull. Nothing. Elk scattered everywhere. Cows strung out over the ridge. The smaller bull and rag horn went low, stopping broadside and directly across form me. Picking apart the hillside I never saw the bull.
Waiting thirty yards back my dad had been watching the scene unfold. My back up set of eyes. He had watched the bull until moments before I shot, now he couldn’t find him either. I didn’t feel confident. I’ve missed plenty of times before. This was a shot I decided to make in a hurry, at an uncomfortable distance. Uncertain, all I could do was hike to where I last saw the bull.
Working to stay upright I traversed through ash and deadfall. My mind raced with what ifs and should have dones. My hands began to get cold as the temperature dropped. My face was chilled but beads of sweat still formed and dripped down my brow. Caught in a moment of disbelief I looked toward the ridge and saw the bull’s antlers silhouetted against the sky line. Piled up against a tree the bull had dropped in his tracks and slid no more than ten feet down hill.
I put my hand to my mouth and kissed my finger tips, a gesture I don’t think I have made before. I said thank you to the bull. In my family we always said that elk hunting is about time and luck. The last two years I came up empty handed, I’ve put in my time. This year luck was on my side.
Alone with the elk, I thought about my kids, the wild country I was in, and how lucky I was to share the experience with my dad. We only had one elk tag. Aside form pulling the trigger, we were equals in every part of the hunt. Time for reflection was punctuated by the thunderous realization of the work that needed to be done. With two miles and a thousand feet of elevation from camp and another 4 miles to the truck our trip was only beginning.