I was running down the washboard dirt road in the ‘ol Dodge a little faster than I wanted, trying to make it to a camp I’d never been to before it got too dark. Even though I had a GPS coordinate from my SPOT device where my next-door neighbor had set up camp earlier that afternoon, I knew from experience it’s always a whole lot easier finding such a thing under daylight conditions. Thankfully the SPOT plan worked excellently, and as I came bouncing down a little two-track and rounded the bend I spotted his truck and trailer. I pulled up and cut off the engine, wondering how in the world were we going to tag an elk with only one and a half days of hunting, in country I’d never stepped foot in, with a bull only tag, and mainly with a brand spanking new hunter who hadn’t shot so much as a rabbit or squirrel in his lifetime. Oh, what had I signed up for…
This all started about a year earlier when a casual conversation revealed my neighbor had decided he wanted to give hunting a shot. This is a phenomenon I’ve been trying to wrap my arms around for a while. There seems to be a resurgence in a whole generation of middle-aged men (and women) who are suddenly interested in hunting, and I quite honestly find it fascinating. It’s not like someone wants to take up golf or maybe give snowboarding a shot, but to pick up a gun and go secure their own food. And while I can certainly understand that motivation, the necessary learning that goes into that endeavor is a lifelong process, even for those of us who grew up around the trade.
I gave this topic a fair amount of thought and I think some of it is driven by the recent locavore movement but I can’t quite explain the rest. I believe in our culture today, for the masses, the outdoors is just something they always passed through. At the closest maybe they’ve done some hiking on trails that have been beaten down by foot traffic and you have to know how to properly pass someone “on the left”. Perhaps they want to fulfill some deep desire to experience something more visceral.
I really don’t the why, but it is interesting and gives me hope for our hunting heritage. I also noticed when my youngest (Barrett – age 9) took his hunters’ safety course this summer the bulk of the audience was made up of this demographic. Guys and gals, aged 25-40, who had never been hunting but wanted to see what it was all about. It seems to me, historically most hunters had grown up around hunting. Either with fathers, an uncle or family friend who would mentor the new outdoorsman by showing how things are done in the field. I know that’s half the reason I had written my book, because I couldn’t imagine trying to figure out “hunting” with nothing more than YouTube videos and some cheesy self-published book on Public Land Hunting, ha!
Anyway, back to the story. Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. I was out doing a little yard work and looked over and saw my neighbor getting his trailer ready and decided I should walk over and wish him luck on his upcoming hunt. I’d talked to him a month or two prior and found out he had recruited a co-worker (who is a great hunter) to accompany him on his trip, so I knew he was in good hands. But when I went over to wish him well he mentioned he wasn’t sure his buddy would be able to join him. I quickly checked my mental calendar, wondering what I had going on that weekend and said if his buddy couldn’t make it I’d see if I could tag along.
Sure enough, a couple days had passed and I got a text message saying his friend wouldn’t be able to join him. So, after confirming the weekend wasn’t already booked, I volunteered to tag along. Now that I was committed I felt obliged to get a little more involved. The first thing I told him was that I hadn’t the first clue about the area he intended to hunt and if possible to get some pointers from his buddy, which thankfully he was able to do. We also went over some basic logistics about food, camp, etc. I think the most interesting comment he made (I wish I would have documented this better because I’m sure many new hunters have similar questions) is should he be worried about bears/predators, and specifically, did he need protection. I thought this was a pretty funny question since he’d be carrying a high-power rifle but those are the types of serious questions guys/gals who haven’t spent much time in the outdoors have.
As we were sitting in camp that night I asked if he had given any thought to where he wanted to go the next morning and he had a few ideas. After a little map reading, we had a rough game plan put together. We did spend some time going over some basics, like how to determine if a bull is legal (the unit we were hunting requires a minimum of four antler points on one side to be considered a legal bull) and other basics. Another topic we touched on was trying to mentally prepare him for walking up on a dead big-game animal. I know I still have some very vivid memories of the first time I’d experienced such a thing. For a man who is just about to enter his fourth decade of life and the closest he had come to cleaning a big game critter was gutting a trout, I thought this could get interesting. Mainly to be prepared for a whole lot of stink, considering the critter had never had a bath it’s entire life. And the smells only got more “interesting” as you started working from the outside, in.
We pulled up to our spot the next morning just as there was enough light to make out the far-off mountain peaks and not much more. It really didn’t matter since we’d never been there before and really had no place to be. We checked our packs and headed up the hill. It was fun hiking with someone who hadn’t spent much if any, time off the designated hiking trails. I pointed out various droppings, rubs, food sources, etc. It reminded me that when an experienced hunter walks thru the woods, it’s like reading a book. The sensory input of reading the sign around him never stops.
We did see quite a bit of sign which was encouraging and I was expecting to see an animal at any minute but we never did. We were treated to a mid-morning bugle, which I was grateful since it was October 14th and the rut had slowed down. But the lone bugle originated from private property and my cow calling wasn’t seductive enough to entice him over to our side of the fence.
Around noon the weather was starting to turn and snow was beginning to fall. As Jay searched his pack for another layer he realized it was back at the truck. With that tidbit of knowledge and the fact the snow was picking up along with the wind, we decided to head back. Moving a little faster now, with snow starting to really come down and blowing sideways, we bumped right into the elk.
I first saw the cow moving out ahead of us 40 yards or so and told Jay to get his gun up. He did, but of course, couldn’t see anything because his scope was fogged up (did I mention he’d lost his lens covers just hours into our hike?). I cow called immediately, not really thinking they’d come back in but just to make them do a little second-guessing. The elk had only heard us hiking through the woods and hadn’t winded us or gotten a clean look at us, so they just milled around in the cover of the trees up ahead. All the while I was searching for antlers. After a minute, I saw what I was looking for. We watched the elk move out from right to left, and with the snow really coming down now I knew we’d have fresh tracks. We only waited a moment before we took up pursuit. We followed the tracks for a bit, maybe a 1/8 of a mile when I saw they headed out into a large sage meadow.
Knowing we might get a peek at them in the meadow, I started scanning while still moving ahead and sure enough picked up the last couple cows as they disappeared over a little crest. With Jay in tow, we scurried to the next rise, as we oh so slowly peaked over, there were 15 or so cows with a very respectable bull. We dogged the herd over a couple small rises and could really push the limits on aggressiveness because the wind and snow was coming down so hard; I’m sure we got away with more movement than we really should have.
At the end of the meadow, the entire herd started to disappear into the timber. As soon as the last cow butt turned into the trees we started hustling. In the timber, we had tracks again, but it was also thicker. There’s such a fine line when you’re moving fast trying to catch up, but scanning continually hoping to see them before they see you. We had only been inside the timber for a hundred and fifty yards or so when I spotted cows feeding on a little bench through a small opening in the timber. This time they were only 50 yards away and had no idea we were there. We got Jay settled in for a shot if one presented itself, and sure enough just as he got comfortable we saw the bull moving towards our opening. I let him know the bull was going to be the next one coming through the trees, and as if scripted the bull came into the opening and put his head down to feed. Jay had the “green light” and touched off a single round from his 308.
After the shot, Jay mentioned he was shaking. Thankfully, his “bull fever” didn’t kick in until after the shot. The shot was good and the bull only traveled fifty yards or so. After grabbing some pics and breaking down the bull (the main reason I was there – wondering how challenging cutting up a 600 lb animal would be for someone who had never cleaned a rabbit). Jay did fine with the butchering and I was surprised that he didn’t find it unsettling. He also mentioned (the next day) that he was surprised he didn’t get teary-eyed. I didn’t find that surprising, he only did what humans have been doing for eons. The only time I get teary-eyed is when I see how modern ag practices cage animals up in mass production mode. Doing what we just accomplished, I never have any regrets.
I was grateful to be able to tag along on this hunt. It was if the hunting gods were smiling on us. We had bulls bugling, cows chirping, the snow was blowing sideways and we were in hot pursuit! I was also thankful for the close-range shot under ideal conditions and that we had a very short recovery. I really couldn’t have scripted it any better.
I think his biggest realization came when he went to shoulder his pack loaded down with elk meat. Anyone who’s packed elk of the woods knows the weight can be staggering. For someone who’s used to hiking trails and cute little 40 lb. packs, they have no idea about the suffering they’re about to endure. Our hike out, while only 1-mile, had some nasty blow down and super steep hills. Steep enough, we had to turn around and descend backward down the hillside in spots, making sure each foothold was secure before dropping another steep. As we were negotiating our way down the mountain I mentioned to Jay he just got about 1o-years’ worth of living all bunched up in a single day and he couldn’t agree more.
Man, I love the outdoors!