Elk hit. Elk down.
DWR's events coordinator shares the story of his first elk hunt.
By Matt Bartley
DWR events coordinator
IF I CAN DO THIS, so can you. Just make sure you pack an apple.
I need to start out by saying that I don't think I really fit into the 'normal hunter' category. I don't own a gun, and I don't even feel super comfortable around guns yet. But I want to learn. I want to be confident enough to know how to apply for, obtain, and fulfill a permit to hunt deer and elk. I don't live for hunting, but I do, however, spend a lot of time outdoors. I respect and care for the environment I live in, and the quality and sustainability of my food.
When I found out I drew a limited-entry bull elk permit, I was a little upset at the cost of the permit ($385 as I recall). After I complained to a coworker, he explained how lucky I was to get this permit and what a limited-entry bull elk permit was all about. Everyone talked about how successful the hunt would be and how I'd come home with a massive bull that would need to be mounted on the wall (start saving money). In the months leading up to the hunt I felt some pressure to prepare and learn how to hunt. I wasn't sure what that all meant, but I gathered I should drive around my hunt unit and learn the roads. Using an online tool, wildlife.utah.gov/huntplanner, I guessed which roads would be most promising during hunting season. Then I went for a drive, looking at the mountains, not really sure what else to do; it was a fun (dirt) road trip with my girlfriend (sorry about splashing all the moo-moo poo-poo water on you).
One of the many things I learned during my first elk hunt is that the ponds the elk play in are called wallows.
Months went by and the hunt was before me. Lots of people said they would help, but I didn't really know what I needed help with. One friend, "Scotty D.," took me under his wing and told me he would help me out. I'm not sure he fully understood what he was getting himself into. He has shot many elk over the years, and I trusted he knew what he was doing. Throughout this whole experience, he was the keystone that locked all the moving parts into place, which ensured my success (elk or no elk). He let me use his gun — a sign of his trust that I still don't know how I earned. I picked his brain leading up to the hunt, asking some pretty fundamental hunting questions: How do you hunt elk? Do you just sit and wait? Hike? Stalk? I was at the mercy of the people willing to help me because I was fully aware that I do not know how to hunt elk. The only other mammal I have ever shot was a jackrabbit, but it was a big one, so there is that.
I took an entire week off work for the hunt. Nobody seemed to have good information on where the elk were, only spots to check out. So that's what we did. Scott and I drove many, many forest roads looking for any kind of fresh signs of elk: hoof prints, scat, rubbings and bite marks on trees. This was fun. I kind of forgot we were even hunting and was thoroughly entertained driving in the mountains with Scott.
This brings me to my first hard 'learning experience.' After a full day of driving, I was comfortable with the routine. Drive and glass (look with binoculars), and glass, and drive. So the next morning we drove and glassed, and drove and then, "There's a big bull!" Scott said.
"Where?!" I asked, looking with my binoculars. "I don't see it!"
Another thing I learned: elk don't have upper teeth. These nibbles were made with the lower teeth. Notice the freshie green one on the left!
Scott thought at first it was a huge bull, then a spike, then a smaller bull. This whole time I was watching through my binoculars trying to figure out where he was looking and what it was. Sitting in the back was the rifle in its case with the ammo still in the box. Hmm. Well I guess if I actually am going to shoot a bull on this hunt I may need to have the gun ready, I thought to myself, or at least get it ready when I see a bull. Lesson learned.
We then talked about what size of a bull I would be willing to shoot; this is a trophy unit after all. I felt plenty of pressure to come out of this with the kind of bull you see in TV shows and magazines. I decided that I would personally be happy with any decent bull larger than a three-point, and I would just deal with any backlash from my hunting peers later.
After two days of driving bumpy trails, Scott and I spotted a handful of elk and only two bulls. But more importantly we identified a few spots that I would be able to check out on my own during the golden hours of the days to come, after Scott would return home for work. Monday rolled around. My truck was officially broken thanks to the unforgiving forest roads. The damage was $1,500 in suspension repairs but with over 240,000 miles on my truck I can hardly complain.
I continued with a borrowed vehicle, which limited my access. Luckily, I'm not afraid of hiking. So I drove as close as I could to my spot where I was sure I'd see an elk. I started hiking in the dark, and seconds later I saw headlights headed my way. Two trucks came barreling down the dirt road, each one loaded with people. After talking to them, I was crushed a little bit. I learned they were planning on driving to where I could only hike, and they had a third vehicle up the mountain spotting for the elk. I told them how excited I was to shoot the three-by-three bull I saw, and they looked at me confused; probably because I was more excited to shoot a small bull than they were to shoot a trophy. They were nice enough though and I declined their offer of a ride. I decided I could just hike the other direction.
This drove home a point, though. Some people live for the hunt. They bring out all their buddies, family members and willing souls. Here I was hiking alone in the dark, not sure if I was even doing this right or if the other hunters were laughing at my methods. Oh well. No elk spotted that day and no shots heard. Knowing the elk were hard to come by for me, I hoped they at least saw the young bull I wanted to shoot.
I checked in with Scott to make sure I was hunting correctly: getting set up at the right time, remembering little things like wind direction, shooting scenarios, etc. Scott mentioned that if I wanted an elk, I was going to have to work for it. I was not afraid to work for it. I was thinking all I had to do is work hard: get up early, hike up, down, and all around the mountain, be patient. If I did these things, I should get an elk, right?
So I tested it all out Tuesday. Woke up early. Went to a spot I knew elk were the night before. And I hiked and hiked and hiked. I saw elk prints, elk wallows, elk rubs, elk beds, elk poop, elk pee, and elk bites on the aspen, but no elk. I wasn't sure how I could see so many signs and no actual elk. I was extremely excited because was sure I was close, but at the same time, I was wondering if I would actually get to pull the trigger. What a roller coaster. Throughout the miles of hiking, my heart was working out double time. At every fresh sign of elk I could feel my heart rate increase in addition to hiking at a high elevation.
Tuesday evening as I was getting ready for bed, I saw a social media post from a friend that got a ginormous elk. It looked amazing! Again I realized some people live for this hunt. Pictured behind the huge trophy elk was the hunter and what I assume was her hunting team. A whole support team. The only way I could digest this was to use it as motivation. Yes, it would be cool to get the grandpa six-point bull. But either way, I was going to work for it; I didn't have a support team, but I wasn't afraid of going above and beyond. I made my plan for the next morning to visit an 'elky' pond on top of a ridge where there I'd seen lots of elk signs, with the 'road' that I'm pretty sure cost my truck $1,500 in repairs.
Wednesday morning my alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. Gross. But I got up, grabbed my stuff, and drove to the base of a ridge. I started hiking at 5 a.m. It was dark and cold. I was pretty sure all the critters were walking parallel with me just far enough in the trees where I couldn't see them. All I could think about was this was the road where we saw a badger days earlier, and all of Scott's stories about how aggressive and ticked off badgers always seem to be. One time, he told me, he heard of a badger that got shot in the head, but the badger's skull deflected the bullet and he just growled and was more ticked off! And I had asked my girlfriend the night before if I really need to be afraid of coyotes — "No," she said, but badgers, "Oh yeah." Great. Pretty sure I saw red glowing eyes, and that at any moment, I was going to get taken out by a badger the size of a small dog. So I kept hiking in the dark with my rifle at the ready, pausing at any sound of danger or elk (pretty much any sound).
Six o'clock a.m. came around and I was still hiking, but thankfully, it finally started getting light enough I was able to tell that most of the noises I heard were from deer. They know I'm here. Hopefully, if there are elk, they won't be so cued in.
Two hours of hiking, I finally got close to the elky pond. Within 200 yards of the pond, I saw fresh-looking elk tracks. Sweet. I slowed down, taking One. Step. At. A. Time. I was close. As I approached the pond, I saw deer on a berm. They didn't see me. I heard antlers clanking together, but couldn't figure out where the sound was coming from. I kept walking up to a tall bush on the side of the road. Then I stepped around it.
There they were! About 100 yards out, two bulls fighting! It's really impressive how the human body works. I went from calm and collected to almost hysterical quicker than any thrill ride at an amusement park. I lost most of my rational thoughts and found it hard to focus. Which one is bigger? Does it matter? Will they see me? How far am I? Am I having a heart attack? I drew my gun up and could barely keep the elk in the scope with my pounding heart and hyperactive breathing.
This was it! The crosshairs were all over the place. I couldn't shoot like this.
One bull stopped and looked right at me. I froze and ever so slowly moved back behind the bush, and the elk started walking straight toward me! Now what? My mind was all over the place. Do I jump out and try to shoot really fast? Do I wait and see what happens? Does he know I'm here? How close is he going to get? What if he's closer than what I have the scope sighted in at?
Breathe deep, I told myself. Through the bush I intermittently had a visual, and I saw that he stopped. His rival convinced him to keep fighting, and they both turned broadside to me. How lucky am I?! I moved out from the bush again, and they were about 98 yards out I guessed. This time I tried sitting on my right foot with my left knee out for support. I forced my breathing to a normal, deep exhale and inhale. Back through the scope, I counted at least four points on either bull. This was it; I had no excuses to hold off. I'm going for it. My hands were sweaty, and heart was racing. I pictured the bull's heart and tried to keep the crosshairs on it. Slowly squeezed. Fired a shot. Reloaded and looked through the scope. They didn't move much, maybe five yards. I found this interesting because there was a dark spot on one of the bulls, right where I was aiming! His head was bowed down. The other bull seemed spooked but still wanted to spar. Cool. I'm pretty sure that was a well-placed shot. Now to wait for him to fall.
I put the gun down, and pulled up the binoculars. I definitely hit him. His head was still down. How cool is that! I grabbed my phone and took some photos and a video so that I could remember my hunt! Halfway through the video, it occurred to me that the elk is still standing and I should probably put another bullet in him to finish him off (remember, I'm new to this hunting thing). This time I thought if I go prone I will have a better shot, so as I tried to lay down, the elk heard me and then spotted me. Before I got a shot lined up, the healthy bull ran and the wounded bull turned away and walked into the trees without providing a decent shot.
I continue to send text messages to necessary and interested parties. "Elk hit!"
Scott, who was preparing for a work meeting hundreds of miles away, became my coach yet again: "Eat an apple, let him die in peace." I responded "I can't eat. All I can do is fist punch the air while I jump up and down squeaking with joy as I try to remain silent."
I ended up waiting 30 minutes and managed to calm down enough to eat the apple. I sent out more texts and got some amazing friends to leave work and come help me. They were three hours out. So I frolicked over to the battle grounds. Blood — a good sign! I saw where they walked right after the shot. More blood. It was thick and bright red. I later found out that's a hint it might be a lung shot. They left on a distinct game trail. So I walked that for a ways, but I couldn't find anything. He should be right here. I definitely shot him, and he was bleeding and walked away with his head held low. Should that mean he's dead? I could not find another drop of blood. After two hours of searching, I was devastated. I shot this magnificent creature and now I couldn't recover his body.
I have a problem with any form of waste, but especially of any waste of wildlife. It was such an emotional high and now such a low. I retraced my steps dozens of times. I got back on my phone and texted Scott, trying not to make it sound as bad as it was: "Still on the search." I still had my phone in hand and let out a big sigh as I brought my head up. Wait! There is the bull standing between the trees 33 yards away! Someone greater than me is definitely on my side! Thank you!
My body dumped the next megaload of adrenaline into my blood (I thought I had run out of that). I texted Scott: "Just walked up on him. What do I do?"
Oh, right. I still had my gun. I quietly loaded the next round into the chamber. I should have had the next round ready to go, but whatever, I'm new. The bull was turned away from me, with just his head barely looking back, still losing blood. I didn't have a shot unless I went right up his backside. Again, all the thoughts flooded through my brain. He knows I'm here. Wow, he is really big. What if he gets his last fight in and charges me? What trees do I have for cover? How do I shoot him if all is see is his backside? He seems oddly at peace, is that normal? Is he in pain? I watch for a short while. Scott's next directions came through on my phone. Very carefully, I side-stepped to try for a better shot. He turned his head to the other side of his body and showed me a few valuable inches of his neck. I sat down again and lined up the shot right where I thought his spine should be. Slowly, I squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. He was still staring right at me not moving, except for the blood spilling onto the pine needles. The safety on the rifle works, I realized. I thought I would never be that guy. I clicked the safety off and slowly squeezed the trigger again. Ka-blewie! He took two steps and crashed to the ground. Elk hit and down. I can't even.
Wow. Holy smokes. I was almost having an out-of-body experience. I couldn't quite understand this as I walked up to this huge and beautiful creature. I texted Scott, and he reminded me to tag the bull ASAP; I would have forgotten. I took some pictures and wondered what comes next. I had bought a DVD on how to de-bone big game in the field, but that was completely different. The guy in the video gave me the impression it would be like gutting a fish: slicing through the hide, muscle, and bones with ease. But this, this was a real elk, and it was huge. I didn't even know exactly where to place the first cut. I found a pocket guide for field dressing game, and that gave me enough confidence to place my first cut. It got better after I dug in. When my two buddies Alex and Drew arrived after I started, they provided enough help so that we were able to remove all the meat from the animal (including the heart, tongue, and testicles). None of us have field dressed big game but it was a fun learning experience. Drew is a culinary chef so his background helped tremendously. Four hours later, we were ready to pack the elk out. Luckily Alex had a working truck and was able to drive fairly close to the pond so we didn't have to hike the all the miles I covered on the way in.
I couldn't be more satisfied with this hunt. Once I was able to control the social pressure from everyone telling me I will be getting a real trophy six-point bull, it turned out to be a lot of fun. I won't say I didn't feel any pressure, but I was able to recognize and appreciate the entire hunt and not just the trophy four-by-five-point that I had successfully harvested. To be able to hike around the same places the elk frequent and learn so much about them and their environment was an amazing experience. I love the mountains. The whole hunt was a roller coaster of emotions. I had no idea if I was actually going to get one until I put the second bullet in the elk.
I offer a huge thanks to everyone who offered and provided help, especially Scott. My buddies and I took every scrap of meat, perhaps in a way to honor the animal's life.
Trust me, if I can do this, so can you! My advice: give it a try, do your research, don't be afraid to work for it and don't forget to bring that apple! Cheers to healthy sustainably raised local food.