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One Bull To Kill - A hunter's first elk

Matt Martens

The next morning I awoke early and drove around to the other side of the mountain as this was the only way to access the ranch. Ben was on time and he met me with an eagerness to help. He knew this was my first elk hunt and it was clear he truly wanted me to enjoy a good time. After entering the property, I was ready to get my boots on the dirt and cover some ground. I assumed Ben would leave after showing me the gates but he insisted that he wanted to check his game cameras that morning before driving back to town. This was somewhat dampening my enthusiasm as he stood there puffing on a cigarette, but I convinced him to sit tight and give me a chance to look around first and see if any bulls were responding to calls. After about two hours of sneaking and calling through the pines and cedar thickets, I topped a hill overlooking a low pond. As I sat resting, the silence of the calm cool morning was soon broken by the sound of Ben’s pickup, as he had clearly decided enough time had passed. I figured that would about do it for the morning hunt, so I hiked down and hoped he would show me around the property before heading back. The good thing about this ranch was the water. There were at least 6 watering holes on or close to the property. The bad thing however, was that all the sign was at least a week old. This wasn’t a complete shock, as the rancher had explained that this area could be hit or miss. This was after the rut and according to their scouting most of the elk had moved off of the property. I couldn’t help but wonder what the morning was like on the other ranch. I imagined gigantic bulls wandering all around camp, bugling almost obnoxiously and practically begging for a hunter with a tag in his pocket. I quickly shook the thought away, knowing even if it were true, it wouldn’t help me now.
After Ben left I was on my own. For the rest of the day I hiked and glassed and climbed and looked. The excitement of actually chasing elk with a gun over my shoulder and a tag in hand spurred me on, and by foot or by glass I looked over most of the land. It did not look promising. The only fresh sign I had discovered laid on the edge of a lonely pond tucked away in the furthest corner of the property. A single set of tracks. Although they looked to be that of a bull and were large, my hopes were not, and I realized there was a good chance I could spend five days hunting and never see an elk. The sun was starting to make its way to the other side and I decided to sit over this water hole for the evening, hoping the lone elk that had left his mark was close and would come in to quench his thirst.
Hours passed and nothing showed. Not even a distant bulge to spark my encouragement. Just before dark, I decided to leave the waterhole and check a long narrow meadow I passed earlier. Walking along the edge of the timber I stopped to glass a dark object on the other side. My heartbeat quickened. A bull was feeding alone facing away at less than 200 yards. I soon counted two points behind each G-4 and knew I was looking at a 6x6 if everything else was intact. I found myself in a daze, drinking in the purity of the moment. My first time hunting for elk and here one was, unbelievable as it seemed. He must have sensed my presence as he looked up and turned his head my way. His width was impressive and my instinct told me this was a bull I wanted. I knelt down and started to take my backpack off to get my shooting sticks. Again the bull turned. This time he stared. I feared that if I continued to wrestle with the sticks the bull would run, so I dropped my pack and took aim resting my elbow on my knee. The crosshairs moved in a shaky figure eight. I struggled to steady myself. I slowed my breathing and started to squeeze my finger. The shot surprised me. I wasn’t as solid as I could have been and I should have taken more time before the shot but I got lucky. The bullet struck him in the neck and he dropped immediately. I continued to watch him in my binoculars as the sun set, giving him plenty of time, but he lay motionless.
It happened so fast I second guessed his size. Was this a bull I wanted to take the first day? After all, this ranch had apparently produced some giants in the past few years. But who was I to be so picky? What a blessing to even have this opportunity. I slowly walked up and stood over him. I couldn’t get over the size of his body and for an elk he wasn’t huge. I gripped his antlers, turning them left and right, then up and down, viewing every possible angle. I rubbed my thumb over his palmation, admiring an extra point between tines. The beam of my headlamp showed his face and I was amazed by his beauty. The way his eyebrow curved. The bronze glow of his cape. I then felt the bit of sadness that every hunter feels at some point whether they admit it or not. With such appreciation for wild things it is inevitable. But it is only through hunting in which that level of appreciation and admiration can be achieved.
I now had a decision to make. It was an hour and a half drive back to camp where my dad and brother were no doubt building a fire and planning dinner for the evening. I had no cell phone reception and could not reach them on the radio. They had never been to the ranch I was hunting. They knew which direction it was from camp but knew nothing of boundaries, directions, lock combinations or my specific location on 2400 acres. I wanted them to be there for this moment. I wanted my dad, who had always longed for an elk of his own more than any other trophy, to be here now. But I didn’t want to drive for three hours before starting on this bull and I wasn’t going to leave him. It was now 8:00 P.M, and I told myself that if I could gut, cape and quarter this bull in two hours, I could be back around midnight, minimizing the worries back at camp. I had walked further than I thought along the opening and the pickup wasn’t far. Otherwise I would have retreated for reinforcements. There was a slight chance they heard the shot, so hopefully they assumed success and understood the work to be done.
I held my knife in my hand and knelt beside the bull, again amazed by his size and beauty. I looked to the sky and stared at the moon, as full as I’d ever seen. Focusing on the animal, I hadn’t noticed it before. I turned my headlamp off. The glow of the giant disc above danced on the edge of the tree tops and spread across the meadow like wildfire. Before my mind was racing, replaying the evening’s events and calculating my arrival to camp, but now it stopped. Silence surrounded me.
Breaking out of my trance I forced myself to start the task. I quartered, packed and loaded, stopping only to glance behind me momentarily as the thought of a mountain lion smelling an easy meal flashed through my head. I missed my self imposed deadline by a half hour, but the job was done. The blade on my 3 inch caping knife now resembled a used accordion found at a garage sale and I was soaking wet with sweat. I headed south and hoped the nearest convenient store was still open by the time I got there. It was not. Now, one would think that an experienced outdoorsman would anticipate such an occurrence and therefore pack plenty of extra fuel but for some reason I have apparently developed an unconscious desire to see exactly how far one can travel when the little red needle points to the little white E. I had enough gas to get back to camp, but that would be it. So, decision # 2; head back now and spend the next day hauling gas back and forth from town using my brother’s pickup, (he was the one with all the extra gas cans), or drive in the opposite direction of camp to a town about 40 miles away where I could surely refuel, therefore allowing me to hunt the next day. After all, I did still possess a deer tag. This would, however, severely delay my arrival back at camp and increase the odds of my father strangling me for being gone so long and making him worry. I pondered my options, when suddenly it hit me. “I think that town has a McDonalds that stays open 24/7!” I could actually see the cheese dripping off a giant double quarter pounder and I envisioned chicken McNuggets doing the backstroke in barbecue sauce.
I made it to town and despite being stopped by a couple of teenagers at the gas pump and a rather intoxicated Native American outside McDonalds, all wanting to hear the story of the hunt having seen my bone collection in the back, I was soon heading back to camp. Actually, the Native American only pretended to be interested in my kill but soon asked only about any spare change I might have. This damaged my ego slightly.
Feeling brave with a full stomach, I decided to take a shortcut on the way back to try and save some time. I would later find out that the rancher told Wiley to avoid this route due to lack of smoothness. It’s hard to dip chicken nuggets when your forehead keeps hitting the steering wheel. Finally, I pulled into camp where I expected a roaring fire, open arms and maybe even an ice cold beverage. Obviously they were still going to be awake, unable to sleep and sick with worry, right? Nothing. Was anyone even in the camper? Yes, I could hear the snoring twenty feet away. I crept in and stood in darkness as my family members, half asleep, discussed the situation.
“Did you hear that?” My brother mumbled. “Dad!”
“What? Who’s there!?” Dad responded.
“I heard a door shut.”
“That better be your damn brother!” Dad was awake now.
I announced my presence and dad proceeded to unleash a few expletives about my tardiness. I soon realized they hadn’t heard the shot and had no clue about my success. Did they think I was lost this whole time? I looked at my watched and the hands showed well past 3:00 a.m.
“Sorry I took so long, I almost ran out of gas and had to go to the closest town.” I said. More colorful commentary from dad as my brother laughed in his bed. “Yeah, and it took longer than I thought to pack my elk out.”
“What?” Wiley sat up.
“You got one?!” Dad questioned. Suddenly the camper was alive as they fumbled with their glasses and moccasins. We hugged, high fived, and spilled out of the door to take a look all at the same time. They were pleased. Taking turns holding the antlers, they asked questions and I filled in with bits and pieces of the evening. The look on dad’s face was one of admiration and pride. He helped out in so many ways on this hunt and I like to think that part of that elk and the great experience I had just enjoyed was his as well. Quite often I’m sure he had imagined what that fresh ivory would feel like in the palm of his hand. Now he knew.
Before I knew it, we were leaving camp. I spent the rest of the trip collecting bleached sheds, helping my brother look for his buck and searching for one of my own. I never saw another elk on the ranch I hunted. No more shots were fired and I was disappointed for Wiley. But what a trip it had been. It seems that more often than not the adventures we plan in our minds, especially the “firsts”, don’t play out the way we think they should or thought they might. This was one I knew would lead to a new chapter in my hunting career. I’ll go back to chasing roosters and whitetails back home but the time will come to head west once more and a piece of me will always be in the mountains, waiting for my return.