A hunter remembers his first elk
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Even through the binoculars, the elk looked a long, long way away.
Probably 225 yards. Maybe 250 yards.
For many experienced big game hunters in the West, that’s an acceptable distance. Problem is I’m not like most big game hunters. In fact, I only qualify as a “big game hunter” by virtue of the elk tag.
It’s been more than a few years since I’d been to a deer camp and decades since I’d killed a deer; my interests long ago turning toward flyfishing and bird hunting behind pointing and flushing dogs.
“Too far, way too far,” I said to myself, knowing my own limitations and that of the .308 Winchester model 88 by my side.
I had sighted in the gun for 100 yards. Growing up in Virginia, where a long shot in the wooded mountains might be 75 yards, shooting an elk 200 yards away seemed impossible. And that notion was reinforced by the knowledge that I’d missed twice already ” both shots around 150 yards.
Success breeds confidence. The reality of missing twice bred caution, which given my demonstrated skill with a .308 was clearly the side to err upon.
I didn’t want to wound an animal because I didn’t possess the necessary shooting skills for a clean kill. Still, I wanted to shoot an elk. That was, after all, the point of being there.
I was hunting on a private ranch in Grand County where there was a need to cull cows. The invitation to hunt welcomed because I knew an elk would mean a great deal of meat for the larder and because I’d never hunted elk and had always wanted to.
It was just after sunset and the light was beginning to fade. For the past 30 minutes I’d listened to bulls bugling and cows calling and barking from the edge of an Aspen stand with an alpine meadow sloped uphill in front and thick stands of spruce and pine bordering it on two sides.
The wind was in my face ” at least that much I remembered from those long ago deer hunts.
That morning I’d seen a big group of elk on this bench. They’d moved into the woods above the meadow. My hope was as it grew toward dark they’d come down into the meadow to feed.
There was movement behind the cow and I raised the binoculars to see another elk further back in the woods. Both were feeding, but neither moving toward me, instead they are moving across the top of the field.
This was my last day in the field. Tomorrow job obligations loomed. Perhaps I should take the shot, I thought. Shooting light was fading.
I’m startled by the bark of a cow from close behind me.
Slowly, I turn my head and look over my shoulder.
“Holy buckets,” I said to myself.
Walking hesitantly out of the woods about 75 yards to my right was an elk who barked again. Like me the elk can hear the group above the meadow and is, I think, looking for company.
She’s skittish. She took a step and then stop. Another step and stop. Perhaps she’s winded me … I’m on my knees in a blow down with stumps in front of me so I’m certain she can’t see me, but the wind was blowing gently from me toward her.
I expect her to move back into the words. Instead, she started trotting toward the meadow.
I dropped the glasses and reached for my rifle, raised it to my shoulder and through the scope sighted in after she ran past about 40 yards away moving right to left. I clicked the safety and fire. The shot hit just below the shoulder and broke the right leg on exit. She staggered another 15 yards, stopped and fell.
It happened in a matter of seconds, and I realized it was more like a passing shot on a pheasant or a duck. I may not have hunted big game for years, but birds are an entirely different matter. Much like a shot at a rising covey of quail or pair of greenheads coming in over the decoys, I didn’t think so much about the shot as simply reacted. It wasn’t until the animal had fallen that I felt my heart pounding.
Settling back against the tree, I said a thank you to the hunting gods for grant°©ing me the patience not to take a shot beyond my skills. It felt good knowing that it was my dad’s Winchester 88, a gun he gave to me more than 35 years ago, that was used to harvest my first elk. Believing that he was watching from heaven, I said thanks to him, too.
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