Another One Gets Hooked For Life
My roommate Dan is a fellow member of the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University. Instead of majoring in wildlife biology though, he has studied forestry for the last four years. All natural resource majors at CSU are required to attend a five week field course during one of their summers. CSU’s mountain campus is located in the middle of Colorado’s north central mountains. It is an intensive class in which we are immersed in the five major disciplines of natural resource management; forestry, range, watershed, recreation and of course wildlife. We were housed in small cabins that were first erected in the mid part of the 20th century. The one-roomed cabins housed four students each. Let’s just say you got to know your cabin mates well. Dan and I were both assigned to the same cabin, which quickly became known as the Alamo.
I quickly found out that Dan was a perfectionist. Whatever he set his mind to, was going to get done and get done well. As the course progressed Dan made it known that he wanted to learn how to hunt big game. He is a prolific fisherman and had hunted upland birds in the past but had never pursued anything larger than a coyote. I promised him that if he put in for a tag in Colorado’s drawing process, that my family would give him a shot at a cow elk. This is the story of how Dan took his first big game animal, a gorgeous cow elk, on his first big game hunt.
So when we got back from our field course, Dan needed to find a rifle to use on his upcoming hunt. I had recently purchased my Howa 1500 in .338 Winchester Magnum and he loved the feel of the rifle. He had done his research and with a little prodding from me, he decided on the venerable .308 Winchester. After laying the money down, the slightly harder task of finding a suitable load and sighting it in took priority. On a trip to a local sporting goods store that I couldn’t attend, Dan found a great deal on Hornady 165 grain Super Shock Tips. He got out and sighted the rifle in with them and texted me a picture of his groups. The rifle/ammunition combination was producing sub-MOA, Mickey Mouse shaped groupings. He was not happy when I gave him my opinion of the Hornady SST not being the best elk bullet on the market. Certainly it will get the job done, but it expands rapidly and there is the potential for penetration failure if it was to hit the heavy bones of an elk shoulder. Being satisfied with the results that the Hornady factory ammunition was producing, he picked up a couple boxes of 165 grain GMX’s, Hornady’s version of a lead-free hunting bullet. The hunt was only a couple weeks away and Dan was starting to worry about his rig’s readiness to do its part. I received a text during class one day complaining about how he couldn’t get the darn things to group. Try as he might, during the course of a couple more trips out to the prairie, he was not able to get his gun to group these new bullets like it had the SST’s.
He became convinced that the scope bases were the source of the problem and went into a local gun shop and replaced them. A trip out to the range gave the same result; an inherent lack of accuracy at even 100 yards with the GMX’s. Dan was now very frustrated, and rightfully so. His hunt was right around the corner and he did not have a rig capable of guaranteeing a kill on an animal the size of an elk. I had told Dan that the Nosler Accubond was a very versatile bullet and a great option for elk. But in the weeks leading up to his hunt, he had not been able to find any factory loads in the local sporting goods stores. He finally found them online and paid to have them shipped using next-day air. I went out with them the day the ammunition came in knowing that things had to get done quickly or that his hunt might not take place. I was relieved when his first three shots were nearly touching each other. We made the required adjustments to the scope the rifle was sighted. I then layed out milk jugs at distances out to 370 yards. Dan then used the prone and seated positions to fire at the jugs. He hit every jug except the one placed at 370 yards on the his first attempts. I was spotting for him and I called his first shot at the furthest jug a couple inches left; a missed jug but a dead elk. His next shot hit just above the cap of the jug; another dead elk. The third shot did the trick and the milk jug exploded. He was finally ready for the hunt.
I did not have a tag for the hunt and was not able to get time off from work to go along and help. My brother took over the chore of guiding Dan on his first elk hunt. But Dan had done his homework and ended up not needing a whole lot of guidance. According to tradition, the newbie had to get up throughout the night and stoke the Kifaru tipi’s stove. Dan got lucky though and the first night did not get very cold and thus he was able to stay in the warmth of his sleeping bag.The hunters woke up early on the morning of opening day. They left camp with about a half hour hike to the area where our scouting trips throughout the summer had produced numerous sightings of elk. Not long into their hike, they were welcomed by a great sign; the majestic bugle of a bull. And that was followed by the bugles of other bulls. By the time legal shooting light rolled around, they had heard from at least four different bulls. And although no one in camp had a bull tag, the willingness of the bulls to give away their position boded well for even their cow hunting prospects. My brother and Dan were on the top of a mesa overlooking a big valley. On the other side of the valley was a large ridge covered in aspens and this is where most of the bugling was coming from. Three hours after sun-up, they finally spotted their first elk in an opening in the aspens. The problem was that all the elk that they saw had head gear. It’s a strange problem to have but for guys that only have cow tags, it’s a problem none the less. The first bull was a big 6X6 and the other two were smaller. On the hope that there were unseen cows with them, my brother and Dan took off in the direction of the elk.
They had made it to the middle of the wide valley below them when a shot range out. It sounded to them that the shot had come from the direction of the elk. The bugling had stopped immediately after the shot. They decided to stop the stalk, pull out their lunches and come up with a new plan. While they were replacing lost calories, my brother glassed a different ridge in the area. Not long after putting the binoculars to his eyes, he had spotted about a dozen cows in thick serviceberry shrubs. The cows would venture out of the shrubs occasionally and then would disappear back into them. There was an obvious knob on the ridge about 300 yards from the cows that they planned on using to get close to the herd. They hurried across the valley floor and climbed to the knob. They peeked over the top in order to not silhouette themselves. From this vantage they could see all of the cows standing and feeding in the thick serviceberry. Dan got his rifle set up on his shooting sticks and backpack just like he had practiced in the weeks prior. He was waiting for one of the cows to step out when another random shot rang out. And another… and another. The shooting sounded like it was coming from over the top of the ridge that they were on. The cows surprisingly did not take off. Instead they all bedded down in the shrubs right where they stood. Dan waited for the elk to stand back up and present him with a shot for an hour before deciding to make a move.
My brother and Dan decided to get to another small knob that was much closer to the elk. They hoped that if they could make it to the rise without the elk winding them, that they would be able to look straight down on them and have a shot at the bedded elk. On the way to the second knob, they heard something take off through the shrubs. Dan was not in a position to see what had made the commotion but from my brother’s angle, he was able to watch a fat, brown-phase black bear shuffle through the shrubs. He said that the bear was so fat, that he could see fat rolls bouncing around as it ran. Neither hunter had a bear tag and therefore they resumed their march to the new position. My brother and Dan split up and crested the ridge about 50 yards apart from each other. They were now looking straight down on the particular patch of shrubs that the elk had bedded in. From where Dan stood, he could not see any wapiti. But when he looked over at my brother, he knew right away that he needed to scramble over to him. My brother was waiving Dan over because he had the cows directly below him at only 100 yards. Dan had made it nearly all the way over to him without spooking the cows when he accidentally clanked his shooting sticks together. He heard something crashing through the serviceberry and knew that it was now or never. He ran to the edge of the ridge, sat down and tucked into his rifle. Up to this point, Dan had been very calm. But when he heard the elk making a break for it, his world started spinning and the shakes set in. All the elk had made it out of sight except one… and she was quartered steeply away but standing in an opening looking for the source of what had spooked her lady friends. Dan pulled the trigger when the swaying crosshairs were near the cow’s vitals. The shot hit true; first taking out the liver and then raking through the lungs and exiting out the neck. She took five steps and then stopped, quartering away in the opposite direction. Dan fired one more time and the cow went down for good.
And the shakes only got worse. It sounds like the excitement of the hunt really got to him. But then again, whose first successful hunt doesn’t get them all riled up? Your first big game animal is probably your most memorable and I do not think that Dan is an exception to the rule. They got to the cow and my brother started walking Dan through his first lesson in field dressing. It was only a couple hours from nightfall and there was a storm rolling in. They were about three miles from camp and there was no time to bone out the meat. The two of them ended up packing all four quarters, tenderloins, backstraps and neck meat out in one trip. It was dark by the time they got back to camp and I don’t think Dan has any illusions about how easy an elk pack out is. He found out the hard way just how big these critters are. I wish I could have been there for his first elk but I am just glad that he was able to get one. And one thing is for sure, he is hooked for life.