The Elk That Got the Last Laugh
I did end up having success last year during Colorado's second rifle season. I got my cow. "So how in the world did she get the last laugh if I harvested her," you ask. She had thunderous hind quarters!! She had huge front quarters. The trimmings, backstraps and loins were enough to make a seasoned butcher blush. She was the largest cow that I have ever harvested and she took her toll on me during the pack out. I got back to the truck on the last trip, and with her big ol' rear end in my backpack, I collapsed to the ground in exhaustion. She was huge! But just how did I find myself in this dilapidated position?
We were hunting the 2nd rifle season in Colorado that year. Opening morning found me making the long hike down to a familiar spot that had produced deer and elk in the past. It was an uneventful morning for me; not a deer or elk in sight. But I did get treated to quite the drama filled show when a muskrat decided that he didn't like the company of a mallard that had landed on HIS pond. The drake would be casually paddling along and all of a sudden there would be a thunderous splash and I would look down just in time to see the muskrat latching onto one of the ducks legs. The drake would hurriedly get to the other side of the lake to avoid further pestering. The muskrat had different ideas though. Every time, he would wait for the duck to drop it's guard and then spring up from the depths. During one of the unprovoked attacks the duck tried to take off and he nearly flew away with the hitchhiker attached to his legs via a sharp set of teeth. This "Wild Kingdom" performance served to pass the time quickly but it did nothing to make elk appear. I had a cow and a bull tag and so any elk but a spike was fair game. There was shooting in all directions that morning and I decided that it was time to call the morning hunt quits, head back to camp and regroup.
I really didn't have any itching desire to try out new spots at that moment but my brother really wanted to go into some uncharted territory. I set out for a good spot to make a stand (take a nap ha) and my brother headed out on his adventure. I made my evening hunt in the same general area that I had set out for in the afternoon and it was once again uneventful. But I had heard two distant, back-to-back shots from the direction that my brother was hunting. During the hike out I had a feeling that we were going to miss dinner.
When I returned to camp, sure enough, everyone was gathered around my brother and he was giving the play-by-play of his kill. He had gotten a 3.5 year old 5x5 bull and was pretty excited about it. We all drove to the trailhead and started off into the darkness to pack out his bull. Three hours later we were back in camp with meat hanging. I took the last few minutes before curling up in my sleeping bag to talk strategy with everybody. My brother had mentioned that there was another bull with his and that I should give his spot a try in the morning. Well he was the one with a punched tag so I took his advice. But it turned out to be another relatively uneventful morning hunt devoid of game. I had set up under a big Engellman's Spruce to help deflect the rain that was falling all morning. That's right... RAIN. It was the middle of October in the high country of Colorado and we were getting rain for crying out loud. And Mother Nature didn't stop there. She decided to throw in some wicked lightning strikes here and there just for good measure. After a humbling (and clammy) morning hunt, I needed to get some hot food and re-energize. I headed back to camp and refilled on summer sausage, cheese, Gatorade and top ramen. Don't you love hunt camp meals?
I really liked the look of the area that I had set up on that morning; two ponds complete with open meadows connecting them that were surrounded by thick spruce and fir. I decided that I would explore the area at large that afternoon and try to be back at the ponds for the last two hours of shooting light. Well, let's just say I went for quite the hike. I covered a ton of ground that afternoon and discovered some really neat terrain. I also came upon a lot of gut piles from 1st season and knew the elk had been there at some point in the last month. I had covered so much ground however, that I was going to have a hard time making it back to the ponds with any daylight left. I picked up the pace and tried to stay cognizant of any animals that I might bump on the way. When I got below the rise before the ponds, I only had about 10 minutes of shooting light left. I figured that at the pace that I had been traveling, no animals would be in the vicinity and decided to just head on back to the trail and on up to my truck. So you can imagine my surprise when I topped the hill, and standing on the far side of the pond at just over a hundred yards was a group of cows and calves. I brought my brand spanking new .338 Winchester Magnum up, but I couldn't see a thing. What the heck! I lowered the rifle and noticed that I hadn't flipped the see-through scope caps. In the dwindling light, the hazy caps had made it impossible to clearly see the crosshairs. I flipped the caps open but by that time, half the herd had decided that this goofy hunter might just mean business and had filtered into the trees. But luckily for me a big cow and two calves stood their ground. I leveled the crosshairs behind the cow's shoulder and took the offhand shot. I knew it was getting pretty dark when I was blinded by the muzzle flash. I looked down at my watch and saw that I had made the shot just two minutes before legal shooting light. Now that is calling it close!
After the shot, all the elk stormed off through the thick timber. A dozen and a half elk make quite the racket as they are plummeting through downed timber. I listened trying to glean any information from the sounds that were resonating back down the ridge. Only 10 seconds after my shot, I heard one very large crash that I interpreted as my elk falling into a dead fall. By the time I got over to the area where she had been standing, it was dark. I did a once over looking for blood but decided that on my own, and with more than a trivial hike back to my truck, that I would just wait till morning to find her. It was a tough night of sleep; one of the toughest I've ever had to go through. This was the first time that I had not recovered an animal right after shooting it and it was taking it's toll on me.
The next morning my dad and I set out to find my cow. As soon as we found the spot that she was standing, we found blood! It had just not been apparent in the previous night's darkness. We picked up the trail and she had only gone about 30 yards. Sure enough, the crash that I heard had been her collapsing through a dead sub-alpine fir. I was happy with how my .338 performed but I will be using different bullets for elk in the future. I had used the new Fusion ammo and the bullet had not exited from only 100 yards. That is a lot of energy to be dumped inside your thoracic cavity! In the future I would prefer an exit however and I am currently trying to work up a load for the big gun featuring more controlled expansion bullets.
Looking back on that packout, whenever I hoist a pack frame loaded down with meat and start heading for the trail head, I don't feel quite as burdened anymore. I just get on my way and realize that at least I'm not carrying out that ol' girl from 2009. But while I am focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and just making a steady assault on the mountain with all that meat on my back, I can't help but catch the sound of laughter wafting in the wind. And I know that cow got the last laugh.