Integrity: It Happens Now and Then
This year was hard on me. I took a seasonal job in late August that really limited my ability to get out and hunt. But things seemed to fall together at the right times and I was able to get out just long enough to take my mule deer during muzzleloading season, my pronghorn up in Wyoming and my elk during a late season hunt. But there were a lot of hunts that I was planning on helping friends and family on that I was just not able to attend.
These hunts ranged from a mountain goat hunt above timberline, to an elk and mule deer hunt below 7,000 feet. I was not able to attend these hunts in person but you can bet that I was able to live through them in story. The guys would get home after each hunt, jump out of the truck and would immediately want to tell me the story of their adventures. I would stop them though and only let them tell me the story once we had pictures and a detailed map at hand so that I could completely understand what had happened. One of the hunts that I missed was our annual trip to our elk stomping grounds during Colorado's third rifle season. The guys did well and took three bulls and a cow. Only one of the guys that went did not get his animal and this just so happened to be his first hunting trip ever. My dad and brother-in-law (BIL) got their elk on opening day within 60 yards of each other. This is their story.
My dad and BIL were the first to arrive in camp the day before the season opened. As usual, my dad immediately started wrangling firewood from abandoned camps. You never have to worry about running out of fire wood when you are in camp with my dad. He takes care of business and amasses a ton of wood within an hour of getting camp set up. The other three hunters consisted of my cousin, and his two friends. Once they rolled into camp just after dark, and after everyone had their fill of venison chili, the talk of strategy began. It was decided that my dad and BIL would stay up high and that the other three would hunt about 800 vertical feet lower, in a different part of the national forest. My dad and BIL would be starting off down an old logging road only about a mile from where they were camped. They parked the truck just before shooting light and started hiking before the woods started coming to life. My dad dove off into a steep drainage only a couple hundred yards down the old, decrepit road. My BIL stayed on it until hitting ponds about a mile further on.
Within only 15 minutes of leaving the road, my dad started hearing elk. And I am not just referring to an occasional, subtle cow mew. He had two bulls bugling at each other. One bull sounded fairly young and was at least a couple hundred yards away. The other bull's bugles were shaking my dad's hat off his head from within 100 yards, but he was hidden by thick spruce. The craziest part of this whole situation is the fact that their hunt was taking place in late October... AND THEY HAD BULLS BUGLING BACK AND FORTH TO EACH OTHER!!! Imagine how bummed I was when they told me this since I wasn't able to go on the hunt. The bugling seemed to get even closer and my dad thought that before long he was going to have a big bull in his lap. Then he heard a noise that he has never heard in the elk woods. He heard the loudest session of inhales and exhales he has ever heard. Whatever made the noise (he suspected it to be the big bull) inhaled and exhaled three times in rapid succession. He did not know what to do given the vegetation and terrain in the area and the elk moved off within half an hour. My BIL then raised my dad on the radio and asked him if he had heard all the bugling. "Did I ever!", was his answer. They decided to meet up at the pond that my BIL had been set up on. They then traded stories about the bugling and argued about who was closer to the bulls. After my dad told him that he was close enough to the bigger bull to hear it breath, my BIL gave in.
They then decided to move together into the general area that they predicted that the elk would be heading for. They grabbed a snack and then headed off, following their instincts embedded deep in the primal depths of their brains. After only traveling about a quarter of a mile they found wapiti. After moving out into an open aspen grove, they spotted three cows moving briskly for the concealment of the trees at about 200 yards. My BIL only had a bull tag but my dad was hunting both cows and bulls but he could not get set up for the shot in time. They watched where the elk entered the trees and from past experience, had a good idea where the elk were heading. They got to the tree line where elk had disappeared and slowed their pace. They took their time moving through the trees, being careful to not snap twigs. When they popped out on the other side my dad immediately saw elk through a hole in the trees at about 150 yards. My BIL was 20 yards away from my dad and therefore could not see the elk given the angle. My dad whispered to him and got his attention. My dad could see three elk; a calf and two mature cows. He thought it was the same elk that they had seen just a little while earlier. My BIL knew that the situation was a wee bit different though. After my dad had signaled that there was elk ahead, my BIL had changed position so that he could see them. And he definitely saw them... ALL OF THEM!
Little did my dad know that there were actually nearly 150 elk within 300 yards of them. My dad could only see the closest three. Here comes the massive communication breakdown. My BIL motioned with his hands above his head to imitate antlers. He was trying to tell my dad that there was a giant 6x6 hanging just off the treeline on the top of the ridge above the cows. He also had a raghorn on the close side of the herd at around 200 yards. My dad thought that he was asking if there were any bulls in the group. He shook his head, plugged his eye into his scope and to the disbelief of my BIL, fired at one of the cows. The shot tore the cows lungs to shreds and she tipped forward and died.
My BIL hurried to try and identify a bull in the scrambling herd. Immediately after the shot, the big, smart bull up on top of the ridge ducked into the trees and disappeared for good. He got on the first bull he could find in his scope, identified it as a legal bull (or so he thought), and let loose a 180 grain bullet. The bull dropped temporarily and got back up and tried to catch up with the rest of the herd. One more good running shot put the bull down for good. The two jubilant hunters got to my dad's cow first and the celebration began. My BIL then headed up a small hill to check out his bull that lay dead only 60 yards from the cow. My dad stayed with his cow for a moment to practice is tradition of thanking the animal but this moment of silence was broken when he heard a loud expletive ring out from where my BIL had gone.
My dad yelled, "What's wrong?" The response, "You better come up here" came drifting back down on the wind. My dad hiked up to my BIL and the look on his face told the story. The bull was only a 3x3 without 5 inch brow tines. In much of Colorado, a bull elk must have 4 points on a side or a five inch brow tine. This bull did not have either and their sheer happiness had crashed into thoughts of what to do next. From the moment that my BIL noticed that the bull did not meet the antler point restrictions, he knew that he was going to turn it in. My dad started butchering the elk while my BIL headed back to camp to call the Colorado Division of Wildlife and to gather the other guys to help with the packout. He found the guys resting in camp after an unsuccessful morning hunt but could not get a hold of anyone from the CDOW. They headed back to help my dad finish quartering the animals and pack them out. By the time they got back down to him, my dad nearly had both elk taken care of; quite the feat for not having anyone to help him. He gave all the credit to the parachute cord that he always uses. The five of them packed two elk out in just one trip; another feat that I wouldn't describe as trivial.
Once they got back to camp, my BIL's mistake just kept eating at him. It was dark by the time they got back to camp and he had not been able to contact anyone from the CDOW. He was worried that someone would show up in camp to check their licenses and see his bull before he was able to report it. He did not sleep well. The next morning, while the others went out to hunt, my BIL headed down the mountain with his odd-antlered bull to get cell phone service. He still could not get a hold of anyone and therefore called Operation Game Thief on himself. Operation Game Thief is the CDOW's hotline for reporting poachers... and he called himself in on it. The operator was able to get my BIL in contact with the District Wildlife Manager (game warden) for the area. He told my BIL that he would meet him at the local CDOW station in a nearby town. The DWM was very understanding and really wished the bull had sprouted the additional point that it needed for it to be legal. He appreciated my BIL's honesty and knew that he had done everything right by packing out all the meat instead of letting it spoil before contacting them. The DWM took this all into account and gave him two options: He could take a $75 fine and 5 points against his hunting privileges and get another tag to continue hunting or he could take a written warning and just have to quit hunting for the season. Either way, the bull would have to be confiscated. My BIL couldn't believe that they actually gave him the option to keep hunting but he needed time to unwind from the situation and didn't want any marks on his record. He thus took the written warning and headed back up to camp to tell the guys the good news.
This is obviously not the predicament that any hunter wants to find himself in. But I think that it serves as a great lesson to all of us. If you make a mistake, just be honest and fess up to it. It is when you try to hide a mistake and get caught that you are going to be treated by law enforcement in an unpleasant way. I have heard a lot of guys complain (this forum included) about game wardens being nit-pickers and how they never show an ounce of leniency. This event proves that stereotype wrong. Do the right thing and you will be treated well. I have never been put in a situation where I had to make a decision like my BIL did but I can tell you what, he is a role model to me and I would be following the example set by him step by step. It just goes to show that there is still appreciation for integrity in this world.