The Trade: An Elk for a White-Tail
The White-tailed deer is king in this country. More hunters take to the fall every year in search of the deer with the distinctive white flag for a tail than any other big game animal. More White-tails are harvested each year than any other hunted big game animal. But it seems that the western species such as mule deer and elk are romanticized above all others. Some may call me and my family lucky because we get the opportunity to hunt our state for elk every year. And I will not deny that this opportunity is a gift. But as every year goes by, I become more and more interested in the smaller deer that dominate the eastern part of our great country.
Now although my experience of hunting White-tails is solely derived from what I have seen in shows and videos and read in books and magazines, I do have relatives that hunt them on an annual basis. These die hard White-tail hunters are from the great state of Michigan and they have hunted the northern woods for decades and have taken their fair share of young bucks and does. A few larger bucks have occasionally fallen to their projectiles over the years as well. My dad was born in Michigan but being a son of an Air Force captain, he traveled the world fairly extensively. But his roots in hunting were planted in Michigan and so it is no wonder that my father is the only member of my immediate family to have harvested one of these most bountiful of deer species. The reminder of that buck sits above his desk in his office in the form of a simple shoulder mount. While growing up, I always wondered why his elk or mule deer antlers were not being shown off in this fine piece of wall real estate. He’s a western hunter… shouldn’t his office reflect that. To this day I am puzzled as to why that specific buck overlooks the place where he makes the tough decisions. But I think it speaks to the allure that this specific species has in many hunters’ hearts. Or maybe it is his way of holding onto the place where he was brought into this tradition.
He took this buck in Michigan when I was too young to remember him going on the hunt. That deer has hung on the wall for pretty much my entire life. I have heard the story many times though. Not because my dad tells the story often, but because when I was young I would have my dad tell me the story over and over. If you have spent any time around kids than you understand how they like to ask the same things repeatedly. Well I was no exception. And my favorite bed time stories just so happened to consist of the retelling of my dad’s hunting stories.
My dad had agreed to a hunting trade of sorts. If he agreed to help his cousin Andy come out to Colorado and hunt elk, than he could hunt his aunt’s property in Michigan for White-tails. The way things shook out, his cousin Andy would come out to Colorado for a second season over the counter bull elk hunt and then my dad would go to Michigan in November to chase deer. The elk hunt would be Andy’s first and let’s just say that conditions were not perfect for a good harvest. The winter prior had taken its toll on Colorado’s herds and the summer before the hunt had been hot and dry. Elk numbers were down and it would make for a hard hunt. They would be hunting the same game management unit that I would eventually make my first big game hunt in. My dad had informed Andy that it would be better for him to get a cow tag as his chances would be greatly increased but since this was going to be Andy’s only chance to hunt elk for some time, he decided that he wanted a chance at a bull. That was his first mistake. Over the course of the hunt, Andy saw numerous cows. Now everyone else in camp only had cow tags and as you guys can imagine, they saw bulls and the cows seemed to evade them. Andy’s closest chance came on the second to last day of hunting. Andy and my dad were hunting together on a set of benches that started just above their camp at 8,000 feet. The vegetation consisted of thick scrub oak that dominated the lower and middle benches which then give way to ponderosas on the upper parts of the mountain. They had sat over a water hole in the morning and then made their way slowly up the mountain once the thermals had switched.
Around noon they had stopped in a patch of aspens about a quarter of a mile from the top. As my dad pulled out typical hunting lunch of summer sausage and sharp cheddar cheese, Andy glassed the upper folds of the flat topped mountain and proclaimed, “I think I see elk… and I think there is a bull in there.” My dad quickly threw his lunch of champions in his pack and the dove out of sight and started to close the distance on the small band of wapiti. Within 15 minutes they had made it to within shooting range of the group. Sure enough, there was a raghorn in the mix and Andy quickly got his crosshairs on it. The bull was the furthest away though at just over 300 yards. My dad picked up the closest cow in his scope and told Andy that he would wait for him to take the first shot and then he would open fire. Well before long, Andy’s 300 Winchester Magnum rang out. And it was immediately followed by the report of my dad’s .444 Marlin. My dad’s cow dropped dead, having been hit in the high lungs near the spine, but Andy’s bull just stood there. He fired again… and nothing. The bull tolerated one more shot being fired at him before he wheeled around and took off in the opposite direction. Andy was sick to his stomach. Neither of them could tell where the bullets had been striking. They got up to my dad’s cow and Andy was excited to get his first up close and personal look at an elk. But he was very disappointed in himself for blowing his only chance at taking a bull on his first and still to this day, only elk hunt.
Although my dad was not able to get his cousin his first elk, he had gotten him an opportunity and Andy could not wait to return the favor. My dad did not know what exactly to expect from his upcoming hunt. He had heard Andy talk about hunting over bait, out of ground blinds and tree stands and within a half mile of the house that they would be staying in.
This was going to be all new territory for my dad. He had never hunted out of a treestand and hunting over bait was illegal where he had hunted for the last decade so he was definitely going to be out of his element. He decided early on that he did not want to use either method. Andy told him that it was going to limit his chances but my dad didn't mind. So when his first morning of White-tail hunting rolled around, he was happy to find himself hunting a wide creek bottom with a lot of deer trails moving through it. The day prior, the two of them had built a blind a couple hundred yards off the creek out of natural vegetation. My dad sat in his custom ground blind all the way into the afternoon. How many deer did he see? None! As Andy had expected, my dad had put himself at a serious disadvantage compared to the other guys. And the proof was in the pudding. That morning Andy ended up taking a young 6 point buck and another guy that was hunting the property took a tasty, yearling buck. But my dad stuck to his guns of hunting the creek bottom without the aid of bait or a treestand.
The second day of the hunt did not go any better. My dad patiently sat in the creek bottom this time until nightfall. He only had three days to hunt and with the cost of a plane ticket weighing on him, he decided to hunt every minute that he could. But all those seconds, minutes and hours spent staring off through the hardwoods did not produce a White-tailed deer. Andy was giving my dad a hefty dose of the I-told-you-so's when my dad came up with the idea that would end up producing his first and only white-tail to date. He had used drives (or pushes) in the west with some success and the particular spot that he had been hunting for the past two days was ripe for a good deer drive. Andy agreed and set off to throw together a couple more guys to help with the push. They decided that they would conduct the push in the afternoon... if my dad did not get a deer in the morning that is. Well you guessed it, he spent another deerless morning in the ground blind.
Around noon the walkie talkie that they had agreed to use crackled to life. Andy was letting my dad know that they were about to start the push and that he should get ready. My dad lifted his gun up onto his lap and got ready for the action. Five minutes after the first call, no deer had moved by him. Ten minutes past and still nothing. My dad was starting to worry that the guys were going to break through the trees at any moment signifying a defeated attempt at a deer drive. Just when he had about given up on the whole deal, a doe came busting off the ridge rising up from the creek bottom. She was followed closely by two more does. They ran within 25 yards of him but his focus stayed on the treeline where they had come from. So he was ready when the buck came crashing through with his big, white flag displayed at full mast. It was obvious that this buck was not going to present him with a standing shot so he brought his Marlin .444 up and got the buck in the scope. He was holding on the front of the deer's chest as a lead when he let the big cannon roar. Now the .444 Marlin is a big bore caliber through and through. The cartridge looks like a cigar and you are essentially slinging sausages down range. So the dead snag that exploded in front of the deer after the first shot was in a world of pain. That's right, it just so happened that the moment when his brain told his finger to lock down on the trigger, was the same moment that the deer was running behind a dead tree. He recovered and got right back on the buck. He added a touch more lead to compensate for the buck having made it another 40 yards further and he fired again. This sausage found lungs! The buck did a full front flip after being hit and slid to a stop. Andy and the other pushers came running. And they found one happy white-tail hunter.
Although the buck did not wear a gigantic set of antlers, my dad had to get it mounted. And as stated, that mount still adorns his office walls. This is one of the first big game hunting stories that I was told as a young boy and I have to thank my dad for retelling me it so that I could get the details right. When I asked him to retell the story, he presented me with one of the biggest smiles I have seen on his face in a long time. His boy that would ask and ask to hear the story as a youngster, wanted to hear it one more time. And he was as happy as the day he killed that buck to oblige.