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Elk: Where Legend Meets Luck

Elk: Where Legend Meets Luck

Who here has ever missed a shot on an animal? Raise your hands.

It’s a simple question, though most hesitate to answer it … at first. My first time hearing it was during the Virginia Hunter Education Course many years ago. I understand its intention now, a stark reminder to fresh young hunters out for blood and glory that it’s not called killing for a reason. But that question missed its mark on me the first time I heard it. I remember sitting in the back of the classroom at the local gun club as it was posed to the group. Now imagine my pride as I slowly scanned the room, watching grown men five times my age slowly raise their hands, signifying membership in this seemingly nonexclusive club that I couldn‘t understand anyone admitting to being a part of. But there I was, barely 13 years old, not even a wisp of hair on my lip, with undeniable proof literally rising in front of my eyes that I was potentially the greatest hunter in the world, or the room at least.

Now I faintly remember the instructor following up with some words about not hunting long enough, but I had heard all I needed to hear. I was sitting tall, silently gloating, floating above them all on a cloud of hunting prowess. Not a single squirrel had ever lived after being sighted down the steel of my Crosman. I was good. Luck be damned, this kid could shoot.

Fast-forward 16 years to day one of my first elk hunt, when I—the legend—would get a lesson in hubris. 

■■■

Don’t pass on anything the first day you’d be willing to shoot on the last. That was my mantra as we exited the vehicle that first morning. Though storms had rolled through the days prior, blanketing the high ground of the Wyoming landscape in 4 to 8 inches of white, the morning sun had been up long enough to heat the naked dirt in the two-track road, making boots instantly sink and our first trek that much stickier. I was thankful regardless; the cold air and elevation were not going to be my friends on this trip, and I’d take the warming rays whenever I could. 

Cameraman in tow, I kept a slow but steady pace following my guide Justin Richins’ path. Binocular at the ready, I’d stop whenever he would, mimicking his actions, glassing this or that far-off peak with no real expectation I would contribute anything in this alien landscape, other than look the part. I’m not even sure I accomplished that covered in grandpa’s hand-me-down hodgepodge of old and faded, mismatched camouflage, two brimmed hats portraying me as a redneck Sherlock Holmes. But I was there, taking part in an adventure I had dreamed of since watching hunting shows from his lap so many years ago, and I wasn’t about to go without my lucky gear.

We’d seen some cows crest a hill through the spotting scope, a few spikes with them. And though I perked up, I trusted Justin’s assurance that those were not shooter bulls. We had only been hunting for an hour, the first of our five-day hunt, yet something was telling me to be ready. We continued on, Justin leading us off the road through a scrub-filled valley to a point he knew to hold elk. We stopped within 600 yards or so, binos up, scanning the hillside for any sign of life. Watching the skylined crest, I focused my efforts on a few small scrub trees. Then one disappeared. That’s odd, I thought, as Justin signaled his desire to keep moving.

“Wait,” I finally muttered, instantly wishing I hadn’t, thinking my guide probably wouldn’t appreciate a flat-footed greenhorn barking orders at him. “I think I see something up there.”

Justin gave me the benefit of the doubt and courteously brought glass to eye once more. But of course, my scrubby tree wouldn’t reappear.

“Keep watching the crest,” I pleaded, desperately praying for even a cow to justify my move. “Near the small trees.”

Then it happened. A rack came into view like one of those stop-motion films you see of plants growing. Attached to it was an elk.

Justin didn’t hesitate. “He’s a shooter,” he said in excitement. “Let’s go.”

And off we went, closing the distance, my mind blank from the instant rush of adrenaline. What was I even doing here? I followed the fast-moving feet in front of me, head down, placing my steps in the bootprints that unfolded, until Justin stopped and crouched. I looked up. We were roughly 350 yards from elk.

I remembered my mission and looked toward my commander as he instructed me to chamber a round. We could see the bull, a towering 6x6, and he could see us. Our trio was caught in the open. Ink blots on a white canvas. And the herd was becoming uneasy. Cows and the king continued to move, disappearing for a painful instant, and then returning into view. Justin and I decided to leave the cameraman while we made our way to the cover of a small patch of aspens about 100 yards to our right.

Only a few yards into the move, Justin dropped to the ground. I followed, flattening myself in the cold wet snow. We could see the herd, still on the hillside but glaring in our direction on alert status.

“Can you crawl?” he asked.

“Yup.”

“We’ll make our way to the tree line and find a shooting spot, but we have to hurry.”

Face to the ground I wriggled forward, forcing snow down the front of my vest. With my bare hands struggling to hold weight on the jagged icy top layer, we plowed on, finally reaching the spur-of-the-moment tree from which I was instructed to shoot. Crawling down a slight incline, I nestled up to the leaning tree and with numb hands shaking brought the rifle to shoulder, placing the stock on my directed rest. It slid off. I was angled downward, aiming upward, and using a crooked, ice-covered tree for support. Had I been a contortionist it still wouldn’t have been ideal. And to top it off, Jonny four-eyes over here was overheated from the push, glasses fogging from the furnace churning beneath my coat.

“Can you see him?” asked Justin. “He’s at 275.”

“No,” I replied, a trembling desperation in my voice.

“He’s coming up to the top from the left. When he stops you’re going to have to shoot him.”

I couldn’t see a thing. I took my glasses off, wiping them with haste and muddy palms before shoving them to my face. On the scope again, I saw him, and he took my breath away. To say I experienced “bull fever” is an understatement. He was a Clydesdale on steroids with a tree jutting off his head. If Justin hadn’t reminded me to breathe I wouldn‘t have. With the reticle bouncing on his chest to the fast, double-beat rhythm of my heart and Justin’s instructions to “Shoot!” I took off the safety. Mind blank, reticle steadied as much as it was going to be, I slowly squeezed the trigger. At the recoil the rifle slid off its frozen perch and I lost sight of the bull. Hesitating only for a moment, I racked the bolt as Justin’s next words sliced through my soul.

“You missed, get back on him.”

Bringing the rifle up once more, I was left to watch as the king fled the mountain unscathed.

“He’s gone.”

On the walk back to the cameraman I began to ponder a few things. First, I realized it probably didn’t help that my borrowed rifle was zeroed at 375 yards, and I had aimed uphill at the center of the bull’s chest 275 yards away instead of holding low. One point for bull fever.

Second, the cameraman was still in the same place—a calm, cozy and collected inkblot on white canvas, roughly 350 yards from what had been a huge bull. I couldn‘t help but laugh as he muttered something about wondering why I didn’t shoot sooner, as he had the bull perfectly broadside through his viewfinder the whole time. Meanwhile, my hands were bleeding. And then realization No. 3: I’d been hunting long enough.

■■■

Back at the lodge early and still trying to shake off the miss, I was able to greet the rest of the hunting groups as they slowly filed in, stories to tell of their own sightings—one of a raghorn that had been shot. But of course, with radios in every guide’s hand, news of my encounter had already made the rounds, and the miss at the massive 6x6 was the story they wanted to hear. Luckily for me, these weren’t my usual hunting buddies, and the ribbing I was prepared for didn’t come. In its place were more warm fuzzies than I ever expected to receive in a camp full of camo and guns. I half expected them to bust out a handmade “Cheer Up” card at one point. Bombarded over lunch with multiple condolences of “You’ll get ’em next time” and “It’s probably the rifle,” I was able to contend with the fact that while I was certainly no legend, there was a chance I was still a man.

That afternoon took Justin and me to a different area. Though the cameraman would be with another group, my guide made sure he’d have the capability to film should the situation arise by bringing along a small handheld. Yay.

After hiking the length of a high crest with nothing to report on but the misery of a smoker’s lungs, we turned around to trudge back through the crusty, calf-deep snow, making sure to stay on the far side to avoid skylining ourselves. Halfway back to the vehicle, we heard a faint bugle as the wind carried it down the valley. Reaching a vantage point, glass came out and we began to scan a distant muley and empty timber. But Justin saw more.

“A real decent 5x5 with a cow,” he said. “He’s far though, and I think we can do better.”

I was thinking differently. He was far, 900 yards or more, but this was my first elk. I didn’t need a monster. I’d already missed one. Don’t pass up a shooter. But who was I? Nobody, certainly no legend, and I wasn’t about to start calling the shots. Heck, I was thankful Justin was still letting me hold my own rifle at that point.

Two-hundred and seventy-five yards, come on, Jon!

As we made our way to the truck, I glanced back toward the valley of the big 5x5 and whispered, “I’m going to kill that bull.” If I couldn’t be a legend, I’d try for psychic.

Justin knows his stuff. I’d seen more elk that morning than at any other point in my life, and the evening proved to be no different. He, my friends, has the makings of a legend. In almost no time at all after departing from the big 5x5, we were again stopping the truck to glass a distant herd. Reaching a high vantage, we cozied up on the cliff’s edge to watch the giants in the valley below us. There were a few bulls, and though I made clear my willingness to shoot any of them, Justin just laughed.

“We can do better,” he assured. We stayed to glass for an hour or so, until the sun’s noticeable drop brought Justin to his feet.

“We’d better head back toward the truck,” he said. “I’ve got some good plans for the morning.” Consenting defeat, I again followed in his footsteps, secretly happy to be off that wind-whipped ridge.

We had gone only a few hundred yards when Justin paused. He looked toward the sky and then his watch.

“You hear that?” he asked. I didn’t hear anything. “That’s that big old 5x5, and he’s closer.” How he knew either of those facts was beyond me. Legend. But the look in his eye was firm, and I believed him.

“He’s a big bull, and we may have just enough time,” my guide said.

“I want that bull.”

At that we were off. After a fast-paced jog covering the short remaining distance to the top, down the valley we went. It seemed in mere seconds we were at the bottom, Justin stopping to glass the ridge and then the ground in front of him. I could see the bull, midway on the opposite slope of the valley.

“Sit right there,” he said as he opened the camera’s tripod and placed it on the ground. “Put your glove on top and use it as a rest.”

I did as I was told and brought the scope to my eye once more, finding the bull quickly. And being as it was an effortless downhill stroll to get there, my glasses were clear, and I was calm, collected and steady. 

“He’s at 325 and moving,” said Justin. “Can you see him?”

Oh, I could see him. And he was huge. Though light was fading, this was going to be a chip shot.

“He’s at 350 now, wait for him to stop.”

I almost didn’t notice it, but Justin’s hand swiped across the top of my scope, and I felt him brush away something. He didn’t say a word. Assuming he’d removed a leaf, I continued my focus on the bull.

“I’m on him,” I whispered.

“If you’ve got the shot, go ahead and squeeze it off.”

■■■

I sauntered in through the door of the lodge that evening shrugging my shoulders in disbelief, head hung low, tracks of sorrow visible on my face like rain on a dust-covered windshield. One look and they knew. Another shot, another miss. And this time I blamed the gun, cursing its very existence. Over dinner I told the story, and as expected the group showered me with kindness. It was decided I had a date with the range in the morning, to realign a scope that surely had been bumped in transit. Thanks fellas.

But I wanted them to watch the videos and pleaded with the group to keep an eye out for the whereabouts of my bullet. Any other time and I’d have tossed those videos into the pond behind the lodge, but here I was forcing them to see my failure.

“Am I high? Low? I need help here guys.”

We watched the morning’s video first. And though the crew became intoxicated with the arrival of the big 6x6 on screen, I quietly reminded everyone that momentarily they would be watching me miss this monstrosity, and I’d appreciate some restraint. That brought things back to a more sobering level. The group eventually determined that I’d shot over the bull’s back, a conclusion I’d made myself earlier in the day. I could see in their eyes the “I can’t believe you missed that” ribbing I was expecting all day.

And then it was on to video No. 2. Watching the old 5x5 come into view, I had almost forgotten how big he actually was. The group adamantly agreed.

“It’s coming soon guys, pay attention. He’s at 350 here and still moving. See if you can spot where I miss—here it comes.” And then …

At the shot the room went still. Faces went queer, eyes locked to the screen in utter confusion. I swear I saw a hand reach to scratch a head. A solitary glance in my direction is all it took. I was on the cusp of exploding already and burst out with a grin that ripped holes in the walls, shouting, “And then I dropped him at 400 yards!”

Oh it was glorious, I tell you. The look on their faces when that bull hit the dirt was worth the trick I’d played on these kind souls. Cheers and laughter erupted from all corners of the room. And I beamed with pride, not only because of the kill, but because of the Academy Award-winning performance that I’d just delivered. It is one of the best hunting memories I will ever have.

Now you may be asking yourself, “But Jon, you told us you missed.” Well, that’s not entirely false. My bullet did miss its intended mark. I still hit the elk, but two things had to happen to make that shot work. The first was Justin casually dialing up my scope right before the shot. It seems the bull had walked from 325 to 400 yards, and rather than risk the additional anxiety by informing me of this, Justin quietly dialed the turret to match the range. Thanks buddy, I‘ll never forget that.

The second, unfortunately for my ego, was revealed to me while we viewed the footage in slow motion. My stomach dropped as I watched a small branch, only inches from the muzzle of my rifle, break at the shot. I hit the twig all right, we could see that clear as day on the video. But what we couldn’t see is that the twig sent my bullet on a direct path into the bull’s neck, severing the spinal cord and dropping it in its tracks. One more shot for insurance cemented him.

The real question is: Would I have hit the bull with the first shot if it hadn’t been for the stick?  And while that notion bores a deeper hole in my psyche every time I think about it, I’ll contend to leave “legendary” to Justin and stick with being good old-fashioned lucky. 

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