A SEVEN POINT – FINALLY
A true trophy hunter exerts a lot of time, money, and effort, yet most of the time returns home empty-handed. The smart sportsman shoots the first reasonable game he sees, fills his locker, and moves on to fish, shoot pheasants and ducks and just generally has a great time. Trophy hunters are different. They hold out for “the big one.” Or, perhaps they really don’t want to shoot anything, for then they would have to punch out their tag and it’s all over for the year. Horn hunters are a kind of their own.
When I think back on it, most of my better trophies were taken when most unexpected, often on the last day of the hunt. Sometimes I had waited too long and bypassed lots of good animals and then got nothing. During the final hour of daylight, I would hopefully shoot a meat bull, then have to backpack elk quarters out of a horrible deadfall jungle slope where only an idiot or a desperate trophy hunter would be found. Yes, smart people shoot their meat earlier in the season close to a road, but not we trophy hunters. We like to do it the hard way, especially if our sandwiches are frozen, our noses are running, and a cold wind is blowing.
Jerry Manley and I were hunting the rugged Madison Range out of Ennis, Montana, the last few days of November. As usual, we were in search of a big bull elk, and there he was, right in the middle of my spotting scope. His massive body looked white and his antlers black against the blue sky. Jerry oohed and aahed, and I reminded him that I had spotted the elk first. Our rule was, he who sees the elk first gets first option. This keeps all parties alert! I had taken quite a few good elk all on public land, but never one with seven points on each side, and there he was! Jerry would have to be content with just helping me pack the meat like I did his elk the previous year. Payback is hell, especially when a pack board of meat weighs over 75 lbs.
We had arrived there at dusk, just in time to check out the area. I believe the first hour of daylight and last hour before dark is 90 percent of the hunt. Elk are then more visible and vulnerable. At least you know where they are. If you spot them about dark they are likely to be somewhere close to that area at daylight. You must be in position to shoot at first light, even if that means getting up at 3:00 a.m.
We had parked along a jeep road to glass over the high windswept ridges, nasty places that most people avoid, but where old bulls reside. Everything looked good. The weather was unusually warm, the snow had melted off the ridge, and we would be able to make an approach on open ground, close to the area where we believed the bulls would be feeding at daylight. Actually it looked too easy.
I get nervous when things look too easy. The weather forecast was for blue skies. Maybe this one time things would work out as planned. A final look through my 15X45 Bushnell scope revealed three or four other big bulls, all massive six pointers. Suddenly it was dark. Would they be there at daylight? How many times before had I climbed awful mountains only to find empty meadows? No one else was in the area. We had everything to ourselves and set up camp, fried a couple steaks, and ate a whole peach pie.
The conversation always came back to the elk. That bubble burst about 10:00 p.m. when two hunters in a truck drove past us. This disturbed me, for I felt if these intruders on my mountain went too far up the ridge, they might disturb the big bulls far above them. I doubted they had seen the elk, but having two other hunters in the area complicated matters. Sometimes the most inexperienced hunter can screw up your hunt and end up shooting your bull. It isn’t legal to shoot competitors in Montana, so we unrolled our bags. We would get up an hour early and beat them to the top.
Shortly after midnight, the weather changed considerably. It started to rain and snow, wet snow with flakes as big as silver dollars. It snowed and snowed. At 4:00 a.m., we started up the mountain. It was a whole new ball game. The temperature had dropped dramatically, far below zero. We were now trudging through deep, heavily crusted snow, but the wind was blowing so hard I’m sure no animal could hear us. I couldn’t see much either, as my glasses were fogging, and using a flashlight was out of the question.
The climb was arduous. We were no longer breaking through the crust, which was now so thick you could walk on it. That is, when you were standing up. Jerry and I must have fallen down a hundred times, sliding 20 or 30 yards, until we hit a rock or a tree, and then making like a human fly trying to recover lost ground on our hands and knees. Every bush, tree or rock became a handhold. I could see some loopholes in my plan for an easy elk – again!
After doing a falling and crawling act for three hours, we weren’t anywhere near the ridge top, a typical trophy hunt disaster. With any luck, and such horrid weather, the elk might be feeding late in a secluded pocket. Now it was breaking daylight. Those first few minutes are so important.
Hunted elk are night feeders and after dark freely move about, sometimes dropping down to lower levels to feed for an hour or two after daylight. If you’re there, but out of sight, and the wind is in your favor, you may get a clear open shot. If you are still trudging your way up the mountain in broad daylight, the elk may see you, or even worse, smell you. In any case, once the elk move into the timber to bed, your odds diminish dramatically, Instead of following, you should be there at dusk and maybe they’ll come out to feed. That’s a good plan sometimes! Only a hunter knows that feeling. Surely antlers or a patch of color that seems out of place will come into view. We saw nothing. Plan two is to wait and hope.
We looked below wondering where the other hunters were. Hopefully those people were smart enough not to hunt in this kind of weather. I smiled at the sight of our competitors who had stuck their truck into a deep snow drift left from a previous storm and had set up a small tent in the bottom of a huge ravine that eventually twisted up the mountain not far from where we stood. Apparently the fellows were still in bed. Good deal!
A calf suddenly called, elk were nearby! We spotted several cow elk not far above us, but moving out on an open slope where, if we didn’t die first from exhaustion or the wind shifted, we could get a reasonable shot if the bulls were with them. Lots of ifs and maybes!
We had to move, keeping out of sight. Getting there truly became an ordeal, for now if we slipped we were in for one hell of a long slide downhill. We had run out of trees and rocks to hang onto. If the elk fed our way, they would see us. We had to move fast! Elk hunting is hiking until near exhaustion, then having to sprint 200 yards uphill trying to outflank the game. Then shoot while gasping for air, squeezing off a shot when the crosshair rotates onto the elk. A powerful rifle and heavier bullets are best. Careful bullet placement is great if you can do it. (More bullet holes are closer to the tail than the heart!)
I had never before seen such an ice storm in Montana. Frost hung around Jerry’s face and hat like a diamond halo, and both his and my eyes watered until the eyelashes froze together. Eventually we reached a small timbered knob where we could watch and freeze.
At this elevation, 8,000 plus feet, the snow was not so crusted, but still noisy to walk on. Making a direct approach would be very difficult. Although we could see where the elk had been digging in the snow, there were no elk. They had to be behind the opposite ridge. The tension was growing. The southwest wind was still roaring from the elk to us. Now there was no doubt that the elk were very near. There is no mistaking the musky smell of a bull elk. But where were they? Should we sit tight and freeze or try for a better vantage point? The elk might be moving into the timber. Make a plan quickly!
I have always been a great believer that, when in doubt, either climb straight up or sit very still and look around you. In this case, sitting seemed to be the best idea, even though there were several ways the bulls could leave unseen.
Sometimes luck can work in your favor, although most of the time it works better for the elk. This time fate came in the form of two excellent mule deer bucks. I could hear them walking behind and slightly below us. The wind was still in our favor and I could see they were going to pass within ten feet of our concealed position, but headed in the general direction of the elk. The deer were going to smell us and blow our chance!
Did it happen? Well, of course. The deer bolted and told the elk to head out. How many times deer have ruined my stalk. Two hundred yards across from us I could see the polished points of huge bull elk antlers rocking left and right behind the opposite ridge. His head and back slowly came into view, and then disappeared. Another big bull rapidly followed in the footsteps of my seven points. The elk were headed uphill into a thick jack pine jungle, almost impossible to hunt. We were going to lose them! All we could see were antlers and more antlers.
The lead bull stopped, the antlers turned, apparently looking downhill at the mule deer. Then the impossible happened. The elk turned and headed in our direction. The wind was in our favor. From the angle at which they were approaching, we would have to shoot quickly. We had previously decided to shoot on the count of three and agreed that the seven-point was mine. But, I really never did trust Jerry when it came to giant trophies.
I took my mittens off and waited for the two bulls to be broadside. My fingers were freezing. In a whisper I started to count… one, two—BANG! My .338 Winchester went off and the big seven point dropped in his tracks. Jerry fired a second later. I could hear a solid thump as his six point staggered and started downhill. Jerry’s second shot from his 25.06 bowled him over and both bulls started sliding down the mountain and collided. It seemed like they had locked together. Round and round, faster and faster, they picked up momentum. I don’t think they could have gone any faster on a toboggan. We wouldn’t have to cut these elk in pieces to get them to the truck!
On the dark side, it appeared that the elk and the icy draw were headed into the same bottom where the hunters had set up their camp. Both Jerry and I realized at the same time that if the elk kept going at the speed they were moving, they would slide right through the sleeping hunters’ tent. We fired our rifles in the air, but at that great distance, they did not hear the shooting. The elk seemed locked on their target. I could see both humor and tragedy in the making. Can you imagine 1,800 pounds of meat and 26 antler points passing over your sleeping bag at high speed? I could visualize down feathers flying and thought how it would appear in the obituary column.
The hunters didn’t know how lucky they were. The dead elk hit a rock, and then a snow drift, and were partly buried in a giant cloud of snow within 20 yards of their tent. It took us two hours to get off the mountain. We felt the quick way down was not for us. We opted for the north slope where there were plenty of trees.
We were about finished cleaning out the elk when the two hunters emerged from their tent. They were startled to see us and two big elk so close to their tent. “How did this all happen?” Before I could answer Jerry proceeded to tell them that the elk had been bedded there all along and we had just slipped up and shot them. “I didn’t hear you shoot,” one hunter said. The other snarled out something about somebody’s mother and kicked his rifle.
We walked back to chain up our truck and on the way encountered the two hunters who had by then packed up their tent and were driving out. They sped past us without even looking in our direction. I guess they felt that if it weren’t for us, they could have shot two elk right outside their tent flap. We had a good laugh. Jerry’s bull would score Boone & Crockett about 310 and mine about 340.
On the way home, Jerry, who was admiring his elk through the rear view mirror, turned to me in the warm truck cab and said, “You shot on the count of two, you S.O.B.!”
My excuse of cold fingers was not accepted. But you have to believe me. I’m not that kind of a person, honest, really. I had to shoot to keep Jerry honest, believe me I know that guy!