outdoors: An elk hunt to remember includes a magic moment of being surrounded by a herd
Rick Taylor | Contributor
Last week I talked about some fantastic fly fishing before the start of the elk hunt.
Anticipation was high, as were the spirits of the guys that came from all over the country.
We had men from every walk of life ranging from probation officers to business owners, civil engineers and PhDs. Our different lifestyles were brought together by our common love for the outdoors. We talked about past hunting experiences, our kids and our families. Before you knew it, dinner was upon us.
To my surprise, Stu asked us to bow our heads while he said grace. All the men fell silent while Stu prayed for our safety and that of our loved ones and gave thanks for the food on our table. Grace was something we did before every meal on this trip, and I found it comforting. I even said grace, myself, and felt honored to do so.
I went through my supplies to prepare for the opening morning of elk season. I got my bow, binoculars, orange vest, rifle (just in case), boots and my camouflage. Wait a minute, where the heck is my camo? Surely it must be somewhere around here. I checked everywhere but couldn’t find it. Oh man I think I left my camo in the dryer back home.
I asked the guys if any of them had an extra set of camo, all while trying to tuck my tail between my legs from pure embarrassment. Thankfully, the guys came through for me, and we called it an evening.
I woke up the next morning to the smell of coffee and bacon after a restless sleep. We soon headed out of the ranch and made our way through the darkness to the top of the Pinto Mountains. We would separate into small hunting groups and hunt different parts of this expansive 14,000-acre ranch.
I would be hunting with Stu and his son Stephen. I knew immediately that my extensive deer hunting experience meant nothing out here in the Big Sky Country hunting elk. So, it made it my job to keep my mouth shut and do what I was told.
We hunted and glassed the ridges for a couple of hours before we saw our first elk. We were going to another part of the ranch when it happened. A cow elk stepped out and surprised us all. It bolted and ran off the way it came in; let the hunt begin.
We hiked into a wooded outcropping where we thought the elk might be mingling in. We slowly navigated through the dense underbrush when I saw a herd of elk at only 80 yards in front of us. I quickly got Stu’s attention, and I pointed to the elk that hadn’t seen us yet. We navigated our way to pine tree and watched these elk for about 20 minutes. We then experienced what I like the call the "kiss of death."
The wind shifted, and we could feel it blow against the back of our necks heading in the direction of the elk. There wasn't a bull big enough to shoot, but there were a lot of cows for me to take a shot at; even at 71 yards according to my range finder. I went into full draw just to experience it, but opted out of shooting. I spend months at the range shooting proficiently at 80 yards for a scenario just like this, but it just didn’t feel right.
We had a great morning hunt and looked forward to heading back out after lunch. We did head out that afternoon, but we didn’t have any luck. It was the next morning, however, when I was about to experience the hunt of a lifetime.
Stu and I would be hunting together again on the second day. I couldn’t believe that I was hunting with Stu; he’s the ranch owner, and I felt so privileged to share these experiences with him. We headed up to the Pinto rocks and glassed from a remote cabin. I saw a bull with my binoculars, and Stu and I went after it. We hiked very quickly to the area when the bull appeared over a ridge looking right at us. It was over; it's as simple as that.
We headed back to the cabin when the fog rolled in. Our visibility was disappearing when Stu and I began to hear elk bugling on the other side of the mountain. It was a symphony of elk as their bugles echoed off the mountains as they have done for millennia.
It was one of the coolest experiences I ever had. We couldn’t go after them until the visibility improved, so we just sat down and listened to their roars. This was truly a gift from the heavens, and I can’t begin to explain how surreal this experience really was.
Thirty minutes later, the fog and clouds dissipated, and Stu and I made our way to the top of the Pinto rocks to glass for elk. We weren’t disappointed; elk were just in front of us just one ridge over. The wind was not in our favor, and we had to do a lot of sidestepping to get our wind right.
We hiked for miles chasing a small herd of elk. I just couldn’t get into position quick enough to take a shot, and I didn’t feel too bad about it. It was Stu who had a bull tag, and I didn’t want to hurt his chances of getting a nice bull because I shot a cow first.
We began to glass the distant ridge when I saw more than 200 elk walking in a single file line that stretched out over a mile long — literally. I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that it was the longest line of any living creature I’ve ever seen. They were walking toward our general direction, but Stu and I had to cross two ridges and an aspen tree grove in order to intercept them.
Stu and I had already walked about seven miles up and down mountains, but our backs and knees didn’t hurt anymore after seeing this herd of elk. We had to hike incredibly fast to get into position before it was too late.
We raced over the ridges and made it to this beautiful aspen tree grove that was so peaceful; it almost seemed like we were in a John Denver song.
We took off our backpacks in the aspen grove, and the bulls were bugling louder and louder as were the cows making their calls. We had got to the top of the ridge, above the aspens in order to get a shot. I could see elk through the trees and I thought we weren’t going to make it into position. My heart was pounding, and I kept telling myself to remember this moment because this will probably never happen again.
I was following Stu when he pointed to the ground, and I knew we’d have the belly crawl the last 50 or so yards to the precipice of the ridge. We made our way to an outcropping of small rocks on the ridge top. Stu and I were shoulder to shoulder when he looked over at me and asked if I had my video camera. Stu has never shot video while hunting, so I was pleasantly surprised when he asked.
I took out my trusty video camera and turned it on or so I thought. It wouldn’t turn on; I even took the battery out and plugged it in again. Still nothing. I must have damaged it while belly crawling along the rocks. Of all the times for my video camera to die why did it have to be now?
But wait! I have my cell phone with me, and it has a video camera feature. I got my phone out and started recording some rough but amazing video of the elk that completely surrounded us on the ridge. My cell phone saved the day!
Stu and I were looking for a nice bull to shoot and saw many elk. We discussed how I’d shoot a cow after Stu shot a bull, should the opportunity present itself.
A gorgeous bull stood broadside at about a 100 yards, and Stu made an excellent shot. I was so close to Stu when he shot that my cell phone got knocked out of my hands from the recoil. We watched this bull go down, and when Stu offered his rifle to me. I knew my best opportunity to shoot a cow elk was right now.
A nice mature cow offered me a shot at about 100 yards, and I touched off the trigger. I shoved the rifle out of the way so I could follow my elk easier. Little did I know I had bonked Stu in the head with it in the process. Sorry about that Stu!
And, just like that our collective hunts were over. Whew! What a morning. I started recording video again when we were surprised to see a large group of elk that appeared from the aspens where we just crossed.
It turns out the big herd split and some of the elk came in front of us and the rear of the original herd came across from behind us. Of course, the biggest bull elk just happened to be in the rear group. I got this on video and hope you like it. You’ll get to see and hear us react to being completely surrounded by elk.
Stay tuned for my final segment next week on the elk hunt of a lifetime.