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Lessons in Recovery
I don’t lose many animals after I pull the trigger. In fact, the last one was nearly a decade ago. However, losing one I’ve waited ten years to take has a particularly nasty sting to it.
I moved to Idaho in December 2022 and spent much of the off season connecting with locals, analyzing harvest statistics by region, studying satellite imagery and topographical maps, considering access, hunting pressure and weather patterns…everything that goes into a hunt. I also upgraded my pack to a Stone Glacier Solo 3600 and my rifle to a Weatherby Vanguard Talon chambered in 300 Weatherby Magnum topped with a Leupold VX-5HD 3-15×44 rifle scope. After years of applying for tags unsuccessfully, and settling for low-probability archery OTC tags, without even getting a shot opportunity, this year the odds were starting to tip ever so slightly in my favor as I held an Idaho general elk OTC tag for the 2024 season.
A scouting trip in early September was very encouraging. My buddy, Curt, and I had eyes on elk the first day and a bugling bull within a couple of hundred yards of a well-used wallow deep in a willow and pine thicket. I placed a trail camera on that wallow. There was good activity throughout the month of September, with a couple of mature bulls passing through, a curious spike that was infatuated with the camera to the point where he broke it, and a good number of cows and calves. However, after the general deer season opened and a light dusting of snow covered the ground, all the game disappeared. Thanos style…game was eerily absent with sign left behind everywhere. After hearing wolves howl nearby during the first evening sit of the elk opener, we concluded that the hunting pressure of the general deer opener a few days earlier, in combination with the wolves, was enough to push the game off the mountain.
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We spent the next six days covering as much ground as we could in an attempt to locate the elk. On the evening of the 6th day, in another location about 20 miles from the original spot we scouted, we found them. I had hiked down from where I sat in the snow for the previous two hours watching a glade on the side of a mountain as the sun set in the distance. As I stood on a two-track in the early twilight, waiting for Curt to hike over, I saw two elk step out from the timber 500 yards above me, not 100 yards from where I had been sitting. I was able to see them due to a recent snowfall that had left 3-4 inches of snow above an elevation of 5,000 feet. As Curt made his way to me, I watched a total of 10 elk step into the glade and eagerly munch the grass. Temperatures were dropping this time of year, with lows around 10-15 degrees, fueling their hunger. As far as I could tell in the early dark of night, there were no mature bulls in the herd, but it sure did lift our spirits after grinding for six days without seeing an animal.
It’s worth noting that I had watched another hunter in the distance, in sight of where the elk emerged, that left at sunset, 30 minutes before the end of shooting light. He had stood in the cold for two hours, not seeing anything, only to leave 30 minutes too early, and probably dismissed the spot for future hunts. It makes me wonder how many people are in the right place at the wrong time without even knowing it. How many hunters would be more successful had they just gotten in earlier or stayed later?
The next afternoon, we returned to the location. I set up in the spot near the two-track where I had spotted the elk and had a good view of the mountain above me nearly a half mile to my right and left. Curt pressed on to the next ridge. I got comfortable and learned my surroundings as I waited for the sun to set over the next few hours. I took out my rangefinder and began to check the distance for several locations where I thought the elk might emerge. To my surprise, the device wouldn’t consistently register any distance over 100 yards. Turns out, a generic battery was the culprit. Mistake #1: Always use name brand batteries. I decided to use the OnX rangefinder feature and “ranged” the glade to the North at 550 yards. Another word of caution, the Onx feature does not compensate for elevation changes. With the range estimate in mind, I had an idea of distance if and when an elk appeared. As the sun dipped below the horizon over my back and daylight began to fade, I scanned the mountainside in front of and above me for signs of life.
About 15 minutes before the end of shooting light, I glassed a cow elk through the thin line of timber that shielded the glade to the North, my left. I could see additional elk through the timber behind and above, so I got into a prone position and got a better look through my 15 power scope and dialed it to 550 yards. The timber was in a ravine that separated the glade in front of me from another one to the North that the elk were grazing, with an area in between of about 100 yards that was obscured. From my vantage point, there was an opening that allowed me to see the body of an elk and about five feet on either side when it stood in the center. I watched the first cow I saw and a calf graze through and down the mountain to my left. Next, another cow followed suit. I could see three more elk through the timber, working their way down towards the opening, making six in total. As the fourth elk moved into view, I could see brow tines and a “Y” above its head. With “any legal elk” being my target elk, I slowly eased the safety off, focused my breathing and waited for the elk to move clearly into view. Once it was centered in the window, with the brown mountainside as a backstop, I settled the crosshairs behind its shoulder and squeezed the trigger. It was one of those shots where you’re calm, confident and everything about it feels rock solid. After my shot, the bull went downhill and out of sight. I stayed behind my scope, assessing the situation. Soon after, the bull re-emerged into the window in the timber, coming back up the mountainside and deeper into the ravine, now with its right side towards me. It was now slightly closer, where I could only see the bottom of its torso and above. Its legs were hidden by the mountainside between us. It was bending its head away from me around to the left side of its body, tending to itself, the “Y” of its antlers clearly visible. Still being rock solid in prone position, I held behind the shoulder and squeezed the trigger. Once again, the Weatherby roared. Through my scope I saw a burst of dust and the elk dig into the ground with all four hooves and bolt up the mountain with all its energy, into the ravine and out of sight.
As Curt hiked over to me and the last bit of daylight faded, I dropped a pin on OnX from my location of where I approximately last saw the elk. I watched as 5 elk made their way across the mountain in front of me and disappeared into the timber above. They were all cows and calves. “Good.”, I thought. I put on my headlamp and joined him as we made our way over to where I last saw the elk. Through heavy breathing as we climbed, I replayed the series of events as our legs burned and the excitement built. I felt pretty good about the two shots and was reasonably sure that my first elk lay in wait for me just ahead on the mountain.
As we reached the spot where I had last seen the elk, night had fully arrived, the air was cold and our breath was illuminated by our headlamps. If you have never been on a mountain at night, it’s dark, very dark, and a 100 foot beam from a headlamp is fighting the odds to sort out the hidden maze of topography and vegetation. We decided to focus our search up the mountain in the direction I had last seen the elk head. There was a snowline above us, and if the elk had made it that far, we’d find tracks and blood. And if it hadn’t made it that far, we’d find it. Through the excitement and anticipation of finding my elk, I did not turn on OnX Tracking. Mistake #2: Always turn on OnX Tracking when searching for an animal. For the next two hours we searched the snowline and mountainside and ravine along a half mile stretch of timber. We found plenty of elk tracks, too many from the prior days to discern if any were from my bull, but no blood. During our search, I told Curt about the issue with my rangefinder. Perhaps it was farther than 550 yards and my first shot just grazed the elk’s brisket, which is what I saw it tending. Maybe the cloud of dust on my second shot was from my bullet impacting the mountainside as the bullet attempted to crest just over it enroute for the elk. The seed of doubt had been planted.
After we ruled out the elk was anywhere above the snowline, Curt agreed to head down the ravine back to the two-track, and I would zig-zag the far side of the glade as I worked my way back down and eventually crossed over to the ravine and followed it down to the two-track.
As the moon rose in the East over the top of the mountain behind us, we separately made our way down with no sign of the elk or indication that my shots found their mark. Mistake #3: Wait for the moonlight to assist with your search. Even turn off your light, let your eyes adjust, and scan the area by moonlight only. The moon has a way of making antlers “pop”. Deflated, we decided to head over to the location from where I shot and ranged the mountainside in the window between the timber. The rangefinder displayed 665 yards. No further evidence, your Honor. Due to the difference between the range and my come up adjustment, we concluded that my shots had not mortally wounded the elk and made our way off the mountain.
We returned the next morning, glassed the mountainside, and did not see any sign of the elk. After sitting for the morning hunt, we decided to explore a new area a few miles away before grabbing a meal and returning for the evening sit. I returned to where I had sat the night before, and Curt made his way up the ravine towards where I had seen the elk the night before. About 30 minutes later, I received a call from a winded Curt. “Hey, man. I found your elk. He’s in the ravine. I had to climb out to get phone service.”
Excited, and also in disbelief, I made my way, once again, to where I had shot the elk. As I climbed up out of the raine and broke through the line of timber, I saw Curt standing over my elk to the right of and above me about 50 yards away. As Curt was making his way up the ravine, he noticed some concentrated bird activity. Upon investigating, he found my elk. The elk lay on its back, bloated and soaking up the sun. I had shot it 20 hours earlier. The meat was spoiled.
When I climbed up to Curt, the first words I uttered were, “How did we not find this last night? We were all over this area.”
Due to the topography and the slope of the mountainside, you had to be right on top of the elk to find it. You could walk 30 yards away from and above it without seeing it. The darkness did not help. We somehow walked just above it and below it, missing it the night before. Had I turned on OnX Tracking, I could have seen that there was a pocket (or pockets) on the mountainside that needed a pass.
Looking over the animal, both my shots had found the vitals. In fact, both shots were pass-throughs. The 300 Weatherby is a flat-shooting 30 caliber and the little bit it was off between the 550 yard come up and the 665 yard actual didn’t make a significant difference on a target the size of an elk. I was impressed by what it did with a 200 grain Nosler Accubond at that distance. The first shot clipped the stomach, which contributed to the spoiling of the meat when the stomach contents were spilled into the body cavity. The second shot hit both lungs. The brown dust I had seen after the second shot was the fur being blown from the exit wound and the bullet impacting the hillside behind the elk. What I couldn’t see after my second shot was that the elk, mortally wounded, took off uphill, but soon turned downhill and fell no more than 75 yards from where it was shot. Mistake #4: In my experience, mortally wounded animals always go downhill.
Aside from bringing in search dogs or thermal imaging drones, what could I have done differently that I haven’t already mentioned? I had a Milwaukee cordless spotlight in the toolbox of my truck. I should have gone back to the spot where I last saw the elk (the OnX pin I dropped) and searched the mountainside in an expanding grid pattern with my OnX Tracker enabled. Mistake #5: Always carry a lightweight high-intensity flashlight in your pack.
When I replayed the series of events, the elk behaved like it was hit and the shots felt good. Remember the elk I saw afterwards as I waited for Curt? I counted five elk, not six. I should have not left the mountain that night. I should have sat down, taken a break in the dark and suppressed all emotion to formulate a search plan that would have left no doubt in my mind that the immediate area was fully covered. Mistake #6: Trust your instincts and stop to assess the situation.
When I viewed the elk at 665 yards away through my 15 power scope, it looked to be just bigger than a spike. It turned out to be a small 5×5 with nice brow tines. My eyes are fine, it was just really far away and daylight was fading. I tagged the antler, removed the head and carried it down the mountain and back to the truck. The euro mount now hangs on the wall in the workout area of my garage, backdropped by an American flag. It’s one of my favorite mounts because it symbolizes a story with so many lessons to be learned. I can reflect on the experience to ensure I don’t make the same mistakes again, and also that my daughters and other hunters that hear it can benefit from it as well. At the end of the day, I didn’t get a hamburger’s worth of meat off that animal, and that’s my fault. Don’t let it happen to you.