Until December 1, 2018, I had never killed any big game animal.
Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant
I grew up in a rural part of Utah where hunting is about putting meat in the freezer. Sure, most families I knew had a trophy buck or bull elk on the wall – a rare few had moose – but those trophy animals were food first, and interior decoration second.
My family never hunted, so my own experience was tagging along with my friends. I helped scout, field dress, and pack deer and elk off the mountains in our backyard, but I never really had the desire to hunt for myself. It’s not that I had anything against hunting, obviously; instead, I think it’s the quiet reverence with which dad taught my siblings and I to treat wildlife that stopped me from ever asking for a .270 for Christmas instead of a new fly rod.
Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant
I still give wildlife that level of respect dad taught me, but within that attitude I’ve fostered a desire to hunt. I suppose part of that desire is born out of the romanticized version of hunting I imagined while hearing stories around the campfire about hours-long stalks on elk. Most of it, though, morphed out of the dozens and dozens of fish I caught, killed, cleaned, and ate while growing up. Hunting big game was the natural next step as nature came to define my life and become my livelihood.
So, a few years ago I bought a new Ruger .308, a scope, and called my buddy Chad. He was my next door neighbor for 17 years and an all-around stand-up kind of guy. Chad’s also an excellent elk hunter, and I don’t know how many hours I spent with him and his family in their kitchen in mid-October, elbow-deep in fresh elk. And I never thought, all those years, that I’d ever be the one holding a gun while on a hunt with Chad.
We’d wanted to hunt the general season together, but thanks to mismanagement of wildfires by the Forest Service, the late-season hunt was our only option.
When opening day of the late-season rolled around, I was more than ready to go. I’d hunted the entire general season, plus the extended general season, putting my time in the field somewhere around 25 days. The late-season opened November 19, 2018, and right away we found elk.
Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant
As it turned out, finding elk was the easiest part of the hunt. The rut was well over, and most of the bulls were grouped up together, licking their wounds and healing after mating season. The cows moved down, not quite to their wintering grounds but lower than they’d been during the general season.
That’s right where we found them. Thanks to a tip from a buddy and a willingness to walk, I found three herds cycling through the same draws, canyons, and valleys. One herd had a small bull with it, another had a few spike, and the last was all cows.
Putting the stalk on them, however, was another thing entirely. Elk don’t feed out as long, or as often, in the winter months as they do during the fall. Each morning I had a two-hour window in which I could find, stalk, and shoot something.
And each morning, I either made too much noise on the stalk and spooked the elk off (including a spectacular fall down the face of a steep ridge) or was too slow and got into a shooting position after they’d melted back into the trees.
That all changed Thanksgiving morning. Chad and I were sitting on a ridge in predawn darkness, fresh snow crunching under our boots as we waited for sunrise. Just as the sky turned from black to blue, we heard the unmistakable sound of elk moving. Straining to see in the darkness, I could just make out a herd of elk moving quickly about 300 yards away from us. I brought my rifle to bear, and while I could see the elk I couldn’t see them well enough to take a responsible, ethical shot.
Once the sun came up, we spotted that herd on the ridge north of us, about 1,000 yards away. Not wanting to take a shot that ridiculous, Chad and I closed the distance and I squeezed off four shots.
Each shot missed. Badly. So badly that the elk didn’t even flinch at the crack of the rifle, but they did hightail it away from us.
Snow started to fall thickly as Chad and I started what would turn into an eight-mile trek. We cut the herd’s tracks heading north and followed them, hoping to catch up at some point. Chad pointed out the freshly-upturned mud, fur caught on branches, and tracks that showed the herd milled around to eat, as sign that we were getting close.
Then we smelled them. The unmistakable musk of elk filled the air and I looked north, across a grove and up a face, to see the last few cows in the herd trotting, single-file, quickly into the scrub oak.
I brought my gun to bear and fired. Two shots. Two misses.
Frustrated, but not defeated, we kept walking. The snow stopped, finally, making tracking easier. But the hiking just got worse. To top it all off, the elk kept doubling back on themselves, as if they were trying to wear us out.
Finally, their tracks took us to the top of a long ride. Beneath us was a wide valley of cedar, scrub oak, and a few stands of aspen.
And elk. Lots of elk.
I took three shots and missed three times. I moved south along the ridge and took another shot, bringing my total up to ten misses.
As we circled back around to the truck, after eight miles of hiking through elk country in shin-deep snow, I had four more shots – and four more misses.
I was understandably discouraged and frustrated, but I was too tired and spent to do anything about it. I chose to forgo Thanksgiving in favor of sleep, hoping I’d wake up and forget that I’d had 14 shots and missed every single one.
A few days later I took my gun to a local shop and asked them to remount and bore sight the scope again. Then I picked out a carefully-selected bullet, took the gun to the range, and set up a target at 125 yards. Two practice shots into it told me all I needed to know. Somehow, between sighting the rifle in before the late-season hunt and the 14-shot debacle on Thanksgiving day, my rifle was shooting nine inches to the right at 125 yards.
I got the rifle firing true, testing it out to 300 yards. My groupings were all within 1-2 inches, which is great for factory rounds. I felt more confident than I had in days.
That confidence was at the forefront of my mind as I lay prone in three feet of snow. Chad and I had sprinted – as much as you can through that much snow – up the side of a mountain to find a shooting position. We’d spotted a big herd from the road and knew we could get to a spot where I could shoot – but we didn’t know if we’d make it in time. It was about 40 minutes before dark, when legal shooting hours would end.
But we sprinted and made it with time to spare, and I had a herd of 100 or more elk in my scope at just over 400 yards away. Chad had binoculars on the herd, and I told him which cow I wanted to shoot. He confirmed he had eyes on it, I flicked off the safety, let out a breath, and pulled the trigger.
Miss. The elk stopped feeding and stood stock still. I quickly racked another round and fired again. Miss. The elk started to move, and I fired again. That last shot turned their trot into a gallop, though I had one more in my box magazine, I turned to Chad as he was handing me his .270. I’d felt confident in my gun – but I wanted backup.
I took the .270 – a Ruger older than me – and rested the barrel tight against the bare, skinny trunk of a scrub oak. Chad’s gun didn’t have a bipod.
The herd was almost gone, running east out of the hollow they’d been feeding in, over a ride to safety. But they weren’t completely gone. One cow lagged behind, and she paused. I didn’t see a calf with her, and she shifted slightly and gave me a broadside shot.
I aimed at the top of her spine above the front shoulder, exhaled, and pulled the trigger.
I got the scope back on her in time to see her jump, then stumble, then slide down a gully, tumbling head over hooves until she came to rest behind a thick stand of oak.
An hour later, in the pitch black of night with snow swirling around us once more, I stood next to Chad as we wondered how in the devil we’d get that cow off the mountain. Hours later, with the backstrap and tenderloins in my pack and the shoulders and hindquarters hanging in a tree a mile away from the road, I slipped into the driver’s seat of my Tacoma.
“Something has to be off with my scope,” I told Chad. “I missed 17 times with that gun. One shot with yours and my hunt was over.”
“Well, you had 17 chances to learn what not to do next year,” Chad replied. “And you didn’t miss the one shot that counted.”
I shrugged. I’d missed 17 times, but the 18th shot was the only one I needed. It shattered the elk’s spine, killing her instantly before she slid down the gully. With a gun I’d fired only a few times before, using a willowy scrub oak as a dead rest, in a last-ditch effort, the 17 misses became irrelevant as my one and only shot that touched an elk dropped it in its tracks.
*Note: after each of my 17 misses, Chad and I dutifully checked for wounded animals and blood. Additionally, Chad had each of my targets in his binoculars, confirming each miss didn’t hit an animal I wasn’t aiming at. I can truthfully say not a single elk was hurt or wounded by any of my 17 misses.