The Elk – By Ryan Hughes

Special thanks to Ryan who is a regular contributor and runs a fantastic blog of his own. Please slide on over and check out his writing and enjoy his post.

Often times the success of hunts we embark on is not measured by what we are able to achieve, but rather what we experience. In November of 2014 I went hunting in Montana for the very first time. I had been hunting outside my home of Northern California multiple times, but never in Montana, which often resonated with me as the Mecca of all things outdoors. I had bought my Montana hunting license as well as a general deer tag between classes on a computer in the library of my local community college, but when I did so it seemed so far away that I could not even imagine what the trip might be like.

As the months went on leading up to our trip, my father mentioned the extreme weather that we were likely to experience so late in the season. Going so late in the season meant a few things for us, the most important thing being high amounts of migration of elk and deer from higher elevations to lower elevations due to oncoming snow. I could write all day about my expectations for this trip; I truly did not know what to expect. I suppose that is one of the many factors that draw us into hunting in new far away places, the uncertainty and constant challenge of learning about the area along with the wildlife within it.
We started our trek to Montana on a Friday morning. My so long to California included watching a hockey game and a ride out to the coast with some buddies the night before. Two day drives go by faster than you think when you are riding with great people. In the truck was my father, his friend Norm who I had never met before, and his other friend Justin who has become an extremely close and friend of mine over the years we have been hunting together. Norm was a pleasure to meet and hunt with; he was a thin man with a thick mustache. He was is very good shape and reminded me of the old west gunfighter Wyatt Earp. I took a liking to his very kind attitude and I very much admired his motivation and skill on the mountain. Justin is another great man and hero to me. He is very good friends with my father and myself but I think the reason they get along so well is because they are the perfect Yin and Yang. Their personalities are very opposite and different, but somehow they go very well together. Justin is a very humorous guy who gets his satisfaction from two things, hunting and making people smile. Justin is the biggest contributor to making any long drive seem like twenty minutes.
About halfway through the drive to Montana, we had our friends from other states meet up with us. First we rendezvoused with Rich from Nevada, then we met up with Joe from Oregon. As a group of six men, we continued on to the camp site we were staying, on the Madison River. My initial thought when we got to our temporary home was that I should have packed hunting gear for warmer conditions; it was not cold there. I was very disappointed because hunting in the snow is a very exciting and fascinating thing for a young Northern California hunter like myself. I was fed up with hunting in the heat and I really thought that Montana in November was going to be my big break. Oh boy, did Montana have a surprise for me. We arrived in the afternoon which gave us plenty of time for an evening hunt. I did not see any animals that night but I did start to get acclimated to what I might be hunting in for the next eight days; rugged mountainous terrain and possibilities for long distance shots, it almost made me wish that I had been practicing with my rifle at much longer distances. I quickly learned why Montana is called the big sky state. I also learned why people always talk so much about moving there, it is simply beautiful.
The next day was cloudy and quite a bit colder. We formed a single file line as we hiked into the public land that we hunted that day. The six of us followed a trail that ran parallel to a creek which led up to a huge valley surrounded by the Madison mountain range. I felt a whole lot smaller as I hiked up into the massive passage ways of mountains. Being nineteen years old, I was a boy amongst men and I had something to prove. I felt that each one of these guys had the utmost respect for me throughout the whole trip, and I intended to keep it exactly that way. The men that surrounded me were all cut from the same cloth, they were all excellent hunters and extremely hardworking and honest. I wanted to show them along with myself that I was cut from that same cloth. Most of the men I was hunting with did not know each other, they were all mutual friends of my father. He had brought them together for one excellent hunting trip that they collaborated to devise, much like a mad scientist conjuring up his greatest creation. I really do think that the most important thing that each of us took from this trip was not the meat we harvested or the antlers on our walls, it was the memories and connections we created with one another as hunters. Joe was the oldest out of all of us. He was the only one of these men who was retired but while on the mountain, he proved age to nothing but a number. I rode with Joe in his truck from Idaho Falls all the way to our camp site on the final day of our drive in. I had never met him before but I felt like I had because of all the great stories my father had about the man; it was almost like I was meeting a character out of a book that I had read so much about. As we rode through the beautiful country, he told me stories about my father that he must had forgotten to tell me in my life, like when they were hunting in Montana and he had mistaken a doe for a grizzly bear. Joe was a tall man who had white hair and a white goatee, his stature and knowledge gave him the presence similar to that of John Wayne.
Each of us went our own ways when we reached the large valley. It seemed impossible to not see any animals that morning with all the ground we were going to have covered. I never really split off from the group, they had just all split off from me. As I journeyed further back into the mountains, it grew colder and quieter. Justin’s voice had come over the radio, “I got a bull down, a nice rag horn”. I thought to myself, ‘wow, he already has a bull down?’. I rejoiced to myself and then thought maybe I would be up to bat next. I had radioed Justin and told him to let me know when he wants me to come help him pack the elk back down to the truck. I had made my way back to a small meadow that felt like the coldest part of Montana. I sat beneath a tree on the edge of the meadow, looking up at a snowy mountain side and a single steep ridge leading up to it almost like a walkway. The meadow I looked over felt like the perfect spot; I was confident that if I stayed up there all day then I would definitely see a few deer traveling through. Not much time passed beneath that tree before I heard something wandering towards me directly from the trail I came from; I looked in that direction and noticed that it was my father. He had not yet noticed me sitting there despite me trying to catch his attention with noises I was making such as “Aye!” or “Psst!”. He looked as if he was sneaking into his secret hunting spot where he sees all the big bucks come through; that is how I immediately knew that I had found a good spot. He had failed to hear my alerts because of the sound of his footsteps suppressing my attempts to give away my position. When my father had finally stopped, he sat down underneath a tree about twenty feet in front of me. I shouted “Dad” and he finally realized that his somewhat secret spot had been discovered by no other than the young man that he taught how to hunt. He ambled back to where I was sitting and took a seat at the base of the tree next to mine. We then sat for about an hour, made some coffee, spoke about how great of a spot it was and how proud we were about Justin’s bull.
We soon agreed that it was time we headed down back towards where Justin had been quartering out his elk. As we came closer to where we thought Justin was, we had captured the sight of a herd of elk heading our way, from the other side of the valley. My father and I immediately jaunted to the best vantage point possible to clearly see the avenue that the valley created. My father got down in a prone shooting position, using his backpack as a rest for his rifle. It amazed me that he seemed to know right where they would come through. He had asked me to range the bottom of the valley. It was around nine-hundred yards; he must of thought it to be a lot closer. I looked at my dad and told him “we gotta move farther down”. He agreed and got up from his position on the ground. I led the way as we jogged down the mountain. We tried our best to remain hidden on the side of the ridge opposite to the position of the elk. My father and I finally made it to a suitable position where we had a clear view of a small opening where we anticipated the elk would run through. During this time everything seemed to be in utter chaos, while at the same time it was ultimate perfection; chatter on the radio commencing about where the elk are, the sound of shots coming from a distance, and the wind that just never seemed to stop blowing. We sat and observed for nearly two or three minutes, however it felt like twenty seconds. We viewed a portion of the valley from a perch that seemed to have been the perfect spot, almost as if this was where we were meant to be. All of the sudden we noticed that the herd of elk were moving through the valley on a route that was far from us; there was no way any of them would pass us at a close enough range to take a shot. For a reason that I cannot explain, we did not mention a word of that to each other. We acted like we did not see them; like they were not what we were hunting. We continued to stare at the opening that was presented to us. A cow elk ran through that spot, then another. My dad asked “How far?”. I had ranged that spot right when we sat down. I quickly replied “two hundred and eighty five yards”, then I ranged again just to be sure. As multiple cow elk ran through, my dad and I had the same thought; we knew a bull would be behind them. As we initially were alerted of elk in the area, he told me “tell me if you see a bull, Ry!”, I figured that went without saying, but right as I saw antlers tear over the cow elk’s trail, I softly spoke “Dad, there’s a bull!”. As I immediately realized the size of this amazing animal, I uttered the words “Big bull, big bull!”. Seconds later, I heard the crack of my dad’s rifle.
I had never watched as my dad hunted and killed a big game animal. Aside from the occasional pheasant, chukar, or snake, every single time throughout my life when an animal has died in the presence of me and my father, it has died at my hands. I am not even sure if I have seen my dad shoot at a big game animal while I was around. The reason for this is because he always lets me get the first shot at an animal; he rather work hard for me to harvest an animal than do so for himself. There is something very fulfilling about successfully taking an animal; there is an unbelievable sense of pride and happiness that cannot be supplemented by any other action in the world. My father and I do a lot of hunting. We are not the average weekend warrior backyard hunters; we hunt a lot and we hunt hard. When my father calls a turkey in for me, sets me up on a buck, or even stands and watches as I chase a pig, this is his way of “passing the torch” along to me. I am not including this commentary to tell you how good I think I am at hunting, or how great of a hunter I think my dad is; I am explaining this relationship to aid you, the reader, in understanding what this hunt meant to me. The moment my dad took his first shot at that bull, I felt the joy that he has always felt for me. This event in my life was a quick change in roles for me. There is no question that my dad worked harder than hell to put himself in the position that he was in, but me being so heavily involved in what led up to us being here gave me a feeling like no other. I really felt like a real man up on that mountain with my father. We both worked hard and were able to achieve a life long goal of my father, and I was able to be such a big part of it.
The bull halted as the cows continued along the trail. We both knew the bull was hit. My father cycled the bolt on his rifle and shot the bull again; he fell to the ground and stomped his hooves. It was clear to us that my dad had just killed the bull of a lifetime. We immediately rose to our feet and began celebrating. We high-fived, and pulled each other in for a hug. We looked back at the bull and saw it laying on the ground still flailing its legs. A moment went by as we admired the dying elk from a distance. I handed my dad the radio knowing that he would have some news for our group. He told the others that he had a big bull down. He told them that he just shot a seven by seven bull. The radio blew up with the voices of our friends congratulating my dad and asking about the bull. The wind continued to push the tall grass back and forth as we walked up to the fallen bull. The gunfire and celebration quickly turned into silence as we descended to my father’s bull. When we finally reached the bull my father and I were speechless. While admiring the beautiful bull, my father picked up the radio and corrected himself “Its a big six by six”. My dad and I admired this bull like it was a newborn child or a classic car that we just put the finishing touches on. It was something that we created, something that we made happen. We could have been anywhere in the world but we were there. My dad then told me “There is nowhere in this world that I would rather be than right here, right now.”
Our four friends came in sight as they walked closer to our makeshift game processing plot. The men all congratulated my dad and we did the same to Justin for his nice bull. We all posed for a picture with the massive animal and celebrated. Justin mentioned that Rich had a bit of a story to tell but then Rich nonchalantly diverted the attention back to my dad’s bull. I wondered what Rich had done, but soon forgot about it and continued to celebrate the bull at hand. We all took inventory of all the meat we had to cut up and pack out; it seemed like we had quite a day ahead of us. Packing out two full grown bulls on our backs was looking to be a difficult task, even with all six of us taking part. When we decided to get started on the task at hand Rich began to explain that there was also a third bull that we were going to pack out. I have described every man in our group so far, aside from our friend Rich; there is a reason for that. Rich is a heck of a guy. If all people had Rich’s sense of kindness and empathy for his fellow man then this world would truly be a better place. There’s a lot that I could say about him and I could tell you all day about how nice he is, or I could just tell you the reason why we had another elk to pack down that mountain.
Soon after we had all begun to split up while making our way up the mountain, Rich had crossed paths with a fellow elk hunter. This hunter was a young man named Alex. This man Alex was by himself up there and did not have much aside from his dead grandfather’s rifle, a knife, and a few bottles of pepsi. Alex had explained to Rich that he had suffered a head injury in Afghanistan, this head injury forced him to forget a lot, including much of what his grandfather had taught him about hunting. Rich and Alex walked up the mountain together while Alex explained the recent loss of his grandfather along with his mission to take down a bull with his grandfather’s rifle. Alex and Rich spoke to one another while keeping an eye out for any elk. Alex explained to Rich how there is a large ranch, neighboring the public land, which makes an unsportsmanlike effort to dissuade the elk herds from crossing on to the public land. That morning the ranch employees must have failed to keep the elk on their land because Alex and Rich’s conversation was interrupted by the massive herd of elk crossing in front of them. Rich quickly grabbed his shooting sticks and shot the biggest bull in sight. Filled with joy, Rich handed his shooting sticks to Alex and excitedly exclaimed “Go get a bull!”. Alex took the sticks and rushed to the best vantage point he could find at the time. Alex hastily put his cross hairs on the biggest bull he could find in the herd and shot. He hit the bull and it fell to the ground. The moment Rich saw Alex take the shot, he noticed that the bull that Alex had just shot was the very same one that he had just shot. Rich then explained to Alex what he believed had just happen and Alex’s heart sank. Alex and Rich walked down to the fallen bull and found two bullet holes in the beast. Alex was immediately apologizing to Rich for what he had done; he was in fear that his new friend would quickly become an enemy but he clearly did not know who he was dealing with. Rich then told Alex that he had better start quartering out his bull. Alex was shocked by Rich’s response to his mistake; any hunter would be. Alex began to tell Rich about all the stories he had heard about incidents like this happening up there; men getting black eyes and broken bones because of mistakes like that. Without hesitation or an ounce of regret or anger, Rich told Alex that accidents happen and he was proud to be a part of his hunt. Alex broke down into tears of joy when Rich affirmed that the bull was his. It was obvious to Rich that this hunt was much more to Alex than just a search for meat to feed his family, it was also a hunt to make his grandfather proud as he looked down on his grandson. This had all taken place moments before my father had taken his bull, but it was very interesting to me how one herd of elk moving through that valley could take part in so many different stories. I believe that this is one of many ways in which hunters are often connected. That same herd could have traveled anywhere in Montana and been a part of another hunter’s great story. It truly is an amazing thing to me. As hunters, we all carry stories; they are a strong part of our culture and they have been present since the beginning of time. The first works of art ever created told stories of hunts. To this day we, as hunters, are still able to convey the same emotions through stories like those our ancestors did. This story is one that shows great adversity, kindness, and selflessness through the brief crossing of the lives of two hunters. I believe that there is not much more I need to say about our friend Rich. He is a one of a kind guy, and a great hunter.
The seven of us spent til dark quartering out the three bulls, and packing them several miles back down to our trucks. We all had filled our backpacks with as much meat as possible and took two trips each. My father had decided that he wanted nothing more than to see his bull on our wall, so we packed out the entire head and cape of the animal. Luckily for us, our new friend Alex had a small game cart in his truck; after retrieving it, we were able to put my father’s head on the cart along with a few pieces of meat that we managed to fit on the cart. There was no doubt that all of us had worked incredibly quickly and hard in getting all of our meat down out of those mountains. We parted ways with Alex and headed back to camp for the night. We were full of pure joy after having such a successful first full day of hunting.
The next morning we woke up to ice and snow. From this point on in our trip, temperatures did not exceed ten degrees Fahrenheit. The coldest I saw it get was negative twenty-one degrees, and take note that these temperatures and not including wind chill. Montana quickly became a very cold place for us, but we had no choice but to embrace the challenge we were faced with. The next few days were fairly uneventful as far as hunting went. We often split up into two different groups and hunted many different places that were accessible near our camp. Although our luck had seemed to fade when compared to our first day, the beauty in the land we saw was remarkable. The Madison River was a sight to behold; the edges were frozen for nearly two yards on each side and the water was more like a Slurpee. Chucks of ice floated down the river creating a nearly solid moving surface. When I was send to fetch water from the river, I had no other choice than to walk out on the ice in order to reach the liquid. Soon I was no longer worrisome about retrieving water because I had realized that the ice I stood on was solid as a rock. The last full day of our trip had finally come and the only thing on my mind was filling my general deer tag along with the doe tag I had bought in town. Because we were unable to see many deer in the spots we had been hunting that week, we had began looking into nearby property owners involved in Montana’s block management program. We had gained permission to hunt for whitetails on a ranch a few towns over from where our camp was. The last morning of our trip, a few of went to the ranch and I was able to fill both my tags on a young buck and a nice doe. I was very much excited to have filled my tags and I did not care one bit about the size of the antlers; I had harvested my first whitetail deer and capitalized on the chance to feed my family along with myself.
For me, hunting is not always about taking home the biggest trophy I can find. To be quite honest, I never really know exactly what I am there for until the adventure unfolds, but by the time my journey is over I always know that I have gained much more than I anticipated. This adventure was very special to me for many reasons; one reason that I have yet to emphasize is that we did this hunt unguided and on public land. Doing a hunt like this is not always going to get a hunter his dream elk, but in this case it did, and it was quite an experience that I am very proud to have been such a big part of.

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