10 yards

Fortunately the bull died on a slope.  So when it came time to turn it, I knew from two years ago to turn the head, stab the uppermost tines into the ground, grab the lower back leg, and pull hard.  Rather than 20 minutes of near-impossible flailing against snagging willows, this time three tugs had the bull flipped and wedged against the log, stable, and the other flank ready for skinning.

Based on the forecast I hadn’t taken the first hunt of rifle season very seriously.  I woke in the dark and as promised inches of snow blanketed our yard.  Webcams west of town showed fog and light ground blizzards.  I figured I’d drive just out of town, take a nice three hours walk, maybe find a few new tracks to investigate, and come home to regroup for tomorrow.

But the sun came early.  An hour out and I had walked a mile of trail and climbed a mile of steep north facing lodgepole forest to reach the broad curving ridge, ground more than half talus, ponderosa and juniper thick.  Last winter I’d found a rash of elk beds melted into the snow on the ridges vague summit, where a little more flatness let more soil take hold, and he ground was a mix of grass patches and the fallen monuments of passed pines.  I’d shoot the bull 3 hours later within 100 yards of this spot, but at first pass I found only fresh squirrel tracks and, at the edge of the cliffs, another orange vest on the lower section of the ridge.

The sky kept opening, blue tendrils spread south to north, and I went west, up each to the next ridge, glassing from summits.  Way off in the flats there seemed to be two folks cutting up a deer, but I hadn’t brought my spotter or my tripod, so couldn’t confirm.  I only brought one knife, one game bag, two granola bars, and no headlamp.  That one game bag was very large, fortunately, as it fit all ~150 pounds of boned out meat, with enough room to squirm down the slope, amoebalike, and with much twacking,, pulling, tweaking, kicking, and swearing get entirely into my pack.  Which in fitting with my casual prep was smallish, 40 inches circ at the top, and with just enough frame height that carrying 80+ percent of my own weight was possible.

I took my pack off once on the two miles back, and 24 hours after each muscle between my ankles and ribs is sore for it’s own reason.

I found the elk on the final ridge, and botched the sneak.  There were 30 of them, cows, a few spikes, and on bull which at 400 yards obviously had brown tines.  The final approach to the ridge tilted towards the knob upon which most of them were bedded, and I didn’t realize they were watching me for probably 30 seconds.  I belly reversed out of sight and re-snuck in the shadow of a puffy juniper, but the herd was already on the move.  I compounded my inattention and nerves by missing twice on the walking bull at ~250 yards, sending the herd sprinting rather than trotting over the far saddle and out of sight.

Fortunately 30 elk in a hurry across a few inches of fresh snow are easy to track.  Determined to not make any more mistakes on the day, I took it slow.  300 calories and 50 ounces of water wasn’t ideal for an all day pursuit, but if needed it would serve.  From the first, when I saw the herd hook right into the trees, I expected they might end up on the first ridge, and an hour later I was slowly through the pines, expecting to cross my own tracks, .308 cambered and at port arms.

For a few minutes prior I could hear one elk, and then another, scooting ahead of me, kicking loose rocks.  They didn’t seem to like this slope, the group spreading out, then coming back together, the lead elk testing a line, then backtracking.  Matters were simple when things came to a head and I was, suddenly, surrounded by tan patches of fur.  There was only one which had brow tines.  They knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t understand what I was.  A few broke downhill, plowing rocks and branches.  More went uphill, a line tight through the trees back past me.  I clicked off safe and hovered my eye above the scope, waiting the last elk of 10, the one with brow tines, to come in line with a dinner plate sized opening.  He did, and settled on the stock and squeezed the trigger.

The elk was 10 yards away.

Shot placement wasn’t ideal, center of center in both directions, and the air seemed to go out of both the elk and our immediate orbit.  He crashed through the brush, shattering dead limbs.  The instinct which in contemplation had left me shaking and thus, missing, earlier flooded back in.  I stepped up and left, quickly, found an opening, and without thought shot the bull again, right in the ass.  He stumbled forward, obviously on the edge of death, but yet going uphill over snotty rocks and through bushes, the momentum imbuing his life seeming to want to carry him over the top of the hill and into forever.  The power of modern firearms seemed very small, but I chased straight on his heels, catching him, again at 10 yards, face to face across an opening, and shot him a final time, brisket through the shoulder.

I’d later find shoulder, back leg, and ribs shattered, innards liquified by the violence of 2800 feet per second.  Such was this elk that it took all the above to place him off his feet, groaning primeval, three legs flailing, blood foaming from his side.  Standing there I all but dropped my rifle, stricken by what I could, in the moment, do so simply.  What accident of zoology gave such creatures flat teeth and ruminant stomachs?  Were they to evolve instantly and today, with such soft human biomass filling the valleys, surely they’d make business of running us down, skewering and stomping us, having in our livers so much concentrated forb.

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My mind was mostly done in when I jettisoned the meat bag into the back of the car.  Lacking the usual hatchet to separate the antlers I had cut off the whole head, thus facing a second load both not un-heavy and very awkward.  It would take me 20 minutes to acceptably strap it to my pack.  But first, I’d enjoy the luxury of daylight, of time to savor being in the middle of the process, and drive a few minutes to recharge with cooked cow and a beer.  The head wouldn’t quite fit in even a large hatchback, so it went on the roof.  Two separate vehicles dove into the pullout to gawk in the 3 minutes of the lashing process, and I made the 20 minute drive home tempted to hide under the dash or pull a bag over my head.

Would you be comfortable carting such evidence around like a parade float?

14 thoughts on “10 yards

  1. What an experience! I bet that felt very primal. Ten yards is so close.

  2. Congratulations! Hopefully you did not lose too much meat (especially to gut contamination). Pity you could not test the North Fork big pack on this one. I would not know if I’d be comfortable with the head lashed to the top of the car, but probably I’d just fret (a lot) about it detaching and falling behind on the road or another car…

    1. Unfortunately a fair bit of meat loss. One shot blew up the offside shoulder in pretty spectacular fashion. TSX doing its job.

      A major thing I’ve been playing with in packs is isolating suspension elements. Eg if the fit, belt, etc are perfect how much stay do you need for 30 pounds, 60 pounds and so forth. Quite positive the cure big proto would have folded up under the meat load. Even the Seek Outside frame was deflecting and bouncing 3-4 inches on the ground. Not noticeable on the back but pretty crazy to witness.

      1. For those of us who are not hunters and read things like this with detached horror and fascination and appreciation, can you explain (or link to) more info about meat loss, and about the legality, culture and politics of leaving whatever you couldn’t take for meat behind? Is it “OK” to do so for other animals? Not OK? Do the bullets contaminate the ground? What about the head you brought back to remove the antlers; what happens to it after you’re done, just toss it in the trash? Sorry for all these amateur questions but I’m super curious about the Bigger Picture, and appreciate your take on hunting rather than the typical gung-ho toxic male hunting narratives.

        1. All US states (as far as I know) legally require a hunter to remove and preserve (use or donate) the vast majority of the meat on a big game animal. There are subtle variations state to state but Montana requires the loins and all four quarters above the hock (knee). This leaves a good amount of edible meat (shanks, flank, neck, organs) which is up to individual discretion.

          Having visited a few of my kills a year or so later and seen how little is left (hair, maybe half the bones) I have a hard time seeing waste as not a highly anthropomorphic concept. The scavengers put carcasses to good use, probably better in most ways than I as a human will ever be able to.

          I moved to non-lead ammo last year to abrogate concerns about lead consumption by my family as well as animals. In a few areas where bioaccumulation in scavengers is a concern ( Kaibab Plateau with condors) hunters are required to remove gut piles from the field.

          Yesterday I cut all the fur, flesh and the lower jaw off the elk head, and this morning those scraps went to the landfill. Yesterday evening a magpie was picking away at the little bits left on the skull. Will probably leave it out to the birds for another day before I put the skull on salt to dry the flesh out for cleaning.

          Good questions all with tons of nuance.

  3. Congrats Dave! Making short work of elk season. Hopefully you can test your new bag on my elk 🙂

  4. Well done! Your experience reminds me of sheep hunting stories from my neighbors when I lived further north. Waking up after naps on a ridge, surrounded by sheep. Anyways, 10 yards will be hard to beat!

  5. Those are good days. Congratulations my friend! Any pictures of the “Hungry Horse Hatchback”?

  6. Congrats Dave! I really REALLY enjoyed what you shared with me from the last elk…
    And here we are, peak of general deer season, fires raging everywhere. I’m sticking to spearfishing.

  7. Great story Dave. I appreciate the honestly. If you haven’t hunted it’s hard to imagine how things can go sideways in a hurry and how horrible it feels. We try for a clean kill but sometimes things happen.

    Love the car picture.

    I’m moving towards lead free bullets myself but the TSX just doesn’t seem that impressive. Might try Cutting Edge or Hammer Head bullets but I believe they are a hand loading only proposition.

    1. The TSX has been solid if it hits substantial tissue. Broadside double lung on a deer doesn’t expand ideally. Shoulder hits are very effective.

      1. That has been my observation as well. I think a TSX is just tougher then it really needs to be for a deer or even an elk broadside. My 358 Winchester with lead bullets was much more violent then my friends 338 Federal with a TSX, even though the ballistics are quit similar. We both shot caribou from similar angles and mine died much faster. Trouble is of course I lost more meat.
        What I would really like is non-lead version of the Nosler Partition so I could eat right up to the bullet hole. So I might have some experimenting to do.
        Hand loading has replaced pack making as a “money saving” hobby that costs more in the end because I keep experimenting. But I think its worth it to pursue a quick clean kill.

  8. Congratulations on an opening day elk, Dave. Pretty visceral description. As for your ending question I suspect I would feel about 50/50 proud and ashamed because 50/50 of the population here would be either stoked or angry.

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