It was the second weekend of October, winter was at the doorstep in the high Rockies, the cold nights leaving the dry summer grasses frosted. It was the opening weekend of the Elk hunt in Utah, and I was lucky enough to be found among the protagonists of this time honored adventure. At eight thousand feet, the snow would soon come, and both man and beast were making preparations for it.
I never leave home without a camera, to keep the beautiful images captured in my mind, and on film. The dark green pines contrasting against the sage brush covered ridges, the yellowing leaves of Aspen trees fluttering in the gentle mountain breeze. The small creeks and streams carrying the last bit of water out of the canyons, and into the deep clear blue lake below our camp.
It was the general season in one of Utah’s spike only elk units, allegedly to grow a larger population of big bulls. The only elk available for shooting were spike’s, or cow’s if you had drawn one of the limited cow tags. We hadn’t had the luck to draw any cow’s, so it was spike or nothing for us. A few members of my family were along with me on this annual excursion of ours, and we could barely wait till morning to get after the brown and tan trophies we had waited since last year to hunt again. As with any general season hunt, there were plenty of other hunters as well. The competition is pretty stiff in a spike unit, most of them are shot during the opening weekend. And if this year was like any other, it was going to take some quick shooting, sharp eye, and of course a fair amount of luck.
I had been shooting long range both recreation-ally and competitively for a while, and had decided that I would apply those skills to my hunt. I had seen previous hunts cut short due to an inability to take longer shots. I had spent long hours hiking, shooting, and calculating what it would take to make the longer shots. And I had determined in my mind what I was comfortable with, and what not. The weapon of choice that day, was a Savage FCP10 in good ol’ .308 Winchester shooting some of my hand loads. It was the gun I was most familiar with, and therefore best shot with.
As the sun came up opening morning, we had spread out a crossed two different ridges where we had seen many elk in the past, we sat there, eagerly glassing the cold shady ridges. My cousin managed to shoot the first spike any of us saw that morning, just after the sun hit us. The elk started moving around, and a fine spike had followed several cows out across the clearing in front of him. He made a quick shot and put him down. It took the rest of the morning to haul his elk out of the canyon and back to camp.
The rest of us, now primed for hunting, headed back to the canyons with renewed energy after a high calorie lunch. The word on the trail, as I heard it from my brother and cousin, was that one more spike had been seen moving into the same draw the first bull was headed for. The downside was that once he made it up and out of that canyon, he would be free and clear. So we devised a plan to do a slow push through from the top, and try and get him as he escaped. I had taken the far side of the canyon, it having the longer and wider view. My two brothers and a friend worked down the canyon and we tried our best to stay orientated. We took our time hoping the elk would sneak out slowly once they heard or winded us. I had come to a clearing that had a nice over watch feel to it, so I stayed there for a bit, trying to locate the others visually. A speck of orange would pop through the trees every so often, and I realized that we were mostly through the best part of the canyon, my hopes were fading. And I ached to hear a shot ring out of the forest, with the accompanying thump that usually follows a good shot.
My eye caught a glint of motion a crossed the canyon on the tree line, my heart lurched as a tan and brown figure moved out of the trees. Time began to slow down, as my mind interpreted the images I was seeing. The way this elk moved gave him away, I could see his worried gate from my perch, and the still fuzzy tips of his spikes were visible. He knew the deadly game we were playing, and wanted nothing of it. With one eye I looked about the ground beneath me, knowing I would need a spot to shoot from, and now! My other eye stayed fixed upon my target, my mind still evaluating my firing solution. I drew my Swarovski, and vigorously pushed the button. The range came in at 560 yards, and that was where he was at now. He was headed straight for an aspen grove a short hundred yards or so ahead of him. I quickly realized that I had precious little time to fire or loose this bull forever, I dropped to the ground and settled in behind my rifle.
That summer I had spent many days at one of the local ranges, the max range was 600 yards. Wanting more, I begrudgingly accepted the limitations given, but I spent most of my time shooting at the 600 yard line. I mostly shot at steel disc’s, around ten inches in diameter. By September, 600 yards was my bread and butter. And I had no problem regularly putting lead smudges on it all day long.
In the ten or so seconds that had passed since the spike emerged, I had put most of this together in my head, and it was time to work the rifle. I reached up atop my scope, and cranked in 12.5 MOA, my come up still fresh in my memory. My cheek was pressed against the cold stock, my eye relaxing into the image as rifle and shoulders came into alignment, and there he was. The 12X magnification brought new detail, I could almost see the fear in his eyes, as he trotted, chin held high. I brought my cross-hair to rest at the base of his neck, hoping to lead him just enough. As he closed in on the grove of trees that would hide him, I pressed the trigger. The deafening sound of the rifle echoed through the canyon, and my ears rang, but my eyes stayed fixed through the scope. I watched the bullet trace fly through the air, and hit him right through the shoulder’s. The young bull stumbled, almost fell, but instead changed directions. He had been running a crossed the face of the opposite side of the canyon. He now turned and started stumbling downhill towards the bottom of the canyon. I worked the bolt on my rifle, and loaded a second bullet. I was now looking down on the bull, inline. He tripped and fell, and he laid there trying to get up, his head swaying . I waited for him to pause, and put my cross-hair right between his antlers, and sent the next shot. It hit exactly where it needed to, and dispatched the young bull once and for all.
I stood up, ears still ringing, I could hear my brothers talking through the trees. I let out a victory call, to let them know the shot was good. And then quickly began making my way downhill towards my kill. Blood and adrenaline were pumping coarsely through me when I got there. The young bull was a handsome specimen, I sat down beside him, to better look him over. The silence demanded reverence, and I gave my respect to this beautiful creature, my heart filled with gratitude. As I sat there reflecting on the moment, the sun felt warmer, the mountains even more beautiful, and the satisfaction of success came over me. The calm silence was interrupted when the rest of my party showed up, knives and rope in hand. I was greeted warmly, and we spent that afternoon, tuggin’ and cussin’ our way back up the hill. Success had come to us, and it warmed our hands and feet. Surely some of the finest times a man can enjoy are these, sharing success with friends and family in the rugged and beautiful wilderness we share. Our diligent practice paying off, into a perfect hunt.