“An elk is a “game animal” with a lot of game. He believes strongly in equal opportunity, for he will take on all comers with hardly a care…
Should you decide to enter his backyard and hunt him, you can tread lightly and show little effort, like many, and experience small success, like most. Hunt him big, and you can peg the throttles until the rockets burn out.
Elk and Elk Hunting: Your Practical Guide To Fundamentals and Fine Points by Hartt Wixom. With information on elk history and lore, myths, tactics, scouting, bugling, horses and elk, the elk camp, meat care, and more.
“Some time ago I walked around to the back of a big, empty house and came upon elk tracks on the cement patio and walkways of a hidden courtyard. Tall evergreen trees swayed from the light winter wind and murmured in the hushed overtones of a holy cathedral. It had just snowed, and the tracks stood out like a beacon in the dazzling mid-morning sun.
The sight stopped me quite dead in my stride. It was as if I had walked squarely into the solid concrete walls of some plainly obvious yet unseen building, as a great hand with a large extended finger descended from heaven to point them out in quivering disgust.
Kneeling in the snow by a gleaming steel barbecue, I felt light-headed and unsure as my eyesight blurred and the earth moved beneath me. It was all I could do to control my revulsion and rising anger as the world slowly came back in focus.
Struggling to rise, I could only begin to wonder what had caused such a powerful vision. I may never know why the full force of it all had hit me so hard on that day and at that particular moment. But it was real, and it was painful.
I only know that there is something terribly wrong about the placement of elk tracks on concrete. It is an assault on the sensibilities of common sense and a great festering wound upon all that is spirited and free. It screams of wrongness and wrong-headedness, and of human cleverness driven past it’s acceptable limit. The tracks document a trail of horrible mistakes and destructive paths. It is a mere glimpse of a dark and terrible future reality.
No man should have to witness it, nor bear it. No man should have to try. The snow will melt and the tracks will disappear, leaving behind them only the promise of what might have been. I can read meaning into most kinds of animal tracks, but no matter how hard I may try I can find no sign on the cruel and heartless soul of concrete walks and driveways.
I am, and have always been, a hunter. I must have fresh tracks to follow”.
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SOMEWHERE IN THE COLORADO MOUNTAINS
The girls of Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority prepare to venture forth on their next elk hunting expedition atop The Ultimate Hunting Rig.
I suspect that many of you young guys would have liked to tag along on this hunt. As my friend was last heard to say, somebody’s got to go…elk hunting that is.
Stay tuned for more hair-raising Team Elk adventures…
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Man in all his forms has been dragging something along behind him since he first stood upright and made his first staggering steps toward the horizon. Sometimes, it was a big hunk of life sustaining meat just like this.
They say that modern man hunts to fulfill some relentless though mysterious primordial need. Perhaps it is a way to reconnect with mother nature, to feel the wind on our face and remember our true place in the world.
“The real work of men was hunting meat. The invention of agriculture was a giant step in the wrong direction, leading to serfdom, cities, and empire. From a race of hunters, artists, warriors, and tamers of horses, we degraded ourselves to what we are now: clerks, functionaries, laborers, entertainers, processors of information”. – Edward Abbey
“One does not hunt in order to kill, on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted…”.
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COFFEE UP – BOYS, AND GIRLS!
I am often struck by the power of photographs, and the way they can transport us in time and space, sometimes backwards to a place of fond memories, sometimes forward in anticipation of future adventures. I found such a picture tacked to the bulletin board of our local feed store, and I thought I would share it with you.
Exactly why it caught my attention so dramatically I do not know, but it stopped me in my tracks as I reached for the exit door. I stepped closer, and as I did it drew me deeper and deeper into that perfect recorded moment of experience. Perhaps it reminded me of a past hunt, with the excited chatter of friends or family nearby. Maybe you, like me, can imagine elk in the background and just out of view, hanging on the edge of the timber on their way to cover or feed. I can feel the crispness of the air there, and smell the smoke in the swirling winds. I can smell and taste the coffee too!
This wonderful image was captured by Frank Donofrio of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He calls it “Cowboy Medicine”, and he has been kind enough to let us reproduce it here. It is an unexpected comfort, and a gift for the eye of the restless soul.
Frank tells me that he snapped it a few years back, on a mid November elk hunt in the spectacular high country near Aspen. He says it was a cold, blustery day, and that in his hunter’s wanderings he happened to meet up with a woman in her later years and her middle-aged son. They told him that they had grown up nearby and were quite intimate with the country, having hunted it all of their lives. They were happy to share some of their hard won backcountry knowledge, and more.
The son offered to build a pot of coffee to help stave off the numbing chill, right there and right then. Frank gladly accepted. After all, the company was fine, and the view was pretty good too.
Apparently, the man liked coffee of the cowboy kind, brewed simple, black, and strong. The recipe is not complicated, but ask anyone in the know and they will tell you that it’s proper preparation is still a fine art, freely given, yet earned on a life of many trails.
Start with a healthy slug of water, freshly drawn from a sparkling mountain stream. Bring to a roaring boil over a fire of spruce and pine, and throw in a handful or three of coffee grounds as you back the hissing pot from the hottest part of the flames. Let it simmer down a bit, and then throw in a splash of water or two or maybe a fist-full of snow to cool it down. Take it from the fire and set it on the ground awhile to let the grounds settle, but not for too long.
It’s always best served piping hot, and there is something to be said for a dose of grounds in the mix. The old cowboys used to say that you could tell when it was right when you could stand up a spoon in it. It’s about texture too, and if you look real hard you can see them there, squinting past weathered brows while chewing on their coffee behind big handlebar mustaches. Or at least I would like to think so.
Now kick back and wrap your hands around a steaming mug of mountain medicine for warmth and moral support. Enjoy the ride. Savor the moment. It’s the doing of it that counts and where you are that matters.
That place be elk country, and there is no finer location on terra firma to drink a’ cup a’ Joe.
I wish to be somewhere just like this next fall, god willing, squatting behind a cowboy fire on a rugged ridge of the Rocky Mountains. There may even be some horses close by, nickering and pawing in the soft white powder.
We’ll keep an extra tin cup in the outfit, just for you. Hope to see you there!
*I have always heard references to the fact that the old-time ranch cooks would not think of forgetting to add a raw egg or some egg shells to a pot of their boiling brew. It turns out that this is true, as the egg or eggshell attracts sediment like a magnet and makes for a cleaner presentation.
Well, I have tried adding the eggshell, and it does work. For now I’ll withhold judgement as to whether this makes a difference in the taste, but it might. I haven’t tried the raw egg yet, but in the camps I generally inhabit a raw egg is a much too precious commodity to mix in my morning caffeine. But I don’t mind being wrong, and I shall try it sometime soon.
Of course if I do that will mean that I have shared another elk camp, and that would be more than fine.
I’ll be sure to let you know how it all works out.
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Today was a special day in my hunter’s world. It began like most Rocky Mountain winter days, but by evening I had acquired an elk for the freezer and two new hunting buddies.
Elk meat is a prized commodity in our household and one elk provides satisfying meals for many months. Hunting buddies, on the other hand…well, they are a gift of a lifetime. I am extremely fortunate to have several and I cherish them, but hey, I’m happy to add some others.
My new buddies just happen to be brothers, and like many good hunting companions they innocently possess unbridled enthusiasm, a refreshing ability to gaze upon everything around them as if for the first time, a natural wide-eyed curiosity, and the willingness to do anything required of them to make for a successful outing. Of course, like most people they have their own unique personalities and levels of hunting skill. In this case, they happen to be smaller than most and have some trouble in deep snow or rough country. They are named MacKenzie and Connor, and they are six and eight years old. They already love elk and elk country. In fact, they live in some of the best elk habitat that Colorado has to offer. But, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself…
I have known these two since they were born, and I’ve known their father, Pat, for a quarter century or so. Pat and I have shared a lot of elk camps together, and I wouldn’t trade those memories for a lot of money, unless of course I could use it to go on more hunting trips with him. He is one of the finest hunters I know, and he is lucky to be blessed with a wife who understands his passion, and surely knows that she could not stop him anyway. Certainly it’s no wonder that “the boys” as we call them, take to the outdoors as naturally as elk bugle. Pat tells me that there was a time he could leave the house without them tugging at his coat tails, but he can’t really remember when that was. It’s just the way it should be, I say.
Call it a genetically inherited instinct, or say, a natural affinity for the wilds, these boys love the mountains and it is an uplifting thing to see. Pat has trained them right, of course, having brought them along whenever he could even when it meant carrying them. He’s patiently endured the myriad challenges presented by a partner who can’t tie his shoes or zipper his own jacket. He has always been the unwavering teacher in the face of emergency potty breaks, snarled fishing reels, and miscellaneous meltdowns. It’s just the way it ought to be, says he. I love and respect him more than ever for that.
Always happy to lend support over the years, I’ve done my share and have been quick to offer whatever advice a four-year old can comprehend. Mostly, I’ve never missed a opportunity to ask them an important question. Something like, “Hey Boys! – I just want to know one thing – Are you going to pack my elk? It became our personal joke and was always a great question to ask at parties, causing them to fly off with hysterical giggles and laughter and to repeat it to their young friends who do the same. It’s not often that you get a chance to train a group of small ones in the proper order of hunting priorities. After all, middle age now stares me squarely in the paunch, and frankly, I’m gonna need the help.
Today, we are wholeheartedly engaged in what can only be called a “meat hunt”. We know that there is a small herd of elk not far above the house, and it is late afternoon before everyone is gathered and we prepare to sneak up and over the ridge. The boys have geared up like old pros, which of course in many ways they are. They have watched a multitude of elk from their picture window, probably before they were interested in much else. They know the elk trails and the difference between a yearling and a big cow and where the herd is likely to run if they are spooked. Connor is next to me when we start off, and he does his best Indian imitation while pointing out tracks along the way. He shows me where he last saw the elk, and as we near the top of a small rise we see the oh so typical head up frontal view of a smart old cow. We’re busted, and I’m wheezing up through the oak brush and slippery rocks for position.
The first group of cows is moving and I wait, hoping for a better shot and about to lose my opportunity. Luckily, a mature cow is bringing up the rear. It’s not the easiest shot in the world, nor the toughest, but I’ve not been shooting well for a couple of seasons and I take some extra time to draw a bead. I squeeze the trigger and she drops in her tracks. “Nice shot Mike”, I hear from my six-year-old guide. Sweet words to be sure when your luck has been a little off for a little too long, and out of the mouths of babes at that.
We stand around the downed animal and I am truly grateful. Pat heads off to help another member in our party, and I am left alone with the two boys and a beautiful sunset in a clear, cold December sky. The boy’s seem quite content to hunker down in the snow and watch, and help. I become aware of the fading sky and the mountain peaks over their shoulders and think that they are exactly where they want to be. They wear these mountains like a warm woolen blanket, and there is room underneath for me, and for us all.
I stand before the elk and bow to the four directions and give thanks, party because it is something I have come to do to show respect, and partly for effect, as I know they are watching. What are you doing, they ask? Why did you look in that direction first? It’s obviously time for me to answer some questions.
I decide to quarter the cow for easier handling, and when my knife comes out they really become interested. Something about boy’s and knives, I guess. “Why are you doing it that way, they say?”. Where did the bullet hit? How many teeth does it have? How old is it? Mike, your elk tooth wedding ring is all bloody is it going to be O.K.?” And so on and so on.
I warn them several times to stay clear of my knife in case I slip, but they never miss an opportunity to touch or prod or examine in some way this elk. Their mother has sternly warned them to not ruin their cloths, and both their father and I reminded them more than once. For all the good it does. They want to be close, to smell its’ smell and lay their fingers on its teeth. Even in death, they want to become part of its life. These two are hunters, make no mistake, and I’m proud to be with them on this mountain at this moment in time when two young people chose to join us all in the adventure that we love.
They were quiet for a while, and I was working to beat the darkness. I saw their heads come up and they smiled and looked at each other like they had a thought at the same time. “Hey Mike!, they say proudly. You know what?…we’re gonna pack your elk”.
I stare at them for a moment, and then clandestinely wipe a bit of moisture out of the corner of one eye. It is not an easy maneuver to perform with a heavy backstrap in one hand and a sharp blade in the other.
“That’s right, I say. I’m sure glad you guys are here”.
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The elk is perhaps the most enduring symbol of the high country of the American West. These 20 postcards, selected by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, feature breathtaking photographic portraits of elk in the vibrant natural habitats that sustain them.
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I arrived home past midnight last night, to find a small herd of elk feeding in an open pasture to the west. My neighbor keeps his horses here, and I have an unobstructed view of it from our house on the hill. I spotted them as I walked over to our dog kennel on the fence line, and as I studied them I saw a big cow raise her head, just to let me know that she was watching me too.
I don’t suppose I will ever tire of seeing elk. They have a way of taking over the conversation, you might say, to make you pause in mid sentence when you spy one, to make you completely forget whatever you had been doing at the time, as if the world is a mere background created just for them. It has always been this way between the elk and I.
They looked particularly surreal this night, quietly feeding on a blanket of fresh, white powder, surrounded by the mystical light of a high, full moon. I am struck by the picture quality of it all, the sharp crispness of the image frozen in the cold night air. I can only smile. It is a perfect moment in time.
My dogs knew they were out there, of course, being that they were no more than 100 yards away with just some old wire to separate them. They had probably been watching them for some time, waiting for me to come home, whining nervously, and wishing they could run over and join up. The elk, for their part, paid us no mind, as they pawed in the snow. They had seen this show before and are not as impressed as us.
We see quite a few elk around our property when the snows grow formidable in the high country. It is one reason to look forward to winter. They especially like to feed at night in a large hay-field below us, and at first light they bunch up and head for the cover of rougher grounds and cedar trees on the properties and public lands to our North.
To my everlasting delight, they like to cross one small corner of our property as they leave the hay fields, and if we are lucky, we get to watch. I often sit in an overstuffed chair behind our big picture window, waiting, hot coffee in hand, enveloped in the approaching day as the rest of the world wakes up.
We have seen herds of one hundred elk and more, although smaller groups are most common. One morning I sat transfixed as a herd of about fifty or so lined up to jump the fence at the edge of the field below our house, then crossed our field on a run and passed along our fence line next to the house. I counted seventeen bulls, some small, some large, surrounded by foggy breath when they stopped. I can see it in my mind’s eye, just now.
At times, a small herd will bed down for the night under our apple trees. Once I looked out to see several lying contentedly in the sun, with freshly laid snow still shimmering on their backs. I’ve seen them browsing in the remnants of our flower garden or standing next to our bird bath, and I wave and say hello.
Welcome, I say, and good morning to you.
Last night, I reach my door and turn one last time to watch the elk and try to lock this image in my memory bank for all time. It is the quintessential Rocky Mountain postcard, a picture postcard for the soul, and I wish I could send it out to you, to all, with good tidings and cheer.
My head throbs and the blood sings in my ears as I slowly climb towards the new day, and when I look behind I can already see my truck parked far below in a meadow of willows and lush green grass.
It had been a rough night with little sleep, but I had put a bull elk to bed here the evening before and I was exhilarated by the prospects of the coming hunt. It is a feeling for which I have found no match in that other world we all mostly live in. The world of bills and mortgages, marriage and children, business, and so on.
At that moment I am a free and joyful being with the promise of new country ahead, and I tend to wax poetic at the drop of a hat, if at least in my own mind. It has always been times like this that I am most clear and most right with the world. I am hunting. I am alive. I love elk, elk hunting, and elk hunters. Or should I say that most of the time I do, for it is not easy to find love in my present condition. I have a terrible mountain hangover, made worse because it is a hangover derived without the pleasures of drink.
I have become more than a little touchy at altitude these days, and the night before had again brought headache, shortness of breath, and the beginnings of altitude sickness. I’ve got to stop hunting at 11,000 feet, I told myself. I had said that for the last three years too, but of course I had convinced myself that things would be different this year, better, and here I am again. Hunting the high country of Colorado is an annual ritual that I cannot forego; to miss it would be more than I could bear. A bull elk bugling among towering peaks and impossibly blue skies can do wonders for one’s attitude and make most troubles seem far, far away.
This morning is different though, and it is a reminder of some realities I have done my best to ignore. At the age of fifty, and with over thirty years of elk hunting behind me, it has become obvious that these mountains are getting steeper and it seems almost impossible to cover the ground I once did. My bow seems heavier, and I don’t see my sight pins so good anymore. As I gasp for air and cling to a small spruce tree to keep from falling backwards, my body screams with the thought that maybe, just maybe, this endeavor is really not fun anymore. I don’t even want to think about what might happen if I happen to put an elk down in some impenetrable canyon far from camp. I have done it before, and this consideration is always in the back of my mind, like some recurring night terror I wish not to confront but march determinedly towards, ever closer.
To put things simply, I hurt. My body seems to be put together with junk parts that are worn and metal fatigued. I’ve got a knee that has bothered me for years from a knee cap smashing fall in a river, and it smarts like the dickens if I tweak it the wrong way, which is often. The other’s not so good either, and on a bad day I can tweak both knees, like today. It would be comical to watch me hobble about if it were not so sad. The toes on my right foot have suddenly decided that they no longer fit in my boots. In fact, my feet don’t seem to work quite right and appear to belong to someone else. The bottom of my soles seem to always catch some unseen obstacle as I stumble about at the risk of losing my dignity, grateful that no one is near to witness the spectacle of it all. I’m carrying way too much weight, and I’m not talking about what’s stashed in my pack.
It’s early in the season and the day warms quickly, and the sweat runs down my forehead as my glasses fog over. Is is really worth it, says I? Do I really want an elk that badly? At fifty, I may not be too old to hunt elk this way, but I fear that I have a pretty good view of the end of the road from here. I think of some of my friends, and realize with some sadness that it is already too late for some, and I wonder just how that happened. Only yesterday we were quite a little group of extreme elk hunters.
But now, a great friend has some chronic health problems and he spends much more time on his ATV then I know he would like. Another has found religion and for this or some other reason rarely hunts anymore. A friend that I had lost touch with informed me the other day that he has had not one, but both hips replaced, and will now leave elk hunting for the younger hunters. And another is the father of a young son that he loves beyond words, and he spends his time teaching him what he has learned of the mountains in his fifty years, caring not if he ever again takes another elk for himself. I don’t see them much anymore. I miss them, and I miss who we were.
A faint, whistling bugle snaps me from my circumstance, and at once my attention is focused like a beacon in the gloom. My heart skips a beat, and all my minor ailments, in fact all my troubles, vanish as if left behind for some other person still rooted on the steep slope below.
It takes some doing, but I struggle to the top and sit for sometime, until another bugle, closer, allows me to get a better bearing and plan a strategy. I cow call several times, and another bugle from my left lets me know that there are two bulls coming my way. I need a shooting lane, and I pick a spot to set up and must cover ten more yards. As I take the last step and begin to kneel, I hear the all too familiar crash of spooked elk, and I see hide flash through the trees and a bit of antler from both bulls. My last half step was one too many, and I have bumped them. I cow call in vain, already knowing what the result will be. Soon, I sit and smile and have a pull from my canteen. Just another “almost” in decades of “almosts” and very close calls.
“Catch Me If You Can” Photograph Courtesy of David Massender of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
This is why it is called elk hunting and not elk shooting. Bowhunting can be so frustrating. Still, I am happy because this is success, in many ways. It is a new area for me, and the elk are here as I had suspected. For a long time most of my favorite hunting spots were largely untouched and I had little competition with other hunter’s. Hunting pressure has always been a consideration on public lands, but lately it seems that someone has beat me to almost every spot, and for a time it upset me. I’ve had to search for new spots, never knowing if it was worth the walk, or if I would find other hunters.
I’ve noticed something different though. My competition all seem to be much younger than I remember, and they all look hungry. They look fit…eager, and determined. They drive beefy, jacked up jeeps, with large tires and lots of chrome parts shining in the sun. I don’t recognize the music blaring from their open tops.
Their smiles are broad and have that certain twist, and the glint in their eyes tell me that the long and grueling hike they just completed was just a warmup. They can’t wait to coffee up and leave me behind, as they strike out to see what’s over the next ridge. It suddenly dawned on me that they remind me of my friends and I – many years ago. Hell, they are us, I thought, and now I know that this is simply the natural progression of things in our world. We are here to pass the torch, and the young guns are more than happy to receive it, even if they have to pry it from some of our hands. I for one will not go down easily.
I agree with many who feel that a hunter is born and not made. I believe that a wise father knows that desire can be encouraged, but not coerced. Yet, an elk hunter must find some further dimension, grasp it tightly, and hold onto it for all he’s worth. In the end, the final product is hammered from iron, tempered by fire and ice, and honed to a razor’s edge by deep, dark canyons, jumbled black timber, and high windswept ridges.
A path so chosen produces legs of spring steel, the lungs of a mountain sherpa, and the heart of a young and fearless lion. An elk hunter must be confident and sure-footed, like the mountain goat on an impossible ledge. Above all, he must be eternally optimistic and willing to improve his skills and knowledge in the teeth of setback and hardship. For it is not easy, this elk hunting.
An elk, after all, is more than happy to accommodate the most determined individual. The more I hunt them, the more respect I have for every aspect of their nature. As worldly survivors they have few equals. Build a luxury golf course on their winter range, and come the heavy snows you will finding them lunching at the ninth tee and sleeping by the barbecue pit in the backyard of the neighboring house. Let loose a few elk in some of the west’s most forbidding country, throw in enough water and some sparse vegetation, and watch them thrive and multiply. Place an arrow from an errant shot in a non vital area of his anatomy, and if it is not too bad he will suck it up and hang low until the wound heels and he can be found bugling in the same spot next year. Elk give perspective to the concept of what it means to be tough.
From our point of view he is a pitiless and unaffected creature, and he expects nothing of you that he would not expect of himself. He is a “game animal” with a lot of game. He believes strongly in equal opportunity, for he will take on all comers with hardly a care. Should you decide to enter his backyard and hunt him, you can tread lightly and show little effort, like many, and experience small success, like most. Hunt him big, and you can peg the throttles until the rockets burn out. He can take it. Can you? Your choice.
Once committed, he will meet you head on and wear you out physically and mentally, a little or a lot. He can grind your hopes into gritty powder and turn your dreams into nightmarish obsessions. He will turn and happily watch from the hill above, as you beat yourself bloody on the rocks. He waits, until you sheepishly stop to pat yourself and make sure that nothing is permanently broken. Pick your poison, because it is all the same to him. In the end, your efforts are most often fruitless and only slightly annoying to him, and he shakes it all off like a december frost upon his back. If you are lucky or good, or both, and you take him, it’s O.K. too. It’s nature’s way, and the only way he knows. To take an animal in this adventure means little. It is the effect upon your person that matters, and if in the end your character is better or worse for the effort.
Last week I hunted with a very close friend who just happens to be the best elk hunter I have ever known. His hunting skills are just simply on a whole other level than us mere mortals, and he has always defined the term “advanced” in the concept of advanced elk hunting. I pick my friends wisely, I guess. Just a few short months ago he underwent major surgery, with complications to follow. While recovering from his complications, a blood clot suddenly passed through his lungs and could have killed him. Later, a second clot should have killed him, but did not. He suffered some minor lung damage, and had not completely healed from his ordeal. The doctor had told him that it was not quite time to hunt, but opening day is opening day and not often found on a doctor’s calendar. I suspect that the doctor may have disagreed with the idea more forcefully, had he known my friend’s style of elk hunting.
He wanted to hunt for big mule deer on our favorite ridges above timberline, and I had an elk tag. At first light we spotted several good bucks on the open slopes, and knew immediately that this was going to be a good day. Yet, as eager as we were to get started I thought I detected some slight hesitation from him as he geared up. We would have to move a long way down before climbing a long way back up in order to get around and ahead of the bucks. Our first step towards the bucks committed us to some tough hiking.
Our plans worked well, and we had continuous action well into mid morning. The bucks were numerous and respectable, and we attempted a couple of classic stalks on bedded deer. It was high country mule deer heaven, and it was a wonder just to be there. My friend was not able to let an arrow fly, but by all measures it was a successful day. Played out, yet satisfied, we turned for home with the promise of a cold drink in out near future .
On our way, however, we glassed two small bulls feeding in a meadow far below. My friend was determined to go after them, because I had helped him with his deer hunt and he wanted to return the favor. I tried to talk him out of the idea, but already knew he would have none of it. I knew by watching him that he was in great pain, even though he tried his best to hide it. I also knew that the last thing he needed was to drop off another impossible ridge and lose the precious elevation we had recently gained, and adding even more miles to our trip. Truth be known, I knew I would hurt badly before this day was done. I hoped I could make it.
We were very nearly successful in taking one of those bulls that afternoon, and surely would have had not the always troublesome mountain winds swirled at the last second. Left with a merciless climb ahead, I tried to concentrate on the ground just past my nose and could only wonder what we had been thinking. Towards the top, I struggled with all I had and had ever had to keep up with my friend’s unrelenting pace. I was glad I could not see the pain on his face, because it might have broke me.
Nearing the top, I practically had to lift my legs with my own arms and the thought of crawling was a distinct consideration. The fact that my friend had out hiked me in his condition would have embarrassed me had I not discovered the solid and unbreakable foundations of his character many hunts ago. After all – he is god’s own elk hunter, marching on.
The look on his face as he drove from camp later that day told me all I needed to know, which was that he had pushed himself past the limits that even he was aware he possessed, and I felt badly that I had contributed to his pain. He called me a few days later to let me know how much he had enjoyed our hunt together. In fact, he told me that it had been the best day of bowhunting in his life and he wanted to know when we could go again. When indeed? We shall hunt together soon, should the god’s smile again and we are both still standing, I thought. I am glad he could not see the emotion on my face.
At the age of fifty, I have learned that life, and death, has a way of placing things in proper perspective for those who listen. Hopefully, with age comes the wisdom to know what is important and what is not, and with it the courage to face the choice. My physical skills and mental drive have declined precipitously, and it is hard not to mourn for them and become despondent over the loss. I am aware that I am certainly not the elk hunter that I once was, but that is good. I also know that I would not be the man I am today had I not hunted elk, and that is better. Elk have a way of marking the true bearings of a man in a way known only to himself.
Occasionally, the meaning of life can be reduced to the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other, and the only question left in the end is if you will, or will not, take that step. For me, that silent footfall will always contain more meaning when placed next to the deep and profound track of an animal most loved.
What more can be said of elk, of life, and of a hunter’s heart?
This is not your father’s venison cookbook. Buck, Buck, Moose is the first comprehensive, lushly photographed, full-color guide to working with and cooking all forms of venison, including deer, elk, moose, antelope and caribou. Buck, Buck, Moose will take you around the world, from nose to tail. The book features more than 100 recipes ranging from traditional dishes from six continents to original recipes never before seen. You’ll also get thorough instructions on how to butcher, age and store your venison, as well as how to use virtually every part of the animal. Buck, Buck, Moose also includes a lengthy section on curing venison and sausage-making. Peppered throughout are stories of the hunt and essays on why venison holds such a special place in human society. Venison is far more than mere food. It is, in many ways, what made us human.
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“A Bowhunter is a Hunter Reborn – Forever…” – Michael Patrick McCarty
October 15, 1998
“Obsessive pursuit finally led the bull of his dreams. Then something else took him over”.
There is a place I have been that many elk hunters must eventually visit. The mountains may shine amidst spectacular landscapes and it may look like typical elk country, but somehow things are different there. It is a land of mystery and natural forces inaccessible by horseback, jeep or other conventional means. Inward rather than outward, it is a journey of the heart on a path unique to each individual. It is a place you only know once you get there.
I found myself in such a place some years ago, while archery hunting in the high desert country of northwestern Colorado. Elk hunting had been my passion for a couple of decades, more often than not with bow and arrow as the weapon of choice. I’d hunted more than a few of Colorado’s limited-entry units with a fair amount of success. And my overwhelming concern had always been the pursuit of the big bull – the bigger the better.
He filled my dreams and consciousness and became part of my daily motivation for living and working in Colorado. I would find him, and I would launch a broadhead deep into his chest. Of course, with that event, fame and fortune would soon follow.
I have always paid attention to “The Book”, and to who shot what where. I wanted very badly to be one of those fellows with the 27 record-book entries, who had just returned from Montana or Mongolia, or that private ranch many hunters drool over. You know the ranch of which I speak, the one with a Boone and Crockett bull on every other ridge. I wanted all of it, the recognition from my peers and the life that would come with my great success. The more entries the better and as fast as possible. I ran for the goal and rarely looked back. I can’t say nothing else mattered, but by god it was close.
Then, one long-awaited day, I found myself hunting a special-permit area in Colorado. It was indeed the land of the big bull, a trophy area of epic proportions and about as fine a spot as one could hunt without paying the big money. The animals were there. I had a tag, and I would fill it. I would take what was mine and move on.
I hunted a grueling 10 days. The terrain was rocky and mostly open, with occasional brush patches and stunted cedars. It looked like a moonscape compared to the timbered high country I was used to hunting. Getting close enough for a shot was tough, yet I was able to pass up smaller bulls and often found myself within arrow range of elk that would make most hunters lightheaded. They made me lightheaded. They were the biggest-bodied elk I have ever seen, with towering, gleaming branches of bone. They looked like tractors with horns.
As so often happens in bowhunting, however, something always seemed to go wrong. I made so many stalks and had so many close calls, the events are just a blur. I eventually missed not one but two record-book animals. Each time a shaft went astray, I screamed and wailed with self pity, cursing my rotten luck and the useless stick and string in my hand. The prize was so close, yet always so far away.
Toward the end of the season, I glassed a small herd a couple of miles below me. Two were big bulls. One had cows, and the other wanted them. They were bugling back and forth and generally sizing each other up. I hurriedly planned a stalk and rushed downhill toward my dream.
I stalked and weaved and became enmeshed in a moving, mile-long skirmish line. More than once I slipped between the two animals as they worked their way through the brush and cedars. I saw flashes and patches of hide but was never able to loose an arrow. I knew that within few minutes a monstrous set of headgear would be laying at my feet. I felt I had been waiting for this moment all my life.
Soon the largest bull swung into the open sagebrush a couple of hundred yards below me, followed closely by a small herd of cows. Words cannot describe his magnificence. He was one of the finest specimens of elkness I have ever seen, with muscles that bulged and rippled under his skin. He was a bull of unique and exceptional genetics with a massive and perfect rack that appeared to stretch behind forever as he laid his head back to bugle. He was certainly at his absolute prime and, if the truth were known, perhaps a bit past it and didn’t know it. He took my breath away. Then I remembered why I had come.
Meanwhile, the smaller and closer of the two bulls had become even more vocal, and soon it became obvious he would pass very close to me on his way down the hill. He was not quite as large as the old bull, but he was big enough all the same. My bow was up and my muscles taut as I began my draw – and suddenly he was running and he was gone. I watched spellbound as he broke into the open and headed for the elk below us.
It was one of those unexplainable moments when time stands still, and you become something more than yourself. I could have been a rock or a tree or an insect in flight. I was at once both an observer and participant in the great mystery, a part of something far larger than myself.
The air was electric and my body tingled as the two warriors squared off. The cows felt it, too, and crashed crazily over the ridge. It was as if they knew something extraordinary was going down and wanted no part of it. The bulls screamed and grunted wildly at each other from close range, with quite a bit more intensity than I had ever witnessed. And suddenly they were one. They would have made any bighorn ram proud, as they seemed to rear up on their hind legs before rushing and clashing with a tremendous crack. I watched as they pushed and shoved with all their might, a solid mass of anergy and immense power surrounded by flying dirt and debris.
They showed no signs of quitting. Soon it dawned on me that they were too preoccupied to notice what I was doing, even though there was virtually no cover for a stalk. My legs carried me effortlessly over the rough and broken ground, and I was giddy with the exhilaration of the end so close at hand. The larger of the two was obviously tiring, and I remember feeling a pang of sorrow for an animal that would soon be beaten, probably for the first time in a very long time, and would now have to slink off humiliated and cowless.
They pushed and they struggled and, for a few moments, seemed to have reached a stalemate as I neared bow range. The old bull hesitated, then pushed, and when the other bull responded, the old bull spun like a Sumo Wrestler, took the uphill advantage and charged. I stood dumbfounded as the two hit the top of a shallow ravine and disappeared from view.
When I reached the edge of the drop-off, the fight was over. The old bull crawled slowly out of the ravine, managing to keep the only two trees between us all the while. He moved sorely and looked like he had just survived 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. I was probably the least of his problems.
I found the other bull where I knew he would be. I sent a shaft his way and ended what remained of his life, although his fate had already been sealed. A very long tine had done its job as well as any arrow ever could.
I collapsed by the side of that marvelous creature as if I were the one who’d just been beaten, and in a way I had. I stared off into space, confused, a little angry, and barely able to grope around in my pack for a gulp of water, half laughing, then crying. I don’t know how long I remained there before a distant bugle brought me back into the moment, reminding me of the work at hand and the long uphill walk back to my truck.
His head hangs in my den now, and I still stare at him in wonder and amazement. When my friends and family ask why I didn’t have him officially scored for the record book, I usually mumble some vague and incoherent answer, as the right words never seem to come.
For some reason, antler measurements have ceased to matter to me. It has something to do with realizing animals are much more than the sum of their parts. Hunting and the hunted remain a significant part of my life, but my reasons for hunting, and my life in general, have changed in some way I have yet to fully understand. Perhaps more than anything, I realize just how much I love to hunt. And that in itself is more than enough reason for doing it.
The bull’s proud head on my wall will always serve to remind me of that special place I have visited and hope to never forget.
I am, and will always be, forever humbled. Perhaps you have been there yourself.
Directly above is a photo of an original print from my personal collection. I have owned it for several years, and in fact found this at an antique store not long after I wrote this article. As you might imagine, it means a great deal to me.
I am unable to translate the title, nor identify the artist. I would love to do both, and also give proper attribution to the artist.
Can anyone help?
—”Michael Patrick McCarty, longtime bowhunter, buys and sells rare tomes and texts from his bookstore in Glenwood Springs, Colorado”
–Originally published in Bugle Magazine, May-June 1999.