Tis The Season, To Yank Something Up The Hill, And Build The Hunter’s Fire
Just in Time For Christmas Dinner.
Oh Joy To The World!
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…” – From “Meditations on Hunting”, By Ortega y Gasset
‘Tis a bold statement for sure, ’cause in the end, an elk is an elk is an elk, and will never go easily to ground. Anyone that would tell you differently simply has yet to be properly humiliated, and oh, let me tell you the ways. Yet, I am confident, resolute, patient even. You must be that way to be an elk hunter, lest you have a very short elk hunting career. And besides, you just never know what you may find over the next ridge before the sun hits the peaks.
It’s late August here in Western Colorado, with the opening day of archery season close at hand. Thanks to the wonders of game camera imagery I know that this particular bull elk has walked on the trail under my favorite sitting tree on at least four mornings in the last week. That’s about as patternable as a big elk is ever going to get under almost any circumstance, albeit briefly. He’s obviously been doing his job, and now it’s time for my recurve and heavy arrow to help me do mine.
My mind flashes with anticipation and future possibilities, and I can just about see my hands wrapped around those newly polished antlers. Can I take him…, will I kill him? So many variables, so little time, and so many potential could haves and should haves right around the corner. Left alone, we could really do it right, this bull and I, immersed in a contest of fates and the hunting of memories.
Only time can tell if we shall ever have our close up encounter. For he stands most tentatively on easily accessible public land, after all, and it appears that my once semi-secret big bull hideaway has been crashed by some other party goers. Say it ain’t so, but the boot tracks and other signs most clearly tell the tale.
Like so many good things in life that seem to come and go, my last, best elk hunting area has been discovered, and that’s almost never a good thing for one’s peace of mind and continued success. I’ve watched nervously as other hunters have probed the perimeters of my realm, praying that they would not unlock it’s secrets and realize just how good an area it was. Last year I was absolutely surrounded, and now, obviously, it’s only going to slide downhill from here. I would hate to give up on a once, truly great elk hunting spot, again. Truth is, I may never find another.
It’s just a tiny pocket of pre-rut heaven, an anomaly really, found somewhere below the towering vistas of the western horizons. The terrain doesn’t speak much of elk either, which is exactly why it has been overlooked. It only took me forty years of hard hunting and serious scouting to find it, and then only with a fortunate dose of immeasurable providence.
It’s also an area that is extremely vulnerable to any kind of hunting pressure. One boot track in the wrong place, one whiff of human scent, and this big boy will be gone like a giant whitetail in the fog and shimmering mist of a gray, midwestern winter.
The thought of another hunter pushing him off his patterns is troubling to say the least, and the next several days may find me anxious and sad. It’s like losing a best friend, though it hasn’t even happened yet. Most things in hunting cannot be controlled, and the where’s and when’s of hunter’s choice are certainly in the uncontrollable category. On the other hand, it’s exactly how things ought to be, because we all need that kind of freedom too.
That being said, I will get over it, and the game and game face will soon be on. I can’t begrudge anyone from wanting to experience just a little bit of what I have done and loved so much for so many years. Besides, even in the best of circumstance, I may never lay eyes upon this bull again, camera or not. Hunt on, I must, for the beauty of our bow & arrow journey lies in the belief that it just might happen, once again or for the first time, on this day or the next.
Of one thing I am sure. It’s no time to quit, for there is no quit in an elk, nor in most bowhunter’s I know. A bowman must always have faith in the arc of the shaft, and in the spirit of elk, forever. It will always be a wondrous and inspiring way to view the world.
“From our point of view the bull elk 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, so much game in fact that he can create his own rules. There is no doubt that he believes strongly in the concept of equal opportunity too, for he will take on all comers with hardly a care in the world. Should you decide to enter his backyard and hunt him up, 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? “ – Michael Patrick McCarty
“Something is only given in nature, never taken.” – Richard Nelson, The Island Within
READY OR NOT
The young whitetail buck bounds proudly into the field of newly planted winter wheat and stops, and I know that I must remember to take a breath. Just moments before it had magically appeared from the heavy shadows at field’s edge. I saw first its jet black nose, then it’s eyes, followed by searching ears, and horns.
For some mysterious reason I had been staring intently at this very spot amidst the tangle of heavy vines, the bright green leaves of sassafras trees, and the yellow of remnant persimmon fruit hung on bare branches. It is as if I already knew, somehow, that I would see a deer this morning, and was simply waiting for its arrival. It’s a huge moment when you are thirteen. Why it’s as big as the world.
Just before daylight I had wedged myself into the crotch of an old, dead tree on the more open side of a small, protected field. It was more than cold with a biting, mid November wind, but the tree was big, protecting, with thick, comforting limbs radiating from its base. It was like a fort, and it was great fun just to sit there, hidden, listening.
Morning in the eastern deer woods has a rhythm and cadence all its own. Once heard, it remains indelibly recorded on the heartbeat of your mind I can still hear the stirrings of squirrels and small creatures in the dry leaves and forest duff below, the twittering birds, the scornful proclamations of Blue Jays and wandering crows above. I miss it so.
I remember feeling that the buck knew I was there, would be there…watching. Perhaps he had seen a small, slow movement from me, or perhaps he just, …knew. Will he come? Even If he suspects nothing there is little reason for him to continue across an open field on a bright, sunny morning during gun season, with plenty of heavy cover in the trees of the wood lot behind and around him.
I wait. The buck hesitates for a brief time, an eternity, and then trots calmly and purposely along the edge of the trees towards me. I am paralyzed. Though mostly ready, I’ve not yet had time to assess the situation or remember my role in it. My feet are only about six feet from the ground, and I know that he will see me and swap ends quickly if I move too fast. Still, I feel that he knows I’m there and can not change his course, and can somehow see himself moving, thru my eyes, as he crosses in front of my stand.
It’s now or never, and in one motion I come from behind his track and start to swing my shotgun bead towards his shoulder. He stops as if on command, as if this is his part in the choreography of a primordial dance, and this is the selected spot to place his feet. His body is perfectly broadside, with his head turned towards me and up, his nose shining in the sky.
There is no sound, no mind, no time, just our breath frozen in the air as I settle behind the gun. He waits patiently, gracefully, and completely at peace with what is about to come his way. Both parties share something all-knowing yet incomprehensible, without judgement. It is agreed. We have done this before and may do so again, god willing.
I don’t remember pulling the trigger, yet It ends as it must if you are a hunter. A life taken. I am too young to comprehend the full meaning of the act, yet somehow I know there is something more. It is an end, perhaps a beginning, I do not know. The circle complete, we are bonded. It is a gift of the deer and it is sacred.
I pray I will not forget, both then, and now.
“No Sound. No Mind. No Time…A Hunter’s Mind” – Michael Patrick McCarty
*Few moments in my hunting life have held more importance, my first whitetail buck – a sleek 6 pointer. It was 1971, and I was Thirteen. A hunter, I am.
“As I reflect on the experiences of yesterday and today, I find an important lesson in them, viewed in the light of wisdom taken from the earth and shaped by generations of elders. Two deer came and gave choices to me. One deer I took and we will now share a single body. The other deer I touched and we will now share the moment. These events could be seen as opposites, but perhaps they are identical. Both are founded on the same principles, the same relationship, the same reciprocity. Both are the same kind of gift…Something is only given in nature, never taken.” – Richard Nelson, The Island Within, 1989
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Locked And Loaded. Photograph By Michael Patrick McCarty
Very few sounds heard in the wildlands of North America can completely capture your full and unmitigated attention like that unmistakable vibration of a rattlesnake in waiting. I located that sound recently while on a scouting trip for Pronghorn in Northwestern Colorado, emanating steadily from a clump of low hanging sage not very far from my feet. And to be honest, I can still hear it today, bouncing between my ears among the technicolor memories of my mind.
In this case the source of that infamous buzz was about two feet of Crotalus viridis, commonly known as the Prairie Rattlesnake. Yet no matter the name, or the size, of one thing there was no doubt. This snake meant business from the business end, and I wanted no part of that transaction. My guess is that it would have really preferred to skip the encounter too, though perfectly willing to do as it must. He is but a snake, after all.
Prairie Rattlesnakes are the most common Rattlesnake in Colorado, and they seem to be particularly prevalent in the areas that I frequent. This was the second live close encounter (others being found dead in the road) that I have had in as many years; the first I would have surely stepped on had it not been good enough to slither off of the trail when it sensed me coming. Before these interactions you could say that I had never worried too much about snakebite.
I do now!
The available literature seems to indicate that maximum length for a Prairie Rattlesnake in Colorado is about 3 1/2 feet, although there are mentions of much bigger snakes in the historical record. I did listen to a first hand account of a five foot or better snake killed in my hunting area just this summer, and I have no reason to doubt the source. Nobody really knows their population parameters and distributions. Fact is, there are a lot of rattlesnakes about the land, and apparently they can be…big.
Antelope hunters, and bowhunters in particular, should be well enough aware of that stark reality. Blinds on waterholes are often the preferred method of hunting with short range weapons. These locations are also preferred by the wildlife of the area, both large, and small. And snakes…
Temperatures, particularly at night, are warm; the little creatures, and the rattlesnakes that prey upon them, are active. Put it all together and it can easily spell some trouble of the bad kind for the bowhunter hurrying to the ambush point in the low light of early morning.
So, in summary, a quick tap of fangs may not kill you and dry bites are possible, but you can be fairly certain of one thing. It will be a more than unpleasant experience, and most likely a medically significant and tissue altering event. Antivenom and emergency treatment can be very expensive, resulting in what may be a financially devastating hospital bill at the end of the day, or week.
Best to avoid that possibility as much as you can. Be aware, snake aware, and ready.
You might also want to invest in a good pair of snake boots, or snake chaps, and a much brighter headlamp. Or perhaps even better, always let someone else go first, like your long time hunting partner.
You Can Read More About The Prairie Rattlesnake Here And Here
*Update September 28, 2019
It happened again, another rattlesnake close encounter, that is, and I can breathlessly report that it was no less attention grabbing than the first. For some reason which entirely escapes me, I am this year a first class rattlesnake attractor of the third kind. It is a badge of honor that I would much rather do without.
Early afternoon found me trudging down an abandoned two-track river road under an all-seeing, withering sun, en route to a promising looking catfish hole down in a deep, wild canyon.
Intent on my catfishing mission, a small whisper in the back of my mind alerted me to danger ahead as I approached a particularly tall patch of thick weeds covering the road. Call it a sixth sense, or perhaps my last encounter was still too fresh upon my mind, but everything about the place cried “snake!”.
I remember thinking that I was simply overreacting, for the chance of finding a rattlesnake camped out in this one small patch of forlorn vegetation in the middle of a vast, desolate landscape had to be very, very slim. It also suddenly hit me that in my haste to find a fish I had left a perfectly fine pair of snake chaps (for fang protection when it’s already too late) in the back of my truck, along with my camera (to document chance wildlife encounters so someone may believe me), and oh yes, my mostly unreliable but somewhat comforting cell phone in case I was ever bitten by a venomous creature in a land far, far from help (so you can throw it at the thing that bit you after it does not work).
A Black Widow Spider On the Move. As if Rattlesnakes Are Not Enough To Worry About! Photo By Michael Patrick McCarty
So, as you might guess, I was particularly watchful of where I placed my feet along the trail, as I occasionally slapped the undergrowth ahead with the tip of my fishing rod.
And of course, you have probably surmised by now what was about to happen next. Staring down across the tops of my boots not very far from the end of my nose, I soon saw the plump, round body of a rather large snake stretched out at the base of the weed stalks, and then, at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, those infamous and unmistakable Prairie rattles.
Backing away slowly, quietly, I completed my retreat as he disappeared like a slithering apparition, and we will never know who was more happy about that. Human-Snake interactions can end rather badly for the snake too, after all. Where he went next only a rattler knows; where I was headed suddenly looked more distant and treacherous than I had pictured. But go I did, albeit ever more mindfully.
Most importantly, I had catfish to catch.
And thank God for guardian angels, and that I had enough sense, snake sense, to listen, and to follow just a little bit of my own advice. I shutter to think what would have happened, had I taken, just one more step.
…An elk bugle echoes down and around us in the half-light of early morning, as the towering walls of Dark Canyon take over the skyline. The high, whistling notes are nearly overcome by the falls above, the waters now airborne, flying from the cliffs towards Anthracite Creek. We catch our breath as we climb up the Devil’s Staircase, towards the great unknowns of the Ruby Range and the perils of the Ragged Mountains…
No, this is not the scene of some campy, dramatic flick, as mysterious and foreboding as it may sound. But it was the backdrop, with some poetic license included, of a monumental event in the big game hunting world. It is here, in 1899, that John Plute of Crested Butte, Colorado looked down his rifle barrel and laid down one of the largest set of elk antlers ever recorded.
He has quite a history, this bull, and I can only imagine that his story only survives because of luck and some divine providence. It is said that Mr. Plute was a good hunter, and he often traded wild game for the goods that he needed. More than likely, he was usually not too concerned about the size of a bull’s headgear. Perhaps, in this case, he was.
He was also known to be a colorful character. An inveterate bachelor, a miner, and a mountain man, he traded the head to the local saloon keeper in payment of an overdue bar bill. It later passed to the stepson of the saloon owner, who dragged it out of storage and submitted the first unofficial measurement of its antlers in 1955.
The formalities took a little longer yet, until it was officially recognized by the Boone and Crockett Club as the new World’s Record Elk in 1961, The final score came in at a jaw-dropping 442 3/8 points.
Photographs simply don’t convey the magnificence of this specimen, and you can barely fit it within the view finder anyway. In person it is very nearly overwhelming, and it takes some time to evaluate its true size as the eye struggles to gain perspective.
The rack at its greatest spread tapes at over 51 inches, with 7 points on one side and 8 points on the other. One antler has a basal circumference of over 12 inches, and two points are more than 25 inches long. When first mounted many years after the kill, it was fitted with the biggest elk cape to be found. It was probably not quite big enough.
I have been fortunate to hunt some of the nation’s top trophy areas, and I have come across some big bulls in my time. A 325″ class bull is bigger than many elk hunters will ever encounter; a 350″ elk will really get your attention. I have yet to ground check a Boone and Crockett class elk, though it has not been for lack of trying.
Once, on a Colorado bowhunt, I very nearly harvested a bull that most certainly was approaching that magical 400 point plateau. The memory of that guy can still keep me up at night, and I doubt that I will ever forget the sense of awe he installed within me. I can hardly imagine another 40 or 50 inches of bone on top of his skull.
The Plute bull was the World Record for over 30 years, and many thought that it would never be beaten. The glory days of elk hunting appeared to be long gone, after all, …or were they?
In 1995, the elk hunting world shook once more when an antler buyer purchased a head that he had seen in the back of a pickup truck. Killed by an Arizona cattle rancher in 1968 and never measured, it was eventually determined to be bigger than the bull of Crested Butte. Even then, it only beat out the existing world record by less than 1/2″ of total score.
Obviously, Mr. Plute never knew just how big his elk really was. It does not sound that it would have mattered much to him anyway, though I probably should not speak as if I know. Very little has been passed down about his everyday doings, or his end. Some have said that he died while breaking a spirited horse; others have said that no one really knows. Perhaps the truth of his ultimate fate is lost upon the winds and snow fields of the wild lands that he roamed, like many men of his era. In my way of thinking that only adds another layer to the legend, and to the mysterious nature of a place that once held a bull such as this.
It is impossible to know the full extent of this elk’s legacy. No doubt his genetics still warms the blood of his countless descendants, banked for the day when they can fully express their immeasurable potential. Who knows how many elk like him, have lived, and died, without being seen?
The head now hangs at The Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce, which might seem an ignominious end to such an important animal. Perhaps it may not be the best place to honor him, but I do not get to make that kind of choice. For most, he is a curiosity and a fine tourist attraction, though I doubt that the uninitiated can grasp its true significance. For my part I am grateful for the opportunity to admire him in any way that I can.
The Dark Canyon of Anthracite Creek has yet to hit my eyes for real, but it will. I am drawn to it, curious too, and my hunter’s eye wants to see what it will see. Hunt there, I will, just to say that I did. I hope that John Plute would approve.
Most of all, I would like to think that a giant elk like him still roams those mountains. In my dreams I see him there, hanging back in the dark timber just out of reach of mortal men, suspended on the edge of time and the longing of hunter’s soul.
If you would like to read more about trophy elk and mule deer, we suggest that you acquire a copy of Colorado’s Biggest Bucks and Bulls, by Jack and Susan Reneau. We generally have a copy or two in stock. Feel free to Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a price quote and other details.
“I never lost a little fish. It was always the biggest fish I caught that got away.” – Eugene Field
A TROUT OF A LIFETIME – UNTIL NEXT TIME!
A big trout is an extraordinary creature – built for power, speed…and battle. Some, like this guy, are more than a match for any fisherman.
We all wish to catch a trout like this one day. If any of you already have, then you know that maybe, just maybe, there is another fish like this out there…deep below the surface…finning…watching…waiting – for one more cast…
May your waters be wild, and big!
And Oh, By The Way – You Might Want To Get A Larger Net…
Original Pencil Drawing Of a Brook Trout By Charlie Manus of Marble, Colorado
“The nice part about fishing all the time is that an angler can spare moments for just sitting and watching the water. These spells don’t even have to have a purpose, but it is hard not to discover some secrets during such interludes. The fisherman without a schedule doesn’t need to rush about, casting furiously in a hunt for every possible trout. For this reason, he usually catches more of them”. — Gary LaFontaine, Trout Flies: Proven Patterns
A moment of beauty is where you find it, all around. Today I saw it in this work of wildlife sculpture by Gene Adcock and Jeanie Renchard, found below the twin summits of Mount Sopris near Carbondale, Colorado.
“Golden Bears” Sculpture By Gene Adcock and Jeanie Renchard. Photo By Michael Patrick McCarty
“All but beauty will pass – beauty will never die. No, not even when the earth and the sun have died will beauty perish. It will live on in the stars.” – William Robinson Leigh, Frontiers of Enchantment, 1940
“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher “standard of living” is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech”. – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
“If they keep exposing you to education, you might even realize some day that man becomes immortal only in what he writes on paper, or hacks into rock, or slabbers onto a canvas, or pulls out of a piano”. – Robert Ruark
“The Poet is the kinsman in the clouds, who scoffs at archers, loves a stormy day;
But on the ground, among the hooting crowds, he cannot walk, his wings are in the way.”