So I’m having a bonfire and some beers in the driveway with a couple buddies back in May when I get the “Oh $*^!#! - elk tags are due!” voice in my head. You know, the one where you are wondering if you can even still put in or if the deadline has already passed. Needless to say I went straight into the house and hopped on the laptop – I still had time. My dad and I have been hunting partners since the day I was born and somewhere along the line I took over the position of being the one in charge of putting in for tags every year; every tag, every year!
I’m on the computer applying for our elk tags: firearms elk, archery elk, in the park, out of the park, every tag we can apply for. Then it hits me: maybe I should apply for my brother (who’s only shot a gun a couple times in his life and has not hunted since he was twelve – he’s 34 now) and maybe I should apply for my wife (who has also never actually hunted in her life other than sitting in a tree stand with me a couple times in the last nine years). I put them each in for a firearms cow tag in individual applications. I put them in separately just basically to start their preference points and I figured if either actually drew a tag one cow with an inexperienced hunter would be difficult enough to fill.
A week or so goes by and I get a call from my brother. He says he got an email saying he got an elk tag but he was confused as he has never applied for an elk (or any) tag in his life! I couldn’t do anything but laugh. He had already figured out I applied for him and was actually seemingly excited that he was finally going to go on a hunting trip with the boys! I got home and checked the computer to see if I was successful in any draws – nope. I then pulled my wife’s account up and sure enough she got her cow tag too! This was looking to be the most entertaining (to say the least) hunting trip I’ve ever been a part of: two people who are closer to me than anything in the world that have never hunted more than a day in their lives going elk hunting with Dad and I (and they’re the only ones with the tags)!
We got these guys set up. I bought my wife a new Marlin .308 compact and my dad bought my brother a new Ruger American .270. Got them both sighted in and a box of shells through each. A few trips to the local hunting stores for come camo and gear and those two were ready to roll!
Kara and I pulled into Rapid City on Sunday the 15th of October (season set to open Monday morning). We had both taken the week off and my brother and dad were not set up to arrive until late Wednesday night. We had some information on a few good spots and made a plan for the morning. My wife didn’t believe me when I told her we had to be up at 0430, but the alarm went off right on time! We stopped for gas and coffee and were on the road. We pulled up to our spot about 45 minutes before shooting time and set up for the morning hunt: a beautiful ridge overlooking a watering hole that was sure to draw some elk into it. We saw nothing. Sat until for a few hours and didn’t see a thing other than a handful of whitetail does and a couple decent looking bucks. We decided to wait it out a little longer – still nothing. At about noon-thirty we headed back to Rapid City searching for a decent lunch and a nap – scored both.
It was 2:30pm when we decided to head back to the woods and take a short walk in an area where my uncle had seen some elk a few days before (he had been scouting for us for a little while before we came out). We were walking up a ridge (Kara about five yards behind me) when I heard something. There was something right below us! I gave her a little whistle and there they were: three cow/calf pairs within 20 yards! She got down and ready to shoot. I’m waiting for her to pull the trigger. Waiting, waiting, waiting. There they go. They’re gone. She couldn’t get them in her scope as it was set at its highest power and everything was a blur in the scope. So we backed out and on the way back to the truck we talked about what went wrong and how to fix it.
That evening, we relocated to a place that was a few miles away from where we had walked in the afternoon. It was so warm out opening day that we decided water would be our best friend. Nothing. Not a sign of wildlife the rest of the evening and we had about 20 minutes left of shooting light. We were pretty far back at this point and decided to get a head start on getting out before everything was black and eased our way to the pickup.
We headed out on one of the logging roads and were on our way home. “STOP THERE’S A COW!” About 20 yards from the pickup was a lone cow all by herself. We stopped and Kara and I both got out and off the road. I hit the cow call that had been hanging around my neck all day and stopped her right there. KABOOM! Kara shot and it was a clean hit but the cow took off running. About 50 yards later she stopped. KABOOM! Kara had two good, clean shots on this cow at about 85 yards and about 125 yards. She was tagged out on opening day!
Nick and my dad got to Rapid City late Wednesday night. On Tuesday my uncle had put one of his coworkers in a spot and they came up on about 50 head in the same general area -they filled the cow tag that they had and called and told my uncle the story. Needless to say we knew where we were heading in the morning.
0430 Thursday morning and the same story. Stopped and the gas station and fueled up with gas and coffee and donuts. We got to our spot about an hour before first light, parked, rolled the windows down and turned the truck off and just sat there. My wife, my brother, my dad and myself. We all sat in the truck BS-ing (ever so quietly) for a while before we heard our first bugle of the day. Then there was another. And another. And another. We sat there in awe as it is the middle of October and I didn’t expect to hear much talking amongst the elk population. This didn’t stop the whole morning.
Once shooting light hit we all got out of the truck, one at a time, and quiet as a mouse. We loaded our packs and headed out – one foot in front of the other, following the bugling a couple feet at a time. We were creepin’. Walk a few yards and stop, walk a few yards and stop. Glass. Walk a few yards. Glass. Walk a few yards. There was bugling and chirping all around us – to the right, to the left, to the front, to the back – everywhere. And then there they were – we were on ‘em! Hell we were in ‘em! This is where the inexperienced hunter comes into play.
We had a couple shots at a couple nice cows but Nick couldn’t find them in the scope. It’s ok though because we didn’t push them – at all. I told him (and Kara) several times before the week that no matter what, no matter how excited I was or antsy I may get, to NOT shoot unless they were 100% comfortable with the shot (I have a pretty short string and it doesn’t take a lot before I’m like a kid in a candy shop – like a German Shorthair if you will - when I’m out hunting). Nick did great. We backed out and headed back toward the truck. We found a spot and hunkered down for the remainder of the morning. We were listening to bugling and chirping within 200 yards of us until we actually left in the truck – it was time for lunch.
We drove for quite a ways and decided to make our way all the way to the Sugar Shack for a couple ½ pound burgers and chips and make an evening plan. After a lot of back and forth between my dad and I on what was the best way to hunt the evening (do we leave that spot alone completely till morning? To we set up somewhere close and sit? Do we go right into the gut of where we were earlier and sit?) We decided to go to the other side of the ridge we were on in the morning and set up along a beautiful meadow with a nice watering hole in the middle of it. Remember, it was about 75 degrees while we were having burgers and those elk were probably getting thirsty after all their morning action.
5:00 pm. I see a couple calves coming out from the trees. They are about 95 yards from where my brother and I are sitting next to a tree (my dad and my wife are about 10 yards behind us looking over the other side of the meadow). “Here we go”, I said as I tapped him on the shoulder. Now there’s three. Here come number four and five. “Are you ready? Which one should I shoot?” I could tell Nick’s trigger finger was itching. I kept whispering to him to just wait. These had to be the same elk we were on earlier and the same herd my uncle’s coworker was on the day before. We knew there were 50 head and I didn’t want him to shoot a calf just to fill a tag. He waited. Ever so patiently he waited. I’m not sure if those five caught our scent or what, but they headed back to the trees after a couple minutes and seemed to be gone forever.
“Man! Do you think I should have shot one? Are they going to come back? They’re probably gone now huh?” – this is coming from a 34 year old man who has not hunted in a very long time and is now just as excited as I am about him being out elk hunting with the boys!
“They’re still around, along with the rest of the herd bro. We have plenty of time before dark so let’s just hang out and see what happens.”
5:45 pm. Three cows come out at a spot that I had previously ranged at 218 yards to head for the watering hole. Now it’s four cows. Nick is ready. We are ready. His finger on the trigger and my eyes in the binocs. I can hear my dad behind me saying, “Take the next one it’s the biggest”.
That would be cow number five. I tell Nick take the next one when you get a shot. She’s already in my binocs and I’m locked in. KABOOOM! They all take off. “Did I hit her? Is she down? Did she drop? I think I hit her. Did she drop? Is she down? DID I HIT HER OR NOT!?!?”
“You hit her.”
All the cows took off, including the one Nick hit but it decided to head in a different direction. I saw her hunch up at her shoulders right away like she would if she were hit in the goodies. I watched her. She ran about 80 yards from the spot of where she stood and she was done – he hit her right in the heart! One shot and a perfect placement!
We couldn’t have asked for two better hunts last week. They were both one day hunts and they both ended with the harvesting of two mature cow elk from two first-time big game hunters. I know this story is a long one, but I hope it’s not near as long as a future that includes a lot of hunting in the lives of these two people that are both so close to me.