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Ok the title of this post is a bit of a misnomer. It should be "my first elk hunt with a tag in my pocket." I've gone out with my husband (Jacob) for the past few years to "learn the ropes" before getting a tag for myself. But this time, it was my turn. A few days before the hunt, I told Jacob "I'm going to kill an elk someday. Maybe not this year, but someday." I had no idea how fortunate I would be.
It's taken me a while to write this down but as I'm writing it, I'm feeling the excitement all over again! I decided to write my story down not because I think I'm some amazing storyteller (spoiler alert: I'm not) but sometimes I need a little reminder that I'm capable of doing hard things. So if you're still here and you're ready to read a long story about one of my absolute favorite days, let's go!
A cozy weekend getaway
We started our trip at a cute one room cabin literally in the middle of nowhere but also right in the middle of our hunt area. How lucky is that? We were going to camp instead but this seemed like a better option since the weather in October is pretty unpredictable. We don't have the opportunity to travel much with just the 2 of us so staying in this cozy little cabin was a great weekend getaway!
I only had 1 day to hunt so we got up early and got out there as soon as the sun started rising. The hunt area has quite a few grizzlies, otherwise we would have started earlier and went out with headlamps. We made it about 100 yards from the road before finding the small creek we thought we could hop over was a little too wide. After wasting half an hour walking up and down the creek trying to find a narrow spot, we could have gone back to the road to drive somewhere else. But, being the determined woman that I am, I found a thick willow tree that was starting to fall over the creek and pushed it down over the creek to make a bridge. It wasn't quite sturdy enough to stand on so I held onto a nearby tree, placed one foot on the willow bridge, and swung over to the other side. Jacob did the same and we were ready to go. It was probably quite the scene but I wasn't going to let a creek ruin my day.
After crossing the creek, we hiked into the hunt area about 1.5 miles to the top of a ridge that overlooked the whole valley. We saw a few tracks and droppings on our way up but nothing fresh. We set up on the side of the ridge and started to take a look around. After glassing for about an hour and a half, we only saw some mule deer and cows. Although I went into this hunt without any expectations, I was starting to get pretty discouraged.
The elk are here!
We were getting ready to pack up and head somewhere else when we heard gunshots on the other side of a nearby ridge. A couple minutes later we heard some rocks crumbling down the nearby ridge. We looked at each other, got our binoculars back out, and then we saw them. A whole herd of elk came barreling down the ridge! I'm not sure how many there were but probably around 75-100. Public land hunting does have its advantages if you play your cards right. Who knows if the elk would have come over the ridge if it weren't for the other hunters.
We quickly packed up the rest of our things while watching the elk to try to figure out their next move. They all got stuck on a rocky cliff and didn't move for a bit. The wind shifted and we could hear the cows talking and could smell their distinctive scent. One by one, they found a path around the cliff and were on their way toward us. We saw where they were headed and booked it down the ridge, as sneakily and quietly as we could. Luckily the wind was blowing towards us and we were mostly hidden by trees because I'm sure we were not very stealthy. I don't really remember how far we ran or how fast we were because I was way too excited.
Getting set up
We ended up in a ravine covered in trees. I had a hard time finding a good place to set up with a clear shot through the trees while still staying somewhat hidden. We were on one side of the ravine and the elk starting passing through about 150 yards away on the other side. I set up the rifle on a tree branch but there were still quite a few branches blocking my view. I had several cows in my sights but didn't feel comfortable taking a shot. Time was running out and the end of the herd was coming quickly.
We ran down into a clearing and while no trees meant a clear shot, it also meant I had nothing to rest the rifle on. I've shot off-hand many times, but just for target practice. I never intended to have to shoot an animal off-hand. But, I have a rangefinder pouch on the left side of my binocular harness that made the perfect little pocket for my left elbow. I passed up on a few more cows because they were all moving and I was shaking terribly. I've seen elk many times before but never so many this close and with the intent to shoot one of them so I was pretty nervous.
Jacob did a couple of lost calf calls and finally one of the cows stopped. I had the perfect opportunity for a broadside shot. I took a deep breath, steadied the rifle, and slowly squeezed the trigger. The moment after the shot is something that I can't describe but if you've ever experienced it, you know what I'm talking about. I don't remember much but I remember shaking uncontrollably, crying, and saying "I can't believe I did it!" I also remember Jacob saying "I can." He's always had the great confidence in me that I have a hard time finding in myself.
We lost sight of her but heard her tumble down the ravine. We stayed in place for a few minutes before packing up and heading down to look for her. There was a little bit of blood in the snow right about where I shot her but then nothing. We looked up and down the hillside, trying to decide if the smell was from the elk who just walked through or from a physical elk nearby. It can be hard to decide when you walk through somewhere an entire herd just walked through. I knew in my heart that I took a good shot but every minute that went by I worried more and more that we wouldn't find her. What seemed like forever was probably only 10 minutes of searching.
I heard Jacob (trying to be funny) say "Annie, I think I found something. It's kind of big and brown and hairy." I squealed and took off towards him not thinking about running down a steep, snow-covered hillside. I slipped a few times but slowed down and when I was almost to him, I could smell it. This is what an elk really smells like. There she was, lying under a tree that stopped her fall. The relief I had when I saw her was something like I'd never felt before. The shot went through both of her lungs and she didn't suffer long. We moved her out from under the tree and I had a special moment with her before getting to work. My first elk in my second season of hunting. I knew this was something special that not many people experience, and I truly felt it in that moment.
Sorry for the lack of pictures here, but I was BUSY.
I took a good long look at her, rubbed my fingers through her coarse hair, and thanked her for all the meat she provided for my family. Elk are truly amazing animals and I'm so grateful I was able to have this experience. For many people, it seems crazy to have such respect for an animal but still be willing to take its life. I didn't know how I would handle the harsh reality of hunting or how I would feel. I still have a hard time finding the words to describe how it feels for me but I can now say "I get it." It's a feeling of gratitude, amazement, and pride for providing food for my family and remorse for taking a life all at the same time.
Since the area is full of grizzlies, we needed to get to work. While I know what needs to be done to field dress and butcher an animal, I don't have the experience needed to do it quickly. Thank goodness for Jacob guiding me every step of the way and for being so patient. Every time I butcher an animal, I learn so much! It took us somewhere around 2 hours to get her field dressed, quartered, and (halfway) loaded in our packs. The meat was fairly cool when we loaded up because we set it on an emergency blanket in the snow and were working in the shade. We each carried a quarter (Jacob also carried the backstraps) and were on our way!
The first leg of the pack-out wasn't in the most ideal place. Is it ever? We were still in the snowy ravine but it had warmed up and turned into a slushy, muddy mess. We decided to shuttle the meat down the mountain to get the hard part out of the way first. It was no walk in the park! There were a few slick, steep parts that I slid down on purpose because I probably would have fallen down anyways. Falling down with an elk quarter on your back isn't pretty. There were parts where the best option to move forward was to crawl under fallen branches. I don't know how many times the elk legs sticking out of our packs got stuck on branches but it was a lot! Once we made it about halfway back to the truck, we dropped off the meat, and headed back for the rest.
We shuttled all of the meat back down to the creek we crossed in the morning, about 6 miles total. Since we were only 100 yards from the truck and it was 50 degrees out by then, we waded through the creek instead of crossing it. Man did that cold water feel good on our tired feet! We made it back to the truck, got all the meat on ice in coolers and cracked open a couple beers. I don't think a beer has ever gone down so easy in my life. It was a day I hope I never forget.
After basking in the glory of my first elk for a while and enjoying the views, we headed back to our cabin. We got cleaned up and cooked a delicious dinner on a camp stove on the tailgate. I brought the package of doe tenderloins from my first deer last year. I had been saving them for a special occasion and when I was looking for steak in the freezer, something told me it was time to pull them out. They were absolutely worth the wait and definitely a worthy occasion to celebrate. I couldn't wait to get back and tell my boys all about it! To this day, I remind them at least a couple times a week that I shot an elk this year. I do it to be funny but watching them eat and enjoy the meat that I brought home is a truly gratifying experience.
We started butchering all of our game animals a few years ago but this year is the first time we've butchered elk. A couple weeks before, Jacob also got a cow elk so when it was time to butcher mine, it felt pretty familiar! Now we have 2 very full freezers with only elk meat in them and I beam with pride every time I open them. We have enjoyed some very special meals from the meat already this year and I know there will be many more. Now all that's left to do is cook and eat until next October.
Best. Date. Ever.
Elk Recipes to Try: