It’s mid-October in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. The scrub oak is turning russet, aspen leaves are a bright shiny yellow, and golden crowns are growing thinner by the minute — yellow forms floating to the ground creating a carpet of wet, decaying leaves permeating the game trail I’m sitting next to.
It’s 8:10 a.m., and I’ve just spent perhaps two minutes as close as 25 feet to a small group of elk (three cows, one calf and a bull). The encounter ended with one shot fired, a thunder of hooves and the echoing bellow of a sizable bull. Although I’m confident the shot was fatal, the bull did not drop in his tracks, and I wait 15 minutes before trailing him.
While waiting, I recall the words of a fellow elk hunter, Allen Morris Jones, in “A Quite Place of Violence”: “A badly wounded elk, if it doesn’t die immediately, will usually go only a short distance before lying down, sick. If given enough time, maybe just a few minutes, it will die there. If it’s forced to keep walking, it can walk its wounds away.”
As Allen alludes to, even when fatally hit an elk doesn’t always die right away. Sometimes a surge of adrenaline propels it to run. I listen intently as the elk crash through downed trees and brush on the aspen- and pine-clad bench, then gallop down its steep, rocky face. The last sound I hear is a last-breath bellow from the fatally-wounded bull about 150 yards (I’m guessing) away.
It’s Thursday morning, and I’ve been hunting nearly nonstop since Saturday out of a 10,000-foot spike camp near the Weminuche Wilderness. After enduring days of hauling a hefty pack on lung-busting, back- and leg-straining hikes and climbs, and having a black bear take out my spike camp (see “Elk Hunting: The ‘Bear’ Facts”), I’ve worked hard (as it should be) during this hunt.
With thoughts of quartering, skinning and packing out meat dominating my thoughts, I start following elk tracks, mentally taking stock of the gear I’ll need for the upcoming task: knife, sharpener, bone saw and game bags. The elk angled down, off the bench, and traversed along the steep slope below. I track them easily for a quarter mile or so, but within a half mile, I’ve resorted to following the general direction of the last set of tracks.
Surprised by not finding the bull right off, I circle back to the last discernable tracks, paying particular attention to the high-angle slope below, and start a grid search, moving up and down the steep grade (covering a good 500 feet of elevation loss/gain on each pass) between elk tracks and the bench below, expecting a wounded bull to prefer running downhill versus up.
After more than two hours of repeatedly climbing down and up the unforgiving slope, I’m starting to doubt my shot placement. I definitely heard the elk bellow what sounded like his last breath and know he’s out here somewhere, dead, but I’m not sure I’m going to find him timely. After nearly three hours of following tracks and grid-searching the mountainside, I return to where the morning began and start from scratch.
Mentally, I relive the shot: holding and aiming the rifle in an uncomfortable shooting position for too long while a cow elk, now 100 feet away, hones-in on my subtle-but-noticeable strain-induced quiver (see “Elk Hunting & The ‘Sixth Sense’”). Finally, the bull appears: I take a deep breath, aiming for his shoulder (about one-third up from the belly line), and pull the trigger.
Standing where the bull was, I face the direction he ran, start walking, and within seventy-five yards (at 11:10 a.m.) I’m standing over a burly 6×6 bull. Missing such a large animal seems equivalent to not noticing an M-1 Abrams tank sitting in your driveway on the way to work, but I was overly focused on tracks and walked right by. It’s pushing high noon and warm, around 60 degrees, so it’s time to get to work.
Having grown up hunting white-tailed deer in northern Minnesota, I’m familiar with the generally messy process of gutting and can make quick work of a 200-pound mature buck. However, gutting a 700-pound bull elk is a much more daunting (and potentially messier) task. Hence, I prefer quartering elk without getting into the body cavity at all. After removing, skinning and bagging each quarter, I take a break, retouch my knife blade and complete all four quarters in a couple of hours.
The backstraps are next, followed by the tenderloins, which are tricky, as explained by David Petersen in his book “A Man Made of Elk”: “Only in order to retrieve the tenderloins and any preferred organs, is it necessary to open the body cavity. Rather than dumping the messy beans at this last stage, an alternative method is to saw through several back ribs near their connections to the spine and pry them away from the body sufficiently to facilitate reaching in and liberating the tenderloins, which run along either side of the spine above the body cavity.”
With the quarters, backstraps and tenderloins in game bags, the knee-crushing process of hauling meat back to base camp begins, which reminds me of some of the best elk hunting advice I’ve received: hunt up and haul down. And as my fellow Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) board member, Sean Clarkson, says, “Elk hunting is not easy. You will carry a lot of weight on your back before you pull the trigger, and if you are lucky and put in enough work to get an elk, you will be carrying a lot more later.”
By dark I’ve shuttled the quarters, tenderloins/backstraps and head down an unrelentingly steep and unstable slope to the relative flatness of the next bench and return to base camp in the dark with the tenderloins and backstraps. Although I’ve carried quarters in the dark, it’s not worth the inevitable falls and potential injury when traversing steep terrain. Starting again before sunrise on Friday morning, by 10 a.m. I’m headed for home with a Blazer full of elk.
Before planning an elk hunt on your own, do yourself a big favor and think seriously about the consequences of the hunt if it’s successful. You must know what to do with it once it’s on the ground. This is not the white-tailed deer I grew up hunting in northern Minnesota. It is a huge animal that takes careful planning long before you pull the trigger or release the arrow.
And always follow the sage advice of Fred Bear, the father of modern bow hunting, who wrote: “I have always tempered my killing with respect for the game pursued. I see the animal not only as a target but as a living creature with more freedom than I will ever have.” David Petersen adds: “The heart of the hunt is not in the kill, but in meeting a challenge as old as humanity itself and doing so with honor, humility, and — yes — joy.”
Read previous post: “Elk Hunting: The ‘Bear’ Facts”
David Lien is a former air force officer and chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers . He’s the author of “Age-Old Quests: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking” and in 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream magazine as a “Hero of Conservation.”