Delight or Despair? (Saturday, Oct. 23 Morning)
Kelly couldn’t get comfortable! First she had to get the cow in her scope, then she needed it to stop walking and finally the cross hairs just wouldn’t settle. The big cow slowly fed out of site behind a small brush patch. Damn, was Kelly going to blow this opportunity?
A smaller cow, maybe a big calf, was following in the footsteps of the first. It paused a couple feet in front of the brush and the Sako cracked! At the shot, the elk lurched forward as if hit and disappeared behind the brush. I thought for sure the cow was down. As usually happens, elk started materializing all over the place. We had only seen a couple, but now the slope was alive with many elk – maybe upwards of 20 total. How can such big animals go unnoticed on a relatively open hillside?
We kept our eyes peeled to the brush pile and for a minute or so no elk moved in that specific area. Then the big cow walked out from behind the brush in the direction she had come in. She stopped and stood totally broadside and in the clear. It was perfect, but had Kelly hit the second cow as it seemed? We couldn’t risk it – I told her to hold off. Within a minute or so a smaller cow walks out, again following the first. This had to be the one Kelly shot at and she needed to get another round into it. But all the elk were starting to move off now and the big cow led the smaller straight away and up over a ridge without a shot opportunity.
Still, I was confident that we would work our way over to the brush pile and find evidence of a solid hit, follow a short blood trail and tag the elk. So that’s what we started to do. We had to go down the steep slope she shot from, up the intermediate slope, down the other side and back up the ridge the elk were on. I know how the looks of things change as you move, so we were pretty careful to get some landmarks to guide us to the brush pile. But once we got to where we thought we needed to be, there was nothing – no elk, no hair, no blood, nothing to indicate a hit.
We expanded our search and covered a good share of the slope both above and below where we thought was right. There was still nothing. I didn’t want to give up; I was so sure her shot had been true. All I could think was that, even with the landmarks, we must be off on our search location. So I told Kelly to stay put as I was going to hike all the way back to the log she had rested her gun on and then direct her to the brush pile. I finally got back to the log and then I couldn’t see Kelly!
I guess she’s smaller than an elk so I shouldn’t be surprised. After I had her walk to an area that was clearly visible and wave her arms, I spotted her. It was pretty simple to direct her from there to where I thought the elk had disappeared behind the brush. She didn’t see any sign right away, but that’s the best I could do from the log so I told her to mark that spot and I would come back over and help look some more.
Down and up and down and up some more and I was back near Kelly. She said she had found a couple drops of blood! Now we were talking. Ok, so she shows me the drops of blood and it’s clear that the wounded elk followed the rest of the herd up and over the ridge they had been on. It was pretty easy to follow the footprints of the herd as they side-hilled the next ridge. I had Kelly walk up on top as I followed the tracks. If the elk was still alive and jumped up, I wanted her to have the best possible vantage point to get off a finishing shot. I told her to crank the scope back down since any shot would likely be fairly quick and close. She went to do that and realized that it was all the way down at 4x. In her excitement, she had turned the knob the wrong way before attempting that first shot!
I continued to follow the tracks and was seeing a single drop of blood every 10 or 20 feet. It sure didn’t look promising, but I was still hopeful. The trail became an actual game trail that showed quite a lot of use over time. It also started to angle down towards the canyon bottom. It seemed to me that if the elk was seriously wounded, this downhill path would be an easy one, but once the trail reached the more rugged canyon bottom, I would find her bedded or at least more frequent blood.
Over the course of a few hundred more yards, the trail led all the way to the canyon bottom. Here both hillsides were burned pretty badly and there was mostly just grass with a few juniper and pinion pine trees scattered about. Looking ahead a half mile or so, you could see an edge in the burn and the resumption of pine trees once again. I followed the trail in the canyon bottom all the way to this transition area. And there were still only very periodic blood drops – never a bed or anything more than a drop of blood noticeable on a rock or blade of grass.
At the transition area the trail led straight up a fairly steep slope to the top of another ridge. So up I went and followed along seeing just the same infrequent sign. At the top of the ridge, with no increase in sign and with no indication the elk were slowing at all, I finally came to the conclusion that this must be just a flesh wound and most likely would not be fatal to the elk. It is always a sour feeling when an animal is hit and not recovered, but we had trailed the elk for probably ¾ mile and there was never any indication of a solid hit. Some will say Kelly should have punched her tag at this point, but again, we did our due diligence and felt pretty confident the elk was not seriously wounded and would make a complete recovery.
Still, it was an emotionally tough hike back out to the truck! What should have been a celebration was instead regret. We should have stalked closer, should have double checked the scope magnification. Heck, there was no need to “rush” the shot at all. There were obviously many elk on that hillside and we could have been more patient and waited for a better opportunity even if we weren’t going to try to get closer. Kelly was upset, but as we ultimately neared the truck, she asked if I thought the elk would come back to the same general area.
My thought and message to her was that I did think the elk would be back, but probably not that night. I was already mentally planning our evening hunt strategy. I wanted to come in on the same road and park in about this same place, but then follow the game trail up the ridge on the other side of the road so as to check out some new country. With that, we unloaded our stuff back into the Tacoma and headed back into town.