Heads You Lose

By ROB BREEDING for the Flathead Beacon

I’ve got an elk head on the wall. I should say “had” an elk head on the wall. It’s been in storage for the last year. It will be back up on the wall soon, once I get situated in my new place.

The elk in question was killed in Arizona, in the mountains just outside my home in Flagstaff. I could sleep in my own bed, yet if I obeyed the alarm clock, still be in in the field a good mile from road’s end by sunrise.

I’d set for myself a rather trivial goal: kill a 6X6 bull while using my home as hunt camp.

I missed an opportunity on one bull the first day of the hunt, but eventually spotted a large herd of cows tended by a pair of impressive bulls. I watched as the large herd slowly filtered off the meadow into a thick stand of aspen, a haunt I was familiar with from previous hunts. During the day, the elk tended to hang out in the jumble of fallen logs in the middle of the stand, where they were virtually unhuntable.

ElkOnce the bulls had trailed their harem into the aspen I walked across the meadow to a spot about 25 yards from where they had entered the woods. It was 7 a.m. I decided to sit down and wait until they came out.

About an hour or so before nightfall I herd the elk moving. Their hooves cracked hard against the fallen trees. I set up for what was surely a “can’t miss” shot. After a handful of cows stepped into the evening light, a bull finally presented itself and I cracked off a shot.

Did I say it was a can’t miss opportunity? Well, for a few frantic hours I thought that’s exactly what I had done – missed. That bull ran off at the rifle’s report as if it hadn’t missed a beat. Confused, I walked over to the spot where the trail left the aspen, and there wasn’t a drop of blood to be seen. So I walked maybe a quarter mile in the direction the bull had run, but there was no sign of a dead elk.

That’s when I began to panic. I’d sat there waiting all day for the elk to emerge, and then I blew the shot. I was frantic. Then I saw the second bull standing with a group of cows across the meadow, watching me. In an act of irrational desperation, I loaded a round into the chamber and sighted up that bull. I couldn’t walk off the mountain without the bull I’d been fixated on for months prior to the hunt.

Fortunately, I settled myself and watched the elk wander off.

So I walked off the mountain without my bull. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I couldn’t have missed the shot, that there had to be a dead elk up on the mountain somewhere. I slept in my bed and the next morning headed back up to the spot where I’d shot the elk the day before. Again I walked in the direction I had seen the bull run off. But I walked farther this time, another 200 or 300 yards in heavy timber. In a clearing I came upon the dead bull.

When I field dressed the animal it became clear what had gone wrong. The shot was good, a lung shot. However, I’d used lighter loads from a cow elk hunt a few years before, rather than the heavier slugs needed to bring down a bull. The lighter bullet traveled through the elk’s body and I found it where it had lodged on the inside of the animal’s pelvis. That allowed the elk to run farther than you’d expect from a mortally wounded animal.

I’d been one frantic pull of the trigger away from killing, or more probably wounding, a second elk. I’d made a critical mistake by loading the wrong rounds. It would have been worse if I’d squeezed off another shot.

Silly goals lead to silly mistakes. My judgment was clouded by motivation other than putting meat in the freezer. I’m reminded of that every time I haul that mount from one house to another.