My First Elk Hunt

Warning – if you are offended by hunting and the sight of dead animals, read no further.

Growing up in North Dakota, hunting was a normal fall past time.  The opening day of deer hunting season was practically a state holiday.  When I moved to Minnesota, I gave up deer hunting as I had no desire to hunt from a tree stand.  When I moved to Utah, I always said that with all the possibilities for hunting, I would eventually have to start hunting again.  After skiing with my friend Evan for a few ski seasons, last winter he finally convinced me that this should be the year to take up hunting again.  When a Nate Thesing, a friend and coworker from MN and an avid hunter, moved here in February, it made the timing seem even better (now there would be 2 of us hunting in UT for our first time).  Between Evan, Nate and I, we were able to get a cow and 2 spike bull permits as well as a buck mule deer permit each.  Having not hunted for 15 years, I was a little bit nervous.  I brought my guns back from ND when we were visiting in August (nothing like flying somewhere to run 100 miles and coming back with guns).  Finally a few weeks before season, I figured since I had not shot the gun in 15 years, I should probably go to the firing range.  Other than a sore shoulder from shooting 20 rounds, that went good.  A couple of shopping sprees to Sportsman Warehouse and Cabela’s and I was ready to go.  The season opened on October 8th and our first winter storm moved in on the 5th with cold temperatures, rain and snow.  We were only hunting 1 hour from our house, but decided it would be easiest to camp for the weekend.  We drove down on Friday and scoped out the place we intended to hunt.  After a cold and wet night camping, we left camp on foot, in a snow storm 45 minutes before sunrise on Saturday.  With the fresh snow, we were able to find lots of fresh signs, but spent over 10 hours hiking and bushwhacking through the mountain side to not see a single animal.  It was a tough day of being cold and very wet all day and continual frustration with the difficult walking in the thick scrub oak and bushes.  The evening cleared, we had a new plan, and after a good dinner and a few beers by the campfire, we were ready to get some sleep in preparation for another long day.

We over slept on Sunday, but were still out of camp before 7.  We had a 15 minute drive up the trail to where we could cross the creek and start climbing into the higher elevations to hunt (we were camped around 6,700’ and were planning to hunt between 8,000’ and 9,000’.  After only an hour of bushwhacking, the woods opened up and shortly after we all (separately) had our first elk sighting, but none of us were able to get a shot off.  We were all hunting individually, but had 2-way radios and would make contact every 2 hours (or when we heard close shots) for updates of where we were at and what we were seeing.  At our 11:00 contact, I had decided to head to high ground and was on my way to a 9,200’ ridge which I intended to follow a couple of miles until it intersected a trail which would then drop down into the canyon we were camping in about 4 miles from camp.  For 2 hours I followed numerous sets of very fresh tracks and at 1:00, I saw a good sized elk standing 75 meters from me in the grove of aspen trees I was climbing up through.  I was only able to see the entire body for a couple of seconds before it hid behind a tree.  From my vantage point, I was able to just see the neck and head.  I was standing next to an aspen tree so I stabilized my rifle against the tree and squeezed off a round.  I couldn’t tell if I had hit it or not, it appeared to duck, but then disappeared.  I assumed I had missed (it was hoping for too much to hit an elk on my first shot hunting in 15 years), but regardless I ran over to the area it had been standing.  I found a large blood mark, but no animal, I was able to follow the blood track, scared the elk up a hundred meters or so later and then followed it another 300 meters before I found it dead.

     1 of the 2 animals we had down

All this while, I am on the radio trying to get Nate and Evan.  It wasn’t until I heard 3 more shots (before I had even found my elk) that Evan came on the radio to tell use he had an elk down.  With 2 animals down, none of us really knew what we were getting ourselves into.  Nate went to the truck to gather packs and rope then meet us at the animals.  Evan and I both started to field dress out animals – not having hunted in 15 years and only having cleaned a deer, I really didn’t have much of an idea of what to do.  Compared to dressing a deer, an elk is a complete different story.  You can’t straddle the animal and hold the legs apart, they are just too big.  I didn’t have rope to tie the legs to trees and I was on a steep hillside so every time I would try to do something it would slide down the hill.  After about an hour, I had most of the guts out, but was not able to get everything removed so I had to leave it, and I headed over to help Evan with his animal.  We were 1.5 miles (as the crow flies) and 2,000 vertical feet from the truck.  There was no way to get any closer to where we were without an ATV (there was an ATV trail 3/4 mile and 800’ below us).  We started the task of skinning and quartering the elk.  At this point we thought that the 3 of us would be able to carry both animals out in 1 trip.  By the time we got the packs to the animals and the animals both skinned and quartered it was 6:00.  We loaded 2 quarters onto a pack and quickly realized there was no way to carry this.  It was well over 130 lbs.  New plan – we decided to carry out 2 rear quarters and all of the loins, back straps and small scraps.  The rest of the meat we hung from trees with a plan to return on Tuesday to carry it out.  We had everything packed and hung and stared down through the woods in the dark at 7:30.  We had hoped to make the hike out in 2 hours, but instead it took us 3 very long hours with 70-90 lb packs, rifles, etc.  There was no trail out so we had to do everything including scrambling, down climbing, wading the creek, and literally crawling up the bank on the other side.  When we finally got to the truck, we were exhausted and we still had to break camp and drive the 1-hour home. 

     Nate and Evan hiking out in the dark exhausted

By the time we got to my house to hang up the meat it was 12:30 AM, we had been going hard since 6:30AM and we were exhausted.  We decided we would figure out the rest of the meat on Monday.  Monday Evan went out to scope out any better access and was able to confirm we had 2 options: 1) hike 2 trips down the way we did on Sunday night which would take about 10 hours or 2) get an ATV.  My neighbor was kind enough to lend us his ATV and we rented a trailer.  We convinced our friend Andy to come with us and on Tuesday the 4 of us took off to get the rest of the meat.  We had a 3.5 mile approach on a technical ATV trail.  We had 3 mountain bikes, an ATV, and our packs.  We biked and hike-a-biked in, then swapped bike shoes for hiking boots and started carrying elk quarters down to the trail. 

     Going back in to haul out elk quarters

Unfortunately, we had 3 quarters that had been pulled down by a bear (we think it was a bear based on the scratch marks on the trees), but only a small amount of meat was eaten.  With 2 ATV trips to get the meat out and us hiking and biking out, we were able to get all the meat out in 6 hours.  This was still a challenge, but much easier than 10 hours of hiking on steep terrain.  We got everything loaded and were able to get back to my house to get the meat hanging not much after dark. 

     My garage/butcher shop

The first elk hunt was a lot of fun, but it was also as huge learning lesson about how much larger an elk is than a deer, the massive differences between deer hunting in farm land and elk hunting in the mountains, how much work it is to haul out an animal on your back, and much, much more.  Nate still has a spike bull tag, but we may not have time to fill the tag as we have realized that you need to plan for an entire day to haul out the meat after you shoot an animal.