First Elk hunt... it was an adventure.

BuckeyeRifleman

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So after a successful Montana Antelope hunt last year as my first wester hunt I knew I had to go after elk this year. Not to mention there is a baby on the way and a deployment looming, this year was the year. I was lucky at snagging a leftover Montana elk combo tag after not drawing a general combo. Likewise my hunting partner drew a 399-00 tag.

After much research we decided to hunt the SW portion of the state. Now I won’t mention the district we were in, but given the experience we had I don’t think we are letting the cat out of the bag, as I’m pretty sure half the state hunts there anyway. I knew there would be pressure as this is a popular district, but I’m from Ohio, no way this could rival public land where I’m from, right?

We pulled up to the trailhead to what should’ve been the first clue... probably at least 20 trucks and horse trailers. I was disappointed, but I figured it’s big country, get a few miles in we will be fine. Our plan was to get about 3 miles into this roadless basin, set up a spike camp and hunt from there. We got there Thursday night, hiked in Friday morning and set up camp. Right after setting up camp we heard chainsaws and voices... despite how far we walked an outfitter was set up with a horse camp only a few hundred yards away.:(

Weather was what we expected, low 40s during the day, 20s at night. During our afternoon scouting we spotted a herd about 1000 ft above us and 1.5 miles away, just below the tree line. We decided they were a little to far/steep to try to hit the next morning, but we kept them in mind. We wanted to hunt the open hillside just above us where we saw lots of tracks, as it was right near our camp and seemed like a good ambush site for elk moving due to pressure.

Opening morning was slightly foggy, and pressure was as expected. Multiple hunters and horses were seen despite our distance from the road. No elk were seen. We decided to go back to camp, get lunch, and head out and try to find the herd we spotted yesterday.

Now, previously we had discussed not shooting elk at dusk, mainly due to grizzly bear concerns... we also decided to leave our sleeping bags and pads at camp, expecting we wouldn’t be that far away. Both of those became huge lessons learned as the evening progressed.

We made it back to our previous glassing location, and though it wasn’t surprising, we were disappointed to not find any sign of the herd we located the night before. We decided to push deeper into the basin and continue glassing. Finally, about 1.5 miles from camp, we located a handful of cows another half mile away and 500 ft above us. It was about 3:30 pm at this point. About 25 degrees or so. We hurried up the mountain to put on a stalk... the wind was good. We had terrain and timber in place to mask our movement. We spotted an open cow... 500 yards. Despite being an experienced long range shooter, I passed on the shot. I wasn’t taking a chance on opening day, especially on a cow. We descended through a timber stand to cut the final 200 yards, doing our best to stay quiet. Finally we made it to the edge of the timber. I had an open shot on a cow at 285 yards. I offered it to my partner as he had the cow tag and I had an either sex tag, but he insisted I take it.

I placed my pack on a downed log and rested my rifle across it. I dialed 1.1 mils according to my dope chart. I had a solid rest, I was steady. I placed the crosshairs behind the shoulder of a standing, still, broadside cow in the timber clearing and slowly squeezed the trigger. The suppressed rifle jolted, the cow jumped as if the hit was solid. I followed her through the timber, and despite not the best view it appeared as though she toppled over.

I was elated. I knew I just killed an elk. I was as confident as I have ever been that I made a good shot. I hurried and threw on my pack. It was almost 5 pm. We would be fighting daylight to get this thing cut up and hung. I was also starting to realize I made a big mistake in my rush to stalk an animal... in my haste I failed to remove my warming layers I had on to glass. I felt slightly dehydrated and I was starting to shiver. Oh well, I just killed an elk, I’ll deal, or so I thought.

The 285 yard trip to that hillside was slow going, across a scree field and up an extremely steep embankment. It probably took us close to a half hour. Finally we made it up to the clearing where I had seen the elk. I saw tracks. There was fresh snow. Cool, a little looking around and we will find blood, and then the elk.

My excitement turned to surprise, then worry, then disappointment. What... the... f$ck... where is the blood!? I knew I hit that elk... I was solid. I didn’t flinch. I’ve done enough hunting, and enough shooting that I know when I make good or bad shots. This was a good shot, as good as any I remembered. I laser back to the treeline... 285. Am I in the right spot? It looked like it, and nothing left or right of me looked like what I saw through the scope. I circled around the area the best I could. I followed the tracks. Nothing. The light was fading fast, and the temperature was plummeting. I went to take a swig of what little water I had... it was frozen. I was starting to really get cold. My mouth my dry. We had 2 miles through rough terrain to get back to our camp, and almost a half mile to any flowing water. I looked at my thermometer on my chest rig... 0 degrees. The wind had picked up. As much as it killed me, we had to get back to camp. Now. This was no longer about finding an elk, this is about not freezing to death at 9000 ft 5 miles from any road. I wasn’t just shivering anymore, I was slurring my words and starting to get a bit confused.

I was pissed. Pissed I couldn’t find the elk. Pissed I hadn’t topped off my water at the last stream crossing and put it in my bag rather than on my pack belt. Pissed I didn’t take the 2 minutes to doff my warming layers when I saw the elk. These are things I know better than to do, but judgement seems to go out the window when all you have thought about for the past year are in your view. The hike back to camp was treacherous, we cut through the thick lower timber with almost two feet of snow. It was slow going via headlamp. I’m fairly certain we saw grizzly tracks. We stopped at a point to start a fire and get warm, maybe melt some snow to drink. It didn’t help much as far as warmth and melting snow was an inefficient way to get any water. We pressed on back to camp.

We got the stove going and I crawled in my bag. Coming out I thought I was overkill with a 0 degree bag. Little did I know we would choose the week with record low temps. I made the mistake of not stripping my wet base layers in my urgency to get warm. The bag got slightly damp. It was a long cold night.

We woke up and debated heading back to look more. But no blood last night, fresh snow, and the thought of that hike made the idea untenable. Even if we made it back there, the chance of finding anything now was slim to none, and even if we did find her, she might have a Grizzly feasting on her. At the time I chalked it up to a miss, as unlikely as it seemed. Looking back now in full hindsight we might have gotten slightly disoriented crossing the scree field and somehow ended up in the wrong clearing. The thought of that makes me feel even worse than a clean miss, but it’s the most logical outcome IMO. Either way, it might have been a blessing, as we probably would’ve been in much worse shape had we been forced to stay on that mountain longer and quarter an elk while we were wet and cold.

The rest of the trip we didn’t see much. We hiked out that night, got a hotel, dried about and regrouped. The temps remained frigid throughout the rest of the week... We did manage to get a free night at a hunting lodge the night it was -15. The owner saw us setting up camp and felt bad for us I think... we were grateful.

Between the temps, the terrain, and the lack of elk we were spent by the end of the week. My parter was a special forces operator in a previous life, and according to him “elk are a worthy ******* adversary.”

We did manage to fill our region 7 mule B tags on the way home, so at least we’ve got meat in the freezer.

Lessons learned...

Temp management. I knew better after a decade in the military, but start out hiking cold.

I’m taking my bag/pad and tarp everywhere next time. Not just for “putting them to bed”, but for survival.
Had I had that stuff with me when I shot, I’d maybe have elk meat in the freezer.

A solid partner is worth more than gold.

Im probably not hunting a Montana general district anytime soon again. The pressure we dealt with for the money we spent wasn’t worth it. I’ll hunt a Wyoming limited cow tag well before I’ll do a general Montana tag again.

Oh, and I can’t wait to elk hunt again.;)

ETA please see some clarification on why we didn’t return to the area to search more on page two. I can get why there is some criticism based off the OP, but as always there is a bit more to the situation.
 
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LivetohuntID

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Sounds exactly like elk hunting! It's not the glorified "go elk hunting shoot a bull have a great time" that hunting shows and YouTube channels make it out to be.

Years and years without shooting anything. People everywhere, Gear failures, injuries, and all followed by extreme frustration, and more frustration, then even more frustration. Most years you end up with a good story or two at least.

I seem to have better stories from when we don't shoot anything.
 

Dvidos

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Aug 22, 2019
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Sounds exactly like elk hunting! It's not the glorified "go elk hunting shoot a bull have a great time" that hunting shows and YouTube channels make it out to be.

Years and years without shooting anything. People everywhere, Gear failures, injuries, and all followed by extreme frustration, and more frustration, then even more frustration. Most years you end up with a good story or two at least.

I seem to have better stories from when we don't shoot anything.
+1
 

muddydogs

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Utah
So you didn't return to look for the elk because you were scared of bears and just assumed you couldn't find anything in the snow? Maybe you should have went back to the place you shot, made sure you were in the right opening and looked again, it takes a bunch of snow to cover up an elk body. Might be you were in the wrong place and who knows the elk could have been laying dead a few feet from the shooting sight. Animals don't always leave a blood trail right away or ever. Sounds like you need to rethink backpack elk hunting.
 

ChrisAU

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Yeah, this post has bothered me a little since I read it a couple days ago. And I know I don't have the whole story, I wasn't there, so I can't act like I'd do anything different in your shoes without having been there.

But not going back to look once, that's not something newbies and guys with little experience (like me) should be reading on here without seeing negativity in response to it. You mentioned not seeing anything the rest of the trip, so you stayed and continued hunting. Why not go back and look, once?

Again, I wasn't there, just don't want new guys to read that and think that that is ok with everyone here as told.
 

GregB

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Aug 5, 2017
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Idaho
So you did not have a cow tag, but you shot a cow to fill your buddies tag. Then some snow and "the thought of that hike" kept you from going back to look, and then you kept hunting. If you were so sure you hit the elk and didn't recover it you should have ate the tag, even though it wasn't your tag to begin with. If that is as much effort as you are going to put in then maybe elk hunting isn't for you.
 

Dakota Dude

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Sep 24, 2019
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CO
Good write up. Sounds like elk hunting. 1.5 miles is not far from camp regardless of the terrain. I think it's likely that you weren't looking in the right spot. It happens all the time when you are going 300 yards down one hillside and up another. One time it took me 2 hours to find a bull that I shot 300 yards away and watched it die in my scope.
 
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BuckeyeRifleman

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So you did not have a cow tag, but you shot a cow to fill your buddies tag. Then some snow and "the thought of that hike" kept you from going back to look, and then you kept hunting. If you were so sure you hit the elk and didn't recover it you should have ate the tag, even though it wasn't your tag to begin with. If that is as much effort as you are going to put in then maybe elk hunting isn't for you.
I’m I had an either sex tag. I was legal to take a cow.

I searched the area for over an hour prior to the sun going down with zero indication of a hit, not one drop of blood, bile, or hair in fresh snow. There was more fresh snow the next morning which meant recovery would be next to impossible.

At the time I was 100% sure we were in the right spot. In all my years of hunting I’d never shot an animal and had zero blood in fresh snow. I truely believed I missed... My scope had to have gotten bumped I figured.

Looking back now maybe I didn’t. Maybe I really wasn’t in the right spot. I’m not sharing this story because I feel ******* great about what happened. I honestly feel terrible about the whole thing... I’m sharing it to let folks know that things don’t always go as planned. I hope folks learn from this, and don’t make the same mistakes we did.

Sure, it’s easy to say sitting in your warm house on your shitter “you should’ve gone back and looked.” Hell, now I wish I had too. But I 100% thought I had to have missed after I scoured that hillside the night before. Between that and coming the closest I ever home to come to a deadly hypothermic event, all our clothes being wet, along with temps still in the single digits we collectively decided the safe thing to do was go to the truck and regroup.

Was that the right call? I don’t know. I know I really wanted that elk. I also know I wasn’t leaving a widowed single mother over it either. Hunting doesn’t follow a script. But sitting here and criticizing someone for making a safety call in extreme weather doesn’t help anyone either.
 
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GregB

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I’m I had an either sex tag. I was legal to take a cow.
I searched the area for over an hour prior to the sun going down with zero indication of a hit, not one drop of blood, bile, or hair. There was fresh snow the next morning which meant recovery would be next to impossible.
I offered it to my partner as he had the cow tag, but he insisted I take it.
Your wording makes it sound like your partner had the only cow tag.

But no blood last night, fresh snow, and the thought of that hike made the idea untenable. Even if we made it back there, the chance of finding anything now was slim to none, and even if we did find her, she might have a Grizzly feasting on her. At the time I chalked it up to a miss, as unlikely as it seemed. Looking back now in full hindsight we probably got slightly disoriented crossing the scree field and somehow ended up in the wrong clearing. The thought of that makes me feel even worse than a clean miss, but it’s the most logical outcome IMO. Either way, it might have been a blessing, as we probably would’ve been in much worse shape had we been forced to stay on that mountain longer and quarter an elk while we were wet and cold.
Snow doesn't make recovering an animal impossible, it's just an convenient excuse. In your original post you did not think it was a clean miss. I recovered my bull last year with zero blood, but i also spent more than an hour looking.
 
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Poser

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I hate to pile on and I’ll give you credit for being forthcoming, but you should have gone back and spent the next day looking.
 
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BuckeyeRifleman

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Your wording makes it sound like your partner had the only cow tag.



Snow doesn't make recovering an animal impossible, it's just an convenient excuse. In your original post you did not think it was a clean miss. I recovered my bull last year with zero blood, but i also spent more than an hour looking.
Please see my edit. I also spent over an hour looking, following tracks, etc. I didn’t mention it in the OP, but we did find what looked like a bullet impact... further indicating to us at the time we were in the right spot. However nothing indicating a hit. I’ve never in all my years of hunting not seen any blood, hair, etc especially in fresh snow. Maybe elk are different, but if I ended up recovering that animal I would’ve been shocked based off what I found. (Or lack there of)

I’ve got no proof I hit anything besides the memory of what felt like a good shot and what seemed like a reaction of a hit based off what I saw in the scope. I figured I must’ve just been seeing things... :(
 

ChrisAU

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Please see my edit. I also spent over an hour looking, following tracks, etc. I didn’t mention it in the OP, but we did find what looked like a bullet impact... further indicating to us at the time we were in the right spot. However nothing indicating a hit. I’ve never in all my years of hunting not seen any blood, hair, etc especially in fresh snow. Maybe elk are different, but if I ended up recovering that animal I would’ve been shocked based off what I found. (Or lack there of)

I’ve got no proof I hit anything besides the memory of what felt like a good shot and what seemed like a reaction of a hit based off what I saw in the scope. I figured I must’ve just been seeing things... :(
1.1 MILs for 285 yards sounds like a bullet on the slower end of the spectrum. 3 weeks ago I had 4 280AI 160 gr accubonds at 3030 FPS MV not exit a bull at 310ish yards, and not a drop of blood, but he died in our sight. I unsuccessfully tried to back track him, no blood.

Recovered a whitetail this last Saturday that had been gut shot, bedded after 50 yards and died. Not a drop of blood.
 
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BuckeyeRifleman

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1.1 MILs for 285 yards sounds like a bullet on the slower end of the spectrum. 3 weeks ago I had 4 280AI 160 gr accubonds at 3030 FPS MV not exit a bull at 310ish yards, and not a drop of blood, but he died in our sight. I unsuccessfully tried to back track him, no blood.

Recovered a whitetail this last Saturday that had been gut shot, bedded after 50 yards and died. Not a drop of blood.
143 Gr ELD-X in 6.5 hipster with a 100 yard zero.

I’m not going to say you can’t kill elk with a 6.5, but I’m not going to try again.
 
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BuckeyeRifleman

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Man, hunters love to eat there own. I guess we should’ve just been like the guys hanging out in their campers drinking bud lights and driving around in four wheelers shooting road signs.

I’d get the criticism had we found evidence of a hit and not returned. Or if we found the elk and not packed it out. But we searched as extensively as possible for as long as we safely could and found nothing, and based on that lack of evidence we truly believed at the time it was a clean miss. Even if it wasn’t, fresh snow and temperature extremes would’ve made tracking and recovery nearly impossible by the time we returned. We simply made the best decision possible given the information we had at the time. Things always look different in hindsight.

I decided to be forthright about the events to show other folks things don’t always go right. Hunting is a fluid environment where crazy things happen, and that’s ok. Not everyone makes that perfect shot that piles up, or that perfect track in good weather with lots of blood. Sometimes events, weather, etc result in stories like this. You do the best you can with the cards you were dealt. I know we did. I certainly know it wasn’t our intent to do all that work and not recover an animal.

I hope that some folks appreciate the fact I’m willing to share what happened. Things didn’t go as planned. I know we will learn from what happened and make different decisions, I hope others will as well.

But dog piling just pushes people away and fulfills the stereotype.
 

realunlucky

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@BuckeyeRifleman only you know if you did your best. I've made some poor shots myself, always thought they be lethal before pulling the trigger but sometimes things happen. Finding down game can be difficult, with two guys have one stay and walk the other guy to where he saw the animal go down. Appreciate you sharing hopefully someone can learn from your experience being wet and froze is not to be taken lightly.

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