I hunted deer once and just felt sorry for the deer I finally shot.
I only ever had one successful elk hunt. My tag was for a female, which was what I had applied for because the recommendations from people in the know were that the cow produced a much better grade of meat, which was what I was after.
My partner and I, a full-blood Kiowa friend of mine at the time (1999) who is worth a whole book of his own and not a page of it would be what you’d expect, scouted the area where we meant to hunt for most of that year. There is a big meadow with a little pond in the middle of it way up in the Vallecitos mountains a few miles away from a tiny little village you may not find on any map named Canon Plaza. There we spent many unforgettable hours over several months, watching a good-sized group of elk, usually numbering thirty or more, milling around the pond and doing their elk things.
He would usually photograph them, which was his favorite kind of hunting, while I would practice getting as close to them as I could without being spotted, so I could draw down on them with my .22 I usually carried along (he also kept a pistol in the car; neither piece was for anything on four legs we meant to shoot while scouting, but for the odd outlaw or junkie we might run into who might want to shoot us — it’s pretty wild country that way.) We learned to love and admire our elk friends almost like neighbors, knowing full well we were the intruders and they had every reason to suspect our motives.
There also used to be a lot of wild horses up there, whom we’d watch and hang out with in much the same way. Those stories are too precious for online, we’ll wait for candles and wine on those.
On day 2 of the actual season in the fall, we drove up in his little Subaru (way quieter than the big loud Ford pickup I had at the time) and parked in the meadow.
There is a thing that American enthusiasts call “hunting pressure”, which is just the change in the atmosphere of the woods during a season that alerts the animals to something going on: some increase in sounds of engines, car doors, conversation, distant gunfire, the smells of tents or wood smoke or boot soles, what have you. The first thing one has to adapt to during an actual legal season, is that the pressure is already causing the herd to behave differently than they had been doing all along while you scouted.
So this day was the first time we’d been up there, that there was not an elk in sight in the meadow itself. But we knew they were around, this was their home and their kitchen and their back yard, so we set out over a ridge to go and find them. One strategy one can use if not following any actual trail of tracks, is to gauge the wind direction then choose a ridgeline to traverse over with the wind in one’s face, using the mountain itself as cover until reaching the top, then stopping to have a look around at what’s on the other side below. Best not to talk, so we just walked, ten yard apart or so.
When I reached the ridgeline, Jim was for the moment out of sight but I knew he was right there behind some trees near me. I raised my .30–06 to use the scope on it and have a look. As soon as my eyes focused I was looking at this creature that at first looked just like a German shepherd at that downward angle, and I was thinking, what in the world is that dog doing way out here?
In seconds I realized it was just a trick of optics, geometry, light and shadow, and my own inexperience that had me seeing a dog, when what I was looking at was a full-grown cow elk with her head down, utterly oblivious to our presence.
What a thought process: Gee, that’s interesting, we’d wondered where they all went…gosh, she’s a beauty, I’ll have to see if Jim spotted her…wait, that’s an elk, this is hunting season, and lookie-here, I got a loaded rifle in my hands pointing it right at her.
I just altered my angle ever so slightly and drew down right on her heart, that spot they’d told me to look for, just behind the foreleg and partway up the thorax, and just pulled the trigger.
She looked up with this “WTF?” sort of reaction, and glanced around a bit, calmly, then turned away from where she’d heard the godawful noise. She lifted that foreleg a little like she had a sore foot or something, and then limped away three-legged back to the trees behind her.
What a greenhorn. “I think I got her! Did you see that?! Jim? Hey, Jim?”
I didn’t see Jim again for hours.
Meanwhile, I ran down the ridge, found my animal’s bloody tracks in the snow, easy-peasy, and started following them up the opposite ridge into the trees, stumbling, panting, working up a stupid amateur sweat for no good reason. Then another set of tracks appeared in the snow, then another, and another, going off in all different directions, from like, three minutes ago. Not just the one had blood spots in it. Up and down, up and down I went, back to where I was sure I had the right trail, tracking up the mountainside with so many man-tracks I no longer had a clue what to follow.
Running on pure adrenaline out there in that sort of country, with one’s partner nowhere in sight, is dangerous. I am outdoorsman enough to know that much anyway. And hunter enough to think I just did the worst possible thing any elk-shooter could ever do: hit her, wound her, lose her, and leave her out here to suffer and die…
We’d spent so much time in that area by then that I never was in any danger of getting lost. But it was late afternoon, and cold, I was too sweaty and worked up for it to be safe to keep it up. So, totally disheartened, I turned and headed back to the Subaru. Jim’s been doing this all his life, whatever he’s up to, he’ll find me….
As I topped the last low ridge between me and the car, the first thing I saw was ol’ Jim leaning against the hood, casually cleaning his nails with his knife.
“Nah, she’s up there. It was a good death. I said a little prayer over her. We’ll come in your Ford tomorrow and get the meat. We got a long day tomorrow, we should get home….”
I had hit her exactly where I’d aimed, right through the heart. The idea, which rarely happens, is a merciful and quick kill which also serves not to have a guy schlepping all over creation tracking a wounded animal and bloodying up the meat in the bargain. Because of the downward angle of the shot I’d taken, which was damn close to a bullseye, she’d had enough left of her heart to get her partway up the next ridge, then lay down and die.
Jim was already above her, waiting. He watched her stop and lie down, and went and sat beside her.
Instead of all my textbook tracking tricks which had been an utter failure, he’d just listened. First was the sound of her thirty-odd companions skedaddling after the gunshot, then all that shouting by some idiot white boy from the suburbs who was actually a pretty good hunter but didn’t know it, then it was quiet. The only sounds, were me stumbling around, and her. He knew the difference, and just followed her trail with his ears, and got to where he figured she’d have to stop and just waited for her.
After a twelve-hour day the next day, him cutting and me being the pack mule from where she lay to a different spot in the other direction where we could get the truck closer, the hardest day of dumb hard labor of my entire life, then we had we figured six-hundred pounds of the best meat on earth for the winter between us.
All I had to do now, was find a freezer someone wanted to sell. Within like, twelve hours, in a pretty rural part of the country where that might not be so easy. I found one, but that’s another story.
I never felt sorry for that creature. Not for a moment. With every bite that got me through what turned out to be a fairly lean winter work-wise, I was grateful to her, and loved and honored her more than I’d ever known a man could do toward a wild creature.
What Jim told me, and showed me with his ways, was that this spot where he met her, was where she had been headed her whole life. We had an appointment, and he had been there to see we kept it, so that her passing from this life would not be just a bonanza for the ravens and coyotes.