What goes on in a hunter’s mind when all that lies between him and a bull elk trophy is a long walk and a good shot?
Leroy, my Montana elk guide, had found me a bedded bull. He’d done his job beautifully. Now it was all up to me. Could I make the stalk?
Since the bull had lazed in the same spot all day, he probably wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. We took our time sizing up the situation.
A road wound around the base of the bull’s mountain. We could drive there and make a long hike straight up. If the wind direction was the same as it was here, I’d circle and approach the bull from the left. It looked like the terrain and ground cover would let me get close. I studied the mountain carefully and marked the spot the best I could, knowing things would look completely different once I was up there with the elk. We talked strategy as we drove for the drop-off point.
Ten minutes later, Leroy dumped me at the base of the mountain. He would head back to the distant vantagepoint and watch me through the scope, giving me hand-signal directions, which I would read through binocs.
Planning The Stalk
The plan was to circle far to the left until I achieved a certain sloping ridge. I’d follow that up and to the right until I hit the head of a certain brushy draw. At that point I’d traverse the mountain until I approached a big grove of pines — provided I could recognize it from my new perspective. Then I’d go into slow motion, stalking down through the ground-level cover I hoped was there. I’d descend slowly to the lower end of that grove, to where the bull lay, and kill him.
The mountain was high and steep, but I surged upward with surprising energy. I’d have to climb almost to the top, because that was the only way I could stay out of sight and move fast. This was the phase of the stalk where you are undetectable, and cover ground as quickly as you can. I ran when I could, and figured my legs must be ready to collapse, but that the adrenaline wouldn’t let me feel it.
Reaching the crest, I paused to gulp air and untie the knots in my thigh muscles. Despite the urgency of my mission, I couldn’t help lingering a moment, drinking in the sight. Far below, the Missouri River sparkled and widened into Fort Peck Lake, one of the West’s most awesome bodies of water. Vast rangeland and rugged breaks made my mind wander, but just momentarily. I was off to the races.
I scrambled for another couple hundred yards up and across the slope, then gradually reduced speed in favor of quietness. I walked game trails that descended toward my objective for the best combination of speed and quietness.
When I figured I was in the right neighborhood, I stopped to gather my senses and check Leroy for messages. I pulled out my binoculars and found his truck. Blocking my view was a pickup belonging to the refuge ranger, who had stopped to talk to Leroy. No messages for me.
Checks For Signals
I made my way carefully for another hundred yards, being careful I didn’t mistake my position and blunder onto the elk. I stopped to check Leroy. The ranger was gone. Leroy was standing just outside the truck. His signal meant I still had a ways to go, but was on the right track and closing in.
I checked the wind. It was strong and crossways to where the elk were. I had hoped I would be straight downwind and be able to smell the elk as I got close, but this was almost as good. I knew they wouldn’t smell me, and the wind in the trees would help conceal any noise I might make.
Then, suddenly, it was in front of me. The grove of pines I thought would be hard to identify was obvious. I scanned ahead, and pinpointed right where the elk should be, about 150 yards away. I removed my boots and gathered myself for the final approach. I went over every detail and considered every scenario and option I might encounter. I convinced myself to move as slowly as possible, suppressing the urge to quickly end the unbearable suspense that always accompanies a stalk.
I eased painstakingly along, setting down each wool sock carefully, keeping my bow away from noisy brush. The rim of a draw was in front of me. I eased down a ways and belly-crawled toward a bitterbrush bush that would conceal me as I peeked over the edge.
Please read more in Part 3.
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