Arizona Elk Hunt
By Ben Fagerlie
We knew bad weather was on the way. A week before our Northern Arizona cow elk hunt the forecast called for rain. We could handle rain. My dad, my brother and I may be natives of the Arizona desert, but they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder and we love the rain.
Five days before our hunt the forecast changed to a chance of snow. I do not have much experience with snow. I have seen it while on vacations to Maine and Colorado, but I have never lived in a place where it snows. I like the idea of snow, and once I went on a hunt when there was snow on the ground, but none falling. Snow remains a bit of an enigma to me. The chance of snow was a bit exciting!
Three days before our hunt the forecast said several inches of snow and the high country could expect more than several. A cold front was moving in and it was going to hit on the opening day of our hunt.
A mad scramble ensued, as we begged, borrowed and bought cold weather gear. My brother went to college in Chicago and still had a few things he could use. He was by far the best prepared. My dad was much less excited than I was about the prospect of cold weather, so most of what we scrounged went to him.
I was left with layers. Up top I had long underwear, a long sleeve shirt, sweater, windproof fleece and my usual hunting jacket. Covering my bottom I had long underwear, jeans (I've read that cotton kills, but none of my pants have ever shown much aggression) and a surprisingly well fitting pair of women's ski pants. The latter was the best I could find after searching several thrift stores, asking friends and relatives and lowering my personal standards. They did not exactly match my camouflage jacket, but they were warm and waterproof.
Searching the internet for "hunting elk in snow" and "cold weather hunting" only served to help me to realize how unique Arizona is. It appears the rest of the world accepts snow as a normal part of fall and winter hunting. Even in the northern parts of Arizona, a late November hunt has fairly good odds of not seeing a single snowflake. According to all the online forum experts and hunting magazine writers, I am a wimp. Apparently I should not consider it to be cold unless my rifle's action is frozen solid. Icicles growing from my ear lobes only indicate that it is "a bit chilly."
I took some small solace in the thought that most of these experts probably have not hunted deer in October with temperatures over 100 degrees. I suppose we are all products of our environment.
We left home the day before opening day, the forecast calling for heavy snow and high winds. The car ride was filled with a mix of confidence, optimism and concern. Most of the optimism was coming from me, the concern from my dad and my big brother showing his usual mask of unflappable confidence. I honestly have no idea how my brother felt about the prospect of snow, but I knew it wasn't going to stop him.
We set up our tent trailer just off a forest road in an area we had hunted for the past 15 years. The sky was clear and blue, with no sign of the misery that was to come. The warm afternoon was spent scouting, making plans of who would hunt where and wondering if I would be able keep my women's ski pants stuffed deep in the bottom of my bag, where they would be safe from the bitingly witty comments of my brother.
As darkness fell we had dinner and made final preparations for the following morning. It came up that none of us had brought an alarm clock. My dad produced his iPhone, demonstrated its vast array of alarm sounds, and took responsibility for waking us an hour or so before dawn. Thus assured, we settled in to sleep.
Sleep didn't last long. I woke up in a fright as the tent trailer shook against a howling wind, the canvas sides straining. The promised cold front was moving in. My thoughts turned to my makeshift cold weather clothing. Dread crept over me as I remembered a family vacation from my childhood, when my brother mercilessly mocked my pair of red sweatpants. Certain that I would have to relive my childhood shame I drifted back to a fitful sleep, as the tent trailer shuddered.
I awoke again when the rain hit. It hit suddenly and it hit hard. Sheets of rain slammed against the tent trailer, adding a new depth to the sound of canvas flapping in the wind. I had not expected rain. The forecast had changed from rain to snow and I hadn't given much thought to rain since. Few sounds are as relaxing to me as rain in the forest and I fell into a surprisingly deep sleep.
I awoke to the sound of an angry older brother. It was still raining. It was light out. I was a little slow to put all the pieces together. Apparently my dad had woken up in the night, determined that the weather outside was frightful, unilaterally decided no one should be outside in that and turned his phone alarm off. My brother, who has not had many opportunities to participate in the family hunts in recent years, was not about to let anything stop him from hunting.
"Are you coming with me, or are you going to sleep all day?" he muttered in my general direction. Still not entirely sure what was going on, I crawled out of my sleeping bag and crawled into my female ski pants, fully expecting to receive a deluge of derogatory remarks. Not a word was said about my outfit, but I think my brother was distracted by my dad, who was openly and unashamedly not about to go out in pouring rain. I didn't blame him. My brother and I quickly modified our plans, checked our gear and set out into the gray, wet morning.
The rain became a cold drizzle as we set off to the North. My brother and I stayed about 50 yards apart, walking fairly quickly, with the wind more or less at our back. The plan was to get some distance between us and the campsite and then start working the wind.
We had not been walking five minutes when a smallish elk came running around a thicket, breathing heavily, looking as if it had been chased for miles. It paused about 75 yards ahead of us for a few seconds. The angle I had for the shot put my muzzle too close to the direction of my brother for me to feel good about it, so I waited for my brother to take the shot. He never saw the elk, his view obscured by the thicket. I watched it bound away, my spirits raised by the knowledge that there were elk out in the rain with us.
The rain picked up and I slid the butt of my rifle under my jacket until the action and scope were covered. This is probably not the ideal way to carry a gun, but it kept the important bits dry.
We kept walking and after a while my brother peeled off to the west. I was to continue north for a few minutes, then make my own turn. The wind was picking up strength, coming from about my 7:00 o'clock. I had little expectation of seeing much while I walked more or less downwind, but after encountering that first elk I was alert.
My awareness payed off and in just a couple minutes I spotted a herd of about 15 elk straight ahead of me. They were grazing, walking away from me, but completely unaware of my presence. They were about 250 yards away through sparse pine trees and occasional junipers thickets. A few snowflakes began to mix with the rain as I began my stalk.
The scattered trees were a mixed blessing. I could move fairly quickly, but I had to freeze every time one of the herd turned its head in my direction. I kept what little cover I could between us as I tried to close the distance and get into a position with the wind a little more favorable.
No matter how hard I tried, I could not get closer to the herd than 200 yards. Stalking my way through the thin forest, I was moving at about the same speed as the elk. I got glimpses of elk at various angles: quartering away, an occasional broadside, and a whole lot of white rumps. Every time I put my sights on a broadside animal, it would change position or walk behind a tree.
Through my scope I could see that the herd included a massive bull, a magnificent non-typical seven point. There was also a smaller bull, a five point. The rest were cows. Our tags were for antler-less elk, so I had plenty of potential targets. The rain turned to snow and the snow got heavy. Visibility decreased and I had trouble keeping the herd in sight through the snow. That was when the elk reached a fence.
The fence changed everything. It was a standard barbed wire fence, three strands, average height, but none of the herd seemed to want to be the first to jump over. As they stood, indecisive, I was able to close the distance between us. I got inside 150 yards before the first elk jumped over a low point in the fence. After that they went quickly, one by one, jumping over at the same low point until just the two bulls were left on my side of the fence.
The big seven point moved to the fence and got ready to jump. Just then the smaller bull rushed forward and tried to push the big one to the side. The big guy did not take kindly to the shove, lowered his antlers and shoved back. A full-on fight ensued and I deeply regret that I missed most of it.
While they were fighting, the rest of the herd stood still, entranced by the battle. I took used the distraction to cut the distance between us in half. The fight was soon over, the seven point the undisputed winner, and he jumped the fence to join his harem. I rested my rifle on the branch of a tree, and settled on a nice cow on the edge of the herd.
Just as I flipped my rifle's safety off, the smaller bull jumped the fence and the herd started to move again. The herd had been heading due north the whole time, but now they moved along the fence line, cutting to the west and moving behind a dense juniper thicket. They weren't grazing anymore, they were covering ground.
I ran around the south side of the thicket, hoping to cut them off, or at least keep up with them. The thicket went farther than I expected and when I finally cleared it the herd was about 150 yards ahead of me.
The wind and snow hit a new crescendo and the herd stopped, all of them huddled together with their heads down. I moved to the last tree between me and the herd, found a convenient branch on which to rest my rifle, and aimed my riflescope at the herd. They were still packed together tight.
As I watched the elk I also watched the snow. It was blowing parallel to the ground; it was starting to stick and it was gathering quickly.
The wind dropped for a moment and the snow fell nearly straight down. A cow elk stepped out from the herd and looked around. She stood quartering towards me and I put my crosshairs where I thought I could do the most damage. After a quick double check that she had no antlers, I flicked the safety off and began a gentle squeeze.
In all the times I have shot big game animals, I cannot recall even once hearing my own shot. This time was no different. I felt the trigger break, I saw the flame, but heard no shot. My rifle settled, and through the scope I saw my elk on the ground. She lifted her head up slightly once, then again, and then she was still. I would later measure that shot at 135 paces.
The herd stampeded. Specifically, they stampeded straight towards me. They were over halfway to me when I stood up and waved my arms, which turned the first few animals, but the rest kept coming. I stepped back behind the tree and the big seven point bull passed just a few feet from me. He saw me as he passed, gave me a snort, and the herd disappeared into the snow as the wind again picked-up.
I turned my attention back to where my elk lay and to my dismay I could not see her. I ran to where I saw her fall. I know they say to wait a while before following up a wounded animal, but with snow already gathering up to two or three inches and no sign of letting up, I figured I needed to at least get on her tracks to see what direction she went before the trail was obscured by snow.
I stood right where I thought I she fell and turned a slow circle, studying the ground, looking for blood or tracks. There were no tracks, not even from the herd of 15 stampeding elk. Everything had already been covered in snow. A sense of unease came over me as I thought about the search that lay ahead and how far a wounded elk could run. Then I noticed the mound of snow next to me. She was already completely covered in snow. She hadn't taken another step.
The next several hours were a blur of cold and discomfort. I let my brother know where I was over the radio, but finding each other in the snowstorm was surprisingly difficult. Field dressing an elk in a snowstorm turned out to be even harder!
Fortunately, the snow stopped about halfway through the job. Unfortunately, it was replaced by hail. Hail that was driven by a strong, incessant wind. I managed to finish the job though, with my brother's help.
We made it back to camp just as the weather broke and the skies cleared. We found my dad still warm and enviably dry in his sleeping bag. I don't think he believed us when we first told him I got one. However, the blood stains on my pants helped convince him. He came out to help retrieve it.
The rest of that hunt was memorable, but my part of the story was over. The weather was beautiful the rest of the trip and my ski pants were not needed again. I went out each day with my dad and my brother, who got his elk two days later. He has his own story about that elk. Our families were kept in meat for the next year and the memories of our first foul weather hunt will be with me for a lifetime.
Copyright 2016 by Ben Fagerlie and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.