A hunting discussion group of which I’m a member had recently been talking about big game draws for hunting permits. So what happens? I draw a special elk tag for Lewistown, Montana at my friend Lance J—‘s ranch. Things have changed, though, Lance now has an outfitter; I now have to go through this outfitter at nearly twice the cost I used to pay.
I think I’m the second oldest elk hunter in our internet hunting group, being out-aged by only one other person. Anyone who has hunted elk knows that this is tough duty, even when you’re only 40 years of age. I can remember humping up mountains when I was in my 40’s and wondering how much longer I can keep doing it: years ago, I looked at elk hunting statistics and saw that about 50% of elk hunters drop out at around 40 years of age—and the rest soon follow. It’s the toughest hunting I’ve ever had to do.
This year, while filling out the applications for big game permits (deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, moose, bison and elk) the process brought me to reflect on hunting over my lifetime. As I was going through the available Montana permits, a little voice in the back of my head was saying: “What are you doing, putting in for bison, moose and elk permits?” I came to realize that I’m old now and that certain hunting is in my past, not my future. Twice I’ve written hunting pieces about my elk hunting entitled “My Last Elk Hunt”; the first of those was back in 2015, but the sand is still going through the hourglass. Back in 2008 I drew an elk tag at age 59! I was the oldest hunter that the outfitter had. The guide was quite complimentary: he said, “You get around better than most guys here that are in their 20’s.”
What I wasn’t telling him was that he was busting my ass going up and down the mountains. H e parked the truck over a mile from the mountain so that we had to make the trip on foot in the foothills. It was still steep. Why didn’t we just drive up to the base of those mountains?
We hunted the mountains all day and the next. I was beat, but wasn’t going to tell him. You do what you have to and don’t complain. In my years at the Forest Service you always followed the young Turks straight up the mountain and never complained, never telling them that your lungs were aching and your heart was beating so fast that it felt like it was going to explode, as well it might! You just sucked it up and went up the mountain. One foot after the other.
On that hunt we were on a high ridge eating lunch when the guide suddenly sprang up and said “elk!” The herd of elk was just a group of tiny specks on a distant slope. We glassed them and saw there was a nice herd bull: it took us about an hour to move down the mountain and across the valley. I’ll never forget that when we were about 400 yards from the bull my guide asked me “Do you think you can hit him from here?” He wanted me to take an off-hand shot! This was absurd; I’m a pretty good shot, but there is no way I’m going to shoot at an elk off-hand at 400 yards. The last shot I’d taken off-hand at an elk was years ago at 75 yards and I MISSED that bull. I told my guide that I was going to try and make it up to an opening in the trees about a hundred yards closer and see if I could shoot from there. I was using my 35 Whelen, which isn’t a long-range hunting rifle. After setting up with my Harris Bi-Pod I took a shot at the top of his shoulder and the rest is history. My largest elk at the time, although I’ve shot two larger since.
Now here I am in 2022 and it’s a little intimidating, frankly. I look up at the hills and mountains around my house and marvel that in years past that I could hike up those. That I could look at a place high up in the mountains and say, “That looks like a good area to shoot a deer or elk—and just hike up there and hunt all day.” I’ve had a good run ver the years: I've taken somewhere around 25 elk, all bulls. Those days are gone. This is what I have been realizing for many years now. My stamina is going. My muscles have atrophied. My mental toughness is waning. It is time to lay the 35 Whelen and 300 Winchester Magnum down and leave the elk high on the mountain to younger men and women.
But that will have to wait another year. This year I have a coveted special elk tag and I’ll try my best to get in shape. Lose 25 pounds or so. I’ll get on the Stairmaster that I brought up out of the basement last fall and tried to sell at a garage sale, then tried to give away to no avail. I’ll get back on my Total Gym and grind away for a few minutes every other day, listening to my joints creak and the bone-on-bone friction. I’ll take the dogs up the hill every day, too. Old Daisy, my 11 year-old Lab, can’t make it any more—and I barely can. It won’t be easy as I know have asbestosis from living in Libby, Montana for years and a heart aneurism. I’ll do my best to hike up that mountain at least part way to shoot one more bull. If he’ll let me. And, if I’m lucky, he’ll be my last bull. I promise.
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