Is Ringo Starr an old elk hunter? He sure could be because all elk hunters know, “It Don’t Come Easy.” To write a song like that, he had to have brought home an empty tag or two in his life just like me. I had been paying my dues and singing the blues for quite a few years. How many, you ask? Well, if you put all the elk tags I purchased from the Idaho Fish and Game end to end, they would stretch to the moon and beyond. Okay, maybe, that’s an exaggeration. Although the IDFG surely appreciated my optimism over the last three decades, I wasn’t feeling the love. At 42, I had yet to tag a bull.
Nearly everything about the hunt, I dearly love. We all do, right? Every year, I look forward to the coming season with great anticipation. I enjoy setting up camp, wall tent or no tent. I love getting out before light in the morning and ending the evening with stories by the fire. And, of course, the best food is always elk camp food. I’m even a glutton for punishment because I like packing game. And, obviously, you know you have to help your buddy when he shoots something. What kind of friend wouldn’t help his buddy get his big bull out of the woods? Whether it’s way down in a draw, in thick brush, or on a steep canyon, year after year, you have to be there for him. Yeah, I love almost everything about it. But, truth be told, I’d like to shoot my own, gosh darn, elk. I’d like to pack out my own, gosh darn, bull. And I’d like to eat my own, gosh darn, tenderloin. If only, just once! But we’ll get to that later.
Ah, the hunting buddy. We all have one, two, or even ten. What would any outdoor sport be without them? I’ve got one named Nick. I’ve known him more years in my life than I haven’t known him. He’s a mighty fine elk hunter, too. Remember how far my unfilled elk tags stretched? His combined wouldn’t even make a good eye patch. You know the kind of hunter. He’s the type that has his garage filled with antlers instead of space to park a car. He’s the guy that applies for the extra tags in the state as well as two to three other state tags every year. He likes elk, and elk like him. Those elk aren’t too bright. We call him the “Elk Whisperer.” But, after a while, it’s not too funny anymore. Have you ever had a hunting buddy that irritates you just because he always fills his tag? He never fails to share his meat though. That Nick- he’s a good buddy.
All joking aside, it doesn’t always come easy for Nick. He started in high school and has just gotten better over the years. He reads, studies, and plans it out. Nick’s philosophy of elk hunting is like that famous quote, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” You could say Nick is a natural. He reads Teddy Roosevelt, too! Who does that? One of his favorite Roosevelt quotes goes something like, “I’m not a great elk hunter, but I’m a persistent elk hunter.” He’s told me that a time or two. Nick is also persistent in helping his not-so-natural elk hunting buddy. What I know of elk hunting, I learned from him.
This brings us to elk season 2009 in beautiful Eastern Idaho. We had planned this trip since spring. After a grueling opening day (in which we only saw a calf), we decided that, on day two, we would head up a ridge Nick knew to hold elk. We were each going to skirt the ridge and meet near a bowl further up. The timber was thick, but higher up, my side of the ridge began to clear. It was steep, so I was huffing and puffing when I got to the clearing. I was looking for a place to sit and watch uphill. Then, all of a sudden, I saw a cow come trotting over a rock ridge to the left about 300 yards above me. I tried to hide and get into position. I was thinking there could be more elk to follow, maybe even a bull. As soon as that thought occurred to me, there came a bull right behind her! There was no time to think! She was already in the trees, and he would be there in seconds. Lord, help me, I asked. So, I shot my 7mm mag standing, which is my least favorite position. Bang! He trotted behind the two small trees and into another 10 yard window of opportunity. Bang! I waited to hear any sound in the trees. Silence was all I heard. I knew I had missed.
How could I not have missed? I was caught unprepared, out of breath and, on top of all that, I took a standing shot. I felt terrible. No, make that horrible. I waited about five minutes before doing the “dutiful” climb to look for blood. I figured the shot was approximately 200 yards uphill. I found his tracks and searched the ground for blood. I looked to the left, then the right. Then, what a glorious sight to behold. I didn’t miss! There, in the sage, was a stone dead elk! Now, when I say I couldn’t t believe it, I really couldn’t believe it.
It was my first bull. I hit it! Meat! Woo-hoo! I was laughing and crying at the same time. I thanked God. I had heard some say it’s pretty emotional when you get your first elk. Now, I know they are right. I had been unsuccessful so many times before but not anymore. I figured I missed on the first shot but got him in that last window with my second shot. The angle was so steep it entered dead center in the boiler, exited on the other side of the spine and severed it. I couldn’t have asked for better placement. I shot the gun, and the good Lord directed the bullet. I heard a line from the movie, “Jeremiah Johnson,” running through my head. Bear Claw said, “You got ‘em, pilgrim. You nailed ‘em clean!” He sure was a nice 4 pointer and good eats, too!
Nick was pretty excited when I told him the news. He was just as thrilled as I have seen him with his own elk … like a big kid. He was so happy for me that he might as well have shot a six pointer for himself. He had sensed my disappointment over the last couple of years. He laughed and told me he knew I had to get one this year, or he may lose a hunting partner. We continued to hunt for six more days while trying to get his elk. It never happened. We were back home cutting and wrapping the tasty goodness when he noticed the elk’s shoulder bone. “Where did you say you shot him again?” he asked. It turned out I hit him in the shoulder the first time I shot, after all. Maybe all those years of practice weren’t really wasted.
Nope, my first elk didn’t come easy. You have to pay your dues to sing the elk huntin’ blues. I know a lot of people shoot a lot of elk before they are 42. It didn’t happen for me until October 16, 2009. Maybe you appreciate it more when it comes a little harder. Any advice I can give? Keep at it and don’t give up. It’s also nice to have a hunting buddy that doesn’t give up on you. That is sure to help you keep going when those unfilled tags stare back at you. I have read that Ringo later admitted George Harrison helped him write “It Don’t Come Easy.” Yeah, I’m sure of it- he’s an old elk hunter.