TAKE THE SHOT? The Elk of a Lifetime Presents A Shooting Dilemma – Presented by: Springfield Armory

Watching dawn break over the mountains and listening for elk bugling in the distance.

The monster bull is circling the hilltop, trying to reach an east-facing thicket where he can disappear permanently. Only 15 yards distant when he erupted from his bed in the brush, he’s now sixty or seventy yards away and going as fast as a bull elk can run. Fortunately, due to his circuitous escape route, he’s now running broadside. Your crosshairs find his vitals and then swing through to the front edge of his shoulders. Aspen tree trunks flash through your scope, giving only brief, intermittent clear glimpses of the bull.

It’s now or never. Five or six more jumps and the bull will be over the hill and gone. The chances that you’ll find him again are small. Do you press the trigger?

LIMITED ENTRY ELK

You’re a resident of Utah, but even so it’s taken you almost two decades to draw the elk tag you now hold. Even then, you got lucky. Statistically, your chances of drawing another tag like it during your lifetime are less than your chances that the queen of England will propose marriage to you. This tag is attached to one of Utah’s very best elk units, and you’ve scouted hard to find a great bull. At the top of your list are two bulls, one non-typical brute with a long, dagger-like tine that reaches rearward from the bottom of his left main beam, and another typical seven-by-seven bull that sports double sword tines on both sides. You’ve seen them both inside the last 48 hours. But you’ve also seen many other hunters scouting the same woods, and know that they are after the same bulls. For that reason you’ve decided to bivy camp on the mountain with the elk; it’ll give you the jump on any hunter trying to access the elk from the road system. But these bulls didn’t get big and old by being stupid; once pressured they will be hard to find, even during the rut. One opportunity is all you’ll probably get. If you’re lucky.

Every elk hunter’s dream; more big bull elk in one place than most hunters see in a decade of hunting.

SHOOT OR DON’T SHOOT?

Stars sparkle cheerfully above, only reluctantly submitting to the growing light over the eastern mountains. You’ve been awake for an hour, watching the stars and listening to the bugling frenzy of elk rutting in a ridge-side meadow only 400 yards upwind of your bed. It’s opening day, and you have the best elk tag of your life in your pocket. In the valley miles below, you hear the sounds of roadside hunting camps coming to life, ATV’s buzzing, and generators humming. The elk hear them too and go silent, moving into the timber and away from the sounds. You slide out of your sleeping bag and stuff it into your pack. Picking up your rifle, you fade northward into the timber after the elk. Opening day is here.

An hour later you still haven’t caught up with the elk, but you have gotten a thin, high-pitched bugle in answer to an inquiring cow mew you sent into the woods. The sound resembles that of a yearling bull but you don’t trust it, knowing that old, fully mature bulls often use such bugles. Why, it’s hard to say; perhaps they know hunters key in on big, gruff bugles. Or perhaps it’s a way to avoid conflict with other bulls, more rash, but still young and vigorous. Regardless, something about the sound of the bugle makes you wonder. Stealthy, you circle around the east side of a small hilltop to try and spot the bull. Tall Aspen timber covers the hill, reducing visibility. The bull sounded like he was down off the south side, but after watching and listening for long minutes nothing shows. Shrugging, you turn and retrace your way north, only this time you circle the west side of the hilltop. Waist-high scrub brush deflects your path slightly. Suddenly, a huge bull elk explodes from the brush at your feet like a flushed quail, blasting through the timber as hard as he can run.

Instantly, you recognize the bull. He’s famous across the mountain; a nomadic bull that’s given every trail-camera junky a shot of his magnificent non-typical rack. He’s at the top of your hit list. Without conscious thought, your rifle is at your shoulder and the crosshairs are trying to catch up with the bull as he flashes through the timber.

The rifle used in this story. Sleek walnut and blued steel, it’s a classically beautiful piece.

RIFLE SETUP

Your rifle is a classic bolt-action chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum. It’s one of your favorites, and with it you have a long history of successful hunts, mostly one-shot kills. Your ammo is Federal Premium, topped with their excellent 180-grain Trophy Bonded Tip bullets traveling at about 2980 feet per second.

The riflescope is a beautiful example of optical perfection made by Zeiss. You’re set up to dial for distances out to about 600 yards if necessary, though on this timbered mountain shots tend to be much closer. For that reason, you keep the scope turned to its minimum power setting, which will provide a wide field of view in case of a close encounter. If a long shot becomes necessary you’ll take the time to crank up the power, set your dial, and get settled into a steady field position before pressing the trigger.

My brother with his limited entry Utah bull, a huge, massive old monarch that gross scores over 400 inches.

MOMENT OF TRUTH

Ask yourself; are you a skilled enough shooter to make a clean kill on this bull? The shot is exceptionally tough, on a running animal through trees. My personal answer? No, I’m not skilled enough to cleanly make this shot. No matter how badly I wanted that bull, I probably would not have taken the shot. And in my opinion, the same decision should belong to almost every hunter.

Remarkably, there are hunters capable of making this shot. I have a brother (the hunter in this story) who is one of them. In my opinion, he is one of the finest all-around shooters on earth. He has a lifetime of studying ballistics, training for and competing in a wide variety of competitive shooting sports, and hunting, to help him make this kind of shot. He has trained for and passed the running game shooting test in Sweden (required before hunting there). In my opinion that contributed to his ability to make this particular shot.

By my brother’s account, his peripheral vision picked up a small gap in the timber ahead of the running bull. When the bull crossed the gap his crosshairs were on the front edge of its shoulder, and he broke the trigger. The bullet smashed through the elk’s shoulders, bringing him crashing instantly to the ground. A perfect one-shot kill, on the hardest hunting shot I personally have ever seen attempted.

What do you think of this scenario? Would you have taken the shot? I’d love to hear your questions, comments, and opinions in the comment section below.

AUTHORS NOTE:

I was along to help with the scouting and calling during this hunt, and want to point out some very interesting points about the behavior of this old bull elk. First, when he answered my cow calls, he sounded like anything but a big, old bull. Secondly, when he heard/saw my brother coming his direction across that little hilltop, he layed down in the scrub brush and hid. He must have laid his chin on the ground and tipped his massive antlers back along his body – a behavior I have personally watched bulls do to avoid detection. Only when my brother closed within fifteen yards or so did the bull jump and run. When he did, it was at a dead run toward the nearest doghair timber (read thick as dog hair). Fascinating behavior.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • E August 22, 2021, 5:06 pm

    Amazing bull! I’m an Ohio deer hunter. This type of shot happens quite frequently. Each time is slightly different and has to be judged on the fly. I’ve only lost one or two deer in twenty six years gun hunting. Both were in a wet swamp up against private land that I can’t get permission to hunt. I’ve made this shot before in a couple different ways, both the pull through lead and the hold in the opening method. I’ve also passed up this kind of shot.

    I hear a lot of hunters say they can’t find a moving animal in the scope. I believe that rabbit and bird hunters have a slight advantage in a situation like this. While walking, their experience “snap shooting” gives them the ability to put the gun into the right orientation as soon as the quarry flushes from cover. It puts the scope on the animal even before your eyes settle on the crosshairs.

    I feel that I would be able to make a clean shot on a bull elk in a situation like this. However I’d have to be in the moment to know. I’ve missed stationary targets because I had too much time for “buck fever” to set in. Some times muscle memory and instinct can make quick events go smoother. Your experience takes over and not your brain. With all of this said I don’t believe everyone should take a shot like this. Could end up regretting it the rest of your life! Congratulations on a life achievement!

  • Walt Zumwalt August 20, 2021, 1:03 pm

    Over the past 50 + years hunting both elk and deer with bows and guns I like to think of myself as a typical hunter. Never lost an elk. One deer running into a swamp. Passed by dozens of elk some within 10’ and protected by heavy brush!! Never regretted my choice always loved the thrilling experience. Good luck to all!

  • Maynard Sorensen November 9, 2020, 5:06 am

    Aram….great story and lifetime friend. You have planned your life so as to be able to give guys like me a real chance to succeed in a hard to draw hunt. You sought me out, made it affordable and saw to it that we had a nice bull on the opening morning of a UT. muzzle loading hunt 20 years ago. I was 75 yrs old then. I am still trying to draw that tag again with points. Than you for looking after me so well. You and your brother are the best. God bless you and your brother.

  • WVRidgeRunner November 6, 2020, 10:02 pm

    60 yards with that setup, I would have taken it. Having been a door gunner instructor for several years, flying at 165 MPH shooting at a 48 x 48 pallet floating in the ocean and watching the items on the target and the pallet in splinters, this scenario would be a chip shot.

  • WVRidgeRunner November 6, 2020, 9:54 pm

    60 yards and with that setup, yes I would have taken the shot, better than 3 to 400 feet and moving at 125-275 MPH as a aerial door gunner instructor. Once you learn to successful hit the 48 x 48 target and be able to sink it. This should be a chip shot.

    • WVRidgeRunner November 6, 2020, 9:57 pm

      Should have read 175 MPH but normal speed is 165 mph.

  • TOM BROLLINI November 4, 2020, 9:28 pm

    Had the same thing happen to me in the Oregon Tioga unit of Coos county in the early 80s. Even the same cal. 300WM, 180gr, but only a 5by6. My shot was the same small window as the Elk ran quartering away, but it was only 40yds or so. You don’t have time to do anything except snap it up & shoot. Elk is the best meat in the world. Too bad Oregon has turned into “kommiefornia”! Hunting is probably the next thing they’ll outlaw!

    • AW Oliver November 5, 2020, 1:12 pm

      Good on you!
      I have hunted Elk and most all game possible at one time or another. Especially in Oregon.
      Sadly the state has closed off access to us to use our BLM lands. Now we pay to use what is ours. The Leftist in our Government sing about the environment etc.. yet look what they have managed to do. They made the biggest fires possible, why? No management of timber after the “no post logging burns and only replant GMO Firs, wee have Fire land snd not even good for game and or wild life. Predator management just sucks. So it is!

  • Virgil Jones November 3, 2020, 12:53 pm

    I personally would not have taken the shot. However, if you have the skillset it’s doable. The downside is the chance of a bad shot and the following result. You can’t take it back once the trigger breaks. Better feel REAL GOOD about your abilities. To shooter’s gonna have to live with the consequences.

  • Jim Wacker November 3, 2020, 9:50 am

    Your brother did what I would have done. The advantage of a scoped rifle is being able to pick a spot ahead of the animal and waiting for the animal to enter the sight picture. As soon as you have hide in the scope you squeeze off the shot. My best whitetail to date was on a dead run through the Kentucky woods and I put not one, but two bullets through him 1″ apart and he piled up. the only reason I shot the second round was because I hit the tail end of his lungs and he kept going.

  • Ace November 3, 2020, 9:20 am

    60 yds. Good light. Yes.

  • Gregory Kirk November 3, 2020, 8:25 am

    What an amazing story was very well written. Alas, I probably would not have taken the shot. I would have been too scared.

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