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.
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.
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.
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.
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.