Elk Hunting: Double down in deep snow

I have lived most of my life here at the feet of the Rocky Mountains, and I’ve been lucky to enjoy much of what this beautiful landscape offers. This winter (22-23) has been one to remember, not only because of a welcome change in weather patterns, but also because of the circle of life that is affected by it.

As a child and teenager, I remember epic snow storms that would pile ice deep around our yard. So deep in fact that my siblings and I would burrow around through the piles of snow that Dad would stack up while cleaning off the driveway. But those distant memories have faded now, partly because snow like that has been scarce for nearly as long as I’ve had children. This year the snow came back, pummeling our mountains time and again with an ever deeper snow pack. So deep in fact that many of the herds of animals that often winter in the canyons around this valley have been driven right into town, even causing serious traffic delays on interstates.

As a hunter, I was excited to see how this welcome return to normal snow-pack would improve the hunting situation in the state. Surely the heavy snow-pack will help fill our water bodies back up, but what about the herd of elk that I chase every winter here in the mountains above my home?
The early snow had fallen, and had begun to push the animals down in elevation and much closer to the canyons and draws where I wait for them every November. This year myself and a good friend we’ll call Dustin both had antlerless elk tags. I’m torn by the premise of these tags, I have little faith that my state’s wildlife agency has anything other than budgets in mind when it comes to them. I suppose the purpose is to keep the number of elk from getting too out of hand, and perhaps the light hunting pressure on the herds keeps them just far enough out of suburbia to prevent unwanted interactions. In my experience from watching many other hunters with the same tag, I think it is a fairly low success for most. Our experience however has been one of great success, due mainly to the fact that we live close enough to watch the mountain every day, keeping tabs on when they arrive and where they go every year. The fact that every year we return, to pattern their habits also adds a great deal of experience that improves to our success.

Can you spot all five bulls?

With the return of heavy snows, Dustin and I spent weeks watching elk, calculating when the right time would be and where we could intersect with them. For those who have never taken elk, I’ll explain why. Elk can be very large animals, getting a whole elk off of a mountain in four or five feet of snow can be very taxing on your hunting energy.

A picture from a past hunt, in these conditions it can get dicy quick

Rather than overexerting ourselves and pushing everything to our limits, we prefer to tactfully engage with our prey. Waiting for the right time and place can greatly reduce the effort needed to extract our prize. I prefer to get them out whole, to reduce lost meat, so that is always my first choice.

After watching several bulls for weeks, I was starting to get worried that their cows had perhaps had gone another way this year. And our season was quickly coming to an end, with less than a week left I was becoming more desperate.
Luckily, Dustin was also looking, and he had a bit more luck on his side of the mountain. I walked into my office on a Friday morning, only to get a text from him that he’d spotted some cows, and they were definitely doable. I gathered my things and jumped back in my truck to head towards Dustin, knowing that I would at minimum be able to help him get one out should he shoot one and potentially shoot another myself.
Before I could get there Dustin already had put one down, taking a mature young cow from a group that numbered around a dozen. The rest of them made their way over the ridge into the next drainage. After showing up, I helped him get his cow the rest of the way back down to the trail. Despite being his first elk ever, Dustin already understood the how and when to shoot an elk. Ensuring it was all downhill to our destination, and with minimal obstacles allowing two guys to get her down without further assistance.

After a surprisingly easy extraction, we decided to see if we could find the others since it was still before noon. We knew the direction the herd had gone, so we decided we’d go that direction to see if we could find them, or another group of elk. This time of year, elk typically don’t go far even after having been shot at.

Dustin and Benson

We found ourselves looking up into another drainage, hoping that there were more elk hiding within it. The plan we agreed upon was to hike up to a small saddle that would give us better perspective of the area, and with any luck we’d get a shot from there.

Of course the sunshine was quickly covered up by menacing clouds as they began to drop snow on us and the temperature began to drop. Still uncommitted to making a full effort to the bowl above us, we chose to take the easiest path which was a game trail that worked around a south facing ridge with less snow-pack. We worked around the edge of the bowl until we had to directly cross over a hilltop through some trees. Our approach had unbeknownst to us presented us with a near perfect scenario, as we skylined over the hilltop our silhouettes were obscured in the treeline. It was at that point I picked out the shape of three elk, laying in the snow a mere 250 yards away.

Just before the shot was fired

We quickly got into position to make a shot, the deep snow making a perfectly comfortable and stable shooting position. I laid my gun across my backpack to get the right angle on the unsuspecting elk. One of the three must have noticed the goings on, and stood up to get a better look at us. The other two lay next to each other, perfectly aligned.
I told Dustin I was going to shoot the standing animal, and we waited for her to present a perfect broadside shot. As usual, I carried my Desert Tech SRS M2 that day. But this time I had installed my 7mm Short Action Ultra Magnum barrel, something I hadn’t hunted with for several years. I’d taken another elk and a deer with it some years prior, but today it was chambered with something new. I was shooting the 151 grain Cayuga solid bullets from Patriot Valley Arms. The SRS M2 and the 7SAUM have been incredibly consistent and deadly for me, so as I closed the bolt looking at these elk I knew we were about to embark on a lot of work.

As the young cow turned giving me a good broadside shot, I put my finger to the trigger and began to press. The snow slightly obscured the view through my Steiner scope, but I still had every confidence as the trigger broke. The incredibly fast bullet impacted the elk before we even heard the shot go off, but it echoed across the canyon, muffled by the dense and snow-filled air.
The elk immediately reacted, lurching forward into a sprint across the top of the ridge. I watched as she ran, favoring her right shoulder. The stiff leg she clearly didn’t want to use bounced as she hurried over the hill in what could only be described as a fast hobble. The other two elk followed her after leaping to their feet.
Much like times before, despite not seeing the elk after they crossed the hilltop, I had a warm feeling knowing that the 7SAUM does not take prisoners.

We hiked across the draw and found their bedded imprints in the snow, and easily found the ungainly tracks in the snow with the crimson confirmation that I had indeed hit the mark. We followed the tracks and blood which at first seemed less than ideal, but the closer we got to the downed elk, the blood trail became extremely evident. Surprisingly we never saw the other two elk again, but we laid hands on our prize for the second time that day. The Cayuga had hit the mark perfectly, breaking the right shoulder, passing through the lungs then exiting just in front of the left shoulder.

Clockwise from top left: Blood trail, bullet impact, broken shoulder, and pulverized lungs

I had to go against my own preferences, as the lay of the land would certainly not allow us to drag her our whole. We decided to cut her up, and pack out in pieces with the help of some friends who were quick to respond.

For the next couple hours, Dustin and I went to work reducing the animal to carryable portions. My dog Benson eagerly lent his assistance and attention while trying to stay warm.

Once again I stand here in my kitchen with freshly packaged meat neatly wrapped and ready to freeze. The venison we take every year fills our freezer and helps sustain the clean and healthy meals for our families. As I look out the window at the deep and cold snow in the mountains around us, I can’t help but feel thankful for the bounty we’ve been given. And thankful for friends with whom I can share the experience of thriving survival, and with whom I can share the delicious cuts of meat.

-CBM

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