Hog Blog Friends In The Field – John’s AZ Elk Hunt
October 22, 2013
My friend, John (JAC) pops in here from time to time, usually to keep me honest when I’m off on a rant about lead-free ammo or other such stuff. But he also gets out for an occasional hunt, and this season he was fortunate enough to get after an elk in his home state of Arizona. As I requested, he sent me a write-up about the hunt.
Events in the field often don’t play out quite like we plan them. This was the case for John, and as you’ll see, he had to do a little internal processing after all was said and done (as evidenced in the title he gave the piece). I’ve been corresponding with him via email, so I’ll hold off on repeating my comments just now. I’d love to hear what some of you folks think, though.
How to fail massively and wind up with 265 pounds of elk venison
I went elk hunting last week in hopes of finally filling my freezer in accordance with my desire to eat no meat but that which I’d hunted myself. I had only two rules: first rule, don’t shoot a cow with a calf, and second, don’t violate the first rule.
My excellent friend Steve has a place in Payson, Arizona, and last year, he and I hunted mule deer on the high desert that falls away from Payson toward Phoenix and he agreed to help me again this year. He is excellent in the sense that he is good at being a friend, and in the sense that he is good at being a compassionate person working in the morally and legally complex field of law enforcement. You guys would get along, actually. Like you, he has a pick up truck that is 72 feet long. Like yours, It has a big, happy dog in it a lot of the time. He sees game when it’s too far away for me to see it the way you do. And like you, he runs off in pursuit of it. I told Steve about my rules and he said not to worry, there were so many elk around I’d tag out the first morning after picking my shot.
I bought a 30-06 last year in case I was ever drawn for elk. I took it to the range this Spring to sight-in for the first time. I fired ten times over the course of an hour and then went out to the concession and bought a bottle of water. When I came back I was on the right side of the rifle for the first time and I saw a six inch scratch running lengthwise under the bolt-knob. I first thought someone handled it while I was gone and dropped it against the table. But that would be such an egregious, unimaginable violation of etiquette, I decoded instead that I must have pulled it from the case against the zipper and scratched it myself.
Beginning in August, I loaded lots variations of rounds with Nosler E-Tips and the first time I went out and ran them over a chrono and checked their accuracy, some of the groups were perfect little clover leafs and I figured I was one seriously dangerous elk hunter. The next time I went, however, the groups opened up to several inches and the scratch felt rough when I wiped down the stock. The third time out, after a few shots, the scratch grew and forked. There never was a scratch of course, the stock had fractured during the first few shots. So last Tuesday I took my 7mm-08 to the range with a box of reloads made by Stars & Stripes Ammunition and a lump in my throat. I’m a great worrier and I was seriously worried about the diminutive cartridge for elk. I salved my worry by writing friends (sorry you were one) and pointing out that the 7mm-08 is more powerful at 200 yards than a 30-30 is at the muzzle. Pretty thin gruel for my ravenous anxiety, but it’s what I had. Apropos of your post on copper projectiles last week, those Stars & Stripes rounds fired 140 grain Barnes TTSX bullets at 2863 fps. The rifle shot two sub MOA groups like it usually does and I went home and cleaned it. Wednesday morning I went to the range and fired two fouling shots and spent the day getting supplies I needed. When I was loading up Wednesday night, the moon was big and bright. I’d not been paying attention to it and hadn’t noticed it during the week and I hoped it was waning.
I drove up to Payson on Thursday. Leaving dinner that evening, it was clear the moon was waxing instead of waning. It was sitting hugely on the horizon. At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, the moon was fully up and casting shadows. The wind had picked up too making the 32 degree temperature feel especially ugly. We drove out to a 125 yard wide electrical line easement that ran for miles, off loaded Steve’s Polaris, and drove off into the cutting wind, no headlights necessary thanks to the moonlight. The plan was to get up high and glass so after stashing the ATV, we bombed up several hundred feet of a nearby slope, Steve demonstrating how he got the nickname Big Diesel. That guy doesn’t race, but he doesn’t slow down either. Ten minutes later, fully warm I settled in to wait for dawn. Fifteen minutes after that, fully cold, I was silently rooting for dawn to hurry the hell up as I pulled my fingers into a fist inside my gloves.
The sun eventually rose and the cold abated, but he wind never relented. We glassed a long time, then Steve made a big loop through the canyons to see what he could see. I stayed behind in a shady spot, my rifle resting on my monopod and glassed the easement. The area seemed likely. There were ravines falling away on both sides of the easement, filled with a mixture of oak, pine and spruce. There was a lot of elk scat. I stayed in the field all day, still hunting up and down the ravines and eventually found a narrow draw in the easement where the ground fell away pretty quickly to a floor of fresh grass. There was even some clover growing there. I sat up on the edge in the afternoon shadows with the wind straight into my face. Around 3:30 in the afternoon a big coyote with a beautiful red plume at the end of his tail came over the lip of the far side and trotted down the slope. At 60 yards he did the National Geographic front legged hop and stomp, lunged in after whatever he’d stomped up, pulled his head out of the grass and tossed something into the air, caught it, chewed it and then tossed his head back to swallow. For the next five minutes that handsome boy raced around a little blue spruce, lunging in here and there, sometimes upending himself to get an whatever he’d found. He eventually came straight down into the bottom of the draw and crossed away from me to the other side, his tail looking the color of a red-headed baby in the sunshine. After the coyote left, I watched iridescent blue jays gathering food the rest of the afternoon. We don’t have birds like that in Phoenix and I don’t remember them back in Missouri either. II spent a pretty nice afternoon and I headed back to meet Steve at the truck in the gloaming. Steve had taken his quad on a loop of several miles but didn’t see any mammals himself.
Saturday morning we hunted a place named Walnut Flat. There was one truck in the pullout and another high up the mountain when we pulled in. The moon was insanely bright. We waited until 5:30 then got on the quad and drove off into the moonlight. As the first glimmer of daylight started to change the color of the horizon we headed off on foot. Walnut Flat is beautiful. It’s a large grassy mesa surrounded by ravines and there is a pond at the interior edge. We glassed, moved off and glassed again, hopping from juniper to juniper. We came across a ground blind situated to watch a huge open area. We spent the next hour, maybe two skirting the edge of the ravine to get over the edge of the mesa out of the blind’s field of fire. Around 9:30, Steve headed back to the quad to check on his dog back at the truck. I snuck along through the forest for a couple more hours. There was so much scat on the slopes above Walnut Flat that if I wasn’t standing in glistening black elk droppings, I needed only to take a step left or right to crush some. I don’t know where the animals were that left all the scat though. I didn’t hear any rifle shots either.
Saturday afternoon we headed out for a place called Hardscrabble Mesa. We took the National Forest road until it dead ended at an engineer’s dream of a gate. It was made of a rectangle of 4″ box steel with 4″ box steel cross supports. It’s end posts were sunk into concrete and guarded by gambion boxes filled with head-sized river rock which was cemented inside the wire. We left the quad and clambered past the gate to take a look a the road beyond. To our left were rock wall cliffs rising a couple hundred feet and to our right a drop off of lots of hundreds of feet. I never really got close enough to look straight down because I am somewhat, but not completely crazy. The warning signs said the road was unstable and it was hard to dispute that as we made our way down the hill toward a sharp curve guarded by k-walls. It looked like the monsoon rains had washed away the pavement and undercut the cliffs on the inside of road. We only walked for a few minutes past the k-walls and when we turned around we could see why they were there. There were four, maybe five crushed cars that had gone off the road. Those cars had free-fallen as little as 60 feet and as much as several hundred feet. The results were the same for all the cars, though. Gauging by the cars’ age, the road must have been built by the 40′s and the k-walls placed in the 70′s.
We took the quad to the top of Hardscrabble Mesa. That is a sunny, windy place without any water we saw or could find on the maps. Steve wandered off the utility roads once and reported that there was as much scat as on Walnut Flat, only it was all white with age. A couple hours killed, the sun heading for the horizon, we headed for the truck. If you are into zooming, terrifying quad rides, hop on Steve’s on the top of a mountain mesa with 45 minutes till the end of shooting light. Holy mackerel. As we loaded up, I figured that I’d seen a coyote, some beautiful jays and had had the ride of a lifetime. It was a good weekend already.
As I turned in Saturday night, I didn’t need to turn on the bedroom light, the moonlight sweeping in was plenty bright.
For the third morning in a row, my phone lit up and sang at 3:23 a.m Sunday. Steve had picked a third spot, near the East Branch of the Verde River and we lumbered out. It was as cold as the first day but the air was still. As we pulled off the highway, the headlights settled on three elk cows. A really big one, a medium sized one and a smallish one. There must be more, I figured but whatever else, I admonished myself, don’t shoot that mommy elk. I was suddenly very enthusiastic about the place Steve had picked. The pullout was u-shaped and we went back to the highway and found another. We left the quad and headed into the forest sneaking from moon shadow to moon shadow. We picked a big shadow behind a big cedar and stood still waiting for dawn. We could see the highway and watched two trucks pull off within sight of Steve’s. I was pretty unhappy since I had a proprietary feeling about the spot. We moved into the forest away from the people with elk rifles and ATV’s behind us. Steve was hunting, I think I was mostly thinking about putting trees between us and the people I could now hear coming up behind.
At 6:20 I saw a big white rump up the slope ahead of us. I had my rifle unslung so I couldn’t pull up my binoculars, Steve looked through his Swarovskis and said “That’s an elk.” I dropped to a knee, but Steve reminded me that we can’t shoot from, to or over roads, even logging roads. I think he reminded me by saying “Get off the road!!” so I scrambled off the road and stuck the stock of my rifle on a cedar branch and cushioned it with the rubber sling. I dialed my scope up and saw an elk turning left and looking my direction. Steve, watching through his binos behind me and a few yards to my right said, “I’ve got her, take her.” I clicked off the safety, settled the cross hairs into the dark crease low behind her left shoulder and fired. I couldn’t see her as the scope rocked back, but I saw two elk bounding up the slope away. Steve said she’s down.
I found her in my scope and she had gone straight down on her legs but her head was moving like she was trying to get up. My body was shaking pretty violently, my voice was involuntarily modulating. The sound of an ATV rumbling up behind stopped as Steve waved the other hunters off.
Then, to my exquisite horror, a small elk walked over to the one I’d shot and just stood a few steps away, obviously unsure about what to do. That little elk stood there a couple minutes while the head of the one I’d shot craned again and again as she tried to will her body to get up. That little elk stood there until the ATV behind us started up again and drove into her view. Steve was still behind me glassing and telling me not to shoot again. I only remember saying that this was 100% of what I didn’t want. I don’t know if we talked while I watched that elk through my scope except for Steve letting me know where the humans were. For several minutes after her calf left, I watched her and I just kept thinking I’d broken both my rules in my haste and excitement. I’d shot precisely the elk I didn’t want to shoot.
Five or so minutes after she finally laid her head down, Steve and I methodically made our way straight to her. There was a single drop of blood on her right side where the bullet exited. The Cedar tree I’d used as a rest didn’t have a John-sized branch so I was hunched when I fired. I’d pulled the shot up and left but, to be precise, it could have been bad shooting rather than the tree. The bullet caught her at the junction of her neck and body, passed through the near lung, struck the spine and caromed down, I guess, through the off-side lung and out. There was a thumb sized hole in the offside lung, a little one in the near lung. The spinal injury had paralyzed her and kept her in place till the lung wounds killed her. I hate to think how far she’d have run, leaving no blood trail, if her spine hadn’t been damaged.
The Payson-area processers were either full or not accepting elk with their hides on, so we hightailed north it to a mobile elk processing unit run by Miller Southwestern Processing, a Queen Creek (near Phoenix) operation. My elk was 10 percent larger than average. She dressed out at 265 pounds.
Some notes on my personal experience with Barnes’ bullets: I’ve now killed three big game animals using Barnes bullets; a pig in California with a Barnes TSX, an axis deer in Texas using a TTSX and this cow elk also with a TTSX. The pig was 60 yards down a steep slope and I pulled that shot up and left too, catching it under the jaw, and destroying its spine. It went down so fast, and the shot was at such an angle, that I saw the pig drop through my scope. The petals came off that bullet and I found them in the meat. The axis was a country mile off, but I was able to shoot prone with my rifle resting on its neoprene sling. I hit it in the chest, I know, because we found lots of frothy blood, but I don’t know how the bullet performed because we never found that buck. My cow elk died of the lung wound caused by the TTSX, though not in an acceptable time period. There was no blood at the entry wound and a single drop at the exit site. We ranged that shot at 121 yards. That bullet was traveling around 2570 feet per second when it hit her. It’s performance should have been optimal and we found no petals. But the holes in the lungs were’t at all what I expected and the larger off-side wound may have been the result of a tumbling bullet, for all I know. Steve, who has seen the insides of lots of shot animals, didn’t believe it was the lung wounds that had killed her and the debate wasn’t resolved until his lovely friends, a veterinarian and his wife, dropped by and gave the expert opinion that it had to be the holes in her lungs that were the fatal wound since the artery under the spine would have caused death in seconds, not minutes.
I went to bed last night thinking about the despair and terror to which I consigned that baby elk, and the weird fortuity of making a bad shot that was probably much better than the one I’d intended given the little TTSX wound channel. I took the wrong shot and made a bad shot. I did everything wrong. And yet, in the kitchen this morning, there is an iced cooler with five pounds of liver, an elk heart, and a tenderloin I need to take care of.