Hog Blog Friends In The Field – Serra’s Tule Elk Hunt
August 15, 2014
Big thanks to my friend, David, for sharing this story and pictures. Like him, I’ve been putting in for the Grizzly Island tule elk hunt for years (since 1997) without success. Congrats to Serra for drawing this hunt!
How’d it work out? Here are David’s own words and photos.
About Tule Elk in California and the Tag Lottery
For as long as I have been hunting, I have put in for the lottery drawing for a Tule Elk tag at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. The wildlife area is home to a few hundred head of Elk and although they are free range animals, they rarely go far from the wildlife area and when they do, they always return. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife manages the elk herds here and throughout the state. Their stated goals are to maintain healthy elk herds, reestablish elk in suitable historic range, provide public educational and recreational opportunities involving elk, and to alleviate conflicts involving elk on private property. Part of the management plan calls for a limited number of animals to be harvested by hunters. The number of tags in a given year can vary but the competition to win a tag is steep, sometimes there are more than a thousand people trying for the same tag. For instance, last year’s period 5 bull hunt had two tags allotted with over 1600 applicants. That is a 1 in over 800 chance; not very good odds. I know people who have been trying to obtain a tag their entire hunting careers and have never done so. Imagine my surprise when I logged in to the DFW website to check our draw results and saw that my daughter, Serra, had won an antlerless tag. We would be hunting in the first hunting period, August 12-15 (on her 16th birthday no less). With more animals to be harvested this year, maybe the odds were in our favor, maybe the hunting gods were in a good mood on drawing day or maybe it was birthday luck. Whatever it was we weren’t questioning it. We were thankful and we knew we had a lot of work ahead. We had to incorporate scouting trips and a whole ton of shooting practice into the 2 months from the tag drawing to the actual hunt.
Serra has had a license since she was 12. She has taken deer, quail and ducks. She hunts deer with a Marlin 1898 in .44 Remington Magnum. A fine gun for a deer out to 100 yards but for elk, we would need to step it up a bit. We knew, from our experiences duck hunting on the wildlife area that these animals can get so close to you that you can see their breath in the cold foggy mornings. Nothing like duck hunting and to have a bull elk walk right through your decoy spread. At the same time, they may stay several hundred yards away. Whatever the case, we knew that we had to be prepared for a wide range of shots. For this hunt, Serra would use my Browning BAR Semi-Automatic in .300 Winchester Magnum. This is a very flat shooting gun and can handily take down a big animal out to several hundred yards. The gun was a gift from a very dear friend. After shooting it some, my friend and I had a muzzle break added to it to reduce the recoil. Between the semi-automatic action and the muzzle break, there is hardly any kick to it at all. Perfect for my daughter; she could shoot it a lot and not worry about the kick and just focus on improving accuracy. We practiced on various targets from bowling pins to cans, to bottles to traditional targets. We practiced shooting at various yardages with the targets at different elevations from ground level to eye level to above eye level. This gave us small targets to shoot at different sight lines and it gave her the confidence to make a pin-point accurate shot knowing that if she was off a little from a tiny target that the mistake would not be so detrimental on a large animal.
Next we had to scout the wildlife area in an effort to find a large group of cow elk and learn their patterns. Luckily, we live about 40 minutes from the area so we could take some trips after work and on weekends to scout it out. The first trip, we found some bulls but not a single cow elk. We were a little down on this but we ran into a game warden who took time to congratulate Serra and to explain their habits and patterns to us. He told us to give it a couple of weeks and come back. He said that the Cows were pretty spread out but in a couple weeks the smaller bulls would be herding them up in preparation for the rut. Heeding his advice, we returned in a couple of weeks and just as predicted we were finding large groups of cow elk being herded by rag-horn bulls. One group in particular had over 65 head of elk, most of them cows. This was the group we would continue to follow and watch until we had the pattern figured out. We knew where they were going to be and at what times and we even formulated our plan for the stalk and the kill. This was going to be easy I thought. I had visions of a short stalk and about a 60 yard chip shot. I think I heard the hunting gods (the same ones that showed us favor in giving us the tag) giggle. Actually, I heard one of them do a spit-take followed by bellowing laughter.
Prior to opening day, DFW hosts a mandatory orientation. The tag winners, six in all plus their spotters/helpers, attended the orientation. It is led by Pat, the area manager, Orlando the area biologist and the local game warden (I forgot to get his name). They cover everything from safety to elk habits and patterns to giving you tips on where they have been seeing the elk and strategies for getting close. Their goal is to ensure safety during the hunt and to help you to be successful. They did a superb job. They also provide you a phone number so that when you harvest an animal, they can respond out to pick it up. They collect a myriad of scientific data including live weight and biological samples such as the front teeth so they can determine age.
Opening day started early, with the alarm going off at 3am. It was unusually cool for a summer morning. The wind was strong and fog was blowing in from the bay. My good friend and neighbor, Matt, would be accompanying us on the hunt. I am disabled and although we would hunt as a group he would help guide Serra to the animals and get close enough for a shot where I could not. As we drove into the wildlife area in the cool dark morning, a big bull elk and a spike elk bolted from a creek bottom up and over the gravel road. They were running full bore as they crested the road. They had been out on private land all night and were returning to the wildlife area. This got the heart rate going. Was it going to be this easy with elk just crossing right in front of us? I heard another hunting god snicker.
Grizzly Island Wildlife Area sits in the middle of the fabled Suisun Marsh near Fairfield, CA. Suisun means Land of the West Wind and the Native Americans that inhabited this area were called the Suisune or “The People of the West Wind.” In order to hunt these animals, you have to respect the wind. You have to keep the wind in your favor at all times. We noted during scouting trips that the moment the elk smell you, they group up into tight herds and sometimes, they will run off even if they have not seen you.
Our plan was to set up in parking lot 12 and catch the elk as they moved from the north west to the south east through the area known as the “closed zone” to duck hunters. Our scouting trips revealed that this is where they would migrate. Seeing those bulls in the dark coming from a private club to the north and heading south east only boosted my confidence that the elk were moving our way.
So there we were, 5:52am, shooting time. We were out of the truck and ready to go. Serra was actually standing on the tailgate, trying to get high above the tule patches, creek bottoms and undulations that mark this land. Elk could be anywhere and they are masters of using the land for concealment. Matt was scanning the area from the ground and so was I.
Seeing nothing, we took a few pictures to document our day. A shot rang out to the south east. The south east? Had the elk already moved through? How could this be? I convinced myself that this was a different herd. We talked about waiting them out and to see if the elk would come through as planned. We didn’t wait long though as the anticipation got the better of me. We drove around to the north west side of the area and went to the spot where we saw the bulls cross the road. In one of our scouting trips we had seen a small herd of cows in this area hanging around a large bachelor group of bulls. We found the bachelor herd and glassed every elk we could lay our binoculars on. Matt and Serra kept calling them out to me, “Spike, spike, bull, BIG BULL, spike, bull, spike…” Not a single cow among them. We decided to go back to the original plan and head back to parking lot 12 and set up a stand and wait for the elk.
We didn’t wait long, as a matter of fact; we didn’t have to wait at all. The large herd that we had scouted was there in the pond. 60 or more elk comprised mostly of cows, a few spikes a dominant bull and a few smaller bulls. These elk are entering the rut. The big bull was bugling and herding the cows and fighting off the smaller bulls. He was putting on quite a show as he tilled up the earth with his antlers, flinging turf all around. The cows were also calling out. Sometimes the lesser bulls would get close to the cows and the herd bull would charge at them. Most of the time they would retreat but a couple of times the herd bull had to push them away with his massive antlers. We had over half a mile to walk in order to get to a point where we could intersect the herd and have a safe shot. Before the stalk, we saw the other junior hunter and his grandfather. They harvested an animal from this herd at first light. That was the shot we heard to the south east. This herd was traveling from the south east to the north west and having been shot at would be more than wary of us. Knowing this, we started our trek using the tules for cover always keeping the wind in our face. The island is being flooded up for duck habitat and every time we thought we could cross through a tule patch to get close, we were blocked by knee deep water. We continued walking. Eventually we got to a spot where we could set up for a shot. It was at this time that we saw hunter orange. Another hunter and his spotter were already set up in this area. At this point all we could do was watch the rut as it unfolded and to see if the other hunter would harvest an animal. The hunter did his job and dropped a cow elk from the herd. The herd began grouping up at the sound of the shot. Eventually, they worked their way north west and away from our location. We humped it back to the truck. I heard the hunting gods laughing again.
We were heading toward camp, stopping from time to time to glass the area and see if we could locate the herd. Matt would sometimes get out of the truck and stand up high on the side steps in order to get a vantage point above the tules. As we neared camp, Matt found the elk again. We met up with the biologist who told us to go back to camp and hike north along the dirt road until we could get ahead of the elk and downwind of them. After another half mile walk, we had to cross some open fields that had been plowed for duck habitat. Also, the flood waters were slowly but steadily beginning to fill these fields. We crossed the fields and got to within 400 yards of the herd. The wind wasn’t the greatest and occasionally they would smell us or see us and would group up. In order to safely harvest an animal we needed them to spread out and give us a shot at a lone cow. The waiting game began. We had walked to a levy where we could get on some higher level ground but in order to do that we had to cross a waist deep creek. Since our waders were back at the truck in camp, this wasn’t an option. These Elk were not going to stay here long. We watched them for 20 to 30 minutes hoping they would move closer but they did not. They were slowly angling away from us. Serra was ready to charge through the creek, set up and take a shot. Matt and I went over every possible game plan including letting them go and coming back in the evening from a different angle that didn’t involve a creek and a long shot. Ultimately, we decided that the elk were here, we were here and Serra had been practicing so hard for this sort of shot. Serra kept telling us, “I am ready, I can do this.” We couldn’t pass up this opportunity; it was time to put practice into action. Matt had folded over some tules making a bridge over the creek. That would get us most of the way across without getting too wet. Matt’s plan was that he and Serra would cross the creek and then belly crawl up and over the levy. Once on top there was almost no cover so they would need to keep crawling to a small patch of tules that would break up their silhouettes. If they were still un-detected they could try to get closer but once over the levy there was no cover at all. They would most certainly be spotted. They unloaded the gun, crossed the creek and began their crawl. I stood on the tule bridge and took pictures. They had to crawl over star thistle and elk scat to get to the top of the levy. Once on top they glassed the herd and decided which cow Serra would take if she got a chance. Once they settled on an animal, Serra would crawl ahead and get into a seated position, load her gun and deploy her bipod to steady the rifle. There was no way to avoid being a silhouette and the elk spotted her. Many of the elk that were lying down now stood up. Fortunately she was able to make herself very small as she prepared for the long shot. The shot was over 300 yards in heavy wind blowing from our right to left. Matt coached her as she got ready. She waited till the elk spread out and ensured there was nothing in the background such as a calf or another adult. Once the cow was isolated, Serra squeezed off a shot. Immediately, we watched the cow elk go down. Her aim was true and her dream hunt was realized. Matt jumped up at once and was fist pumping and shouting. Serra made the gun safe and joined the celebration. I too was celebrating forgetting I was on a tule bridge surfing above waist deep water. Matt came down to get me. I took one step and fell through. We both started cracking up. I was up to my crotch in water as he dragged me out of it and up the levy. After high fives, hugs and salutations, we called the biologist to meet us at the elk. We started our walk out to retrieve the animal. We took photos and tagged it. Orlando and two other biologists came out to collect the animal and transport it back to camp.
After the Hunt
The biologists went to work collecting their samples while we sat on the tailgate and ate lunch. Orlando told us that the elk weighed 330 pounds. They collected two of the bottom front teeth and sometime next year we will get a letter telling us the age of the elk. Once the biologists were done with their work, we were clear to begin the cleaning and care of our meat. DFW provides game gambrels and rack to hang it. They even cart off the entrails for you. Matt and Serra made quick work of the animal and I kept the knives sharp and pitched in here and there. I also harvested the ivory whistlers from the elk so that Serra could make a ring or necklace as a permanent reminder of her trophy. We cut out the back straps, tenderloins, heart, liver and flanks for processing at home. We quartered up the rest of the animal packing the quarters inside the rib cage and covered it in ice for the trip to the butcher. At the butcher, the hanging weight of the elk (minus the cuts we were taking home) was 170 pounds. I am guessing that the hanging weight including the cuts we kept would be around 200 pounds. After the butcher, we came home and told everyone about our adventure. Eventually it was time to break down the meat we brought home. We use every scrap of meat on the animal. We don’t let anything go to waste. I cut up all the meat in prep for aging it in the refrigerator. I make three piles, the good cuts, the jerky cuts and a pile of trim which I cook down, combine with rice, peas and carrots in a rich gravy for dog food. I put it all in gallon bags and back into the refrigerator for aging. At various times during the week I will vacuum pack the good cuts and freeze them. As you are reading this, I have jerky on the dehydrator and we will be enjoying it by the weekend.
In about three weeks, the rest of the meat will come home from the butcher. With all the ducks, geese, wild hog, trout and striped bass, we will be set for about a year with organic, free range, wild meat. It makes me happy that my family hunts, knows how to process their take and appreciates it enough to utilize every bit of the animal out of respect for the sacrifice that it made for us. I also love the fact that again, for another year, we don’t have to buy our meat proteins from the store where most of that meat comes from a corporately owned super-market farm and are injected with drugs, hormones, etc.
I am happy to have friends in my life that help me in the field when my body can’t do what it used to do. Without them, I would be forced to watch these stories from the sidelines and not be an active participant out there with my kids as they succeed at something that is so challenging. As Matt said when we were out there, “It is all about the adventure.” As my other good hunting partner has always said, it is about building the memories. Your body may break down and we all get old, but no one can take away those memories. I am very happy to be building new memories and enjoying these adventures with family and friends.
Mostly I am proud of my daughter who put in the time and effort to prepare for the hunt and then put all that practice to work with a very long shot. She got the job done and she earned every bit of that elk. I hope that this memory, this adventure will last her a lifetime. I know that I will never forget it.