Elk Hunt Epiphany
By J.J. McMahon
We can call it an “elk hunt epiphany” if you wish as a revelation came to me while tiptoeing along a game trail on this late December hunt somewhere deep in unit 9. There I was with an hour of daylight left on the final day of our much-anticipated elk hunt. Even as a self-proclaimed optimist, I was definitely a bit melancholy as we had pitched camp nine days earlier and there were two elk tags drawn for our camp. As of 4 p.m. on our final day, both were empty.
The weather was cold, and the dust was terrible. It was that fine dust that kicks up and finds its way into every nook and cranny of everything. It was in our eyes, in our ears, in our sinuses, and in every box of food, every cooler, every sleeping bag, and every piece of fabric. We had hunted hard hiked many miles and we had planned and prepared. I thought I deserved an elk! I had been to the range, studied the unit map, spoken to seasoned hunters, scouted, glassed, and increased my cardio a month out. Yet, there I was, an hour of sunlight left and faced with the looming inevitability of another season gone and another empty tag.
“Here we go again, McMahon,” I thought as my memory faded back to the high school state wrestling finals. My coach had told me five words that have always stuck with me, “No one remembers second place!” As I sat on the side of the ridge, feeling sorry for myself, I drifted off in deep contemplation. In a panorama of emotions, I was transported back to my youth when I was 10 years old and learning how to properly cross a fence with my bow during my first hunter safety course. Back then, it was fun and exciting. Back then, I didn’t need to “win” anything, I didn’t need to have a payoff for perceived hard work, and I didn’t need to be rewarded.
Like most kids that I grew up with, I enjoyed being outdoors. I liked looking for potato bugs, lizards, rabbits, and squirrels. I enjoyed popping the heads off dandelions and blowing the tops off those one plants, the ones with the little, delicate, transparent, white tops. You know the ones. For me, the forest was an enchanting wonderland full of mystery, intrigue, and beauty. I remember standing in complete awe when I stood 20 feet away from my first deer as we looked into each other’s eyes or the amazement of seeing a ringtail cat hiking through a desert wash in southern Arizona. There was the first time I was 10 feet away from the blood-churning bugle of a mature bull elk in rut or the incredible agility and speed of that first antelope in the fields near Bryce Canyon or my first mountain lion sighting. I remember seeing wild turkey on the San Carlos Indian Reservation, my first Coues deer, my first porcupine, that Colorado River otter, that first bald eagle, and catching my first large-mouth bass at Lake Powell. This list goes on and on.
See, growing up, my family was not big outdoor sportsmen, but I was fortunate enough to have one of my best friend’s family as my wilderness mentors as they were avid hunters and anglers. I remember many winters spent in my buddy’s grandparent’s cabin, watching the adults process their deer and elk. The atmosphere was always energetic and festive with kids running around everywhere and a lot of laughs as the adults recalled the glory days of hunting adventures past. They were not only mentors to me but also stalwart advocates of their chosen passion. They took hunting very seriously, teaching us respect, ethics, and conservation of both our lands and those amazing animals that we shared the wilderness with.
I don’t exactly remember my age when it morphed from a wander lust for everything nature to bragging rights and feeling entitled to a trophy buck or bull, but suddenly, there I was, passing up a 350" bull in hopes of a wall mount worthy of my peers' adulation. I began to believe that there was no value unless my name was honored in Boone & Crockett. I had made the switch. It was now a sport, and I had to win. I needed a “whopper” to hang on my wall, something that I could post on Facebook, something that would further polish my ego and impress my crew. As I continued to contemplate everything up until that moment, it finally hit me. After almost four decades of this amazing journey, I realized that I had already won. It wasn’t a filled tag that made the hunt successful, but simply the fact that I was with lifelong friends in magnificent country, pursuing a truly amazing creature and all in a moment of time that could never be replicated. I realized that I had actually won a long time ago and that hunting is and will always be about friends, family, love, respect, laughter, tradition, and fun, a lot of fun!
I remembered that I was with my two best childhood friends of 35 years and my pal’s 12-year-old son who had drawn his first elk tag. These were two men that I’d matured with, brothers who had shared success, failures, happiness, grief, life, love, death, and everything else life can hurl at you, yet they remained steadfast and loyal. In these times of expecting instant success without the hard work and dedication necessary to achieve it, results are often more revered than the journey to get there, where achievement is measured by the color of the medal or the size of the trophy, where the size of the trout is more important than the fight into the net, and where the 350" bull could have been 400", or where, “Yeah, the Coues was nice but it didn’t make P & Y,” and the list goes on.
From this day forward, I vow to never forget to recognize and appreciate the journey. Whether it was my first archery javelina hunt with different sized arrows and boots that were too tight to this last elk hunt with thoughts of entitlement, I will remember the passion and appreciation that originally drew me to this wonderful connection of man, animal, and the beauty of nature.
Today, I will dedicate myself to evolving as a hunter and as a man. Today, I will consciously approach this honored pastime with respect, tradition, skill, patience, dedication, and ultimate acceptance - an ethos to hunting that honors the value of my tag and the journey it represents, rather than if it gets filled or not.
As I contemplated all the aforementioned and came to terms with my empty tag, I promised myself that I would write an article about the importance of the journey and not the destination, about how success can be misinterpreted because of its perceived expectation of reward, that whether I filled a tag or didn’t, the experience was equally as beautiful.
After I committed to this article, I sat down for one last opportunity to glass, and low and behold (and every word of this story is the true), I saw an elk 350 yards out. As I steadied my crosshairs on the sweet spot, took one last deep breath, and slowly exhaled, I took a moment to thank God, the Universe, the Big Bang Theory, the Great Spaghetti Monster in the sky, my friends, and my family. Finally, I smiled and thanked the majestic creature that now nourishes my loved ones.
Thank you, Danny, Mike, and Christopher! Thank you, all!