The Day I Became Addicted To Hunting Elk
By Cindy Kofford
I did not hunt as a kid. I lived on a dairy and beef farm/ranch, so when the boys went deer or elk hunting, it was the girls who stayed home to milk the cows and do the chores. When the men would return from the hunt, I would run out to see what they had shot. I loved hearing the stories of what had happened during the trip. Truth be told, I am the daughter of an old fashioned dairy farmer who never thought a woman should be hunting.
My youth hunting experience consisted of shooting a few ground squirrels with a .22, so when I married a guy who liked to hunt, I did not think much about hunting until he suggested that we go deer hunting the first year we were married. I thought that was a good idea, and I was onboard. When you're 23 years old and have never hunted nor had a hunting license, there is a problem. I had to take hunter education with 12 year olds. That was awful! Good news, I passed the test.
Soon after, I started having children and hunting was put aside. All the while, my husband continued to hunt and hunt and hunt. One day, I decided that it was my turn to have some fun. I put in and drew my first elk tag. I was excited. Fall is my favorite time of year, so I was happy about hunting elk but probably happier to be riding my horse in the fall beauty. Those priorities changed quickly after I got into elk that first day.
The night before my hunt opened, I set up camp with my husband and son. We got everything ready for the morning. It came early, really early! We wanted to get up the mountain and in place before light. We saddled the horses in the dark and started up the hill. Riding my horse in the dark was a bit scary, but I had pushed enough cows in the hills at dark that I wasn’t too scared. However, with no cows in front of me, I worried about what might jump out and spook my horse. As the dark began to fade, I watched every ridge, bush, canyon, and tree to spot an elk. As we rode over the last hill and into the bowl where we would sit, I looked up the hill and saw it.
I whispered to my son, “There is an elk.”
He looked up the hill where I was looking and said, "Mom, that is a bush, but look over there.”
That was when I saw 150-200 head of elk coming over the ridge and down the hill towards us. I was in awe at the sight of all those elk. We hurried to cover and tied up our horses. We started up the hill and further into the trees. My coat wasn’t hunting approved as it was too noisy by my guides (my son and my husband), so I ditched it in a tree and kept moving. It was then that the elk started to file around us, so we stopped and sat down.
We found ourselves smack in the middle of several herds of elk that had probably been pushed by hunters over the hill and into where we sat. There were several herds, so the bulls were trying to get their groups back together. To do this, they were screaming and bugling at the top of their lungs. Cows were chirping and milling around, not knowing what to do. I sat there in amazement as the bulls screamed and yelled at each other. Cows and calves moved within yards of me and chirped. My heart was pounding as I froze in place, so I wouldn’t scare them. Then just below me, a big bull bugled at a couple smaller satellite bulls that were trying to steal his herd in all the confusion. I lay on my stomach and got ready to take a shot. It was then that the bull I was looking at was pushed off by a bigger bull. All I could see of the big bull was horns. As novice as I was, I could tell that it was a big ol' bull. It was then that I was in a conundrum. Should I shoot the smaller bull or wait to see if the big one moved out? Remember that all this time elk were moving quickly past me and moving up the canyons on both sides. Hunting with two men, well, let’s just say they are bossy when the animals show up. I was asking, “Should I shoot?” One said yes, and the other said no. Then came the lamest advice of all, it is your hunt, you decide. The bigger bull never showed again, and the elk moved off quickly. In that moment, it was like being in a tornado of elk. The sound of a bugling bull has to be one of the coolest sounds I have ever experienced.
To be right in the middle of several herds and hear multiple bulls and cows was incredible. The sound of them crashing through the trees, bugling, chirping, and the smell of them mixed with the mountains moved me. It was at that moment that I became addicted to elk hunting. It’s funny because I found out that elk hunting is not about taking the animal, it is about everything else.
We tried to get back on the herds for the rest of the day but with no luck. They were cruising and left us in the dust and out of my unit.
We made our way back to camp that night, and even though I had had a great experience, I started questioning if I should have taken the small bull. I drove my husband crazy telling him that I’d never see another elk. I guess I had my elk high, and that night, I was experiencing my elk low. I did not sleep well that night. All I could see was elk, and all I could hear was bugling.
The next morning, we got up early again and saddled horses. We tried some different areas but no elk. We rode several miles, and I was sure, just like I told my husband, I would never see another elk! We stopped for lunch, and I ate my Kipper Snack in honor of my dad. My dad had to eat Kipper Snacks when he went hunting or on a pack trip. My husband told me I was going to scare every elk out of the country from the smell of them. I was discouraged because I had hunted a whole two days! Looking back now, I was such a rookie. We continued to ride for most of the day until it was about an hour before dark and no elk.
Hust as we turned to head back to camp, I heard that awesome spine tingling sound - an elk bugle. He was close. I turned my horse and headed below a small rise. He was just over the top. I was so excited. I tied my horse to a tree, grabbed the gun, and headed over the rise. My husband and son were too slow and I couldn’t wait. I was leaving. My husband had to sprint and about tackle me to stop me before I got to the top. It was then that I learned the concept of not skylining yourself to the elk. I did not know that; I was just getting there and they were slow.
We got low and crawled over the rise. There he was, the big bull I had seen earlier herding his cows around and up a trail. I thought I might have a heart attack my heart was racing so hard. My hands were shaking, and I could not hold the gun still. He was close at only 50 yards. I got down on the gun and was ready to fire, but for some reason, the gun was shaking. I took that last breath and started to squeeze the trigger when he moved back into the trees. Wow! I experienced that elk low again and thought this time I may cry. Just then, he appeared and pushed one more cow into the trees. I had just a few seconds and could only see him from the kill zone up. I took the shot and then he disappeared. I was shaking so badly that I just lay down on my gun. My husband said, “I think you missed.” It was then that I really did cry. My heart was pounding excitement and emotions had met their limits, and after all that, I had missed!
We stood up and walked toward the trees and up the trail to where I had shot at him. My husband told me to stay back a minute. The whole time, I was asking him, “Did I really miss?” He was only gone a few minutes when he came back out and told me to follow him. I was dying at this point and wanting to know what had happened. My husband pointed up the hill and there was my bull tipped over. At that point, he laughed. He had known the whole time that I had shot the bull. He saw the bull hump up when I hit him. What a jerk! I punched him and then went to look at my bull. To me, he was huge. I was so happy. It was so fun to work hard and accomplish what I had set out to do.
Shooting an animal is easy. It is the work of processing them after that is difficult. I was glad that I had a son and husband along to do the heavy lifting. I helped some but supervised mostly. I shot the bull about an hour before dark, so by the time we cleaned him out and opened him to cool, it was dark. My spirits were still floating as we headed back to camp. It was about an hour or so ride down the mountain. It was dark when we started, but it got really dark. This time riding in the dark, I did not have to be quiet, so my son and I sang Christmas songs really loud on the way out. I really did not want to be surprised or have my horse surprised by something in the dark.
We went back the next morning and packed the bull out. I led the pack horse down with my horns on top. I was still on my Rocky Mountain high, and I probably smiled the whole day. Before this experience, I had always told my husband that I did not want any horns in my house, but when my bull came back from the taxidermist, well let's just say that he looks good on my wall.