If ever a group of hunters could be classified as prime candidates to land leading roles in a remake of the old Western comedy show "F Troop", it would be our group of four middle-aged Nimrods from North Central Pennsylvania. Afflictions from gallstones and degenerative arthritis to knee and foot ailments had severely limited our ability to attempt any serious pre-hunt physical conditioning. In discussing this concern with our host Will Nelson, he jokingly commented that we'd just, "Walk less and shoot farther." Oh how the latter half of that statement would come to fulfillment. There's an old quote that says, "You eat an elephant one bite at a time." and this philosophy manifested itself throughout the physical demands of our adventure.
The opening stage for our hunt would be set in south central Wyoming in pursuit of Pronghorn Antelope on land open to public hunting. The group of hunters participating were; Will and Gina Nelson of Colorado, Mark Perry* of Colorado, Wayne and Harry Mendoza of Louisiana, Wayne Jusslin of Louisiana, Chris Laylon of Pennsylvania, Paulie Parsons of Pennsylvania, Harry Shields of Pennsylvania, and Phil Heasley (myself) also of Pennsylvania . The weather conditions during the hunt included temperatures in the upper 30's and sustained winds of 35-45 mph with brief periods of light rain mixed with sleet.
After arriving at our destination, we split up to hunt individually or in small groups. The Pronghorn were easily spooked as this was the tail end of the season and there had been a lot of hunting pressure in the area. Getting within a few hundred yards of these "prairie ghosts" proved to be very challenging. However, everyone had success at finding Pronghorn using the "Spot & Stalk" technique. We eastern hunters were faced with longer range shot opportunities then we usually encounter. But, by early afternoon several pronghorn had been harvested. I tagged out on a nice buck then met up with Chris and Will to exchange congratulations before deciding on a plan of action to retrieve the downed game. Our little group teamed up to drag their three pronghorns about 1 mile to a spot near my buck where they could later be transported another 1/2 mile to the access road. Will headed off cross country to get his pickup while Chris and I went back to get another downed speed goat farther in country. This drag would be approximately two miles across the top of the butte to reach the access road. I had removed my hunting coat at the truck, opting for a lighter fleece jacket to wear for the chore ahead which proved to be a regrettable decision. On the return trip, Chris and I got an appreciation for the "Eating an Elephant" thing with each labored step we took. I can remember walking shoulder to shoulder with Chris and still feeling that biting Wyoming wind cutting through my light clothing along with the stinging rain and sleet pelting our backs and uncovered hands clenching the drag rope. Thankfully, Will and Gina showed up to finish the last several hundred yard pull to the truck. Harry and Paulie still had a buck Pronghorn tag so they stayed until dark and Harry succeeded by scoring on a buck late in the afternoon. Exhausted, we climbed in the trucks for the long drive back to Denver to process the harvested animals and get ready for the opening day of Colorado’s 2nd rifle elk season on public hunting ground.
Elk season dawned with the mercury hovering in the mid 20's but quickly warmed up in the brilliant sunshine. I knocked a 5x5 bull down mid-morning with a 300 yard shot across the sage meadow I was watching. The bull made it into the timberline but I could see him laying down from my vantage point. I made a rookie mistake by not giving him enough time and started through the sage only to spot him regain his feet and disappear into thick pines. Will and his cousin Bill Glenn showed up to spend a couple hours piecing together the Bull's trail which proved extremely difficult as no blood trail was evident. Watching the Colorado hunters work out the trail gave me a real appreciation for their skill as woodsmen. A bit later another hunter reported seeing the bull in open timber just uphill from our location and right before dark I located a single drop of blood on a faint game trail. I marked a waypoint on my GPS , intending to return the next morning and renew the search. Will harvested a cow elk on the way back to the truck so he field dressed it with Bill's help and propped it over a log to cool for the night.
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Back at the Nelson's cabin, plans for the following day were made. Will would take Chris and Mark up to the top of the mountain to check out a spot that had proven productive for elk in the past. Gina would accompany the Louisiana hunters in their quest for Mule Deer. Harry would hunt elk near my stand from the previous day. Bill and Paulie would head to Will's cow to quarter it up for packing out. I was going to hike up the ridge from the main highway to the waypoint I had marked the night before to search for my bull. The plan was for everyone to get a couple hours of hunting in then several of the group would head to Bill's location to pack out the meat while the rest would join me in the continued search. At 9am my radio crackled and I heard Bill saying,"Phil I need you and Harry here as soon as possible. Chris and Mark have elk down and Will said he will need everyone available to help." With three elk on the ground there was no choice but to change my course and help the others. The cow had to be taken out in one trip so the four of us shouldered heavy packs and started the mile trip down the front side of the ridge to Bill's truck.
After we unloaded the packs, Will's truck pulled into view and Chris excitedly filled us in with accounts of their elk harvests. He said, "It was the highest place I've ever been other than flying." Gina's remark that we'd need to, "Get ready for your eyes to pop and your head to pound", gave me a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. We found the Louisiana hunters resting at the parking area after successfully tagging out on two mule deer buck and enduring an exhausting drag back across the mountain retrieving them. The group loaded into the trucks and headed up above the tree line to the snow capped peak. After reaching the top, Will approached me saying, "Phil, I need you on this one." Gina, Bill, Chris, Will, and myself would hike down to pack the bull and cow out. They had already brought two hindquarters up after tagging the animals so we would try to finish the task in one trip. Paulie and Harry would be used as spotters in case anyone got in trouble on the steep slope.
I took a deep breath and wandered over to the edge for a look. I remember praying...
"God, I can't do this on my strength. You're going to have to carry me each step of the way and be my strength."
We were at an elevation of 13,500 feet and I was standing on the edge of the rim watching the rest of the packers picking their way down the steep mountainside to reach the two downed elk 1/4 mile below me.
As I started the descent my thoughts returned to the months previous to our hunt but especially events of the past three days and God's Faithfulness to those who call upon His name. The experienced Colorado hunters made quick work of quartering up the elk and I shouldered the first pack loaded to climb back to the top.
Isaiah 40:31 must have been written with an application to include coverage for elk hunting... "but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings of eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."
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On the ride back we spotted a big bull's head on display at a temporary camp just up the mountain above the sage meadow where I had lost the bull the previous day. Harry and I returned later that evening to talk to the hunter to see if there was a chance that he'd come across the one I had wounded. After talking to the other party I knew that any further search would be fruitless on my part. But, God is Faithful and I still had 3 days to hunt! On Monday morning our Colorado hosts had to head back home to work. Paulie still had an open Pronghorn buck tag for Wyoming so Chris drove back up with him to try for one before flying home on Thursday. We had a snowstorm dump four inches on Tuesday night, so the Louisiana hunters started for home early the next morning. I headed out solo at first light Wednesday morning because Harry had survived an assault the day before by a Kamikaze mule deer doe but the side of his truck hadn't fared very well. So, he went into town to have a new mirror installed for the trip home since we were towing a trailer. He would meet up with me later at the parking area. My plan was to try to cut elk sign by using an old White-tail hunting tactic by still-hunting in a two mile long figure "8" through new growth and lodgepole pine. At 9:00am I cut sign and the stalk was on. I caught up with the small group of elk at 10:30am and was blessed to be able to harvest a 5x5 bull. This time it was just Harry and I to try "Eating the Elephant" and pack the elk out by ourselves. I first called my wife and then Will to share in the news of my harvest then tried to reach Harry to have him grab the backpacks. After chatting a moment with him, I chuckled because I could picture his shoulders slumping as an involuntary sigh escaped his lips with the realization of the task ahead. I quickly learned that field dressing a bull elk is quite a bit larger of a chore than a White-tail buck. We were able to manage accomplishing our goal in two trips without a glitch though.
As I slipped my pack off, I spotted Harry heading up the slope toward the goal line. The memories of an incredible hunt and all we had been able to accomplish through the Grace of a loving God filled me with a happy satisfaction and the humor of the scene just seemed to warrant one final photo.
"Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed." Proverbs 16:3
This hunt far exceeded anything we could have hoped or dreamed for. A special Thank You to our Colorado friends for making this an adventure of a lifetime.
*A special Congratulations to Mark Perry who has been battling cancer and was still able to harvest a threesome of Pronghorn/Elk/Mule deer. His cheerful attitude was one of great encouragement and inspiration to all of us in camp.
About the Author: Phil has been successfully hunting PA White-tails almost four decades with longbow, recurve, compound, pistol, rifle, and muzzleloader. He is also an avid turkey hunter of 15 years. A certified PA Hunter/Trapper Education Instructor for 7 years (now retired), Phil also founded C.A.S.T.E.R.S. (Children Accepting Salvation Through Efforts of Religious Sportsmen) Hunting Club in 2000. Devoted husband and father, Phil has been employed in the Automotive Technologies field for 30 yrs. Phil can be reached via the Hunting Resource Forums.