In early January, I heard elk on the mountain behind my house. The crisp air carried not only the cow calls, which sounded like trees bending in the wind, but also the otherworldly bugles of the bull elk, which sounded like a soundtrack to the northern lights.
I’d never heard of elk bugling in winter, but I added this surprising data point to my mental file of elk behavior that might someday be useful. Any time you see or hear an elk, it’s an opportunity to learn. And when you’re a hunter, every moment spent learning about your prey is a moment spent hunting. You pay dues like this eagerly if you want to fill your freezer with a year’s supply of clean, lean animal protein.
During hunting season, the pace can be exhausting. But in the off season, we can pursue our prey at a more leisurely pace.
Farmland deer hunting is more than sport or sustenance — it’s a human responsibility. Every farm deer you pop helps the farmers retain more of their crop and will probably save somebody’s car from a high-speed encounter at dusk.
My favorite spot for hunting farmland whitetails has been overrun with morons who have no manners or knowledge of hunter safety. The kind of idiots who would shoot toward a suspicious sound. So, I set out to find a new spot.
I finally scored, on a stunning piece of public land, early on the second-to-last day of the season. The buck was standing on the other side of the river when I shot him, and dragging his body across that river was the coldest, wettest, most joyfully quasi-hypothermic experience of my life. No meat tastes as good as whitetail buck that’s properly killed, cleaned, trimmed, wrapped and frozen. Not whitetail doe. Not even elk. If you don’t believe me, let’s go — meat to meat, mano a mano, pan to pan.
To prepare wild game, you often have to do more trimming than you would with a store-bought steak. Use a sharp knife to trim off any tendons, connective tissue and sometimes even a thin slice of the surface if it happened to get brown in the freezer. Lather your trimmed meat with olive oil and toss with salt and pepper. Heat the pan. Pour the wine.
I love elk meat almost as much as whitetail. And given how large an elk is, I would take one over a whitetail buck if given the choice. Especially a cow or calf, which are reliably tastier than bulls.
On the last day of the general season, still tired from dragging my buck across the river the day before, I found fresh elk tracks in the snow. The magic of snow is that it allows you to read the tracks in sharp detail. The magic of elk tracks is they lead straight to an elk.
At first, the tracks were single file. But they eventually fanned out as the individual animals began to feed on tufts of grass poking out of the snow. As the tracks slowed, I slowed, too, expecting to see some bodies bedded down on the snow. Then I saw that unmistakable glint in my peripheral vision. The same color scheme as the forest, but the reds, yellows and browns were a thousand times more vibrant. It was biggest cow elk I’ve ever seen. But her calf was nearby, mostly hidden in a bush, and there was no way was I going to shoot a cow in front of its calf. I’ve done that once, and the memory will haunt me to the grave. So, it was either shoot the calf or shoot them both.
I didn’t have a shot on the calf, but I had the cow’s ear in my scope at 100 yards, an easy shot. It was 3 p.m., and I was alone, about 3 miles from the truck. I knew from learning the hard way that if I shot the cow, the calf would stick around for an easy follow up.
But I didn’t pull the trigger. I had my buck on ice back in town, and in my laziness, I was able to convince myself that my buck was enough. Walking at a leisurely pace, unburdened by hundreds of pounds of meat and bone, I got back to the truck in plenty of light. I went for a soak in the hot springs, then went to a local smoke shack to feast upon some brisket and deep-fried, pickle-brined chicken breast, followed by a well-earned lemon bar. Nothing beats the hunting lifestyle. Whether or not you kill it yourself, you’ve earned the right to eat some meat.
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