Experience is a great teacher. At least that is what someone said. Sometimes experience can simply show you that you don’t know what you are doing!
Having entered the hunting world as an adult, I do not have the advantage of growing up learning and experiencing many of common hunting experiences. Many people get to grow up with a hunting mentor or teacher and learn from them. Experience is passed down and taught in those cases.
For me, I have must use any experience to learn everything that I can from it. I strive to pay attention to every detail, every clue, and every experience to grow my own experience and optimize my time.
I have now hunted elk for 3 full seasons. While I know I have a lot more to learn, I am thrilled with the knowledge I have learned in this short time. While I have experienced successes with elk hunting, I also recognize that in some situations I have really messed up. I contribute my success to a lot of hard work and a fair amount of luck, but I also have learned from mistakes I have made. While there are a lot I could point out, I would like to share three key mistakes I have made while elk hunting.
Mistake 1: Stop shooting. My very first time of elk hunting by myself I had an amazing opportunity to harvest a bull elk. After hiking all day, in the middle of the afternoon, I walked over a ridge in a meadow and stumbled across two bull elk walking through the meadow right towards me. I’m not sure who was more startled, but I enough wits about me to quickly pull up my rifle and fire a good shot at the first elk from 70 yards away.
It was a good shot. The two elk ran across the meadow and stop among a couple small aspens in the middle of the field about 120 yards away. Here is where I made my mistake. I looked at my elk through the scope and could see blood coming from where I had hit him. It was a decent shot and so I was hoping to just see him drop. While I didn’t have a perfect follow-up shot, I clearly had several opportunities to pull the trigger again, and yet I didn’t. I was afraid to miss and scare him off. I was thinking it wasn’t necessary. I was thinking I didn’t want to have a bad shot and ruin more meat or gut shot him. All those thoughts ran through my head as I hesitated to take another shot. Finally, the elk started to slowly move off to the left and so I took a couple steps to follow him. That movement is all it took and the elk took off across the meadow and into the woods. I tried for hours to track him but I never located him. I am convinced that he eventually died from my first shot, but because I failed to keep shooting, I missed the opportunity to harvest my first bull elk and provide a clean and ethical kill.
After that experience I promised myself to never pass up a 2nd shot. Elk and strong and resilient animals and once I pull that trigger the first time, it is my responsibility to follow up as much as need to finish the job. I owe it to the animal I am shooting and to myself to keep shooting.
Mistake 2: Failing to be comfortable with my gun. My second year of hunting elk, I had the opportunity to hunt cow elk during muzzleloader season. I had never participated in muzzleloader season before and instead of purchasing my own muzzleloader, I ended up borrowing a friend’s gun for the season. It was a great gun and very capable of doing the job, but my mistake I made this time was not putting in the time to really know the gun. I shot it a few times before the season, but was never comfortable with it. As it happened, the 2nd day of the season, I had a great shot at a cow elk from about 80 yards. I had plenty of time to set up and be comfortable and yet I must admit that I missed a simple shot. There were two main issues that caused my miss. The trigger pull was very light and so it surprised me a bit early when I pulled the trigger. Also, the open sights were on, but overall they shot low. When I took the shot, I thought I had adjusted correctly, but the miss revealed that I wasn’t really prepared for it. While I harvested a cow through a bizarre situation later that season, this mistake taught me that I need to always be comfortable and familiar with the weapon I use to hunt.
Mistake 3: Failing to check and double check once you shoot. In my 3rd season I made another critical mistake that taught me another lesson the hard way. I purchased a 4th season cow tag for myself and my wife and went out on the hunt. We spent a couple days trying to locate some elk but finally around noon on my 4th day, we were surprised by a lone elk that came bursting out of its bed. I had 2 decent shots at just over 80 yards and was fairly certain about the shots. I was excited to harvest a cow with my wife present and so after the shot we ran up to where the elk had been. Because of the snowfall the night before, we quickly picked up a set of elk tracks. We followed those tracks for quite a while. This is where I made my mistake. As I followed the tracks, something just didn’t seem right. While the tracks matched with the elk running off as we had seen, the track quickly turned to walking. It was odd to me that the elk would calm down so quickly, but I was excited and kept going. Then the elk tracks begin to meander through the woods. Eventually the tracks even start working their way back to where we originally took the shot. I thought this was very strange and was trying to figure it out. Convinced we had a hit elk, I refused to consider any other options. Even though there were no traces of blood anywhere along the tracks, I had my mind set we were going to find a dead elk soon. After following the tracks for quite some time, we eventually lost the tracks and had to hike back down the mountain empty-handed. After thinking about it overnight, the next day I hiked up myself to the area and decided to take another look around. I went back to “the scene of the crime” and easily found where we had started to follow the elk tracks. However, this time I took my time and looked around. After a bit more observation I found another set of tracks about 10 yards beyond the previous tracks. They were hidden behind a small row of bushes. I followed those other tracks not 30 yards and found my dead elk. Because I had punctured the stomach cavity and did not find it till the following day, all the meat was ruined. I learned another hard and valuable lesson. When you pull the trigger, consider ALL the options.
My hope is that in sharing these mistakes you can learn from my experiences and not make these same mistakes. I hope my experience encourages you to get out and hunt yourself. I have made mistakes before and I will make more in the future but I will never stop trying. I hope my story gives you the courage to get out and make your own mistakes, learn from them, and become a better hunter because of it!