You would think that I would learn after a while.

Big game can be hit hard with a high velocity bullet and leave no trace. When my wife Diane shot a cow moose a decade or more ago with a .35 Remington, the animal disappeared into a fir thicket. There was no indication on the ground of a hit at all. No hair. No blood. Not a drop. She said she heard the distant death crash. We eventually found the lung-shot critter, which ran about a fifty yards and expired.

A few archery seasons ago, an 8-point September buck bounded off with my deflected arrow in its vitals, though I didn’t know it until we found the deer hours later. Same deal. Nothing on the ground at the point of impact. Not a hair, or a drop of blood.

In each of these cases, though, some careful tracking, re-tracking, and meticulous detective work, led us eventually to the kill.

That was not the case this past October in Colorado’s Routt National Forest.

It is the opening day of Colorado’s first rifle season for elk. As the warming sun cascades over Pagoda Peak, a small group of elk, moved by other hunters, shows up on cue, almost as I had planned it. As they high-tail it by me in an aspen grove, I shout, “Hey!” The lead cow brakes hard and turns to pinpoint the danger. At 40 yards, I have a quartering shoulder shot between too closely spaced aspen trees that are between me and the elk.

The cross hairs line up and the Ruger #1 .270 barks. The elk scatter up the aspen-studded knoll above me. As they get to the top, they turn and travel parallel along the edge of the dark timber. The biggest elk, the one that I think I shot, does not appear to be hit.

The smoke clears. I wait and listen. Everything is quiet. Then I search for sign, for a cut hair or a drop of blood. The departing elk leave hoof prints in the grassy ground that are easy to read. I track them for a hundred yards or more. There are gray aspen dead-falls criss-crossing their track. No blood, though, not even a pin prick. My heart sinks.

I cross examine myself. “Is it possible that you missed, that you “pulled” the shot?” I conclude that it was possible but not likely. The sight picture is, even today, still vivid. “The cross-hairs were dead on,” I tell myself.

Back at the place of the elk encounter, I get on my knees and carefully study the ground and scrutinize the high grass for a spot of blood. Beyond the aspen grove, on up the hill, there is a maze of old dead fir and aspen. For the next three hours, I clamber about and crawl over and around the maze of dead trees. I also do a concentric search around the perimeter of the aspen grove.

It is noon. Discouraged, I meet up with Diane, who insists that she heard my shot. “You must have hit it,” she says.” Right after you shot, I’m pretty sure I heard the death crash! Sounded just like when my cow moose went down for the last time.”

Her recollection is that the sound came from up the hill from where I fired. Encouraged somewhat, I search all afternoon, leaving enough time for the hour hike back to the truck. Darkness comes on. No elk.

The next day we are hunkered down at “elk camp,” waiting out a 24-hour mountain blizzard.

It is day three. There is a 6-inch blanket of snow on the mountain. I am back at the scene of my elk encounter. There is a set of canine tracks that look big enough to be wolf. The tracks lead up the hill where Diane thinks she heard the death crash of my elk. I follow the tracks for an hour or so. Nothing. (As it turned out, I should have backtracked the canine tracks.)

Back at the aspen grove, I sit down and break out a sandwich. I try to reconstruct, to put all the disparate pieces together, to think outside the box. Then I hear a crow circling above, off to the left, caw…caw…caw.

It was a sledgehammer blow. My elusive elk! Pinpointing the crow’s position, I find the elk after a time. The 350-pound animal is upside down wedged between the crib-work of dead aspens piled upon each other. I am heartsick. The elk’s hindquarters are gone, presumably eaten by the wolf. The viscera stinks. In a futile, desperate act, I skin back the hide and hack out a backstrap. Rolling the backstrap in cleansing snow, I give it the sniff test. No dice. The meat is sour, gone bad.

I leave it all to the wolves and who-knows-what critters, and walk away. Glancing back, I realize with a shake of my head that I had walked within a few feet of my elk on the first search. It had departed in the opposite direction of the other fleeing elk. I never saw it go, so fixated was I on the other elk. Except for a protruding rear hoof and a few inches of rear leg, the animal was all but invisible.

Fellow hunters, trying to be comforting, assure me that, “this is hunting. Things happen.” I know better. Yes, there were conspiring circumstances, some bad luck that misdirected the focus of my search. But that does not exonerate me. I should have tried harder and gotten my head out of the box earlier in the search.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected] . He has two books “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.” Online information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com or by calling Diane at 207 745 0049.


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