A father and son redefine what it means to be successful while chasing elk in wild country.
Morning sun shone on tawny hide as the bull elk weaved through granite and grouseberry. Black hooves pounded on hollow high-country soil as the bull toiled up the ridge, stopping to scream a challenge and then starting up the ridge again. He disappeared behind a copse of subalpine fir; I knelt and bugled back, bugle tube reverberating in shaking hand. Before the echo of my bugle faded, he answered, and I could hear the clatter of rock and the twisting of brush as he thundered into a small drainage between us—he was coming.
“Dad, get ready, he’s going to be here in no time,” I whispered.
Dad glanced down at the rifle in his hands, as if realizing for the first time that things were happening fast and he didn’t yet have a round in the chamber. The Mauser action on his decades-old Ruger .270 clicked open and slid back, and the bull screamed again. He was close now, 150 yards and closing.
I scanned the sparse timber below us. Tan hide flashed through an opening and the bull came into sight like an apparition, looking uphill. Dad crouched a few yards to my right and from his angle there was still no shot. My rifle sat loaded on my lap. I had a tag, too, and I pondered shooting the bull; I could kill him from here quite easily. Even shooting offhand, the range was less than a football field. If he winded us he would be gone, probably for good. And elk sure as hell aren’t easy to come by. I knew Dad wouldn’t mind; or if he did, he’d never let on.
A younger me would have shot the bull, almost certainly. For a younger me it was all bloodlust; success or failure was delineated simply by bloody hands and notched tags or lack thereof. But no, not this time. Not here, this would be Dad’s bull or no one’s.
For Dad, hunting has never been about the killing. This fall, there were rumors of a giant bull occasionally crossing our small ranching property, and Dad had drawn a permit for one bull elk. One day during hunting season, Dad called me and excitedly, I answered the phone. “How’d it go? Did you get him?” I asked.
“Nope, but I could have! And a nice one at that, a big six point.” he chuckled. “Way bigger than our bull.”
“What happened? Too far? No shot? What happened?” I stammered.
“Oh no. He was plenty close. And I even had the safety off once. I just didn’t shoot,” he paused a moment, thinking. “I guess I just didn’t feel like it. Maybe if you had been there I’d have shot him, I don’t know... what a nice bull.”
I laughed and nodded; a little speechless but not at all surprised. More than a decade ago, I watched as my Dad passed a goliath whitetail buck that stood broadside at 40 yards for several minutes. That time, he’d lowered the rifle and whispered, “Ah, I’m not going to shoot him.”
And at 10 years old I was angry with his decision; I mean, weren’t we out there to kill a deer? I couldn’t understand why he’d passed the buck. Now, I get it. These days, I’m following my old man’s lead—enjoying the process, appreciating the little things, and above all, appreciating the people you’re with. Dad is 65 now, and he’s still in damn good physical shape, but I know our time in the woods together is finite. So, together, we’re redefining success in the wilderness.
A version of this story originally appeared in Modern Huntsman.