By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer
The copy of the outdoor magazine with a two-page spread on beating buck fever was back at camp. The article I read multiple times but, in the end, the only way it could have helped was if the whole magazine had been wrapped around my face and sealed in the back with duct tape so I couldn’t see or hear what was going on.
Four days into an elk hunt that had been nearly a year in the making, I found myself hustling up a grade too steep for gravel to sit on, climbing a mountain we’d climbed countless times before, moving into position for what should have been a shot to culminate the hunt of a lifetime.
Our evening had begun sitting over a waterhole 8,500 feet into the sky, but the bugling from the bulls higher above and the setting sun told us everything we needed to know about our position. Even an elk hunter of three days’ experience like me knew we’d have to take that afternoon’s chase higher.
Over an aspen-shaded rise and down into a canyon, now braking as hard as we’d climbed, Three Forks Ranch guide Dave Clements, Mossy Oak videographer Steven Bush and I slowed our pace to a crawl, moved into position and caught sight of a dozen or so elk, including one nice bull at a water hole. Cottonwoods at the base of the canyon wall prevented a shot, so down the grade we went. As we got low enough on the canyon wall to shoot under the tree branches, a cow elk walked within 20 yards of us, caught our wind in the canyon’s swirls and spooked the herd away from the water.
We wheeled about ourselves, sprinted straight up the canyon wall back to our initial view, found the bull cresting the small canyon’s opposite rim well above the cottonwoods now. At 180 yards a challenging bugle from Clements made the bull pause long enough to offer a shot that I was shaking too hard to attempt. Altitude had some of the blame, but runaway adrenaline claimed the lion’s share. In seconds he wheeled to his right and trotted out of view.
“Hurry,” Clements said. “We can still cut him off.” Back out of the canyon and on up the initial steep grade we went. A hundred yards higher we crested the shoulder of the mountain’s rise. Suddenly on our right, off the crest of our current ridge at a second waterhole some 200 yards down below we spotted another bull – this one unaware and undisturbed by the first retreating band. Down onto the shooting sticks I went, rifle in hand.
A pulse rate that would have been a wonder to science kept me from getting steady, and the more I couldn’t get steady, the faster my pulse ran away. Somewhere in that process I launched a shot that came to ground nowhere close to the bull and, just like that, the evening’s hunt was done.
Back in camp, at the postmortem that follows all such events, one of the guides said sometimes misses happen for a reason, because better things are still ahead. Still, I wouldn’t want the outcome of that errant shot to spoil the memory of the chase that preceded it, because experiencing buck fever, not beating it, is what it’s all about.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.