Marathon Bulls: Going The Distance For Public-Land Elk

Five days worth of raw emotion broke through the dam and washed over me as I watched that beautiful 5x5 crumble to the ground.

by Eric Conn


11-ELK-01-600It had come down to the last few minutes of daylight on the last day of first rifle season. I sat facing a broad and sloped clearing, having trekked some 15 miles along valley floor and up through a suffocating oak-brush-covered hillside to get to the spot I’d seen elk the night before. As the sun made its fade away shot beyond the mountainous horizon, I heard a crisp bugle on the evening breeze. Like that surge of adrenaline as you come down the home stretch of a marathon, my sleep-deprived and physically exhausted body charged back to life. I knew the call was at least 1,000 yards or more to the west and daylight was fading. It was a long shot, but the only one left.

More reaction and instinct than deliberation, my brother and I grabbed our gear and cut several hundred yards downhill, back through the labyrinth of brush, and began running the fence line along the mountainside. As I feared we might, having guessed at the herd’s location based on what we could hear, we overran our mark. My brother grabbed my shoulder and turned me. Four bulls stood, 200 yards away, frozen as they spotted us. I raised my rifle, but in a second they were off. Without hesitation, my brother blew a cow call, freezing them for the second time. I edged around a bush, knelt, and found the biggest of the bunch in my scope. Facing me, I placed the crosshairs between the bull’s shoulders and put pressure on the trigger. Concussion. Five days worth of raw emotion broke through the dam and washed over me as I watched that beautiful 5×5 crumble to the ground. I’d never worked harder for a bull.

Five days worth of raw emotion broke through the dam and washed over me as I watched that beautiful 5×5 crumble to the ground.

If you didn’t love the ritual, the process that public land hunting is—months of preseason scouting, 4 a.m. mornings and late nights, dozens of miles a day on foot and many more in the truck or ATV, hours of glassing mountainsides, the chill of the freshly awoken world, with heaping portions of sleep deprivation and exhaustion thrown in—there are easier ways to get your meat. But a bloodless, sanitized, pre-packaged pound of burger doesn’t bring me the satisfaction or joy that comes with the investment of my whole person in the vigorous work of hunting. It’s a test of character. It requires a general practitioner’s perfection of skill: glassing, tracking, stalking, calling, orienteering, marksmanship, packing out, butchering and, finally, the touch of a master chef. It’s hard to tell which is more enjoyable: the sweet taste of hard-earned backstrap—salted, buttered, peppered and grilled to perfection—or the satisfaction of having provided manually for your table.

As my friend Toby, a Colorado native and elk junky, says, most of the hunting happens before the season ever starts. This is especially true when you’re hunting public land. For the most part elk are a migratory bunch, which means what you see in August isn’t necessarily what you get in October. Patterns can also change from year to year based on hunting pressure and weather, so it’s imperative to scout multiple areas and be flexible once the first shots are fired. Like a good NFL coach, success depends on solid planning and an ability to make in-game adjustments. Rather than focusing on just one area, it’s a good idea to isolate a few prime spots and scout hard. I rely heavily on my Garmin GPS, a good mapping program (OnXMaps), and paper maps from the BLM and Forest Service. I break out the spotting scope and binos about mid-summer and spend most weekend outings with the family, glassing and looking for sign in between fishing and camping, and that takes me up until opening day in September (archery) and October (rifle).

We began our season in a forest area, but the swarm of the “orange army” had the elk population pretty well hunkered down. After 3 fruitless days of hunting, we decided to check out a State Wildlife Area (SWA) about an hour away. The change of scenery saved the season. In 2 days we saw no hunters and a solid group of elk, including an impressive 6×6, grazing in the evenings. We pulled an all-day Hail Mary on the last day, which put us in the midst of the herd with a season-saving shot. My brother and I cleaned and quartered the bull with headlamps in the darkness, making it back to the truck at 2 a.m. with more packing to be done the next day with my dad’s help. Though followed by perhaps the most grueling work of the hunt, the frame packs come out like crowns of laurel after an Olympic feat.

After participating in the birth of all three of my boys, I’ve learned that some things just never happen at convenient times. It’s often the same with hunting. By the time I’d sent that 140-grain Nosler AccuBond through that bull, night was fast approaching and we were at least 3 miles from the truck. That’s why I always carry a pack loaded with the essential gear—I want to take care of my meat quickly and carefully so that it’s clean and can cool. After field-dressing and quartering several elk, I won’t leave home without: a good knife that will hold an edge; a sharpening stone; a bone saw; game bags; extra water and food to replenish your energy stores; a headlamp; a cell phone or small camera for pictures; and, when possible, hunt in pairs. Field-dressing and quartering an elk is a ton of work when done well, so a second set of hands is always helpful. Friendship never blossoms more fully than in the soil of sacrifice and the mutual sharing of work.

Like a rancher or farmer, it’s essential to know how to nourish and take life when necessary. That’s part of what it means to be a human, hunter, provider and food producer. Make no mistake, when you pull that trigger, you’re taking a life. But in some mystical way that life, both taken and given, is transformed into nourishment and life for you and those around your table. The best way I know how to respond to a life given, as that bull’s was, is gratitude and respect. From the forest to the butchering block, I try to express to my children how grateful I am to be fed by this beast’s life, because I truly am.

Two are better than one, because they both have a mutual reward in their toil; if a man falls, his brother will pick him back up. So the saying goes, and it’s never more applicable than when hauling meat on your back. Not only does extra help cut your work in half, the conversation speeds time and shortens the hike. I’m a firm believer that hunting is and should be enjoyed as community, young and old, male and female—both the enjoyment of the work and the nourishment of the table. I’m always surprised how many people respond enthusiastically when I ask them to help with the pack-out, whether it’s my 3-year-old son or a friend from the neighborhood. All you really need is a healthy set of legs and a sturdy frame pack (I always keep a few extra laying around). As agrarian communities share in the harvest season together, so the great meat harvest is best when shared.

One of the great transformations that takes place is the change in aromas from my garage to my grill. We hang the meat, preferably in temperatures between 32 and 37 degrees, for a number of days to age it. The smell in the garage is unmistakably one of death. As we cut, grind and package the meat, it too goes through a transformation. Silver skin and gristle get removed, while pork fat gets added to the ground burger. It’s a family affair, and the boys especially love to run the meat grinder. I invested in a Waring MG1200 commercial grinder, which was worth every penny for this meat-eating family. That bad boy will churn through over 5 pounds of meat in under a minute, even on the finest setting. By the time the grill gets fired up, there’s a whole new set of smells that sets the mouth to watering.

The moment, for me, is when I sink my teeth into that first bite of freshly harvested meat. For the ultimate pub burger, I like to keep it simple: my wife’s homemade hamburger buns; extra-sharp cheddar cheese; ketchup and mayo; home-cut and baked potato wedges; and a liberal seasoning with McCormick’s Pub Burger blend. For the ultimate tenderloin or backstrap, I also keep it simple: rub down with olive oil; grill to perfection, turning once; salt and pepper; cool; pad with butter; and finally, serve. A glass of iced Bulleit bourbon and a cigar afterwards make for one damn fine evening.



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