I have been hunting for nearly 20 years. I have learned a ton of lessons (most have come by learning the hard way) and I have had a lot of great experiences. When my brother-in-law, Cody, drew a cow elk tag in Arizona and asked me if I would want to go with him, I was both excited and conflicted. On the one hand, I was excited to be able to be a part of Cody’s first elk hunt and hopefully help him get a chance to fill his tag. On the other hand, I was conflicted because I had never gone on a hunt in which I did not hold a tag and I did not know what to expect in terms of how I would feel. Would I be disappointed? Would I be jealous? Would it be fun? Only time would tell.
This would not be the first time Cody and I had ever hunted together. We had gone on two separate mule deer hunts a few years back and both times we saw absolutely squat. For me, I was looking at this elk hunt as the make it or break it hunt for Cody. We needed to do whatever it took to fill his tag or I was afraid that they allure of the hunting lifestyle would begin to lose its luster in his eyes. Additionally, since we all know the initial investment cost for hunting, it would turn out to be one expensive camping trip if we came home empty handed.
I drove to Arizona to meet up with Cody and from there we drove out to a very remote part of the state near the Grand Canyon. At first glance you might wonder if elk even lived out there because it is so desolate. However, we all know that elk are very good at making the most of their surroundings so we were confident that they would be out there as there was water, food, and seclusion for the herds. We stayed at a house near the area we would be hunting and planned to hike in a few miles before really putting our noses to the grindstone to find the elk. We planned to rely pretty heavily on our optics to locate the elk and then we would devise a plan to stalk within range. The night before opening morning we got all of the gear loaded into our packs and went to bed planning for an early, frigid morning.
We loaded up our packs and headed out before the sun came up. We headed out through the rolling hills toward where we thought the elk would be (we had been given some very valuable intel from a few people which helped to point us in the right direction).
The morning was cold, but clear. You could see as far as you wanted with no obstruction… But that meant that the elk could see us with no obstruction as well. This was shaping up to be a chess match in which we tried to get in the right position without being spotted.
It was cold enough that my neck gator froze shortly after becoming moist from my breath and my camelback froze within a very short period of time (Yes, it gets very cold in Arizona… It is not all low desert). Thankfully layering with quality cold weather gear helped keep us as comfortable as possible, but it was still wicked cold.
The Spot and Stalk
After hiking in about 2 miles, we spotted a small herd of about 6 cows that had come up from a draw beneath us and were standing at about 340 yards away. We took a knee, shed our packs, and I advised Cody to get his rifle ready. Cody asked me if he should take the shot and I told him to wait. The elk were clearly spooked from the site of us and anything but a perfect shot would ensure we would spend the rest of the day trying to track them after running them off. I advised Cody to hold off.
I could see that he was clearly conflicted as to whether or not to take the shot. He asked if I would ever take that shot. I responded by saying, “Yes, but I practice that shot regularly. If I hadn’t practiced it, I would never take it.” We decided to sit tight for a second to see what they would do. They slowly peeled off and trotted away from us and out of sight. The disappointment on Cody’s face was pretty obvious. I looked at Cody and said, “We are going to get an elk today; don’t worry.” However, in my mind I was wondering if I had been too conservative in not wanting to blow the first opportunity we had.
Should I have let him take that shot while coaching him through where to hold his reticle? I was confident that holding off was the right thing to do, but what if that was the only opportunity he would get? Would I still be so confident at that point? Being in the position of a guide in which I was having to be mindful of the hunt and the desires of another hunter at the same time was a very different feeling.
I scanned the horizon as we waited for the excitement to die down and I saw two cows standing at about 400 yards in a different direction from where we saw the first group; they were clearly not startled and just grazing on the hillside. I pointed them out to Cody and we waited for a few minutes to see what they would do. They were clearly out of Cody’s comfortable range so there was no sense in letting off a hail Mary. As we watched them, they slowly made their way down into a ravine. As soon as they were out of sight, we got up and moved as quickly as we could while remaining as silent as possible.
Closing the Deal
When we were about 200 yards from where we had originally saw them, I told Cody to stay close to me and to follow me into a ravine that ran parallel to where the cows had gone. When we reached the ravine, I peeked over the top and there they were–10 cows feeding without a care in the world. I pointed and said, “As soon as you stand up, you’ll see them.” Cody shouldered his rifle, stood up and took a great off-hand shot at about 75 yards. As soon as he shot, the herd ran out and ran up onto a hillside. The cow he had shot stopped and was clearly hit and in pain.
But she would not go down.
She just stood there, fighting to breathe.
Cody and I both knew that waiting for her to die was not the ethical thing to do because she was still breathing, just not easily, and she was not going anywhere. It could take minutes for her to finally bleed out and die. I told Cody to get his pack and lay it on the ground and use it as a rest so that he could take on perfectly placed shot to put her out of her misery.
I told Cody to get comfortable in the prone position with his rifle rested on his pack. Once he was there I told him to take as long as he needed to squeeze off a perfect shot. A few seconds later, he shot and she instantly dropped, dead on impact. I will always stand on my belief that taking that shot was the most ethical thing possible in that scenario: Cody put the elk out of her misery with a perfectly placed follow-up shot.
As soon as she hit the ground and expired, I looked at Cody and his face said it all – FINALLY! The excitement he had and the relief on his face are two things I will not soon forget. Though he filled his tag on opening morning, the time and money spent preparing, planning, and hunting had all come together into a moment of pure, unadulterated joy.
I had dropped my pack way back up the hill so I had to go get it. While I was gone, Cody was able to take in his accomplishment on his own and in private. That moment of being alone and looking at the animal you just harvested is one of the most surreal moments you can have as a hunter. It affirms all of your hard work and it confirms your transition into the hunting lifestyle. For me, I got to watch and listen as Cody experienced the same feelings and expressed the same thoughts I had felt and expressed so many times before. It made the joy of hunting new for me all over again because I got to experience a first elk again… The only difference is it wasn’t my elk this time, it was his.
As I realized this, I also came to understand why guides do what they do; why they hike countless miles and experience all the discomforts in order to help someone else fill a tag. For them, that experience of seeing someone else experience something for the first time is a feeling of immeasurable satisfaction; not because the guide did something great, but because they were able to help someone else do something great. It is a humble, but fulfilling position to be in.
We spent the next 10 hours field-dressing, skinning, quartering, and transporting Cody’s elk back home, finishing up the day around 10pm after butchering all of the meat back at his house. I drove back home to New Mexico the next morning, fueled by lots of coffee and the excitement of being with my wife and kids again. I was very thankful that I was able to be a part of this special hunt with Cody. i am especially grateful to have seen a hunt like this through a different perspective. It gave me a greater appreciation for guides and a greater love for hunting in general.
Takeaways from a Guiding Role
I am not a professional guide. I merely served in a guiding role on this hunt in which I tried to impart wisdom and a little guidance to someone who had a tag. That being said, here are a few takeaways I learned as a result of not being the one with a tag:
Hunting is about more than filling your tag
Hunting goes well beyond having a tag in your own hand. I did not have a tag for this hunt, yet I did not feel for a moment as though I was not hunting. It was still just as fun and just as fulfilling.
Sometimes being an observer is more fulfilling
As I stated earlier, there was a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that was altogether different from anything I had experienced when hunting on my own. It is honestly very difficult to describe, but I can confidently say that I fully enjoyed every minute of being with Cody on his hunt.
When you don’t have the tag, you must still remember how it feels to be the one with the tag
It would be easy to become very business-like when acting as a guide, giving orders, acting like you know more, etc.; but since you are dealing with another human being who is experiencing the gamut of emotions, you have to keep their feelings and thoughts in mind in order to make their experience as positive and memorable as possible.
The celebration is for everyone, but the focus is on the hunter who filled his tag
When that elk dropped, we were both excited. However, Cody needed to be the focus of that excitement–after all, he was the one who put in the most work and pulled the trigger. In that moment, all the focus was on him and his great accomplishment.
In all, I could not be more happy with the result of this hunt. We had a great time together and came home much heavier than when we left (thanks to the copious amount of meat in the bed of my truck). If nothing else, this hunt has certainly inspired an interest in me getting my guiding license someday in order to experience hunting from this perspective more often. I truly believe that this experience has made me enjoy and appreciate hunting more than I did before I set out for Arizona.