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50th Anniversary Elk
November 2014
Dan Martinez

My son Ben and I were drawn for a spring turkey hunt north of Flagstaff in 2013. We didn’t find any of the big birds on that hunt, but we found and sat at a water hole that was visited nearly every day by elk. There was a brush blind at the base of a tree where we both had close encounters with elk. And when I say close, I mean rock throwing distance.

When the next opportunity came along to apply for an elk hunt, guess which area I put down as my number one choice? I put down a bull hunt for first choice and a cow hunt for second choice. I was drawn for the cow hunt for the 2014 season.

When planning a hunt, it’s always part of the fun to go through the gun safe to decide which of the various firesticks will get to go. At first, my plan was to hunt with my Lone Eagle handgun in .44 Magnum. If the elk were again walking by that close, a .44 mag should do the job. Plus, being able to say that I had taken an elk with a handgun should be worth quite a few brag points!

Sanity eventually overtook me when a new plan was hatched. Earlier this year, I wrote about acquiring a second Remington Model 600 carbine. I have owned one in caliber 6mm Remington for a number of years, but the new one was chambered in .308 Winchester. I was drawn both for elk and deer this year. Wouldn’t it be cool to take an elk with the .308, and a deer with the 6mm, in the same year? — and that year happening to be the 50th anniversary year of the Remington Model 600? Yeah!

Speaking of Ben, he has been up in Corvallis, Oregon for the last year at Oregon State University. The plan was that he was working on his PhD in Chemistry. Well that plan has been aborted and he was in the process of moving back home. He arrived home with a truck and trailer full of stuff on the day that I went north to set up camp.

I arrived as early as I could on Thursday morning, the day before the opening day of my hunt. I wanted to get my pick of camp spots. The spot I wanted was only a quarter mile from the water hole. But when I arrived I found another hunter had set up, not there, but only about 200 yards away. I didn’t want to camp right on top of someone else, so I went to my alternate spot about a mile from the hole, but still a very nice spot.

However, when I checked out the waterhole, I found that now it was just a mud hole. My Plan A, to set up a pop-up blind at the waterhole and sit in-wait for elk to come in, had just blown up.

The waterhole sits between two low hills. From what I knew, the elk hung around in the hills most of the day, then came down to drink when they got thirsty. Not knowing what else to do, my Plan B for Friday morning was to stalk the hills hoping to see them before they saw me.

From the hole, I slowly stalked up to the top of the west hill. From there, I heard a lilting bugle off to my north. Awesome! It was early enough in October to still catch the tail end of the rut. Now I knew that despite no water in the hole, the elk were still around. I headed that way.

After a few minutes of slow and quiet travel, I spotted the bull. He was a nice shooter bull, at least a 5x5, maybe larger. He was filtering through the trees about 80 yards away. I don’t think that he spotted me, but he was on his way heading westward with a purpose. Soon, he had left the scene. It was only him, no cows in tow. Now that’s the way to start a hunt – with plenty of promise!

Later that morning, I had crossed over the draw that separates the two hills. I was making my way toward the top of the east hill when I heard a great cracking of branches ahead of me. I had busted another elk out of bed. I caught a glimpse of tan elk flank as it ran away, but I was not able to make out whether the elk wore headgear. More encouragement!

I went back to camp for lunch, then came back to explore more of the west hill for the evening’s hunt, but I had no more elk sightings on opening day.

On Saturday morning I came back again to explore more of the east hill. I had a good hike, and learned the country a little better, but had no elk sightings on my second morning. Back to camp for lunch.

I used to stay out in the field all day long, every day of the hunt, but not so much anymore. I have taken my quarry at mid-day before, so really, I don’t consider it wasted time to spend the long hot hours of the mid-day out in the field. But for me, getting out and just camping is a big part of the enjoyment of the hunt experience now. I guess that I’m just not as hard core as I used to be. It’s hard to enjoy your camp if the only time you get to see it is in the dark, and you are overloaded with tasks such as cooking dinner and making preparations for the next day’s hunt. So now I enjoy just lolling around camp for a couple of hours over lunch.

Besides, I was expecting a visitor. I had not seen Ben since the Christmas holidays. He was coming up to join me on the hunt for the weekend. Around about one o’clock he came rolling in. Ben would hunt with me for Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. He had to get back home after dinner on Sunday night, because Monday he was expecting the rest of his stuff to arrive from Oregon in one of those moving pods.

After setting up a small tent, Ben joined me for a ride in the Polaris Ranger. I wanted to check out an area where I had seen elk while on a deer hunt with Ray Cernansky a number of years ago. At the time, I had walked in to the area from the main road, but now I knew how to access the area on a legal quad road.

Let me talk about that for a moment. In recent years, most Arizona National Forests have adopted the “MVUM” travel management concept. MVUM stands for Motor Vehicle Use Map. Though there may be hundreds of officially signed roads throughout the forest, they are now considered as closed to motor vehicle travel unless they show up on the official MVUM. This is a pain in the ass. Not only because a lot of perfectly good roads are no longer legal to ride, but because of the camping restrictions that go along with this.

It used to be that you could camp wherever you wanted to. Now, only certain roads are designated as “dispersed camping corridors”. On the Coconino Forest, you can take your vehicle up to 300 feet from the edge of one of these designated roads.

You can still camp off of any officially open road, but if it is not marked as a dispersed camping corridor, then you have to park no more than 30 feet from the edge of the road!

From what I saw, either most people don’t know about these new restrictions, or they are ignoring them. I believe that the Game & Fish Department is choosing not to enforce the camping restrictions, so that leaves enforcement up to National Forest rangers, of which there are not very many. Take that for what it’s worth, in making your own decision about whether to abide by these untenable new restrictions. Now back to the hunt …

Officially, this road is designated as open to any vehicle, not just to quads.

But due to deep rutting and off-camber sections, clearly a small vehicle such as a quad or UTV would be the vehicle of choice for this trail. It was a lot of fun on the Polaris Ranger.

.308 Model 600

This is the rifle, excuse me Remington, carbine that I found on Backpage.com earlier this year. It was made in September of 1965, so this particular sample is only 49 years old, not 50. But it has made it down through the years in beautiful shape. It looks practically brand new.
I replaced the old hard and stiff vented recoil pad that someone had added with a new one, and I had to add the sling swivels. Then I added one of my U.S. M1907-Swiss K-31 style hybrid slings.
I also replaced the vintage 4x Bushnell Banner scope that it came with, with a modern 2-7x32 Weaver with a ballistic reticle.
An elk, even a cow elk is a very large animal. I consider a .308 to be adequate, but on the lighter side of adequate — especially with the 18½” barrel of an M600, where you won’t get top velocity. With that in mind, I chose the 168 grain Barnes Triple-Shock X-Bullet as my projectile of choice for this hunt. The Barnes TSX has a reputation for outstanding accuracy and deep penetration. I felt that a 150 grain bullet was too light, and a 180 grain bullet would compromise velocity too much in the .308 case, so I chose the middle ground. I crammed more IMR 4064 powder into the case than would fit (compressed load). I did not get a chance to chronograph this load, but my guess is that I should be seeing somewhere around 2550 fps.
When I sighted in this load, it settled in to a nice 100 yard zero. I usually zero about 2 inches high at 100 yards, to give me around a 200 yard zero. But I decided to stop fiddling around when the group settled right on at 100 yards. I figured that with the ballistic reticle, should I need to shoot farther, I could use the first mark down which should be good for 200. I wasn’t planning to shoot any farther than that at an elk with a .308. It turned out that the 100 yard zero was perfect for most elk sightings and opportunities in the forest.
At about 7½ pounds loaded with 4 rounds, scope and sling, it is actually about a half pound heavier than my 6mm M600. The extra weight is noticeable, but barely. The .308 is as much of a joy to carry in the field as the 6mm. The short overall length, in addition to the low field weight are what make the M600’s so pleasant to carry, and so lovable.

Toward the end of the trail, it breaks out of the thick forest into an open burn area that is littered with dead logs. I was busy paying attention to navigating the dips in the trail when Ben spotted deer. We stopped and watched them for a while before they hopped away and out of sight.

We proceeded on to find the end of the road. We stopped there for a little sight-seeing, but since this was very open country, it did not seem likely elk country.

Before breaking out into the open, we passed an intersection with another road, one that was not shown as open on the MVUM. We headed back to this intersection with the plan to walk this other road.

Not long after starting our walk, Ben again spotted game. Elk! It was another nice bull. I put a tree between myself and his eyes as I headed toward him. That didn’t much fool him. He spooked and ran.

We continued walking on down the road until we found ourselves at a nice park. We decided to just sit until dark at the edge and wait to see if anything showed up. Nothing did, but it gave Ben and I a chance to catch up, for me to learn of his future plans now.

That night in camp we debated about where to go in the morning. The area we rode into was nice, definitely worth further exploration. From our one ride into it, it appeared that no one else was hunting the area. But in the end, we decided to head back to the hills surrounding the mud hole tank, but this time, to drive even further past the water hole, about another mile.

So that’s where the first light of Sunday morning found us. I was initially planning to head eastward, toward the north foot-slope of the west hill. That was the area where I heard, and saw that first bull elk on opening morning. But after shutting off the Ranger and gathering our packs, we heard some distant bugling to the southwest of us.

So we headed off that way, into forested flats. The bugling was very intermittent, and still distant, so we didn’t have a clear beacon to guide us toward the elk. We wandered this way and that while heading generally westward. Eventually we hit a two-track trail that we didn’t know about. The two-track was on a small rise that was populated with a stand of young Christmas tree sized pines. We followed the trail south for a ways until instinct or something else told us to get off the trail and continue going west.

After walking about 75 yards west off the trail, the land dipped downward again into thicker, more mature forest, and at the edge is where I spotted the tan side of an elk body another 70 yards away. I dropped down to my knee and threw the rifle up to my shoulder. Another bull!

In time it became apparent that there were more elk there than just the single bull. It was a herd of at least 10 elk. I tried to move into a position to get clear sight of a cow. But somehow, they sensed us and started moving out. We gave pursuit, but at the same time tried to remain as least disturbing as possible. We lost sight of them.

We followed in the direction that we thought they were headed. This eventually brought us to the edge of a large park. There was no sign of them as we scanned the far edges of the park. Where did they go?

Again going on instinct, I decided to cross the open park to the opposite edge where there was another line of trees on a rise in the land. When we reached the top of the rise, we could see how far west we had come. The land to the west was clear of trees. Not far from us was a utility line road, and beyond that, cars rushed by on the main highway. The highway is also the western boundary of my hunt unit. There was no sign of the elk.

I was getting hungry for the breakfast bagel I carried in my pack. So I decided that we should head back to the park, sit down near the top of the rise for better seeing, and enjoy our breakfast. But right after talking off my pack, we heard another bugle close by to our south. “Don’t they know that I was just getting comfortable?” I said to Ben. “OK, let’s go.” I had just got my pack back on when we spotted elk running right at us from out of the trees! I got down on one knee, and slipped off the safety.

There was a cow and two calves, followed by a bull. As they came in, they spotted us and veered off. They were moving so fast that I was not able to get my crosshairs on the cow before they disappeared! Wow! We tried to follow them up, but again they gave us the slip.

From there, we ended up following some more bugles back toward the east, back toward where the Ranger was parked. We found ourselves at another semi-open area that had a nice comfortable log from where we could sit, look over some nice country, and finally have breakfast. We sat there for a good while, but with no more action.

We did have one more elk encounter later in the morning. After we got tired of sitting, we stalked this opening northward. We eventually reached a thicket of tall young tress of about 6” to 8” diameter. I pulled the rifle off my shoulder and held it in my hands. I dialed the scope’s power ring down to 3x. As we pushed our way deeper into these trees, there came the sound of crashing branches. We had just jumped yet another bull out of his bed! He was gone in a flash, but as we approached his bed, we could definitely smell the rich aroma of elk.

What a morning! We bumped into elk at almost every turn. Bulls, bulls, bulls! Somehow, the cows were staying more elusive than the bulls on this hunt.

After lunch we came back into this area, but this time we accessed it from the utility line road, instead of the road past the waterhole. We found where the two-track trail intersected the utility line road, but since the two-track was not on the MVUM, we parked the Ranger at the intersection and walked into the woods heading toward the various elk-sighting GPS waypoints that we laid down that morning.

Eventually, we emerged from the woods into the park where we spent most of the morning log-sitting. I was in the lead with Ben a few steps behind me when I spotted a lone cow at about 80 yards. Instead of quickly taking a knee and getting into firing position, I started backing up, pushing Ben backward behind me. It was a move I soon regretted, as when I peeked back around the tree that I had put between myself and the elk, she was gone! A great opportunity missed!

A few minutes later we spotted a bull, with antlers held high over his back, trotting away from us through the trees. I laid down another GPS waypoint, this one I named, “ELKLAND”.

We spent about another hour, circling Elkland, hoping to find another but with no luck. I decided that we should just take a seat and watch over the park until sundown.

We had chosen some logs to sit against on the opposite side of the park from where we had log-sat in the morning. After all, the sun was now coming from the opposite direction, and we wanted to wait in the shadows.

Then, just before sundown, we spotted an elk body, not 40 yards from us, but shielded by a thick screen of cover. I got my rifle up on the shooting sticks, and snicked-off the safety, hoping that the elk would walk into the nearby opening. We waited, and waited, then Ben said that the elk was leaving the scene – in the wrong direction!

I got up and slowly stalked to the opening and peeked around the corner. Nothing. I cautiously stalked around the corner for maybe 50 yards, but never caught sight of the elk that was just there a moment ago. Sheesh!

I walked back to Ben sitting at the logs. We remained sitting for a few more minutes, but as the sun was now down, we were quickly losing the light. Just behind us was the two track trail which led directly back to the Ranger parked about .4 miles away. So we gathered up our stuff and hit the trail.

From where we sat, the trail breaks out into flat treeless ground in about one-tenth of a mile. The forest edge recedes to our left eventually reaching about 200 yards away as we made our way toward the Polaris. I noticed Ben looking off to the edge of the woods. I saw what he was looking at, a large brown shape. He says, “I think it’s just some wood.” I had pulled out the binos and said, “No, it’s a bull.” I had spotted some sticks behind the elk’s head, but as I continued to watch, it seemed that the sticks were not attached to the animal! “No, it’s a cow!”

Ben was carrying my shooting sticks for me. I got down on my knee and he handed them to me. I focused on the animal through the scope, but I saw that there were some green branches covering the vitals. I turned my head to Ben to tell him why I was holding my fire. I quickly turned back to the scope to see the animal start to move which cleared the chest for a shot, but for just one second before the animal moved off into the forest.

Dang! Yet another missed opportunity! I later told Ben that due to the darkness and the distance, I really wasn’t 100% sure that it was a cow. Taking that shot would have been risky. Even if the animal would have held in the clear for a longer opportunity, I would have taken the time to really study it’s head for (lack of) antlers.

That evening, it was time to say goodbye to Ben. He ate a quick dinner with me in camp before leaving. After all the elk we had seen throughout the day, I told him that I felt pretty confident that tomorrow would be the day. He told me to give him a call if I needed help with elk retrieval and he would come back.

Alone again, I spent the next morning and the next afternoon haunting Elkland without seeing any elk, despite the confidence I had expressed to Ben. As the afternoon wore on without any sightings, I desperately sped up my wanderings hoping to stumble into a shooter. I figured that the more ground I covered, the better my chances.

But sunset had once again come to Elkland. It was time to hit the trail back to the Ranger. But remembering the elk sighting at last light that Ben and I had 24 hours ago, I decided that instead of walking the trail across open ground, this time I would skirt the edge of the woods, hoping that lightning would strike twice. And it did.

In almost the same place that we saw yesterday’s elk, I spied at least two grazing out in the open country about 50 yards from the edge of the woods. I still had a number of small trees between me and them. I scurried behind one tree to the next as I made my approach. I could hear the sound of my own heartbeat rising up in my ears.

From behind a bushy juniper, I could make out a magnificent bull elk. Somehow, he made me, even though I was fully behind the juniper and I could see him only through a screen of branches. I froze until he went back to grazing, then I made my move to the next cover tree.

My new position revealed a cow about 120 yards out. The bull had again focused his attention on me as I brought the rifle up and aimed it at the cow from a kneeling position. I had collapsible shooting sticks tucked into my belt, but instead of fiddling with them, I made the decision to trust my natural marksmanship.

The moment had come. BOOM! The cow moved off some, but was not down. Work the bolt – BOOM! At this point the cow moved out of my sight. I scurried out from behind the trees and again took a knee. Now I could see the bull, a cow, and a calf. I was not sure if the cow I now saw was the same one that took my bullets, so I waited.

After about three minutes, the cow bedded down, there in the open. That was my cow. I gave her some more time before I got up and started heading toward her. The bull did not want to leave. About half way to her, she got up again and started heading for the tree line. Up came the rifle, BOOM! This time she went down for good. It turns out that she was hit well. She was just very tenacious of life.

But the story does not end here. With only about 10 minutes of light left, I hurriedly got out the camera to get a trophy shot. My mind was reeling, thinking about the work that was now before me, and me alone, in the dark.

The Ranger was only .15 miles away. Thankfully, the travel management rules allow you to take one vehicle cross country for elk retrieval. That’s not allowed for any other game, just elk. So I took a quick GPS fix of the elk because I knew that by the time I would be driving back, total darkness would be here and the GPS arrow would allow me to go straight to the elk.

Before the hunt, I had installed some new lights on the back of the Ranger. The Ranger has never had backup lights. These new lights are not exactly backup lights, because they don’t come on when you shift into reverse. You can turn them on at any time with a switch on the dash. So now it was time to put them to good use. I backed the Ranger toward the elk with the lights shining brightly. I left the Ranger idling while working on the elk.

This is my third cow elk, our family’s fifth. This one may be our largest. Every time I remove the innards of an elk, I am amazed at the amount of STUFF that comes out of the body cavity. It usually takes me from 45 minutes to an hour to get this task done.

I have a system to winch an animal into the bed of the Ranger using a block and tackle. The last time I tried it, it went very smoothly. I have a couple of straps that make a harness around the elk. I attach the block and tackle to the top of the Ranger’s roll cage. The Ranger’s bed tilts down so that the open tailgate is within a foot of the ground. I then tie the pulling end of the block and tackle to a tree behind the elk. By slowly driving forward, the animal will be pulled into the bed – when all goes well.

This time it didn’t. As I drove forward, the pulling end of the line snapped. The elk was still on the ground. Ugh. My only option now was to quarter the elk, right there on the ground.

The Ranger has a “trunk”, a large plastic box that is more or less permanently bolted into the Ranger’s bed. In there I carry certain supplies, tools, and spare parts. It is also where my backpack rides on the way to the hunting grounds. The only time the box comes out is when I need to winch an elk into the bed. One of the things I carry in the box is a tarp just for times like this, to protect game meat from road dust. I spread out the tarp in the bed as I started cutting meat from the carcass.

After about another hour-and-a-half, I had the four quarters plus the head and neck in the bed of the Ranger and I had tied the tarp over and around the meat. I started up the Ranger one more time and turned on all the lights as I tidied up the site. I was going to leave the trunk here overnight, planning to retrieve it the next day. So whatever gear was not going back to camp with me tonight went into the trunk.

I hopped into the Ranger and turned off the rear lights, but I noticed that the various dash lights and the headlights sure seemed dim. I gave the gas pedal a light push to get going, and the engine stalled. Guess what? The battery was so worn down that there wasn’t enough juice left to crank the starter! I guess idling the engine was not enough to keep the battery charged while those bright lights were blazing. I just hung my head on the steering wheel.

Sometimes, if you let the battery sit, enough juice will self-recover to allow the motor to crank. I tried that three times. No dice. So it looks like I’m walking. Camp is two miles away. I did have a headlamp, which I was using during the elk work, in addition to the Ranger lights. But how much power remained in my headlamp? Enough.

I finally got to camp about 10 pm. I didn’t sleep well that night, especially when I heard the coyotes start howling all around me. What would I find when I got back to the Ranger in the morning? Would my meat still be OK?

I did have a solution for the Ranger’s problem. I was experimenting for the first time with a new solar panel setup for camping. I had brought along one of our electric trap batteries for storing the solar power generated during the daylight hours. Sure, I could have drove the truck right up to the Ranger and jumped it directly, but I wanted to be a good do-bee and not take a second vehicle to the elk recovery site. I could drive the truck legally to where I originally parked the Ranger and walk the trap battery to the Ranger.

So just after sunup, I reached the intersection of the utility line road and the two-track trail with truck and trailer. It was easier to drive around from the main highway, instead of taking the direct route from camp along the utility line road. I turned the truck to face back toward the highway, and dropped the tailgate of the trailer.

I made the short hike to the Ranger with the trap battery strapped to a pack frame. Thankfully, the wild dogs did not find the elk overnight. The meat was fine.

I jumped the trap battery to the Ranger’s battery and waited for a couple minutes for a small charge to be transferred. The Ranger started up, no problem. For the short trip to the trailer, I put the trunk on top of the meat in the bed, made sure that I had everything, and putted over to the truck. After moving the trunk into the truck’s bed, and making several other transfers of equipment from the Ranger to the truck, I drove up into the trailer, then tied the Ranger down for transport. Now it’s off to the meat processor’s in Flagstaff.

What a great hunt. I saw elk every day, opportunities galore. I got to spend some quality time with my son, and even suffered some setbacks which cemented a memorable adventure. Who knows when this M600 last took game? Will his 6mm brother also get a deer this year?

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