The stars disappeared as the sky began to brighten. I sat next to a six foot tall spruce tree, its green branches thick from the ground to its top. I was bundled up in a large orange vest over a fleece jacket and wore a bright orange stocking cap on my head. My rifle rested on my lap as I scanned the forest edge to the west and below me. All my senses were on high alert.
Suddenly, I caught some movement above me and noticed three orange clad people walk up to the top of a knoll about 200 yards above me. I made sure to move my head and shoulders back and forth a bit so they would see me. There was no doubt, I was clearly visible to them, but they stayed up above me even though I was in place first. Whereas my human profile was next to a tree and against the slope, theirs stood out in the open against the horizon.
I bet they don’t have a very high success rate, I thought with a little agitation.
The first rays of the rising sun began to hit the top of the peaks, when I saw a small group of six cows and one bull elk about 400 yards to the west. I raised my rifle to get a view of the bull to try to determine if it was legal, but I couldn’t quite tell. The elk moved along the edge of the trees at a steady clip in my direction. I sat motionless watching them as they got closer trying to determine if the bull was of legal size. Since the only reason I hunt is for good quality, lean meat, I prefer younger bulls or cow elk.
Now the elk were 200 yards away and I still wasn’t certain if there were three or four points on the bull’s antlers. They were beginning to get close to being in range of what I like to shoot – 150 yards or closer – and then, bang, bang, bang! One or more of the people above me began shooting at the group. The elk were still 400 yards from them and I was clearly between them and the elk.
I quickly laid flat on the ground and looked up the hill at the other hunters. They began running down the hill whooping and shooting at the same time. I got a good look at them as they passed about 40 yards from me. I recognized them, although I didn’t know them.
The elk ran off into the trees and the three men walked off in the opposite direction. They didn’t even check to see if they hit one of the elk.
I sat up and calmed my nerves and anger as quiet settled in again and the line of sun crept closer. After about 10 minutes, I stood up and walked down the hill to where the elk ran off into the trees. There was no sign of blood, thank goodness.
Bang! The quiet was shattered again. I stood motionless for about a minute and then there was another shot. I walked into the forest towards the shots and eventually came across a twenty-something year-old man pacing quickly back and forth in front of a young bull elk laying on the ground.
I checked out the elk and said to the excited man, “Congrats. I couldn’t tell if he was legal when I saw him earlier.”
“I didn’t know,” the man said. “I saw color. I saw antlers. I shot.”
I hesitated to tell this story because some may use it to cast all hunters in a negative light. Most hunters I know are ethical and safe, but it only takes a few to make everyone look bad. Hunters, please remember each one of us represents the sport and that hunting is a privilege, not a right. This year, make sure the animal is in range, stay calm, aim true and be safe.
Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.