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by Kent Jensen a.k.a. punkinslinger Last updated: 2010-05-31 14:04:55
It’s a cool, but sunny, spring Saturday on the flat farm land of eastern North Dakota. As a self-employed contractor, I’m still battling the effects of the spring’s snow melt by replacing culverts and repairing washed-out roads for local land owners and townships. It’s the middle of the day, as I drive past my house. I decide to stop for the mail and get something cold to drink. I almost have to pinch myself as I look at a confirmation letter from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “Congratulations you are one of 575 applicants, drawn for a North Dakota Resident ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME any Elk tag for unit E 3, September Season.” I read it three or four times just to make sure it was authentic and not someone playing a dirty trick on me. I immediately call my friend Mick, just to make sure he is on board for an early September elk hunt. He assured me he was. Then he asked the question “whatcha gonna shoot it with?” Without hesitation, I answered, “my handgun.”
When I was a kid we were taught the three R’s. Since then I’ve tried to teach myself the three P’s, when it comes to handgun hunting: Practice, Perseverance and Patience. First thing I did was send an e-mail off to JD and get a load recommendation for the 375 JDJ. He quickly responded with, 270 grain Hornady spire point over Varget powder, work it up to around 2100 fps. His load works well in my 14” flat-side contender.
Now comes the first “P” PRACTICE. Several hundred hunting loads, at ranges from 50 to 250 yards, and another couple hundred target loads. It is now ten days before season opens and I can’t keep it zero’d. I’m high and to the left, high and to the right. At this point I’m fit to be tied. I make a quick call to Burris Optics, and tell them my plight. “Season opens in ten days or less!” They say “no problem, we have thirty 1.5 X 4 handgun scopes with posi-lock on the shelf, and one of them will go out next-day-air to you, when you get it, just ship yours back.” Two days later a brand new scope arrives, gets sighted in and is ready to go.
Now the second “P” PERSEVERANCE. The day before season opens, there is an informational meeting in Dickinson, North Dakota. The Game and Fish department tells a room full of hunters how hard and grueling the elk hunt can be, and most generally is. For those hunters in unit E 3, last years success rate was 32%%. At this point I start to wonder, “am I crazy or just plain stupid?” “Am I going to waste my ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME tag, because I decided to hunt with a handgun?” Not every one who hunts with a handgun needs a perfect shot, but this hunter does. My perfect shot is, less than 300 yards, standing or walking, and no cross wind. On the prairie of North Dakota, wind is an everyday occurrence. No fear, I’ve got my buddy, Mick, who is going to call this elk out of the heavy cover, so it can present itself for - the shot of a lifetime.
Now the third “P” PATIENCE. My son Jared, Mick, and I spotted elk in the days just prior to the opener. It is now September 4, the opener. For the next four days, we have a nearly full moon every night, and are experiencing the hottest days of the year. It is approaching 97 degrees and we are elk hunting. Even the mule deer aren’t showing themselves till the heat of the day subsides. It’s impossible to pattern the elk, we can’t spot them in heavy cover. They are staying put till long after dark and things cool down. For three days we hunted numerous draws and ravines with no luck, only a calf that I never even saw. After almost tipping over from dehydration, when we hiked back in the government pasture two or three miles, we decide to change our tactics and hunt only the mornings, then split up and glass different areas in the afternoon and evening. We have found some PLOTS (private land open to sportsmen) ground with good elk sign and we know they are using this drainage to travel from their bedding to grazing areas and fresh water. Just before sundown we hear a distant bugle, is it elk or hunter? Can’t tell, it’s so damn hot we don’t know if it is the pre rut or not. Mick assures me, “this is a good spot, with good sign, it just looks like “elk territory” and we should come back before first light, in the morning.” “Well,” I think to myself, “he is the seasoned elk hunter, this is my first attempt at elk.” “My first attempt at elk!” “I am completely crazy!” “I’m using a handgun on my ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME tag!” I have never even been close to an elk.” “What makes me think I can pull this one off?” People hunt for days, even weeks, without any sight of an elk. “Whoa, take a deep breath and relax.” I have played this out in my mind, many, many times. I have practiced and am comfortable out to 250 yards. “Perseverance, all you need is one good shot, that’s all I’m asking for, one good shot.” At this point I think I even said “Amen”.
The morning of September 7th, my son decides he will have too much homework if he misses any more school, and leaves for the, 320 mile, trip home. A front moved through during the night and cooled things off a bit. I think to myself, “maybe our luck will change today.” On our drive to the PLOTS ground, from the night before, we see a bobcat hunting the edge of the road. In a flash it vanished into the shadows. Hmm, a sign or coincidence? Either way, pretty neat, I’ve never seen one before. We park the truck and hike back into the hills and ravines, the “Badlands” of western North Dakota. I think to myself, “this experience, of just being in the Badlands is worth it, elk or not.” Several hundred yards away from my vantage point, Mick whispers, “go on ahead, I’m going to glass this valley, I’ll be up in a couple of minutes and start calling”.
I worked my way along the edge of the trees, up the slope, to a saddle with a lone cedar tree. At the top of the saddle, I belly crawl to the north side of the cedar. I take the range finder from my pocket, shoot the ranges into the drain below, all under 250 yards. If an elk steps into any of these clearings, it is within my range. I take the field glasses from around my neck to start glassing, and think, I’d better take a good look around before glassing or I’ll miss something close. Just then, at the tree line, in front of me, a lone bull steps out on his way to a deep ravine, to escape the heat of the day.
I almost talk myself into a miss. “He’s too far away.” “I can’t make that shot.” “Whoa!” “Take a deep breath, relax, and range him” “He’s not that far.” With just his hind quarters showing from a small group of cedars, he ranges 220 yards. When he steps out from behind those cedars he‘ll be about 240 yards, and “I’m going to take the shot.” “Wait!” “Where the hell is Mick?” “He was going to call one in.” I take a quick look around, no Mick. Well, I guess he’ll figure it out soon enough. As I lay on my belly in a prone position, I try to steady the 14-inch contender. The bull’s head is down. I can’t get him centered in the scope, it’s a bad angle. I slide my binoculars in front of me, and rest the fore arm between the eye pieces, perfect. I take a deep breath, the bull is broadside, he stops. The crosshairs are settling in just behind his front shoulder. I say to myself, “relax and squeeze the shot off.” Then the quiet of the morning is met with the drop of a hammer. The drainage is still echoing from the shot, when I hear the impact, as the bullet passes through his ribcage. I don’t know if I see the shock wave, or just imagine it. He hunches up, startled and confused, he doesn’t run. He turns just slightly toward me as the second 270 grain spire point, enters a little farther back than the first. He takes a couple more steps, as the dust flies over his back. The third shot was just a little too high for a spine shot. I hold my composure and place the crosshairs tighter on the front shoulder as I take shot number four. This time I do see the shockwave. As his knees become weak and he starts to lose his balance, he topples over. My “first ever” elk is on the ground! Only twenty or thirty feet from where the first shot struck. My ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME North Dakota Elk hunt is over, and I did it with a hand gun. Unfortunately my son missed it, sure wish he would have stuck around for the morning hunt.
Mick is, NOW, sneaking up the slope behind me, I give him the, (Where in the hell have you been?) look. “Good, just in time for the real work,” I tell him. Almost surprised, he says, “you got one!” “As fast as those shots came, I thought there was someone else shooting over here.” “Bull or cow?” he asks. I reply, “bull, he’s not a record, but he’s down.” “You know,” Mick says, “I think you’re the first.” “ First what?” I ask. “Well, you’re the first person, I know of, to take an elk with a handgun in North Dakota.” “There’s got to be someone else,” I say. He replies, “I don’t know, I’ve talked to a lot of people, and no one has heard of anyone taking a North Dakota elk with a handgun.” I respond with, “no one else that crazy huh?” We share a congratulatory handshake, and an almost awkward, man hug, type of thing, that I initiated. I said, “well, we better get down there and get to work, gonna be a hot one again today.” We snap a few photos, as I walk Mick through the shot process. “Where’d he come out ?” “ Where’d you shoot from?” “How far away was he?” “Were you nervous?” One question after another from Mick. I reply, “at the tree line, right over here, 240 yards, and hell yes!
I told Mick, “I’ll stay and quarter him out, if you want to go get the pack frames, sled and rope.” Mick agreed, and says, “I’ll try to find an easy route out of here, it’s going to be a hard pack with just the two of us.” It’s only 8 am and already the sun has burnt off this morning’s dew. I can hardly contain my excitement as I tag my first elk, and start the quartering process, placing the quarters in the shade of the cedar trees. As I’m working, I think to myself, “I’ve really done it, I set out to shoot an elk with my handgun and I did just that.” Several hours pass and I keep looking up the ridge where Mick disappeared, thinking, “he’s got to be getting back soon.” “If not, I’ll grab a quarter and head to where we left the pick-up.” Something catches my eye, up the drainage. Someone in blaze orange coming my way. At first I thought they were hunters working the ravine. As they got closer I recognized them, it was our neighbors from Elkhorn campground.
Brian, Eric, Josh, Al, Krystal and good ol’ Mick, he brought recruits. Some new hands to shake, followed by a few “atta boy”, and then the questions. Where’d he come out? Where’d you shoot from? How far away was he? Were you nervous? I gave the same replies as before.
We bag and lash the quarters to four-pack frames and divide the other gear into backpacks and fanny packs. The packs with the front quarters get claimed quickly, then the first hind quarter. The last hind quarter, along with the back straps, tenderloins and miscellaneous trimmings, lay on the ground unclaimed. I said, “boy I didn’t plan that very well, did I?” “Well, it‘s my elk, guess I should have the heaviest pack.” We head out, single file, up the drain. As we near the top of the steepest part of the trail, my leg muscles are starting to burn and my back is aching from the weight of the load. As I stop to rest, I think of the proverb I heard years ago, “I complained because I had no shoes, till I met the man who had no feet.” I forge ahead and think, “it‘s good to be alive and great to be in the Badlands.”
Of all the places we hunted, this was, by far, the best place to shoot one. A relatively easy pack out, a gentle, gradual, slope up and out of the drainage, a mile or so to the pick-up. Eric got his front quarter to the truck first, and came back to relieve me. Mick looked at me and said, “you want to carry your antlers the rest of the way out?” as he hands them to me, I say to myself, “today is a good day.”
I don’t know if I’m the first person in North Dakota to shoot their elk with a handgun. I can’t confirm it. I have, however, accomplished what I set out to do, with a good friend, a hand gun, some Practice, Perseverance and a full-blown test of my “own” Patience.
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