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by GREGG RICHTER a.k.a. Gregg Richter Last updated: 2016-11-01 17:59:48
I was cold and soaked to the bone and I was shaking miserably; and I half remember wondering if the big bull could hear my teeth chattering as I cautiously slipped around the aspen tree and slowly set up the Sony camcorder, finally got it pointing and recording in the right vicinity, and then set up on my shooting sticks and finally took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger on my TC Encore 209 X 50 black powder pistol. I had aligned the factory iron sights on the only shot I had: the junction of the bull's neck and high shoulder... As the handgun recoiled and belched white smoke, it sent a 295 grain Black Belt bullet at over 1300 fps out of the muzzle, although with a seemingly weak report probably due to the foggy conditions muffling the sound.
I immediately knew it was not a good shot, as I sensed the big slug hit him too high in the neck. I watched in agony and disbelief as the bull immediately spun 90 degrees to his left and disappeared in the timber. My heart skipped a beat and I felt nauseous. Some times, YOU JUST KNOW. I blew the shot. I BLEW THE SHOT.
It started out as just another September work day for me even though the Colorado muzzleloading season had been open for three days. We had experienced record warm temperatures for most of the summer, but today started out cooler and promised some moisture in the afternoon. That morning I arrived at my contracted excavating job, but somehow communication with my crew had crossed up and they were nowhere to be found. Sound familiar?
I actually grinned to myself as I realized that I had a great excuse to go hunting. I had drawn a muzzleloading bull elk tag for a GMU about an hour's drive away. And to top it off, the weather forecast was predicting "rain and fog a possibility." I had been out to my area and done some pre-scouting and followed up by hunting there on opening day, but the temperatures were too warm and I had nothing to show for my efforts except some sore legs and deeper sweat stains on my hat. This warm weather so late in the season had been keeping the bulls mum; I had not heard any bugling at all. So I decided that since I still had several days before my season closed, that I would wait and see if we got some better hunting weather before I went out again. It appeared that today was the day. What an understatement that turned out to be!
As I gathered my gear to head out, the weather continued to cool down even more and light rain began falling. I started experiencing a slight case of DE-JA-VU. Even realizing the probable discomfort of hunting in these conditions, I still had a good feeling, because in previous hunting episodes in this type of fall weather, I had killed some remarkable animals.
The first memory of those great hunts that came to me was of my beautiful 6X6 bull elk that I killed with my Freedom Arms .454 Casull in 1999, in very similar weather. I wrote a story about that hunt and it was published in the February 2000 issue of THE SIXGUNNER; the handgun hunting publication by HANDGUN HUNTERS INTERNATIONAL, which BTW has now sadly disbanded. Appropriately, I titled that story "ELK IN THE FOG."
And the other hunt that popped into my head when foggy conditions were prevailing was the Pope and Young mule deer buck that I killed with my aging Oneida Eagle bow in 2013.
Let's back up a few years to 2003. To make a long story short, I had petitioned the Colorado Wild Life Commissioners to make muzzle loading pistols that met the minimum power requirements, (the same as a center fire handgun), legal for hunting big game. I had also spoken to two game wardens that I knew and neither of them saw a problem. "For sure, a pistol certainly doesn't give any kind of advantage to the hunter, it actually makes it even more of a challenge, so why not?" was their attitude. And as for that mythical equation called "killing power" consider the Thompson Center Encore muzzle loading pistol. According to the T/C manual, the 295 grain Black Belt bullet that I was pushing with 105 grains of black powder substitute was making 1269 foot pounds of muzzle energy; putting it smack dab in the .454 Casull power range.
As my F-150 slowed to a stop on the two track road, I felt a tingle of excitement; that old familiar feeling of having the chance to get out by myself and try to become one with Mother Nature and her children. Although the weather had turned to intermittent showers and tiny wisps of fog were swirling along the ground, I loved it. It just felt good!
I decided to hunt the edges of some big meadows, not wanting to get into the deep timber too much, for ease of walking as well as visibility. For the first hour the weather stayed the same, but then the fog thickened and light rain began falling steadily. At first it felt cooling and welcome, as I am not a warm weather person. But as I slowly made my way deeper into the wild woods, carrying my big Sony camcorder on it's heavy duty tripod, the fog increased and the rain started turning into a drizzle. I was very glad that my weapon was a T/C Encore pistol slung in a soft protective canvas case over my shoulder, instead of a heavy muzzle loading rifle out in the elements. After 45 minutes I came around a little bend in the trail I had been following, and I spotted a cow elk about 100 yards away, standing still behind a tree and boring down on me with her suspicious eyes. I stopped, and brought my binoculars to my eyes. I could barely see another smaller elk just behind her, and we were locked into a stare down. My first impression was that it was just a cow-calf pair, but as I dissected the timber around the elk, I finally spotted parts of other elk, and my breath quickened when my eyes came to rest on a blond, almost white patch of elk hair. I instantly knew it was a bull, even though I could only see a small area of the animal. The bulls are very definitely much lighter colored than the cows, true to their Shawnee name of Wapiti, which literally means "white rump."
As I picked apart the forest yet tried to be invisible in my blaze orange vest and hat, the elk started moving downhill and I saw flashes of antlers on the one I had identified as a bull. But I still couldn't determine how big he was. And then suddenly they were gone, like wisps of smoke in a slight breeze. I then realized that I was starting to get wet. And cold.
I decided to try and circle down and ahead of them. But after I had gone only a few hundred yards, I realized that the wind was wrong, and I had lost the herd.
My excitement was too great to feel disappointed, and I changed my direction and got above the area they had been in and started following them upwind, as they had not really spooked. Several minutes later I came into an open area and spotted two young bulls, a 4X4 and a 5X5, locking antlers and pushing each other back and forth! We call them raghorns, but they were definitely legal in this GMU. I set the camcorder up and began filming them, and I was absolutely spellbound as they paid no attention to me, yet they were only 70 yards away! This went on for several minutes, and I got it all on tape. This was a scene from Mother Nature that I have been in on only a handful of times in my life; it was a spectacular show! How I was able to watch and film these bulls was magical and it was a definite mystery that they ignored me. I am sure that the weather was a huge factor. They were more interested in testing themselves and practicing for when they were older and hopefully becoming the herd bull and earning breeding priviledges of the cows if they proved tough enough.
Finally they moved off, and I circled ahead of them and all of a sudden there he was, the herd bull! He was moving away from me through some aspens, but I could see his antlers with the bristling tines on top, and I immediately knew that I wanted to try for him. But again, as my excitement died down when I lost sight of him in the trees, I realized that I was slowly getting wetter, and colder.
Getting cold, OK, but now I had renewed determination, so again I instinctively took a new route, guessing which way he would meander through the trees, pushing my strength. About 20 minutes later the trees opened up and against all odds, there was the bull in amongst a dozen cows and calves. And incredibly they seemed to not notice me. But what was noticeable was the ever decreasing quality of the weather. The rain was becoming a heavy drizzle, and the fog was thickening. The temperature was decreasing as was my comfort level, but it was still magical.
I swung the tripod holding the Sony camera in front of me and tried to get the herd in the view finder. They were maybe 120 yards away, and I wanted to get some footage before I set up for a shot, although it was a bit far but I knew my Encore was up to it but not sure if I was. As I said I was getting wetter and colder by the moment and my knees were aching yet the magical happening of this tour of events kept my adrenalin level high which was cancelling out my pain. And actually my camcorder had been serving as a walking cane of sorts.
From this moment on, the scenes that took place seem surrealistic. I would set up the camcorder, and the herd would drift off, and I would follow and find them, and then the herd would move on, and again and again, at least four different times. The conditions were as good as it gets for still hunting and stalking, yet it was still truly a mystery that the elk allowed me to pursue them without spooking.
The fifth time this scenario took place found the herd across a little draw with the bull closest to me, and I actually ranged him at only 47 yards away. He was facing me and the only shot would be into the straight-on part of his chest; not the best shot with iron sights under foggy conditions and by now even though I was fighting it off I was freezing and my teeth were starting to chatter. My adrenalin was again flowing and I determinedly set up the camera and managed to get him framed and pushed the record button. Quickly sitting down I set up on my shooting sticks and aligned the sights, hoping the bull would change positions. Sure enough he started to move off and I reached for my cow call with my frigid right hand and softly mewed on it. It seemed to warm up my hand a tiny bit and he stopped and turned broadside, but he was still mostly obscured by brush and this time all I had was a high shoulder/neck shot but I knew if I could hit the spine that he would crumple and it would be all over.
I steeled my nerves and my shaking body settled down for a few seconds. Taking a deep breath and then letting it half out, the trigger broke crisply and I never felt the recoil but I instantly knew that I blew the shot. I was cold, tired of the weather and allowed myself to lose my patience, and had taken a marginal shot even though I knew better. Well, it didn't work, and because I made an error I had a wounded elk instead of a sure kill. I was stunned. Thinking back on the events that had transpired all culminating in one bad shot was hard to swallow. I wanted to rush up to where he had been standing, but I forced myself to instead rewind the camera and watch the shot in slow motion. After doing this 3 or 4 times, I verified what I had thought: the camera does not lie. I could clearly see the big bullet hit the bull about 3 inches below the hairline, but above the spine.
To make a long story short, I reloaded my Encore and after about twenty minutes of waiting and shivering under some dripping spruce trees to try and get out of the rain, I made my way across the draw up to the area of the shot to look for blood and hair, but if there had been any, it was long gone in the sodden landscape. For the next hour and a half, fighting my body's will to give up for now, I made increasingly larger and larger circles outward, hoping against hope that I would find him laying down. At least now I could move faster and get my body heat going, instead of being in the stealth mode where I had to move slowly; I was definitely dressed wrong for this weather.
My brain finally agreed with my compromised body, so I very dejectedly turned and headed back towards the truck to try and get dried out, as I did not want hypothermia to set in. I made plans to come back tomorrow and search for him.
Immediately the weather got even foggier and visibility was now cut down to only 50 yards. Amazingly I then came upon a group of four big mule deer bucks. And I do mean big. Each one of them would score an easy 160 SCI; I was watching them at 40 yards in between patches of drifting fog through my 10X Zeiss. Even though the lenses kept fogging over and I had to keep wiping them the best I could with my wet shirt sleeve, I know what I was seeing. It was continuing to be a truly magical day, yet mysterious in so many ways; and the fog added the final yet perfect dimension. As I studied the four mature bucks in between trying to keep the lenses clear, the two largest were a perfect typical that would score around 175, and the other was a 30 inch wide non-typical monster that would score probably close to 200 SCI. To be honest with you, in my entire career of hunting and guiding I had never seen a group of bucks such as the quality of these four. My Magical Mystery Tour was not yet over for today. Hardly.
As they too disappeared in the fog, I knew I would be back come rifle season to try and get a date with these boys and my .475 Linebaugh.
Soon after that the weather slowly began to clear and the sun peeked through the clouds. Between seeing the bucks and now my body eagerly soaking up the flirting rays, my spirits were improving, but I was still sick about losing my bull.
Did I say that my magical mystery tour was not over? Fifteen minutes later I came through some heavier timber and when it started thinning out a herd of elk leapt into view. I was sure it was a different herd, but when I glassed them I could not believe my eyes. The herd bull was...no...no way.. oh my gosh...YES!!! It was the same bull that I had wounded! The camera tape proves it. Not only that, but I could detect a very slight fringe of red high up on his neck: blood being soaked up by 3 inches of heavy elk hair. Even though the old boy had a fifty caliber hole through his neck, he had circled back around and regained his herd of cows.
Talk about an adrenaline rush! I hurriedly set up the Sony but it also was soaked, and all I got was an error reading about moisture in the components. I clumsily set it aside and again hurried into shooting position on my sticks. I ranged the roughly broadside bull at 116 yards, and deliberately put a Black Belt through his left shoulder, wanting to break him down so he wouldn't run off again. The big projectile slammed into him, and he started to go down but smacked into a tree, leaned on it for a few seconds, struggled and amazingly regained his feet. I started to reload as the herd started drifting away. In record time I put another bullet into him, and he finally went down.
That day was without a doubt the Magical Mystery Tour of my hunting career!
HANDGUNNING MULE DEER AND PRONGHORN ANTELOPE
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