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A Once in a Lifetime Elk Hunting Experience

Travis Leier

Moose, elk and Bighorn sheep: the 3 most coveted tags available in North Dakota. Most residents will never get the privilege to hunt all or even one of these species in the state. Every year in early to mid-March, the draw results come out and if you’re like me, you say to yourself, “well, I made my donation for the year.” This year however, March 12 is a day that I won’t soon forget! I remember exactly how it happened. 

I received an email notification that I was unsuccessful in the moose lottery. Not surprised and completely expected, I then decided, for some reason, to log onto my account on the Game and Fish website. Once I logged on, I looked at lottery results and saw “successful,” and without looking to the left hand side on what it was, thought to myself, “this must be a spring turkey tag or something from last year.” I looked on the left side of the page: elk lottery. I thought to myself, “wait….” I looked to the right, “successful,” looked to the left, “elk lottery.” In utter disbelief, I took my hand and ran it across the screen from left to right: elk lottery….successful. There was no possible way I drew that tag. Unit E3, any elk. I finally called my co-worker over and told her, “I think I drew an elk tag.” She came over and looked at my computer screen and verified what I couldn’t believe I was reading! It was an absolute emotional high. 

North Dakota elk

Elk Shape 

After coming down off the emotional high, that’s when I realized the work begins now! Anyone who has hunted elk knows this isn’t a hunt that you drive around, find them, and put a stalk on. To find elk, it requires miles on boots, getting back into heavily wooded areas and rough terrain. Elk hunting is a physically demanding hunt and if successful, requires multiple trips across this rough terrain packing the animal out. Now, while not being in terrible physical condition, I am no Olympic athlete by any means. I am familiar with the terrain of the badlands and know the requirements needed to hunt them successfully. While cardio is a huge factor and needed to cover a lot of ground fast as well as being able to get up and down the steep cliffs while carrying a pack, one thing I consider to be just as important are strong legs and core. Factoring in all these things, I decided it was time to put together a workout regimen to get myself ready to go. 

I spend a fair amount of time scouring the internet for tips from other hunters who hunt elk and the kind of conditioning they work on to get in “elk shape.” I decided to start off simple running on the treadmill as long as I could and pushing myself to get in at least 2 miles in the beginning, and then slowly working myself up to 5 miles running, at least 3 of them to get my cardio up to par. Now legs. No one likes leg day, let’s be honest, but it’s a necessary evil for the country I planned on hunting. If you haven’t experienced a Bowflex Maxx Trainer, it is an evil machine but man does it get results! It’s a combination of a stair stepper and elliptical that will work your legs in ways you’re probably glad you haven’t in years. I just used a preset 15-minute workout to simulate stairs with increased intensity as you go. By the end, my legs were like Jell-O! Now, while both running on the treadmill and the Max Trainer help work your core, I decided to add in some planks to add a little more to it. Ultimately, that core strength is going to help with balance and strengthening your back to help carry your pack around and hopefully full packs of quartered elk. 

Elk Scouting

North Dakota badlands

With my workout regimen figured out and implemented, it was time for the fun stuff! I started doing some scouting. Being somewhat familiar with the badlands, I knew of some areas that elk are frequently seen. I was also fortunate enough to have friends send me waypoints of where they’ve seen elk. One resource I think many people overlook are the folks who deal with this resource every day, the Game and Fish department itself. I talked with a handful of folks at the department as well and they were all very helpful and excited for me as well. Ultimately, they want folks to be successful on these hunts. Utilizing the resources available, I marked multiple places to scout during the summer. 

As summer rolled by, all the practice, prep and anticipation was getting closer to reality. In late August, I was finally able to get out to the badlands to do some scouting. While it was just a quick trip out there, it was a great experience, because I was able to take my father with me who has never experienced the North Dakota Badlands himself. I had also been making calls with private landowners and had struck pay dirt getting permission from the Van Daele family who have elk on their property. My father and I met with them on our trip and got some information from them on where they typically see them and where they go. It’s always great to be able to make those connections and get intel from the people that see the critters on a day-to-day basis. As dad and I drove through the area and I got my bearings of the areas I’d be hunting - while it’s something that I might take for granted now having been in the area multiple times - it was cool to just watch my dad as he took it all in and admired the landscape. As with anyone, I highly encouraged him and my mom to take a weekend and just come out to sightsee out there because the landscape itself is intoxicating, and once you’ve had a taste of it, you want to return whenever you can. 

Elk Supplies

Let’s talk weapons. I consider myself mainly an archery hunter. For me, there is no bigger thrill than having a deer walk in at 10 yards and not knowing you are there, drawing back and watching that arrow fly. Now here’s my dilemma; I have a once in a lifetime tag that I absolutely would love to fill with my bow, but I’m not above breaking out the rifle to get the job done. Much like being in good physical condition for the hunt, you also have to be proficient with your weapons. Having been torn between using my bow versus my rifle, I finally decided I’m not going to risk it and be 100 yards away from a big bull elk and not have a way to close the distance on him. Having decided to go with my rifle, I then started shooting and making certain I was proficient with my setup. I decided to go with my Remington 7mm Ultra Mag with a Leupold VX-6HD scope. My ammunition of choice was 175-grain Berger Elite Hunter bullets which I reload myself. While we are fortunate enough to have a 100-yard range here in my hometown, I also wanted to practice at longer distances so I found a place where I could practice out to 400 yards. 

Elk Season

Summer passed and the time arrived! I finished my projects at work, squared away any loose ends with co-workers and started getting ready for the hunt. Fortunately, I have a group of amazing friends who were willing to lend me their ice castle to use as my camp, so even though I was out in the wilderness, I could still come “home” to recharge after each day. Once I got all my gear loaded up, it was time to hit the road! 

I rolled into camp Thursday afternoon around 3 p.m., got things set up, and it was time to do some scouting for the next day. One other cool part of this experience is not only do I get to go on a once in a lifetime hunt, I also got to make some new friends in the process. In the days of social media, it had come to my attention that there was a fellow elk tag holder for my unit that had drawn a cow tag, but unfortunately, health issues limit his ability to where he can go and what he can do. I had made communication with his son through Facebook and helped them get in touch with the same property owner that I was working with to get them permission and to hopefully help him fulfill his once in a lifetime hunt. His son mentioned that it would probably be the last hunt that he would go on due to his ailing health, so I wanted to do whatever I could to help them make it happen for him. We finally got to meet in person Thursday before opening day. After our initial meet and greet, we headed to the property we’d be hunting and met with the landowner to touch base then we started scouting. 

It wasn’t long before we started seeing movement. It started with a couple of mule deer and then the elk showed up! The first we saw was just a rag horn but for all of us, it was the first elk we’d ever seen in North Dakota. After watching him for about 10 minutes another bull showed up and he was not a rag horn! After a short time, something spooked the rag horn and consequently the big bull ducked back over the hill. We walked back to our pickups and were coming up with a game plan for opening morning. While we were talking, here came the elk again. This time we found ourselves watching not 2 but 6 bulls and the big one we watched earlier was with them. We were like kids in a candy store at this point just gawking and looking at each other in utter amazement, taking pictures with our spotting scopes, and glassing them through our binos. Darkness began to fall, and we decided it was time to head to camp and get some rest to hit it opening morning! I got back to camp, made some food and set my alarm for 5 a.m. Tomorrow was go time! 

At 5 a.m., the alarm clock goes off, I jump out of bed, pop my contacts in, get my gear on, grab the rest of my gear, and head out to my truck. As I step out of the ice castle, I look around and think to myself, “it sure it awfully light out for this early.” Current regulations allow us to hunt a half hour before sunrise and a half hour past sunset. Now, having hunted for most of my life, I was realizing that I was closer to sunrise than I had originally thought. Well, I had set my alarm for Central time sunrise, not Mountain time. In a panic, I texted Cody to see if they were out there and set up and to let him know that I was on my way but struggled to know what time it was…rookie mistake! 

North Dakota sunrise

Not wanting to mess up their hunt with me rolling onto the property, I got bearings on where they were and made sure to not jump anything they were watching. After finally getting to the property right around sunrise, we saw lots of nice bulls but not the ones we were looking for, and unfortunately no cows. After a few hours, things quieted down and we discussed a gameplan for the night hunt. All of us headed back to my campsite where we visited and got more acquainted with each other and found out we only live a few miles away from each other. The time came to head back out to the grounds and pursue our evening hunt. It was a quiet night, and we didn’t see any elk. After dark, we joined back up and discussed a plan for the morning hunt and headed back to our respective camps. I set my alarm for 4 a.m. (Fool me once!), made myself some food, and hit the hay. 

The 4 a.m. alarm goes off, I gear up and head to the truck. Boy it sure is dark when you wake up at the right time! I got all my gear and headed out to the property. I got out to the property and waited for first light. The North Dakota Badlands are a beautiful place in the daylight, but it’s hard to find another comparison to how they look at sunrise on a crisp fall morning. The landscape was clear and the draws and river bottom were covered in fog. Pictures don’t do this justice. For me, hunting isn’t just about going out and harvesting an animal; it’s about the full experience, the landscape, experiences and people you meet are what makes a hunt successful. I was in the middle of a great experience just with the scenery. First light had arrived and I wasn’t seeing any critters meandering about. Then, like magic, 3 bulls were right there! I pulled up my binos and glassed and there he was - the big bull we were watching the first night scouting. Realizing the bull I was after was right in front of me, a sense of anticipation, excitement and nerves all hit me at once. I got buck fever, the shakes, the nerves, all of it! I reached for my range finder and ranged him at 228 yards. This is what I had been waiting for; the practice the prep, it’s all coming together! 

I loaded a round and braced myself to steady myself. The shakes got worse, the elk were acting skiddish, so I put the crosshairs on him and fired! The recoil of my gun pushed me back. The bullet was away. I heard a thwack and watched the elk stand there for a second after the impact and then run away confused. I missed. How did I miss?! It was 200 yards! I quickly loaded another shell and watched as he ran over a hill. I started after them, watching as he and the other two bulls crested a hill. I ranged him at 650 yards…too far. I’m not comfortable making that shot, so I tried to close the distance some more. They were slowly trotting away. Even though they were slowly trotting away, they cover way more ground way faster than I can. They stopped and I ranged them again 800 yards. At this point, I looked at the landscape and realized it was over. I couldn’t close the distance without being completely obvious and them watching my every move, so I decided to back out. 

I got back to my truck and just felt sick. My once in a lifetime tag with a bull elk that would make any elk hunter giddy walked out of my life. I processed everything in my head trying to figure out what went wrong. I had my rifle zeroed in at 100 yards; it was only a 200 yard shot. It shouldn’t drop that much at that distance. I rushed my shot, didn’t take a breath, and it cost me. A bull of that caliber isn’t stupid, and after being shot at, will be out of my life forever. Cody, Shawn and Al met up with me and I told them what had happened. At the same time, I was on the bull of a lifetime, Al was on a cow as well and was trying to make a move. My shot at the bull spooked the cow and it ran off on him before he could get a shot off. At that point, not only was I just sick about missing, but I also ruined his chance at a cow! 

Anyone who has hunted has most likely been in that situation and knows the feeling of missing a critter of a lifetime. Talking with my hunting crew, we decided to glass a couple other draws for the morning before they had to take off back home. We glassed for a while then headed back to camp. I got back and was completely defeated and down, having gotten my 4 a.m. wake up time right this time. I decided I was just going to take a nap, regroup and go back out. I was not going to give up. There were other good bulls out there so I would go after one of them. 

I woke up from my nap and headed back to the grounds. I propped myself up on a hill and glassed the area. Now I’m not a religious man, but I found myself asking for one more chance at him, just to see him again. A couple of hours went by and the only thing I saw were a few antelope. Close to sunset, the mule deer and a few whitetails started milling around. Sunset hit and all I saw were the same antelope and deer. I started packing my gear up thinking to myself, “doesn’t look like I’m going to see much tonight.” About to get down from my perch, I took another look around and 1000 yards away I saw an elk. I grabbed my binos and glassed him. It looked like a pretty good bull! I pulled out my cow call and made a couple of cow calls as a desperation move. That was a lot of ground to cover in a half hour. I glassed him again…wait…that’s not him is it?! He started moving towards me. 800 yards, glass again, I think that’s him. There’s no way he’d come back after this morning. 600 yards…that’s definitely him! 15 minutes of shooting light was left. I watched where he was going. He wass going to come just South of me. I decided to try to close the distance. There was a small draw and hill across from me to conceal my movement. I watched him and when he dropped his head to feed, I moved. I got down in the draw and at this point, it was all to chance. He was moving West, so if I could get to the top of the hill, I should be within 200 yards again…I got this, I’m good to 400. I studied my ballistic charts earlier in the day; I knew how many clicks to adjust on the scope, just need to close the distance. 

I slowly crest the hill. I was about three quarters of the way up it. I slowed down to catch my breath, and I saw the top of his rack. He was right there! I got my shooting stick set up and propped my rifle on it. I chambered a shell and took a deep breath. He took a couple more steps, I put the crosshairs on him, clicked the safety off, tell myself, “OK Travis, you got this.” I took a breath and squeezed the trigger. The bullet was away…THWACK! He dropped in his tracks, didn’t take a step, didn’t run, I got him! At this point, my adrenaline was sky high, I was shaking like a bobble head on a car dash on a washboard road. I took off running towards him, I got to the top of the hill and chambered another shell in case he got up. I started walking toward him, saw his head sway a bit, and then fall over. He was down! I did it! He came back and it all came together. I couldn’t believe it! 

elk respect

As I stood there admiring the bull, I couldn’t help but think that someone was watching out for me, someone had to give me a hand in this.  Five minutes of legal light left, he covered 700 yards and I covered 200 yards - 100-yard shot with virtually no time left. Now was the time for the work! I notched the date and month on my tag and went to put it on the antler. Nope won’t fit there, try it a little higher, still too thick. Fortunately, at the very highest point, it fit! Man this guy was massive, and I was still in utter disbelief that this happened! I called the landowner to let him know and got his voicemail. I’m sure if I heard this message today, I sound like a blubbering fool. But I remember thanking him and giving my sincere appreciation for allowing me the privilege to hunt their property. 

I then began quartering him out. Now mind you, I have quartered my fair share of deer but in no way does that compare to trying to quarter a bull elk by yourself! I worked away and got him quartered out. It took me about 3 hours to get it all quartered out and ready to load up. At this point, after wrestling a 1200 pound animal, I was completely exhausted. I called the landowner one more time to see if I could drive over to the animal to load it because there was no way I’d be able to pack it out by myself that night. I got ahold of him and he was just as excited about it as I was and asked if I’d like some help to load it up. Gary and his family came out and pulled up to give me a hand, and they all gave me congratulations. We all admired the mass and beauty of this elk. After a short while, we loaded it all up and while I was doing what I could to keep the meat as clean as I could, it got pretty dirty. They told me to come down to their house and we could hose it all off and get things cleaned up and loaded up for me. We stood around and talked and shared that comradery that you find that comes so easily in the hunting community. I offered up some meat to them and asked if I could come back and help them at their ranch as a thank you for the opportunity, and they told me I had worked hard enough. It was 1:30 a.m., and I started making my way back to camp still in utter disbelief everything came together so well. As I drove back to camp, every time I hit the brake lights going through the winding roads of the badlands I found myself looking back and just admiring the sheer size of it. I pulled into camp completely exhausted, grabbed a bit of gear out of my pickup, found my bed and just passed out! 

While the hunt was over, the work didn’t stop there. The next two days were spend with family and good friends processing the elk and getting all my gear cleaned up and re-organized. This will be one of the most memorable hunts that I’ve had. While I got an amazing trophy that I’ll be able to admire for years to come, that’s only the icing on the cake. 

The memories of taking my dad out to the badlands for his first time, meeting the Van Daele family and becoming friends with them, making friends with Cody, Shawn and Al all from a Facebook post, and the overall excitement of everyone with the congratulatory messages, stopping by, the way a hunt like this can bring all these people together, it’s these things that make hunting such an important part of my life and make it such a memorable experience. These experiences truly made this a once in a lifetime experience for me, and one that I will look back on and remember every time I look at the trophy on the wall. 

As a member of the Mossy Oak Prostaff, a few days before I left for my hunt, we had received word that the Manager of the Prostaff, Tim Anderson, had passed away unexpectedly. As I previously mentioned, I’m not a religious man but feel like someone was watching out for me on this hunt and I feel Tim might have had a hand in it. While this is a somber part of the memories of this hunt that I will remember, I feel it fitting to dedicate this hunt to the one and only Tim Anderson who valued every one of the Prostaff members and treated all of us like family. This hunt is for you Tim. Rest in peace my friend. 

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