Tom Lounsbury: Elk season adventure begins
Receiving what I consider, for me at least, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in Michigan’s very unique elk hunt is a very distinct honor.
It took me 36 years of devotedly applying for an elk license each year before I was finally successful this year in drawing an antlerless-only tag for the early season, which is divided into three separate four-day hunts.
I recently finished the first segment, which ran Sept. 1-4, and although I never had an opportunity to touch the trigger, I was thrilled to the core of my being the entire time and made some new friends in the process.
A certain glitch to all of this was a recent total knee replacement I had to have. Due to rough mileage, I looked at it as being “refitted” to replace a worn-out part in order to keep on ticking and enjoying some often rigorous outdoor activities, which tends to be my nature.
The original surgery was scheduled for March, which for me is a bit of “downtime” between all the activities I pursue. But due to the pandemic and the governor’s executive orders, my surgery was postponed until to the end of May.
Everything went well with the surgery, and with my fast-approaching elk hunt, I was making sure I would be as physically fit as could be, including walking regularly up and down steps in our bi-level house. I also made a point of not doing anything “stupid” to jeopardize matters.
Then, two weeks before my elk hunt, I decided it was time to worm my three horses with the aid of my son, Jake, who would halter and hold the horses while I simply administered the medication.
The mustang and the pony fully cooperated, but my Tennessee Walker, Jupiter, wanted nothing to do with Jake, and I asked for the halter to settle matters.
I walked up to Jupiter and put the lead rope around his neck with my right hand while starting to put the halter on with my left, and he suddenly whirled, causing the lead rope to wrap around my hand, and bolted away, taking me with him until the rope let loose and I was body-slammed into hard clay, entailing my right shoulder, hip and, of course, my new knee.
According to Jake, I literally bounced in forward momentum like a skipping-stone (a charging half-ton horse can do that to you).
All I can say, folks, is “stupid is as stupid does,” and yep, I knew I was hurt and set back some. Fortunately, an X-ray said there were no fractures, but my knee ligaments were all stretched and swollen, and climbing the stairs, much less walking regularly, became a tad tedious.
But no matter what, I was going elk hunting, and Jake was going to accompany me (I referred to him as my very necessary “Sherpa”).
Our elk guide, John Jones, of Atlanta, Michigan, would have two hunters with him in his truck — Lou Leavens of Sterling Heights and myself — as well as two non-hunters which were Jake along with Lou’s buddy, Scott Ploe of Detroit.
Jones’s 4x4 Ford truck was plenty roomy for the five of us, and we of course got to know each other quite well while patrolling the many miles of “gas trails” and backroads which abound in the Pigeon River country.
Riding in that truck while looking for elk or elk sign reminded me of the atmosphere of being in a duck blind, where you can readily talk and even cajole one another while remaining ever watchful for the game you are pursuing. We all got along quite well, and I loved every minute of it!
Of course, Jones said he wished he had put a tip-jar on the dash of the truck where you had to throw in a dollar whenever you saw an elk that actually wasn’t an elk. There is little doubt Jones would have been a rich man by the end of the week.
In the case of two hunters being together with one guide, there has to be an order in place as to who shoots first, and this often can be resolved by flipping a coin.
In our case, being realistic, I knew that no coin flipping was required, and I let Leavens know right off that he was “Number One.”
I was no speedster simply getting in and out of the truck, and doing a “run and gun” over rough ground was out of the question. Yep, folks, you have to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, and above all, be a team player.
I had no problem at all with the situation, enjoyed myself immensely, and took time to learn about Michigan elk and the lay of the ground from our hunting guide.
I will state here that having a hunting guide, for me at least, was an absolute necessity because I had no idea at all of where I was in an immense area, and where the boundaries were for private property, and also where certain zones were closed to elk hunting.
Riding through such beautiful country was a special feature all its own, as well as we saw countless deer, wild turkeys, a couple coyotes, one black bear, and a bobcat that sped across the trail in front of us.
However, no elk or even elk sign could be found on the first two days (when you figure the actual number of elk in a very large territory, it can be like a needle in a haystack). This was the case for most elk hunters, including those with private land access. The days were hot, and due to full-moon nights, the elk were well-fed and stayed in deep cover during daylight.
What also complicated matters, especially on public land, was the state of the food plots which the MDNR normally plants each year and which allow a focal point to locate elk. Due to the pandemic and the governor’s orders, no seasonal employees were hired and most full-time employees were required to work from home. Needless to say, the once-numerous wildlife food plots remain pretty much fallow ground this year.
It was during the third afternoon that we located fresh elk sign, and I soon found myself seated on a comfortable stool with my rifle resting on a tripod shooting stick while overlooking a recently timbered-off hillside.
Fresh elk tracks and droppings abounded everywhere and I was filled with intense anticipation, right up to quitting time, but the elk made no appearance. However, Jones had a plan on how to go about matters the following morning.
Daybreak found us patiently waiting in position until start time and especially until we had enough shooting light to determine matters (identifying heavily-antlered bull elk is a whole lot easier than cow elk, but spike bulls can often look like cows, and it is wise not to make any mistakes during this hunt).
When the time arrived, Jones eased the truck up a trail to a gas-well clearing, and immediately whispered “elk” when he peered into a woody ravine down below. Sure enough, I could see them too, and there was a whole herd, including an enormous bull which stood right out.
I stayed put while Leavens bailed out and uncased his rifle, dug out a couple shells and loaded his rifle while on the move. Jones was right on hand with the tripod shooting stick at the ready for Leavens and his binocular already in use to assess a possible shot.
The focus point was a large cow elk standing broadside 70 yards away, but before Leavens could lock on and shoot, an elk calf moved into the line of fire, and the herd was suddenly on the move, but not in a real hurry.
Jones was certain he knew where they were headed, and he and Leavens took off on an angle cross country, at double time. For the rest of us, it was a waiting game at the truck, while we anxiously listened for a shot.
A shot came echoing through the hills about 15 minutes later, soon followed by a second shot, and we in the truck pondered the end result for another half hour. Then, a smiling Jones appeared out of the brush and announced Leavens had just shot an enormous cow elk.
They had intercepted the herd about a quarter mile in, and the cow was bringing up the rear and offered Leavens a standing broadside, offhand shot at 40 yards.
Although the 160-grain bullet from the 7mm Magnum rifle passed through both lungs, the large cow showed no effects as it walked another 10 yards before stopping. Leavens then shot it again, high in the shoulder, which included the spine, and the cow dropped dead on the spot.
Jones immediately notified the MDNR of the kill and its location, and it was time to use bright orange marking ribbon to lead officials to the actual kill site and place a banner with the hunter number on it at the nearest road access.
In a short time, two Conservation Officers arrived and very professionally and thoroughly assessed and validated the kill. The next step was getting a field-dressed cow elk out and to a meat processor with a cooler as quickly as possible, and this is when it pays to have some extra hands and muscle available (in my condition, I offered great moral support).
I’m already looking forward to the second segment of my early elk hunt (Sept. 18-21), and, hopefully, a couple more weeks of healing time will do the trick.
Email Tom Lounsbury at firstname.lastname@example.org