December 08, 2022
My late dad was a Western cowboy trapped in a Midwestern farmer's body. He had worked on a cattle outfit out of Belle Fourche, S.D., as a younger man, and he longed to leave the soybeans and feeder pigs of our little Missouri farm for the big sky and the open range.
When I moved to Montana, the first thing we did together was hatch plans for him to come elk hunting. We hunted a few general seasons for public-land bulls before we reckoned cow tags had shorter odds of both drawing and filling. He drew them, all right, but had trouble with the filling part. Finally, as I noticed that mountains and even hills were getting steep for him, he drew a cow tag for the Missouri Breaks near my eastern Montana home.
I knew the country, and, even better, I knew Kelly Burke. He's a good friend who runs a big-game outfit out of a wall tent deep in the relatively gentle Breaks, and Kelly told me that Dad and I could use his camp for the first week of the season. It appealed to the Western romantic in my father, and boosted my hopes that finally Dad would put his hands on a wild-West cow. Dad was shooting his .30/06, and told me that he was good to 300 yards. A couple of range sessions confirmed age hadn’t dulled his shooting skills.
We were in elk nearly every day, but just couldn't quite connect. Our last night at camp was crisp and clear, and in our cots, we were thrilled to hear bulls bugling in the little meadow below our tent. We got up early, and being careful not to clang coffee cups or spoons, we walked out from camp and posted up on the rimrocks above the meadow a good hour before legal light. As the sun rose, we made out a couple of raghorn bulls sniffing around a herd of maybe 30 cows. Problem was, they were all of 600 yards across the basin, but as the sun peeked over the ridge, they started drifting toward us. My rangefinder confirmed 460, then 400, then 350. Dad was steady on a leather glove laid over a rock, tight to the scope. A lone cow grazed our way, then hung up just below us.
"OK, Dad, there she is," I rasped. "Three-hundred-twenty. Broadside." Nothing. No sharp inhalation, flinch or shot. I glanced over at Dad, stoic behind his scope. The cow worked on a clump of tumble grass, then drifted away from us, back into the herd. The moment was gone, along with Dad’s final chance at his first elk. He died the next year.
"Why didn’t you shoot?" I needed to know.
"I told you, my limit is 300 yards," he said as we walked back to the tent. "That's a bright line, not one that I can extend when it’s convenient."
I've thought a lot about Dad's line in the years since. Most of us hunters have those action thresholds—distances or situations that flash yellow. But for most of us, they're advisory. If conditions are just right, or maybe the animal is big enough, I'll extend my demonstrated proficiency with my bow beyond my personal boundary of 40 yards just as I'll reach beyond my comfort zone of 400 yards with my rifle, because I know my gear and my skills are up to the challenge.
But that's a problem. Shooting at animals, especially ones we’ve dreamed of hunting for years and spent our lifetimes revering and even glorifying, shouldn’t be a challenge. When we release an arrow or a bullet, it should be because we are absolutely certain we’re delivering a quick and humane death.
Even when we have demonstrated our proficiency at shooting inanimate targets well beyond the limits we set for hunting, we can’t control many of the variables that influence our shots at twitchy animals. What’s the wind doing at the target? How much does your projectile drop in the final 50 yards? Is there another animal you didn’t see just behind your target? And in the half-second it takes your bullet to reach its target, even a short step can turn your one-shot kill into a gut-shot rodeo. In archery, the unknowable variables of drop and yaw compound with every yard that your broadhead loses lethality.
I've come to recognize that my father's "bright line" wasn't negotiable, just as I've come to appreciate all the sharp-focus memories of our last hunt together. My dad, as we were packing up camp, told me something else that's stayed with me. I can admit now that I scolded his decision not to shoot, but he was calmly philosophical about the matter.
"You ambush your enemies," he said. "That cow had no idea we were there or that I was hunting her. I always thought that hunting was about the relationship between predator and prey."
I've mused on the meaning behind those words in the years since. Along the way, I've come to realize that he had no intention of shooting that elk, because we weren't in her bubble of awareness. And I've thought about the implications of his statement.
If the highest form of hunting is to achieve a relationship with your prey, then you are doomed to disappointment. Once you alert your prey that it's being pursued, everything that comes next is impossibly complicated. You can't be sure of your shot, because the animal is hyper-aware. You can't even guarantee that the animal will remain in your proficiency envelope, because it's doing everything it can to evade you. And alerting an animal of your presence and purpose unravels all the skills we've learned as hunters: to be quiet, scentless and camouflaged.
But lifting our cloak of invisibility was precisely my dad’s point. A lifelong whitetail hunter who whiffed on countless opportunities at elk, he was curiously calm about the outcome. It was less important for him to fill his tags than it was to have a relationship with the one species that defined hunting for him.
For a Missouri farmer who never heard the term "fair chase," my dad was practicing the pinnacle of hunting: He was giving his prey more chance to escape than he had to kill it. I realize that, in hunting as well as so many other measures of success, I'm still trying to live up to my father's expectations.