Of Elk and Ethics

This article was first published in the November/December 2022 issue of Outdoor Oklahoma Magazine.

Full disclosure and necessary backstory: I’ve never killed an elk.

If after reading that sentence you’re tempted to move on and spend your time on something more interesting, hang on a second and hear me out because it’s that piece of information that actually makes this piece worth reading.

Where I grew up in small town Oklahoma, an elk might as well have been an elephant. In my youth and naiveté, I was convinced that every bull in the woods bugled in the Colorado Rockies but those mountains loomed a world away from my world of bullfrogs and BB guns. As I grew up and became more familiar with geography, I figured out that Colorado was actually an easy day’s drive from my home in Oklahoma. Not that proximity got me any closer to an elk hunt, mind you. I had no money to pay for a guided hunt, and I had no clue how to hunt them on my own. Then I met and married a girl that had been raised in the foothills of the Rockies. Surely this would be my chance to worm my way into some prime elk hunting habitat! No such luck. No one in her immediate family hunted or knew anyone who did. Years passed, and I resigned myself to the reality that an elk hunt would exist only in my dreams. Between a lack of hunting connections, that pesky, prohibitive income, and my asthmatic lungs, it just didn’t seem possible.

There was one glimmer of hope, but I knew better than to put much stock in it. Since the 1960s, Oklahoma’s wildlife department, in conjunction with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, has provided an annual controlled hunt for elk in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, but drawing that tag is like winning the lottery. So, I more or less put the matter out of my mind.

Then things began to change.

Thanks in part to Oklahoma’s nearly 2,500 Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation members, the Sooner State’s elk herd grew, and more and more opportunities to hunt wapiti were made available by the wildlife department, culminating in the opening of a statewide season on private lands in 2014. It wasn’t long before trophy shots of hunters beaming behind their homegrown elk began to show up on my social media sites. The bulls being killed weren’t giants, not at first, but they were getting better and better every year. Then young Olivia Parry killed the best typical on the Oklahoma record books in 2016, an elk that stretched the tape to 377 6/8”. The non-typical record was set just a year later when Johnathan Moore downed a bull that measured 371 6/8”. As encouraging as those developments were, though, I still had no access to the private lands where elk were being hunted so I just never gave much thought to shooting a bull of my own.

Until I stepped out of my friend Chandler’s truck a couple of Decembers ago.

“If you see an elk, shoot it.”

I’d first hunted with Chandler Henderson after drawing one of Oklahoma’s coveted rifle tags for pronghorn antelope. That draw works the same way the elk draw does, but with better odds. It’s still a once-in-a-lifetime pull, though, and successful sportsmen can never again even enter the drawing. Chandler farms and hunts in the westernmost county of Oklahoma’s panhandle, the Cimarron, and he was kind enough to guide me to a heavy horned goat one September. At his invitation, I made the drive back to the panhandle the first weekend of December during the last weekend of Oklahoma’s rifle season to try to shoot my first mule deer buck, a quarry with which Chandler is well acquainted as he currently holds the state record for the species, a 191 7/8” monster he arrowed back in 2014.

The panhandle of Oklahoma doesn’t look like elk country. It’s so flat that on a clear day and from a good vantage point, landmarks can easily be identified in four other states. There are no snowcapped mountains or aspen rimmed meadows in Cimarron County. There is, however, lots to eat. Elk in the Oklahoma panhandle gorge themselves on a buffet of corn and milo and soybeans and wheat. That’s why the state’s most generous quota for elk, outside of its Special Southwest Zone, is found in the panhandle.

“If you see an elk, shoot it.”

The minute those words came out of Chandler’s mouth I looked down at the rifle in my hands. I was carrying an as yet unbloodied 7mm08, more than enough gun for the whitetail close to home, and plenty for a deep chested mulie, but maybe a stretch for an 800 pound bull elk. I’d packed handloads in both 120 and 140 grains for this trip, but I only had the 120s with me when I climbed out of Chandler’s truck that afternoon, and we were already miles away from his house. I’d be hunting with the 140 grain bullets the rest of the trip, obviously, but I was convinced that fate would lead the bull of my dreams, or even the raghorn of my dreams, across my path that afternoon and I wouldn’t have enough gun to get the job done.

I’m sure Chandler attributed my silence on that first afternoon’s hunt to focus, but in truth, a debate was raging inside me. If I did see an elk, would I shoot, knowing that my bullet might not have enough punch to knock him down? Or would discretion prove the better part of valor and lead me to pass up the opportunity? Would I ever have a chance at an elk again? And would there be a tag available if I did? Would I be able to live with myself if I wounded an elk and couldn’t finish him off? As wide open as the country is in the Oklahoma panhandle, there are enough cuts and draws that an elk could easily disappear, never to be found again. On and on the deliberation continued, until the sun finally set and settled the matter for me. There would be no elk sightings that first afternoon so, thankfully, I wouldn’t have to decide how ethical a hunter I was.

As it turned out, I didn’t see an elk the whole trip. But for the next three years, I wondered about my integrity as a sportsman. Then this year, I got another chance to hunt elk with Chandler. He’d been given permission on another piece of property in the panhandle that was allegedly thick with elk and let me know that I needed to come up and chase them with him before the corn was cut. Because archery seasons for elk and deer and antelope run concurrently the first two weeks of October, I made my way to the panhandle during the season’s second week, full of the daydreaming fantasy and optimistic confidence all hunters share at the beginning of hunting season.

“If you see an elk, shoot it.”

The first morning of our hunt, Chandler set me up on a stool tucked just inside the first row of a corn circle. Sitting on that same stool later that afternoon, sipping lukewarm water and staring straight into the setting sun, I sure didn’t feel like I was on an elk hunt. In fact, if the crossbow in my hands had been a shotgun, I’d have sworn that I was on my family’s annual Labor Day dove hunt in Harmon County. But sure enough, we saw elk on every hunt. Bulls, too. They were just hundreds of yards away, well out of range for the crossbow I was carrying.

Daylight was draining out of the sky on the last afternoon of my hunt when I saw a bull elk step out of a corn circle 500 yards to my north. I checked my watch and saw that I only had ten minutes of legal shooting light left so, reminding myself that I had nothing to lose, I stood up from my stool and started jogging straight at the bull.

He saw me coming immediately but wasn’t worried in the least. I stopped to range him as I walked, and by the time I’d cut the distance in half, I started to think I might actually get close enough for a shot. The last time I ranged the bull he was 146 yards away. Feeling confident in my crossbow’s setup, I told myself that I’d count off 100 more steps, take a knee to get one last range, and squeeze off a shot if one was presented. Then, I started walking. 

When another bull strutted out of the wheat to the east, I felt like this elk hunt was preordained, like the good Lord was orchestrating the events that would culminate in the taking of my first elk. The original bull I’d been stalking was rubbernecking between me and the rival headed his way, clearly distracted, and before I knew it, I’d not only reached but surpassed my 100-step goal. I knelt down on a bare patch of earth, ranged my bull one last time, flicked off my safety, and got my eye into the crossbow’s scope. That’s when the bull turned.

Where once he’d been broadside and barn-sized, the bull was now quartering sharply away from me, throwing nervous glances over his shoulder. I centered my crosshairs in the crease of his armpit, took a deep breath, and said a little prayer. Then I flicked back on my safety and lowered the crossbow to my lap. I watched as one bull joined the other. Together, they faded into the corn circle from whence my bull had emerged and disappeared into its depths. 

There were just too many factors working against me and the taking of an ethical shot that afternoon – low light conditions, the limitations of a crossbow’s range, and a bad shot angle on what had clearly become a nervous animal – all of it convinced me that the shot was just not an ethical one to take.

So, I again left the panhandle empty-handed. But the question that had haunted me for three years was finally answered. I learned that I do indeed have the integrity and the ethics necessary to call myself a sportsman. That knowledge may not fill the freezer with corn-fed venison or hang a shoulder mount above the fireplace, but I’ve decided I’d rather have an empty stomach than a sour one any day.

One thing’s for sure, though. My next trip to the panhandle will see me with a truckload of various hand loads and three or four different rifles in tow. I’m not about to endure another afternoon of that first afternoon’s moral dilemma again. If I ever hear those words from Chandler’s lips again, I’ll be ready.

“If you see an elk, shoot it.”

Will do, Chandler. Will do.

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