Through Fresh Eyes

Matt Hammond

It was hard to believe that it had already been a year since our inaugural trip into the Utah wilderness the year prior that resulted in an incredible success. Our sophomore elk season that held such high expectations had nearly been derailed numerous times throughout the year by life’s realities: jury summons, court dates, home sales, broken bones and various other injuries that plague the middle-aged. Yet here we were again, waiting to be picked up at the Salt Lake City International Airport ready to embark again. Like meeting an old flame after a long absence, I was unsure of how I’d feel when we reunited with the mountains but knew it would be different. As this trip unfolded, the rush of excitement and adventure rekindled, yet the landscape felt a little smaller and less wild. The newness had been replaced with a familiarity.

The author Betty Smith advises readers of her classic novel to “Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time.”  It’s through this lense that we share our lessons learned about backcountry elk hunting through the eyes of beginners with hopes that it helps you get the most out of your western hunt, whether it be your first or last.                                                                                                                  

Manage expectations 

One of the best pieces of advice we can offer is to have realistic expectations about your trip. If your measuring stick for success is punching a tag, the odds are that you will go home disappointed. There is a reason that over-the-counter success rates are often in the single digits. Western hunts, particularly public land DIY, are a low-percentage game and as in gambling the odds always tilt towards the house. If you view success, not in the taking of an animal, but the adventure experienced and growth as a hunter and a person your satisfaction will be guaranteed. Slipping up on a monster bull this fall raking a 20-foot-tall pine back-and-forth like an inflatable tube-man in front of a car dealership was worth the price of admission. 

In addition to managing your expectation of success, you can expect to be challenged. If you want an easy trip, go to the beach. Backcountry hunting will stretch and test you. However, if you go in with the mindset that all of it is part of the experience and take everything in stride, the inevitable days riding out a storm, waking up sore and tired, or reeling from the emotional letdown of a missed opportunity you’d spent days pursuing all become part of the adventure. The challenge is the ingredient that makes the reward so much sweeter. Manage your expectations and you’ll guarantee a successful hunt.

Come Home Safe

The most important outcome from every trip is to return home safe. No elk is worth your health or life. To make sure this happens you need to know the risks of the backcountry, avoid unnecessary risks, and have the equipment and plans to respond if something does go south. Emergency resources are often miles and hours away, leaving you as your first and best line of defense. Items you should have with you include a well-stocked first aid kit, an emergency satellite locator, a trip plan that you’ve shared with others and the training on how to use it all. However your trip into the backcountry pans out, make sure you come home safe.

Train, train and train some more

If you have never spent significant time out west, I can promise you that the mountains are steeper, the trails longer, and deadfalls to hurdle more numerous than you think. The first time you hike with a heavy pack for hours at a time shouldn’t be when you step on the mountain. Commit to getting physically fit and specifically tailor your training for the rigors of the mountains. The mantra of our team over the previous twelve months was #MikeFit in a nod to the herculean effort our compatriot Mike showed packing out last year's bull. After the experience of year one, I incorporated more functional training into my routine that included upping my cardio game and training with my hunting pack loaded down. Even after training harder and smarter in preparation for our sophomore hunt, the cold mornings demanded I limber up my 40-year-old back that matched my stiff frozen tent. I can say it enough, if you’re thinking about hunting out west, train, train, and train some more.

Soak up knowledge

There are so many good resources available to aspiring elk hunters today from podcasts and YouTube videos to the magazine in your hand right now. There is no substitute for firsthand experience but that doesn’t mean you should overlook the resources available. Take advantage of it all and soak in the bits of information that will help shorten your learning curve. There are plenty of keyboard warriors online who proclaim to have it all figured out, but if you pay attention and are discerning, you can separate the wheat from the chaff and pick up on valuable themes and tips that will help you on your journey. They don’t know me from Adam, but I feel like Remi Warren, Steve Rinella and Randy Newberg are friends and mentors because I’ve devoured every piece of knowledge they’ve shared in videos, articles and podcasts from their decades spent in the field. Soak up as much knowledge as possible.

Take care of your feet

There is a reason that legendary basketball coach John Wooden began each basketball season with a lesson on the proper way to put on socks and tie shoes. Little else about your hunt will go as planned if your feet aren’t healthy. Investing in quality socks, boots and insoles that fit your individual feet well make a big difference. After you do, wear them as part of your functional training. You may have to get creative with it, I live in South Florida where the highest hill for miles is the local landfill. That didn’t stop me though and I no doubt turned a few heads hiking back and forth on the tallest bridge in the county rocking my hunting pack and boots. Take care of your feet and they will take care of you.

Practice with your weapon 

This may seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. For most of us, a hunt out west is a major investment and opportunities at our chosen quarry can be fleeting. Don’t squander them or risk an ethical shot by neglecting your weapon. While practicing, know your comfortable range, practice judging ranges, and shoot at the different angles and positions you might encounter. After upgrading my 20-year-old Mathews Legacy to the new VX3 over the offseason, I set out on extending my effective range and proficiency with my new weapon all year. The result was I entered this year’s hunt more confident in my archery skills than ever. Practice with your weapon so in the moment of truth you make it count.

Slow down and notice the little things

There is so much more to the backcountry hunting experience than killing an animal. I can be a very driven person in a lot of areas of my life, which causes me to miss a lot of things around me. Knowing this about myself, I was intentional during our trip into the wilderness to take in the breadth and depth that the backcountry offers. I drank deep of the vistas and breathed in the sweet-musty smell of sage. From camp we gazed at the Milky Way stretching across the crystal-clear night sky and noticed that stars do in fact twinkle. I watched robins, fat for winter, preparing for their annual pilgrimage south and spied the carefully constructed traps of spiders betrayed by the morning dew. Soaked in the cool damp air along a stream where native trout waited for their meal to be delivered by the current. While you’re chasing the incredible game the west has to offer don’t forget to, slow down and notice the little things.

Find kindred spirits

Solo hunts are awesome, and I enjoy their challenge and solitude, but more than likely you will be embarking into the backcountry after elk with others. When you do, make sure your hunting partners have the same ethics, motivations, fitness level, etc. as you do. The right team can make or break your hunt. Our hunting quartet comes from different parts of the country and walks of life, yet our shared values enhanced the experience and allowed us to gel as an ensemble. Find kindred spirits to go on your adventure with and the returns on your experience will be compounded.

Thank your spouse

Those of us that have significant others know the sacrifice it is for them when we take these trips. Don’t let that sacrifice go unnoticed. Do the little things that make your spouse feel appreciated for the gift of time. Plan out meals for your family while you’re gone and schedule a massage for your wife to enjoy when you return. If you do, your odds of going again will be higher and your life when you return will be better. Don’t forget to thank your spouse.

Do it!

If you’re waiting for the perfect year to go on your first western adventure or the moment you feel completely ready, it will never come. Life is short and none of us are guaranteed another fall.  Turning 40 this year I’ve finally accepted that middle-age has mercilessly wrestled away my youth and the face I see in the mirror no longer resembles the one I saw in my twenties. Whether you're 20 years old or 70 years young, start somewhere and make it happen. If you’re thinking about elk, just do it, I promise you won’t regret it.

This past year our group worked harder, hunted smarter and had better encounters than ever…and didn’t notch a tag. That’s ok. The fact is, I’m a better hunter now than I was last year and so are my friends. On last year’s amazing trip, we went elk hunting and found success, this year we became elk hunters and found wisdom. I hope that sharing our lessons helps you to do the same.

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