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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Cow tag: best elk hunt you’ll never talk about

Attracted from across the old clearcut by my hunter-orange clothing, a magpie swoops in and lands a few feet from my leg. It seems to be checking whether this colorful, motionless form sitting on a log might be a gut pile buffet.

My dignity erodes as the scavenger requires way too much time to make that determination.

When I made that notation in my hunting log notebook, I’d been scouting, camping and trailing elk for a week in the Blue Mountains. I was having the time of my life becoming one with the wilderness and perhaps even starting to smell a bit like the rank bulls I was seeing, hearing or tracking every day.

But the bulls were just a sideshow.

I had unfinished business with only two days remaining in the special muzzleloader season for filling my antlerless elk tag – the most coveted big-game opportunity you’ll never hear a hunter brag about over a beer.

Most people refer to it as a “cow tag” even though it allows the holder to shoot any elk without antlers, which could include a bull calf.

Drawing a cow tag in the state permit lottery is like winning a year’s membership into a secret society devoted to the quiet personal procurement of healthy, free-range red meat.

My plan had no fantasies of grandeur: Find elk. Get close. No antlers? Boom.

A couple hundred pounds of meat for the table – that’s all I was after. My cow tag had liberated me from the distraction of putting a head mount on the wall.

I was out to feed my family, not my ego.

“Can’t eat antlers,” my dad often said. Living through the Great Depression instilled that attitude. It served our family well.

I’ve never seen a cow elk featured on the cover of Field & Stream or Outdoor Life, yet every ordinary-guy elk hunter I know applies for a cow tag.

Drawing an antlerless elk permit increases a hunter’s chance of success by five times or more over the grim odds of a hunter with an over-the-counter elk tag. Still, it’s no guarantee.

For this special opportunity, my partner and I – we drew buddy tags – bought maps and devoted weekends in August and September to scout for the early October season. I talked to wildlife biologists, enforcement officers and other hunters. We pegged the perfect campsite within walking or driving distance to several likely ridges and canyons frequented by elk.

At the start of the season, bulls were still in the rut. This was a mixed blessing for a cow hunter.

Each day I would see or hear bulls, which added dramatically to the excitement. Herd bulls were one sideshow while the satellite bulls looking for a breeding opportunity provided more unpredictable drama.

Several raghorns had walked within shooting distance during the week. I had to shoo away a pair of spikes that followed me one afternoon as though they were puppies. In a couple of weeks, they’d be reunited with cows and calves, but for now they were shunned by the rutting bulls and looking a bit lonesome.

Perhaps because my muzzleloader permit for that unit allowed me to shoot only an antlerless elk, cows suddenly seemed to be the most elusive animal in the forest, at least within 80 yards.

The cows were mostly gathered in harems. All those eyes, ears and noses gave them an edge in detecting any predator, including me.

I kept track of one herd from daybreak. In late afternoon they were working up from a steep canyon toward the top of a ridge where they had been feeding at night. I hiked a mile on the opposite side of the ridge, got the wind in my favor, came across the spine and crawled the last 200 yards to the rim. I eased into a perfect prone position facing west and downslope with my muzzleloader resting in a notch in the rock.

I watched the elk for five minutes as they came into range. At 40 yards, eight cows and calves were still too tightly grouped to present a clear shot without endangering a second animal. I could see the antlers of the herd bull far below.

Just as one cow was separating, the sun dropped from where it had been hiding all afternoon below a dark cloud and sprayed a blinding burst of orange light through the sliver of sky above the horizon.

Instantly, ears perked up, several heads zeroed in on me like radar and the herd scattered into the timber with clods of dirt and rock flying in the air. Although I was motionless, the burst of sunlight must have reflected off my exposed cheeks like a distress beacon.

The elk were gone. Seconds later, so was the sunlight.

Chalk up another day to experience.

My buddy, Dick, had been hiking six miles round-trip to a sitting spot overlooking a well-used elk trail and bedding area. He staked out that spot for three days, but nothing showed.

On the fourth day, he tried a different spot. By coincidence, the only other cow-tag hunter we saw during the season parked his rig by our camp that morning. He followed Dick’s old tracks in the snow, took a stand in the same spot and shot one of four antlerless elk that bedded 60 yards away.

“This is my first day up here,” the hunter said as he and a friend pulled the meat up the gated road on a game cart. “I lucked out,” he added, as we nodded excessively.

Medical issues forced Dick to leave camp with three days left in the season.

“Bring back some meat,” he said, clarifying the mission. “I’ll have a good bottle of wine waiting at home.”

The pressure was on, but my luck seemed to be going south.

The snow had melted and froze again into a crust that seemed to shout out every step I made. I went a day without seeing or hearing an elk.

Maybe this is why hunters don’t gloat when they draw a cow tag. How humiliating would it be if you didn’t fill it?

I hunted hard, leaving camp before first light, returning by headlamp after dusk.

Hunting had become my lifestyle. I’d forgotten about the job and all the responsibilities back home.

Even downtime was productive. I read books in the woods, planned where I would return for grouse hunting, watched owls hunt and ravens scavenge.

I met one hunter, the only other one in the area that day, as we were hiking back to the road after dark. His eyes were huge like softballs. “I had a cougar and her three grown offspring walk by me 40 yards away at dusk,” he said. “That was the longest mile I’ve ever experienced walking out of the woods.”

My luck changed on the last morning of the season, verifying once again that getting into elk is all about putting in the time.

Fresh snow helped me detect that something had split up a herd before dawn. I found tracks from three elk heading into a north-facing basin.

Following an elk down a slope in the Blue Mountains is like flirting with your best friend’s spouse. There’s no easy way out of the situation, and you make things much worse if you score.

Ninety minutes later, I was on them: a cow, a calf and a female yearling – perhaps the best meat on the planet.

Something had their attention and I was able to sneak into position.

I squeezed the muzzleloader’s trigger, cocked the hammer with my thumb, held it and let the pressure off the trigger. The gun was ready to fire without the telltale click.

“Snap.” The cap did not detonate.

Repeat. “Snap.” The cap failed again.

By this time all three elk were looking my direction and it dawned on me that a cow is just as difficult to kill as a bull if your gun doesn’t fire.

But the third time was the charm. Tan butts disappeared through the cloud of smoke rising from my muzzle. I found blood. My prize was 15 yards farther.

Heart shot. Now the hard part.

I was alone with a beautiful animal put on earth, in part, to feed the cougar, wolf… or perhaps a lucky hunter. I count my blessings.

The yearling was on a slope wedged belly-down against a tree. Unable to budge it, I cut the hide along the backbone and peeled it down on both sides. Out came the warm backstraps to cool on a plastic tarp I’d spread on the ground. I paused to marvel at the purity of the lean, sweet-smelling red meat unblemished by fat.

I skinned a hind quarter, sliced around its pelvis, crawled under to lift the leg with my back and detached the bone at the hip joint with my knife.

I tried to leave proof of sex attached to a piece of meat from the other hind quarter. “If a game warden checks me,” I thought, “I hope he has a PhD in elk anatomy.” I cut off the head to bring it out for good measure.

I carved off neck and rib meat as I removed the other legs. To reduce the carry-out load, I de-boned everything. Trimmings went into separate bags to be ground into hamburger and sausage. Large cuts went into other bags to be butchered into steaks and roasts and wrapped at home. The meat was cold, so were my hands before I finished. I’d sharpened my knife twice.

I’d reached in behind the ribs and above the still-intact innards to carve out the tenderloins, which went into their own special bag for my dinner date with Dick. I carried it out with my first day-pack load more than a mile uphill to the road.

After bringing my pickup to the top of the ridge, I began hiking down with a bigger backpack for another load. Through the course of the next three two-mile round trips I thought about the hunt and the meals to come. I pioneered a formula rivaling Einstein’s best.

Assuming you start with a tender elk that’s been properly hunted, cooled and handled, my theory of wild meat palatability relative to effort goes like this:

E=mc2: That is, Eating quality equals Miles it must be packed out by muscle power multiplied by the number of Contour lines crossed, squared.

The E factors directly to the degree of delicousness, at least to the person who packs it out. The higher the E factor, the more reverence is required in its consumption.

Very high E factors warrant the finest complimentary wines and bowed heads if not genuflection as the meat is served.

I stumbled out by headlamp with the last load of meat after dark and packed it in a cooler. Sweat was chilling on my neck as I started my rig for the four-hour drive home.

My forearms were spent from working with the meat. My fingers cramped around the steering wheel. I couldn’t let go.

Flush with a sense of accomplishment, I motored out of the mountains, not with a rack to hang on the wall, but with a trophy for the freezer.

Dick would later tell me it was the best elk he’d ever eaten.

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