The Great Western Hunt
By Jim Collier
Free At last!
As the pages on the calendar slowly peeled away and I approached 30 years of civil service, I begin to think of journeying back out to the Rocky Mountains and finishing my quest for a 1,000 yard bull elk kill. While I already had a long range rifle, I wanted to build one “last great elk rifle”. I began searching the internet for gun parts and adding stock makers, action makers, triggers, scopes and barrels to my Favorites list. In reading through Dan Lilja’s website I was astonished to see that he openly talked about shooting animals at 1,000 yards. Only weird people like me would shoot those kinds of distances and certainly no one ever admitted it in public. I wondered for several days about his willingness to let the public know that he would take such extreme shots and who would buy barrels from a guy who did this. Finally I googled “long range rifles” and this forum came up.
[floatleft][/floatleft]After watching the forum for a couple of months, some crazy guy made a long post about a new cartridge he had developed and how he could hit rocks at 1,000 yards. I immediately registered on the forum in order to tell him that it is not difficult to hit the rock, what is hard is to hit the lizard on the rock, but I decided that if that was the best he could do that it was not up to me to tell him about shooting, that sooner or later he would learn to shoot a little more accurately. After about a year, I finally decided even though the guy couldn’t hit the lizards that he was a pretty good gunsmith and had him build me my last great elk rifle. So in early February, 2006 I sent Kirby Allen an action and some money to begin the build. A few days later I retired from gov’t service and began to plan the trip. In August my wife took our youngest up to begin college in upstate New York.
Where to go?
Not having kept track of elk management in the western states I found out too late that most of it is by draw and the application process starts early. I searched the hunting forums for information on where people were killing elk and carefully saved information into a computer folder. I wanted a guaranteed slot to hunt not some lottery draw. Roy In Idaho recommended that I try the Salmon region of Idaho and that there was no draw for regular season elk. So I now had a recommendation from some stranger I had never met. Computer searches indicated that there were a lot of elk in the area and I have a great fondness for historic rivers and wanted to see the Salmon River.
As it turns out Idaho is a big place and the Salmon Region is huge. How do you find an elk in such a big place? Answer came from Fort Benning Georgia Infantry Officers Basic Course – the Seven P’s. Proper Prior Planning Prevents P!ss Poor Performance.
Make a plan to have a plan. I used two types of computer lists. I have what I call a TTD (Things to do) list which is by days of the week and each week I build a new TTD and try not to carry over things from last week. I used a “NEED TO ORDER” list. Many things for hunting out west I did not have. After 25 years of shooting deer at 50 yards in the east, I was seriously out of date on long range hunting equipment. All of the stuff had to be acquired or built. Fortunately, I had a lot of backpacking and camping gear from all of the Boy Scout activities I was involved in. Obviously, my personality is geared toward a lot of planning and I enjoy it. Other people like to just throw stuff together and go and if they don’t have it then they don’t need it.
Maps and more maps, what I needed was maps.
A lot can be learned from a detailed map recon. Armed with only a few simple facts about elk behavior one can gain lots of information from a map. Elk want to be close to water, food, shelter and cool temperatures. In other words look high for mixed habitat or in the thick draws. If you are long range hunting, leave the thick draws to the lever gun guys. They have the right equipment for it. Elk do not like to be close to people and neither do I, so rule out all areas within a half mile of a road. Rule out all areas within one mile of a campground. Take a highlighter and draw a big circle around all roadless areas. This is where the elk will be.
Google Earth, if you don’t have it, get it. For a long range hunter it is a great source of current information on vegetation. Meadows, clear cuts, burns, they all show up and you can use the measuring tool to determine distances and line of sight. You can figure out if you can shoot from one ridge line to the meadow with the spring in it. It will give you the elevation you need for your drop chart.
Paper maps are still indispensable to a person new to an area and for double checking Google Earth. A good quality compass, and a GPS if you can afford it, go with the maps. I never walked into a new area without a map, compass and GPS. For a compass, I use the Silva Ranger which has an inclinometer on it for measuring your high angle shots. Good paper maps can be gotten from the local branch of the Forest Service and BLM area offices that show land ownership, contours, campgrounds, water, roads and trails. The Idaho Fish and Game sells maps and has maps of state campgrounds. Early in your planning, spend money on ordering these maps. Computerized maps are good but I like to spread multiple maps out on the floor and really go after them with a magic marker. The Salmon area was composed of four units so I picked five of the most elky looking places in each unit and marked them and even marked where I would park the truck and the trail to the area. In my laptop I wrote up a detailed daily agenda on which area got scouted on which day and where I would be camped.
Good maps sources: Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection, Public lands Information Center, State Fish and Game website, BLM area offices, Forest Service unit offices.USGS is my least favorite. For driving across country I love Roadmaster Road Atlas. It is a spiral bound large format book of state maps that I can see easily while driving. I used it to plan each days drive and locate a state parks campground where I would stop each night and save money on hotel bills. Obviously Mapquest will help you plan your overall route.
Planning your gear
[floatright][/floatright] I went prepared to hunt from a base camp or for back packing in and hunting from a backpack camp. I had ultra-light camping gear and more family style camping gear. This meant two stoves, two different tents, etc. I had four sleeping pads to soften the ground and provide insulation. The last few days, the cold was getting through the four pads as the ground began to freeze up. I had an internal frame expedition size back pack, and external frame backpack and three different styles of day packs.
You can find climate maps on the internet with precipitation and weather averages per month and see what kind of temperatures you will encounter during your hunting trip and whether you will be in snow. Because I was going to be scouting during September and hunting during October and November, I knew I had to be prepared for temperatures ranging from 90 degrees down to freezing snow. This mandated several pairs of boots and shoes and different weights of clothes. A complete Gore-Tex suit including gloves rounded out the clothes.
When it came to buying new gear the LRH forum was great. I got a Bushnell 1500 which does fine sometimes and not fine on flat land hunting antelope. The Scopecote was based upon Ian’s recommendation and is just right for the NightForce scope which everyone recommended. The stretchy padded slings were based upon Michiel's recommendation. For a spotting scope I got a Kowa 820 with both a 22X and a 32X lens based upon Darryl Cassel’s recommendation.
Best thing I did was get a three ring binder with vinyl page holders and put all of the instructions for each piece of new gear and all of my maps and hunting licenses and regulations and every piece of paper I needed in it and put it in a small backpack. If I needed to check the BLM map to see if I was on public land or private I knew right where to find the map. Next best thing was Coleman extreme coolers for the meat.
Some of the stuff I built was a box for the top of the truck cap to hold extra gear, a portable shooting table and a gun case for the elk rifle.
One of my more enjoyable pieces of gear was my laptop. I could go to a public library and get wireless access and send emails or post funny stories on this forum. I could also keep track of the Nascar races. Because I was hunting alone, I would type on my laptop at night in my tent so when I went to town my emails would be ready to send or my stories would be ready to post.
Most important thing I forgot was my chainsaw. Worst decision I made was to not replace my $80.00 binoculars with a good pair.
Well this is long range hunting, so obviously you need a long range hunting rifle. This was the weak point of my whole plan. I had two well known, highly in demand gunsmiths working on two different long range rifles. Neither one would guarantee me a delivery date and both said they would “try” and I could not drag any better promise out of either one of them. Make me sweat and worry. In the end both of them delivered their rifle at least a month early. Both rifles were absolute joys and more accurate than any thing I had ever used before. Working up a good hunting load was so very easy. However, this still left me with very little real world experience with either rifle and this would prove to cause some minor problems. The antelope rifle I had failed to degrease the threads inside the bottom half of the rings and they worked loose. The elk rifle, I made some mental errors on my drop chart and only got it corrected a few days before I needed to shoot the elk. I know a lot of people do the same thing so my only advice is that field verification of your drop chart is the most important aspect of long range hunting.
[floatleft][/floatleft] Because I picked up the 7mm Allen Magnum from Kirby while on the trip, it meant I had to load bullets on the trip. Once again this required a lot of advance planning and a little ingenuity. I made a little press stand that attached to the bumper hitch and I packed my press, dies, powder, primers, etc for the trip.
[floatright][/floatright]This is my setup for cornmeal forming of cases. I also packed a target frame which was simply a political advertisement frame that the wannabe’s stick up in people’s yards. I believe some one mentioned real estate for sale signs as being easily portable. For targets, I used coke can cases or just whatever paper I had around and some always handy duck tape. I used the targets to establish my first drop charts for the 7mm Allen Mag. My error involved my estimation of the amount of mirage I was seeing while developing the drop chart and a four thousand feet change in hunting elevation!
[floatleft][/floatleft]My last great elk rifle is a 7mm Allen Magnum built on a Nesika M single shot action with a Jewel trigger. The barrel is a fluted, 34 inch, four groove, 9 twist Lilja with a Shawn Carlock four slot brake. The scope is a NF NXS 8-32X-56mm NP-R2 in Burris Extreme rings on a Nesika 20MOA base. All this is on a Mac A5 stock with adjustable cheek piece and butt plate with green and orange tiger stripes on a black background. The rifle, as chronographed by Kirby, gets 3340 fps with the 200 grain Wildcat with only 102 grains of powder. At max it will probably go 3400fps. That is enough to kill elk way past 1500 yards. The rifle is an amazing machine like nothing I have ever owned before. I call it Tiger Stripes in honor of the camouflage pattern worn by the Special Forces in Viet Nam.
[floatright][/floatright]If you are driving, then your truck is important. Make sure the brakes, tires, engine are in good shape. Living in an urban area, I have little use for off road tires and fortunately my old tires were worn out right when I retired so I ordered (on the advice of Jimm) four new BF Goodrich off road radials. Some states have laws about snow and tires chains so I ordered a set of tires chains. From my old days of 4X4 hunting, I still had a come-along, a jerk strap and 100 ft of double hooked 3/8 inch steel cable. One thing to remember is that when your are thousands of miles away from home and friendless that you must be prepared to get your own self out of any trouble you get into. A second thing to remember is to not get yourself into trouble in the first place. A word on air filters, -take extras and change often. The dusty dirt roads will clog an air filter in a hurry and you will have no horsepower. Your truck will be kicking down a gear every time the wind blows hard. A box of tools will prevent bad luck from occurring.
Because my truck is small and I would be gone for two whole months I needed room for a lot of gear. First I removed the rear seat and that helped a lot. Second I used a car top carrier over the truck cab and built a second story box for the cap. On the way out the coolers were light weight containing only freezer bags, so they could go up on the box over the cap. On the way back they were really heavy and had to be inside the bed of the truck and other light stuff such as the humongous elk rack had to be up on the box. I really hated to put it up on top where every one could see what a great elk hunter I was (yuk, yuk, yuk)
[floatleft][/floatleft]Are we what we seem to be? YES, WE ARE ALL CRAZY!!!
Over the internet Jimm invited me to join him and his friend and his son antelope hunting. It had been 25 years since I had been antelope hunting and Jimm seemed sure that he knew how to hunt antelope and we could get tags in the leftover draw in Wyoming. Well, I have hunted many different ways in my life and can hunt however needs to be done, so I accepted Jimm’s offer. There was one thing that I made clear up front over the email that I could not tolerate and Jimm agreed to that so we were good to go. I happen to like hawks, owls, eagles, and endangered species so as strange as it might seem that was my one criteria – no shooting except with a camera. If you are inclined to hunt with some one you meet on the internet it is probably a good idea to sort out any real problems before you get in close personal contact with guns around. As it turned out Jimm was/is a great person and was really fun to hunt with and did actually know a lot about hunting antelope. Although, after we shot the first doe and he began taking his pants off, a few questions did run through my mind.
Arnold Palmer and Quaker State-It pays to take care of the old equipment.
In the period of 1990 to 1995, I ran the Marine Corp Marathon four times. Shortly thereafter I was promoted up one level and my job consumed so much of my time that I no longer had the time for such arduous exercise. Ten years of pushing paper had taken a serious toll on fitness. My left shoulder was hurt so bad from a fall hunting geese that I could not sleep on it. I did not use my left arm for anything. My back has been a chronic problem since I returned from Viet Nam.
So I began a simple routine of sit-ups and weights each morning and jogging a three mile loop about 3-5 days a week. The weights consisted of a maximum of 30 pound one handed dumbbell. Amazingly enough, after a couple of months my bad left shoulder quit hurting and has been just wonderful ever since. Of course I overdid it and injured my elbow which now hurts regularly. The sit-ups help with the back problem by the stomach muscles giving the back muscles assistance and improving posture so the back muscles are not the only ones working. Jogging was something I knew how to do so it was pretty easy to get some leg strength and oxygen transfer capacity.
The big problem was hiking. Because I had bought a pair of new thick bottom, leather insulated, waterproof, boots they needed to be broken in and I needed to get used to carrying a pack. So two days a week, I would load two 25 pound bags of lead shot into the back pack and put on my clunky new boots and go out and walk up and down a hill close to home for 45 minutes. The pack put a new strain on my shoulders and the boots prevented my legs and feet from using the “jogging muscles”. This was really pain and misery for the first three or four trips. After a day of hiking, I would be so bad off I could not jog.
Many of us have used the words “No pain, no gain”. This is for teenagers. When you hit about 50 or so, your body heals much slower and recuperation time is nearly three times as long. If you exercise till you have pain you must rest until you have no pain. It is much better to exercise just short of pain and minimize down time in my opinion. Tylenol becomes a staple of your diet.
Now then, you can exercise all you want at 500 feet elevation but when you get to 8,000 feet elevation you will find that oxygen transfer is the critical problem. Your muscles would be willing if they could just have a little more oxygen. IMHO your jogging should include some speed (very slow speed) work to increase oxygen transfer capacity.
The little mountain roads in Idaho are narrow and sometimes slick. The locals drive them regularly. You see two kinds of trucks: new ones and old beat up ones. The reason you see so many new ones is that there are a lot of wrecked trucks. The only reasonable way to approach the narrow roads is with the idea that you will always give the right of way to the other guy. Usually the other guy has the same idea and everyone works to find a wide spot to get by. I do not particularly like the horse hunters, but even so, I try to remember that the outfitter is trying to make a living and he needs to get that big ole horse trailer up the mountain road. He is working and you are just out having fun.
I stopped in the BLM area office and asked where the roads were closed for forest fires. The lady behind the desk got out the map and showed me all she knew. I stopped in at the Forest Service area office and made a comment about so much of the unit being burned three or four years ago and she was happy to tell me that the elk really liked the burned areas because of the new growth. I stopped in at the Fish and Game area office and the young lady at the front desk was happy to go find a guy who could tell me about shooting bears with a deer tag. She also suggested if I didn’t like the cold weather to go down river as far as possible that the lower elevations would be warmer (which I did). The three summer interns with the Forest Service who were electro-shocking fish were happy to tell me which pools had the biggest trout in them. The firefighters who were over in the Yellow Jacket Creek drainage were very nice and I stopped to talk with some of them a while. The Idaho Fish and Game guy who checked my elk was very nice and so was his dog. I would say that every government employee went out of their way to be helpful. Every native was polite even when shooting deer out of their truck windows. One of the road hunters even stopped and gutted out his deer close to my camp so I would have some bear bait.
Hunting in a new state can be a somewhat trial and error experience. The Idaho “Regulations for Hunting” is a 90 page book and the Wyoming Regulations is a 52 page book. Add in the 96 pages of fishing regs for Idaho, BLM camping regs, Forest Service regs and you have a lot of paper. I managed to hunt chukars during quail season for one afternoon before discovering my error (no chukars were killed that day). I read the regs three times and nowhere could I find information about hunter orange. I failed to hunt black bears during the early season because of a misunderstanding of the different types of bear hunting and I toted the elk parts out in the wrong order. Plus my Wyoming antelope tag blew off the horns somewhere sometime – I know the tag was on the horns when I got to Idaho but it was missing by the time I got home. I tried to check my elk through the steel head station but the lady only wanted slimy scaly critters, she was a little upset that I would waste her time with a hairy ole elk. Sometimes you just do the best you can to obey all the rules and hope it works out.
Work Hard and Play Hard
[floatright][/floatright]Variety is the spice of life and it can get very boring just scouting and hunting for elk day after day. I took fishing gear and a bird gun for grouse and chukars. I could have had a fantastic time just bird hunting in Idaho. I ran low on #6 shot and had way too much #4. I was also limited by not being able to shoot more than I could eat. The steelhead run began in earnest about two days before elk season opened but I only had ultra light trout gear. My camera and my laptop provided many hours of enjoyment.
I spent some time over in the Big Horn River basin of Wyoming which was more the type of country I was familiar with in past years. There I played tag with a cottontail at 560 yards with the 17 Remington and gave him several dust baths but never drew blood. The barrel got so hot I finally had to quit. There were plenty of rabbits at 50 & 100 yards but that was not what I was after. The next day I got into a hide and seek contest with a prairie dog at 800+ yards with the 240 Wby and three times I thought I had killed him only to find him standing when the dust cleared. It didn’t seem to matter what hold I used for the wind the bullet would just never hit him. Not wanting to burn the barrel out on my antelope gun, I packed up and went up to Montana to see Kirby about a “last great elk rifle”.
As I said earlier, I had a very detailed plan for scouting. I had twenty days set aside for scouting and I went at it. Using a day pack, I hiked all over the place and visited many of my pre-selected spots and made notes at night on my laptop about where I had seen elk and where a shooting spot would be and travel time to get there. I GPS’ed in all of my good spots. I had five bulls located before opening day. One of then was really a funny old bull. He would whistle at me and rattle the tree branches and just dare me to come down where he was. I would yell back at him and it really made him mad His cow didn’t like me too much and ran off so he finally had to go chase off after her. There was a lonesome spike bull that trailed along the road behind me for nearly a quarter of a mile one day as I was hiking above snowline. It would look at me and waggle its head from side to side, but after a ways it drifted off somewhere. I finally settled on a spot that even though I had not seen the bull, I knew he was there and had very large hoof prints. I was worried that the prints were so big it could be a moose. That area had a great shooting spot with opportunities past 1,500 yards. After scouting I headed back eastward to Wyoming for antelope hunting with Jimm.
Here is the story of my best shot - 686 yard Antelope buck
It was the second day of the antelope season in Wyoming and Jimm, his son, friend and I were in Gillette. About a quarter of a mile onto our hunting area we came over a rise and spotted two small herds of antelopes. We stopped the trucks and got out and determined that there were several bucks involved with the two herds and so we moved to a place where we had a clear line of fire over the sage brush. The herds were initially at about 600 yards but two of the bucks got contentious over being so close to each other and the does started moving slowly away. About that time a third band appeared out of the draw and we now have one long strung out herd of antelope on the slow move.
I had the 240 Wby with the Joel Russo thumbhole stock on front and rear bag rests and Jimm was calling out range and wind and I was clicking the dials on the V3 6.5-20X50. Wind was about 3-5 mph and nearly a head wind. Range moved out to 780 yards and the crosshairs settled in on a nice buck only to have him move. This stop and go continued for nearly 15 minutes with the range progressing up to 850 yards and the buck finally got still but the wind picked up and was shaking me so much that the crosshairs would not stay on target. The buck moved again and stopped at 900 yards and we had only a little head wind, so I clicked the elevation up and the crosshairs settled in nice and steady as the buck lowered his head. The trigger broke and the cross hairs never even quivered as the 115grain Berger departed. To everyone’s disappointment, the shot cleared the buck’s back easily. We had all worked for nearly a half an hour trying to stay on this buck and wait for him to get still and turned correctly. The thirty or so antelope kicked it up to a run and began a semi circle around us. I ran a new round in the chamber and then it appeared that all of the animals were gone and none were left. I extracted the round, except for the long Berger115 grain match bullet which decided to stay jammed in the lands and all I got out of the chamber was a primed case full of powder. Being aware that I was hunting with jammed bullets, I was very careful to have a cleaning rod handy which was quickly procured to tap out the bullet.
[floatleft][/floatleft]About that time 5 animals came over the ridge, apparently having dropped out of the large heard as one of the bucks wanted to isolate his does from the rest. Jimm called out a range of 686 yards and I clicked back down and then for good measure dropped another 0.5 MOA more out of it than the range called for. The buck stood there broad side on guard duty and the cross hairs got steady behind his shoulder. I eased the slack out of the Timney trigger and once more the 240 Wby sent the 115 grain Berger screaming out of the Spencer barrel. The impact knocked the buck over as the Berger hit the spinal column and blew bone out the far side. Still a little high obviously. We checked the dialin' in on paper the next day at 700yds it was exactly 1.0 MOA high.
Tiger Stripes and the 6X6 bull elk at 968 yards
After antelope hunting I headed back to Idaho to settle in for elk hunting. I put up my tent and parked my truck in the stream valley where it clearly blocked access to the ridge line and hillside where the big bull elk lived and blocked access to two of the three stream forks. I rechecked the zero on Tiger Stripes and each morning and each evening I made the half mile climb up the bulldozer trail to the switchback that was my shooting point. Opening day of deer season came and the only bucks observed were two little spike fawns over on an opposing ridgeline. Day after day wore on and no elk were seen and only brief glimpses of a few forked horn deer. One morning I took a shot at one of the spike fawns at 1350 yards and was 1.5 MOA low. That was disturbing so I went back and checked all of my notes from the dial in and drop charts and decided to pull out a factor I had used for mirage during the dialin’. I also noticed that my drop charts were set up for 8500 ft elevation and I was hunting at about 4500. There was too much white stuff up at 8,500 for the Bama boy. I ditched my old drop chart and laminated a new one that was more conservative. Yes, I actually had laminating materials packed away in my gear.
The best laid plans oft gang astray. There had been an early heavy snow in September while I was scouting and the elk had drifted down about two thousand feet. Then in early October it turned hot and the elk went back up two thousand feet. What to do, what to do. The day before elk season opened I got worried and drove to the top of the mountain and sure enough I found elk up there. The range was about 2800 yards which was too much for me. I was down low and the heat had driven the elk up high.
Opening day of elk season it rained down low and snowed up high. I got soaking wet from hiking through the timber down low looking for sign and was greatly discouraged from finding none. Naturally I did not have my Gore-Tex rain suit with me. The next morning I went up to my shooting point but once again got rained out. About 1:00 the road hunters caught a herd of elk coming up out of the one stream fork that I couldn’t protect and they killed a 5X6 bull. Following that there was a steady stream of trucks and ATV’s patrolling the road and shooting anything that tried to get a drink of water. I was really down in the dumps then, homesick and lonesome.
I needed to go into town to get some groceries and check my emails. On the way back, I decided to go by Panther Creek and see how the bull was doing that I had found over there. What I found was about 20 horse hunters who were just day hunting out of the trailhead, so I figured either they had gotten that bull or he was elsewhere. I started to go check out the last bull that I knew of but it was clear to me that the hunting style in Idaho would have seen the deer hunters spot him and spook him. That left me with only two choices: go high and try to take a 34 inch barreled gun into the timber and shoot an elk or to have faith in where I was. I did not want to kill an elk in the timber even though I probably could have managed. I concluded that the elk had been there in late September following a good snow and the place had water, open meadow, scrub brush and deep timber, so sooner or later the elk would be back if the snow keep dropping in the high country. I also figured that for every herd bull that there should be several bachelor bulls who had to be somewhere. The couple of days went by with not a single antlered animal of any description so I thought that I would on the morrow go up the hill as usual and glass everything and then come right back down and go to town and call home and send a few emails. During the night it rained low and snowed high.