It’s nearly as old as nature vs. nurture. When it comes to elk hunting, are you the planner or the lucky, spontaneous one?
My hunting buddy and I have pretty parallel lives. We are both named Alex, our last names start with T, and we both have younger sisters named Lena. We even have the same sense of humor that provokes the same eye rolls from our wives.
But for all our similarities, there is one very annoying difference: I am perfect, and he has an absolutely glaring character flaw. It’s really more of a disease, and it sets us as perpendicular as semis T-boned at a busy intersection. He’s pretty embarrassed about it, so he tries to keep it a secret. But you must know the truth: Alex Truitt is a planner.
He’ll describe an elk hunt the way an aerodynamics engineer explains the inner workings of a high-output jet turbine, talking you through an entire flight plan from Mississippi to Melbourne. All I can think is, “Sounds nice, but what if it sucks in a goose on take-off?”
And when his plan sucks in the inevitable goose, he has to shut down the engine, disassemble, re-engineer and rebuild it from the ground up. The only thing he says for a couple hours after is, “Recalculating,” like the GPS in your car when you’ve gone off course, only without the British accent.
Of course, spontaneity like mine is a most virtuous trait, but I try not to flaunt it. When elk appear where Truitt wasn’t expecting them and he stops to tinker with his plan, I graciously refrain from saying, “Why don’t you meet me at the gut pile when you’re ready.” I sit by him with the patience of a Buddhist, watching his shiny jet engine rasp and splutter, slurping up goose after goose until either the elk have gone from the country or the sun has set. At that point I like to offer heartfelt I-told-you-sos, accompanied by proposals to wallop his cranium in hopes of jostling the wires. He just laughs it off.
But my patience ran out this past archery season when we glassed a heavy old 5x5 bedded at 240 yards with a handful of cows. In seconds, my shoes were untied, ready for a sock stalk. I didn’t want to be perceived as selfish, so I waited while Truitt talked himself through all the possible outcomes.
Dozens more elk could pour into the area at sunset, he reasoned. Or, if either of us stalked in, we might make too much noise and bump them. Or maybe the wind would switch and blow the stalk.
I’m actually not sure what all he said. I was daydreaming with the bull in my binos, imagining the stalk, the draw, the release. The arrow, rotating slowly in the air with the Chariots of Fire soundtrack playing softly in the background. When my vision came to an end, Truitt was saying, “Do you think a dead elk would ruin this spot for the sunset hunt?” As though success would be a calamitous turn in an as-yet unsuccessful hunt.
My patience on the wane and hoping desperately that he’d repeat my words, I told him to just go down there and shoot it. I’d gladly give him the stalk and help him pack it out. But he said he was hoping for a 6x6, and besides, he didn’t want to ruin things for me if more elk showed up. No, he concluded. We ought to wait there, well out of archery range. That way, neither of us would have even the slightest chance while he ironed out the details to his perfect plan should more elk appear.
“That’s it. I’m going for it,” I said flatly. It was pretty windy, but I distinctly heard the honk-slurp-pop of a goose.
Truitt’s ears may have been sputtering smoke, but he didn’t say anything. At least not until I was 20 yards away. Then, he started hissing. I looked back and he had his binos up, obviously intent on some unseen action. I sprinted back to hear him spout that a much bigger bull had just trotted out of the woods, a few dozen yards from the first. His plan? To sit and watch and come up with a new plan.
I beat feet for the first bull, as I’d wanted to for the past few hours, but when I got down to his bed, I was greeted by the sweet smell of elk urine and no elk. Not even the second, bigger bull. I clawed my way back up, fuming, to where Truitt sat with his binos dangling on his chest to hear him tell me what I’d already guessed. The larger bull had chased the smaller bull and his cows into the next county.
We sat there until sunset, glassing and seeing nothing. I punctuated my ill-tempered silence with heavy sighs and eye rolls whenever Truitt moved or made a noise. He didn’t seem to notice, though, probably busy fantasizing about some scantily clad, beautifully detailed hunting plan or something. When we were walking back to the tent, I was too dejected to get on his case about the day’s events, but I offered the names of a few people whose hunting company he might really enjoy.
“Look, your friendship means more to me than killing elk,” he said. “If we need to quit hunting together, that’s okay. I’ll still be your buddy.”
I wished he would have gotten mad and made the split easy. But he didn’t. And I couldn’t ditch him, not a good friend like him. I mean, what chance did I have at finding another guy with my first name, last initial, and a younger sister named Lena who liked elk hunting and lived in Montana?
After a long silence, I told him I’d still hunt with him, but only if he’d let me chase elk at will with no subsequent guilt trips. That would mean splitting up a lot more, which he didn’t much like, knowing his shiny new plans for us to meet back up would make a familiar honk-slurp-pop sound if I encountered elk, or elk sign or really even just imagined I had.
“And then what do I do? How long until I call search and rescue?” he asked dramatically.
“Let’s just see what happens,” I said.
And that’s pretty much how we left it As we headed for the truck, I thought through the ramifications of our new arrangement: yes, we’d keep hunting together, yes, his mental infirmity would keep him trying to plan for my lack of a plan, yes, I’d shoot lots of animals, and sure enough, he’d help me pack my elk out for the rest of our hunting days.
But opening day of rifle proved me wrong.
The day before the opener, we left town late . Three hours driving and five miles packing in put us at camp around 6 p.m. With the remaining 20 minutes of daylight we glassed and saw nothing. I zipped into my goose-down cocoon with an elegantly vacant mind, purged of any notions about what to do at sunrise.
I was primed for the purest form of spontaneity, free to start out at any time, go anywhere, and do anything I wanted in the quest for an opening day elk. But I felt unsettled, and maybe just a bit competitive. My virtuous see-what-happens nature had hit a snag since we hadn’t seen anything and nothing had actually happened. I worried that in some cruel twist of fate, my noble temperament would prove less fruitful – just this once – when compared to the ugly, inferior process of planning.
I did not willingly stoop to his level. Partly, it was the circumstances, and partly it was that I’d just re-watched that Batman movie where the Joker dresses up like a nurse and says:
“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just … do things.”
He talks about the cops and mobsters having plans, but nope, not him. And that got me thinking that if good guys plan and bad guys plan, and only sadists with facial scars tout the virtues of spontaneity, I ought to get on the straight and narrow and start planning.
So that night, I tried it.
Maybe the elk would appear where they’d been hanging out in archery season, I thought, except we’d just glassed most of those places. Maybe they’d seen the circus of wall tents and walking traffic cones on the valley floor, causing them to crawl into some hidden hole in the universe. Maybe they felt the weather coming and chose to stay up all night eating, only to bed down and miss the morning march of hunters. Or maybe they’d get caught out in the open in that drainage to the south—the one with hunters piled thick.
None of those possibilities answered the most basic question: where should I sit for the sunrise?
After a dozen lowly, deliberate minutes, I decided I'd sit where my 7mm could reach one major escape route plus another little opening where elk had frequented in archery season. Best of both worlds, and good enough for me. I passed out, woke up, turned off the alarm, and found Truitt in the beam of my headlamp protesting its brightness, looking bedraggled, as though he hadn’t slept.
“I know what I’m going to do,” he said. Sure enough, he’d been up all night, the cogs of his brain turning to the soundtrack of my apneatic snores.
In the shivering predawn dark he talked through estimations I hadn’t considered, part numbers my brain hadn’t bothered to inventory. The setting of the moon, the onset of cloud cover. The arrival time of horseback hunters and a second wave of those on foot. The statistical likelihood of elk using each of the natural pinch points and escape routes we knew of. Axial compression, variable exhaust, bypass air—intelligent considerations to be sure, but none of them goose-proof.
He placed his bet on the elk getting heavy pressure and decided to sit on a high point from which his .300 could reach two natural escape routes on which we’d never actually seen elk. I thought he’d planned himself senseless, and he must have read it on my face.
“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark,” he said, and then joked, “So what’s your plan?”
I didn’t feel much like talking, so I just told him where I was going to sit. He was thrilled, couldn’t believe I’d given it so much thought, and said it was one of his top contenders. And then, me being a good sport, we merged our plans with a secondary plan to meet up at the tent by noon. It felt so contrived, so unromantic, so… planned.
It was overcast and very dark when we set out. But even if there had been stars above, they would have been outdone by the headlights, headlamps, taillights and flashlights below. Truitt can be pretty convincing sometimes, and I began to think he’d made the right bet, but I stayed the course and angled down to my hillside perch anyway.
The clouds gathered light and seven rifle shots rang out on the other side of the ridge. I glassed the escape route above and the lead-up to it, but there was nothing. Then, 600 yards down the hill, my binos caught 20 or so cows looking completely relaxed. It was the goose in the turbine I’d been hoping for.
I couldn’t see a bull, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t down there. A few hundred yards beyond the cows was a traffic cone straddling a slow, portly Paint horse. I abandoned the plan, now wrecked and smoking, with relish and closed 400 yards at a dead sprint, putting the escape route above completely out of view. So that was it. All my chips were down on the opposite bet that Truitt had placed, on the prayer that the elk would not be spooked and running. A few more gunshots rumbled as if to say I should have stuck to the plan.
Winded and heaving, I got the glass back on the herd. No horns, no horns. There! Just a little guy. A really little guy. I put him in my scope just to see how the crosshairs fit him, but I couldn’t do it. Not on the first day of the season.
There were more shots over the ridge. The cows and the little raghorn remained calm and moved off into the timber and out of sight. And then I was alone. Snow began to fall, and I wondered if the noble virtue of spontaneity had cost me, if elk were streaming across the escape route I’d left untended.
I was about to scramble back up to my original post when I heard it. High in the timber on the opposite hillside, a long bugle, a growl, a chuckle.
I wondered if Truitt had heard it, if it would be enough for him to leave his lookout. It was certainly enough for me. Every molecule in my body wanted to kamikaze up into the trees after the unseen bull, but for reasons I can’t explain, I sat tight, let the snow accumulate on my shoulders and did the most unnatural, ignoble thing of all: I waited, and I planned. I checked the wind, moved a little ways up the hill to ensure my scent wouldn’t get blown his way, then hunkered next to a tree and got prone, knowing full well he might not come. The percussion of gunfire from over the ridge laid down the beat for a few more bugles before a tuft of dirty blonde fur appeared through the trees at 230 yards. A bolt struck my brain, the painful realization that had I simply stuck to the original plan and not chased the cows, he would currently be giving me a clean shot.
He disappeared, then came in glimpses, picking a protected course down the hillside. He advanced to just 80 yards without offering a shot, then dropped out of sight into a small gully. When he reappeared, he was close, very close, and quartering toward me. In the scope still cranked to 12 power, all I could see was hide, so I settled on the ripples of his shoulder and squeezed. The distance I learned later was 34 yards.
Four minutes after that, a shot rang out from the exact spot Truitt had planned to sit.
Just this once, that plan-addled son-of-an-aerodynamics-engineer was right. Two Alex Ts with sisters named Lena had two 6x6 bulls on the ground. And, ironically, no plan for dealing with that much meat five miles from the truck.
Alex Tenenbaum is a former Bugle intern who lives in Bozeman, Montana. He works for Seacat Creative.