To Shoot or not to Shoot

By Matt Clissold
Utah, 2009, DIY, Public Land
To Shoot or not to ShootJune/July 2011 EHJ (Issue 125) - "Shoot’ or ‘No’ is all I want to hear.” This was my last request to my friend, Tony, as we stopped below the crest of the ridge, waiting to catch our breath and watching our friend Orion slowly vanish.

The sky to the east was glowing orange over the ragged black outline of the mountain - opening day was here at last. I had been looking forward to this day for 15 years, patiently building bonus points and doing research. The term “once in a lifetime” is used a lot, but when I see the gray around my muzzle and add 15 years to a five-year waiting period, I realized that I might be well into my 70s before I got another chance like this. This is why I gave the “shoot” or “no” instruction - my biggest fear was shooting an average bull in an area with trophy bulls.

When I got that magic letter telling me I had drawn a coveted Utah elk tag, I began to accumulate photos of trophy elk from magazines and calendars. Every elk is different and I analyzed them over and over to see what qualities I wanted in a trophy, as well as to be able to instantly recognize - in the heat of the moment - that the elk in my scope was a “shoot” or a “no.” Sadly, my collection of Eastmans’ Journals is now cut up and tattered, but I have a gallery of bulls showing good mass, long swords, symmetrical browtines and whale tails. I’ve killed a number of elk over the past 30 years and never scored an antler. I didn’t have a number in my mind that was a goal, but when I looked over my “gallery”, I knew it would be a 350 or better bull if it had the features I wanted.

Having never seen this area before, I began compiling any and all info I could. Toward the end of August, it was time for groundwork. On my first trip, I took a motorcycle and rode every open road and motorized access trail in my hunt area, trying to find where the hunting pressure would be and where the access was. Two weeks later, my brother, daughter, and I took horses and scouted for water and a backcountry campsite. We then packed into our camp the night before the opener, after advice from some friends, who had spotted good bulls two days before in the same drainage.

So here I was, 20 yards below the crest of the ridge where we had stood last night and glassed a huge-bodied bull with 22 cows and four satellite bulls. The light was dim and we couldn’t see the antlers well, but he had a large rack and was clearly bigger than the sixpoint satellite bulls on the fringe.

As the sky grew light enough to use the spotting scope, the bugling contest began. The elk were right where we had left them the night before - across a broad canyon about a mile away, feeding toward the bottom where there was a small stream. Now we had to figure out how to close the distance.

Several years ago this unit had a big fire and our side of the canyon didn‘t have one live tree for cover, but we worked down to a side draw that was deep enough to close the distance undetected. There was a large rock outcropping on the edge of this draw where it emptied into the main canyon. When we got to it, we were able to come up out of the draw and spot the herd directly across from us, feeding in the open. We were out of cover and the range was 368 yards - now we could really study this bull and not rush.

Tony had his glasses on him and before I could get mine up he announced, “Shoot! He has an inline seventh betweenthe sword and the whale tail on each side.” As I looked, I realized this was the bull to use that once-in-a-lifetime tag on.

Matt Clissold

For a full account of Matt's adventure, go to page 6 in the June/July 2011 issue of Eastmans' Hunting Journal.