To Shoot or Not to Shoot

by Jameson Parker

Televised  hunting shows, the kind aired on nationwide or syndicated cable channels,  create unique pressures and stress on an already emotionally charged  situation. For the hunter, whose steadiness of hand and clarity of mind  are already in jeopardy from massive doses of adrenaline, an act that is personal and intimate now becomes subject to the scrutiny of several million viewers.

For the  outfitter, the pressure to produce becomes infinitely greater. Usually, if  there's no kill, there's no show And the kind of publicity generated by a  nationally televised show means lots of clients. Clients mean money, and  money can cloud a man's judgment.

As a general rule of thumb, if an elk's rack makes your guide whistle softly when viewed through ordinary eight-power binoculars from more than a mile away, chances are it's an elk worth stalking. We had ridden 17 miles from the  trailhead - the outfitter, the producer, the host of the show, and I, the  guest hunter. The outfitter's wife had peeled off with the pack horses two or three drainages earlier, heading for the camp they had set up in a  grove of aspens. We were riding slowly, tired, in single file up a long, almost straight box canyon. It was the hour of long shadows and the  temperature was dropping when the outfitter reined in his horse and sat  looking through his binoculars at the end of the canyon.

"Elk," he said as he swung down beside his horse then stood glassing. I swung down too and moved up to him. It was then that he whistled. "Good one. Damn good."

The bull was feeding alone in the middle of a grassy slope where the canyon rose up away from a narrow grove of aspens.

"Where are his cows?" I asked.

The outfitter  moved his binoculars slowly over the entire end of the canyon. "Don't know."

By now the others were clustering around us, firing questions: Is it a good one? How  far away is he? Can we get up on him? But our outfitter never answered. Lean and hard as a pit bull, with a face that spoke of savage fistfights,  barroom brawls and for all I knew, leg breaking in back alleys, he continued glassing the end of the canyon. Finally he gestured at me with  his chin. "Get your gun." He turned and looked at the cameraman as if he were contemplating field dressing him. "Get your camera." Then to the  others, "Tie up the horses. Stay here."

We followed him  through the sparse, stunted aspens, trying to keep scrub and brush between  us and the bull. Our outfitter moved as quickly and effortlessly as a deer on that steep sidehill. I scrambled along in his tracks, trying to control my breathing. Behind me I could hear the cameraman gasping and struggling under 45 pounds of equipment. At last we came to a rise where our outfitter dropped first to his knees and finally to his belly as he crawled to a rock outcropping.

"Seven by  eight."

To me, he  looked like a 7x7, but frankly I was so awed by the most spectacular elk I  had ever seen, alive or mounted, that I was probably incapable of counting  to eight. That was the good news. The bad news was that the 700 or 800  yards between us and the bull were as smooth and free of cover as a  putting green.

I looked up at the canyon wall behind us. The outfitter, without ever taking his eyes off  the bull, read my mind. "Not enough time."

"How can we get  on him?"

"Can't. We put him to bed, probably be there in the morning."

And so we did. Lying in the gathering dark, we watched the bull feed gradually down the narrow strip of aspens. At the edge, perhaps 10 yards out in a meager  cluster of sage, he found a spot to his liking and bedded down in the  awkward way elk do, as if pieces of him were breaking. Finally we crept  backwards and away, back to the others, and rode to camp in the  dark.

If our guide was miserly with his words to an extent that would have made Calvin  Coolidge envious, perhaps it came from a lifetime of never getting a word  in edgewise. His wife, lean and hard as her husband, chatted constantly and merrily along, using that fine Anglo-Saxon word for fornication with happy abandon and complete disregard for grammatical structure. She used it as a noun, a verb, an adverb, and I wouldn't have been surprised to  hear her use it as a preposition. And somehow from her, it was no more profane or offensive than a man saying, "Golly!" She cooked delicious meals that made me wonder, as I went back for thirds, if my cholesterol  level could actually hit four digits.

She turned out to be a bright lamp of hope and encouragement in an otherwise dark and dreary hunt. For when we awoke the next morning snow swirled around the  wall tents and we could see no farther than 20 yards. We rode out anyway  in the hope that conditions would be better above the box canyon. They  weren't. The snow blew horizontally and it was all I could do to see the  tail of the horse in front of me. How our outfitter found his way I'll  never know.

And so it went.  For four days, we lived in a world of whiteout. Snow and fog funneled our world to no more than 30 or 40 yards. Our outfitter became a man possessed. Each day we rode out farther and longer, down into the canyons, trying to find pockets of visibility. Occasionally, temporarily, we did find them, but no elk.

The host of the  show, a former professional athlete, kept his sense of humor, but after  the second day he wisely decided to stay in camp and play cards with our  producer and the guide's wife. Only the camera operator, silent and  uncomplaining, continued to ride out with us through that white and bitter  world. Every morning he would attach our radio microphones, strap his  camera in its padded corduroy case to the saddle, and quietly ride along  behind. And ride we did, mile after frozen mile. Toward the end I was so  tired I tried to doze in the saddle. Hell, why not? I couldn't see anything anyway. Every night we would ride in after dark, the warm glow of  lighted wall tents diffused and blurred by snow and fog.

On the fifth and final day we packed up and rode out. When we were about a mile from the trailhead, the snow abruptly stopped, the clouds lifted and broke and  the westering sun turned our monochromatic world into delicate shades of pink. At the top of the last steep rocky slope above the trajlhead the  outfitter handed the pack strin8 off to his wife and rode atone up a side  canyon. I dismounted and led my tired horse down, partly for safety; partly because I'd had enough of saddles. At the trucks we all pitched in and got the panniers and frames off the pack string and trailered the  horses. Then we turned to our mounts. I was just uncinching my saddle when one of the horses whinnied and looked back up the trail.

We all turned  around. At first we saw nothing, heard nothing. And then he came. Down the same rocky slope I had thought too dangerous to ride came the big dun mare at a full gallop, leaping from snow-covered rock to snow-covered rock. All I could think was; 'when they fall, their blood will be the same color as  the sunset." But they didn't fall. The outfitter spurred his horse across the flat and slid to a stop in front of us.

"Get your gun! Get that damn camera. Elk."

I turned to the  cameraman. "Have you got enough light to film?"

"Maybe." I think it was the only word he uttered on the entire trip. I shoved my  rifle back into the scabbard and we mounted up.

I don't like to  think about that ride. I once thought I was semi-tough on a horse, but  that frantic gallop through the rocks scared me so badly I took my hat off and held it over my face. We careened up the side canyon where our  outfitter had gone earlier, up the canyon wall and along a sort of wide flat bench. At the end of this we left the horses and ran, stumbling, up the slope above us. Just below the top he stopped.

"Load up."

I jacked a round into the chamber and put on the safety. The cameraman was still  struggling up to us. We crawled up the last few yards through the sage and poked our heads over the top.

There was a  shallow draw, and on the top of the far hill, 200 yards away, stood six cows and a bull. Not an 8x7, but a damn good 6x6. They had heard us, of  course, and were staring right at us, but the wind was right, the setting  sun in their eyes, and our silhouettes broken. by the sage. I slipped the safety off and looked through the scope. The bull stood slight1y to one  side with a cow directly in front of him, the others bunched together. I heard the soft click of the tripod and a moment later the hum of the camera.


I took my eye  away from the scope and looked at the outfitter. "There's a cow right in front of him," I said.

A muscle bigger  than my biceps flexed and tightened in his jaw. "That cow's fixin' to move. She does, you nail him."

But she didn't.  They stayed, looking at us, as motionless and quiet as a distant diorama. Through the scope I studied the wide sweep of his rack, the smoky  exhalation from his nostrils. As I watched, the bloody red light around us deepened and darkened. Finally, I heard a gentle click behind me and  wondered if the outfitter understood its significance. And then, just as I realized I could no longer see the rack clearly, the cow started to move.


But the bull moved with her. They walked in lockstep past another cow, and then the  three turned away from us, bodies touching, the cream circles of their  rumps shining pink in the last reflected rays of the sunset. A Texas heart shot at a moving bull 200 yards away with a cow on either side in poor  light on the last day.

"Shoot him!"

Three times in my unremarkable hunting career I have wounded animals. Once was purely my  own poor judgment; twice I allowed myself to be rushed by guides into taking shots I wasn't ready or confident enough to make. We ultimately found and killed all three animals; two because of an incredible amount of stubborn effort and even more dumb luck on my part. But the last one, a  red hartebeest in Africa, I shot and wounded in front of my wife. I swore  then I would never again take a shot I didn't feel comfortable with. Even under the best of circumstances there are too many variables: a gust of  wind downrange; an animal's movement at the wrong moment; a scope  unknowingly bumped slightly off true; any one of a score of other things.  It's so easy to do it badly. We should remain in control over the few things we can.

"Shoot,  damnit!"

I clicked the  safety on and raised the barrel. I rolled onto my side.

The outfitter  lowered his binoculars. Then he looked at me.

For an instant I thought I might have to shoot him. Frustration and despair and rage had  turned his battered face into a mask. For a long moment he looked at  me.

Then he shook  his head, not in anger or even disgust but as a man might who is trying to  clear his brain of cobwebs. With a sigh he rose and started back toward the horses. I felt for him. God knows he had worked as hard and  relentlessly as flesh and blood could, and still the golden chance had been lost. I sympathized. But my heart sang in my chest as we rode back to the trucks.


© Bugle, Summer  1997, "To Shoot or Not to Shoot"