Harvested ByLiza Sautter
Date HarvestedNovember 28, 2010
CountyLewis & Clark
Previously published in Bugle Magazine (Sept/Oct Issue 2015)
From Diapers to Elk Hunter
Hunting elk for the first time is a daunting task for anyone. For this now 17-year-old hunter, having a good teacher along the way has made all the difference.
When I was 2, my family called a cabin in Montana home. It was common for us to spend the evenings perched on a hilltop nearby spotting wildlife, including the elusive Rocky Mountain Elk. After being told one day that I couldn’t tag along hunting with dad because he wasn’t taking diapers to the woods, I quickly set my mind to fixing that problem. In two days’ time I was potty trained, desperate for the prized trip to the woods to go spotting with Dad.
While “The Lookout” near the cabin was the first place where I began learning to spot and identify animals, it was not the sole location. Right before my third birthday my parents bought a motorhome, lovingly named “The Titanic,” and we started traveling Montana and surrounding states. At first, my brother and I watched a lot of movies as neither of us yet understood how important everything out the window was. It wasn’t long, though, before our noses were plastered to the glass and we were hoping to see something out of the ordinary. As we honed our spotting abilities, our family developed games and contests to see who could spot animals first.
This is how I learned to spot elk. Their distinct color stood out starkly from the trees. After years of travel and spotting from our lookout, I was finally old enough to hike the mountains with Dad. It was on these hikes I learned the difference between deer, elk and moose tracks, the difference in grizzly and black bear tracks. Most important, I learned how to walk. The first time I donned a pair of hunting boots I sounded like a herd of stampeding horses. That soon changed.
At 8, I shot my dad’s Ithica .22 at a little red dot not 20 yards downrange. This was the same rifle he received from his dad when he was 10.
Eventually I graduated to my dad’s Savage .243. This was Dad’s first hunting rifle that his dad gave to him when he was 12 years old. It was going to be the gun I would take to the woods for my first hunting trip (with a tag of my own). At the time I would have never guessed how important the family history behind those firearms would become to me. Any and every seasoned sportsman knows the sentimental value we have when it comes to our favorite shootin’ iron.
At 12, I was brimming with excitement. I could finally go to the woods with gun in hand. I completed Montana’s Hunter Education Course with a perfect score.
Opening day, I awoke at “o’ dark thirty” to smell coffee brewing, and my dad’s signature sausage, egg and cheese sandwich sizzling on the griddle. The fire burning in the wood stove was crackling and popping, and I felt as though life could get no better. I was about to finally go hunting for real. We were going to one of my dad’s secret hunting spots and I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. I think I talked for all but two seconds of the 30-minute drive to the parking spot. We discussed our plan, where we had recently seen elk, and what a highway the typically vacant two-track had become. After we parked, I got my game face on closed my mouth, and grabbed my gun.
The hunt was fantastic, not in terms of harvest, but I got to spend quality time in the woods with my dad. Being in the field actually hunting made it more exciting than any other trip before. Besides, even a bad day of hunting is better than a good day of school. From that point up until the final weekend, Dad and I hunted with no success on my part. Then came closing weekend. I was ready to work my butt off because I definitely didn’t want to eat my first elk tag. I had heard they taste bitter, are hard to swallow, and aren’t very filling.
Luck of the draw gave me a weekend on the Triple 8 Ranch. I had won a lottery through the Montana Wildlife Federation and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks along with 23 other youth hunters. We were granted access to the property to hunt a cow or spike. The lucky 24 hunters were drawn from over 500 Helena hunter education students, and in retrospect I think it was truly fate that gave me the draw.
The snow was deep, the weather was frigid, and most everyone else had given up and decided to watch football instead. We arose early and got to the ranch for a good day of hunting on Friday. We hunted dawn to dusk but saw no fresh sign or living elk.
Back to the ranch early on Saturday morning we found one lone track traipsing through an open field of frozen and drifted snow toward the well groomed forest on property. We followed the track into a hole, back out up the steepest terrain on property, and finally we left the track when it circled around and went right back into the hole. One of the many things I have learned about tracking elk is that they will surely send you on a wild goose chase and take you all kinds of crazy places. Often times it’s like they know you are on them and they are toying with you to see how long and how far you are willing to follow until they get bored with the game and leave you in the distance or they walk off into a place that no intelligent two legged predator will follow. We had tracked the elk all morning so we returned to the barn to dry off and grab some grub.
After lunch, we hit a spring and there were fresh elk tracks everywhere. I could smell the elk and their droppings were still soft. We followed the tracks until we crested a ridge and saw approximately 10 head bedded about 400-500 yards away on the downslope of the next ridge over. They were too far for me to make an ethical shot, so we decided to drop out of sight and go around to try and come over the ridge on top of them. When we hit the ridge top we got on fresh tracks that we thought were the elk we had seen earlier. But as we tracked off the ridge we faded to the south and away from where we had seen the elk bedded down. Unfortunately by the time we figured out these tracks weren’t made by the elk we had spotted it was nearing dusk. Dad asked if I wanted to turn around and see if we could go back after them. I decided that if we left them alone and didn’t spook them they’d be right there in the morning. Dad seemed proud of my logic and agreed.
On the last day of the season, we drove into the ranch thinking we would head after the elk from yesterday. But we heard there was a large herd of elk in the southwest corner of the property. Change of plans. The plan of action was to sneak slowly through the trees to make sure we didn’t spook any stragglers. As we moved along at an almost glacial pace through the trees, my dad told me to hold up. I thought for sure he saw elk. Instead, there was a coyote headed directly for us. Dad whispered that he didn’t want to send the coyote running at the elk, so we stood there as it got closer and closer. At about 10 yards the coyote veered course and trotted off as though it hadn’t even seen us. About 15 minutes after the first coyote another coyote appeared at about the same distance. Again it headed straight for us. This one spotted us, wheeled 180-degrees and bolted right where we expected elk to be. When we reached the tree line, we saw the rear end of 12 to 15 elk headed up a draw. From years of hunting experience, Dad knew elk are impossible to catch from behind so we headed around the hill at the side of the draw hoping to come out above them. We were on the open ridgetop and made a belly crawl through the knee-deep snow. I am not a very big person. On a good day I am about 5’ 2” tall which made the crawl through the knee deep snow a bit of a challenge, but we made it. We crested the hill to see the 12 or 15 elk running right through the middle of a herd of 100. The entire hillside was moving. My heart began to race out of control. I counted four massive bulls. Time came to stand almost completely still.
“Liza, you gotta pick out a cow,” said my dad. “They’re getting nervous so don’t be too long about it.”
I found a cow and then its calf stepped in front. I found another cow, lined up my crosshairs, took one final calming breath, and fired my first ever shot at an elk. I heard the shot hit, saw the cow go down, watched the herd run off, and let the ringing in my ears subside. The entire series of events probably took less than 30 seconds, but those seconds seemed like an eternity while I watched the cow to make sure she was down for good.
“You got her,” Dad said. “You just got your first elk!” The hug that followed made me wonder if my dad might have been more excited than me. We made our way over to the cow. We took a moment to appreciate the animal and the meat it would provide our family. I said a brief thanks. Then we got to the hard part. I had helped my dad field dress his animals so I was over the gross factor. With the two of us working together on the cow we had everything done in no time.
After field-dressing the cow, I walked back to my gear and turned to look behind me. The herd of elk had circled around and were running across the ridge in the distance. Dad and I stood there in awe, taking in the entire feeling. We were standing in bottomless snow watching a gorgeous herd. In that moment, I was reminded of just how much it meant for me to have joined the distinguished crowd of all of the men and women who have ethically harvested a big game animal before me, everyone from Lewis of The Corps of Discovery to the hunting mentor standing next to me on that hill. That right there is why I hunt.
I was so proud when we pulled into the “harvest” lane at the check station. The biologist told me that the cow was roughly 9 years old based on her lack of ivories. Over the next weekend our family butchered and wrapped the elk (with Liza’s Cow Elk proudly written on every package) and the excitement for the next year began.
Even with four seasons passed, Dad and I still talk about this hunt often, smiling as we recollect laughs and our shared time in the woods. I grew up with respect for elk because our family lived on a full freezer each season thanks to my dad. Finally, I am a contributor to that freezer. I was destined to shoot an elk from the day I said goodbye to diapers but hooked for life after the first notch I cut in my tag. Elk hunting isn’t just a hobby or a sport I enjoy for a month and a half each year. It is truly something I was born to do.
Liza Sautter, seventeen-year-old Vice President of the social media platform Hunt the Wild West, has just exited her fifth consecutive successful season as a Montana elk hunter. She loves spending her time hunting, hiking, fishing, photographing all things wild, and teaching Hunter Education in and around southwest Montana. She is forever grateful to her favorite hunting mentor, her Dad, for involving her in the sport she lives for.