Long Range Hunting

Long Range Elk by Shane Epperson

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So there I am, standing in my living room in southern California having just gotten off the phone with my best man who lives in Idaho and I have the biggest, dumbest grin adorning my bearded face. See, for the past decade or so, my best man Jake, and I have had an Idaho hunting tradition where we would tag along with his dad, JP. JP was an encyclopaedic wealth of firearms’ knowledge and our hunts would revolve around him teaching Jake and I what to do.

JP was in law enforcement for most of his life and he specialized in firearm education/training. By the time he retired, he was the Sergeant of weapons training for a large county's special enforcement/ SWAT team. He had been a sharp shooter/sniper for other departments in the past, and he was really dang good at long-range hunting.

All of that came to a halt 4 years ago when JP was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease/ALS. We were able to go on one last hunt with JP and Jake was able to get his first elk with his father before the disease finally took him. After his father passed, I didn't push Jake to hunt because I knew it was an emotional subject for him, but then one day, a few months back, he made the call to me. He invited my wife and I  up to Idaho (we live in southern California)...he wanted to do another elk hunt! I was ecstatic! For previous hunts, I was never able to afford a non-resident elk tag, mainly because I was going through nursing school, and non-res tags are stupid expensive. So I would get the cheapest tag I could just so I could be part of the hunt and soak up as much knowledge and experience as possible. This usually meant I would walk around with a wolf tag in my pocket knowing full well I wouldn't be able to fill it barring some freak circumstances...but that never bothered me.

 

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Anyway, I now had a long-range, elk-appropriate rifle; the mighty 300 Weatherby. I had been punching holes in paper and blowing up rocks at 1000 yards for the past few years, trying to teach myself long-distance shooting... but I had never shot at an animal that large, or at distances so great. I immediately began r&d on an appropriate hunting load because up to this point, I had been shooting strictly target loads. I settled on a 180gr Barnes TTSX on top of IMR 7828 in new Norma brass with Federal 215 primers. From my 24" vanguard s2 barrel, I was averaging 3117 fps and getting right around 3/4 moa. Knowing the shots in Idaho would be long, I zeroed my gun at 326 yards which put me about 3.8" high at 100 and I worked my dope out to about a grand... just in case. I was ready...

The day came and my wife and I left home at about 5 am to travel from north county San Diego, through Nevada, Arizona, and Utah until we completed our 890 mile trip and arrived in Pocatello, Idaho later that evening. From there, we packed up his trailer and truck and headed north west for another 6 or so hours; north of New Meadows but just south of Riggins to hunting unit 23 - McCall.

We arrived a couple days early to do some scouting as the area had recently burned and we weren't sure if there would be any animal activity. Much to our surprise, the wildlife was very active and we saw plenty of fresh track and scat from bear, wolf, deer and elk all around. We took the time to find JP's old hunting spot, which happened to be on the side of one very steep mountain where he would shoot across a valley to the side of another very steep mountain. The shot distances ranged from a minimum of 720 yards to well over 1200 yards. Knowing this and seeing as how my gun was zeroed in 90 degree weather at sea level and not the chilly and 6000+ feet conditions we were currently in, we decided to test fire our weapons.

 

Much to my dismay, my rifle just wasn't up to the task for this hunt so we agreed we would use Jake's rifle. His hunting rifle was the very same rifle his dad had used at this same hunting spot for many decades: a German made Weatherby mark V in 340 with 24" barrel, accubrake, and 5.5-25 nightforce glass on top of a 20 moa base. This rifle also came with a range book, noting every round that was fired, the conditions and the point of impact...it was a well-known and well-documented rifle to say the least. Jake had loaded up 250gr nosler accubond's at 2850 fps and was getting clover-leaf groups at the range. We knew the rifle would perform, but could I?

 

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I had never fired this weapon and although I'm no noob to the world of magnums, I could only hope my previous training and skill-set would kick in and carry me though. The first couple days after open season, we glassed the hillside and saw a few spike bulls but they were each sitting at 1000 and 1100 yards...we decided to wait. Because this was my first time actually having an elk tag, Jake told me I would be taking first shot.

On the third day of open season, we headed back to our spot and as I was taking my pack off and setting up the rifle, Jake had been glassing the hillside with a pair of Steiner 12x bino’s and spotted 3 bulls, the closest being what seemed to be a 2x2 at 890 yards. He asked if I was confident taking the shot...I readied the rifle and told him to call it out to me. Jake checked the dope and came back with "21.25 minutes". I spun the turret up just over 2 full revolutions and took aim. The bull, which was standing left broadside was perfectly still and enjoying his morning snack. I took aim and Jake told me to hold dead nuts just behind the left front leg. Conditions were chilly and there was no wind. I went through my training of B.R.A.S.S.: breathe, relax, aim, squeeze, surprise! The rifle roared to life, I scrambled to get back on target and Jake reported "no hit." Well, nuts, what went wrong?

I was sure of my aim, I was very steady, we confirmed the distance. Maybe there was some wind we weren't catching over the valley. Jake said maybe we're shooting at an angle the range finder didn't pick up. If that's the case, I'm shooting high...Jake instructed me too aim at the belly line and try again. Two more shots and still nothing. I'm starting to wonder what my problem is; has all my practice been for not? Luckily, the elk still has no idea what's going on, but he did look up for a moment after one of the shots, only to return to eating, unfazed by the ruckus. Jake looked at me and said "three shots bud, if you don't get it by four, it wasn't meant to be." Pardon my French but shit just got real. I asked him to double check the numbers while I worked on clearing my head...not only was this my first elk hunt but it was also a memorial hunt for JP with JP's son, using JP's rifle at JP's hunting spot and it was also me proving myself to Jake, my wife, my friends back home and myself that all of this hard work meant something and would pay off.

Needless to say, my shoulders were feeling pretty heavy at this point. Right then, Jake came back with "the dope was off, dial up 21.75 not 21.25" I cleared my head, dialled up another half minute and went back to my original aim point. After a quick prayer and a deep, calming breath, I sent my last opportunity hurling down range. With the recoil of the rifle, I couldn't keep my eye on the target, especially because at 25x, my field of view was easily moved. The bullet was in flight for just under one-and-one-quarter seconds before impact, so while I was working on getting back on target and readying a follow-up shot, I  was relying on Jake to call my p.o.i. Just then I hear "holy shit, you got him!" I'm now doing everything I can to keep calm while loading up the next round but Jake stopped me: "no...you GOT him, he's down." I couldn't believe it. While getting back on target I kept saying "what do you mean?" In complete disbelief that I just dropped an elk from over half-a-mile with one shot...it couldn't be, the bullet dropped over 205 inches on its journey from the muzzle to the beast. Sure enough though, when I found him through the scope, he was dead right there. All of the weight that I had been carrying on my shoulders then came out: what an amazing opportunity to be a part of this, and not just to succeed but to take such a large animal with a single shot and so cleanly (I'm not one to wish suffering on any animal). With a quivering chin, full heart and huge smile, I looked at Jake and just stared in disbelief...years of practice, study, refinement, trust and commitment came to fruition in a single moment, and my point of impact couldn't have been more perfect.

 

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Although the shot was 890 yards, the trek to reach the animal was not so straight forward. It took us almost 3.5 hours and a few miles of hiking down a mountain, through a riverbed riddled with alders and back up a ridiculously steep mountain to reach the elk. When we finally reached the animal, we realized it was not a 2x2 but rather a much larger 4x5 bull. Although not a trophy elk by definition, this was my trophy, my first elk! We examined the shot and found that the bullet entered behind the left leg, right where I was aiming and exited out the right side of the neck. We spend our next hours butchering the animal and packing it off the mountain.

This was the exact confirmation I needed to convince me to further my training and set-up. After returning home I determined the glass on my rifle was the part of the equation holding me back from using my own gun for the hunt so I have upgraded my glass, scope-base and rings and next time, my gun and me will be ready.

 

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