On Nov. 4, it was “zero-dark-thirty,” at 5:15 a.m., to be specific — with a brilliant starry sky. Although the stars provided the only light, with binoculars, we could make out an elk on the distant horizon — just barely.
“You can't see stars like this where I live,” whispered Dave Sell. “This is beautiful.”
Sell, who helps to run a family sporting goods store in Hanover, was accompanying his 78-year-old uncle, Dick Sell, on this Keystone State elk hunt — the 13th modern-day elk hunt in Pennsylvania's history. Dick was one of the lucky 26 people to draw a bull elk permit in the September lottery, run by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Dick and his guide, Larry Guenot, positioned themselves in a blind to my left as the four of us watched the black of night transition slowly into the grey of morning. We were in Elk Hunt Zone 12 near Karthaus, just north of the Centre County line. First one, then two, and finally four elk were visible — all bulls. The legal shooting time of 6:21 arrived. Although the bulls all looked pretty nice to this untrained eye, Guenot advised Dick Sell not to shoot.
“These aren’t the bulls that we are looking for," Guenot told Sell.
Guenot and his assistant guide, Dean Carper, decided to move the second bull elk hunter to another location — this time along Rolling Stone Road. We continued to watch the large field in Covington Township, Clearfield County.
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I have been covering Pennsylvania's modern-day elk hunt since its inception in 2001, but this year, Guenot afforded me a new opportunity. Guenot, who was guiding three permitted elk hunters (two bull and one cow), invited me to go out with his hunters on the opening day. I jumped at the chance.
My elk adventure began early. I left the house at 3:10 a.m., arriving at The Trophy Rack Lodge and Bed and Breakfast, north of Moshannon, at 4. The temperature difference was a real shock — 30 degrees when I left the Bald Eagle Valley to head north, but only 20 degrees at the lodge. Sometimes, it is another world on top of the Allegheny Plateau.
Vicki Guenot had a hearty breakfast ready, and I was introduced to the 3 elk hunters, assistant guides and helpers. We exchanged some small talk, but most thoughts were on the elk and the season that would begin in just a couple of hours. Larry Guenot had scouted out five bull elk that he considered to be real trophies. His goal was to place his bull permit holders in position to connect with these elk. Oddly, he was most concerned about the success of his cow permit holder, because few cows were to be found in the areas that he usually scouted.
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The grey sky turned to lavender, and then peach. Most people do not get to see this, or if they do, it is a fleeting glance as they hurry off to work. It is truly a different experience to sit there quietly and watch the morning unfold.
“Elk down.” Word on the radio from Carper indicated that Randy Caldwell, Guenot's other bull hunter, had made a single-shot kill on one of his five big scouted elk.
At 6:40 a.m., Guenot suggested that we move away from our blind to check out some nearby areas not visible from our position. We walked closer to the four bulls that we had been watching and then veered to the east — locating seven white-tailed deer and four additional bulls on this old strip-mined land. Steam wafted away from the bull elk as they exhaled into the crisp morning air.
Shots rang out as we walked back toward Guenot's pickup — one of the bull elk that we had passed over dropped in the field.
The hunter was 25-year-old Jim Scharnitz, of Northampton. Scharnitz had crested the rise with his guide from Elk County Outfitters and spotted the nice 6x6 bull in the field. The bull was big enough for Scharnitz — he connected with his 260-yard shot, made with his great grandfather's Remington 760 Gamemaster, chambered for .270 caliber. Scharnitz had entered the elk lottery in each of the past nine years and was thrilled with his trophy.
After congratulating Scharnitz, we took time to celebrate with Guenot's successful bull hunter, Caldwell, of Export, Westmoreland County. He had downed a nice 7x7 elk with a single 245-yard shot from his 7-mm magnum.
“This has been a wonderful six-week experience for me, and I couldn’t be happier,” commented Caldwell. “I saw more and bigger elk in eight hours scouting here in Pennsylvania than I saw during my eight-day wilderness hunt in Wyoming in 2006.”
Later that day, I was out again with Guenot and the Sells — this time posting at the edge of a field that bordered State Game Lands 100. A single whitetail doe was our first visitor, but about 10 minutes later, two bull elk appeared — a heavy-bodied 6x6 and an 8x7. As soon as they entered the field, the larger bull turned on the smaller one and the loud crack of their antlers was easily heard 300 yards away. The bulls then started to feed toward our position as we watched. Sell and Guenot decided not to shoot, and our day ended as the curtain of darkness fell.
Early Tuesday morning, assistant guide Mark Conway watched as Curt Steffy made a perfect 340-yard shot on a heavy cow elk. Steffy's father, Gill, was also there for the excitement.
Guenot guided Sell to a nice 6x6 bull elk on SGL 100 that same morning. Although Sell's bull wasn't one of his guide's select five, Sell dropped the elk at 225 yards, and he was happier than words could describe.
“I didn’t realize how big my elk was until I got to the taxidermist,” Sell said. “He had another 6x6 bull that came from Wyoming, and it looked one third the size of my Pennsylvania bull.”
As of Nov. 7, Pennsylvania Game Commission elk biologist Jeremy Banfield reported that all of the other 23 bull permit holders had joined Sell, Caldwell and Scharnitz in harvesting elk. Steffy and an additional 34 hunters had been successful at bagging antlerless elk (out of a possible 60 license holders).
While at the check station, game commissioner Ralph Martone commented on the value of the elk hunt.
“Based on the fact that about 25,000 people applied for the 86 elk licenses available this year, I’d say it shows the significance that our elk have for Pennsylvania hunters.”
I concur with Martone. We have a great — and growing — resource. I had an exciting experience in Pennsylvania’s Wilds, even though I did not have an elk permit myself. A sizeable herd is already in northern Centre County — it would not surprise me if we were to see our first wild elk in the Bald Eagle Valley within the next 10 years.