Chris Stout took a bead on the big bull elk at 80 yards and pressed the trigger -- sending his 180-grain bullet on its way.
“I was expecting the elk to drop and he didn’t,” Stout said. “The bull disappeared and things got crazy with elk running through the swamp and the creek. All we could hear were these big animals splashing through the water. I thought that I had missed.”
The hunter’s shot was a culmination of months of scouting and a long and tedious stalk. Here is how he arrived at this moment of truth during the hunt of a lifetime.
Stout’s name was drawn from over 36,000 applications for Pennsylvania’s 2018 lottery elk hunt. Stout, of Bellefonte, was selected for one of only 26 bull elk permits -- his was one of only two for the newly created Elk Hunt Zone 14. At 331,451 acres, EHZ 14 is the second largest elk zone. Although these elk have never been hunted before, they are very wary, not at all like the elk that visitors watch near Benezette.
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“The sight or smell of a hunter on foot will drive them out of an area almost instantly,” said Commission elk biologist Jeremy Banfield.
The week following the August 18 drawing, Trophy Rack Lodge owner Larry Guenot called Stout, inquiring about his possible interest in hiring a guiding service. Stout was unsure. Elk hunting was not new to Stout; he had already attempted two elk hunts in the western United States - both unguided archery hunts. One in Wyoming a few years ago and a second hunt in Colorado just this past August.
“I was thinking about doing this hunt on my own, but since I would probably never again draw a bull elk permit in Pennsylvania, I decided to sign up with Trophy Rack Lodge to get the maximum amount of help,” Stout said.
Guenot paired Stout with guide Mike Stone -- a retired Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry employee very familiar with that area. “Zone 14 has a good half-dozen Boone and Crockett 400-class bulls, and at first I thought finding one for Chris would be easy,” Stone said.
Every weekend from September on, Stout and several friends were up there scouting. Stone was busy keeping tabs on the elk, too. “We saw some really nice bulls, but as we got closer to the season, they all disappeared. We saw cows and smaller bulls, but none of the real upper echelon bulls,” Stout noted.
Luck changed the Sunday before the opening day of the elk season. A nice bull was spotted in Kettle Creek State Park about two miles above the Alvin Bush Dam, below the Leidy Bridge. They checked out the elk before dark and decided it would be best to target that bull the following morning.
At 5:00 a.m., they arrived in the area where the bull had been spotted the evening before. Legal shooting time did not begin until 6:18. “There were about a dozen people there -- three hunters with cow tags their guides and friends,” Stout said. “We knew that encountering other hunters might be a possibility, but it was a zoo.”
The entire group decided that they would all walk across the fields to approach where the elk had been observed the previous evening. “The cow hunters were gracious enough to give me the opportunity to shoot first because I had the bull tag,” Stout noted. “After 200 yards, we spotted 15 to 20 elk about 150 yards in front of us. There were cows, a small bull and I spotted the larger bull back in the woods.
“The elk were getting nervous and the weather was nasty -- raining and foggy -- and the big bull did not present an open shot,” Stout said. “I told the other hunters that I was not going to shoot. One of them shot a cow elk and the other elk all bolted across Kettle Creek, back into the woods and out of sight.”
The crew -- Stout, his guide, and his two friends, Ben Shockey of Centre Hall and Kurt Vandegrift of State College -- headed north to Ole Bull State Park where they saw two small bulls while walking a pipeline. They arrived back at the area south of Leidy Bridge around 2:00 p.m. and walked across the fields.
“We slowly walked in to a downed apple tree and from on top of the trunk we could see the elk feeding on a large island in Kettle Creek about 300 yards away. “I left my friends at the tree and Mike and I began to stalk the elk,” Stout said. “The stalk was slow and through a sorghum field. We had to be careful that we didn’t spook any of the elk.”
“The bull was still bugling and chasing cows and at one point we saw the bull rake a sycamore branch with his antlers,” he said. They waited for over an hour, hidden near the edge of the sorghum. At about 4 o’clock cows started to filter off of the island, across a swampy area and into the field about 100 yards to their left.
“I thought this was pretty good. If the bull follows the cows out, I should be able to get a shot,” Stout said. “At about 4:15, the half-dozen cows that were in the field unexpectedly trotted back into the woods. We thought -- what the heck!”
Then they saw a cow hunter walking into the field, but he backed off when he saw Stout. At about 4:30, the big bull stopped in an opening on the island, but Stout saw that a cow was right behind the bull. He did not take the shot for fear of also hitting the cow.
“The bull started pushing the cows downstream and off to my right,” Stout said. “They disappeared behind a berm and into the swampy area. I thought that they were gone.” Stout and his guide waited. At about 5 o’clock, they saw a cow pop up over the berm about 100 yards to their right and then disappear behind the sorghum. Stout adjusted his position slightly for a better view.
Another cow came out and started walking right towards Stout. “I was kind of exposed at this point, but the wind was good and I think that saved us,” Stout said. Four more cows followed the second one, and they wondered if they would see the bull. It was now 5:10.
“Here he comes,” Stone whispered and Stout saw the antlers above the brush. The bull followed the cows -- the first cow was now only 40 yards away. Stout took the first clear shot and they waited about ten minutes after the woods quieted. It was raining and they could not find any blood. Stout was disappointed, thinking that he had missed. They followed tracks, but saw no blood or hair. Darkness fell.
As a last-ditch effort, Stout used his headlamp and just walked downstream along the creek. About 30 yards downstream, he found the bull lying in the water. “It was all that the four of us could do to move the elk out of the water. We called Larry and he arranged to have a man with a draft horse come and pull the dressed elk to the highway,” Stout said.
It was well past midnight when they had the carcass packed with ice and safely back at their camp in Cross Fork. At the check station the next morning, Stout’s 7x7 bull was weighed and estimated to have a live weight of 780 pounds. It turned out to be the third heaviest elk harvested this season. Stout related that the elk meat was delicious, and he plans to have the head mounted for display in his home.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com