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Yes, you read the title correctly…bull elk in the south!! Let me share…Tennessee has been working since 2000 to re-establish a herd of elk that would sustain itself, and grow in numbers…through the combined efforts of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Federation as well as the state of Tennessee and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation we have seen this reintroduction as a success. It has been such a success that in 2009 Tennessee was able to have its first elk hunt in over 150 years!
The chance to hunt elk in Tennessee is given in 2 ways…for a mere $20.00 anyone can put their name into the lottery to have a shot at one of 4 tags giving you the chance to hunt these majestic animals in Tennessee. A 5th tag is donated to a nonprofit agency to help raise money to that specific nonprofit every year, and this year that tag went to the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Foundation. That tag was auctioned on eBay, with the profits benefitting that organization. There is also one lucky youth hunter that has been selected for the last few years in the lottery system. This years lucky high bidder on eBay was Nick Nelson from Fayetteville, NC.
Nicks roots are actually in Tennessee, and those roots are what drew him toward that opportunity of a lifetime of having a chance to kill an elk in Tennessee. Nicks military background is what planted him in North Carolina, but he travels back to his home state of Tennessee to hunt every chance he can. He holds his lifetime hunting license for Tennessee, and his mom was actually his biggest influence in introducing him to the outdoors and getting him into hunting.
John Allred of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Foundation has been a long time friend of mine, and I have been helping him as a guide for the Tennessee One Shot Governor’s Turkey Hunt for a number of years. He blew me away when he asked me if I could help him with a scheduling conflict and go in his place as a guide to help Nick on the elk hunt in East Tennessee. Information was given, and the stage was being set for a hunt of a lifetime.
I spent a lot of time over the next couple of months talking with Nick and making plans and studying the map of the EHZ or elk hunting zone that he was assigned. It would be October 23rd before I would see the 6,363 acre chunk of property for the first time. The plan was to find a camping spot that would be our “base camp” for the next several days, and I had that day, plus 2 more full days to scout, and the actual hunt would begin on Monday the 26th. Using topo and aerial maps, I scouted the perimeter of the property trying to locate the best access points to what seemed to be the most promising land according to the layout.
Those days of scouting would be a test, both physically and mentally. For 2 1/2 days we scouted hard, walked miles a day covering as much ground as possible looking for any sign proving that the elk were in the area. With no real promise, we made a game plan for our first morning’s hunt.
Monday morning we hiked a few miles deep and spent the first half of the day looking over a long field and patiently waiting for the sight or sound of any elk in the area….to no avail. We made our way back to camp, and had some lunch. That afternoon we decided to perch over a field that had a couple of deep draws leading out of the bottoms and into the fields. We had a great vantage point that gave Nick an easy shot for 200 yards or so over the end of the field. That afternoon about 3pm a bull sounded off down in the bottom to our right, and only 5 minutes later another to our left bugled! It was our first promise of being in the right area and our hopes were magnified. I let out a couple of cow calls and one short bugle in hopes of enticing one or both of these bulls into view. We would sit till dark, nothing! No more calls, and no elk came into view, just a young whitetail buck right before sundown.
Tuesday morning found us on that same ledge before daylight, and we would spend the next 13 hours hunting the 2 areas that we had heard those 2 bulls the afternoon before…no sign, no sounds, it was as if they were never there at all…we were 2 days in and starting to get discouraged. That afternoon we made a call to Steve, the elk biologist in the area. We talked over all of the places we had been, and he made mention of a few fields that did not show up on my map that we had downloaded for our EHZ. He told us where the access was and I realized that I had walked that road in a couple of miles during my first couple days of scouting and had turned around and walked back out because those fields didn’t show up on my map. After dark we headed back to camp to lick our wounds and regroup for Wednesdays hunt.
We found our way to those fields that the biologist told us about, and by daybreak we were positioned in the edge of one of them watching the world come alive. Hoping to coax a bull out of one of the bottoms, I would call on occasion, and we slowly made our way toward the back of the EHZ, where it bordered some private property. We did see some whitetail does, but had yet to see or hear any elk. The back 3 fields were a little over a mile long with a strip of woods between them connecting them with a road bed for tractor access. We had just walked by a ladder stand in the middle field and into the gap that took us to the back field when we spotted our first real fresh sign, a single set of tracks!! As we approached the back field we were welcomed, so to speak, by a flock of hens pecking around in the clover that had been planted as a food plot by the TWRA. They raised their heads and proceeded the other direction! We scouted the last field and headed toward camp mid morning to come up with a plan for the evening hunt.
As I mentioned earlier, Nicks mom got him into hunting and had actually come in to join him on this hunt. Her boyfriend Mike also came, and the two of them kept us well fed the entire time! We came back to camp to a big breakfast and company in the form of the biologist, Steve, as well as Harvey, an older gentleman who has been working alongside the TWRA as a volunteer since the inception of the elk program. Harvey was a valuable resource of information, telling us he had even seen elk as recent as Friday night in the private fields below the area we had just scouted! Nicks mom had also spent some time bow hunting while Nick and I were hard after elk…we rested up an talked about the afternoon/evening plans.
We talked about the fresh sign, and decided that we would definitely be hunting the back field of the 3 we were in this morning… We told Sherri about the ladder stand that was in the middle field and offered for her to bow hunt deer from it while we were in the back field hunting. She was happy to go along, and Mike, not wanting to be left behind this time, decided he would bring a book and a chair and sit in the first field closest to where we would park and walk in from.
We were set up early that afternoon, and the sun was beating own on our position in the field as we tried to stay tucked in under a pine tree to stay in the shadows and keep the wind in our favor. We were expecting any elk that would use this field to come in from the back of our field and from upwind of us. The field we were in was in the same elevation as the first field where Mike was, and the middle field was a bit lower…Mike could hear me when I would bugle occasionally, but Sherri could not. It was about 6:35 when Nick got a broken text from Mike…it said “There is one in the field heading toward Sherri”….”One what?” we wondered as we studied the text for a couple of minutes…We decided rather quickly that if he was texting us, and saying that there was “One” in the field, then it HAD to be an elk! It was about a third of a mile from our location to get to that gap that opened up into the second field, and we needed to get there as fast as possible! We literally started running, but slowed to a fast walk as we approached the edge of the shadows in that gap…Nick was fumbling with his phone to look at a message from his mom, I asked for his phone and he got down on his knee getting his gun up and ready just as a text came through that said “Bull in field call”…It was Sherri, and there in front of her stand in bow range was the bull that Mike had just seen come out of the thicket and head toward her. I turned toward the field we had just left and let out a bugle, then did 3 or 4 cow calls and flipped open the screen on my Sony HandyCam to turn around in time to see this two toned dark outline standing on the horizon of the field just over 200 yards away…All of the miles under our boots, the frustrations of little sign, the ups and downs of the ravines and mountains that we had traversed over the last 6 days all became a blur as we focused on the animal standing in front of us. I did a couple more cow mews, and the bull came over the hill and started in our direction, coming in at an angle quartering to us…I was coaching Nick on shot placement, telling him to put the rosshairs on the point of the bulls shoulder, right where the dark hair and light hair came together…when the bull finally stopped for a moment at about 100 yards Nick squeezed the trigger. The bull spun around to its right and started back up the hill…it had only made it about 25 yards or so when his back legs began to buckle…I let out a slight squeal on the diaphragm about the same time Nick fired a second shot….simultaneously the bulls front legs gave way and he crumpled into a pile and rolled just off the edge of the field and was hung up in the thicket where the field rolls over and starts down a steep incline. We did it, we just killed an elk in Tennessee…I sprinted toward the downed bull, and heard Sherri let out a scream. She had witnessed the bull take the bullet, her treestand was the perfect vantage point. It was all celebrations from that point on, and Mike, having heard the shot wasn’t too far behind in joining the hugs and high fives in the middle of that field.
TWRA brought out the cavalry…I made a call letting them know we had a bull on the ground, gave them a location, and before long we had all kinds of help and more celebrating going on. They loaded the bull up and took him down for the biologist to pull some samples as well as to get the animal checked in. We left the ranger station with an iced down bull elk in the back of the truck, and spent the next few hours into the early morning sitting around the campfire reliving the weeks events that led to that one moment, and celebrating the life of the animal that was taken on the mountain that evening.
Many people have asked Nick why he spent the kind of money that he did to have a chance to hunt an elk in Tennessee when he could have gone out west and had a higher success rate and likely could have killed an even bigger bull. His answer speaks volumes to the kind of man he is, and to the sportsman he has become. His belief in the program of reintroducing elk into the state that he was born in, as well as knowing that the non profit Tennessee Wildlife Resource Foundation would benefit from the sale of the tag that he purchased, gave him the chance to “give back” to a conservation program that has a proven track record.
I met Nick for the very first time on the second day of being on that mountain, but now can call him a friend, as well as Mike and Sherri. It is amazing the way that mountain forged the relationship of 4 people in a week…I would share camp with all of them again any day, especially if Mike is doing the cooking! We shared an experience that most people never will, we killed an elk in the mountains of East Tennessee!!