Caitlyn Morris-ELK-ID-DIY-PL-ATB: Jeff Morris
“All of those scenarios that replayed in my head ending in failure were nightmares that are instantly replaced with a real-life dream.”
The date is October 31st, 2022, at 11:44 p.m. on the eve of the elk opener. I was staring at the ceiling of the camper feeling overcome with anxiety, being a nervous wreck. A million scenarios were running through my mind of how the hunt was going to end up, and every single one had me failing. Not as the tag holder, but as the dad helping his youngest daughter get her first elk. I have three kids and the older two both love hunting and do very well with it. I rarely worry or stress about them being successful. This season opener was different. This was my daughter Caitlyn’s first elk hunt.
At the age of 10, Caitlyn took Hunter’s Education and practiced shooting rifles with me, but ultimately, she decided hunting may not be for her and that was ok with me. No pressure. She still helped me reload ammo and loved shooting at the range with me.
Fast forward four years to Father’s Day of 2022. She told me in the morning she would like to go bear hunting with me, since that’s what I love to do in the springtime. She said she would like to try shooting one. After making sure it was what she wanted, I was excited! Not because she wanted to kill something, but because hunting is special to me, and I love the deep connection it creates between my kids and me. On that day, she was able to shoot a nice boar. She told me she would like to try elk hunting since she loves elk meat. I was ecstatic!
I wanted to make this hunt “perfect” so she would enjoy it enough to go every year with me. Tagging out had nothing to do with it. I learned with my older children that they get cold, bored, hungry and can lose interest on hunts if they aren’t comfortable. I started shopping; something Caitlyn loves! I let her pick out a pair of pants and a couple jackets. Her sister Kylie had some good boots that fit and some base layers to hand down to her as well. The gear was set, now it was time to practice shooting.
I can’t stress this enough; practice, practice, practice! I can’t tell you how important it is to set your kids up for success rather than failure long before the hunt starts. I purposely make my kids uncomfortable while shooting at the range. I set the bipods too long, too short, uneven, etc. I zoom the scope to full power, so they struggle to find the target and get good eye relief. They don’t understand it.
“Why can’t I just shoot off the sandbag like you?”
“Because we don’t carry sandbags while hunting.”
Give kids adversity while practicing, so they know how to handle it in the field. I am the type who must make a mistake to really learn something. Please trust me when I say you don’t want to “learn from your mistakes” when a 180” buck is staring at you and your kid while they struggle to find it in the scope. I need to know what the problems are so I have a solution, creating them long before the hunt.
After it all, we had great shooting sessions and she was as ready as possible.
Meanwhile in the fall, my great friends Tad Sherman and Stephen Blackburn and I were scouting on maps and in real life as much as possible. It’s difficult scouting in warm weather for a hunt that depends on some weather for migration. We researched the adjacent units and tried to figure out migration paths and where to look when the time came. We learned the vast, wide-open unit and as many access points as we could. The night before the opener, we spotted a bull miles away and he appeared to be working his way to our unit! We knew where he might naturally funnel to, so we made a plan.
The time is now 2:40 a.m. on November 1st. I feel like getting out of bed and making coffee, but I don’t want to wake Caitlyn up. I know it will be a long day in the below freezing temps and 20 mph winds rocking the trailer. I continue to lay here worrying about one particular scenario I couldn’t get past in my head.
How will she get a shot in the open country, above the grass and brush but not be seen while setting up for a shot? We could use the tripod with the gun holder, but that would possibly skyline us and create a lot of commotion. I got it! I need to throw a couple extra coats and game bags in my pack. I need something my little daughter can lay on, lean against or sit on to get her above the brush. I need to put my longer Harris bipod on the gun. The 6-9” isn’t going to cut it.
I put the 12-25” bipod on instead. As my mind eases, I fall asleep for a couple hours and awake to the alarm at 6 a.m. I can feel the tension in Caitlyn, with all the pressure to “live up” to her older sister Kylie and brother Taylor’s successes. Our 45 minute ride to the area we are hunting gives me time to calm her down and tell her there is no pressure. The beauty of hunting for me is being in the hills, out of cell service and forgetting about the pressures of life. That’s the true success of hunting; the recharging of batteries and being close with those we love.
We arrive at the end of the road and start glassing. Stephen and Tad are glassing from different areas and none of us are finding anything. The wind is howling with gusts up to 30 mph and it’s cold. Caitlyn’s quality gear is definitely paying off right now. I decide we need to start hiking to get a look into the different draws with rimrock where the bull we saw is probably seeking refuge from the wind. The ridgeline is very rocky, uneven ground but not steep. We are scouring each pocket we walk above. We take a few steps and glass for a few minutes. Nothing. We keep walking. There is one set of rimrock I am just sure he will be tucked into. We approach it slowly and quietly. With each step I take, I glass the rimrock hoping to see antler tips. We finally get to where we can see the entire draw and nothing. We are a couple miles into our hike at this point. Should we regroup and have lunch and try a different area? I ask myself. I am a bit disappointed we can’t find an elk. As I am thinking about what to do, I casually glass the area.
“ELK!” I tell Caitlyn.
The bull is two drainages away and 1000’ lower than us, walking away. “We have to hurry, stay with me.” I tell her with a little urgency in my voice.
I don’t even look back, knowing she’s right behind me. She’s coming off a long volleyball season and is in great shape. In my haste to catch up to this bull, we find ourselves in the middle of a shale slide. It is so loud, sounding like glass breaking as the thin pieces of shale hit each other. Finally out of the rocks, we are practically jogging up the next hillside. We crest the ridgeline and I take a quick peek to find the bull. He’s gone. All I can do is scream inside my head, Where did he go? He must have heard us! I knew I was going to screw this up. I’m panicking as I’m feverishly glassing the shelf and surrounding areas.
“There he is! He moved to the next shelf.” I tell Caitlyn. “One more draw to cross.”
It’s a big draw, deep and steep. We get to the bottom of the draw, heading down to get to the same elevation as the bull. I see the saddle I had in my mind that we need to get to. We head up the hill. As we approach the saddle, I take her rifle out of my holder and unbuckle my pack to get ready to use it as a rest. The nerves are starting to kick in for both of us.
As we get to where we can see the flat, the bull is feeding away from us. Perfect!
I whisper, “Stay in my back pocket, if I drop, you drop.”
The only cover I can find is a small sagebrush. It’s all we have. Fifteen more yards and we are set! We are walking slowly and staying low. The bull decides to turn and face our direction. We hit the dirt, flat out. He won’t look away. No way he saw us, but why did he turn around?
“Don’t move.” I keep repeating to an anxious kid who wants to see him.
He’s next to a ribbon of rock on the flat and he decides to lay down, still facing us. As I am looking at him, I see another bull already laying against the rock wall, sleeping.
I whisper, “He will fall asleep too and we can crawl up to that bush.”
Ten minutes later, he finally takes his eyes off us and looks at the other bull. I place my backpack ahead of me, then the rifle and belly crawl up to them, with Caitlyn right behind me.
We do this every time the bull looks away, about once every 10 minutes. My hands are full of stickers and we are now five yards away from our cover. Except it’s been 20 minutes and he hasn’t looked away. Caitlyn is getting antsy. Laying face down in the dirt is not fun at all, for anyone. I get it. I’m convincing myself to be patient, don’t blow it now, stay put.
I use the time to check the wind direction and speed. I adjust the bipod so it’s level on our slight incline. Everything is ready, we just need the bull to relax so we can get five more yards. The bull finally looks away and as I move the pack and rifle ahead, a pair of low flying F-15’s come screaming overhead! As a fan of jets and our military, it’s hard not to admire them, but we use the sound to cover us and shimmy the last five yards. We now have a clear shooting lane.
The big bull is laying perfectly broadside with his vitals clear of any brush at a distance we’ve practiced a hundred times. Why am I so nervous? I don’t want her to miss, not because of disappointment for missing a trophy, but because I don’t want it to shatter her fragile confidence.
In my calmest voice possible, I assure her, “We have all day, let’s get you perfect.”
I place my pack long ways under the gun with half of it sticking past the butt of the gun so she can lay on top of it.
She looks through the scope and says, “It’s already on him.”
Lucky? I think it’s fate. She gets her cheek firmly on the gun and watches the bull. I glance at my DOPE chart for the 157th time in the last 20 minutes. The right to left wind at 20 mph is concerning me. I dial 2.25 MOA to the right to compensate. I have her practice pulling the trigger a couple times.
“It doesn’t move at all.”
It’s like she’s done this a thousand times. I put a round in the chamber and tell her to take the rifle off safety when she’s ready. Click. The sound of go time. Normally that excites me, but this time it makes my heart start beating out of my chest. I can’t even keep the bull in my binos.
I’m whispering, “Control your breathing.” but it’s more for me. Caitlyn is doing great.
I glance over to see her finger find the trigger. I’m trying to calm down. BANG! The shot rings out.
The bull tips over, right in his bed.
“Reload and stay on him, if he tries to get up, shoot again.”
My eyes are filling with tears of pride and relief and I can’t even see the bull. I sit up, turn on my cell phone camera and capture a brief moment that I will forever cherish. All of those scenarios that replayed in my head ending in failure were nightmares that are instantly replaced with a real-life dream. We share a moment together, letting the adrenaline wear off as we admire the majestic animal from afar. It’s a giant bull that’s nowhere near as big as the memories and pride it has given us.
OUTFITTER INFO | Father of three kids, who enjoys taking first time hunters and kids hunting more than hunting himself.
GEAR LIST | Firearm Tikka 6.5 Creedmoor | Scope Leupold VX-3 LRP | Ammo Federal Premium – 135 Berger Hybrid | Binoculars Swarovski NL Pure 12×42 | Spotting scope Meopta S2 20-70×82 | Clothing KUIU | Boots Cabela’s | Pack Exo K3 3200 | Rangefinder Sig Kilo 2400ABS | Knife Outdoor Edge | GPS inReach Explorer+ | Shooting sticks Harris Bipod
SIDEBAR: Practice Like You Play
By Jeff Morris
I can’t stress this enough—practice, practice, practice! I can’t tell you how important it is to set your kids up for success, rather than failure long before the hunt starts. I purposely make my kids uncomfortable while shooting at the range. I set the bipods too long, too short, uneven, etc. I zoom the scope to full power, so they struggle to find the target and get good eye relief. They don’t understand it. “Why can’t I just shoot off the sandbag like you?”
“Because we don’t carry sandbags while hunting.”
Give kids adversity while practicing, so they know how to handle it in the field.