Memories that Last: Elk Hunting with Dad
Hanging on the wall of our cabin in Northern Wisconsin, is a black and white photo of my Great Grandpa, William Vandertie, and his hunting buddies. They are all gathered around what looks like a 1930s truck with several bucks laid across the hood. Each man had on a steely and stoic face as he posed for the photo.
Fast forward three generations:
My first hunting memory is tagging along with my Dad and Grandpa as we listened to the beagles work the trail of the pesky rabbit. For my birthday, I received a .410 shotgun, and my upbringing in hunting culture continued. I grew up hunting rabbits, dear, turkeys, along with fishing in Door and Vilas Counties. Up until 2014, I would have argued tooth and nail that there was no better sound than our beagles hot on the trail of a rabbit. Listening to the dogs work was something special I shared with both my Dad and Grandpa.
2014 was the first time I heard an elk bugle. I was in college and interning and living in Yellowstone National Park. I can still hear it that first time, clear as day, when I think about the adrenaline that pumped through my body as I jumped out of bed and hit the floor wide awake at 3am. Talk about a wakeup call!
Coincidently, my Dad went on his first elk hunt, in Colorado, in fall of 2014. He didn’t come home with an elk, but he came home with pictures of beautiful country, stories of seeing other creatures, and a sense of camaraderie with the guys he traveled with. Anyone who has even met my Dad for three minutes, knows he is a social guy and a fast friend. Hearing about his experience over the two week trip, it was clear that this was a whole new level of camaraderie. Dad went out to Colorado each year since then and each year proclaims that he wasn’t unlucky because he had not harvested an elk, but instead, he was incredibly lucky to have spent that time in the outdoors on the mountain and with the guys he has grown close to. These guys get together every couple of weeks and get dinner and old fashions, of course, and talk about next year’s hunt and life. It was clear that they shared a bond that could only be forged through an experience such as this. This past year, tragedy struck the Colorado elk hunting group. One of the members, who had been going to Colorado for 35 years, passed away. Watching from the outside of the group, it was clear that this was going to change the whole dynamic of their trip. If only they knew how much!
With a spot open in Elk Camp 2018, I was thrilled when I was asked if I wanted to join! Dad and I signed up with the guys, drew our Colorado Elk tags, and talked weekly about preparations. In May, I saw the Wisconsin Elk season open for the first time ever. I assumed that thousands of people would apply and the chances were slim. However, it was a good donation to an amazing conservation success story, regardless if I drew a tag. I gave Dad a call and signed him up as well!
My dad isn’t an emotional guy. I’ve only seen him cry twice in my entire 28 years. I received two quick phone calls from him one morning while at work. I was busy, and responsible, so I didn’t answer. I then got a text message: Call Me ASAP. Well shoot, did something happen to Grandma!? I stepped outside and gave him a call. The emotion seeped through his voice on the other line, “I drew a Wisconsin Elk tag!” I couldn’t believe him. I think my response was “Shut the front door!” The excitement quickly became sadness as he said, “I think I am going to have to turn it down so that I can elk hunt with you in Colorado, the seasons are most likely the same time frame.” I wasn’t going to let that happen! I immediately reassured him that I could hunt all by myself (GIRL POWER) and that he HAD to hunt in Wisconsin this fall. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity! A story to tell his grandkids! No way was he allowed to miss it!
Over the next couple weeks, Dad gather more information and the phone calls became almost daily to discuss what was going on. We found out the dates for the Wisconsin Elk hunt and realized that we would be able to hunt in Colorado together for the first time and then turn around and hunt Elk in Wisconsin as soon as we got back. We were left with one giant snafu: Who would run the family dairy farm in Door County while we gallivanted over mountains and woods on our dream hunts? My brother was set to leave for college in the fall and that left my parents as empty nesters for the first time in almost 30 years. Empty nests meant less farm hands in their world. My Mom was less than thrilled with Dad and I for the next couple of months. She knew that the responsibility, sleepless nights, and hard daily work, would fall mostly to her for several weeks.
October finally arrived and we left for Colorado. I had a successful opening day and shot a 5x5 bull in the afternoon. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it felt good to show up the boys and harvest an Elk before Dad did. It was an experience and two weeks that I will never forget. It’s not very often that a twenty something girl makes fast friends with men between the ages of 55-70, but again, the camaraderie of the moment builds bonds you couldn’t imagine.
We arrived home and the reality of the Wisconsin elk hunt set in. Dad was home for less than a week in Door County and he took off again for Northern Wisconsin. His first long weekend up there did not produce. Again, he returned home, tried to catch up on farm duties, and then headed straight back up to Clam Lake. This time, I booked it up there Friday night after work and met Dad and Mitch Bemis, at Dows Corner Bar around 10pm. Mitch, a friend of my sister’s was familiar with the area due to his extensive bear hunting and a butcher by trade. Dad joked that the good luck charm had showed up. However, again, we did not have a successful weekend.
Dad saw some amazing elk during these few weeks, but was not presented with an ethical opportunity.
Thankfully, I have a boss that understood how unreal it was that Dad was selected for the elk hunt in Wisconsin and she granted me one last long weekend to go hunt with him. I left Wednesday night after work and arrived at the cabin around 10:30pm. Troy Piostrowski, owner of New Life Taxidermy and a friend of Dad’s, was there with Dad already and we called it a night, images of elk danced in our heads. Thursday morning we hit the ground running and I saw my first Wisconsin elk (road side doesn’t count in my book). It was a group of cows with no bulls in sight.
Dad and Troy had spoken to some of the local loggers while scouting for elk and had been told that clear cut areas seemed to be a big hit with the elk. So we went to an area that Dad had marked on his map. Standing there in the woods was a 6x6 and a 3x3! I dropped Dad and Troy off and drove away in the truck so that the bulls didn’t get suspicious. Hunting in Colorado and Wisconsin are two very different styles. Wisconsin elk have been the idols of tourists, photographers, and wildlife watchers for years. They have never been hunted and lack a fear of vehicles. Many of them often stand in the ditch and munch the nice green grass as vehicle slow to get a closer look. I parked about 150 yards from them and starting snapping photos. Little did Elvis know, this would be the last time a picture of him alive that would be taken and to be honest, we didn’t know his name was Elvis until months later. We have a tradition of naming our mounts, for example, my Colorado elk is named Marty. Elvis and his 3x3 buddy, decided to cross over the road and into the dark timber. We watched them disappear and made a plan to come back in the afternoon to see him again, hopefully.
Next, we had permission to hunt on a farm and decided to go see what we could find. As we climbed the hill into the field, both my Dad and Troy ducked down and started whispering about elk being in the field. That was nice, but my 5’2’’ height couldn’t see over the crest of the hill! We snuck around some of the buildings and saw what appeared to be a 7x7 bull in the group. Dad put his scope on him and you could hear the excitement in his whispers. Dad was thinking about taking the shot, when Troy realized one of his beams was broken. Troy dialed him in and reported that he was really a 7x3. With plenty of season left, Dad decided to pass. Our blood was pumping as we walked back to the truck. Dad turned to me and expressed that I should message Mitch Bemis and tell him that we will have an elk by 4pm and that he better hurry up to Clam Lake, he could feel it!
As we traveled back to the cabin for lunch, I sat in the back seat and noticed an awful lot of deer out feeding in the farm fields. I expressed to Dad and Troy that the snow storm would be coming in, so we should get set up sooner than later to see that 6x6 again this afternoon.
Dad invited me to sit in the ground blind with him and Troy, however, I knew that was too many people in that blind to stay quiet. I instead offered to go scout out that farm again and watch for any other bulls that might make an appearance. Around 3:30pm I received a phone call! “I got him! Get here!”
I rushed to be at Dad’s side. He met me at the truck and we went down to where the elk was laying. Elvis’s buddy, the 3x3, was standing over the top of him, clearly confused and protective. We respectfully waited until he decided to climb the ridge. He watched us for a good ten minutes while we made phone calls, took in the moment, and created a plan. The excitement was palpable in the air!
The best part of this story is what happens after the shot is made. Within 15 minutes, a bow hunter walked out of the woods and offered to make a few phone calls to his friends in the area to help pack out the elk. Remember that 1930s photo on the wall of our cabin? It happened again that night. Six guys made extremely short work of packing out Elvis to the truck. They gathered around and an equally epic photo was taken. One of them then asked “Who shot the elk?” I proclaimed “Dad!” This drew laughter, as they were all ‘Dad.’
There are so many people that we need to thank that have helped us live this experience to the fullest. First, to my Mom, for running the farm, keeping us humble, and acting like she hasn’t heard our stories for the 100th time. To Mitch Bemis, of Mad Hound Kennels, for your expertise in the area, keeping us housed and fed, and for making short work of cutting up the elk. To Troy Piotrowski, of New Life Taxidermy, for becoming a great friend, manning the video camera, and making Elvis come back to life. To Bucky Ihlenfeldt, for listening to Dad’s stories, measuring and scoring Elvis, and offering Dad some fun at the Outdoor Show in Madison, and introducing us to the Buck and Bear Club. To John and Brenda Maier for treating us like family and sharing in the experience. This barely scratches the surface of everyone who touched this experience in some way- Thank you to everyone!
Conservation and hunting brings together groups of people who otherwise, may have no other connection. As we celebrated in the cabin that night, we were reminded that it isn’t always about the kill, but rather the camaraderie that comes along with the adventure and the lifelong friends that are made along the way.
About the Author
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ReelCamo Girl is a lifestyle brand focused on ladies who love the outdoors.There is a growing need for a place for women to share their outdoor experiences, as well as an interest in clean eating and self-sufficiency. Through our website and social media networks, we offer a safe place where the ladies can share their pictures, stories, wild game and fish recipes, and news articles about conservation and hunting perspectives.
ReelCamo girls are strong, capable, kind, compassionate, nature & country-loving individuals. We encourage responsible and ethical hunting. We care about the land and wildlife management and about long term sustainability. We hunt, fish, dive, shoot and hike…for peace of mind, happiness, pure clean protein & connection to the outdoors. ReelCamoGirls can shoot a gun, draw a bow, track an animal, get CAMOed up, bait a hook, clean a fish and still be feminine.