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Passing the Torch

February 2022
Story by Brian Daigle
Hunters: Chandler Daigle
State: New Mexico
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

As someone who grew up hunting with my dad, I’ve always looked forward to sharing that experience with my own kids. My oldest, Chandler, was 4 when she first sat with me in a stand, constantly looking over at me and telling me to be quieter while she scanned the soybean fields for the movement of a whitetail buck. When it became clear she liked hunting, I began researching large game draws and other opportunities, putting in for as many tags and lotteries as I could and focusing mainly on youth draws because of the enhanced odds and lower costs. Imagine my delight when I got an email that Chandler had drawn a youth elk tag in the New Mexico outfitter draw, one of the only states with specific tags and seasons set aside for youths. Almost simultaneously, I got a text from the outfitter who had applied for us, Jack Diamond from Beaverhead Outfitters.

“Hey, bud, she drew 16E. That’s a great unit for the youth season, but this is a pretty remote hunt. Is she going to be okay riding horses and camping in the mountains?”

I laughed to myself. “If only you knew her,” I thought. I couldn’t wait to tell her.

After months of anticipation filled with frantic research and purchasing the gear we needed, the day finally arrived. We got to Beaverhead Outfitters the afternoon before opening day. Duke, one of the ranch hands, took us by ATV to base camp where we met up with Ryan, our guide, and got ready for the next day’s hunt. When we woke up the following morning, it was hovering just above freezing. The clear sky and treeless landscape gave us one of the most breathtaking views of the Milky Way I have ever seen. We saddled up the horses, gathered our gear, and headed out, eager to make the mountain’s crest before sunrise. At some point after first light, I looked over at the expression on Chandler’s face and knew that even if we went the entire week and never had an opportunity to fire a single shot, this entire trip would still have been worth it. She was in heaven.

Ryan was confident in his knowledge of the area and had faith that we would find a great bull. Not long after sunup, as we sat glassing the hill across a small canyon, we saw a cow and a small bull, the first live elk Chandler had ever seen. She somehow knew this wasn’t her bull and we kept on. Although he was only in his early 20s, Ryan seemed to have an uncanny ability to spot elk as he rode. Every time he pointed to one, I would have to stop and put my binoculars up to look for the animal that blended almost perfectly with the landscape. Suddenly, Ryan stopped short, ducked behind a small tree, and motioned for us to do the same.

“There,” he said, pointing to a small clearing about 400 yards away. Chandler saw it first, then me. It was a shooter for sure, maybe a 5x5 or 6x6. We spent the better part of an hour watching it walk up, down, and around the hillside. It would occasionally stop to bugle, steam coming from its snout as its call echoed across the canyon, with Ryan trying all the while to call it closer to us with his cow call.

Finally, he whispered “Here it comes. Time to get down and set up. Things are about to happen fast.”

It was at that moment I think things became real for Chandler. At only 10 years old, I could tell she was suddenly unsure she could handle the pressure of what she was there to do, but she put on a brave face. We set her up on the shooting tripod, and she got her scope on the bull.

“I see it, Dad,” she croaked nervously.

The sun was to our backs, perfectly illuminating the hillside across from us. I slowly adjusted the magnification of the scope mounted on top of the 6.5 PRC, making sure she kept the bull in her field of view. The gorgeous bull was a mere 175 yards away at this point, a supposed chip shot for this type of hunting. I had barely brought my iPhone up to start recording when she fired. The elk stood there for a split second and then causally walked about 10 more yards downhill before stopping again. Chandler knew she had missed. She took careful aim and then fired again, and he ducked behind a cluster of trees.

Frustrated, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said with a tremble in her voice, “Daddy, I keep missing. I can’t do it.”

I did my best to reassure her and told her to keep watching. Surely she would get another chance momentarily. Ten minutes went by, then 15. Nothing. “Maybe he’s hit,” I said, more to myself than to anyone else.

Ryan and a fellow guide who had been nearby with a youth hunter of his own when we fired quietly made their way over to another group of trees so that they could take a better look. They waved us over. “There,” Ryan said. “It’s right through those trees. It’s hit but not down.” They set Chandler up to take one more shot. This time, with more confidence, she put another round into the big bull to seal the deal.

We approached the animal and examined it. I was proud and pleased to show her that she had in fact hit the animal all three times, each of which would have eventually been fatal on its own. It was an absolutely gorgeous 5x6 with mature girth and a chocolate base. It would end up rough scoring around 315". Her grandfather, Papa, as she calls him, already had a place reserved for her on the wall of his home in the North Carolina mountains, and we couldn’t wait to get back and tell everyone the good news.

We spent much of the rest of our trip exploring and glassing for some of the other hunters. On our last day, we spotted for Jack’s granddaughter, who had yet to fill her tag. We sat on a hillside in the brisk afternoon sun behind a bush, hoping to keep somewhat out of sight. We saw a small heard of cows and a couple of smaller bulls early on, but Jeff, another guide with us, said he wasn’t about to call the boss over from the other side of the mountain unless he was sure that it was worthy.

Suddenly, I saw a lone bull more than a mile from us, and he was big. “I’ve got a bull, Jeff. I think it’s a shooter.” I said quietly.

Jeff expertly spent the next half hour guiding them to a spot within sight of the large bull over a quarter mile away from them. All we could do was watch and wait. We heard the shot and I saw the massive animal stumble, so I naively dropped my binos and jumped in the air with a burst of excitement.

“He’s still up,” Jeff said, not taking his eyes off the animal. Another shot echoed. The bull was down. The sun was setting, and we knew we had to get up there and help. Chandler and I scurried up the mountain to meet the group. At just 13 years old, it was not Jack’s granddaughter’s first elk, but it was by far her biggest.

Eager to assist, I offered to pack the antlers and cape down the mountain, forgetting for a moment that I didn’t have the proper day pack to do that. I’ll admit that taking the 100+ pound fur and rack on my shoulders a half mile down the mountain in the dark was no easy task, but it gave me some perspective into what guides do all season. I kicked myself for leaving my headlamp down in the truck, but Chandler led the way using my iPhone flashlight.

This trip was an absolutely amazing experience that I will remember forever, not just because we were successful but because of the memories I got to make with my daughter. It’s times like these that I feel like I am watching her grow up before my very eyes. In truth, while I do love to hunt, if I can continue to give both of my kids experiences like this, I don’t care if I ever pull the trigger myself again.