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Hunting Memories Through the Lens

September 2018
Author: Jerrod Lile

Sights, sounds, and smells can instantly transport me back to an experience I’ve had in the field. However, few things vividly recall a memory faster than a photo or video. In light of that, I have become increasingly dedicated to capturing my hunts, my scouting trips, my vacations, my family, and my important memories on film. I have no desire to be recognized, but I do have a great desire to flip through photos and watch videos with a smile on my face as I smell the pungent odor of sagebrush, feel the weight of a heavy load on my back, and hear the rumble of distant thunder in my head.

Most of us are under the gun when it comes to our time commitments. As a result, our tendency is to take that same day-to-day urgency with us into the field when we finally escape the confines of our work environment and show up in the woods. I’ve always said that I feel like a duck out of water on my first few stalks in the fall because I’m out of tune with the rhythm nature moves to. I move too hastily, behave too impatiently, and in general, I find myself feeling like an intruder instead of a participant. Believe it or not, one of the best ways to hasten my transition into a hunter each fall is to pull my camera out of my pack and focus on the beauty in front of me, pun intended. By forcing myself to pause and enjoy beautiful sunrises and sunsets, the way the light streams through quaking aspen leaves during a midday nap, a star-studded sky, a rainstorm moving across the high desert floor, and so many more of the interesting things that happen in nature every day, I am able to get into the rhythm more quickly. Before long, I find myself living more and more like a coyote and less and less like a human. My favorite moment of a hunt is when I realize that I don’t have any idea what day it is. It’s usually around that time that I find myself in bow range of a critter or two I’ve been pursuing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

The fact that my camera preserves memories and helps me transition into being a participant in nature instead of an intruder makes it a vital part of every hunt. However, when you draw extremely rare tags, I believe that it becomes an even more important part of the entire experience because you may never get the opportunity to relive it. I was able to put that theory to the test last year when I drew a central Nevada archery elk tag. There are only about 40 non-resident archery elk tags drawn per year in the entire state, and it took me 13 years to finally get my name pulled out of the hat. I was elated and determined to bring home more than antlers. I wanted to bring home an experience. I wanted to document every facet of the hunt because I knew it was unlikely that I’d ever hunt Nevada elk again.

My first scouting trip was a bust from an elk finding point of view. My good friend and fellow Hunt Advisor, Isaiah Joner, joined me for that trip, and outside of nearly running out of gas and the effort of hiking at high altitude, our heart rates never got put to the test that weekend. We saw a few cows and calves, some great mule deer bucks, and some incredible starscapes at night but not a single bull. For many reasons, I had been contemplating turning my tag back in and getting my elk points reinstated. I had shared my mixed emotions with Isaiah. At the conclusion of that first trip, he said, “If I were you, I’d turn my tag back in.”

My second scouting trip was with my oldest son, Jake, who flew to Las Vegas so I could pick him up for a whirlwind trip into the Table Mountain Wilderness. I picked him up at about 1:30 a.m., and we proceeded to share the wheel for the next six hours until we arrived shortly after daylight at the trailhead. Feeling rested and fresh as daisies, we finished the last of our packing and set out to summit the 10,000+ foot plateau during the hottest part of the July day. We had a few great highlights that day that included meeting a Huntin’ Fool member with a deer tag, seeing a few great bucks, sharing the kind of conversation that can only happen in the great outdoors, and taking the best hammock nap I’ve ever had after we made it over the top.

On that trip, we saw hundreds of elk and turned up a 5x5 that I decided was worth going all in on. He was an old, mature bull with the coolest true 5-point configuration I’d ever seen. We put almost 40 miles on our boots during that two and a half day trip, and when it was all said and done, we nearly ran out of gas again. I was beginning to fall in love with a place that was so far from civilization that even full tanks of gas were barely adequate to explore. After each trip, I reviewed photos and videos and had the growing realization that my crazy pace was beginning to slow and the rhythm of the Nevada wilderness was overtaking me.

By the time the hunt started, I was head over heels in love with Nevada’s high country. Hot, dry trailheads gave way to cool aspen-filled basins that were loaded with cold, refreshing springs and a lot of elk. I rarely saw another human. Most of the elk were five to seven miles from the truck, and my camera came out of the pack with increasing frequency. As icing on the cake, I was fortunate to be accompanied by Isaiah on the first two hunting trips where we shared a lot of laughs, countless point-blank elk encounters, and an appreciation for that special place. We also managed to spend all night driving every time we headed in. Apparently, I have a thing for not getting any sleep at all before every big backpack trip.

I lost track of how many bulls wandered by me in bow range during the hunt while I continued to look for my big five. He never showed. In a way, I didn’t care. I knew this hunt was something special and I’d shared many days with great people like my son and my friend on the hunt. I also knew I’d never forget the places I’d been in there. My camera made sure of that.

My last trip into the Table was solo. Once again, I ended up heading into the wilderness late in the day and plopped my camp onto the ground in the dark. Sheet lightning flashed in the sky while I set up my tent five miles from the truck. The nights were cooler, and my own sense of urgency was beginning to match that of the elk. I knew I only had a handful of days left in my season, and I knew I wanted to feel the weight of a bull elk in my pack. The next three days were incredible. I felt like I could have killed an elk with a spear nearly every day. I napped in rock crevices, did my laundry in the icy creeks, watched my favorite fall rituals take place right before my eyes, and slowly slipped away from civilization.

I ran out of food on day four of that trip. I had packed lean because I had planned to relocate if I had not found my big five. However, the action was too incredible to go anywhere else. I had to get more food and spend my last two days of the hunting season in this special spot since new bulls were showing up every day. At 10 p.m., I left my camp with an empty backpack and a five-mile hike in front of me to get more supplies. Outside of a nomadic bull elk and me scaring the crud out of each other in the dark when I nearly stepped on him, the trip out was uneventful. I restocked my pack and settled into the truck seat at 1:30 a.m. for a 4:30 a.m. alarm to hike back to base camp. From there, it would be a few more miles to get to the promised land from the night before where I’d watched a couple hundred head of elk rutting on a huge plateau as the sun set. Of course, I awoke to rain. I tried to sleep a bit longer, but the urgency of September forced me out of my seat and onto the trail.

After dropping my food at my spike camp, I had barely crested the Table when I heard my first bugle. For some reason, today was different. I wanted to kill an elk worse than any day prior. As I studied the bulls I could see and planned potential stalks on them, fate dealt me an interesting hand. A muzzleloader shot rang out nearly two miles to the north on the ridge. One of the 40 antlerless elk muzzleloader permit holders had shown up in the right spot for me at the right time. Moments later, I had more than a hundred elk charging my little speck of cover on the ridge. Bulls were screaming, cows were chirping, and utter chaos was ensuing.

I tucked myself deeper into the small aspen that was guarding my position and waited. As luck would have it, one of the best bulls I’d seen popped out on the front end of the melee and started raking an aspen about 100 yards in front of me. I studied him with my binoculars, and the switch inside me flipped. I knew I wanted that bull and that I was ready to punch my tag instead of my shutter. The wind was perfect, the entire wad of elk were moving my way, and I knew this bull would wind up in my lap. Moments later, I slipped an arrow through his ribs at 18 yards and watched him tip over in the sagebrush less than 80 yards from where I’d shot.

I soaked it in. I cried a little bit. I was sad that it was over. I was sad that my closest people were not there to celebrate with me, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude at the opportunity to hunt a place as special as the Table Mountain Wilderness. After composing myself, I approached my bull and reflected on the hunt. Shortly thereafter, reality set in. I had a dead bull lying in the hot sun and I was alone more than seven miles from my truck. I texted my packer on my Garmin InReach and got tough news. He had booked a client last minute and couldn’t make it for two days. It was too hot to take that chance.

Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with incredible friends. Without asking for it, I had my business partner in my ground blind company, XENEK, volunteer to catch a redeye flight from Missoula, Montana to Las Vegas. There, he would meet Isaiah so they could drive to the trailhead and help pack the bull out. I’m not big on accepting help, but in this case, I gladly accepted. The peace of mind that accompanied their imminent arrival allowed me to focus on two important tasks. I had to get good photos, and I had to process my elk.

Both projects require a lot of work to do them well when you are alone. However, I knew that the elk tacos and the photo album would appreciate my best efforts. Seven hours later, I had a bunch of traditional grip and grin photos and a time-lapse of me butchering the bull captured in the camera along with a pile of tasty protein captured in my game bags. I headed to spike camp with a heavy load of meat and a smile on my face.

After slamming a Mountain House, I poured myself into my sleeping bag at spike camp and tried to sleep through one of the loudest thunderstorms I’d ever been in. Lightning flashed, thunder boomed, and rain poured nearly all night. I was glad to wake up to semiclear skies and no rain. I loaded my camp and the first load of meat from my bull into my pack and headed five miles to my truck. For some reason, the weight felt good, the miles rolled by, and before I knew it, I had made it to the trailhead. Less than 20 minutes after I arrived, I heard the welcome sound of two lifelong friends approaching in Isaiah’s truck.

I was pretty spent, and I knew I had another 13 miles to go after my 5-mile warm-up. However, Jake and Isaiah’s smiles instantly energized me. I pounded some MTN OPS, and we set off for the kill site. With packs loaded at last light, we started back out with the goal of resting after each mile we clicked off on the GPS. This worked great for the first few miles, but by the end, we were making it a measly third of a mile between breaks. In spite of that, our spirits were great, and as I gazed up at the stars the last few hundred yards before we hit the pickup, I was reminded of what that starry sky looked like in July when Isaiah and I had first discussed turning in my tag. I smiled at the thought, gave thanks that I had kept the tag, and took comfort in knowing that I had captured the experience well enough to vividly relive it for many years to come. To top it off, Isaiah insisted on a self-timed group photo at the end of the pack out. It is a photo I’ll cherish for the rest of my life because it represents friendship, hard work, wild places, and a collection of memories that won’t soon be forgotten. It also serves as a reminder to pull your camera out when you least want to. You’ll be thankful you did.