The .350 Legend Can Harvest Elk

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After a couple years of unsuccessfully applying for elk hunts in Nevada and Arizona, I was finally drawn for a cow tag in Arizona on the Camp Navajo Military Reservation at the end of September, 2022. It turned out to be great timing: wonderful weather, no moonlight, and mid-rut. I was fortunate enough to have a friend, Mike, draw a bull archery tag the same week. His expertise, knowledge, and camaraderie were instrumental in harvesting a cow elk on what would be my last hunt in the west as I was retiring from the Air Force and moving to Philadelphia for my next chapter.

Camp Navajo is just a few miles west of Flagstaff with 28,000 acres of hunting on the north end of Unit 6B. The military reservation has an incredible population of elk looking to escape the hunting pressure of neighboring units 7 West, 8, and 11M. The stricter rules and requirements for hunting on Camp Navajo means there is less competition for tags and it’s not unusual to draw tags with one or even zero points. Even though most opportunities are limited to active, guard, and reserve military members, retirees, and disabled veterans, it is possible to draw from a small number of civilian tags as well. In addition to the extra $65 to use the military reservation, Camp Navajo requires an in-person training event in Phoenix that is good for 3-4 years and covers requirements and safety issues related to hunting on a weapons depot continually in use for over 80 years. Finally, to use the central restricted area of 8,000-9,000 acres you either have to possess an active security clearance or submit to a background check with another $180 in added costs. The buffer areas that surround the restricted portions can be closed without notice due to military units conducting training or on-going live-fire drills which can further frustrate even the most patient hunter. Weighing the pros and cons of this public hunting opportunity didn’t dissuade us and we got lucky with a prime week in the boreal forests of northern Arizona.

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There were opportunities to harvest on every hunt but, the evening of the fourth day I was following a game trail in the buffer area with fresh signs that ran into the northeast of Camp Navajo from unit 11M. As I crossed the main dirt road, I saw the shadows of 12-18 elk slowly moving between 80 foot tall lodgepole pines 300 yards ahead of me. I prepped my .308 and began to stalk in. I had difficulty distinguishing cows from bulls. Every time I got within 200 yards and could identify a cow, the group would trot away and require me to reset. The length and weight of my rifle was also prohibitive in the brush, as I had trouble sighting the rifle in the small window of time to make an ethical shot. I was anxious to fill my tag and that led to poor techniques. After 30 minutes of this cat and mouse game, a large 6×6 bull came rushing in from behind the group bugling and pushing them into the restricted area before I could take a shot. Mike picked me up in his side-by-side and we left for camp to review what happened.

As we ate, it dawned on me that I had my Winchester XPR Stealth chambered in .350 legend sitting in my car waiting for my first season deer hunting in Pennsylvania. The shorter barrel and lighter weight made it easy to sight and take an off-hand shot in a short amount of time. Even though the community is split on the .350 legend cartridge to take down an elk, I noticed the Winchester Super X-Rifle .350 Legend 180 grain Power-Point round had the required velocity for an elk at 150 yards.

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I prepped at dawn, enthusiastic about another opportunity with a rifle I was more confident shooting. My excitement was amplified by the bugling we listened to all night in our sleeping bags too. Mike gave me a ride to an intersection in an area known around camp for consistent elk activity and made a link up plan for two hours later. Walking along an old logging road, I saw 3 cows cross 300 yards in front of me and head up the hill at a trot as they spotted me. I turned uphill and ducked into the woods at an intercept angle that I hoped would put me in view of them after a quarter mile if they stayed on the same course. After 10 minutes of huffing and puffing quickly up the hill I came to a crumbling stone wall 18 inches high and checked On-X to see how far I actually traveled. Standing 160 yards in front of me, the same 3 cow elk were still and looking in my direction but unable to see me through the brush. Using the wall as a sight barrier, I inched closer and found a thick tree to use as my shooting point at what was now well within the 150 yard goal distance I required. While quartering away, the shot rang out and went through the ribs on the lead cow’s right side and exited at the shoulder; she dropped on the spot 108 yards away as I heard Mike driving towards me, ready for the work ahead.

Filling my first elk tag was an incredible experience. I chose to use a cartridge that many find unsuitable for an elk. But in the end, a transparent discussion with an experienced hunter reminded me that it’s better to use the tools you’re most comfortable with as long as you work with their limitations to make the most accurate – and ethical – shot to harvest wild game. It was a meaningful way to begin my military retirement and a hunt I will not forget.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>