Blame It On Jeremiah Johnson
Elk hunting is hard. If you’ve tried it, you know. The problem is, most of the non-hunting public does not appreciate the difficulty of hunting elk—and you can trace the problem back to Hollywood.
Consider this recent personal experience at a dinner party:
“So, Nate,” the hostess flashed a sparkling smile across the table, “How did that little expedition of yours go last year? To Colorado, I believe?”
I swallowed a mouthful of potato. “Oh, that. Great. Lots of fun. Good time to connect with my old man, you know?”
“Did you catch one?” she asked, “An elk?”
“Nope. No luck this year, unfortunately.”
“Oh my—that’s too bad,” she lifted a forkful of lettuce to her heavily lipsticked mouth, “And last year?”
“Yeah, struck out then, too, I guess,” I forced a chuckle, “You know, that’s why we call it hunting, not….”
She cut me off, “Is it quite hard, finding elk?”
All eyes on me. “Well...
“I mean, my Horatio never seemed to have much trouble,” her eyes drifted to an old photo on the mantle: a mustachioed man clad in khaki, expensive double gun cradled in his arms, standing over some breed of an inert buffalo. “But then again, Horatio was not an average man.”
More silence around the table, broken by a balding man at the end. “I say, Nate, how long HAVE you been chasing those elk? You must have started back while we were in college.”
“Right,” I nodded, “Sophomore year.”
“And how many have you bagged since then?”
“Two,” I replied, “Both spikes—you know, young bulls. Delicious.”
“Hmmm.” The man raised his eyebrows. “Have you tried the old horse trick?”
“You know,” he assumed a thick mountain man drawl, “ ‘An elk don’t know how many feet a horse has…’ ” citing the famous scene from Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson.
Laughter erupted around the table, and I discretely excused myself for a trip to the restroom.
That’s when the light bulb flashed: This is Hollywood’s fault.
For years, hunters in general—and elk hunters in particular—have been the victims of a subtle, calculated campaign to make our sport look easy.
Take the opening scene of 2016’s critically claimed hit, “The Revenant.” Despite taking place in the dead of winter, the first sound heard in the film over the gurgle of a mountain stream is the piercing bugle of a bull elk. The next sound you hear is KaBOOM! And just like that, the kid from “Growing Pains” is standing over a big ol’ CGI six-point, dead in the water.
Alright, let’s say you suspend your disbelief about the odds of finding an aggressively bugling bull in the middle of January. And say you also accept that this savvy old wapiti monarch allows three crouching bipeds to walk within 30 yards in fairly open cover. And say you’re not really that bothered that the critter in the crosshairs looks more like the Hartford stag than the average Rocky Mountain bull. EVEN IF you allow the filmmakers that much creative license, there’s just no way any serious elk hunter would believe that Leo DiCaprio’s smoke pole would’ve fired on first try on a really big bull in cold, damp mid-winter weather.
Sure, your front-stuffer will go boom when you’re trying to sneak an 85-yard poke at a trotting raghorn through a tangle of aspen trunks. But if you’re given a 25-yard shot? Broadside? At a trophy animal? Pfffzzzzzt.
Archers have it even worse when it comes to unrealistic expectations formed by the silver screen. Ever tried to tell a middle schooler you launched an arrow over a cow’s back at 32 yards? They’ll be merciless. Wait, you missed? Completely? Aren’t elk really big? Why didn’t you just shoot it again?
Don’t even bother trying to explain. These kids were raised in the era of Katniss and Lord of the Rings’ Legolas—archery demigods who spit out shots with Gatling speed, never run out of arrows, and pick off orcs at 300 yards (while riding on the back of a giant eagle). You’ll get no sympathy from that generation.
And how about the biggest hunting hit movie ever, Dances With Wolves? People shooting a running buffalo with a skinny wooden arrow and the beasts flip on their back stone dead instantly? That’s exactly how that doesn’t work.
I, for one, have had enough of this misrepresentation in popular media. It’s hard enough to be an elk hunter without having to deal with distorted expectations from our friends and co-workers. It’s time for Hollywood to tell the truth.
Here’s are some guidelines we could all get on board with:
First, for every single scene in which a bull elk is harvested, there must be 18 scenes in which an elk isn’t even spotted. Or maybe 20. Add in a few disgusted sighs and curses about unicorns and you’re on the right track.
Second, immediately following the elk harvest scene, filmmakers must include a prolonged “field dressing” scene followed by an even longer “packin’ it out” scene—or better, series of scenes. You know, the hunter approaches the dead elk, realizes he forgot his knives at the truck, retrieves the knives, can’t find the kill site again, trips in the stream, finds the carcass, accidentally punctures the bladder and the stomach while pulling out the liver, then our hero stumbles back to the truck reeking of blood, sweat, hair, and urine—not to mention all the stuff he got on him from the elk.
Third, all silver screen archers must deal with an equipment malfunction at least twice per movie. Think of the drama you could add with a tight shot of a sweaty-faced Jennifer Lawrence cursing while fumbling with an Allen wrench and drop-away arrow rest at a critical moment—or Legolas’ bow string snapping while riding down on a rampaging cave troll. That’s real, man. That’s real.
These guidelines wouldn’t solve everything, I suppose, but it’s a start. Adopting even just one or two of them would go a long way toward improving the public perception of unsuccessful elk hunters everywhere.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been hiding in this bathroom long enough. They’re probably about to serve the custard anyway.