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LIFE LESSONS FROM THE OUTDOORS: 18 years of prep work to harvest bull of a lifetime

Breanne Thiel with the bull elk she harvested in the fall of 2016. Breanne Thiel with the bull elk she harvested in the fall of 2016. Courtesy photo

Elk hunting holds a special place in my heart because elk was the first animal I pursued as a hunter. I harvested my first cow elk at the age of 12; last fall — 18 years later — I would harvest my first bull elk.

At age 11, when my parents found out the Wyoming Game and Fish Department had changed the legal age to hunt big game from 14 to 12, they asked me if I wanted to hunt. I told them yes, I wanted to hunt elk.

When I was little, my dad, grandpa and a couple family friends would go elk hunting each fall. They would be gone for anywhere from a weekend to a week. When they returned with their harvest, I was always excited to see the elk and help cut up the meat. The idea of being in the mountains pursuing an animal seemed so grand to me.

At first my parents were kind of surprised that I wanted to hunt and it caused a little rift in our extended family. I remember a family member being very stern in saying that women do not hunt, telling me that women are nurturers, not killers.

My parents took the necessary steps for me to hunt, such as registering for hunter safety. And my father taught me how to shoot and safely handle a firearm, to respect the land and wildlife and the ethics of hunting.

When I shot my first cow elk at age 12, instead of being traumatized by the experience, as some family members predicted I would, I was hooked on hunting.

Over the course of the next 18 years, I’ve been very fortunate in the animals I’ve gotten the opportunity to pursue. I’ve hunted deer, antelope, Alaskan moose, bison, bighorn sheep, turkey and accompanied my father on his mountain goat hunt.

Each hunt has created memories I cherish. In years to come, when I look back at last fall’s bull elk hunt, I’m going to remember independence, accomplishment, friendship and hard work — not the number which officially entered him into the Boone and Crockett record book.

I will see independence and accomplishment because this was the first time I had a hunting “first” without my dad alongside me.

Two weeks before the season opened, my father had shoulder surgery.

While I enjoy hunting with my father and take advantage every chance I get, the fact that I harvested this bull without him reminded me I can do anything I set my mind to.

This was the third time I had drawn a bull tag for this area. The first time was the same year I drew my sheep tag, and the second time was the year my dad drew his mountain goat tag. So both of those years, I didn’t hunt much for elk. But last year, the bull tag was the only one I drew.

I set a goal for myself to harvest a mature six-point bull. This bull surpassed that!

This hunt was done solely on foot. While packing over half my body weight on my back, I got tired both physically and mentally. I had to push myself mentally to keep going. On this hunt, I was reminded that your mind will give out before your body will.

Relearning this life lesson will help my mindset while accomplishing whatever goal I set for myself.

I will also see friendship and hard work because without the help of friends, this hunt would have been nearly impossible.

My friend TJ, who does not live in Wyoming, was alongside me throughout this entire hunt. He worked hard — not only in hiking in where we did, but also in helping to pack the bull out.

We had to belly crawl to a good shooting location, where I was able to make a 230-yard shot.

With TJ crawling behind me, he would grab my ankle when a cow, calf or satellite bull looked tentatively in our direction. He would then let go when it was OK to continue on our sneak. To communicate back to him if we needed to stop, I would use hand signals.

On our primarily downhill trek out, he would help me back up when I slipped, tripped or when my legs gave way.

That first day, we were only able to pack out about three-quarters of the meat. Because of this, TJ called his boss to see if it was OK if he was a day late in arriving to his job in Texas.

When my friend Andy found out I had harvested a bull and could use the help, he didn’t hesitate to be there.

Andy switched his days off with a co-worker so he could help us pack out the rest of the meat, as well as the head and cape. With his help, the three of us were able to get the rest of my bull in one trip instead of two.

Neither Andy nor TJ had a tag, but they were both willing to work hard — and work hard they did to help me. They were just as excited about this bull as I was. I am forever grateful to both TJ and Andy for all of their help.

This year helped reinforce my belief in what hunting truly is. For those of us who truly enjoy hunting, it’s being outside with family and friends and seeing amazing sights that we love. It’s having to push yourself mentally when you’re tired. It’s not about the kill. This is why, in years to come, this hunt will be remembered and retold not by the official Boone and Crockett net score of 378 1/8 and gross score of 385 1/8, but as a story of independence, accomplishment, friendship and hard work.

(To make the Boone and Crockett all time record book, a bull elk has to have a net score of 375 or higher.)

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