Pa. record elk

Ross Hunnsinger is shown with his record-book Pennsylvania bull elk. Drawing a tag takes a lot of luck, but encouraged by a manager in his local Walmart, Ross did just that.

It’s funny how you can look back over the years and see how often fate has guided your footsteps and changed the direction of your life. Is it fate or the guiding hand of the Almighty?

I honestly believe if left on our own we could never reach our true potential and travel the path we should. We, of course, can ignore all the “coincidences” and promptings we receive, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be happier for doing so — quite the opposite.

When Ross Hunnsinger walked into the Harleysville, Pa., Walmart he never guessed the wheels of fate were turning full speed. A sporting goods manager encouraged him to put in for the Pennsylvania elk tag drawing.

“You know, Ross,” she said; “They’ve drawn eight winners from this store. This is a lucky place; go for it!”

Her enthusiasm was catching. Why not? Later, when notified he’d drawn a coveted elk tag he rushed back to the Walmart to inform the manager he was the ninth person to be drawn from her store.

Wow, he had an elk tag, but this was a completely new experience for him and he realized such a hunt in north central Pennsylvania’s elk country posed special challenges. How and where did he scout? Where were the unit boundaries and what land was private? If he did bag an elk, how do you get such a mammoth creature out of the woods and process it? He needed help.

He soon heard of Elk County Outfitters, elkcountyoutfitters@gmail.com. The outfitters had a literal monopoly on the record book bulls taken in Pennsylvania. The largest bulls harvested between 2003 and 2018, with the exception of 2006 and 2016, respectively, were taken by hunters using their guide service. Somehow their moto, “Turning the tag of a lifetime into the hunt of a lifetime,” seemed very appropriate.

Ross contacted ECO — and was glad he did. He soon learned the outfitters had established relationships not only with private landowners, but obtained agreements allowing them to take hunters on state forest and park land as well as acquiring permits for the townships that require them. By doing so the outfitters had obtained access to areas few others could hunt. Not only that, but they scouted year-round and knew where the animals were, especially the big ones.

In November, Ross showed up two days early for his hunt. ECO quartered him in a beautiful log cabin. He also brought Annabell, the Walmart manager (how very thoughtful), and his father, Terry. Though Annabell was unable to walk in the woods, she would wait in the truck, but would still be able to enjoy all the atmosphere, meals and magic of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Ross and his guide, Carey Bullman, did some scouting. After a half-mile sneak through the woods they carefully approached a large field. Five bulls were feeding there. Three were smaller, one was nice and the other took Ross’ breath away. After glassing the bulls for some time they snuck carefully away. Ross’ heart was pounding and his dad’s eyes shone with a similar excitement for his son.

The next day they repeated the process, but only the three small bulls showed up. Ross realized that like any wild creatures elk could wander where and when they wanted. When he asked Carey if he thought the bulls would be there the next day for the opener, the guide shrugged his shoulders. The odds were good, but there were no guarantees.  

Nov. 5, the first day of the 2018 elk season, was slow in coming. Heavy cloud cover hung gloomily over the hills and a light, but steady drizzle fell. Ross had tossed and turned most of the night, only falling into a deep sleep in the wee hours before being awakened by the blaring alarm clock at 4:30 a.m.

It was pitch dark when they began the walk back to the field. The thick cloud cover slowed daylight’s arrival and, instead of shooting light arriving at 6:20, it took an additional 30 minutes for the gloom to lighten.

Eager eyes strained to pierce the darkness. First, there appeared indistinct dark forms, barely visible. Minutes passed and soon the animals appeared to be bulls. Finally, it was light enough to see there were five bulls, the big one among them!

Breathing deeply, his heart hammering at his ribs, Ross steadied his .338 Winchester Magnum. The rangefinder showed 276 yards. His shot would have to be a good one.

Carey murmured some quiet advice as he steadied the crosshairs and squeezed. The big magnum bellowed and in a millisecond the bullet hit. The elk ran 50 yards and stopped. 

Ross fired again. The trophy fell and Ross leaped to his feet, his father pounding him on the shoulder. The dream had come true, and he couldn’t wait to grab those massive antlers.

After celebrations and photos it took eight men to lift the 753-pound bull onto the cart and drag it the half mile to the road and then lift it into the truck. Elk are huge.

In the truck Annabelle had heard the shots and somehow knew he’d connected. She was thrilled when she saw the massive bull.

Ross’ bull scored 388⅛ inches and not only was the new Pennsylvania record, but the No. 3 bull taken in all of North America that year. That’s some trophy!

Congratulations, Ross, your memories will only grow sweeter with time.

(Wade Robertson is an award-winning outdoor writer whose articles have been published in Pennsylvania Outdoor News, Pennsylvania Game News, Fur, Fish & Game and other publications. His email is wadewrites3006@gmail.com.)

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