By Jim Zumbo, Author and Hunting Editor for Outdoor Life Magazine
One of the perks of being an outdoor writer is having the opportunity to hunt with famous folks. I’ve accompanied Hollywood types, NFL football players, and country singers, but most of my elk-hunting memories were gathered on trips with General Charles (Chuck) Yeager.
Chuck needs little introduction. He was the man who pioneered modern aviation by being the first person to break the speed of sound. Yeager became an ace when he shot down five German airplanes during World War II, and the movie The Right Stuff was written about his life.
He survived a number of airplane crashes, including an incident where he was shot down over enemy territory and eventually escaped on his own through snowy mountains.
He continued flying as a test pilot after he retired from the Air Force and is commonly referred to as the greatest pilot that’s ever flown anything, anywhere.
Besides his flying prowess, Yeager is a passionate outdoorsman who admits he would almost rather hunt that fly. He is a skilled woodsman, and attributes his knowledge of the outdoors to his rural upbringing in West Virginia, where he literally fed his family by hunting and fishing. I first met Chuck Yeager on an Alaskan fishing trip. We fished for salmon, rainbow trout, and grayling, and a friendship was forged there that would extend into the elk woods.
The initial elk expedition was a trip to British Columbia, on a hunt sponsored by Bushnell Optics and attended by Chuck, astronaut Joe Engle, and several writers. Chuck was shooting a .300 Weatherby Magnum, and we were highly impressed with his shooting abilities as we sighted in our rifles prior to the opener. Our group was divided into small parties, each going to a backcountry camp by horseback. Chuck and I were paired together with two guides and arrived at camp in mid-afternoon. On the ride in, I learned just how skilled Chuck is in the woods. A flock of grouse appeared just off the trail, and I suggested that they’d taste great in a stew that night.
Yeager rummaged around in his saddlebag, came up with a slingshot, and picked up a few rocks from the forest floor. In less than five minutes, three grouse lay on a log, all hit in the head. Without question, Yeager is a survivor, not only in the air but in the woods. I saw a wide grin appear on his face when we rode into camp. A beautiful alpine lake shimmered in the sun just a few yards from the cabin, and we could see trout dimpling the surface. I knew that Chuck’s first order of business after unpacking his gear and settling in was to assemble his pack rod and head to the lake.
I was right behind him. We caught enough fish for dinner, and Chuck proudly exclaimed that his were caught on a fly tied by his son, Mick. Both his sons, Mick and Don, are as crazy about the outdoors as Chuck is.
The next morning my guide and I headed for the woods on horseback, and we hunted hard, hiking through thick forests. It was unseasonable warm, with the air temperature in the mid-80s. As we soon learned, elk were “jungled up”, and were not only unseen but silent. This country was solid timber, except for avalanche chutes and rock slides, so spotting elk early and late in the day was out of the question. One morning we managed to get a bull to respond to a bugle call, but he retreated into the timber. After waiting several minutes, I blew a cow call, but he wouldn’t answer.
A few minutes later I tried the cow call again, and still there was no response. Assuming he was long gone, I started climbing the mountain, following my guide, who was already a fair distance above me. I looked back down into the valley where the elk had disappeared and suddenly spotted a beautiful bull looking up in my direction.
He was across a deep cut, and I couldn’t estimate the range very well. I had him figured at about 350 yards and drew a steady beat at the top of his back. I missed and chambered another round, this time holding a bit higher. Again I missed, and saw the bullet break a branch just below him. The bull seemed rooted to the spot. For some reason he stood still, evidently confused and unaware of my location. I held much higher for the third shot, and thought I saw the bull stagger slightly before he lunged into the timber. When the sound of the .30-06 died away and the woods quieted down, I thought I heard a heavy object hit the ground, sort of like a thump.
All the while, the guide was above me and couldn’t see the elk from his location. When I pointed out where the bull was standing, he was skeptical about my hitting it. I wasn’t so sure, either, and we went down to look.
I located the exact spot the bull was standing but couldn’t see any obvious blood. Then I began looking in the direction the bull had gone, and still there was no blood. Next I looked for a dead elk, making figure eights in the brush, working out to 150 yards from where he had stood when I shot. That effort was also unproductive, so I returned to where he had been standing and got down on my hands and knees, scouring the forest floor with my eyes for the tiniest fleck of crimson. Still nothing. For another hour I looked, and my guide finally suggested we give it up. He headed up the mountain, and I followed.
We were a quarter of a mile away when I suddenly had an incredible sense of urgency to return, as if some invisible force beckoned me back. I recalled the sight picture when I fired and clearly saw the bull stagger. Then I heard him fall to the ground. I shouted to my guide, who was fifty yards up in the mountain, and told him I was going to look one more time. I’m sure he thought I was crazy, and he said he’d wait while I looked.
I ran down the mountain and trotted past the spot where the elk had stood. Then I walked briskly into the brush and found the bull lying dead eighty yards from where I hit him. He had collapsed into a small stand of thick spruced whose boughs had swung back over him and hidden him from view. He lay on his belly, with just the tips of his antlers sticking about the brush. I was speechless because of the enormity of what had almost happened. Had I not had that amazing hunch, my bull would have fed a bunch of coyotes.
We dressed the bull and covered him with boughs to keep away birds and direct sunlight. Later that afternoon we returned with packhorses. Chuck went with us, and was impressed with the shot when I showed him where I had fired from. He suggested with a grin that if I’d been using a “real man’s” gun instead of a .30-06, I’d have killed the bull on my first shot. He had heard all three shots that morning.
Chuck walked up to a spruce bough and broke off the tip. He put it in the bull’s mouth for a moment to signify its last bite and then put it in the band of my Stetson hat. He shook my hand and said, “Weidmansheil”, and he told me to respond by saying, “Wiedmansdank”. He explained that this was a European custom in which the hunters pay their respects to the hunter and the animal. It was a lovely ceremony that touched me, knowing that it was coming from Chuck Yeager.
Later that night around a campfire, Chuck made a presentation that almost swept me off my feet. Concerned that my “pipsqueak” .30-06 might be inadequate on future elk hunts, he gave me his .300 Weatherby. In exchange, I had to promise to retire my 06. I was floored and couldn’t believe it. Receiving a rifle personally used by a famous military hero was the most flattering event of my life.
The following Christmas, my son Dan opened a long package decorated with holiday wrapping. In it was the .30-06 that I promised I’d retire. Having one son, I couldn’t think of a better person to retire it to.
A couple of years later I hunted with Chuck again, this time in Colorado. He and I were involved in a fund-raiser with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). We were to hunt with two other hunters–the high bidder for an auctioned tag and the person who sold the most RMEF memberships in one year. The hunt, conducted by George Taulman of United States Outfitters, was on a large ranch bordered by New Mexico to the south. Big bulls were commonly taken on the ranch, and we were looking forward to the hunt. When we were target practicing the day before the hunt, Chuck shot a hole in a paper plate about three inches above the nail that held the plate to a tree.
I made a small wager that Chuck couldn’t get any closer to the nail. He accepted the bet and promptly put the next bullet on the nail’s head, sending the plate flying. So much for criticizing Yeager’s shooting. All of us took big bulls on this hunt, and Chuck ended up with his biggest yet, a fine six-pointer that he shot as it charged toward him in the timber, responding to a cow call. He claimed that it dropped seventeen yards away and that he had to shoot it in self-defense.
Another hunt, also in Colorado, was during a blinding blizzard that put down several inches of snow in an hour. At one point, Chuck was heading off a ridge toward a road and ran a herd of elk by me, including a raghorn bull that was mighty welcome. I managed to stop him by blowing on a cow call and took him with a shot behind the shoulder. I also had a deer tag, but the storm cut our hunt short by several days, and we were barely able to drive out to the highway. Hunting with Chuck Yeager is a memorable experience. You really understand what a person is like when you share a campfire and the big outdoors, no matter what his or her status is.
One day, we were sitting in elk camp, and a stiff breeze blew yellow aspen leaves off a tree. Chuck pointed them out, remarking how lovely they were as they gently floated to the ground. “That’s what hunting is all about,” he said. “Everything in the woods is beautiful.”
Those were eloquent words, coming from a man like Chuck. And I couldn’t agree more.