I'm no stranger to elk hunts. I began hunting elk back in my 20's, and my interest and passion for hunting them grew to the point where they became my primary focus. I hunted elk everywhere I could, during blistering hot early fall days to bitterly cold subzero days. Because I was a full-time staff writer for Outdoor Life magazine, time was not an issue. I hunted nonstop, continually taking up the challenge in different states and different mountain ranges. I couldn't hunt elk enough.
There's always much excitement when I plan a hunt, especially to a new area where I hadn't been before. So it was no surprise that I could hardly contain myself when I was invited on an elk hunt in British Columbia, Canada by Bushnell Optics. I was one of several writers who had high hopes of tagging a big Canadian bull. But I had another reason for being excited. General Chuck Yeager would be along on the hunt with General Joe Engle. I'd been a fan of Chuck Yeager's most of my adult life, when on October 14, 1947, he became the first pilot to break the speed of sound. General Engle was the Commander of the Space Shuttles Enterprise and Columbia. Like Chuck, he was also a fighter pilot. I'd wanted to be a fighter pilot when I was a child. I grew up just outside Stewart Air Force Base in southern New York State, and marveled as the F-86 Sabre jets roared over the house. But, at age 12, I learned I had to wear eyeglasses. No fighter pilot seat for me. So, with two famous combat Air Force pilots on the hunt, I was overjoyed. Actually, before this trip, I'd fished with Chuck Yeager several times in Alaska. This was our first hunt together.
Prior to heading into the wilderness on horses, we sighted in our rifles at the outfitter's lodge. Chuck was shooting a .300 Weatherby Magnum. Everything I'd heard about his shooting ability was true. He was a marksman, drilling the bullseye every time with his rifle. We split up into small groups, each of us riding to different camps in the mountains. I was delighted to learn that Chuck and I were in the same group.
The hunt was slow. It was unseasonably warm, and elk were "jungled up," in heavy timber. They wouldn't respond to calls, even though it was September during prime breeding season, no one in our party saw or heard an elk for the first four days. Early one morning, my guide, Karl, and I worked our way to a small opening. (In Canada, nonresident hunters must have a guide. Karl was an old German gentleman who knew his way around the woods. I was happy to be hunting with him). Karl blew a bugle call, and we got a response from deep in the forest. But, as Karl bugled, the bull moved directly away from us. Cow calls were just coming on to the scene at the time. Most veteran hunters, including Karl, had never heard of one. I had one in my pocket and blew it. Nothing happened. No response from the bull. I blew it again. Again, no response. We were ready to try another plan and started to leave. As we began hiking, I looked back and saw a beautiful bull walk into the clearing. He stopped and looked in our direction.
Quickly I rested my rifle and took a shot. The distance was much farther than I like to shoot, but I had a good rest and the air was calm. Besides, I was shooting my beloved Winchester Featherweight pre-64 Model 70 .30/06, a gun that I'd hunted elk with for more than 20 years. The bull never reacted to the shot. He continued to look in my direction. I was shooting across a deep draw, and I think he might have been confused by the echo. The second shot was likewise an obvious miss. Then I realized the elk was a whole lot farther than I'd figured. All I could do was estimate the yardage, tough to do across a canyon. There were no rangefinders in those days.
The third shot did the trick, after I'd made a considerable adjustment for elevation. Karl and I field-dressed the bull and rode back to camp to get packhorses to transport the meat and antlers out. Chuck happened to be in camp, and rode with us to my elk. After dismounting from our horses, he walked over to a spruce tree and cut off the end of a branch where the boughs were shaped like a cross. He put it in the bull's mouth to signify the last bite, and then put it in the band of my Stetson hat. He shook my hand and said, "Wiedmansheil," and 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 wonderful, simple ceremony that touched me, especially since it came from Chuck Yeager.
At the campfire that night, Chuck walked up to me with his Weatherby in hand. "Zumbo," he said in his famous West Virginia twang, "if ya'all will retire that pipsqueak .30/06 of yours, I'll give you my Weatherby, a real man's gun." All the while I saw that famous grin. "If you'da been shooting my rifle at that bull," he said, "it wouldn't have taken ya'all three shots." I was floored. I couldn't believe it. What an incredible gift.
Jim Zumbo proudly displays the rifle given to him by General Chuck Yeager.
What Chuck Yeager did not know was that I had been planning on giving my sweetheart .30/06 to my son, Dan for Christmas. So, on Christmas Day, Dan received an old beat-up rifle wrapped with a red bow under the Christmas tree. On an even more positive note, the gun remains in the family, Dan might let me shoot it once in a while, and I get to brag to anyone who'll listen that I own Chuck Yeager's rifle.
MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE.