Slowly, ever so slowly, with infinite care and the utmost concentration, Shari Fraker notches a three-bladed arrow and draws her 52-pound compound bow. Silently, ever so silently, she kneels there, with the bow string fully drawn, waiting long minutes to get a perfect shot -- for nothing less will serve to take the prize.
The prize within her sights is a 600-pound spike (i.e., young male) elk, placidly grazing on the underbrush less than 25 yards away. Shari Fraker has been scouting her prize through Colorado's Pike National Forest, winter and summer, day and night, for many months; now she has arrived at the instant of truth.
For many hunters, the handsome young elk, with two long spikes of antler pointing skyward from a bushy, cinnamon-brown head, would represent a perfect trophy to hang high in a den or recreation room.
But Shari Fraker, a petite 115-pound homemaker from the rolling farmland near Elizabeth, Colo., is not concerned with trophies. She makes a sharp distinction between the "trophy hunter" and the "true hunter" -- and she belongs to the latter category. Fraker has hunted this elk for the same reasons men and women armed with bow and arrow have gone hunting for scores of centuries: sport and sustenance.
If Fraker can kill this elk -- she will only get one shot, for a miss will send the animal rushing away -- she will bag all the red meat her family needs for a year, with many steaks and chops left over for friends and relatives.
Using the hunter's standard "50 percent" rule of thumb -- the meat of wild game amounts to 50 percent of its weight on the hoof -- this spike elk should provide some 300 pounds of meat. According to the American Meat Institute, that's about as much meat as the average family of four consumes in a year.
And what succulent, nutritious meat it will be! The meat of wild deer, elk and moose is high in protein and extremely low in fat (indeed, you have to mix in some beef or pork fat to get decent elkburger or moose sausage).
The gamy, nut-sweet flavor of a prime elk steak makes the standard supermarket sirloin taste like salty sawdust. Broiled on an open grill and served with no condiments whatsoever (well, okay, you can put a little butter on top for moistness), elk provides a zesty, distinctive and altogether memorable treat for palates dulled by thousands and thousands of hamburgers.
Clearly savoring the memory, Fraker thinks back on all the ways she has served elk over her years as a hunter. There have been elk T-bones, sirloins and tenderloins, elk roast and elk ribs ("there's a lot more meat on the ribs than a cow has," she says), elk chili, elk scallopini, elkloaf, corned elk brisket and elk liver with onions.
"It's been, probably, five or six years since we've bought any beef at all," Fraker says. "Anything you can do with beef, any recipe, you can do with elk, and you get that nice gamy flavor."
Although the issue has not been settled to a scientific certainty, Fraker and other hunters will tell you that the unique "gamy flavor" of meat killed in the wild is something that cannot be duplicated in domesticated game animals. This may be psychological; in the same way that the tomatoes you grow in your own garden are the tastiest you've ever had, there's a certain satisfaction in having stalked and shot your own steak that will never be found in meat that was raised for slaughter on a commercial feedlot.
Fraker says that even in wild game there's a different flavor between animals that were running just before they were shot and those that are taken while still. For her part, she prefers the tranquil variety.
To get that kind of meat, though -- to stalk, find and shoot an elk with bow and arrow -- requires the skill, strength and dedication of a "true hunter." Fraker scoffs at the one-week-per-year hunters who come up here from the city with a hired guide and a magnum rifle and hope to bag a huge bull elk with 6-by-6 (what a deer hunter would call "12 point") antlers.
"Maybe, if they have a lot of luck and the right guide, those guys might get their trophy one year," she says. "For me, I'd much rather get a spike or a cow female and know that I had done it right."
To "do it right," Fraker makes 10 or more trips each year to her favorite hunting grounds here in the ruggedly beautiful Rockies of central Colorado. The archery elk season lasts 30 days each year beginning in early October. But by the first day of hunting season, she says, "I've already done most of my hunting."
Just as the American Indians did, Fraker relies on a detailed study of the animals and their habitats to make sure she brings home an elk each season. "I go up in the winter and scout on snowshoes to find their winter range," she says. "And I go back in the summer, way up above tree line, and find the summer range. I mark those two areas on my topo topographic map , and then I come back five or six times to find the migration routes between them."
At the start of the archery elk season, Fraker heads to the mountains. "The animals are smart," she says. "After a week or so of hunting, they know to stay out of the way. So I head out early."
Dressed in camouflage clothing, her face daubed with blotches of green and brown camouflage paint, Fraker sets out from her camp well before sunrise and begins to stalk the hills. One year she found her elk on the first morning; other seasons, she has spent days looking for the perfect shot. Along the way she makes drawings of the forest and keeps a sharp eye out for rattlesnakes; over the years she has perfected a fried rattlesnake recipe that makes for wonderful meals over a campfire.
Because of her small frame and the relatively small bow she carries, Fraker has to be within 30 yards or so of her prey to be sure her arrow will kill the animal. To get that close without being heard or smelled by the elk requires absolute silence, absolute stealth.
Thanks to her constant scouting and her meticulous knowledge of game, Fraker -- unlike the average hunter -- can be relatively certain that she will spot an animal each year. But she will not shoot an arrow until she is sure of a perfect shot at the small area behind the animal's front legs where an arrow will definitely kill.
When the arrow is fired and the animal is down, Fraker bursts from the bush for the most frantic period of her annual excursions.
"The 20 minutes after the kill is crucial," she says. You have 20 minutes to clean and dress that animal before the meat starts to spoil. The most important ingredient in the flavor and texture of the meat is the field dressing -- and it has to be done right away.
"I have a six-inch wyoming saw a sort of hacksaw in my pack, and what I've got to do is cut open the animal and get the innards out. They all say you're supposed to turn the head uphill so that the intestines will just slide out, but there's no way I can pick up 600 pounds of elk and turn it around. So sometimes I almost have to crawl inside to shovel all that stuff out."
With the animal fully gutted, Fraker takes some rope from her pack and creates a makeshift block and tackle around a nearby tree to get the carcass off the ground. Another essential tool of field dressing is a small can of ordinary black pepper. Fraker peppers all the exposed areas of the animal to keep away flies and predators such as coyotes.
Now Fraker cuts away the bushy hide of her elk and saws the animal into six large hunks -- two hind quarters, two front quarters, the back and the head -- so that she can pack it out to her truck. She used to carry out her elk on her back -- six different trips with 60 or more pounds of meat each time -- but now uses a small one-wheeled cart her husband constructed for her.
With the prize safely home, the next task is butchering. "You get all the same cuts you get from a cow," she says. A spike elk's rear legs might produce a dozen big steaks each.
The meat must be aged before it reaches full flavor, Fraker says. She hangs it -- either in a cool barn or basement or in a refrigerated meat locker -- for about seven days at a temperature of 40 degrees or so. Once aged, the meat can be eaten or stored in a freezer. An elk shot this fall will still be providing delicious steaks, from the freezer, next Fourth of July, she says.
This season Fraker spotted that 600-pound spike elk early on her hunting trip. She crouched, ever so silently, behind a clump of trees. She drew her bow, lined up the sights, held her breath and let fly.
It was a perfect hit, cutting directly into the elk's heart-lung region. The animal fell instantly, and Fraker dashed out to begin field dressing.
Two weeks later, at her farmhouse on the high plains, Fraker served me one of the aged steaks from this year's kill. She had marinated the meat overnight in a vinegar-and-water mixture, and she broiled the lean meat for a few minutes per side.
The result was an exquisite meal, with a sweet, slightly spicy taste unlike any beef T-bone I've ever had. It would sell for $20 or more in the fancy restaurants that specialize in game -- and would be well worth the price.
"Is this any good?" Fraker asked me politely. "We have it so often now I can hardly tell any more." ELK RUMP ROAST (10 to 12 servings)
One 3-4 pound elk roast
Flour for dredging
Butter or beef fat for browning
Salt and pepper to taste
Cloves to taste
1/4 cup vinegar
1 cup tomato juice
Water as needed
Vegetables such as sliced onion, potatoes and carrots in desired quantities
Roll roast in flour; brown on all sides in skillet with butter or beef fat. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and cloves. Place in a roasting tray and pour over the vinegar and tomato juice. Add water as needed. Roast in a 275- to 300-degree oven approximately 2 1/2 hours. Add vegetables during last hour of roasting. FRIED ELK LIVER
1 elk liver (approximately 20 pounds), skinned and thinly sliced (allow 4 to 6 ounces per person)
Milk to cover
Flour for dredging
Butter for frying
Sliced onions to taste
Soak skinned, thinly sliced liver in enough milk to cover, along with salt, 6 hours. Roll in flour. Fry in butter, along with onions, over medium heat, 5 minutes per side. CAMPFIRE RATTLESNAKE
Fresh rattlesnake (at least one per person)
1 beaten egg (or more as needed)
Soda crackers for dredging
Butter for frying
Remove venomous head of snake and bury it at least 6 inches deep. Slit underside of snake to remove intestines; peel off skin. Cut snake into 2-inch sections. Dip in the beaten egg, and dredge in crumbled crackers. Fry in butter at high heat. To eat, hold section in fingers and bite meat off the spine.