Even before Opening Day of hunting season, I packed my bag, cooked up my contribution to the weekend’s menu and tucked my cow elk tag in my backpack. My husband, Steve, handed over eight bullets that he had reloaded and I was on my way to meet up with my hunting companions. I figured that I would only need one, or maybe two bullets, to either bring home some meat or get skunked, but a few extras would not weight me down too much.

Seven of us set up camp Thursday night. Four of us had cow elk tags and one was the Back Country Hilton tender, while Mr. Information and Mr. Kandoo provided fine hunt support.

We took the horses to scout for elk on Friday. By evening, Mr. Information spotted a herd so we developed an opening morning plan for the next day. Despite the 4:30 a.m. wake-up, our carefully-laid plan went awry. Three hundred elk jumped the fence that marked the hunting district boundary and we were empty-handed.

We lit a fire and waited. No doubt, I will learn patience at some point along my hunting journey. I hope I do because a patient hunter finds more elk, and when she is more confident about finding elk, she will patiently wait for a better shot. Still, sitting and glassing is hard for me, even in beautiful country on a warm, sunny day.

By dusk, we watched about 50 elk trail down the slope and back to the area that had been grazed short by cattle earlier in the summer. That tender green fescue must have been worth the risk to those elk.

Sunday’s 4:30 a.m. wake-up brought us back to the big herd. The elk broke into smaller groups by the time we had enough light to see. We tried to put the sneak on them all morning, never quite sneaking close enough.

By noon, hot dogs sounded tasty, but our lunch was delayed by elk in our trail. We filled two tags by 12:30. While two horse trainers from the tent next door helped us pack them out, two more in our group put themselves along elk paths. We were done hunting.

We thought so, anyway.

Darkness fell before we hauled all four elk down to camp so the horses had another packing job the next day.

Monday morning, as we topped a saddle along the trail, a brown mound focused into a dead spike elk, still warm and shot through the neck and lungs. This hunting district allows only antlerless elk permits or brow-tined permits. Killing a spike-antlered elk is illegal. Leaving a mistakenly-killed animal is illegal. We had ridden onto a crime scene.

The game warden did not answer his phone. Mr. Information and his daughter gutted, skinned and quartered the spike while the rest of us rode on to gather our tagged elk. Mr. Information left another message. The spike rode my horse off the mountain while I stayed warm on a morning stroll.

At camp, we loaded all of the elk into the horse-drawn wagon and reached the trail head at dusk. A warden met us there, questioned us — sometimes with suspicion and sometimes seemingly begging for information that we did not know — loaded the poached spike into his truck and left. No thank you.

We looked at each other, puzzled. We all agreed that next time we certainly would spend the two hours preparing the poached elk again because none of us wants an animal to be wasted. At the same time, all of us questioned Montana’s poaching rules: A person who makes a mistake has no motivation to admit it because the same punishment will be administered, and a person who finds someone’s mistake works without appreciation.

None of us found a grand solution to mitigate the effects of these rules. After all, a person who would disrespect wildlife enough to shoot something and then let it rot will find a way around every rule.

That leaves the rest of us to pick up the pieces.

Lisa Schmidt