GAYLORD, Mich. -- Dawn Pratt's view of the perfect Christmas present was through the telescopic sight of her .270 Weatherby rifle -- a magnificent bull elk that stopped walking just long enough to offer her a shot at 200 yards.
As husband Jerry stood behind her on a snow-shrouded hillside near Gaylord and quietly reminded her to squeeze the trigger, not pull it, Dawn Pratt said she was "praying" the whole time. "I squeezed as gently as I could, and it seemed to take an hour for the gun to go off," she said.
Minutes later, breathless after climbing down one ridge, wading through knee-deep snow in a valley and up a ridge on the other side, the Pratts stood over a 6-by-6 elk that green-scored 298 -- an elk that will make Dawn the first woman to achieve a Michigan Grand Slam by entering all four of the state's big game species in the Commemorative Bucks of Michigan record book.
A couple hundred elk tags are issued each year by the Department of Natural Resources in an effort to keep the northern Michigan elk herd around the Pigeon River Country State Forest at about 1,100. The odds of drawing a tag are about one in 300-400, and Pratt was stunned when her husband called her at work to say she had drawn a license to take either a cow or a bull.
It wasn't surprising that a woman who named her 2-year-old daughter Autumn "after our favorite season" would opt for a bull that would get her into the record books along with her trophy deer, bear and turkey (some entered under her maiden name of Adlen). It's a feat that only five men have accomplished.
Pratt, 42, works in Macomb County and commutes on weekends to Grayling where Jerry works. He's a registered big game scorer for Commemorative Bucks of Michigan, and she took him along on the elk hunt. "I wanted his eyes to be sure we saw an elk big enough to qualify," she said.
The Pratts are among the most experienced hunters in Michigan, but because they had limited time for scouting before the Dec. 8 elk hunt opening, they hired Chad Sides of Gaylord to scout and guide for them. Dawn Pratt described Sides as "one hard-working guy and a hunting fool. I thought I'd drive him nuts, because I was calling him three or four times a day asking what he was seeing when he scouted, but he told me that was exactly what he wanted to see in a hunter."
Pratt made a couple of weekend trips north to scout with Sides. "I was really confident," she said. "I had been shooting 30, 40 rounds through the rifle every weekend for months."
The first day of the hunt they saw nothing but blinding snow. On the second morning Sides told Pratt that the elk would bed down for days in those conditions, and it was unlikely they'd see so much as a track until the weather settled. He said the only way they were going to see elk was to start walking the ridges.
"So we decided to walk, even though the snow was pretty deep," Pratt said. "We finally saw what looked like a little teeny elk bedded down with his head right down in the snow. Then we saw another one. The antlers looked pretty spindly, but they were about 400 yards away."
When one of the elk stood up to browse, the Pratts realized it was a lot bigger than they thought.
Pratt told her husband: "'Just be sure that it's big enough to make the book.' He told me he thought it would score about 300, so we started to sneak up on them from tree to tree."
They were within 150 yards when the wind swirled and "the elk got nervous and started moving away from us," Dawn Pratt said. "Chad told me to shoot from there, and I tried to brace the gun against a tree, but I finally just sat on my butt and braced my elbows on my knees."
The problem was that each time the animal she wanted stopped, "the chest was covered by a tree and all I could see was the belly and hindquarters. Jerry said they were going to move through one more opening and to get ready. He gave a cow call and told me to squeeze the trigger when I had a shot."
The elk stopped with its chest exposed, she fired and had a moment of panic because she lost sight of the elk and thought that it had run off. "But Jerry told me not to worry; he saw it go down," she said. "When we got to it, the bullet had gone into its lungs and didn't come out."
After admiring the elk and taking photographs, Sides and another guide rolled up their sleeves and prepared to gut it, but Dawn Pratt said, "This is the only chance I'll get at a Michigan elk, and I'm going to field dress it myself."
After she finished cleaning out the elk, which field dressed at 585 pounds, she admitted that "it was a lot bigger job than field dressing a deer. I was inside up to my shoulders, and I thought I'd never finish cutting all that stuff out."
Pratt has to wait 60 days for the antlers to dry before they can be scored officially, and she said that "I'm keeping the antlers in my basement and making sure that nothing happens to them until the 60 days are up."
She also told Sides that "I hired him for eight days of hunting, and we killed an elk on the second day. So I'm going to call him six more days, and he better have a hunting story for me, even if he has to make one up."