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CANIS Customer Spotlight: Erinn Otterson, "They Choose You"

CANIS Customer Spotlight:  Erinn Otterson,

The following is first in a new series of stories where CANIS will feature one of our customers and their favorite hunting story. Up first is Erinn Otterson from Virginia Beach, VA. He sent in some amazing pictures of a huge bull elk and we had to hear the story behind the hunt. If you want to be featured in one of our upcoming stories, send your pictures to info@canisathlete.com and tell us a little about the hunt. If selected, our team will reach out and set up a time for an extended interview.

There is a common belief among hunters that all nature is connected. We were put in that exact spot at that exact moment in time for a reason. The relationship between the hunter and the hunted is not understood by many and will never be for those who haven’t experienced it. It is raw, it is spiritual, it is emotional, it is the circle of life unfolding before your eyes. For some it's hard to grasp, for others it’s a moment that shapes the framework for the rest of their life.

For CANIS customer Erinn Otterson, his trip to Wyoming to cash in on his first-ever elk tag wasn’t just another hunt. It was the culmination of years of big dreams, hard work, and endless good times cherished among friends.

Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, Erinn had access to some of the most beautiful country in the Northeast. The thick timber and rolling hills are filled with whitetail deer and small game which made the perfect place for a 10-year-old-boy to get his hands dirty and begin his lifelong passion for hunting. Erinn’s father and two older brothers didn’t hunt very much but luckily for him a group of close friends had farms in the surrounding areas, which served as the location to start a life-time lover of hunting.

For Erinn, big game hunting in the American West had always been just a dream, but the woods of Western Pennsylvania and the wildlife that called it home had always fascinated Erinn and invigorated his passion for hunting with each outing. Otterson is the prime example of a humble hunter whose passion for the sport and the outdoors made him easily satisfied and happy to harvest what some would call smaller “management” bucks. For Erinn, the size of the trophy took a backseat to what he loved most about hunting and the outdoors. The preparation, the friendships, and stories around the campfire after a day in the woods. Although he loved what Pennsylvania and surrounding areas delivered, he still had a dream of chasing a monster elk through the mountains. Erinn's time was coming.

After spending time as a track and field athlete at Penn State University, Otterson became a defense contractor based in Virginia Beach. In this day and age, selflessness is a rarity, when asked what he did for a living, Otterson’s reply was prefaced with “we serve those who serve us”. In pre-Covid times, his job has taken him around the world to military bases, trade shows, and awarded him great relationships and lifelong friends. One such friend is Jeff Ulfig. Jeff is a retired Navy Senior Chief with 26 years of service as a Seabee Construction Mechanic, 16 of those years he was assigned in direct support of Naval Special Warfare. Jeff and Erinn connected on many fronts but particularly their shared passion for the outdoors. Together they began waterfowl hunting in the Chesapeake Bay area for canvasbacks, divers, red heads, blue bills, and whatever flew their way in December and January every year.

On one of Otterson’s business trips, he made the acquaintance of guys who owned some land in Wyoming. After hosting the guys for some waterfowling in the Chesapeake Bay, an invitation was extended to visit their ranch in Wyoming for an elk hunt. The only thing standing in their way was a tag. So, Jeff, Erinn, and another CANIS customer Mike Wright started trying to obtain a tag for each of them to do the hunt together. Wright is a lifelong friend of Erinn’s, grew up chasing whitetail in Western Pennsylvania as well, and still lives there today operating a very successful, family-owned small business. After about 5 years and 4 preference points, they all drew a tag in February of 2020. They all drew an elk tag in February and the hunt was scheduled for October 1st, the first day of rifle season. Only thing to do now was train and contain the excitement for a few months.

Elk hunts can be unforgiving. They will do their best to beat, break, and test you, allowing only the worthy to reap the reward. As we often say at CANIS, the best way to get in shape is to stay in shape. Luckily for these three, they had military and athletic backgrounds, and they put a premium on staying in shape year around. Even for the most battle-tested hunter, hunting at elevation can present some challenges, especially when you live in Virginia Beach at 20 feet above sea level.

With months of strength and endurance training under their belt, the three made their trek to Wyoming a few days early to get acclimated to the altitude. On October 1st, the time had finally come and these three friends were about to fulfill lifelong dreams over the next six days in the mountains.

“Things happened a little faster than expected for Jeff and I,” said Erinn.

The morning of the first day, they had split into two groups and Jeff and Mike went about 9 miles away, up and over the mountain, Erinn and two of his buddies who worked on the ranch went south. Unfortunately, during their hunt there were some pretty serious forest fires in the surrounding areas west of the ranch making visibility minimal, breathing difficult, and mornings of ash covered vehicles. Smoke aside, it didn’t take too long for things to get real western real quick.

Erinn and his two friends arrived at the ridge they planned to glass in an attempt to pinpoint the herd and locate the bulls. Within an hour they got the call that Jeff had already taken a bull. Jeff, Mike, and their guides had driven up to the top of the ridge. They hiked vertically to begin glassing. To their surprise, a couple bulls appeared out of the timber. He hammered the larger of the two at around 600 yards. Jeff had just harvested the biggest bull in the ranch’s history, with a gross score of 343” and aged to be around 11 years old.

“It was a success already at this point,” said Erinn. “Jeff deserved a hunt like this for his amazing service to our country.”

While Jeff, Mike, and their guides tracked and cleaned Jeff's trophy, Erinn and his two buddies continued to sit on the ridge and glass the north slope of the mountain which was all timber. They knew the elk would come up on top of the ridge in the morning and drop down into the timber mid-day to rest. They had seen two bulls already, one of them being a beautiful 5x5 bull, but his guide suggested that they hold off and wait for the bigger bulls since they still had 5 days left. They continued to glass the two bulls up on top of the ridge. After grazing, they slipped into the timber. The team was fairly certain they weren’t coming out until late afternoon. Erinn and his hunting partners decided to go help Jeff pack out his bull and head back to the lodge to grab a quick lunch and head back that afternoon to the same exact spot.

They returned back to the ridge early that afternoon and decided to set up directly downwind of where they expected the bulls to come out.

“Things got really primal,” said Erinn, as the bulls came out just minutes after they set back up, only a mere 100 yards away. The bugling and fighting began, and if you’ve never experienced the roar of a bull elk in the mountains, it can leave you speechless. It was pure, beautiful chaos. They had been immersed straight into the heat of an all out brawl between the two bulls.

“For my first hunt to see all that happening I was shaking, I couldn't control myself, if you've been in that situation you know what I'm talking about, it was awesome” said Erinn.

The guides suggested the elk were bugling and fighting so much that there had to be a big herd bull herding his cows that would appear to fight the satellite bulls. Sure enough, 30 cows came up over the hill followed by a monster bull.

“It was like a lion king moment, I was stunned as I looked back at my guide, he looked back at me shaking his head yes. We knew immediately it was the dominant herd bull bull, and there was no question” said Erinn.

They were surrounded by sets of eyes so he had to be very diligent with his movement, it was hard for Erinn to control his shaking. He collected himself and knew he had to shift positions. Slowly and quietly, he got set up to the left of the tree and got a steady rest. By the time he had gotten in place, the bull had doubled back quite a bit, and they lost sight of him.

“I got that sinking feeling like, did I really just miss my chance?” said Erinn.

A few minutes later, the bull came right back to that same exact spot, and he was now in the perfect position to capitalize on his opportunity and take his shot at the bull of a lifetime.

The stars had aligned perfectly at that moment, and Ottterson delivered a perfect shot at 292 yards. It was a great shot and the bull was hit hard.

“I was an emotional mess at that point” said Erinn, but just to be safe, he shot the bull again to prevent him from going down into the timber.

“I got up to the bull and was in awe of his beauty. As a hunter from the east coast, you dream about this stuff. To be able to harvest an elk like this for my first bull was like living a dream” said Otterson.

Soon after, all of the friends and guides came to celebrate and begin the pack out. If two big bulls on one trip wasn’t enough, Mike was fortunate enough to harvest a beautiful bull on the last day of the trip, scoring around 330” to complete the trifecta for the three friends. One of the coolest moments of the trip occurred while they were still admiring the beauty of Erinn’s trophy elk, a guide approached and said some pretty mystical words, “the hunter doesn’t choose the elk, these old elk choose you”.

“They choose you” were the perfect words to describe the relationship between this hunter and his elk. At the time, Erinn’s father had been battling cancer and wasn’t doing well, this had almost caused him not to be able to go on the hunt. With all that was going on back at home, Otterson knew he was meant to be on the hunt. He was meant to be on the left side of that specific tree, on that specific ridge, at that exact moment in time. That bull had chosen his hunter.

After the hunt, Erinn returned home to visit his father. He had brought the meat from his bull along with him to share with his dad, brothers and extended family at a big family gathering. Erinn served the elk for his dad and all of his family. The family laughed, shared stories, and took in the feast of elk meat supplied by the hunt of a lifetime. That meal served as the last meal the family would share together with their dad as he passed a week later.

“That bull chose me to honor my fathers courage and strength, he was the herd bull for our family” - Erinn Otterson