She saw the antlers and a big brown body in the bushes.
And with one shot from her rifle Saturday, Abby Wilson, 14, killed what she thought was a very large white-tailed buck.
It wasn't. It was an elk.
"She called her dad, who was hunting nearby, and her dad realized it was an elk," said Tom Strother, protection regional supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "The dad called our agent in Boone County, Adam Doerhoff, and said, 'We think we just shot an elk.'"
Doerhoff said he was surprised to get that call and thought it probably wasn't an elk, noting that animal misidentifications are very common.
"The dad sent me a photo to my phone and it was very clear that, yes, that's an elk," Doerhoff said. "You don't expect to see something like that. I've learned to never say never."
The Conservation Department reintroduced elk to Missouri's Peck Ranch in southeast Missouri in 2011
Missouri has no hunting season for elk, though MDC is growing a herd in southeast Missouri after reintroducing elk to their native habitat at Peck Ranch Conservation Area in 2011.
Strother said the elk that Abby shot was more than 200 miles away from that Peck Ranch herd, in an area between Hallsville and Centralia. It took five men to load the elk into a truck, where MDC is doing a number of tests on the carcass.
They're looking for signs of Chronic Wasting Disease, which elk have been known to carry, and a DNA test that might tell them where the elk came from.
"Our elk biologist wants some parts to figure out where it may have come from," Strother said. "There are no reports of elk in this area. It was kind of a surprise to us. There was no evidence of any ear tags or collars on this one."
Strother said there is a ranch that has captive elk near Colombia on the west side of Boone County, but MDC has had no reports of any of those animals escaping.
Abby Wilson, left, and MDC agent Adam Doerhoff, after Abby accidentally shot this bull elk Saturday, thinking it was a big white-tail buck.
"Hopefully folks in this area will share any trail cam photos they might have showing an elk," Strother said. "It looked like it was a really healthy animal. It was a 4-by-4 bull, meaning there were four points on each antler."
Strother said the circumstances of how the elk was shot are still being investigated, but so far there have been no enforcement actions against the young hunter.
"She saw antlers, she saw the body. She thought it was a deer and took the shot," Strother said. "This young girl probably had never seen an elk in the wild before. The dad certainly did the right thing by immediately calling us."
Strother said Abby had passed a hunter education course and could legally be hunting on her own. Still, there are some important lessons to be learned from the incident, he said.
"The big thing is to know your target and make sure you know it's a legal deer," he said. "You want to positively ID the animal you're going to shoot, but also know what's beyond your target — a tractor, a house or other hunters."
The elk carcass is being held in a cooler and the meat might be donated to a needy family if it passes the CWD test. Strother said it's possible the elk's antlers might be used as an educational display to help hunters know the difference between a white-tail deer and an elk.
Follow Wes Johnson on Twitter: @WesJohnsonNL