By Austin Cowan
When you look at my long and sordid history of hunting victories (more like the lack of), 2016 has truly been that pot of gold lying at the end of a camouflage colored rainbow. I knew in the Spring when I opened that long awaited email and saw not only one, but two SUCCESSFUL results standing out on that page that this year was going to be different. Just how different would turn out to be more than I could have ever hoped for or imagined.
After months of waiting, October brought with it opening morning of the General Mule Deer Rifle season and within an hour of that sun cresting, I had notched my tag for the first time and tied it around a 200" Monster of a buck. People say that it's the worst first Buck that I could get with the precedence that he's set, but I'm nothing if not motivated by a challenge! The feeling of confidence that coming up on him down in that dry creek bed gave me is something that I will be forever grateful for. It taught me that my instincts are strong and my aim is true. It showed me that even with all of the quirks that I may have working against me at any time, when it comes down to that moment of reckoning, I'll react the way I always thought I would. The rest is in natures hands. I would need to carry that extra confidence in my pack along with the gatorades and ham sandwiches because the second of those successful draws opened only three weeks after that Saturday morning.
Now it was time to pull the second tag out of that drawer and secure it in my pocket (two or three times for safe measure). Although I've held a general season tag eight times now over the last ten years, I've never held one that read "Limited Entry." Let alone one that also read Bull Elk next to it! This is the big one, and a failed result during this hunt would leave me with 5 years worth of second thoughts until I would have another chance at redemption; so the pressure was not lost on me. Top all of that off with the fact that I get to see my husband and father-in-laws Big Bull mounts displayed in their respective "man caves" every time I enter. So the need to harvest a competitor was also alive in me. I'd like to say that I'm not competitive, but the truth is I've never been put into that game to try my hand. Until now.
This was a different opening morning than the one experienced a few weeks before. That extra time had brought with it a drop in temperature that wouldn't allow a base camp so it would have to be an earlier morning spent driving from home. Also along for the ride (and hopeful harvest), is a group of supporters that all share the same goal and love for the search that I do. It's rare to have friends that will set that alarm for a time that early to help on a hunt not their own, but we are lucky enough to have them. So that twilight was spent driving down a summit peak with five adults and 5 kiddos total. Albeit some sleepy kiddos, but they were there none the less. Unlike the early morning success of the season before, this morning came and went with bare hillsides and "fresh tracks" made from invisible hoofs. There was a whole lot of nothing sunning themselves during breakfast that morning, so the afternoon found our group down four hunters and cooking some lunch in a cedar patch.
With our bellies full and the next prime time upon us, a drive back up to the top was in order. We knew the most sign was seen in the higher country so that's where our scopes should stand and our time should be spent. It's not an hour before sunset when the first of those big bodies start finding their way out of the pines and into our sights. Although great to spot, these ones are out of the question for tonight with their impressive four mile gap they've put between ourselves and them so it's on to the next. With a small drive to the other side of the drainage we chose, we see another welcome sight. A group of four bulls has come out of the pines. From a small spike all the way up to an impressive 6 point Bull, this gang had range. I see that Big Guy and its instantly time to go! There's maybe 25 minutes of shooting light left and a span of dirt road standing between us and them that can only be covered quickly if there's any chance at a shot. Lucky for us, the side by sides were our ride of choice on this day and the ruts and ditches doing their best to slow us down just got absorbed by those shocks.
There's now maybe 12 minutes of time left to use that gun as we parked the rigs on top of that steep hillside and did the best quiet descent you've ever seen with now 3 adults and one seven year old. To everyone's shock and awe as we got to a vantage point, the bulls were still there. It's clear though, that while they were eating their grass buffet semi undisturbed, our presence was sensed but not seen. The Big Bull is old and wise enough to stay close to the pines for his dinner but the young guns are still bold enough to venture out further. It takes some creeping, but as I stood tall behind a pinion, I could get my crosshairs on that seniors rack long enough to know I want him.
Looking at Chris and mouthing silently that I see him, he advised me to get a scope out to use for a rest as the chance of making that shot standing would be slim. So the next minute is spent watching a tear jerking soap opera play out as the sound of that scope being placed on the shale spooked one of those brave teenage Bulls within earshot and I watched him run right for my target and quickly escort him up into the giant pine patch behind them. If my face looked like it felt, you could probably pick my jaw up off of the loose rocks and put it back in the bag along with the scope. As hard as it is to watch an opportunity stampede away like that, the sound of a group of Bulls charging through trees is something to witness. There is no path other than through and their giant frames make small work of a dead forest floor.
That was a quiet drive back to the truck that night. One full of "should've" and what ifs". It's times like that thought that you learn a little about disappointment and redirection. Tomorrow would be a new day though, and sometimes that's all that you can say. Sunday morning called for a change in scenery, so we let those kiddos sleep in at a willing Grandpas house instead of giving them a 5 am wake up call. Let's plan on some hiking! With the empty clearings the morning before still fresh in our memory, a chance to see anything real early wasn't likely. Or so we thought until we entered that clear grove of aspens, cut down the middle by our two track trail, and we catch glimpses of the outlines of five giants taking advantage of that super moon and getting their breakfast early! There's only enough time though to take in the size of those giant heads as they charge out of sight and leave us with our heads shaking in disgust. We knew the chance was there and ignored it in favor of our first plan to try to and hike in on the Bulls from the night before. Big mistake, but as I said that morning lacing up my boots. Whatever happens today, remember it's only day two. The rest of the day found us spooking a herd of overly alert does into what appeared to be two larger Bulls grazing behind them and starting a parade of sorts down the ridge behind and out of our sights.
We pushed patches and crept through canyons hoping to cross a track to follow all to no avail. Day two went as quickly as those early bird Bulls rushing out of our sights that morning and the sun set on any hope for shooting that day. We found ourselves spending Monday morning staring through the windshield of our 20 year old Wrangler instead of the side by side in hopes that a change of approach would bring with it a change of luck. Because this day shares it's start with a school bus schedule our little guys abide by, we were now hours behind schedule by the time the tires found the dirt. The only guaranteed way to not find something though, is to not even look for it, so let's get looking. You never know when you could get lucky and spot that brazen bull staying out a little late. Someone else could always push something your way and you could find yourself in the right place at the right time. Stranger things have happened. At the very least, a morning spent driving down a mountain top dirt road is better than a morning spent at work any day.
As luck would have it though, there was no luck for me that morning either and since that bus makes a round trip with those crazy kids, we once again had to drive down that canyon empty handed. It was up in the air whether or not to go back out that evening. There's definitely other obligations that take up a weeknight at our house and the responsible part of my brain really pushed for them to take priority. As with more times than not however, the need for adventure part of my brain won over without much of a fight. Those obligations can wait for a night there's nothing better to do. So with an invite to Grandpa to tag along for the ride, two little boys with their toys and a third vehicle exchange, our ragtag bunch of "would be road hunters" made that great ascent back up top. We only have enough time for one trip down either side of this canyon tonight with the Ridgeline (Glorified El Camino) making the trek. It has the comfort, cargo room and seat belts for a group of this size, but as we quickly found out, not near the ground clearance necessary.
We clearly weren't placing too much faith in the fruition of this hunt with our choice of vehicle, and really started treating it like it felt; a nice family drive. It was nice. What made it even nicer though was the fact that once again in that last hour before darkness, those brown behemoths started showing up for the party. Just like that, in the middle of light conversations and a great Frank Foster song, Chris' eyes scanned a distant hillside and spotted them. There in a mix of burned pines and Aspen trees, two Bulls were making their ascent on a bench top two ridges over. With bodies even the naked eye could spot and the racks made clearer with a quick set-up of the scope, the confirmation I needed was made. I could see that bigger one staying just below the top trying to stay hidden and Chris sees it too. He looks at me and I look at him. That adrenaline comes so fast and without many words (except to ask Grandpa to stay with the truck, kids, etc.).
We threw on our packs and started to sprint through that sage brush, making a trip around the opposite ridge to stay hidden and come out with a better vantage point. There is nothing harder than moving quickly through deadfall when you're trying your best to be silent at the same time. Make no mistake, it's a skill. Find a rock to step on instead, grass or small bushes work too. Navigate those fallen logs and step lightly all while watching ahead. There may not be much that I have mastered over the years, but this is something I've gotten damn near decent at. It seems like it took forever to make our way to that hill top we were aiming for and the odds of creeping to that tree line and finding that Bull anywhere close to where we had left him were anyone's guess. But I'll be damned if once we got our eyes on him again, not only was he close, he hadn't even moved. There we stood behind that ball shaped pinion tree perfectly hidden from that target and with enough time to take a good shot if done right. We had to estimate that it's about a 325 yard shot since the rangefinder was being kept nice and safe in the truck console at the time. Chris whispered to me that it would be best to belly crawl under the gap and shoot from a prone position as it would both keep me hidden, and give me a steady rest. That look of reassurance from him was all that I needed. I wasn't that nervous "first timer" that I had been. I felt like I had a chance and needed to take it.
As I dropped to my stomach and began to crawl, I pushed my pack in front of me to use as a rest. It's definitely more sturdy than my elbow is. I would need that too, being that the gun I was using this hunt was Pa's old 270 and while it's not a lot bigger than my rifle, the kick seems harder, and I don't want to miss. Once I get laid out and set up, it seemed like the seconds were turning into minutes as I try to get those cross hairs on him. What setting is my scope on? Why is it blurry? Why didn't I think to check any of this before?! But soon enough I see him...and he sees me. For a reason I will never know, that Bull stared right back at me as if frozen; giving me all the time that I needed. Time to breathe...Time to adjust my pack...Time to remember Chris' advice from days before; that if it was over 300 yards to aim high and then time to adjust my pack again. Here it is. I tell myself to breathe, soak up the moment and do it right. With a deep exhale and a flick of the thumb to disengage the safety I held the crosshairs where they needed to be and pulled the trigger. He was hit! Within ten seconds I went from thinking he needed another round in him and searching the trees where he ran down into, to Chris telling me he's stopped halfway down the ridge and then that he was rolling the rest of the way. My Bull was down!
The sun went down with us standing on that ridge top with binoculars set on the area he last went into. I knew I hit him good but how good? Was it good enough or were we going to have to track him? Chris has to work to talk me out of a beeline for that area and instead we make a side hill charge around to that side to begin our search. It's now that we realize just how much we hadn't planned on bringing a bull home that night. With the sun now far past set and not a single flashlight among us, we climb down that hill and through the deadfall using just our lit cell phone screens for light. They're not much, but they're damn sure better than nothing. With a few zig zags and top-to-bottom treks, it's not long before we find him. The roll down the hill hadn't even damaged his rack and luckily enough, he had stopped before making it all the way to the bottom. It's hard to see in the darkness, but I am instantly taken back by the sheer size of him. Being my first Elk Hunt, I had an idea about the girth these huge animals had, but nothing could have prepared me for seeing it firsthand. It's unreal and intimidating but incredible all at the same time. My shot had found its target and dropped him fast. There wasn't even a need for a second shot and I was psyched. All I could do was breathe and stare in shock. We could look up and find the headlights of the "tiny" truck shining way up top and showing us the way back. The choice is made for Chris to go deliver the news to the crowd and for me to find a spot in the needles to lean and wait by my kill. Once Chris is on his way, I have nothing to do but listen to twigs snap all around me and jump to irrational conclusions involving lions, tigers and bears (Oh my). I have to calm myself down enough to enjoy that giant moon beginning to crest and give thanks for the huge blessing at hand.
I had a feeling of pride in this moment. Pride in myself and pride in my partner. If it wasn't for him and all that he has taught me I wouldn't be sitting in the bottom of this canyon with this trophy lying next to me. I'm grateful for every bit of the experience. As it turns out, even with that poor truck being able to get down a two track trail and within 100 yards of the sight, a dying cell phone lit trek down a ridge to witness the quartering of an elk isn't high on two little boys lists of ways to spend a school night, so the decision was made to call it a night. We had two quarters out and with the forecast calling for a freeze. The chance of anything getting into the rest by first light were small. Plus, Chris and I could work better in the daylight sans the entourage.
Most of the next day was spent with just my husband and I hauling the rest of that beast out of that shady bottom. I'll never forget the conversations we had that day and the bond that I felt with him as we made our way out one trip at a time. I feel like my day job keeps me in pretty good shape, but the strength that it took to carry that weight was like nothing I've ever felt before. It's humbling in the best way possible. My highlight was hiking the rack up to the summit and waiting side by side. I was tired and had limited vision with that Bulls head weighing down my own, but I had Chris to guide me straight. I watched his steps, I followed his trail and did my best to not show how heavy I was breathing. It seemed like it was so far but like most hard situations, he made it fun.
I guess it's true that good things come when you least expect them to. I didn't expect to draw these tags this year. I also didn't expect to harvest a monster buck on opening morning. But I most definitely didn't expect that not even one month later and with all that it seemed we had working against us that Monday night, that I would end it tagging my first Big Bull Elk. I do however expect that these memories and experiences will be some of the best in my lifetime. They prove that you never know what you're capable of until you get a chance to show it. So like I said before, I don't know if anything will ever top the 2016 Big Game Season for me. However, I do know that come next spring I'll be putting in for tags hoping for a chance to try. Bring on 2017. -Austin Cowan-