Learning a new area always has its challenges; but with today’s draw system in place, we aren’t left with much choice. It took me a total of 20 years to draw the tag that I finally had in hand and I had never stepped foot on the unit. I wanted to make sure I would have a hunt that was worth waiting that long for. I had to give everything I could into every aspect of the hunt. I would even take my scouting efforts to a new level.
As soon as I found out that I had drawn a tag, I made arrangements and was off for my first scouting trip that weekend. I knew that scouting wouldn’t be productive in May, but I had to lay eyes on the area. My wife, who is very supportive of my passion, accompanied me on the first trip down. Although we focused mainly on learning the highways and looking around for any areas that looked like they would hold elk, we managed to find a bachelor herd of 19 bulls. I left that weekend feeling very confident.
My next item of business was going through all of my gear. I wanted to eliminate any possibility for Murphy’s Law to have a negative effect on the hunt. I was confident in my gun, but wanted to make sure things were 100% I sent my gun off to the best gunsmith I know, Fonzy Haskell. He made up a load and went through the gun with a fine toothed comb. I had a very reliable set up that had a turret out to 800 yards. I spent as much time shooting as I could to assure that if I missed I wouldn’t be able to blame it on the gun. I went through every piece of hunting equipment I have and made any necessary updates. Making sure nothing that I could control would have a negative impact. I even had each of my 2 kids color on one bullet each for good luck.
Over the course of the summer I spent a lot of time on Google Earth and studying maps, as well as trying to talk to anyone who had ever spent time on the unit. Fortunately there were a lot of other hunters that were willing to help out. I received a lot of great information from some very valuable yet unexpected sources. Wanting to be as calculated as possible I would write down everything I learned from others. As the information started to pile up, I would get out my maps and see where the information overlapped. This information would give me a good starting point on my scouting trips, then branch out as the summer progressed.
As my wife can attest I became harder to live with as the hunt grew nearer. Everything I did was focused on this hunt. I went down and set up camp the week before the hunt started and did a little looking around so I would have a good idea on where the elk were. This hunt only lasted for 9 days so I didn’t want to waste any time during the hunt trying to locate bulls. I wanted every day to be focused on hunting efficiently. I also felt that spending that amount of time and gaining the knowledge would help me enjoy the hunt instead of being frantic about locating animals to hunt. Because of the time spent I was able to enjoy the little things like being caught up in the beauty of the area. The geology and history in the area are incredible, plus spending time in the elk woods is always valuable. I was able to spend a total of 21 days on the unit before the hunt even started.
On opening day of the hunt, the temperatures were a lot higher than normal. When we got into the area I wanted to hunt, the elk weren’t as vocal as they had been the few days prior. I was able to get close, but not close enough. I decided to back out and try later on. The hunt was early and I didn’t want to take a chance on pushing them out of the area. That afternoon, I went to a different area where I had seen other bulls. It was extremely hot, but the fall colors were so vibrant that it was hard to feel sorry for myself. As I neared the area where I had seen elk previously, I spotted a nice mule deer on the opposite edge of the clearing. I decided to hang back and watch for a while. As I was admiring the buck I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, it was a mature bull. The reality of the situation hit me quickly and I started shaking as if this were my first hunt. The bull slowly made his way out to the clearing and I was looking him over to see if he was the one I wanted. With a spread of over 50” wide he definitely had my attention. But when he turned his head sideways and I saw he was a 5 point and not what I was after so I decided to pass. I sat there for the rest of the night just taking in the situation. It was a beautiful scene; elk are truly majestic animals.
The next day started with a few frustrations. We were going up a road to a trailhead that I had scouted out prior but a large tree had fallen across the road. Not wanting to take the time to move the tree, we decided to park there and walk in. It added an extra mile to the hike in that I did not take into consideration. I had a location in mind, and knew I needed to be there. Walking in I was able to enjoy more valuable time with my Dad. We went over the game plan on what we would do as we got into position. As we started to near the area of I wanted to be in, I could hear six different bulls bugling. The hill was steep, and I knew I would need to hurry in order to get ahead of the animals. My Dad peeled off the trail and I headed up the hill to get ahead of the elk.
As I neared the elk, I could tell they were moving at a rapid pace. The physical training I had done all summer really started to pay dividends as I was running up the hill to cut them off. I knew I was getting close to where they would be headed, but I had not heard a bugle for a little while. I decided I was close enough and I dropped my pack and grabbed my bugle. First I tried a few cow calls, but there was no response so I let off a bugle and a bull with a deep growl cut me off. He sounded like a good bull, and judging by the response I felt that I could get in on him. I scurried up the hill farther to keep the wind in my favor and let off another bugle and again the bull cut me off. With adrenaline running at full speed through my veins, I found a spot and set up waiting for the bull to show himself.
I caught movement coming around a small patch of pine trees, which, I quickly realized were his antlers maneuvering though the thick pine boughs. I knelt down and found a steady rest, but I wanted a better look. The bull kept working his way towards me, I was shaking like crazy and was do everything I could to calm my nerves. I started to breathe deep to help settle me down. The bull kept coming in closer and closer. Finally at 10 yards, I saw his eyes roll toward the back of his head and he let out a blood curdling bugle with a growl that I could feel in my chest. The intensity of the situation was overwhelming. Elk are huge animals anyways, but in that moment when I was on my knees and he was bugling right at me I felt like I was in the path of a giant. At 5 yards the bull passed by me and was standing broadside staring in the direction of where I had bugled last. I was completely taken up by the situation and decided I would shoot. As I steadied the gun on the bull, all I could in my scope was muddy yellow hair. I had to double check to make sure I was aiming at his shoulder. I squeezed the trigger and hit him right in the shoulder. To my surprise, he didn’t fall instantly. I hurried and put another round in and shot him again. Both bullets ended up hitting virtually the same spot. It was almost in slow motion as the bull turned and tipped over. Both lucky bullets that my kids made for me were perfect.
At that instant, another flood of emotions spread through my veins. I was on an adrenaline high that was mixed with a humbling reverence for the situation. It is hard to explain that feeling to someone who has never experienced it before. I felt an overwhelming respect for the majestic animal that I had just taken. The sight of him lying there was breathtaking. I was in complete awe as I walked over and set my gun next to him. I quickly located my Dad, who had worked closer and heard the whole thing go down. I am very fortunate that he were able to experience this together. We paused for a few pictures, and quickly got to work. We were a long ways from the road and it would take multiple trips to get the meat taken care of. The experience will last me for the rest of my life. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to go experience these things with me.