The story of course starts with drawing a coveted tag like all hunting fairytales do. But along the way, I met a princess of my own. I’d found an adventurous soul who was willing to sleep on the ground in a tent, camp and cook in the rain, and enjoyed fitness and outdoor adventures. When I asked her to join me on a late summer scouting trip she jumped at the chance.
Over four days we drove the unit, glassed and camped and hiked. When we jumped a herd of elk in thick timber, I reveled at the look on her face as they crashed through the downfall. The excitement had her. Glassing a herd of elk a mile away and hearing the mews and chirps of cows and calves through the clear morning mountain air, she proclaimed “John, you look like a kid in a candy store. I see why you love this so much!”
In the following months life had its ups and downs for both of us. She was a steadying influence on my nerves and always reminded me of the great hunt I had coming up in October. Time after time, she expressed how she would love to be in elk camp with me during the hunt. But her career had her pinned down during that time period and it wasn’t in the cards for her to make the trip. She would root me on from afar, awaiting my call that I had succeeded in my quest.
While we were scouting, I was introduced to George Rael. He was a local outfitter the same age as I. We instantly bonded as Elk Junkies, and he marveled at my luck drawing the tag. I told him that I was not going to have my usual contingent of family, (Father and Uncle) with whom to camp and handle horses. He immediately offered me his assistance, and I accepted the offer of packing services and saddle stock. While I would miss having my trusty steed Bob, in camp, it made the two day drive from California much simpler without having to haul stock. While I would camp solo, I’d have some local knowledge of the country and his energy to spur me on in the thin mountain air.
In October I made the drive over two days to the camp at the end of the road two days before the season. It was situated on the backside of a ridge that was the unit border and we had a mile and a half ride to reach our hunting zone. I visited with George at his home on my way to camp and saw the caliber of bulls he himself had killed and drooled at the possibility of putting a tag on what could be the biggest bull of my lifetime.
When opening day came we rode out under the rapidly filling moon, so bright, it cast shadows as we rode along the trail. In addition the wind howled with gusts and swirled unpredictably. At First Light we spotted a herd of elk far below us out of my effective range. We watched them head over the hill and heard the bulls bugling. The rest of the morning we chased bugles along the ridges until they clammed up at about 10:00 am. I remember being determined to keep up with my acclimated local as I gulped the thin air at 10,000 feet, and tested my legs endurance up and down the fingers and ridges.
We napped through the midday, alternately glassing the ridges and valleys below. As the sun began to drop, we headed down toward the creek in the direction the elk had gone that morning. Soon two bulls stepped out of the trees across the canyon. A six point and a five point. They cautiously made their way to the creek and I positioned myself on shooting sticks and held my crosshairs on the six point at 350 yards. After the big bull we had seen that morning I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger and end my hunt on Day One. We rode back to camp arriving after dark.
The second morning we were out again before light. More close calls with vocal elk in the morning. A rope burn from a hesitant mule the day before nagged at me. Each little ridge and valley seemed to have its own little pocket of elk and the switching winds kept giving us away. We were in them though. Later that morning we bumped a lone bull bedded high on the main ridge as we rode along. Just enough of a glimpse to see he was a nice bull, but not enough time to get off for a shot.
That afternoon we trekked to the far reaches of the public land in the unit and played cat and mouse with a bull in the timber. He had cows and we circled him trying to get in his path of travel before dark. After a couple times back and forth we got to an opening where he showed himself in range uphill. I took a rest on shooting sticks but had to crouch while standing to see the bull in my crosshairs. My tired legs trembled and I rushed the shot, missing cleanly.
I was furious with myself. All this way, all this time, all this effort to miss! Now we were 10 miles from camp, it was getting dark and we still had two miles to hike back to the horses. I’d been up since 4:00 am, and now it was 7:00 pm. My foul mood did not go unnoticed as later that night George exclaimed to the rest of the crew “Damn dude, he was PISSED!”
I was not looking forward to the two hour ride back over the ridge to camp. Even the horses were dragging. But as the full moon rose and bugles echoed throughout the valley, my tired eyes gazed on the shadows of the trees in the moonlight and it was etched in my memory as a bittersweet occasion.
I arrived back to camp a couple hours after dark and collapsed in my bed after a quickly reheated meal. Doubts crept in about my endurance and shooting ability. After all I had done to prepare, this hunt was kicking my ass. I was exhausted physically and mentally. The missed opportunities weighed on my mind along with the visions of heavy horned mountain monarchs trotting off into the timber unscathed. It was a fitful night of sleep, and morning came too early once again.
That morning we rode up in the dark as before and tied up near where we had begun on opening morning. The wind had calmed some and we could hear a bull moving his cows up the draw to our left. We circled around to peer down in the draw expecting him to be on the ridge we started on, then back to near where we started. We saw his cows filtering through the trees below us and he just appeared on the open hillside 150 yards away, bugling like a dunghill rooster. After the evening before’s shooting foul up, I felt I needed to take the next branch antlered bull I could get in my crosshairs. I could see he was a good sized 5x with broken points and decided I was ready to be done hunting.
I steadied the crosshairs on his left shoulder as he was quartering to me and his cows continued to filter through the trees below us. I squeezed the trigger and saw the bullet hit as he reacted, packing a limp front left shoulder down the hill. I reloaded but he entered the trees and disappeared from sight before I could follow up. I had feelings of misgivings as his cows streamed over the hill across the draw. I was worried the bullet had not entered the chest cavity with the quartering angle. We cut across the draw looking for blood, and George went downstream in case he had made tracks down low. I worked back up to the site of the shot, picking up a small shed antler just before finding him expired under a small dead tree his death tumble had uprooted. I hollered out to George that I’d found him. He made it back to me in about 10 minutes, and we admired the warrior’s broken rack before hiking back to the horses to retrieve the kill.
Those mountain horses earned their keep as we each led a pack horse down the steep ridge to where my bull lay. We each readied our knives and made quick work of breaking down the bull. We bagged the hams, shoulders, loins and tenderloins in game bags and loaded them on two pack horses. The skull and antlers rode on top for the 7 mile trip back to camp.
It was nice to ride along the ridge I’d only seen in the dark and see the surrounding mountain ranges in the distance. We even had a few photo ops as we toasted the bull with the flask reserved for the occasion. We arrived in camp a little before lunch, and hung the quarters in the shade before relaxing with a cold beer and chips and salsa. The horses rolled and enjoyed their early respite and fed on a bale of hay.
That morning George had mentioned to one of the other guys that the wood pile was getting low. In my quest for good karma I’d made the statement “If I kill today, I’ll cut your wood”. So that afternoon we felled standing dead trees, limbed and split stove length logs. My successful hunt adrenaline kept me hustling as we made a sizeable stack. We continued the celebration into the evening, and I retold the tale of the shot throughout the night.
The next morning I packed up my gear and meat and made the drive to Flagstaff Arizona for the night. The next day I made it all the way to home and delivered the meat to Bud’s Meats, my favorite cut and wrap butcher. Thanks to dry ice and coolers some pieces were frozen, and all of it was cool. A week later, my freezer was filled with white paper wrapped roasts, and a month later, 60 pounds of sausage was added to the larder.
My bull’s bleached skull and antlers now adorn the wall in my bedroom. The small shed antler I found while searching for my downed bull has “VV 2016” inscribed in it resides with my princess. I am constantly reminded of the luck that I must have been blessed with to draw such a great tag, and meet a woman who has been so supportive of my love for the hunt.