Thursday, December 17, 2015
Stalking the bull
If you were trying to find one animal that best embodies the grace, power, and majesty of the rugged American West...a mature bull elk would be it. He is 800+ pounds of muscle, speed, and power. He is all antler and anger, and uses brute force to drive his competition into retreat, or into the ground. This year I was lucky enough to draw an elk tag, and with a friend as my guide, we'd pursue elk in the mountains of southeastern Idaho.
After months of planning, hiking, and shooting I had arrived in Idaho to hunt elk with a good friend. I've hunted for close to 20 years, but I've never hunted elk. My friend invited me to stay with him, and basically offered to be my guide to show me the ropes and make sure I had a good time. I arrived late in the day on Thursday so we had just enough time to compare notes and make a plan for the morning before getting some sleep.
The first night there I had a dream of a black wolf stalking the valley floor below me. I hadn’t yet stepped foot on the mountain, but even when sleeping in it’s shadow, it’s power was pulling my every thought toward it. It was this simple, but powerful vision of a predator that marked the subtle shift of mindset from being “home” to being “here”. In my mind, the hunt had already begun.
Our first day on the mountain was a long and difficult one (for me, because I live at sea level...for Tony it was just another day in the mountains). We hiked across miles of rock, sagebrush, scree slopes, and game trails in search of elk. What we found along the way surprised us in ways we didn’t expect. We saw mule deer, moose, and cougar, but no elk.
Untitled by scarfam, on Flickr
Tony had previously told me of a huge bull that had been seen down lower in some rolling fields below the foothills and we decided that tomorrow morning we’d check out that rumor.
Saturday morning found us lying in the weeds waiting for daylight to show us if we had drawn a good set of cards, or if this would be another busted hand. Daylight built up behind the mountain until some of it had to spill over into our valley. When it did, we were shocked.
A lone bull elk stood on a knob below us in the half-dark just before sunrise. Even from a long distance he was impossibly large. He is an animal so massive that it takes the mountains around him to fully put him into perspective. His gigantic light-brown body, bulging massively at the shoulders and hind-quarters, barely tapers as it transitions to a thick, shaggy, dark-brown neck which in turn leads to a massive head that looks surprisingly stubby in comparison to everything else. Atop this monster sits over 300 inches of antlers that are designed to handle the force of two such beasts smashing, shoving, and stabbing each other with tons of force. A bull elk is far from a quaint character in a Disney movie. It is a heavy, muscular, giant of an animal who during the rut will rage, and fight to the death for the right to breed. It is an animal designed to dominate a herd of other large animals...by force.
Below us on the knob he craned his neck out, and we watched his massive rack turn in unison with his head as he bugled and screamed from his hilltop perch. It is a call and a challenge at the same time. It says “ladies here I am” and at the same time it says “come at me bro.” He is literally the king of all he surveys, and he is prepared to fight to keep it that way.
As more light spilled over the ridge, we watched in awe as this mature 6x6 bull elk dominated that high knob exactly 500 yards from us. Our excitement was tempered by the fact that the property line was exactly 490 yards from us. A low, four-strand barbed wire fence marked the property line and at the moment the bull was on the other side. Right now all we could do was watch...he might as well have been on another planet.
That bull stood atop the knob like a king. He could survey huge swaths of low ground and green fields below him, and he stood guard there like he didn’t have a care in world. 500 yards away we worked rangefinders and binoculars, marking and mapping every landmark between us, so that when the moment came, we’d know exactly how far he was from our bullet.
Untitled by scarfam, on Flickr
After a few minutes of feeding and looking around, he made his way toward our fence. He walked along it just long enough to build up some concern that he might not cross it, and then he turned right for it. That monster of a bull walked right up to the fence...and stopped. There he stood for what seemed an eternity. To our collective horror he turned and walked back a few steps, then bedded down on the other side. Over the next hour he teased us a few more times, then crushed us by disappearing over the ridge. We were shocked and excited at the same time, and made plans to return that evening.
Saturday afternoon was a cold, windy, rainy affair that offered ample opportunity to suffer, and none to score. We saw neither hide nor hair of that big bull.
On Sunday, Tony had other obligations so I hunted alone. Much to my surprise the big bull again emerged from the darkness at the bottom of that bowl and marched up to the ridge. After 30 or 40 minutes atop the ridge, eating and thrashing bushes with his gigantic rack, he retreated downhill to a patch of sage brush on a hillside that faced me around 1,200 yards distant.
I had nowhere else to be, so I decided to stay and watch him as long as I could. As the sun came up so did the temperatures. I tucked in tight to cover trying to stay in the shade, and settled in for a long day of recon. I kept a close eye on him, looking at him every two or three minutes to make sure he hadn’t moved. I laid there watching him for the next 11 hours. To my surprise he moved only 3 times all day. Sunday ended with no shot, but a very good idea of where he might be in the morning.
Visions of him bugling on that knob, and running up that draw, flickered in jumpy, black-and-white frames throughout my dreams all night, keeping me from resting; and confirming that once a bull like that is in your mind, he will never be fully out of it. The hunt was far from over but the dread of leaving without him was already welling up in the back of my mind. To come so close, to have had so much patience, to have done everything right, and still fail, was a real possibility...and one that I struggled to keep out of my mind.
Monday morning ushered in a cool front that found our bull charging up that draw to the knob. A friend of Tony’s volunteered to come out in the cold rain to try to call the bull across the line. His expert calls pierced a 500 yard sheet of cold windy rain and enraged the bull. At the first cow call his head snapped up and he began his charge. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I realized “this is it.” My mind was in overdrive trying to plot out all the possible courses he could take and recall the yardages to all the landmarks. If he comes straight in I’ll wait until he’s at 250 yards before engaging. It he runs the ridge on my left I’ll take him at 310 yards.
As his charge carried that huge frame toward the fence I braced myself for the sight we’d been so patiently waiting for...he was going to jump that fence. As his charge began...something happened...he stopped. Once again he didn’t jump the fence, this time he broke three hearts instead of just two. Huddled in the rain, out of sight behind the hill, we drew up a plan for the afternoon and vowed to try again.
On the drive home, my friend Tony decided he’d call the guy who owned the ground where the huge bull had holed up. It was a long shot, this landowner is known far-and-wide as someone who flatly refuses to let anyone step foot on his ground. But with so much hanging in the balance, Tony figured that the worst he could say was “no.”
A word about Tony is in order here. I frequently refer to him as the “Ambassador of the Outdoors”. He does so much, to help so many people that you could write a book about him. He invited me out to elk hunt, and even though he has never shot a bull himself (he’s taken plenty of cows), he wanted me to shoot this monster. He also leads the local scout troop and has done untold amounts of good through that program. There is also no telling how many kids have taken their first deer due to his help...just this week I can think of three kids he has helped tag out...and he got me on that bull. He is just the best all around guy you’re going to meet.
All of his good deeds over the years paid off on that one phone call. The landowner who allows no one on his property, ever, for any reason said that Tony had done so much for him over the years, that he could go onto the property and kill that bull.
Tony hung up the phone and we bolted out the door. I wanted to wait until the morning and catch him during his routine, but even though the wind wasn’t perfect, Tony wanted to strike quickly. Tipping the odds in our favor was that we knew right where the monster had bedded.
When we got back to the area we noticed his bed was empty. A quick search located him a few yards up the hill. He was on his feet and feeding his way around the hill. Hasty plans were made on the fly. We’d sneak up the opposite side of the hill, hope the hill pushed our scent over his head, then circle back behind him. We were at the 3 o’clock position on the hill, and the bull was at 9 o’clock. We had to sneak our way around the hill from the 3 o’clock position, until we were sneaking up behind and above him in a counter-clockwise fashion...from 12, then 11, then 10 o’clock positions.
Both guns were loaded and we dialed our scopes down to low power for the stalk. The odds were that if we got any shot at all, it would be close and fast. It was all business at this point. There was no looking at the scenery or congratulating ourselves on our good luck...it was pure business...we were here to stalk it and kill it. It’s something we had both done countless times before.
As we crouch-walked our way across the top of the hill the bull winded us. He came bolting from cover behind us. I saw Tony whirl around and I followed suit. Time moved slower now. I could see Tony dropping to one knee and as he dropped I could see the bull 150 yards away crashing out of the sage brush and pounding his way across this grassy hilltop.
This was the first elk I had ever seen, and it was the biggest, most awe inspiring, thunderous, charging spectacle I could imagine. I don’t remember getting to one knee, but I recall getting my sight picture. The crosshairs splayed across the most western scene one could imagine...a mature bull elk on a dead sprint across a high prairie with mountains in the background. I don’t know how much time passed but I remember losing focus, I distinctly recall thinking “man...look at those mountains...” It was the worst possible time for sightseeing, and I snapped out of it quickly.
I waited for Tony to fire, but he didn’t (he was surely waiting for me to fire) so I acquired a good sight picture, and sent him one. BOOM! On he ran...I needed to adjust my lead. Crosshairs lower, a little closer...BOOM! WHACK...the bullet hit home. Tony’s 7 mag barked now..BOOM! WHACK! I cycled the bolt effortlessly and with the right lead now in mind I got ahead of the great bull again...BOOM! WHACK!!! On he ran.
He had been hit solidly three times and he charged on as if nothing had happened. He was quartering away from us and running with great speed when he began to move down the back of the hill. I rose to my feet, amazed that he was still running, cycling the bolt as I stood. I brought the gun up as I watched him begin to descend the hill toward safety. Standing now, and shooting offhand, I had to acquire the back of a running bulls neck as he descended a hill almost 200 yards away. He could not be allowed off this hill. I don't know if I've ever been presented with a shot that held so much in the balance.
My breathing was fine, I was calm, I remember finding my sight picture and starting to take up what little trigger slack is in the gun...as I added more pressure and focused on my sights I saw the huge bull begin to shake. The top of his rack came out of alignment with the horizon as the wheels began to come off the bus. Quickly and in a very jerking fashion his giant rack began to shudder and fall over to the right. It shuddered and fell, then shuddered and fell until the great beast plowed into the earth. I never fired the fourth shot.
I stood there, dumbfounded. Did that really just happen? I was trying to make sense out of it all. How many times had I fired? How many times had I hit? How could that creature continue running unhindered while being pounded with a .30-06 and a 7 mag?
A quick walk over the crown of the hill and down the back side through the knee-high grass rewarded us with a sight we’d been longing to see for days. Months of planning, miles of hiking, and hours of watching, had all brought us to this point. We were now standing over the monster bull. I remember the color of the grass, the mountains in the background, the deep brown bases of his antlers and the polished white tips. This magnificent creature we had come to know through the binoculars over the past few days was now at our feet. There was no adrenaline, no high fiving, it was just a feeling of satisfaction. We had worked hard, and what we had accomplished was far beyond any hopes we had coming into this hunt.
Now the starlit morning hikes into the mountains were over, as were the long days of wandering carelessly around the sage-covered hills and aspen ridges of southeastern Idaho. Now all we had to look forward to was two full days of processing to get this beast in the freezer and ready for my trip home. Like we always say, it's all fun and games until you pull the trigger...then the work starts.
Untitled by scarfam, on Flickr
elk by scarfam, on Flickr