I’ve made a lot of friends in the vibrant hunting communities of Utah and southern Colorado, but I almost always hunt alone. The older I get, the more comfortable I’ve become spending cold nights by myself on the side of a mountain and slashing through thick underbrush in search of trailheads in the dark. In that way my recent hunts — even the unsuccessful ones — have been more fulfilling than ever.
During the 2008 season I learned that doing it my way doesn’t have to mean doing it alone. When elk hunting it helps to have a good friend or two by your side, particularly guys who know a lot about hunting in the mountains.
I first tried elk hunting with archery gear when I lived in Colorado during my early twenties and, although I got close to a few animals I never closed the deal. And I thought I might not get the chance again once I moved back home to Michigan in ’98. Five years later, here I was again in the rocky mountains.
Utah’s mountains are big and rugged in places, but they somehow don’t compare to the vast Colorado mountains, blanketed by thick timber except for the peaks, many of which rise above 14,000 feet, compared to Utah’s tallest mountain at just over 12,000. Utah however has more trophy elk in the record books than Colorado. At least I’m pretty sure Utah can claim more bulls above say, the 400 mark. Maybe not more than New Mexico . . . I do know that Utah truly is an elk hunting paradise and I was lucky enough to draw a coveted bull elk tag for the limited-entry Central Nebo unit.
I knew the area pretty well, at least a small part of it anyway. I had seen some big bulls during the two other times I’d been there, and each time I killed a cow, so I naively assumed all I had to do was find another group of cows in the same area and the bull would pop out somewhere. On my second day, I had passed up an easy, wide-open shot on a nice six-by-six bull after a few of his cows charged out of the timber, searching desperately for a lost calf they had just heard mewing.
After another week went by I began to think my decision to try for a bigger bull was a bit greedy. Although I’d been hearing the eerie, high-pitched screams for days I couldn’t seem to get within bow range. Even more worrisome was the gradually rising temperature; I was afraid those bulls would zip their lips altogether.
Sometime during the second week of the hunt as I scarfed down a much-needed french toast breakfast at a diner in town, I thought about that morning’s hunt, which included a couple of close encounters with bulls. Replaying it in my head drove me crazy. Bottom line: I needed good elk hunting tips, and I needed them NOW.
. . . But I want to do it on my own! Public land. Fair chase. Backbreaking, All-American, Tough Guy D.I.Y. BABY!
It was a hard thing to do, but after much deliberation I put in a call to my friend, Scott Stone, who knows the area well, and knows how to talk to elk.
“What am I doing wrong?” I asked. “Should I use the cow call? Should I sit on a wallow? Should I be bugling more? Should I strap on my running shoes and chase the screaming bastards down?”
I explained to him how bulls had responded to my calling, but time-after-time when I closed the distance, the wary old beasts would move another five hundred yards up or down the mountain. It was a maddening game that was testing my patience, while costing me thousands of calories I’d rather not have to replace again with unheated military food and powerbars. It didn’t seem to be working the way I’d seen on all the TV shows. Time was running out.
Scott had a permit to kill a spike or cow in the same area, and my call gave him the perfect excuse to take the next day off work. I told him were I was camping.
“I’ll meet you at 5:30 a.m.” he said.
Late that night, weary from days of hiking, I set up my one-man tent near a horse corral along the Nebo Loop road. The air was cold. Those bulls would be screaming soon. I had spent all year dreaming about elk hunting and now that I actually was elk hunting I felt as if each day a new wilderness dream emerged before me. And if I were a pitchman for (or wanted to get sued by) the Drury Brothers I might go so far as to say I was Living the Dream Season . . .
I was about to crawl into my sleeping bag and read my nightly dose of Ralph Waldo Emerson, when I had the urge to shoot my bow. I needed a confidence-builder, so I grabbed my foam target from the truck, flipped on the headlights, and shot five or six arrows from thirty yards. The first couple hit left about six inches, so I moved my pins a couple clicks left, and then shot a couple bull’s eyes before hitting the sack. Little did I know how important that sight adjustment would be.
I slid into my bag and into Emerson’s brilliant essay, Nature, picturing myself standing among the aspens at sunrise, the “transparent eyeball,” he talks about, perceiving everything while not being seen, not being anything. Erased among the leaves. Tomorrow I will transcend the dulled senses of modern man and attain a state of pure perception, a holy communion with rocks, grass and branches . . .
Scott was pretty excited to test out his calling skills and if anyone had elk hunting tips for Mt. Nebo it was him. The previous year he spent over 20 days there with a friend who passed up almost every decent bull Scott called in. When the guy finally took a shot, he missed, and never did fill his tag.
Going into our hunt, it’s safe to say that Scott had some demons, emotional baggage — whatever you want to call it. Maybe I could help him make up for last year’s failure. I was determined to exorcise his demons.
But how was some meat-hunter from Michigan going to close the deal on a trophy Utah bull in just one day?
The next morning Scott showed up with his friend, award-winning taxidermist Jimmy Lynn, who would be video-taping the hunt. I could only hope the pressure of being on camera would help me focus during moment of truth.
As the sun slowly rose, we headed down a trail from the top of the Nebo scenic byway, having left my vehicle at the bottom of the trail, some five miles down the hill.
Once we were a good mile in, we cut a few hundred yards due west, where we did some bugling, and inspected a well-used wallow Scott knew of. We heard a couple of bulls to our north, but the only action we had the first couple hours of calling was a small raghorn that walked up to Scott from behind. Jimmy and I never saw the bull, even though we were only twenty yards from Scott; a perfect example of how quiet these huge beasts can be.
Continuing west, we came up to a small, grassy bench, with scrub oak trees on the north shoulder in a patch maybe a quarter-acre in size, which dropped off steeply into a large section of dark timber.
It is here the mighty Wapiti finds peace and comfort, where he rests in his cool dirt bed, the shady tangle where he shreds the summer’s velvet from his antlers. This is the musky den where he thrashes trees to splinters with his massive cage of deadly lances, his hormonal rage intensifying with the shortening of days. And from this place came the scream of Ol’ Tripod, who apparently wanted every animal in the vicinity to know that this was his zone.
We took note of his message, and crept ever-so-slowly to the top edge of the timber, searching for the quietist way down. Luckily, elk had been running often through this timber, churning up the noisy detritus of dead bark and pine needles with soft, quiet soil, and making our descent into Tripod’s lair pretty stealthy.
The old bull let out another scream-grunt-chuckle, and he sounded about hundred yards away. The wind was in our favor, but there was always the chance that it could swirl back down into the timber, so we had to act pretty quickly.
Jimmy and I left our packs with Scott, who stayed back while we walked down the game trail about twenty yards. Jimmy hung behind me a bit with the video camera as I found a place to kneel down with some tight but reasonable shooting lanes. We gave Scott the signal, and he laid into his bugle, producing an awesome sound that convinced Ol’ Tripod that a younger bull was in his master bedroom.
The response was ferociously loud and guttural. Tripod sounded close, but we had yet to hear a stick break. Scott called back, throwing in some throaty chuckles. It was after Tripod’s second or third response that I heard some commotion, and I felt my bowstring coming back to touch my nose, as I watched the massive, golden beast walk through my fifty-five yard lane. He didn’t slow down, and my right arm relaxed the bow, again. He turned, coming right at me through a snarl of branches, but I dare not draw on him now. He turned to his left again, going toward my three-o’clock lane, at what I thought was only 16 yards or so.
I’ve always agreed with the practice of “picking your spot,” but as my bowstring came back, I noticed that three of my five sight pins were covering his vitals. A split-second decision: Either shoot him through a small gap, while he’s walking, or wait till he takes five more steps into the next shooting lane which would have put him about four yards to my right, with his nostrils fogging up the lens of Jimmy’s camera. It wasn’t the kind of video I wanted. There was no time for debate, only action. There would be no missing, no branches in way, no wounded beast. My arrow flew through the narrow gap in the trees, and deep into the side of Ol’ Tripod.
My Zen Warrior confidence immediately turned to nausea, and I feared a gut shot. But as he I lumbered off into the timber I could get a better view of the arrow and illuminated nock. It was a good hit. Ol’ Tripod could only manage a few hasty steps uphill before he also knew he was in trouble. Jimmy cow-called to get his attention again, and the bull stopped, but it was far too thick to offer a second shot, and he trotted away, before crashing to the ground a few seconds later.
Had I not made the critical sight adjustment the night before, I believe I would have shot a few inches to the left, leaving Tripod mortally wounded, but without much of a blood trail to follow.
As I realized I’d made a good hit, a flood of emotions grabbed hold of me, shaking me to tears. I was moved by a sorrow of his being gone, to a degree I hadn’t experienced when killing other deer or elk. And I had succeeded in achieving something I had dreamed about ever since I’d first seen a live elk in Colorado, some fourteen years ago. All the miles I’d hiked, all the mountains I’d climbed — they meant something more than just sight-seeing. And all the elk hunting tips I’d read in magazines didn’t mean anything when it came to the moment of truth. No one can be taught how to take the right shot at the right moment and make it count. I’d failed so many times — my shooting, my stalking, my filthy scent riding lightly on the breeze — but not this time.
Most of all I was thankful for the companions I had that day, because I realized that some things, if they are to be done correctly, must be a team effort. In the three hours I’d hunted with Scott and Jimmy, I learned more about elk hunting than I had in all the years I had chased them around by myself.
Had I brought down a good bull like Tripod on my own, getting him out would have been a major chore, which is another thing people need to think about before taking to the woods alone, especially in the early season, when temps are high. Sure, it’s possible to kill one on your own, and many pro hunters strive to glamorize the solo effort. But unless you’ve taken every measure possible to plan for a kill, and unless that plan involves other people and hopefully a horse, you might as well not even bring your bow along.
Is your plan realistic? Do you have extra water and food in your truck, so you can make the additional meat-hauling trips, without collapsing from exhaustion and dehydration? Can you really get hundreds of pounds of meat out of the woods by yourself, before it spoils?
When elk hunting in Colorado, Utah, or anywhere Out West, I carry the phone numbers of a couple guys with horses, as well as the home phone number of the local game processor, in case it’s very late at night and I need to get a dead deer out of the heat. I also make sure my schedule is flexible the day following a hunt, so I can spend time tracking or hauling out an animal, if need be.
Before Scott and Jimmy came into the picture, I had lined up a local guy with horses who agreed to pack my bull out. But Jimmy brought his own mule, Casper, up the following day along with another friend who also had a mule, and we packed out the heavy shoulder and leg quarters in short time. I managed to carry out Tripod’s head and cape, while Scott packed out the back straps and some neck meat.
I suppose the moral of my story is; getting some help when you’re deer or elk hunting doesn’t mean you didn’t do it on your own. You are the one with bow in your hand. And any animal killed with archery gear is a trophy. Taking an old beast like Tripod, on public land, with minimal travel and expenses is something I know I can be proud of.