Swinging my leg over the endless downed logs that crossed our path at every turn had quickly become a cruel joke. It was midnight, maybe later, maybe earlier. I was too exhausted to care or be sure. The 85 pound backpack loaded with fresh elk meat tried to pull me over with every misstep, and my world was limited to the shallow cone of pale light cast from my headlamp — blown-down timber, branches, stars and endless darkness beyond. We were still two hours from the vehicle. I cinched the waist belt down hard and staggered on.
Rewinding the clock roughly 36 hours earlier found Josh and I hiking in to a spot on the map, our destination a flat spot for camp where we would hunt elk and deer for the next few days. Several hours later found us pounding in the last pegs on the shelter, hanging the bear bag and organizing our gear for the early morning start. As darkness settled in around us and we dug into our freeze dried dinners, a single rising bugle broke the silence not 200 yards away. Along with the two diminutive owls that kept us company from the upper branches of a pine tree, we took the lone bugle so close to camp as a good omen. Opening day could not come soon enough.
My good friend and hunting partner Josh had rolled a lucky 7 on this hunt, and drawn a bull tag for archery or rifle season. I was still able to hunt elk but limited to a cow only, which according to the biologists were numerous. Josh had already enjoyed success in the prior week during the Idaho opener, taking a nice healthy cow elk at 42 yards with his bow. With a head-start on filling the freezer, Josh was understandably going to be selective and hold out for a very good bull.
The opening day weather prediction was for rain, cooler temps and fog. Thankfully the rain never showed up in full force, but the fog settled in like wet smoke — we could barely see 50 yards, and everything beyond was like looking through gauze. The day started as slow as the fog moving from one canyon to the next, with no bugles to be heard or elk spotted. Setting up and cow calling produced zero results, and the entire mountainside was eerily quiet considering the massive amount of sign surrounding us; it was like showing up an hour after the party had ended. We knew the elk had been there, but they were ghosts now.
We scanned maps and the GPS seeking out areas that would hold elk, all the while very aware of the fact that while we had brought in more water with us than usual, our searches for seeps and small springs in likely areas had come up bone dry. Only damp, mossy bottoms and the white-washed stones of once running streams were all that remained. We might run out of water before we ran out of hunting days. The fact of it weighed on us, and that we may slog back out to the truck to restock on water, burning our hunt time rapidly. Such are the risks when hunting a new area for the first time, with only limited scouting opportunities.
Checking the map one last time, we turned our attention from the brushy creek bottoms to the steep hill in front of us, where we would climb up and top out on a long, wide ridgeline, covered with elk sign. Rubs and droppings were numerous. The elk themselves, were mysteriously not. Josh and I still-hunted our way through the timber, glassing as we went. Settling in to the fact that we may end this day, and frankly, the entire hunt without seeing an elk, I began to hike more than hunt. And as happens so quickly, the hunt went from dejection to opportunity in the blink of an eye.
At the moment the arrow made contact, the massive bull exploded away, with beating hooves and breaking brush left in his wake. Josh’s face said it all — he couldn’t believe what had happened, and it happened in an instant…
Not a minute prior as we were slowly walking through the timber, a tall, heavy rack appeared just over the curve of the hillside to the west. The swaggering motion told me the bull was walking, unhurried, directly parallel to our own path, just out of sight. His travel would put him within striking distance of Josh in the next 10 seconds. I watched as Josh knocked an arrow, slowly gained a few critical yards closer and drew his bow, waiting for an opening. The bull continued on his path, unaware. At 40 yards, the bull eased into a small gap between several trees, hesitating at Josh’s cow call. With my eyes glued to the bull, I heard the release of the bow and the unmistakable thwack as the arrow found its mark.
The blood trailing ended up being a bit nerve-wracking, with long gaps of little or no blood, but in the end, a large tan shape emerged through the timber, putting our fears to rest. Walking up on the bull, his body size and rack did nothing but grow. In a word, he was massive. Easily the largest bull Josh had taken, and one of the biggest bulls either of us had seen up close, it was a once in a lifetime hunting experience and riding ‘co-pilot’ on the hunt, I was glad to have seen it firsthand.
All of the day’s frustrations, concerns and hopes culminated in a minute-long opportunity that could have so easily been missed. We could have taken longer to get to the top, or stopped to tie a bootlace or grab a quick bite to eat, the moment vanishing along with the massive bull into the timber. I have always been a believer that hunting is as much about luck as it is about skill, and today cemented that belief.
With photos out of the way, Josh and I began working on breaking the bull down into manageable loads. Nothing about handling this bull was going to be easy, and it took both of us pushing and pulling to get him into position on the steep hillside so we could carve out backstraps and remove quarters, his enormity pinned against a cluster of small, spindly pine trees. Darkness fell quickly, and with everything hung in the trees, we slowly headed out with the first of several heavy loads, exhausted. The hike out was a blur for me, and by the end, I was operating solely on auto-pilot putting one boot in front of the other, navigating by GPS, compass and the stars to the truck. As all backcountry elk hunters can attest to, nothing prepares you fully for that kind of fatigue, where you are worn down to your core. Shrugging off the pack on the tailgate, I looked at my watch — 2:20am. From the time the arrow hit until now, nearly 12 hours.
Even though I didn’t have a bull tag or a shot opportunity at a cow, it was still a very rewarding hunt; what started out as a 4-day adventure with high hopes ended up being one of the longest, hardest “day hunts” either of us had endured, with a once in a lifetime bull at the end of it all.