Day 1: Stalking Goliath
We got to the mountain late Friday night, threw our stuff out of the truck at camp, and started hunting. Within the first hour of hiking ridge tops, a quick locater bugle was answered with a scream. We made our way into the next bowl and a bull was on the opposite slope looking our way. My hunting partner was a ways ahead of me and our first attempt to communicate using hand signals was a bit clumsy.
He wanted me to stalk down and up the slope, but, considering he was ahead of me and at a much better elevation to stay out of sight, I retreated behind the hill we had just come from to watch. He made the stalk and as he was headed up the hill a big bull came out of nowhere from the next bowl. He walked along the ridge and after some grazing & beating up a juniper he bedded. I thought my friend had surely heard the bull right above him but the slope made it impossible to see his giant body and rack bedded just above. The smaller bull he originally went after grazed up the slope, clueless. By the time the bull was in his view he had spooked and stood up but there was no time to range and shoot.
He barked and with a few swift strides he was gone. We hiked back to the truck in the dark. My friend abruptly stopped and I followed suit. He had heard a rattle and then seen a banded rock rattlesnake. I was unsettled but had seen pictures of this small venomous snake before and found them intriguing.
When we were almost back to the truck we spotted two more bulls. One of them was a monster with a behemoth body and rack, so we dubbed him Goliath. With only minutes left of shooting light we crouched in the grass and tried to entice him to come closer, but he refused. Having seen multiple bulls and Goliath in just one evening we ended the day full of optimism and excitement for the adventure to come. We headed back to setup camp, make dinner and strategize for day 2.
Day 2: Dark timber
The morning started off with chasing a bugle above our camp to no avail. Glassing a bowl I spotted a white object lying in the grass. Sure enough, I finally picked up a nice elk shed, my biggest yet. We switched gears for the evening hunt, hiking deep into the timbered forest. It was almost too thick to see but with the bulls shut up, locating through glass was our only option.
Eventually a spotting session paid off with finding two bulls bedded on the opposite ridge. It was getting close to dark but we had time to make the stalk. We dropped in and setup but the bulls didn’t talk back and didn’t come in. We made our way up the hill hoping to maybe jump them, but they slipped away in silence. We started the long hike back to camp.
Day 3: First chance
We were on a ridge at first light. As shapes came into view and the sky filled with color we made out two bulls grazing a high meadow. They grazed while we covered ground below, darting from tree to tree. One of the pair was a hog but even when he bedded on the steep vegetated slope it was nearly impossible to pin him down. I stared into a tiny gap in the trees watching for for glimpses of antlers as he adjusted his giant head.
Before we could plan a stalk thermals kicked in and wafted up the canyon. The bulls dumped over the next ridge and easily disappeared. We hydrated and refueled then hiked even deeper into the forest. We spotted two nice bulls another ridge away and started making our way to them, always mindful of where we could down a bull and retrieve the meat with no spoilage. With highs in the 80’s and lows in the 50’s getting out a bull elk with just my friend and I would be grueling. On our approach we jumped two young bulls. Once again my friend was about 10 yards ahead of me down the slope. We crouched and while he started cow calling I knocked an arrow. He told me to stand, the bull was coming.
Right before I knew I’d be within view I drew back. I had practiced 1 minute holds but it’s different with an elk in your sight. I fought the instinct to settle my pin and release, keeping my elbow at an angle for leverage and calming my breath as he took one slow step after another. I held for what seemed like an eternity as he made his way to us looking for cows. He was a younger bull and lucky for him he walked up right behind a downed tree. Even though he was quartered to me he was close and I felt confident I could hit lungs and kill him quickly. I adjusted my sight to line up with vitals and let an arrow fly. It slammed into a branch and deflected.
The scared bull ran down the slope and stopped broadside. My friend shot but the steep slope threw off his range. The arrow fly over the bull’s back. Little did we know this was the first of two solid opportunities that were blessings in disguise. I learned a lot from this first shot situation and was grateful for a clean miss.
Day 4: Deserted
Having seen 7 bulls the day before we returned to the same spot. We found an old cabin and some gorgeous meadows but only one bull during our long 12 hour day. Once again, we made our way to his canyon and setup but he never responded to calling. It seemed like we had worked the elk too hard the day before and they pushed off to the west and south. Not to mention the large herd of wild donkeys whose presence was maddening. Intermittently throughout the day we’d hear the stomp of hooves followed by the most obnoxious hee-hawing sound in the world.
They disrupt the wildlife and simply don’t belong on the landscape in the numbers we observed. The next day we either needed to switch spots or go even deeper. The thought of going even deeper with only two of us just didn’t seem doable. The problem wasn’t getting in, but getting out with an entire elk and only two packers. I had been training all year but at 5 foot 4 and 117 lbs., I can only haul so much elk at once. We had to be realistic. Although I had dreamed of killing my first elk for months, recovering our animals and their meat was by far our top priority. The day wasn’t lost.
My friend glassed up a monster hard white, bigger than mine and with amazing mass on the main beam. He strapped the heavy antler on his pack and we worked through canyon after canyon, desperately listening for a bugle or any sign of the many animals we found the day before. By now this route was familiar, making navigation simpler, but the mental grind a bit tougher. We kept moving and listening, knowing that perseverance and grit was the only hope we had to harvest in this tough public unit with hardly any road access.
Day 4: Through fear – Part 1
After hours of glassing I spotted a cow on a far away slope. Four bulls then dropped into the same canyon and we moved to cut them off. I had gone one way, my partner another. I couldn’t find them and moved had already moved back up the hill to glass when they ran right by my previous position. Another chance blown. I was dejected and we decided to either stay together or make lone stalks. Little did I know I’d soon have the best stalk opportunity of our 9 day trip. But I felt like a terrible hunter. Of course I should have been more patient, should have glassed harder, should have stayed in position.
Minutes later he spotted a solid 6x bedded under a rocky outcropping. He prepped me as I dropped my pack. I ran behind the backside of the peak bow in hand, careful to avoid cactus and clanking shale. I reached the saddle and took off my shoes to start a slow descent. Afternoon thermals pushed the wind up the slope and provided some sound cover. I panned over to my friend with my binos for the occasional thumbs up that the bull was unaware. I picked each step carefully, placing my feet on rocks and avoiding crunchy bunch grass.
Finally. I made it to the bluff and ranged the ledge below to get my bearings. It was all within my range of 50 yards max. He may have heard my feet settle on the steep rocky slope because he stood up. I saw antlers and knew he’d cross my lane but when I tried to draw back I failed, either from bull fever or trying to draw more subtly. He started leaving. I drew back swiftly the second time and cow called. He stopped broadside. I released an arrow that flew over his back, misjudging because of a steep angle. Tears flowed as I was sure this was my perfect chance. I blew it. Although I didn’t seal the deal I got within 25 yards of a big bull, and that was a win. We spent the afternoon calling a herd bull but never got close enough to make him come fight. That was the start of a very long night.
Day 5: Through fear – Part 2
Focused on bulls we lost track of time. Before we know it dusk was approaching and our water supply was running low. I had worn my trail runners because my boots had rubbed my ankle raw. As we stared our trek back we walked through a deep arroyo split by a large shrub pile. My partner went right and thought he heard a rattle. I started to go left and upon my first step a long black snake slithered into the pile. My heart stopped. I told him it was only a garter snake and we should keep moving, more aware than ever of my poor footwear (Great for bow hunting, not for rattlesnake infested rock piles).
I made it around the shrub pile and not 20 seconds later as we climbed up the bank an aggressive rattle sounded off from the rock pile below our feet. My friend located the source and we cautiously moved past it. I froze, fear in my eyes and afraid to go on. It seemed like they were everywhere and we had many miles of hiking in the dark to climb out of the canyon and reach the safety and relief of the truck. He told me to take a deep breath and keep moving. They always warn you, he said. I did.
I reclaimed my composure and was on high alert as we ascended the canyon, walking over rocky slopes perfect for the banded rock rattlers that live here. We went over many more rock piles and climbed cliff bands in the dark with one hand gripping my bow and another grasping for the next sure hold. We finally summited and a wave of relief swept over me. Then, he spotted two pairs of large glowing eyes in a tree on the canyon’s edge.
He told me to jump the fence while he made sure they winded us to know we weren’t prey. We couldn’t be sure if they were bobcats or mountain lions but they were cats. One set of eyes leaping from the tree to crouch in the high grass. We hurried to put distance between us, glancing back to make sure we weren’t being followed. When we finally reached the truck I was exhausted. I had never experienced such intense uneasiness for an extended period of time. That night I had to dig deep to take the next step and focus on my senses to stay safe. I later read a saying that rings true when I think about this experience “The only way past fear is through it.”
Day 6: Dejected
We hunted hard the first 5 days, as in dawn til dusk hiking and glassing 10 – 15 miles a day, hard. My legs were spent and my heels completely raw. I had already missed two shots and doubt filled my mind. Am I strong enough to keep going? Can I keep up with my hunting partner and beat the the physical exhaustion and the rattlesnakes? He spotted a large group of bedded elk. We got within range to bugle and “steal” his cows and three bulls roared to life. This is what we came for. I stood under a tree with an arrow knocked. I had eyes on two of the bulls but only heard the third. He was coming in hot and I knew he might surprise us. Before I could turn 180 to face the other lane I heard hooves and he was broadside at 30 yards. I turned to shoot but he spooked and ran off. That was close.
My hunting partner was frustrated. So was I. I know animals are unpredictable and this was just like turkey hunting, but with a 500 pound giant. How in the world did I mess that up? I told my friend to hunt alone. I wasn’t executing and wanted to quit, or at least that’s what I said. It was his turn and it would be easier with me out of the way.
Day 6: Impact
Within a few emotional minutes we had talked it out and relocated the herd a canyon away. The bigger bull descended into the plains with his harem, screaming at the smaller bull who was on our slope to stay the hell away. We crept through the grass when we spotted his cows only 40 yards away. The wind swirled and with a few alert glances our direction the cows sensed predators and started leaving. My friend cow called to calm them then bugled. The curious bull came to see his opponent. We both knocked arrows as the bull’s antlers came into view. Another bugle brought him closer. His head and neck rising above the tall grass. I tried to draw and couldn’t. My wrist sling was too tight making it impossible to anchor and draw back. I told my friend to shoot.
As he drew back I removed my hand from the wrist sling, gripped my bow and drew back. I settled my pin at 40, eyeballing the range and waiting for my partner’s shot. When after a few seconds he didn’t shoot I released my arrow. The bull ran. At first I thought I sent another arrow into the abyss, missing my target, but my friend promptly said “You got him.” The lethal frontal shot hit a main artery and lungs. I watched the bull intently, praying for a quick death and smooth recovery. Once the bull was down my worry and reverence turned to disbelief. I couldn’t believe it and warm happy tears streamed down my face. Grateful for the harvest and for the unforgettable moment. My mouth gaped as we approached the bull’s massive body. I took a few minutes to admire him and soak in the moment before we started breaking him down. We placed the meat in game bags and nestled them in a juniper until we could return in the morning for the second load. With as much meat as we could carry we clicked our headlamps on and started the 2.5 mile hike back to the truck. We didn’t think it could get any better, but then again, we didn’t know how good the next day would be.
Day 7: Serendipity
We were back at my kill site at dawn. My legs ached from the previous 6 days but I found new energy in carrying out my first elk. The meat kept well cooling in the canyon air overnight, but we needed to get it on ice. I struggled to stand but welcomed the simple, singular task. My rapid-fire brain cleared completely and for the next few hours all that mattered was the next step. Staying high on ridges and dodging verticals we made it 1.5 miles before the morning heat forced a break. He dropped the tagged head from his cumbersome load so we could finish the last leg of the trip more quickly. We delivered the meat for hanging and were back on the same mountain by late afternoon.
We would hunt this area until we hiked out at dusk with my elk’s rack. The elk were blown out of where we had seen them so we covered new ground, making a long climb to the highest slope. He reached into his bino case and realized it was empty. He was so tired he had left them on the last ridge. We backtracked and found his glass, deciding we should get to camp early tonight and rest. Tomorrow was the last day of the hunt and the last chance to kill his first elk. When we reached my elk rack he let out a meager cow call into the empty air, expecting silence in return.
Out of nowhere, a bull roared back within 100 yards. Our eyes widened with disbelief. He saw some cows and told me to lay down slowly. With good wind he made his way to some tree cover, intermittently screaming back at the hot bull to cut him off. The bull grew furious, thrashing a small tree and giving perfect sight and sound cover. When the bull finally stilled and stood broadside my friend sent a perfectly placed arrow through both lungs. I couldn’t see the shot but heard the thwack. Triumphant, he raised his bow in the air and a muffled celebration followed. We had filled two tags in the same area, back-to-back days.
Placing our final load of racks in the truck we popped open a couple cheap, cold beers, reveling in the highs and lows of the hunt and cherishing the opportunity to overcome. We had both found a new level of grit and determination and knew we’d leave that mountain better hunters and better humans.