Burning lungs, throbbing knees, pounding heart.
The climb was brutal, but the elk were there. The only thing was, they were at 8,000 feet elevation and we were at, well, a little more than 6,000.
So up the mountain we went.
Four guys in hot pursuit of elk. Two good friends, a guy that works on their bows and knows his way around a camera, and myself in tow for the ride. We really didn’t know each other at all, but for that short time we were one in the same, about to make the cavalry charge up the mountain after the only real bull we had heard all day.
The story starts with myself getting into the elk woods for the first hunt after the big move to Idaho. I had done everything I could to prepare for the day, but didn’t do a whole lot of preparing for deciphering the calls of a terminator-tube-blowing human versus the calls of an actual bull elk. I made the mistake of getting close to what ultimately became fellow elk hunters out in the woods. While I pondered what to do, a group came meandering up the trail towards me. Thankfully they decided to stop and have a chat. We joked about what was going on in front of us and I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t lie to them about knowing it was a bunch of guys running around bugling at each other. A little white lie never hurt anybody though.
We talked about the lack of elk and the over abundance of hunters seen that morning. The lead man, a gruff, burly looking guy with a scruffy beard, looked like he had been chasing elk the entire month of September. The signs were there. The 5 o’clock shadow that had long since turned into the days old beard after the 5 o’clock shadow wore off. The busted knuckles from trees and brush. The beat up Phelps game calls bugle tube. The more we all talked, the more I started liking them. The two others bringing up the rear had all the same top of the line gear as the first, and the one at the end carried a camera on a monopod. I didn’t realize what I was about to get into, but that all changed once I figured out who I had actually been talking to.
This whole conversation shifted once I heard the lead guy mention how his feet still hurt from hunting down in Colorado with the Born and Raised crew. I came to the quick realization that the voice was so familiar because I had just heard it at the beginning of the week on the Meateater podcast. It was none other than Jason Phelps himself, along with pro staffer Tyson Drevniak, and cameraman Cody Simons. They joked about hunting their way out the opposite direction I was walking and then having to hitchhike back to the trucks at the top of the mountain, so I joked back that if they let me hunt with them that direction, I’d give them a lift to the top of the mountain. So we struck a deal. And needless to say, I was pumped. I tried my best not to fanboy it out, but I couldn’t help myself. I was texting my wife and dad, telling them what was going on, all while trying to hide my phone so I didn’t come off as being “that guy.” Of course my wife had no clue who I was talking about. My dad didn’t either since I had misspelled his name and they both thought I was talking about former Cleveland Indians baseball player Josh Phelps. Stupid autocorrect.
But I didn’t care anyway – I was just trying to live in the moment.
We marched our way single file back down the trail and got to the steepest area and Jason decided to let out a bugle to see what would come of it. And low and behold, a lazy bugle right back at us. I guess he does know what he’s doing after all. The decision was made to hoof it up over the top. I stayed in the back because I didn’t want to rock the boat. This was their hunt. They had the cameras, and I was just along for the ride. I wasn’t going to ruin anything for them, and was secretly hoping they arrowed a bull so I could help them pack it out. We got about halfway up the mountain and the bull is still responding back to nearly everything they say to him. We continue climbing. And calling. And climbing.
Nearing the top now and closing the distance. We’re probably less than 250 yards away and they’re starting to heat things up. I’ve heard of the slow play, and they’re (not surprisingly) working it perfectly. I’m just taking it all in. We get to our final spot at the top and decide we can’t get any closer without being seen. I’m still in the back, covering any sort of circling elk that could spoil the entire setup, but mainly just staying out of the way and hoping to have a front-row seat to anything that’s going to happen. Tyson is about 10 yards in front of me calling, and Jason is about 20 yards in front of him with his bow, with Cody in his right hip pocket with the camera.
It’s about this time that Tyson whispers to Jason something along the lines of, “Do you think he’s ready for a challenge?”
And Jason’s response, “Let him have it.”
So he ripped off a challenge bugle. I’ve seen animals in their respective breeding seasons respond in a manner that they’re going to do some butt kicking, but it’s a little different when you’re on the ground, and they’re three to four times your size. The bull in question showed up pretty fast after that challenge, fully ready to fight anything with an antler in its head. Unfortunately, he showed up higher than we hoped and all we could see was his back, head and antlers. Scanning. Looking. And finally trotting off the opposite direction – never to be seen again.
The show was over. We crossed the creek and I hauled them back up to the top of the mountain. I like not seeing other people when I’m out hunting, but I really hope I get to run into one of them in the future. I spent the rest of the season roaming those mountains, hoping to find that bull again, but something deep down in my gut hoped the bull Tyson later downed was that same bull that came in and ran away.
It doesn’t matter what the outcome is. It’s all about the experience.
Whether that’s in the elk woods or in everyday life, it’s what you take from the process rather than what the ultimate outcome is that means the most. That bull walked straight out of our lives forever, but the things I learned in such a short time were priceless. Just because something may seem hard or not worth it at the time doesn’t mean it won’t be worth it in the long run. Just because you don’t want to do something because your body or heart aches doesn’t mean you shouldn’t chase it.
Life’s ultimately about that chase. So get out there and chase it. Lose all inhibitions. Experience life and all it has to offer. And never, ever, let a bugle go unanswered.