Lightning strikes twice for one elk hunter
I heard the phone ring late Monday night. After he talked for a while, my dad yelled up the stairs for me to get out of bed and come down. This was never a good sign. Fourteen-year-old me wasn't much of a student and, most of the time, when the phone rang, I was in trouble. I moped down to find him smiling. I asked what was going on. He saw I was nervous, laughed and said, “You drew Dutton.”
I was in shock. I yelled, jumped around and woke up everyone in the house. When I finally calmed down, my dad sent me to back to bed. I couldn't sleep that night. I tossed and turned with visions of giant bulls in my head. The next day, I printed off a copy of the draw results and took them to school with me. I heard over and over again how lucky I was. Nobody draws an early rifle tag on one of the best units in the state with no bonus points. Nobody, that is, except for me!
Over the next few months, I drove everyone crazy. All I could think or talk about was elk. I read every magazine article I could find. My grandpa brought me back issues of Outdoor Life, American Hunter and Field and Stream. I skipped the whitetail stories are wore out the pages on elk hunting. By the time August rolled around I was a self proclaimed expert. We made one scouting trip in early September and located a nice 6 point bull. I was certain he would be coming home with me.
The hunt finally came after months of counting down the days. We rolled into our camping spot and right there I started to learn what elk hunting actually was. A huge wall tent and several trucks were parked in our spot. This was not going as I had imagined it in my head. We camped down the road, slept, and got up early. We made the hike we had planned in the dark and were where we wanted to be just in time to watch the hunters from the other camp kill the bull we were after. I was heartbroken. That was my bull. We spent the rest of the day looking for elk and didn’t see much. We decided to move to the other end of our unit and meet up with a good friend.
I ended up killing a 340” class bull the next day. He was heavy and pretty with one really strong side. I made some good shots on him at over 400 yards. My dad told me that he would most likely be the biggest bull I would ever kill. I told him I would draw again. He laughed, and told me I was probably right, but I would be an old man with kids when that happened. In the few weeks after I killed my bull people told me I was ruined. They said I should just quit hunting elk, that I could never top the bull I had killed. This was like throwing gas on fire. My whole life I have been motivated by the negativity of others. Every time somebody told me I was lucky I took it personally. I made it my goal to prove that killing a big bull wasn't a fluke; that I could do it again. It became my obsession and remains my drug of choice to this day.
In Utah, we have a five year waiting period after drawing a limited entry bull tag. I used the next five years to read and hunt as much as I could. As soon as it was over, I began applying for the Dutton again. I knew it would be a few years before I would even have a prayer of drawing so I started buying over-the-counter (OTC) tags and putting the hours into the open units. I would get off work, jump in my truck, fly up the mountain and hike into my spot. I would usually make it just in time to hunt the last hour of daylight. Finally, the second to last day of the 2008 season I killed my first OTC bull. He came into a cow call and I shot him at 30 yards. He was a 5 point with long front points and a step in the right direction.
In 2010, I tried my luck with a bow tag and was lucky enough to kill a 320” 6 point after calling him into eight yards. In 2013, as a team, my friends and I worked a small 4 point bull. In 2014, I accomplished my goal of killing a bigger bull than my first. He grossed 348” but had a few inches broken off; he was wide, beautiful and an old bull. I started to think that I had this elk hunting thing figured out. I was aware that as the years passed I was also getting closer to another chance at the Dutton. I was sure that if I could kill elk in the much more difficult open units, I could kill a monster up there.
In April 2015, I sat on my couch. My wife and son were out of town for the weekend. I had heard that credit cards were beginning to show charges for tags. I held my phone and refreshed my bank statement online over and over again. About 11 p.m., I checked for what felt like the thousandth time and there was the charge. I flew off the couch and yelled. I was going back to the Dutton after 15 long years.
First, I called my wife. She did her best to be excited for me. We were expecting our second child the week before the hunt was to start. Next, I called my dad and he laughed and congratulated me. We made some plans and I went to bed late. I had no trouble sleeping this time. I was an accomplished and seasoned elk hunter; this was a done deal. I made bold predictions to my friends about high scoring bulls. I told myself I couldn't fail. Even though this was the first time I would hunt elk with a muzzleloader, I was confident I would get it done.
I scouted all summer and planned my attack. I watched bulls and guessed scores. I called companies and looked for sponsorships, confident I would be able to produce an animal that would give them good publicity. I headed to the unit to hunt with all the confidence in the world and, once again, I got a lesson in what elk hunting was all about.
The place I had planned to camp was full of people. There wasn't a place to camp that wasn't occupied within ten miles of where I wanted to be. Fortunately, I lucked out and met a great guy from Colorado who let me share a camp spot with him.
I scouted a few days before the opener and found some nice bulls but no giants. The elk were rutting on and off. I was sure a giant would show up when the rut really got going.
Two nights before the opener, my brother, Josh, and brother-in-law, George, received some solid information on a giant bull. Some rifle hunters had tried unsuccessfully to kill what they were calling a “dinosaur” — a massive old 5 point bull that they believed would score between 380” to 390”.
We devoted the remainder of our scouting to finding him. We were unable to lay eyes on him, but were confident that our information was good.
Opening morning, we were waiting on the flat where the bull had been feeding at night. We saw several smaller bulls, but the giant never appeared. This pattern repeated over the next few days. Lots of elk, lots of rut activity, but no giant. Finally, on the fourth night, my hunting partner, Rich, was able to see him. He watched him for quite a while, but was never able to close the distance to muzzleloader range. He confirmed that the bull was everything we thought it was.
The next morning we were back in the area. We set up at first light just in time to see a giant bull leave the flat and go into the trees. We weren't sure if it was him, but we knew he was worth going after. As we decided how we would pursue the bull, we heard a bugle off to the west.
We climbed a small ridge to see if we could see where it came from. Rich spotted the bull first. “That's a giant right on the skyline,” he whispered as he looked through his binoculars.
I found the bull in my binoculars and confirmed he was right. It was a different huge bull. A perfect wide heavy 6 point. His beams were long and turned down after his fifths. Every point was long. He had the look. As we watched and analyzed him he suddenly became nervous. He spooked and ran directly to us. He was pushing around 20 cows and they ran under us at about 300 yards. We decided our best bet was an attempt to circle around them and call the bull in as he rounded up his cows. That's exactly what we did. We could hear him screaming in the cedars and it only took a few bugles to get him frantic. We could hear him thrashing trees and raking the ground. Every time he sounded off he was getting closer.
I decided to move to my left and work my way to where I could see better. As I moved, the bull came closer. He finally screamed and I could tell he was within 50 yards. The wind was blowing directly from him to me and I could smell him strongly. After a minute or two, I saw movement through the cedars. The white tips of his swords above a small juniper. He ducked his head and came right to me. Every time he would stop to investigate, Rich would call and he would come again. He finally walked out into the small wash that I was in.
I will never forget that huge bull ducking and turning his wide rack to fit between the cedars. He stopped, facing me at 20 yards. I had a clear shot at his chest, but for some reason I paused. I looked at every point. I knew this bull was more than 360” but I had my heart set on the big 5. The bull came closer and ended up within five yards. When he turned, I decided I couldn't pass.
Unfortunately, now, the bull was too close and he was mostly obstructed by the tree between us. I was kicking myself for passing on the first shot when I saw an opening the size of a grapefruit in the tree. Through it I could clearly see his neck. I went for it. When the smoke cleared, all we found were tracks headed for Arizona. No blood, no hair, no elk. My brother and friend watched him come out of those cedars on a dead run. We tracked him all the way out. I just flat missed. After we talked and I put on paper what I thought he would score we guessed him right around 375”. A bull of a lifetime. Well, maybe somebody's lifetime. Not mine.
The rest of the hunt became a blur. I did manage to see the big 5, but he was a long ways away. I saw bulls and had some amazing encounters. My uncle came and camped with me and I was able to help him fill his deer tag. I enjoyed many early mornings and beautiful sunsets. I had close calls, but never did get another chance at a giant. The second to last day I decided I was done. I spotted a bull 500 yards away and said, “I'm killing him and going home today.”
I caught up to the bull just as he tried to sneak in on a bigger bull’s cows. I sat down within 100 yards of the bigger bull. I glassed him, counted points and knew what he was. He wasn't 400” or anywhere close. He was a heavy antlered 300” class 6 point. I watched him feed and was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. I knew I was going to kill him and by so doing would admit defeat. I would admit that the mountain had won and that I would be cutting a 15 year tag on a bull that wouldn't be anywhere near my biggest. I contemplated letting him walk as I had with at least ten bulls bigger than him. I thought of my boys. One of which I had missed two weeks of the first month of his life. I thought of my wife, who was still exhausted from giving birth and was taking care of our little family.
I settled the crosshairs and ended it.
Later that day, as the bull hung in camp, I sat on my cot in the tent that had been home for the better part of a month. As the fall leaves fell against the canvas walls, I learned again what elk hunting really is. It's the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It’s the excitement of the shot and the anguish of missed opportunity. It can be the most gratifying thing in the world and, sometimes, it's just damn hard.
There have been many people who tell me to be proud of my hunt. Even in disappointment there is the satisfaction of knowing I gave it all I had. I filled my freezer with meat and had an amazing time with family as well as old and new friends. I had a world class experience even though it didn't end with a world class animal.
I always try to write down a summary of the hunts I go on, mostly so I can remember what they made me feel.
That last day in camp this is what I scribbled in my journal:
I always see people justify killing a small animal at the end of the hunt. They act like it’s a happy ending and what they wanted all along. I'll be a little more honest than that. I killed this bull because I was damn tired and done. I spent most of my hunt trying to kill one giant bull. He won. I lost. No use crying or being sentimental about it. After 14 days on the hill it’s time to go back to real life. No need to sit six feet behind him and try to make him look 400. He is what he is. I had a good time with friends and family. I had bulls screaming all around me many times. I saw 84 bulls total. At least 20 of which were in range. I missed a 375 bull in bow range, laid eyes on one of the biggest 5 points to ever walk the earth, and lived in the moment. I missed my wife and boys and now I'm headed back to them. This was a hell of a ride. I'll see you next year, September.
So, what is more important? The journey or the destination? The work or the reward? I guess that's something that we as hunters have to decide for ourselves. I can tell you that I haven't figured it out. Until I do, the quest goes on.