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Two days, three bulls

2014 has been a year that I will remember until my resting day. As a rancher in Nevada, we have had to bare witness to one of the worst droughts on record. Extremely low snowpack, little spring rains and the lack of irrigation water made this year one of the toughest to endure. It has been an emotional challenge for everyone involved, but with hardship comes strength, courage and lasting friendships. 

Lee Rankin and I have been hunting together since one fateful day at the top of the Toiyabe Range in central Nevada. Of course, we were hunting the same large typical buck that also called this mountain home, and as fate would have it, I gained a great friend that day. We have been all over the country together, from Montana, Utah, Arizona, South Dakota, and of course, to our home state of Nevada, chasing bulls and bucks. Every spring we apply to most of the western states for the chance to draw a once-in-a-lifetime tag. Also, like most applicants, we have seen more unsuccessful notices than successful, and this spring was no exception. With the reality of striking out everywhere else, we decided to head back to Montana to try our luck in a spot that was good to us a few years prior. Both Lee and I tagged out on great mature bulls, on the same day, within the same hour and only 400 yards apart. I harvested my best bull to date, a 330” gross six point and Lee tagged out on a great looking non-typical. So needless to say, the expectation had a lot to live up to. 

Dennis Lee's 2009 archery bull elk
I have been fortunate to become friends with another outstanding bowhunter named Tony Mudd. I'm sure most of you reading this article will recognize this name, but if you don't he is one of the most accomplished bowhunters in this country and especially when it comes to killing big mature bulls. As Tony and I got to know each other better over spring and summertime, I asked him if he would like to join Lee and I this fall in Montana. The answer was an immediate yes, but like Lee and I know, we all have crazy life schedules and he was worried he would not be able to make it due to prior commitments. So, I spent the next two months harassing him and sending him pictures of harvested bulls in the area, until I finally got him nailed down. Two cowboys and an old elk hunter from way back were now headed to Montana.

Headed to elk camp
Finally, September 12 was upon us and we were headed to elk camp. It's funny how the act of hunting and getting the chance to be in the mountains helps to ease all of our life worries. We were finally in the truck, headed down the highway and life just became a little more relaxed. 

Montana sunset

We arrived at the trailhead 14 hours later. We unloaded the horses, gave them a bite to eat and drink, and rolled out our bedrolls to get a few hours of sleep before the long ride in the next day. Morning came faster than I wanted, but the excitement and anticipation of being in Montana during the middle of September quickly removed the exhaustion.

Loading gear on the horses
With the horses loaded, we headed up the trail and began our six-hour ride to camp. It was such a gorgeous ride that morning, and I can still remember the crisp air and turning leaves on the way up the mountain.

Horses on the trail

Things just felt right, and that was really confirmed for me when halfway into the ride, we jumped a small bull off the creek. Once we reached the top of the summit and headed off of the backside toward camp, we were greeted with about 4 inches of leftover snow from a storm two days prior. How lucky were we? Snow, colder temperatures, middle of September and not a single fresh horse track in front of us! 

Hunting camp

Once we had the horses and camp put together, there was still about 2 hours of daylight left, so we packed up our gear and headed out for an evening hunt. About a half mile in, we stopped on a little bench and called. Immediately, we had an answer and he was close. Tony fell back to call and Lee and I moved into position. The bull came within 40 yards, but never offered a shot. He ended up slowly walking away and down the canyon, but what a great start to an unbelievable week. 

The next morning, we turned the horses loose in the meadow and started walking into an area Lee and I knew pretty well. It was dead quiet except the sounds of squirrels, birds and running water. No bugles or cows talking, and to be honest, I was starting to get worried. It was September 14, there was snow on the ground, and it was the prettiest elk habitat you have ever seen, but not a peep. Topping out on a small bench, Tony let out a bugle and instantly, we had an answer. The doubts and frustration were quickly erased with anticipation. It always amazes me how fast things can change in the elk woods.

Moving in on the elk
With the wind wrong and the bull circling around us we moved into a position to try to cut him off. This is where I got to witness elk calling at its finest. To say Tony is a great caller would be an understatement, he was able to call bull number two within 40 yards. Unfortunately, he hung up behind a big pine and I couldn't find an opening to sneak one through. The bull finally backed out and slipped away just as quietly as he came in, and I was left to repeat that famous line “I just needed one more step” to Tony and Lee.

Taking a break

We found an old familiar spot on our OnXmaps that I hunted in previous years and that's where we decided to head. Once we reached the meadow we decided to eat some lunch and rest awhile. It was 2 p.m., we slung our packs on, grabbed our bows, and hiked across the familiar meadow. Only 200 yards from where we had lunch, I passed a tree, and to my right stood a great 300” class bull. I slowly motioned to Tony and Lee to stop and the bull just trotted off into the timber. Tony immediately bugled and the meadow lit up. There were bulls everywhere and we walked right into their afternoon bedroom. 

Lee and I split off and set up while Tony fell back and started calling. I had a raghorn almost run me over at 30 yards twice, while the big bull played hide and seek in front of me, but just out of range. Lee was set up to my right, and when Tony let out a deep, challenging bugle and soon after, a different bull answered. Off the ridge, he came at a full run, bugling and looking for a fight. He stopped in front of Lee at 30 yards the first time, but was covered up by a tree. Here we go again, another bull that just needed to take one more step. 

Lee and his bull elk

He finally figured out something was up, and whirled back toward the ridge until a perfectly- timed cow call from Tony stopped him at 60 yards broadside in front of Lee, and the arrow was on its way. That unmistakable sound of an arrow leaving the string, and the thud of a broadhead hitting its mark filled the valley. Through my binoculars, I saw the arrow perfectly placed behind the bulls shoulder as he ran back up the hill. After the high fives, congratulations and replay of the events, we tracked Lee's bull up the ridge a few hundred yards to find a beautiful mature bull. His body was huge and Lee made a perfect shot to put this old warrior to rest.

Packing meat

It was 3 p.m. when we got to Lee's bull and we spent the next couple hours quartering him up and getting the meat hung to pack the next day. Since we were in bear country we all loaded our packs with as much as we could carry and headed back to camp, a good three-hour hike back. 

We headed out across the meadow, stopping to rest every so often. We hadn't made it more than a half a mile when a lone bull sounded off on the dry ridge in front of us. The three of us stopped and just smiled. Lee and I looked at each other and wondered could it really happen again? Another double?

Tony let out a bugle and there was no mistake — he was going to come in. At this point, all of us had about 70 pounds on our back and a three-hour walk back to camp, and it was already 6 p.m.. Tony turned to me and asked if I was sure that I wanted to do this, my reply was obvious. Of course I wanted to do this.

Tony and I worked our way toward the bull, and I set up another 60 yards in front. Tony fell back and bugled, and man, did that fire him up! He let out a loud bugle. I got to watch him march off the hill for a hundred yards, right at me. It is an experience I will never forget. My heart was trying to jump out of my chest. I remember when he reached the dead fall pile, thinking to myself that this would be it. I drew my bow back, and put my pin on the opening he had to come by at 25 yards. Once he stepped into the clearing, and my pin settled behind his shoulder, I squeezed the release.

Dennis Lee's archery bull elk
The arrow flew true and sank behind his shoulder, but just a touch back. I immediately grabbed another arrow, cow called and when he stopped at forty yards, the second arrow found the pocket behind his shoulder. He ran another 50 yards and expired. The three of us just sat in disbelief. Two mature bulls harvested within the same afternoon, and only half a mile apart. Lee and I had our second double, and it was only the first full day of hunting!

Two bulls in two days
Lee and I with our bulls from the same day.

Late night of packing elk meat
By this time, darkness was creeping in so we took pictures and went to work getting my bull cut up and hung in the tree. It was 9 p.m. when we finished and headed back to camp where we arrived just after midnight. 

Packing out two bull elk
The whole next day was spent packing the two bulls back to camp on the horses and reliving those moments of the previous day. 

Cooking elk tenderloins
That evening we cooked up some tenderloin for dinner, played some cards, had a few drinks and talked about the next day’s hunt. 

It was Tony's turn, and Lee and I were looking forward to watch and learn from one of the best. The wind was blowing harder that morning so we stopped and called more often to try to get a bull to hear us. It was pretty slow, until later in the morning when we finally got a bull to answer us. We fell off the ridge and played with one herd bull for a few hours, until he finally gave us the slip like old herd bulls do. For the next couple hours, we called into several different canyons with no luck. As we topped out on a dry ridge, we found ourselves in the same familiar meadow where Lee and I killed our bulls, just two days prior. There was a fresh rub and a bed at the top of the ridge that was used that night. So we decided to try it again. Tony let out a bugle, and just like the day before, we had an immediate answer.

Calling for elk
We worked our way off the ridge and set up on the edge of the timber. Tony worked his way out in front of Lee and I about 70 yards then let out another bugle, and the bull was immediately on his way.

Tony Mudd's archery bull elk
With a few cow calls from Lee and I, Tony stopped him broadside at 24 yards. One arrow through the heart, and just like that, we were tagged out! Three bulls in two days! Unbelievable.

Packing out the third bull elk

That afternoon, we finished quartering up Tony's bull and slowly made our way back to camp. 

Horses loaded with elk meat

The next day consisted of packing Tony's bull to camp on the horses and taking care of the heads, capes and meat. It was a bluebird day, in the mid 50s and I think we were all grateful.

Three bulls back at camp
Three bulls back at camp.

Elk meat ready for the horses
With a threat of a storm rolling in, the decision was made to load all of camp and the three bulls on the horses, and make the 10 mile walk back to the trucks the next day. There's nothing like having a great set of horses, and even though our feet and legs hurt when we reached the truck, there was certainly a feeling of accomplishment. 

Packing elk on the horses

The opportunity to pack into this gorgeous country and harvest three mature bulls with over 900 plus inches of bone in two days of hunting was simply humbling, and to experience it with two of my great friends was more than I could have ever asked for. 

Three friends, three archery bull elk

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