Have you ever had a hunting season that was so overwhelmingly challenging? Or a season where everything seemed to go wrong? That’s how my 2020 elk season was going. During the archery hunt in September, I was hunting every second I wasn’t at work. I put in more stalks on big bulls than I could count. And messed up just as many. I climbed thousands of feet in elevation and crossed tens of miles on foot. I had many, many failures. But I just kept telling myself…All it takes is one.
About 10 AM, I saw a herd of elk moving on the horizon about a mile away. There were 8 cows and I could tell one was a larger bull. They were moving quickly and headed to the canyon opposite of me. I took off across the canyon on foot hoping I would intercept them on the other side. When I climbed to the other side I saw a smaller draw. And no elk. I figured since I had hiked this far I would look around. I looked down the draw and saw a spike bull elk.
Where there’s one, there’s more. My motto this year had been “When you think you’ve seen all the elk, look again.” I waited for a couple minutes and from the bottom of the draw, came out a bigger 5 point bull. They were about 500 yards away. I decided to stalk in on them. Because I had been archery hunting the whole month prior, I decided to use some of that knowledge to help me close the distance. I don’t really like shooting over 200 yards, anyways.
The thermals were shifting up, carrying the smell of the sage brush with it. There was a small side hill I could use to keep me out of sight. I climbed halfway up the opposite hill and used it to stay out of sight. When I had closed the gap to about 300 yards, a couple of trucks popped over the opposite side of the hill. The trucks stopped for a minute, looked, and then continued to drive on. I assume they didn’t even see the elk and probably saw me. They might have even asked themselves what I was doing down there by myself.
Even though the trucks came close, I didn’t see the elk come out. I crept forward further. I popped up over the hill just where I thought they had been. No elk. They must have funneled out right below me. I walked towards the bottom of the draw, just to see if I could find their tracks and figure out which direction they went. I’ve learned you don’t leave elk to find elk. When I was 40 yards from the draw, 4 bull elk came out of the bottom. We surprised each other. I don’t think they knew what I was, though because they couldn’t smell me. Thinking quickly, I dropped behind the nearest sage brush and dug in my pocket for my reed call. I let out a couple of cow calls and they stopped on the hill opposite of me 100 yards away. I jacked a bullet into the barrel of my rifle, opened the scope, and started scanning antlers. Spike….5 point….6 point….lopsided antlers. I lined up on the one with lopsided antlers not even taking a good look at his antlers. He was standing full broadside. BOOM!
The shot felt good. But all 4 elk took off down towards the bottom of the draw. I jacked in another bullet and lined up for another shot but they never stopped. I watched them drop down out of sight for a second and then head up the other side. Only 3 came back out of the bottom.
My adrenaline had me shaking like a leaf so I decided I would wait for a few minutes to see if that bull decided to pop up. After a few minutes, I thought I would go check for blood. I went to where the bull was standing when I shot. I found small drops of blood so I knew I had hit him.
I followed his path, my stomach sinking a bit more with every step. I hoped I didn’t just injure him. After following blood for about 50 yards, I looked up. There was an antler in the sage brush in the bottom. It looked like his head was up. I lined up on him for another shot. I cow called a couple times while keeping my eyes on him. His ear didn’t even twitch.
I had heard horror stories of people walking up on animals they assumed were down only to be gored after startling an animal in pain. I had my rifle trained on him the entire time I walked up just to make sure. Being out there by myself, I wasn’t going to take any chances.
Once I was sure he was down, I let out a sigh of relief. That’s when I got a good look at him. He was the coolest bull I had ever seen! A regular 6 point on the one side but the other side was sticking straight out from the side of his head. It looked like he had two main beams, and one of them was where a brow tine should have been. I have always had a soft spot for a-typicals and this guy was one of the best.
And then the hard work began. I had never gutted an animal all by myself before, let alone quartered out an elk. I had my work cut out for me.
I worked deliberately and tried to be quick. The sun was starting to beat down and I could feel the temperature rising. I started getting the hide off him and worked off the front quarter. I took off the bottom part of his leg. It was then that I noticed the sheer size of the animal I had just taken. His hooves were as big as my hand. With every hunt, I admire and respect these animals even more.
Then I got the backstraps off. I tucked his hind leg underneath him, grabbed him by the head, and rolled him over. Dust went everywhere. From there I was able to get his other front quarter off. I worked on the hind quarters trying to follow the bone. I think I missed meat on the first hind quarter I tried to take off. I guess these are just things you learn by doing them. I feel like I did better on the second hind quarter. Each hind quarter weighed a TON. I dragged all the meat into the shade.
I was exhausted from the heat. I could feel my skin starting to sunburn. I had to get to the Jeep and it was going to be a long hike back. I looked around and noticed that there was a road less than 50 yards away from where the bull fell. I grabbed my gun and started my long trek back to the jeep. When I was about halfway back to the jeep I called to let everyone know that I had an elk down. Brandon was so excited he called up Troy and Ethan and they all decided they wanted to help me pack him out. I told them it wouldn’t be much of a pack out since he was so close to a road but they insisted.
I feel like I could have done a better job processing him in the field. But that’s a skill that takes time to develop. I learned a lot that day in the field by myself. We hauled the meat to the truck and loaded the antlers on a pack frame as the sun faded away.
Words cannot express the feeling of taking the antlers out. It meant something very significant. The hunt had ended. After over a month of hunting the hardest I ever had, it had come to a triumphant end. I had gotten my first bull elk. I had done my first successful solo hunt.
We got back to town after dark. We sat around and talked about his antlers and speculated how he could have possibly ended up with a rack like that. We talked about stories from the day’s events. We told hunting stories from the past. We talked about hunts in the future and what adventures they may hold. I could have stayed in that moment for an eternity.
The day was over. Brandon and I went inside. He poured us each a small glass of Lagavulin whiskey. We save this for special occasions and this occasion felt right. But we didn’t drink to successful hunts and animals killed. We drank to firsts: to first experiences, to learning, to growth, and to triumphs. This year has been full of firsts. And I can’t wait for the next one.