It’s not often, at least for normal folk, to get a shot at hunting the biggest of Utah’s Rocky Mountain Elk. Every now and then, you, or somebody you know gets a shot at it, and when you do, it’s the beginning of many amazing stories that will stick with you for life. This is one of those.
One of my favorite parts about hunting, is the good company of family and friends. Elk hunting for those who haven’t done it, has a way of refining friendships. Like cream floating to the top, or the one M&M in a handful of trailmix. You see, you cant just go elk hunting with anyone. Much like an emergency call from the roadside on a dark winter’s night, you only call on those who you know, will answer.
I am lucky to have the best group of friends, some of whom are blood, and others that should be. And every year, when even the sun seems lethargic in its ascent, and the air turns cold coming down the mountain, with a smell of the forest, our minds and eyes are turned upward. The colorful beauty that comes every fall, brings dreams and hopes to every hunter who’s heart still beats.
This year was special, my brother in law had drawn one of the coveted limited entry bull tags, and the thought of ivory and bone was on all of our minds. It was his hunt, but I felt like it was as much my responsibility to make sure that we got a good bull. We spent as much time as our schedules would allow, searching the best places inside the unit. But on opening day, we found ourselves hunting the same few canyons that have brought us the most elk over the years. Familiarity is sometimes good with hunting, we know the land, the animals, and where they go when they get bothered.
It was in this familiar place that I’ve seen some very good bulls running around, so I was fairly confident that one would wander across our path. But it wasn’t until seven days later, that just such a bull would answer the call, literally.
We saw several bulls that first weekend, but only one I would deem a shooter. And unfortunately, I got a prime seat to stand and watch him, completely unawares. But the man with the rifle, was in an inopportune place, that kept him from making a shot. Days went by, though I had but little invested in this adventure, I could feel the days passing like bricks being stacked on your shoulders. The weather changes seemed like a good thing, but they failed to bring any bulls out of their deep hiding.
It wasn’t until the second to last day of the hunt that luck would trot our way, scraping his antlers through the quickly thinning aspens. The morning had brought a few inches of snow, usually I like that, because its easier to spot animals. But this storm seemed to keep the elk holed up tight in their hideouts. Afternoon came soon enough, and with it came the sun, liberating the whole mountain of the white blanket. In short time, the snow was soaked up into the hills, and it turned into quite a beautiful afternoon. Feeling that our luck had to be peaked, I knew that we had to close the deal that evening. A sense of anxiety that most of you probably understand, had my eyes running in overdrive, looking hard, trying to find not just an elk, but one we could take home.
As the afternoon breeze faded into evening, silence took hold of everything. I drew my grunt tube, and did my best to make vulgar and threatening sounds, sure to drive an excited bull into a pigeon chested rage. The silence brought back calls from several bulls, the closest of whom sounded to be just around the nose of the next ridge. After a few minutes, I continued my vocal assault, and he responded in turn, this time a little closer.
By this time, the sun was hidden from us, behind the pink clouds that hung low in the western sky. Light was quickly escaping us, we looked hard into the grove of trees where we suspected the bull was headed. Again and again I called to him, and each time he would answer, always closer. Our hearts were racing, knowing that any moment, any second, we might see the bull who would magnify our hunting stories forever.
I scoured the hillside through my Swarovski, searching for him. And as though he was waiting for an invitation, he finally stepped into view. I caught a glimpse of him walking towards us in the aspens, screaming what would be his last call. I judged the antlers as best I could in that short window, and announced to all that a shooter had joined the party.
It was now time to put a skill set to use, that had lain dormant for ten days. Luckily, we spend a good amount of time behind a rifle. And today that rifle was mine, a Desert Tech SRS A1 Covert. Days earlier, before I had left home, I installed one of my favorite barrels of all time, a twenty four inch 7MM Short Action Ultra Magnum that I commissioned from the good people at Short Action Customs several years earlier. My fondness for this barrel was born of an absurdly accurate pattern, and the ability to shoot heavy bullets in top fuel bracket speeds. My handloads consisted of the finest bullet available for the SAUM, a 183 Sierra Match King, pushed down the bore by 62ish grains of H4831SC at a scorching 3100fps. It literally was like a sharp rocket full of badgers and razor blades sitting on a box of dynamite, you DONT want to be in front of this damn thing.
Some 550 yards across the canyon, our bull stood quietly in the trees, knowing nothing of badgers and dynamite, nor did he know of very little elevation this laser beam of lead needed to reach out to him (1.9). As our bull stepped clear of the aspens that had afforded him security, the safety came off the rifle, and I watched intently as he slowly stopped. The suppressed sound of that SAUM going off startled no one, it was perfect timing. I watched the bull jump, and turn back into the trees, the quickly diminishing light made it hard to tell what had happened. But I knew one thing for sure, and it was like a warm blanket in cold wet tent, did I mention we slept in a cold wet tent? I knew that the SAUM was a golden hotrod, and I knew that though the bull appeared at last sight, to be moving under full steam, he was foreordained by the good folks at Sierra to become my dinner.
I lost him in the trees, but I quickly gave another yelp on the tube, in hopes to grab his attention, be it one last time. The mountain was silent, not even the breeze could be heard. No response came from our bull, and my warm blanket just got warmer.
Ive done some scary things in the past, but walking through bear and cougar infested woods, in the dark is probably in the top ten. I had to make sure, I had to put hands on him, and I had to do it then. I couldn’t wait til morning to scramble the rest of the crew, who still had a three hour drive to make just to get to the bottom of the hill. My brother in law had proven himself unworthy of crepuscular navigation, and there was no way I was taking my children with me down there. So it was my fate, to search out this bull, in the dark and quiet forest. I made extremely good time first descending and then climbing the opposite side of the canyon, my fear of bears and cougars fueled my hasty step. And with a flashlight and a .44Magnum in each hand, I searched with the guidance of my brother from across the way. In surprisingly short time, I had found our guy. He lay on his side, against a dead aspen, his antlers buried deep in the black soft earth. As usual, the size of these animals astonished me. I walked around him, taking it all in. Blood still flowed from the exit wound on his starboard side, foaming from his final breath escaping his lungs. The 183 had punched through both lungs, almost perfectly centered, leaving a 1.5-2 inch exit wound. I knelt beside this incredible animal, and cherished his beauty, grateful and reverent for his life, and what it would yield.
Phone calls were made, both to scramble our ready five team, as well as to keep my sanity as I made my way through the dark fallen timber on my way back to the truck. The following morning, we made our way back to the spot, and began the heavy labor of extricating such a huge animal. Packs were filled with meat, whole quarters hauled out over shoulders, even the kids helped.
The beauty of a sunny fall day surrounded by my closest friends and my kids doing what we love the most, it was almost a perfect day. One can only hope for days such as this one, the camaraderie shared when shoulder deep in meat and blood, when we share down to the last water, and last granola bar, brings people together like nothing else can. The manic high’s and lows brought on by such a high stakes hunt invigorate friendships and the memories last forever. We have two more weeks till the general season starts, better get to bed…