By Tony J Bernardo
Like many of you, I have been entering the Limited Entry Elk Draw for the state of Utah for many, many years. Fifteen years to be exact before I was lucky enough to receive my letter from the DWR that finally read “Successful”.
I am now 57 years old, but I still remember every detail of going on my first deer hunt with my dad at the tender age of six. Aside from throwing up as I watched my dad gut and clean his buck, I was hooked and I knew that I wanted to be a hunter too.
I was lucky enough to marry into a hunting family. We always talked about hunting elk along with deer, but never quite made it to the ‘Big Time”. When the state of Utah revamped the Limited Entry Draw program in about 1994, my brother-in-law Mike and I decided to start putting in our applications together so when we did draw out, we could hunt together. Somehow, we missed the first couple of years and we were behind the maximum points by two points. We didn’t think much about this until we kept receiving ‘unsuccessful’ letters. As we researched the point system and how it worked, we realized it would probably be quite a few years before we were chosen to hunt elk on the ‘Limited Entry’, (and it was.)
My son, Brett started two years later to put in for the draw, so we never put in together. We always figured putting in separate would at least allow us to share in each others’ hunts. As it turned out, my son drew a ‘successful’ letter the same year that Mike and I drew out. We had chosen the Wasatch Early Rifle Hunt and Brett had a friend who was going to guide us as he had been successful on the archery hunt the previous year, and he really knew the area quite well. As it turned out, a family member of this friend had drawn out in the Boulder Unit and he wouldn’t be able to help us after all.
Brett, Mike and I have harvested many deer over the years, but none of us had ever hunted or killed an elk! We were soon to find out that hunting elk is very different than hunting deer. Nevertheless, we were very excited and confident that we were going to have the ‘hunt of a lifetime’ as we were going to hunt elk in the September rut.
We made a couple of summer scouting trips in the Wasatch area and Brett actually hiked in about 3 miles to the area where we wanted to start our hunt.
Opening day started on a Saturday and the weather report showed rain on Friday and Saturday morning. As we drove to our area on Friday, the road was muddy and slick. Mike was in his truck hauling a pop-up trailer and had a few scary moments trying to get up the mountain. Brett and I followed behind and a couple of times we couldn’t believe that he was able to stay on the road. If he had seen what we were seeing, he wouldn’t have kept going. Anyway, we made it to our campsite without too much damage to Mike’s trailer. It rained all night, and the alarm went off at 4:00 am. I remember making the comment, “I’ve waited fifteen years for this, let’s go hunting”.
The area we had chosen to hunt was a ‘no vehicle/horses only’ area and it was a three mile hike in. We walked in the dark and rain for about two hours and when we reached the area we had wanted to hunt, the rain just kept pouring down. We hunkered down for about another hour under some trees, but it was wet and miserable. As it got light, we were able to move around some and I told Mike and Brett that I was in favor of walking back to the truck and getting some dry clothes. We had all week to hunt and the weather was going to clear up. Both of them agreed, and we started our three mile hike back. At least it was light and the clouds began to break. We could see blue sky heading our way.
As novice elk hunters, we expected to hear elk bugling all over the mountainside, believe me, this did not happen. We were almost back to the truck when Mike stopped and said he thought he heard a bugle. We listened and Brett decided to cow call back. As soon as he made the call, the bull bugled back at us at a distance of a few hundred yards. We waited a couple of seconds and cow called again . . . another bugle from the bull, only now much closer. Since Mike was the first to hear the bugle, we let him be the first to shoot if the opportunity happened. Brett and I got behind him and were covered by a tree. Mike knelt down. Brett gave another cow call and this time we could hear the bull coming through the trees! He was snorting and breaking branches as he came. Just as quickly, the bull appeared through an opening at about 75 yards. He was a mature bull and Brett and I yelled at Mike to shoot . . . BOOM, he did exactly that! The bull whirled and ran back into the trees. Mike moved into the trees; the bull was down but quickly jumped up and ran. Mike took another shot and down he came. We let him lay for a while, but Mike had to shoot a third time to finish him off. This was probably the most incredible hunting experience that I have ever been a part of. To hear the 6×6 bull bugle and cow call back and have him close the distance so quickly . . . to hear him crashing through the trees, snorting and grunting as he came to what he thought was a hot cow, WOW! Our blood was pumping. The scene couldn’t have been better scripted on the Outdoor Channel.
With the first bull down came another first for the three of us. None of us had ever dressed out an elk. I had read and heard about a ‘gutless clean’ and was very intrigued by the method. I found a website and watched the video numerous times in preparation for this moment. It was Mike’s bull so I guided him through the directions that I had memorized. It actually went quite well and we were very pleased with the results. We were able to pack out the four quarters and back straps to the truck in just a couple of hours. It was hard work.
We did a little hunting on Saturday afternoon. We heard elk, but didn’t see any and decided that we would try a different canyon come Sunday. As Brett and I, along with two friends started walking in from the bottom of this canyon, we split up and went to different draws. I was on my own. I immediately heard bulls bugling in the direction that Brett had gone. My area was quiet. I mewed a couple cow calls. The area was thick with trees but there were little pockets of open area that was lush with grasses and an abundance of evidence that elk had been in this area. About two hours into Sunday mornings hunt I decided to start moving toward where I knew Brett was. I could hear the mountain singing with bugling. As I worked my way slowly through the trees, I spotted a bull elk sneaking toward me. Wow, the quick look I had of him showed he was a mature bull with long brow tines. I decided that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. One shot through the vitals with my Remington 270 brought this guy sliding down a grassy hillside, almost to my feet. He was a 5×6 and I took one more shot to finish him off. Finally, after fifteen years I had taken my first elk!! I was alone at the time thinking that my cousin, who had joined us, would be working his way back to where I was, especially after hearing shots. I later found out that he had hiked toward Brett and they were in the middle of their own bugling war, surrounded by numerous bulls. But seeing that I was alone, I had to put my own ‘gutless cleaning’ skills to work. I was able to remove one front quarter and one hind quarter by myself and get the meat into game bags. I set this aside in a shady area. However, the sun was starting to rise over the mountain and I knew the second half of my job was going to be tougher as I was getting hot and tired. To my amazement I heard and saw a man and two young boys about a hundred yards away walking toward me, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was my other brother-in-law and his two sons. They were able to get cell coverage and had called Brett to find out where we were. Brett told him that he was sure that I had killed an elk, but he couldn’t come to help because he was in the middle of his own hunt. (I later found out that Brett never saw any elk that morning, but he could hear bulls within 50 yards of his calling.)
Anyway, with Scott’s help I was able to finish with the quartering of my elk and get all the meat to a shady area. Brett’s friend Brandon had made it up the mountain that morning with his horses and he helped me pack out my 5×6 bull.
My son went back into this same area Sunday evening. He ran into some other hunters and watched them take a 3×3 smaller bull. He waited for dusk and the elk herd finally came out of the trees at about 800 yards. Brett saw multiple bulls but it was too late to make a move to get closer.
Monday morning arrived and it was back into the same area he’d seen the elk the night before. Accounting for the wind direction and the movement of the herd, putting himself in the right spot took some hiking back up the mountain, circling around. The morning continued with bulls bugling, but it was apparent that the herd knew that intruders were present. After some time Brett heard an aggressive and mature bull bugle and caught a glimpse of what he was sure was the herd bull. When he heard him bugle he was sure this was the biggest bull in the bunch. He ranged him at 450 yards and decided he would try the shot with his Remington 7mm. He pulled the trigger and hit the bull in the left, front shoulder. Immediately the mountain erupted with elk in every direction. The bull moved into the trees and as Brett made his way toward where the bull had been hit, elk continued to move all around him. Another 6×6 bull came out into the open, but Brett was sure it wasn’t his bull, that his shot had hit home. He found his way to a blood trail. Brandon, Kevin, and Brett decided to split up to look for the bull. Keeping in touch by radio, they were able to track the bull as he moved first up the mountain and then back down, in and out of the trees. Finally, after about two hours of this cat and mouse game Brett was able to locate the 6×6 bull at 100 yards and take him down.
I know this story seems too good to be true. Three inexperienced elk hunters had taken 3 mature bulls in 3 days. Father, son, and brother-in-law who had waited fifteen years for this special, amazing hunt, and the best part was being able to do it together. Brett’s bull was the largest of the three, but all three are proudly displayed in our garages.