By David Melling
Fourteen years is a long time. It seems even longer when you’re waiting on a limited entry elk tag. I realize a lot of hunters wait even much longer than this before they draw, but it was long enough for me. I thought for sure I was going to draw with thirteen points. I had studied the odds and was totally convinced it was my turn. Thank you and try again next year was the only response I received when the emails started coming. I knew it wasn’t good when everyone’s credit cards were being hit and mine had a big old nothing on it. I must admit at the time I was pretty disappointed. Although time never passes quickly enough when you have to be patient, before you knew it it was that time again. This time my luck had changed. The fourteen year old drought was finally over and fall couldn’t get here quick enough. Much to my surprise I found out quickly my good friend and hunting partner Stan had drawn the same tag with just twelve points. Christmas came early for him this year and he was ecstatic!
We spent the next several months pouring over maps and talking to anyone that had advice trying to figure out what the best strategy would be. We had hunted the area twice before in previous years with friends who had drawn. Both had taken nice bulls so we were not coming in totally blind. Little did I know at the time what a great education this whole experience would end up being before it was all said and done. We spent all summer on the four wheelers looking at miles of country and new places we hadn’t been. We even put up a camera and had a few friends with cameras out as well. We spent both early mornings and evenings glassing from advantage points when we could and went on several hikes. When the bow hunt started we had some good leads from what some of them had seen. There was a lot of anticipation as the hunt got closer.
Just prior to the hunt I went to Idaho one weekend to borrow two horses from my dad. There were some areas we wanted to ride into and look at and I was excited about it. I don’t claim to be a great cowboy but I have been around horses most of my life. It was a real shock to me the morning we left early to go for a ride and one of the horses had a blowup in the trailer. He hit his head so hard on the partition in the middle that he died right on the spot. That was Labor Day weekend before the hunt and was a bad day to be me. I must admit it put me in somewhat of a funk for a few days because I just couldn’t believe it happened.
Due to a work trip scheduled nearly a year in advance I was not able to hunt the first two days of the hunt. I honestly wasn’t that worried although missing the opener would never be my first choice. When I arrived at camp late in the evening I hurriedly unpacked my gear and began wondering what the next six days of hunting would bring.
That night I didn’t sleep too well. About 4 am I woke up to the sound of a light rain falling on the tent. The elk had been pretty quiet the first few days I was told but the rain set them off and for the next hour or better they seemed to be bugling everywhere. If you have never experienced a true bugle fest it is something you will never forget. I was up way earlier than I needed to be eating breakfast and packing my pack. I couldn’t wait for first light and was anxious to get after it!
I don’t know what it is about being in the mountains on a warm fall day trying to sneak through the pines and aspens as quietly as you can, but to me there is no better therapy in the world. Sometimes luck is on your side and you witness some incredible things. I had probably been walking about an hour and had stumbled across some great wallows in the bottom of a canyon. There was good sign around them and they were quite secluded from any easy access. I quickly marked them on my GPS and started working up through the pines on the ridge just above them. I had not gone far when I busted a cow and a calf that had been bedded down. I watched them trot off and had a pretty good look at them, when I took a few more steps and there seventy five yards away was a nice bull looking the other way. I could see about three quarters of his body and the back part of his rack but the rest of him was hid behind a tree. He never did see me but knew something was up, and then quietly walked away momentarily out of my view. I saw him one other time but could not see him very well and then he was gone. He ended up walking right into my friends. They had him at thirty yards and both decided he was a shooter. If he would take just one step either way they would have a perfect shot. As luck would have it he turned and walked directly away from them and they never had a chance. They figured he was in the 340 to 350 range, I didn’t really know. Score doesn’t really mean that much to me as long as it’s something you like. I think for me it was just too early in the hunt and I probably have watched too many videos. To me even though he was a great bull, I just wasn’t even tempted. It was way too early in the hunt to be done!
One night after sitting on a wallow with no luck as the sun started to set the bugling from a distance started to heat up. We got within about a hundred yards of the most action packed bugling I had ever witnessed. There were several smaller five and six point bulls all chasing each other around the cows and it was constant bugling for over twenty minutes. We had a front row seat and it was pretty intense but there were no shooters. I was amazed at the number of small bulls we were seeing, but when you have waited fourteen years for a tag I was set on something with some serious “wow” factor to it. I don’t know how many bulls I had passed on by this time, but the truth was we were having so much fun we were in no rush to have it all be over. I had probably passed on one bull that maybe I should have taken a crack at. I only saw him momentarily and probably could have taken a shot, but he was gone about as quickly as I saw him. He was really long and was definitely a different caliber of some of the others we had been seeing. It was good to know there were some good ones in the area.
Stan was first to connect on his bull. There were three of us hunting together but we were close to a bull bugling and it was just too hard to be quiet with all the foliage and dry conditions so we decided to split up. It had probably been an hour since we split when the crack of a rifle broke the morning silence. The shots were close and I turned to my friend Cliff and said I wonder if that was Stan? I know sooner said that when Stan was calling on the radio and the excitement in his voice answered the question. He had been chasing a bugle into the pines when a cow busted him. Right behind the cow at twenty five yards a nice bull walked out and was looking at him straight on. From the time of the shots to the call of the radio was literally just a few seconds it seemed. He was standing by his bull he said and we both commented, “Man…he must have been close!” After giving us the GPS coordinates we walked right to him, which wasn’t far, and relived the play by play. He was an awesome symmetrical six point with great mass from top to bottom. It took some real doing to get him where we could take some good pictures as steep and tangled as he was, but it wasn’t long before the texts were flying and the posy was on the way to help with the pack out. One down, one to go. It was awesome!
We had plenty of help for the pack out so I stayed on the mountain that night and hunted until dark by myself. It was the most incredible night of elk hunting I had ever had. I passed on six bulls that evening with constant screaming for several hours. Right before dark I found a new spot we had not hunted before. It got dark on me too quick and I was right in the thick of things and although I could see silhouettes bugling and chasing around, it was just too dark to see detail. It was a healthy walk to the four wheeler so I marked the spot on my GPS and couldn’t’ wait until morning.
On the way out I was walking across a small boulder field when a rock went out from under me and I took a nasty fall. I landed right on my hip and I knew immediately it wasn’t good. What made things worse was although I had not dropped my gun, the way I landed my scope hit hard right on a rock. I was not happy! My hip immediately had swollen up about the size of a softball and I was worried my gun was now off. What made things worse I was still a long ways from the wheeler. I managed to get off the mountain and was lucky to get a signal on a borrowed phone so I told my friend to bring me his gun when they met me in the morning. It was the last day and I wasn’t taking any chances as I had no time to check my rifle.
Morning came early as I met my two friends in the dark at the cutoff. It was the last day for me and I felt very confident, but yet hoped I wasn’t having tag soup before the end of the day. It is amazing the pressure you can put on yourself after fourteen years of waiting and realizing your time is now short. Go big or go home was what I had been telling everyone, but the truth was I wanted to pull the trigger. I had been told earlier in the week that sometimes you just have to enjoy the hunt and not get so caught up on size. The wisdom of those words was becoming more of a reality to me as now was my last chance. I began to realize that even if I chose not to feel my tag, I don’t know how the whole experience to this point could have been any better. You just don’t see every day what we had witnessed the past week up close and personal. Throw in the time spent with friends and family with all of the memories, does it really get any better? But it was still early and we had a lot of daylight still in front of us. Besides, I still hadn’t even got to the honey hole I had found the night before. Although my hip was still sore I still had renewed confidence now packing my friends 300 Short Mag that we knew was still on.
It was not long and we were sitting by a wallow and several cows with their calves came in for a drink with a couple of smaller bulls chasing around and going nuts. One of the bulls actually laid down in the wallow and was bugling. That was awesome! The cows about walked over us before we moved and then they busted. Even after that the bulls were still running around screaming. No shooters however and daylight was burning so time to move on.
Shortly thereafter we were right in the thick of things once again. We had not gone far down the hill when a bull bugled both to the left of us and another straight below. My friends both quickly spotted a bull not far from us in the quakies in their binoculars and both felt he was a shooter. I looked and looked but for some reason due to angle or whatever could never find him. He finally moved just a little and I got a quick glimpse but then he was gone. They both felt he was the best bull we had seen yet with great swords and great mass which added to my frustration. Why couldn’t I see him? As we moved down the hill towards where we thought he had gone another bull screamed right below us and he was close! We all dropped to our knees and I was ready to shoot when just right below us up from this ravine horns started to appear. He was only about ten yards when he came in full view and Stan had the camera going. Although he was a nice bull and looked great on one side, he was kind of crabby on the other so I selected to pass. With just a few hours of daylight left my friend thought I was nuts, but it was not what I wanted and how could I settle for something like this when I had been holding out all week and they had just seen a giant!
After sitting on a wallow for a while and only seeing a cow and some wild turkeys we hiked up to the top of yet another hill and sat on a log. It was getting close to five pm in the afternoon and although I was still trying to stay optimistic I remember thinking tag soup might really become a reality. I had told myself that was ok if I couldn’t find what I wanted, but who really wants to eat a tag when you have waited fourteen years. I didn’t know it at the time but my friend took a picture of me as I was looking the other way standing leaning against a tree which he later described as the ultimate photo summing up all of my frustration. He may have been right. The bugling had quieted down compared to earlier in the day which is why we were resting trying to decide where to go next. About this time an elk bugled below us so we were off once again.
We had not gone far when Stan said he could see a bull down in the wallow about a hundred yards below us. Once again I couldn’t see him although I could hear him bugling and carrying on. He said his horns are all muddy but he looks to have good mass and a great sword. I think you should take him! I kept trying to move and get where I could see between all the trees but still I saw nothing. Talk about frustrating! About this time Steve said he could see him as well. He agreed from his quick look he had a good sword with good mass. He kept whispering as late as we are in the hunt I think you will be happy. About this time I was in a better position and as I looked down the hill he stepped into view on a slow walk. I was looking through the scope and had a short window of opportunity if I was going to squeeze off a shot. I quickly agreed with their analogy and let one go. I knew immediately he was hit as after the recoil I saw that familiar lunge in the air. It was almost dark thirty on my last day and I thought I had finally connected. What a relief! I was of course anxious to go have a look, but we decided it was best to give it a few minutes before we quietly slipped in. However many minutes it was seemed like an eternity and finally I had to go look. About fifty yards from where I had shot he was piled up and he looked awesome! He wasn’t the biggest bull on the mountain but his mass from top to bottom was impressive and his horns were covered in mud. He was a solid symmetrical six on both sides and I was happy! There would be no tag soup for me this evening but instead back strap!
After taking a bunch of photos and getting him all caped and quartered it was pitch dark. My other good friend Devin and his boy Hunter had showed up by then and between him and Stan they took turns packing out my cape and horns. I was grateful for good buddies who still had some energy. Between my blistered feet, swollen hip and sore back I was gassed. Six days of intense hunting had taken its toll. It was after 3 am when we crawled into bed and would return in the morning with horses to retrieve the meat. That ended up being the most spectacular view of fall colors riding out that I can ever recall. The reds and yellows were just off the charts spectacular!
Fourteen years is a long time to wait for an elk tag, but it’s an experience of a lifetime once it’s finally your turn. I can’t wait until next year and hope somebody’s got a tag!