By Kurt Burnham
When I was a young boy, I remember being in my grandparent’s basement and seeing this huge set of elk antlers. I found out that my grandfather and father had shot him in 1952, when my dad was a senior in high school. Being a dumb kid, I asked my granddad if we could have them at our house when he died. Boy did I get in trouble for that one, but he said we should take them now. I was so excited; it was the biggest rack I had ever seen. We were very lucky to have them. Back then, a lot of them got left in the woods and my dad said if they would have had the cape, the Elks Club would have owned them as money was tight back then. When I was older, I had them scored; a nice 7×7 that grossed 338. At a very young age I had become a certifiable Elkaholic and have been mystified and enthralled by these greatest of creatures ever since.
I dreamed of someday harvesting a bull that would surpass this monster of my father’s, not realizing what a task this would be or how long it would take. It took many years just to hone my hunting skills and to study and learn the ways of the elk. One day, a friend asked if I wanted to go bow hunting with him. I had never heard an elk bugle till that day. I was instantly hooked! Within a few days I had my own bow. Since then, I have harvested many elk with several nice bulls in the 310-320 range. But the bull of my dreams was still a dream.
2014 came and I drew a trophy bull tag in one of Montana’s premier areas, along with a B tag for a cow. Maybe this would be the year! Because of my work schedule, I have Wednesday and Thursdayfor my weekend. It’s nice as fewer hunters are out, but I also end up hunting alone a lot. At least I can’t blame anyone for calling at the wrong time or getting busted in some way. So the first week I got out two full days and several evenings and saw lots of elk and one shooter bull. The next Wednesday, I was up early and hiking to a nice well-used elk trail in the dark to see what might happen when light came. I was surrounded with many bulls bugling and cows talking. Several cows came close but not close enough for me. I’m just not willing to take more than about a 40 yard shot. After about an hour, things quieted down so I decided to walk to the top of the ridge where I had a climbing tree stand stashed. When I got there, the elk on the back side were going nuts and seemed to be moving my way.
Somehow, I got the stand up the tree without spooking any. Not one came to where I could see them, and they seemed like they were bedding there. So I go back down the tree to see if I could close the distance. Many times I got close and could see bodies, only to have them move off. I just kept following as none were spooked. About 2:30 I laid down for a little nap and a couple of granola bars.
I called a buddy in Washington telling him that these elk never stopped bugling all day. He told me to go get one. About 4:00 I caught up to a bunch and a cow ran my way with a spike chasing her. Here came the herd bull to get her back; a very nice 6×6 in the 350 class, but he never stopped to give me a shot. They then wandered onto some private land where I could not follow. It was getting late and I was a LONG way from my truck when two bulls began screaming at each other. Should I leave and come back tomorrow? It was 4:30, so I decided to give it another hour. A half an hour later it sounded like I was standing right next to them. I came around a tree and there he was lying down, bugling at the bull across the draw not 50 yards away. A look through the binocs and I knew this was the biggest bull I had ever seen, but there was something really weird with his left antler. Another one of my dreams and I had spent countless hours hunting whitetails was to harvest an animal with a drop tine! Never did I think I would see a drop over a foot long and several inches in diameter. At last, I had found the maker of dreams but could I seal the deal? He would have to get up and move before I could even hope for a shot, so I spent the few minutes range-finding different trees and trying to calm myself. Suddenly, he stood and started to walk towards me. Could I get any luckier? He stopped for a scratch on a tree then turned broadside and gave me the perfect shot between my 30 and 35 yard trees. My height was good but too far to the rear. I waited 45 minutes, then followed his trail until I found my arrow. Dark red.Liver for sure. I got out my phone and called my friend Troy, who said to get out of there and leave him overnight. it was probably one of the hardest things I ever did. Thinking about it during the night, and I’m not a very religious person, it just seemed that a higher power was at work here. So many other things could of happened that day. I could have gotten a shot at a cow first thing, the elk could have quit bugling, or I might have killed the big 6×6. Somehow, this bull needed to be harvested and saved from his slow death over the winter. I also said quite a few prayers to let me find him in the morning. The next morning, after about an hour of sleep, Troy and I loaded up the mules and headed down a forest service trail that my GPS said should come close to where we needed to be. Troy is better than any bloodhound, so I put him on the trail and just followed along tying ribbons to where he found blood. We had only gone a couple of hundred yards when I saw some crows fly up. Sure enough, there lay the bull of my dreams. After many pictures, we got him quartered and loaded onto my old mule, Roxy, who I’ve had since she was born, 20 years ago. She had probably been dreaming she was retired, as I’ve been training 3 new young mules, but I just couldn’t trust this bull to anyone but the old pro. She agreed to pack one more out as long as I let her eat along the way. My daughter took the pictures I sent her and put them on her Facebook page and he just went viral. I started getting calls from people I didn’t even know, telling me I had to get in touch with this or that person as this was a very well known bull that the locals had been collecting pictures and sheds of for years. They called him the “Big Dropper.” Got to say they did a good job keeping him a secret, as I never knew he existed until five minutes before I shot, and I only live a dozen miles away. He is believed to be between 13-15 years old. We will know for sure when FWP gets the teeth aged. He would probably have not made it another winter, as at some point, probably at least a year ago, he had caught another bull’s tine in his mouth, resulting in a broken jaw, a big hole in the roof of his mouth into the sinuses, and the loss of his right eye. His body was starting to show signs of malnutrition, but he was still bugling like he was the king of the mountain. About a week later, one of the local experts arranged a meeting with most of the people who had sheds from this bull. We got some great pics of him with 4 sets and 3 single sheds from previous years. It was a great time hearing about this magnificent animal and what he had done and where he had been over the last decade or so. We even had a toast to the old guy, with some jerky I had just made from him; although one lady just couldn’t bring herself to eat any of her buddy. To be able to harvest an animal of this magnitude and history in probably the last year of his life, after hopefully passing on those great genes to many offspring, and the enjoyment he brought to so many people and to top it off doing it with my bow, is so much more than I could ever have dreamt. I just hope if I am dreaming, I never wake up. What a great testament to Montana’s elk management program. I just pray we can keep the predators under control so they don’t destroy what took almost 3 decades to accomplish.
That day, I made a trip to my dad’s to tell him that dreams do come true, sometimes it just takes 40 or so years. I had finally topped his 7×7 with an 8×13. He was thrilled and I know he wished that his Parkinson’s disease didn’t prevent him from being there with me; of course, then he would probably have two monsters and I would still be chasing my dreams.