feature By: Phillippe Freeman | July, 19
I was prone on the crest of a ridge in 2 inches of snow for an hour with the biggest bull in 40 years of hunting in the crosshairs, waiting for the shot. This can test a man, I thought. The bull was asleep with its rear turned to the business end of a magnum .338. There was no choice but to wait. A light breeze blew along the barrel. There had been time to calm down and set up due to the lifting fog that provided cover to get into position.
Then the silence was shattered by the growl of a mountain lion. All I knew was it was behind me, and I was stuck in the open with more than 100 elk in view. I had to ask myself if I was being hunted, or if the cat was just telling me it was there. For 19 years and 11 days, I had waited for this moment. To confront the trouble behind would mean spooking the elk in front of me.
Five months of physical training, enduring brutal ascents and descents on this hunt, 19 years of waiting for this special tag, three decades of reloading, weekly range time at the local shooting range and fine-tuning rifles for this kind of hunt were all about to be wiped away. I couldn’t believe this was about to happen, and I wrestled with an argument I was about to have with God about my predicament. It didn’t seem fair.
It was obvious there would be physical and mental challenges if the goal was a 350-inch-class bull. Prepping for the physical portion required dedication, but there’s no way to train for the mental side. It was not about the size of the bull, but it should be big and should have special character.
Within the first 20 minutes of the hunt, I was confronted with shooting a respectable 330-inch symmetrical and beautiful 6x6 bull. I turned away. Each day teased the crosshairs with 330- to 350-inch-class elk. By day 10, I vowed I would not settle if I could not find one of four special elk I knew about. The first was a wide-framed bull we could not find in the first two days. Only a blurred image from a spotting scope and cellphone remains to remember it by.
A small army of men were targeting one of the bulls on the list, but I was not at all enthused about sharing a mountainside with so many people in that manner. The quest brought our hunt into deeper canyons on the third day. A large bull was found, and the crosshairs were on it.
This bull was really inaccessible to most hunters, and I felt I could come back for it and look for another bull in the meantime. Unfortunately, the next day one of my favorite bulls, a large and symmetrical 7x7 was taken by another hunter.
In the event that I could not connect on a bull in the first few days, I had arranged with Blue Mountain Adventures to help me beginning the fifth day. I was told about a big 7x7 that had been located. My hunting partner Rob Mederos and I climbed into a canyon the next morning to look for the bull.
Rob, an accomplished mountaineer, volunteered to accompany me even though he had no tag of his own. Upon finding the 7x7, my guide Andrew Tenneson was astounded how quickly we turned that bull down to go back to find the bull we left in the deep canyon two days before. It was an easy decision, even with the 7x7 on top of a canyon near a road and the other bull at the bottom of a very deep canyon with no roads.
During our descent back into this canyon with a 2,500-foot vertical drop, Rob reminded me it takes a special kind of someone not to have shot the bull I passed up a few days ago. It was a special kind of dumb.
We chased that bull so deep into those canyons during the last hour of light we had to make the decision to stay on that bull for the night rather than endure another brutal hike in and out. We figured we would find it the next morning and close the deal.
We made a lean-to then realized how poor our judgment was. If the wolves howling did not keep us up, the wet and near-freezing atmosphere, mild hyperthermia and shivering did. At 3a.m. we could no longer endure it and built a good fire. After first light, a search for more than four hours produced no sign of the bull.
Our guides had no idea what we were up to. We had no food, and we felt obligated to get out of that country and make contact with them so they would know we were safe. Resigned now, I had to admit to myself that if I had to finish the season without a bull, it was okay.
On the tenth day, we split up to look at more animals. One of the guides in camp, Adam Kelley, called to say he had spotted the famed elk we gave up on earlier due to the amount of hunters and spotters going after it.
It was the tenth day of my hunt, but it was the fourteenth day into this particular season, and we were shocked the bull had not been shot, given the small army of men after it. There were stories that the bull was shot at a few times during this season and that it disappeared. One hunter had almost a dozen guys helping, and others had plenty of help, too. How could it be no one had shot it?
I charged down the side of the mountain with my guide Andrew through steep terrain in snow, through thick underbrush and deadfall trees with no apparent path for even a rabbit to navigate until we got within 300 yards of the ridge the bull was on. These downhill charges seemed to require as much physical energy as going back up them, and we were now soaking wet from sweat.
As luck would have it, the wind shifted. We felt it on our wet, sweaty necks and looked at each other immediately and knew the inevitable was about to happen . . .
and it did. The bull was with a herd, and they winded us and casually went up the mountain and around us toward an area that had a very large bench the elk had frequented. We decided not to follow right away and hunkered under the trees then built a fire to dry off and keep warm.
Around 3:30 p.m., we started our slow hunt back along the herd’s tracks, toward the area with the bench in the side of the mountain. The herd was spread out, and we ended up in the middle of it. I was looking at smaller bulls only 70 yards away as they again snuck off. It was like they had become accustomed to a casual hide-and-seek game rather than leaving the county due to our presence.
We backed out of the area and returned to camp to devise a plan for the morning. Andrew and Adam had young families at home and needed to leave the next day but said they would help me at first light.
As many of our mornings started, the fog had engulfed the top of the mountain, preventing visibility of the ridges on which we hoped to spot the bull. We saw few hunters the day before, and on that morning as well. There were only five days left in the season, so most of them had tagged out and left.
At first light, Adam and I had the large bench covered well, but we heard a shot in the direction we last thought my bull would be. One shot – probably a lethal hit on a bull. It was deflating, but not an absolute failure. The wind shifted and threatened to take our scent in the direction where we were hoping the elk might be, so reluctantly we backed off the side of the mountain, again.
We returned to camp and I began to help Andrew and Adam pack up when we got a call from the outfitter, Bob Staples, of Blue Mountain Adventures from LaGrande, Oregon. Through the fog he could see some cow elk on the ridges where we were searching for the bull. It was also in the area. We heard a shot, but Bob said that these elk were bedded down and calm. Could it be that this was the same herd and that the large bull was still with it?
The fog began to thin. Bob thought he could see at least one good bull in this herd but could not confirm it was the one. It was time to make a move and take a chance. I left the younger guides to pack camp and get back to their families, and charged down the mountain from a different direction. This was the worst descent I made down this mountain. It was steeper, with rocks covered in 2 inches of snow, and the choking cherry bushes and deadfall were worse than the last descent, plus I was charging through them with a sense of urgency. I felt I might have the jump on others if the bull was actually there.
Reaching a ridge I plotted to be roughly even in elevation to where Bob reported seeing the bull, I got word from him that he could confirm it was the bull I was looking for. The fog was lifting, but I could only see cows. I got into position on the snow-covered grassy crest of the ridge opposite from the bull, which was bedded only 50 yards from where we sat by a fire the day before. After 20 minutes of laying in the same position, the fog lifted.
Finding the bull took two seconds. It was on the crest of the opposite ridge. This was the bull that other hunters and elk enthusiasts we encountered had dubbed the “Face” bull because of its propensity for living on the face of this mountain.
The valley was now bathed in sunlight. On the opposite ridge, long main frames and many tines rose above one large-bodied elk, and its antlers were gold in color, not brown, nor ivory tipped. Just golden, with many tines.
The wind was in my face, but there was no shot to the vitals – just the large rump of the biggest bull elk ever in my crosshairs. From the bull’s bed there were no windows for anyone else to see and shoot this bull, and it would take someone two hours to access “my ridge.” I had it made.
I didn’t bank on a mountain lion. From the sound of it, the cat was less than 50 yards behind me. It was time to make a decision. I would be totally exposed to the entire elk herd if I stood up from my prone position on the open ridge to confront the lion.
Our group had seen four cougars in the past week, and the heightened awareness began to work in my brain. I imagined what it would feel like to have a 100-pound cat pounce on my back and sink claw and fang into me.
Convinced that if it was seeking a meal, it would not have given me warning growls. Since it was behind me, it must have walked into my scent (I had not showered in nine days) and was upset about my presence. Keeping the bull elk in the crosshairs, I rotated my binocular to the back of my neck to shield me from a bite. After five minutes, the cougar was forgotten. The mental challenge was about to pay huge dividends.
After an hour of maintaining the same prone position on wet snow, the bull in the crosshairs stood to its feet. It held its position with its hind end straight toward my rifle barrel. There was no ethical or lethal shot. The bull could take two steps and go down the other side of the ridge without offering a shot. My arguments with God started again. I had to trust that the bull would present a quartering-away or a broadside shot, so I stayed steady and released the safety on my .338 Allen Express.
The bull stepped to the right and then took a second step that put it broadside. The moment the second step hit the ground, I sent a 270-grain bullet right through its heart. The bull tumbled 8 yards away from the spot where it had been bedded.
I was alone on the mountainside with a dead cellphone battery and nobody to share this highly charged moment in my life. Like a kid pretending to have scored the winning touchdown of the Super Bowl, with very stiff muscles I might add, I danced and jumped up and down in triumph.
Approaching the bull, elation turned to seriousness. I was alone on steep slopes with a large 7x8 bull. There was much work for one man. Photos were taken, then I tagged the bull, ate lunch, drank water and got to work. Approximately two hours after the bull fell, I finally got to share the moment with someone. I guess the “mountain telegraph” was working.
Bob Staples witnessed the bull fall, and he contacted the rest of the crew from Blue Mountain Adventures that someone shot the bull I was after. Even though they were off the clock, packed up and heading home, the guides knew it had to be me, and I would need help. Soon they found my rig and charged down the mountain. It was satisfying to share the accomplishment with the crew that helped create this moment.
It was not until the last hike up, our packs full of nature’s food, with sweat-soaked clothing and leg muscles like rubber, that a memory flickered through the subconscious reaches of my brain. A shiver sent a chill along my spine. The cougar I turned my back on, down there on that ridge, still watches that herd of elk.