feature By: Tony Martins | September, 19
I had a coveted and difficult-to-draw early September “rut” hunt near home in Arizona’s White Mountains, one of the premier areas for a big, trophy-quality bull elk. It took eight long years to draw the tag, and I vowed to be ready. Locating and killing a big bull is only half the battle, however. Breaking the animal down, cooling the meat in warm weather and packing it out can be equally challenging. Calling for help in the mountains where cellphone service is unreliable may not be an option. Thus, a plan was thoughtfully devised and included physical conditioning, target practice with my favorite bow and lots of scouting.
Conditioning, in the form of an arduous five-mile hike in the mountains, commenced during the Fourth of July weekend. Follow-up treks were shorter due to persistent leg cramping and fatigue. In my 40s and 50s, I was fit to hunt after just a few days of vigorous exercise. Now in my 60s, I quickly learned that crash conditioning just makes me tired and sore rather than fit.
An onslaught of business issues requiring my attention further compromised conditioning, and daily practice was reduced to shooting a set of new arrows on weekends. And scouting? Ha! I made one short overnight trip to where my last bull was taken. The area had subsequently burned in 2011 and was now strewn with deadfall, overrun with wild horses and apparently held few elk. Fortunately, most of the country between my home and shop was within the designated unit. Necessarily, the bulk of my scouting occurred while extending the daily 50-mile drive home from work through darkness.
Four weeks before the hunt, our oldest Lab became ill and had to be put down. A week later, our youngest Lab injured itself and required constant attention for the next week. Six days before the hunt, my wife reminded me she was going to Texas for a school reunion. With little time to find caretakers for the dogs and new landscape that required daily watering in the unusually hot weather, I was forced to hunt near home. It was looking like this would be a “Murphy’s Law” elk hunt rather than mine.
Enough setbacks, right? Nope! Just 10 hours before the hunt, my bow exploded during a final practice session. A cable snapped at the lower cam, lacerating my wrist, nicking the radial artery then smacking me in the face before launching the bow 15 feet – despite a snug-fitting wrist strap. This could have been serious. Fortunately, my backup bow was tuned and ready, and I was able to handle it despite the injury and additional 10 pounds of draw weight. The next morning at 4:00 a.m., with my wrist heavily bandaged and tightly wrapped, I sucked it up and went hunting.
A good friend told me about an area where he found good bulls the previous season. Scouting there the weekend before the hunt, I located four big bulls in an obviously well-used bedding area on the shaded north slope of an impossibly steep cinder cone. The young 6x6 bull I bumped at 30 yards circled toward the 9,200-foot summit, gathering its buddies en route – an old 5x6 with one funky antler, a massive 6x7 and a magnificent long-beamed 8x9. In succession, they jumped the fence onto the Fort Apache Indian Reservation that bordered two sides of the hunt unit. With a full moon approaching and warm weather discouraging the onset of rutting activity, I suspected these bulls were feeding on a nearby flat on the reservation at night, then chilling in seclusion on the heavily forested slope.
On opening morning, I snuck into this bedding area and spotted the young 6x6 as it passed on a trail 34 yards below. It came back to my cow call and offered a clear shot, but I passed. It was the first morning of a two-week hunt, and I was in no hurry to end it early.
Another steep mountain about a mile away also held elk under similar conditions, and these would be my morning areas for the first week of the hunt. My afternoon area, about 20 miles away, held three different groups of cows and several mature bulls. Two were real beauties with perfect 6x6 antlers – one colored reddish brown with ivory tips, the other more than 50 inches wide with long whale-tail beams to complement its enormous body. With the rut delayed, feeding was their top priority, so my plan was to ambush one of these bulls as they moved out of the forest onto the grassy flats. When I arrived that first afternoon around four o’clock, the reddish-horned bull was already out feeding with the cows, and I watched more elk file out as darkness ended the day.
Over the next few days there were several opportunities and close calls. One morning I caught the funky antlered 5x6 bedded alone, ruminating only 19 yards away. Later I spotted a 5x5 bedded in the security of fallen logs on the steep, shaded hillside. Fetching the camera from my pack made some noise, alerting the beautiful young bull. It cut the 40-yard distance by half, trying to locate the source of that sound, then bolted downhill after recognizing my hunkered form as a threat.
One afternoon, I ignored weak-sounding bugles from a ridge as I passed, single-mindedly moving toward an observation position on the point of a big grassy flat. Minutes later, the big whale-tail bull emerged from the timber behind me with two 6x6 buddies. As the bulls grazed vigorously – obviously more interested in feeding than breeding – I snuck to within 64 yards of the big guy. It never offered a shot. One of its mates did, however, quartering away at 44 yards, but I passed. The following afternoon my cover ran out at 80 yards as the whale-tail bull moved out on the flat. From 200 yards, my best lonely-cow imitation interrupted the feeding and it circled my position before jumping the fence onto the reservation and disappearing.
The next day, I spotted cows feeding on juniper berries and decided to investigate. Moving carefully through the trees on the five-square-mile flat an hour later, elk surrounded me – including what sounded like a hopeful bull. With squealing sounds and hooves clattering on rocks just a few yards ahead, I nocked an arrow and drew. A big heavy-antlered 6x7 bull chased a younger rival bull into an opening at 16 yards but did not follow, so I let off. The same scenario was repeated once more while I trailed the herd of more than 20 through the piñon and juniper. Two hours and two miles later, I slipped into bow range again as the larger bull emerged from watering in a creek. It looked enormous walking straight away, but there was no opportunity for a clear shot. This was turning into a great hunt after all!
The first day of the second week dawned briskly at 29 degrees Fahrenheit. Fatigue from grinding for 16 hours each day was apparent, but optimism that the significant temperature drop and brilliant Harvest Moon might intensify the weak rutting activity provided a psychological lift. I listened intently for bugles while waiting for enough natural light to navigate. Adding a jacket for the first time also added a third layer of scent control and, after 20 minutes of uncharacteristic silence, it was time to head up the mountain. While making way up and across the steep northern slope, I heard the first faint bugle, then another. It took more than an hour to cover 500 yards, carefully inching along while repeatedly checking the wind. Most people are too impatient to hunt like this, but I’m old and slow and have learned that this is the best approach in heavy cover.
Suddenly, a big challenge bugle shattered the silence. With adrenaline surging, I cautiously moved down the slope to a lower parallel trail and continued at a snail’s pace toward the bugle. Soon I could hear elk moving about, and finally there was visual contact in the form of color flashing in the shaded darkness of the dense forestation. Another big bugle resonated while a young bull passed on the trail below. A cow and calf quickly followed, and I slipped in closer to the action. More cows and another young bull exited, both above and below. From the sounds of hooves pounding turf and antlers thrashing brush, it was obvious that a rutting herd bull was heading my way.
On each of four prior trips across this mountain and through the bedding area, only a couple of cow elk were encountered. This caused me to believe that most cows were holding on the adjacent reservation, possibly tended by one or both of the bigger bulls I had bumped while scouting. Now positioned in the middle of a sizeable herd, I suspected the bull causing all the commotion was one of the two I was looking for – and its big threatening bugle was quite convincing. Unfortunately, the trees were so thick that I couldn’t get a clear view. Fortunately, I was in a great spot with a narrow shooting window to each of two trails 30 yards above and 30 yards below. As more cows, calves and another young bull with lots of points vacated, I anticipated arrowing this herd bull without getting a clear look at it – if a good shot opportunity was presented.
The next big bugle was so close I could feel it! It now appeared the bull was pushing a hot cow directly at me, but concern over being busted without getting a shot was short-lived. Two more cows hurried through my shooting window on the trail above, and I caught a flash of antler and the telltale light coloration of a bull’s hide following behind. As the next cow passed through, open-mouthed and panting, the bull paused – I pulled the string on the 70-pound bow like it was a limp noodle. When the bull stepped out a few seconds later, I honestly did not look at its antlers. Instead, I focused on a spot just behind its front shoulder then watched my arrow disappear in its chest through that spot. The mountainside lit up with stampeding elk, but silence came quickly.
Recovery was short and accidental, as I found the bull just minutes later while searching for blood. There was very little because the arrow did not pass through. Instead, it made an unexplained 90-degree turn and remained completely inside the bull’s body. The elk ran 40 yards almost straight uphill and expired on top. Where it fell was quite possibly the only flat spot on that entire mountain. It was 7:15 a.m., and ending this hunt early in the day was a blessing. After “selfies,” skinning, field dressing and then packing several heavy loads off the mountain, I arrived back home just before 10:00 p.m.
Despite its inauspicious beginning and needing to make elk camp at home rather than in the woods, this hunt evolved into one of the best I have experienced. In eight full days on heavily hunted, readily accessible public land, I never encountered another hunter. Although easily qualifying for Pope & Young, my 6x7 bull was not one of the giants that Arizona is known for, but I was not disappointed. Taking this seven-year-old herd bull tending 25 to 30 cows with a perfectly placed arrow while hunting solo at 9,067 feet on a steep mountainside where few hunters would venture was a truly rewarding and satisfying experience. Lessons in persistence and dealing with adversity were learned. And, while some might call this “turning lemons into lemonade,” I’m just thankful for the opportunity to call this hard-earned mountain monarch “my bull.”
Most elk hunters dream of calling-in a rut-crazed bull for an up-close encounter. The biggest bulls in the woods have learned from experience, however, and are extremely difficult to call away from their harems. Challengers typically go to them, not vice versa. Many hunters forget that herd bulls know their rivals and their voices. Unless you’re a world champion elk caller or a genuine wapiti, it’s often best to leave the calling to the experts if you want to take a mature herd bull – particularly on heavily pressured public land.
Each of my last three public-land elk was a herd bull, ages 7, 12 and 7, verified via tooth cementum analysis. If elk are talking, I find the best approach is to keep quiet and “stalk the talk” – whether modest location vocalizations or big boisterous challenge bugles. Does this mean that I never call? No. In fact, I almost always carry one or more calls at the ready. I use the calls in three specific situations: (1) covering noisy mistakes while moving through the woods and (2) stopping moving elk, both with cow chirps; (3) locating elk that are unusually quiet when they should be “talking,” using subordinate bugles, but only at night and/or well before dawn.