Although I?ve made a lot of friends in Utah?s vibrant hunting community, I almost always hunt alone.
During the 2008 season however, I learned that to be successful sometimes it helps to have a good friend or two by your side, especially people who know a lot about hunting elk in the mountains.
I was lucky enough to draw a coveted bull elk tag for a limited-entry area, but after two weeks of solo hunting, I had yet to call in any of the monster bulls that roamed the central Nebo region. On my second day, I had passed up an easy, wide-open shot on a nice six-by-six bull, after a few of his cows charged out of the timber, searching desperately for a lost calf they had just heard mewing.
As the days went by, I began to think my decision to try for a bigger bull was perhaps a bit greedy. I figured it would be easy to call one in, once they started making noise. But although I?d been hearing the eerie, high-pitched screams of elk for days after temperatures dropped, I couldn?t seem to get within bow range. Bottom line: I needed help.
The smartest sound I made all year was not a cow call or bugle, but a telephone call to my friend, Scott Stone of TSI Outfitters. After the morning hunt, which included a couple of close encounters with bulls, as I scarfed down a much-needed french toast breakfast in the small town of Santaquin, I swallowed my pride and dialed Scott?s number. I quizzed Scott about my approach.
?What am I doing wrong? Should I use the cow call? Should I sit on a wallow? Should I be bugling more? Should I strap on my running shoes and chase the screaming bastards around like a Jamaican Olympic track star??
I explained to him how bulls had responded to my calling, but time-after-time when I closed the distance, these wary old bulls moved another five hundred yards up or down the mountain. It was a maddening game that was testing my patience, while costing me thousands of calories I?d rather not have to replace again with unheated military food and powerbars. It didn?t seem to be working the way I?d seen on all the TV shows. Time was running out.
Scott had a permit to kill a spike or cow in the same area, and my call gave him the perfect excuse to take the next day off work. His boss would understand — it is after all an archery store. I told him were I was camping.
?I?ll meet you at 5:30 a.m.? he told me.
Late that night, weary from days of hiking, I set up my one-man tent near a horse corral along the Nebo Loop road. The air was cold. Those bulls would be screaming tomorrow.
I was about to slip into my sleeping bag and read my nightly dose of Ralph Waldo Emerson, when I had the urge to shoot my bow. I needed a confidence builder, so I grabbed my foam target from the truck, flipped on the headlights, and shot five or six arrows from thirty yards. The first couple hit left about six inches, so I made a sight adjustment, and then shot a couple bull?s eyes before sliding into my bag and Emerson?s brilliant essay Nature. Tomorrow I would again find communion among the rocks and branches of the forest.
I felt as confident with my bow as a Mongolian warrior, but my late-night shooting session would prove to be more than just practice. The site adjustment I made would mean the difference between a great story, and a gut-shot elk.
As appreciative as I was of his desire to put me on a good bull, I knew Scott?s excitement was tempered with caution. He had worked so hard the previous year — over twenty days with a friend who passed up almost every decent bull Scott called in. When the guy finally took a shot, he missed, and never did fill his tag. Still, Scott?s voice was filled with purpose and determination. He wanted to guide me to success, and in doing so, avenge the bitter failure his previous season. But how was some meat-hunter from Michigan going to close the deal on a trophy Utah bull in just one day?
I felt some added pressure to succeed when, the following morning, Scott showed up with his friend, award-winning taxidermist Jimmy Lynn who would be video-taping the hunt. I could only hope the pressure of being on camera would help me focus during moment of truth.
As the sun revealed the jagged silhouette of our alpine surroundings, we headed down a trail from the top of the Nebo scenic byway. We had left my vehicle at the bottom of the trail, some five miles down the hill.
Once we were a good mile down the trail, we cut a few hundred yards due west, where we did some bugling, and inspected a well-used wallow Scott knew of. We heard a couple of bulls to our north, and one of them may have been old ?Tripod,? but the only action we had the first couple hours of calling was a small raghorn that walked up to Scott from behind. Jimmy and I never saw the bull, even though we were only twenty yards from Scott; a perfect example of how quiet these huge beasts can be.
Continuing west, we came up to a small, grassy bench, with scrub oak trees on the north shoulder in a patch maybe a quarter acre in size, which dropped off steeply into a large section of dark, coniferous timber.
It is here the mighty Wapiti finds peace and comfort, where he rests in his cool dirt bed, the shady tangle where he shreds the velvet of summer?s innocence from his antlers, honing the hardened bone to a cage of deadly lances. This is the musky smelling den where he thrashes trees to splinters, his hormonal rage intensifying in the shortening days of early autumn. And from this place came the scream of old Tripod, who apparently wanted every animal in the vicinity to know that this was his zone.
We took note of his message, and crept ever-so-slowly to the top edge of the timber, searching for the quietist way down. A great bit of fortune was fact that elk had been running often through this timber churning up the noisy detritus of dead bark and pine needles with soft, quiet soil, and making our descent into Tripod?s lair pretty stealthy. Can you image three guys trying to sneak up on a bugling bull through dry scrub oak?
Tripod bellowed another scream-grunt-chuckle, and he sound about hundred yards away. The wind was in our favor, but there was always the chance that it could swirl back down into the timber, so we had to act quick.
We removed our packs, and left them with Scott. I walked down the game trail about twenty yards, while Jimmy followed behind with the camera. I searched for a suitable place to sit, and found a spot with some reasonable shooting lanes. We gave Scott the signal, and he laid into his bugle, producing an awesome sound that must have given old Tripod the idea that a younger bull was in his master bedroom.
The response was ferociously loud and guttural. Tripod sounded close, but we had yet to hear a stick break. Scott called back, throwing in some throaty chuckles. It was after Tripod?s second or third response that I heard some commotion, and I felt my bowstring coming back to touch my nose, as I watched the massive, golden beast walk through my fifty-five yard lane. He didn?t slow down, and my right arm relaxed the bow, again. He turned, coming right at me through a snarl of branches between, but I dare not draw on him now. He turned to the left again going toward my three-o?clock lane, at what I thought was only 16 yards or so. I?ve always agreed with the practice of ?picking your spot,? but as my bowstring came back, noticed that all five of my sight pins were covering his vitals. I struggled to focus on a spot as my fiber optic pins jiggled with every heartbeat. He was still walking, but slower now, and as aligned my middle pin with his killzone, my arrow flew through the three-foot-wide gap in the trees.
I immediately feared a gut shot. When the arrow sunk up to the vanes with a slight crunching sound however, I knew I had made a good hit. Old Tripod could only manage a few hasty steps uphill, before he also knew he was in trouble. Jimmy cow called to get his attention again, and the bull stopped, but it was far too thick to offer a second shot, and he trotted away, before crashing to the ground a few seconds later.
Had I not made the critical sight adjustment the night before, I believe I would have shot a few inches to the left, leaving old Tripod mortally wounded, but without much of a blood trail to follow.
The moment after my arrow hit home, a flood of emotions grabbed hold of me, shaking me to tears. I had ended the life of a magnificent animal. I had also succeeded in achieving something I had dreamed about ever since I?d first seen a live elk in Colorado, some fourteen years earlier. All the miles I?d hiked, all the mountains I?d climbed — they meant something more than just sight-seeing.
Most of all I was thankful for the companions I had that day, because I realized that some things, if they are to be done correctly, must be a team effort. In the three hours I?d hunted with Scott and Jimmy, I learned more about elk hunting than I had in all the years I had chased them around by myself.
Had I brought down a good bull like Tripod on my own, getting him out by myself would have been a serious chore. I managed to carry out the head and cape, while Scott packed out the backstraps and some neck meat. Before Scott and Jimmy came into the picture, I had lined up a local guy with horses who agreed to pack my bull out. But Jimmy brought his own mule, Casper, up the following day along with another friend who also had a mule, and we packed out the heavy shoulder and leg quarters in short time.
I suppose the moral of my story is; getting some help doesn?t mean you didn?t do it on your own. You are the one with bow in your hand. And any animal killed with archery gear is a trophy. Taking an old beast like Tripod, on public land, with minimal travel and expenses is something I know I can be proud of.
2008 Utah Bull article
A little bit about Mike:
Michael O?Reilly, 33, lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and one-year-old son. Since moving from Michigan five years ago, Mike has chased bucks, ducks and bulls all over the Beehive state, while earning a masters degree in poetry from the University of Utah. He is currently writing a book about hunting ethics and environmentalism. In 2005, mike and a friend started the Timber Hawk hunting pack company. Check out their great products at www.timberhawkgear.com