All In: A hunter gambles on big elk vs. potentially dangerous conditions
Trent Williams, Wyoming, 2015
“There are certainly risks with hunting solo in this type of country, but I’ll be taking this gamble again.
With a gentle mountain breeze blowing from the bull to me, I sat there on my knees, arrow nocked, bow ready, and a rangefinder reading of 38 yards. I had made it! The knee-high grass and his 12 cows made this stalk difficult, but it was now one on one. All he had to do was stand up….
The First Step
Being the elk junky that I am, I’m constantly researching different hunting areas, especially those in my home state of Wyoming. With the draw odds in the desert units where I live only getting worse, I was ready for a change. The rugged country in the northwestern part of the state has always called to me. Knowing it holds the biggest bulls in the state was reason enough to go.
The fact that I’m mostly a solo hunter, and also knowing about the ever-growing grizzly problem, had kept me from applying here. I reached out to many people (including the Editor of this magazine) and pretty much got the same answer from everyone.
“It’s a great hunt, with lots of bears…and no, I wouldn’t do it alone.” The more I thought about it, the more I needed to find out for myself. I finally hashed out the pros and cons in my small brain and decided that even if somebody did agree to apply with me, the chances of being able to hunt the same amount of days were slim to none. So I went for it; I was all in.
When the draw results came out, I was elated to see that I had drawn, but also apprehensive about what I had just gotten myself into. I wanted to scout multiple long weekends, but only made it up for one. During that scouting trip, I saw two bulls in the 320 to 330 class, a handful of small bulls, a canyon loaded with cows, and I had a close encounter with an angry momma black bear.
Fast-forward to September 3. I was just getting off graveyards. Making the six-hour drive would be tough, but I had plenty of excitement (and Red Bull) to get me through. I made it to my predetermined camping spot at 1 p.m., caught a quick nap and then hit the mountain.
I went into an area I hadn’t scouted, but it was close to camp and had the look of big bull country. The fourth bugle I let out that evening was answered. My groggy mind told me he was across a small side canyon from me and just over the other side of the ridge.
Within ten minutes, I felt I was within 150 yards of him. I let out a soft cow call as he screamed back to me, just out of sight. I quickly took a step forward, but could already see his huge top end clearing a small rise just in front of me in the blowdown timber.
I came to full draw before he could see me, but as his head cleared the rise he stopped, looking for the cow he had just heard. Staring holes through me at less than 20 yards, he finally whirled and took off. I stopped him with a cow call only for him to be hidden behind a dense stand of pines. As I sidestepped to try and find an opening, he took off again.
Day 1 was coming to an end, and as I descended, I saw two more mature six-point bulls 1000 yards away. I decided it was wise to start there the next morning. I did so, but spent the entire next day seeing only one elk (miles away) and hearing another that would’ve taken me a day to get to.
I decided that night that day three would be spent in the canyon where I had seen all the cows during my preseason scouting mission. Driving along the world’s worst two-track, I spotted a lovesick 300 bull, but passed him, knowing there were better bulls around.
I drove a little farther and stopped to glass down into an old burn. I saw a herd of 12 cows and quickly spotted a bull wallowing in a small pond. With my non-European spotting scope, I could tell he was mature, but couldn’t tell quite how big he was until he turned directly away from me to bugle at his cows. I was blown away by the tine length I saw and hoped my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me.
He walked into a thick stand of aspen saplings and started to take his anger out on one of them. As I took my eye away from the spotting scope, I noticed that a thick fogbank rising from the creek bottom was about to turn this entire canyon into a cloud.
As the fog hid the bull from me, I closed the distance a couple hundred yards. I ran across an expansive grassland that intermittently gave way to bogs and small ravines filled with burned timber. I knew the direction his cows were headed, but that’s about all I knew.
Just as I was about to drop into the creek bottom, the fog lifted. I was 1200 yards away. They seemed content on feeding, so I dropped into the creek bottom to conceal myself.
Just 200 yards away from the elk, and in their direction of travel, was a small, wide-open grassy canyon. With the mid-morning thermals still slowly falling, I knew I didn’t have much time until those thermals switched. I hugged the uphill side of that lifeless canyon, expecting “my” herd of elk to feed into it at any second.
When I got to the area where I thought the elk would cross, and they weren’t yet there, I decided to peak over the hill I was using for cover. I turned my hat backward, and at a snail’s pace, I lifted my head over the top.
I scanned back and forth as I moved, and finally noticed an ear 12 yards away! I stopped dead in my tracks and saw that another cow’s head was in plain sight, but somehow she hadn’t yet busted me. Not seeing any antlers, I slowly backpedaled into my grass-filled canyon again. I moved up 50 yards and copied the same routine I had just done.
Childhood Dreams Realized
There in the grass I saw antler tips. I raised my head even farther and could tell the grass was blocking his view toward me. I ranged him at 52 yards, and without a cow in sight, I figured I could get closer. I crawled forward, got on my knees, nocked an arrow, and ranged his beam multiple times at 38 yards.
I felt extremely confident, but never being in this position before, I battled myself about what to do. Should I cow call? Should I let him stand up on his own? Should I throw a rock to the left of him and hope he stands up but doesn’t spook? I elected to just sit and be part of nature for a while.
I hadn’t been there ten minutes when I felt the wind start to change directions. Every time the wind would shift, I would grip my bow tighter and lock my shoulders, ready to draw if needed.
Finally, the fifth or sixth time the wind swirled, he stood and started walking to my right. He never looked my direction once, so I assume a cow finally winded me and started walking away. Whatever the case, I came to full draw, but my arrow bounced off my rest. I tried to get it back on my rest at full draw, but couldn’t pull it off. I let down, repositioned my arrow, and came to full draw again.
This time everything stayed intact and he still hadn’t looked my way. I settled my pin as he walked and I let out a soft cow call. He stopped, looked at me, and then my arrow was on its way.
I heard him grunt as my arrow hit, but didn’t see it hit, as my aiming point was at the top of the grass line. As he ran out of sight, I got up and ran, too. As I cleared the small rise, I spotted him lagging behind his cows just 80 yards away. He stopped, wobbled, and fell over dead.
When he fell, I was overcome with emotions. I felt my own childhood slapping me on the back as I commenced having a one-man celebration on that hillside.
After a two-day pack out, I was headed for home. When I hit the pavement and turned south on that two-lane highway, I couldn’t help but smile. There are certainly risks with hunting solo in this type of country, but I’ll be taking this gamble again.