Change of Plans
A weather delay brings a surprise opportunity in a different state
On day four of our high-country deer hunt, we were calling a packer to pack out three bucks that my two brothers and my friend Steve had harvested. After coordinating a pickup of the deer, the packer said there was a big snowstorm headed our way. Sure enough, double-checking the weather sites, they were all forecasting 18-24” of snow in elevations above 10,000 ft. As desperately as I wanted to stay on the mountain to continue hunting deer, we knew that for our safety it was time to head off the mountain until the snow cleared.
Back home I was able to wash my clothes, restock my supplies, make plans for a new area, and watch the reports of the heavy snow accumulating, just as they had predicted. I began making plans to return to the high country after a few days in hopes that the snow would melt enough that I could hike back in there. I was also hopeful that the deer were not driven out of the high country due to their feed being buried in snow.
In my email inbox the next day there was a suspicious email that looked like a phishing email at first glance. Someone was offering me an Arizona archery bull elk permit that started in two days and I had less than 24 hours to claim the tag. After finding the individual that sent the email on the Arizona Game & Fish website, I began to think of all the reasons I shouldn’t claim this tag on such short notice. I sent a text to my wife, brothers, and dad which explained the dilemma I was in, asking for guidance. I was expecting they would help justify why I shouldn’t accept this tag. To my surprise, they all responded with excitement, telling me to claim the tag and following it with, “Let’s go!”
I called each of them, expecting them to waiver in their commitment, but their enthusiasm only grew the longer we talked about the prospects of this hunt. I then started reaching out to good friends and hunting acquaintances, inquiring if this was a good year to hold an elk tag in Arizona and why someone might turn in their tag. There was enough encouragement from everyone to convince me to call the Arizona Game & Fish the next morning to claim the tag.
My plans quickly shifted from hunting a buck in the snow-covered peaks of the high country to chasing bugling bulls in the great state of Arizona. Loaded up with camper in tow we were en route to Arizona on the opening day of archery elk season. Stopping by the Flagstaff Arizona Game & Fish office, I picked up my tag. At that moment, the reality began to sink in that we would be chasing bugling bulls in Arizona!
Starting From Scratch
I must admit that I was still a little nervous and trying to keep my expectations in check because of my lack of preparation for this hunt. My confidence and success are proportional to the amount of time I spend scouting and preparing for any hunt. Unfortunately, for this hunt, my scouting and preparation were much less than I’ve ever committed for any tag, let alone a tag of this quality. Everything about the start of this hunt was foreign to me. I pride myself on planning and preparation, but this hunt required a spontaneous decision and reaction.
I was fortunate to receive a few general starting areas through some generous hunting friends, and I was very fortunate that my dad and brother Wes were joining me on this hunt. Our initial plan was Wes and I would scour new areas each day, covering as much country by foot or by glassing, while my dad would check out other areas with the intent to divide and conquer, learning as much of the unit as we could, as quickly as possible.
The first two days of the hunt started with very few elk sightings and even less rut activity. We managed to locate a few small herds with a couple of mature bulls. We found the previous year’s elk rut sign without hearing a single bugle, so nothing was calling us back for more action. The landscape was very dry. Fresh, green grass was nonexistent as the monsoons had failed to arrive that summer. The other hunters we visited with were either trying to distract us from areas or were equally puzzled by the elk patterns and lack of rutting activity.
Signs of Life
Wes went home to tend to work commitments for a few days the evening of day two. For the morning hunt of day three, my dad suggested I check out an area he found the day before. My dad dropped me off in a canyon and planned to pick me up around midday, several canyons north of where I started. The morning started very slowly until I finally reached the canyon I was scheduled to meet my dad in. There I found two bedded, bugling bulls. I was able to sneak within bow range of both of these bulls before determining they were not the quality I was hoping to harvest on this hunt. Still, it was encouraging to get onto bugling bulls. This morning’s activity made it feel like the elk rut was beginning to pick up, and I was finding more elk.
That evening, with the wind in my face, I hunted up a long canyon near the area I had hunted that morning. My dad was going to glass from a knob at the mouth of the canyon that would hopefully allow him to see any elk in the area. In the last 30 minutes of daylight, I finally heard a bugle back towards the mouth of the canyon, coming out of the cover on the north side. I could tell there were at least two bulls bugling in the area. With light fading, I took to a full sprint towards the bulls in hopes of at least getting a look at them.
Before I could get to the bugling bulls, I ran into a smaller six-point that pinned me down while the rut activity was carrying on just outside of my view. I never had a chance to see the herd bulls as the light disappeared that evening. My dad was excited to recount the evening’s events as he had seen both bulls. When I asked my dad how big the bulls were, he said they were big enough that I should come back to check for myself.
Our plan for the next morning was to slip into the area long before daylight. My dad set up before daylight on the same glassing point, and I was waiting at the edge of the meadow until we could determine in which direction the bulls would be heading for their bedding area. The bulls started heading to their beds before first light. I could see several satellite bulls in the gray light, but they were moving into the thicker cover before the sun even broke the horizon. Disappointed, I circled back to my dad early so we could regroup for another plan.
We made a big loop around their bedding area, planning to come in from another direction. The small canyons the elk headed into were filled with thick cover. As we entered the dense brush, we saw a glimpse of a satellite bull moving through the timber, about 100 yards away. Just as the satellite bull disappeared from our sight, one of the herd bulls let out a bugle about 300 yards down the ridge from our location. Finally, we got the break we needed.
We made another loop to approach the bull with the wind in our face. Easing toward the area that the bull last bugled from more than 20 minutes prior, I made a single, soft cow call. The bull responded with a soft bugle, letting us know where he was bedded. The wind was perfect and the cover was thick enough to conceal our approach.
We cut the distance in half. Figuring we were now within 100 yards of his bedding location, I waited another 15 minutes before making another single, soft cow call. When the bull immediately responded, we could tell he was on his feet. I looked at my dad and said, “He is coming.” I needed to move forward and to the side about 30-40 yards so that when the bull came to my last calling location, he would present me with a broadside shot.
Before I could even get into the shadows of the tree I picked out, I saw the legs of the bull walking toward our position. He stopped between two trees at 25 yards and let out a bugle in hopes of getting another response from that single cow. When there was no response, he began walking right into my shooting lane. Now at less than 15 yards, I let out a soft cow call to stop him for a shot. The bull was so close that my dad was able to capture the whole sequence on video with his cell phone. In the slow-motion frame of the video, you can see the bull react to my shot and see my perfectly-placed arrow.
On the fourth day of my Arizona archery elk hunt, we were packing out my bull. My brother Wes arrived back at camp just in time to help me pack out the quarters. I can’t help but think that I would have been too late in opening the email offering me this Arizona archery elk tag if we had not been snowed off the mountain. And in case anyone is wondering, I was nowhere near enough points to force the draw through the max point draw. The stars aligned in many ways for this hunt!
Omni Warner, AZ Elk 2020