In the course of my guiding career, I have experienced my fair share of anxiety, apprehension, and angst on the eve of opening day. But as my son Mark and I stood in the Phoenix airport awaiting the arrival of our new elk hunter David McShaw and his parents David Sr. and Karen, my nervous system was ablaze with self-doubt. You see, David (13-years-old) is stricken with muscular dystrophy and is wheelchair-bound. As the reality of his limitations sank in, my confidence eroded and it struck me just how much I wanted this hunt to be a "hunt of a lifetime". After a brief prayer, I spotted the McShaw family enthusiastically working their way toward our direction and our date with destiny officially began.
The events that brought us to this day started just months earlier when my good friend and outfitter Chad Smith, of Vaquero Outfitters, and I were discussing the upcoming seasons. Chad mentioned that one of his clients had drawn an Arizona bull elk tag but due to some unforeseen circumstances would not be able hunt this year. Chad asked if there was any way to donate this tag and avoid wasting it. Coincidentally (I think not!), just a few weeks earlier I had been asked by Terry Petko to be a part of the Arizona chapter of Hunt of a Lifetime (HOAL), an organization dedicated to organizing hunts for terminally ill children. A quick call to Terry got the ball rolling. Meanwhile, in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania, the McShaws had been in contact with HOAL headquarters. They were notified as soon as the Arizona elk hunt became available. Though David had never seen an elk, he jumped at the dream of hearing the bugle of a rutting bull.
After navigating the chaos of the busy airport, David and his family followed Mark and me north out of the metropolitan commotion. Since the Savage Arms 30/06 had only arrived a few days before the hunt we needed to stop at the rifle range for a last-minute tune-up. With less than 10 rounds the rifle was sighted in and fired a one-inch three-shot group! After all of our equipment checks were done it was time to head to the home of Chad and Shawn Smith.
As a novice elk hunter, it can be very difficult to maintain a sense of perspective as you enter the Smith's home. Shawn's 2005 bull mount looms over the living room displaying almost 400” of antler and gargantuan shed antlers decorate the plant shelves and patio. Huge mule deer, Coues deer, and antelope mounts added even more spice to the McShaw's first day west of the Mississippi. As Shawn served the first of the many gourmet meals, you could see on everyone's face that the fatigue of a challenging day was taking its toll.
Chad was born and raised in the Chino Valley area. His folks still live on the same ranch where he grew up. He knows most of the ranchers in this area and has the hunting rights to many acres of private land. Before we arrived he had contacted most of them about our hunt, and without fail or a dollar changing hands, every gate onto private ground was opened to us. As the dawn chased the night from the eastern sky of opening day we were listening for the distant bugles on the Las Vegas Ranch.
The Apparent Challenge
We still did not know how we were going to get David, his wheel chair, and his shooting device with a 12-volt battery in place for a shot when a very aggressive sounding bull chimed in at less than 400-yards. We made decisions fast. Chad carried David on his back, David Sr. grabbed the wheelchair, Mark and I split up the shooting system, Karen carried the rifle, and we blitzed down the draw to get in front of the moving bull. We clanged and banged metal on metal but eventually got David set up and pointed in the most likely direction. Chad backed off to lure the bull past our position. The bull immediately answered Chad's invitation. Could this be happening? The sun isn't shining yet and we have a bull coming in like in a Primos video? As Karen ran the camera, the six-point bull stepped out directly in front of us at 35-yards and stopped absolutely broadside.
The rifle rest that we used has motors for left/right and up/down motions which are controlled by the shooter with a toggle lever much like a video game controller. A large steel plate, which we affectionately referred to as "the gong" due to the sound it produced when it came into contact with anything, went underneath the seat pad on the wheelchair. After we got David into the chair we would then attach the rest to the steel plate and connect the wires from the battery to the motors. With time we knew we could develop an efficient system, but it wasn't pretty on our first run!
The first bull elk was now staring at us from spitting distance. I could see that the rifle was pointed behind the bull so I whispered to David to move the rifle to right, but his hands never moved. I reached over and lifted the ear muffs and whispered the same line one more time and then another, but David was frozen solid. The adrenaline and shock at having this huge animal so close was just overwhelming his decision-making. I reached around him and manipulated the toggle myself, but as the motor ground into action, the bull bolted. We all sat in silence of disbelief. The bull was just too close and too soon and we had not had enough practice runs to get the job done. No one was discouraged, it was only the first morning and we now had a learning experience that we could build upon.
That evening we watched a water tank on Chad's family ranch. His dad had seen a bull drink at this source just the night before but he did not show up for a repeat performance which would prove to be a common problem. Arizona was blessed with much-needed rain during the late summer and fall. Green feed and abundant water are great if you are an elk, but it created problems for our team. Typically elk will feed most of the morning and at the end of a warm day, they will head to a water hole with regularity. With a well-constructed blind, we could be set up well before the elk arrived, and as an added bonus, there is a road leading to every dirt tank in the Southwest! But with water standing in every drainage, the elk were not married to any particular pattern. Since the elk were not likely to come to us, we needed to be more efficient in getting to them.
Improvise and Adapt
Chad hit a home run with the very first suggestion. By removing the pack from a Cabela's Alaskan Freighter frame and using the shelf as a seat, David could sit facing forward and see over Chad's shoulders. We could not change the fact that David still weighed 85 lbs, but at least he and Chad were more comfortable. The Eberlestock "Just One" pack continued to live up to its name as we cinched up the rifle rest with its outer straps. We would have to take turns carrying the wheelchair on our shoulders but at least we were mobile. To this day, I berate myself for not getting a picture of our human "pack string", but once we saddled up it was to get moving.
With our new system in place, we headed to the famous ORO ranch on the second morning. This incredible territory is the largest piece of private land in Arizona and home to some great bulls. As the sky turned from black to grey a bugle of multiple bulls warmed our spirits on this frosty morning. We were able to walk on a good road so David Sr. pushed his son on the wheelchair. Soon the elk and the road parted ways so we put our new system into action. With David riding more comfortably on Chad's back we moved as quickly as possible through the volcanic rock and junipers toward the always moving elk. We were gaining on them! They slowed a bit as they approached their bedding grounds giving us a chance to close the gap even further. Unfortunately, they chose a good place for a mid-day nap, plenty of cover and the wind in their favor. We tried multiple times to call one of these bulls back to us but we just could not lure them away from their herd.
After an uneventful evening at a water hole, we headed back to the house for some good home-cooked Mexican food and a much-needed night of sleep. As I lay in bed, my mind was racing with potential scenarios we might face. I was having a hard time even visualizing success since the elk were no longer making any mistakes. Luck has a role in every successful hunt but we needed more than just luck, we needed help! I am not talking about human help; we needed assistance that goes beyond explanation.
Revelry was at 3:30 a.m. on the third day. We all crawled out of bed and injected some coffee with a heightened degree of necessity. As we made our way through the gates of the K4 Ranch, Chad revealed the plan for our morning hunt. Mark and I were to climb a steep hill overlooking a large valley as he and the McShaw's would ease their way toward a likely travel route. We were hoping to find the good bull Chad had seen when he was scouting that he estimated would score about 340". Nothing was going quite right, and then Mark called me back to his position. With a smile on his face and with complete confidence, he said "I found the 340” bull". Mark has seen a fair number of big bulls for a 13-year-old, but that was a bold statement! As I peered into the spotting scope there stood a textbook example of a 340" bull. It was late morning by now and the bull bedded out of sight. He had about a dozen cows and three satellite bulls surrounding him in habitat that was more appropriate for antelope than elk, so we decided to hold off until the evening.
Make it Happen
Mark and I headed into Prescott to have lunch with my wife Carla and daughter Courtney who had driven up from Phoenix for a quick visit and shopping excursion. As we recounted the events of the previous days I flogged myself for not handling our opening day encounter more effectively. Carla reminded me that everything happens for a reason and that we just needed to keep it fun and keep hunting. With a good pep talk and a refueling stop at Starbucks, we were fired up for the evening hunt.
Chad, David Sr., Mark, and I climbed back up the hill to verify that our morning bull had not vacated the territory. He was still there with all his friends feeding in the wide-open terrain. We decided that Mark should stay on the hill and serve as our "eye in the sky" while the rest of us attempted a stalk. We had no grand plan about how to make this stalk work but we decided to get as close as we could and see what might happen.
When we got down on the same level as the elk we realized that was a little more texture in the terrain than we thought, allowing us to move quickly. Within 20 minutes we were about 400-yards from the elk, but we were completely out of cover and if we moved closer would surely be seen by one of the many sets of eyes. We were running out of options so we tried to call the bull to us even though we knew the odds were against him leaving his harem. We got David all set with the rifle rest pointed in a likely direction. To our disappointment, we could not even get the bull to look in our direction, but the cows were all ears! This was not the kind of attention we were hoping for.
Hoping the elk might reverse their morning route we tore everything down, repacked, and moved about 300-yards to a good sniping position. We felt that our effective shooting range was about 100-yards so we needed to be very precise as to where we set up. Once in place Chad peeked around the hill, turned back to us, and said "We gotta move again, they are heading toward our last set up". With reckless abandon we moved our team back.
The Moment of a Lifetime
As David Sr. strapped the rifle into the rest Chad whispered "Guys, we need to hurry…the bull is right there". As all four adults tried to hide behind the wheelchair the lead cow materialized less than 60-yards away. Looking in our direction she high stepped anxiously to the right. As she did, the swaying antler tips of the big bull got longer and longer as he closed the gap between us. We could only hope that he would follow the lead of the cow, as she now stood perfectly broadside with her body completely exposed.
The bull eased his way toward the cow silhouetted by the setting sun, stopping to amp up our adrenaline rush with a challenging scream. With the lower half of his torso concealed by a grassy mound, we could only hold our breath and try not to move. Time stood still and so did the bull. Finally as if on queue the bull took three steps forward and as Chad cow called, the bull stopped right on his mark. With a few minor rest adjustments and some encouragement, David pulled the trigger. The bull staggered at the shot and covered about 50-yards before piling up in a cloud of dust.
I will never be able to accurately describe the emotions that followed, the scene was a collage of tears, laughter, screams, high fives, hugs, and thanks. As I recall other similar events in my life, I realized that they have all been characterized by two things- the feeling that there was a hand greater than my own at work, and the knowledge that I was changed in the process. Had we taken a bull the first morning, we would not have been able to experience the teamwork, anticipation, and even fatigue that made this experience such a powerful one for all of us. HOAL is aptly named: this was a hunt of all our lifetimes, I am sure.
Originally published in Vol 5, Issue 2, 2007