“I searched frantically for him and then, suddenly, he was quartering to us at 50 yards.”

Cashing In

As the 2013 season ended, I decided that I wanted to burn my 13 points and hunt a limited entry elk unit in Utah the following year. Of course, the only problem is that drawing a rifle tag for a good unit, even as a resident, can take upwards of 15-20 points. My research led me to the conclusion that a muzzleloader tag in one of the “good” units was the way to go if I wanted to draw a tag.

The deadline finally arrived and with the decision made, I submitted my application. Draw results came out a couple of months later, and I was still floored when the word “successful” was listed next to my name and hunt choice.  

The five months leading up to the hunt were a blur. New equipment, time at the range to work up a reliable load, scouting, planning, more time at the range, and second-guessing things started to take their toll. By the time the season finally arrived, to say I was excited is an understatement.

First Run

Opening day was only three days away when I pulled into my chosen campsite. The weather was warm and the elk weren’t overly vocal, but I had been told not to worry, so I tried to keep that thought in the back of my mind.

By Tuesday evening, I had located a good bull to pursue on opening morning. My brother Drue, cousin Dan, and friend Ryan were due in camp that afternoon, and once they arrived, we strategized on how to get close to the bull.

Opening day came warm and calm, and the feeling of having a tag in hand and actually hunting was surreal. We arrived at our chosen point and worked our way above the bull, but he wasn’t receptive to our calls…in fact, he moved off. Although we were able to get within rifle range right before dark, there was no getting closer.

After convening that evening, the decision was made to look elsewhere. It just took too much effort to get to that bull and we’d be putting all our eggs in that one basket.

On day two, we hunted a different area and my brother called a fair six-point to 15 yards.  After bugling in our faces multiple times, this bull tired of the game and moved off. We chased elk the rest of the day, but never got within range of any shooters. Unfortunately, I had to return for business that couldn’t be rescheduled, so once the evening hunt was over, we said our goodbyes and headed home.

So Close…

After spending a few hours with my wife and kids and taking care of business, I was on the road and headed back to camp. My cousin, Dan, and brother-in-law, Josh, were now there and ready to go. Better yet, the weather had finally turned and a cold front with rain and high elevation snow was pushing through.

With only an hour of daylight left, we bailed into the quakies to see if we could make something happen. Within 100 yards, we ran into elk – mostly small raghorns and cows, but they were everywhere!

The main show was happening near the bottom of the canyon, and once there, it was better than any box office sensation. Cows were milling everywhere and the herd bull was trying to keep them all together while five or six satellite bulls tried to cut them away from his harem. It was mayhem!

We worked into the herd, but the trees were so thick that we only got fleeting glimpses of the herd bull. He showed himself once for a few seconds at 50 yards, but it just wasn’t enough time to make the shot, and then he hooked a cow and went back into the trees. Darkness finally fell, so we walked out of the canyon with renewed anticipation for the coming days.

The Floodgates

We went out the next morning, but by noon, hunting conditions deteriorated. It went from overcast and cold to rainy and cold, and by early afternoon we were soaked. Once back at camp, we shed our wet gear and climbed into sleeping bags to try and get some rest and warm up.

That evening it sounded as though the heavens were about to rip wide open. Rain and hail came down in sheets, and although we were in a sturdy canvas wall tent, I still wondered if it was going to collapse on us during the night. Dan had to leave on Saturday night, so now it was down to just Josh and I.  

“Click”

Sunday morning dawned clear and cold. After putting on our semi-wet raingear and eating breakfast, we headed back to where the action had occurred the previous two days. The elk were still there, but even though we were able to intercept them, we were unable to seal the deal.

As day six dawned, the pressure of the tag started to come back. Thirteen years had suddenly dwindled down to just three days. With renewed determination, Josh and I headed out well before daylight, thinking that if we could get to the bottom of the canyon before light, the herd would walk right into us, giving me the best chance to kill a bull.  

Two-thirds of the way down, and before it was even light, Josh said. “Look!”  The elk were already in the bottom of the canyon and headed up into the north-facing timber to bed.  Having no better options, we decided to continue down in hopes that we could potentially pull some animals in.

At that moment, a bull screamed uphill 150 yards away. We hadn’t anticipated this and were caught in the open, so we made tracks to the nearest quakies 50 yards below us.  

Josh immediately broke out the cow calls and sent music back in the direction of the bull.  The answer was immediate and he soon cut the distance to 100 yards. Realizing what was coming, I braced my muzzleloader against a quakie and Josh stepped behind me to call. A couple more chirps and mews caused the bull to bugle again. Now he was probably no more than 60 yards from us, but because of the ridge, we couldn’t see him. As we searched, Josh whispered, “There he is, and he has good fronts!”  

I searched frantically for him and then, suddenly, he was quartering to us at 50 yards looking down in our direction and searching for the “cow”.

I eased off the safety and squeezed the trigger. The “click” I heard was deafening, and I was overwhelmed with dread (Josh actually told me later it was all he could do to keep from laughing, but that’s a story for another day). How could it all come together so perfectly just to have my gun misfire?

Steady Mind; Steady Hand

Trying to remain calm, I did the only thing I could do. I slowly cycled the bolt to reset the trigger while keeping the gun braced on the tree with the sights firmly planted on the bull’s chest. I pulled the trigger a second time and this time the gun roared, belching smoke and fire.

When the smoke cleared, I turned around to look at Josh, and he had a big grin on his face. After the short hike up the ridge, we found that the bull had dropped exactly where he had stood. The 375-grain sabot had done its job.

Words cannot express the emotions that came over me at that point.  I had actually done it! After high-fives, awkward man hugs, and phone calls to share the good news, it was time to go to work. I called an acquaintance with horses and told him we had a bull down. He said that he could make it to us by 2 p.m., so we got the bull quartered and caped.  

While waiting, I couldn’t help but look at the bull from time to time, thinking about what a cool experience this had been. Tyler was right on time, and after loading up the quarters, loose meat, and head, we packed up and out of the canyon.  

A heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone the helped me out on this hunt.  It was so nice to spend time with each of those named in this story. Without you, this hunt wouldn’t have been such an incredible experience. I’m also grateful for my wonderful wife, Brita, and kids, Ashlynn and Carson, for their support and patience.  I know it’s not always easy to have dad away!