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Now or Never
There were 29 sets of eyes that separated me from the bull I was after. My hunting partner Jon and I had spent the day sitting in ambush on the highest peak on this end of the mountain range. We spied the bull in his bed at mid day, but as luck would have it when the bull started his evening foraging session he fed away from us and around a mahogany covered knob that sat 700 yards away. That in itself could have worked in our favor but a herd of cows and calves had decided to move into the saddle below us. With the sun sliding toward the horizon and legal shooting time slipping through my fingers it all came down to this moment. The next decision I made would leave me filled with success or full of what ifs and regret.
Change of Plans
After years of putting in for a bull tag in Nevada I had yet to pull one. A few years ago my wife, Nancy made it look easy by drawing a tag with 5 bonus points. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been so lucky. At Jon’s suggestion I decided to look into a unit I hadn’t considered before. There were plenty of things to take into account especially the pressure from high tag allocation and multiple seasons. If I did draw this tag, the hunting pressure and weather would make this hunt especially challenging. I decided to put in for the unit as a 4th choice and when the results came out…We were going hunting!
Remember the Cold
With plenty of time spent studying satellite images and helpful tips from friends, we were on our way. My two hunting partners (Jon and Nancy) had both taken 10 days off of work so we could dedicate plenty of time to finding a mature bull. We arrived on Saturday night and planned on spending 5 days in the first spot before making a change of plans if needed. The hike in on Sunday was an instant reminder of what late season backpack hunting is all about. The temps were in the teens (single digits at night) with high winds and intermittent weather. Over the next few days we spent hours glassing from exposed high points, sometimes in snow flurries, while trying to keep from freezing. It was downright brutal. It’s hard to stay hydrated when your water bladders are freezing solid in your back pack.
Thanks Mother Nature
The glassing we were doing was paying off and we were seeing bulls just not a lot of mature ones. We would catch them sneaking into their beds at first light and not again until right before dark.
Opening day arrived and Jon spotted a beautiful bull feeding with his cows in a hidden drainage that had no easy way in or out. Nancy and I took off after it, while Jon maintained his perch. After a 1½ mile stalk that put us on a rock ledge 270 yards above the now bedded bull, the waiting game began. The two of us sat patiently waiting for the bull to stand and reveal itself and even had a conversation about how many days it would take the 3 of us to haul this bull out. Suddenly the wind began to swirl and just like that the bull was gone! On our way back to the top of the mountain, we actually joked about Mother Nature doing us a favor by not letting us shoot a bull in such a god forsaken place. Ha! The next day after another long stalk, I passed on a 5x5 and 6x5 and we decided it was time for a change of scenery.
Time to Grind
As the week wore on and time grew short, indecision started to creep up. We had a few days left, so we knew where ever we went it would probably be the last spot to check out. We went back to some of our satellite scouting information and settled on another hidden draw that we could day hike to. Glassing there at sunrise the next day, Nancy spotted a bull high on an open sage hillside. With time winding down it was now time to decide whether I wanted to tag a young bull or no bull at all. It’s funny how the mind works. The longer you wait for a tag and the more expensive it is, the bigger the animal it should be attached to… or so we think. I had to remind myself that I had already passed on a few bulls and that’s all the opportunity I could have asked for.
The plan for the second to the last day was for Jon and me to start hiking to the top of the range two hours before sun up while Nancy stayed in the valley to glass the ridge lines. We would try to catch the bull we saw the day before and then decide if I wanted to take a shot, all the while looking for other bulls that may have moved into the area. Times like this reminded me that great hunting partners are invaluable. At this point I was so worn down that the idea of climbing that ridge for two hours in the dark with the thermometer reading 8 degrees with brutal wind wasn’t very appealing. Nancy and Jon stayed on me, reminding me (that evening and the next morning) that at this point in the game-getting a bull was going to be a grind. If I didn’t climb that hill the next day then I would likely be climbing another hill somewhere else the day after.
We started our day with a 3:00am wake up and our drop into the river valley below at 4:15am. With headlamps on red we picked our way across the river bottom and began the climb up the finger ridge on the other side of the valley as thousands of stars were twinkling in the sky above. As we climbed, we chatted about the past week and of course the freezing cold. Jon questioned me about whether I would shoot a 5x5 if we found one. I replied “I hope not…but probably.” We both laughed. As we made the top of the finger ridge, we spotted a group of cows on another finger ridge further to the north. We stopped, pulled out the spotting scope, and picked apart the group. One by one, cow, cow, cow, all cows. We continued our climb until we were overlooking the draw that the bull went through the day before. As time went by the sun started to paint the hillsides. The colors started to pop as the sun blanketed pine and aspen draws, then the mountain mahogany covered knobs, down to the rolling grass and sage hills that dropped to the river below. There were rutting bucks running about, sparring for their chance at a receptive doe. The morning passed and there were no bulls to be found. Jon and I warmed up in the sun and chatted about the fact that even without a bull that this was one amazing view. We enjoyed Mother Nature’s masterpiece on one of our final mornings on the mountain. Our day dreaming was disrupted by the sound of the radio. I pulled the radio from my pack as I figured it was Nancy checking in to see how we were doing. “Have you two checked out the herd of elk on the finger to your North?” I told her we had and that they were all cows. “You better look again because I see a good bull in that group.” Jon and I looked at each other wide eyed as we scrambled to get eyes on the bull. It turns out Nancy had been picking apart the hillsides from the valley below as soon as it was light enough to see and had watched this bull sneak into the herd of cows. Immediately on spotting the bull, we realized that this was the biggest bull we had seen all season!
Now we had a serious predicament on our hands. It was 8:00am and this bull was feeding uphill toward a saddle at the top of the mountain range. We could drop the 1500 feet to the river below and come up the spine he was on, but the thermals would certainly give us away. It looked like the only option was to head to the top of the range, circle a basin, and run the ridgeline to get above him. Somehow it didn’t seem possible to climb another 1,000 feet or so and cover 3 ½ miles before this bull made it to the shady side of the mountain. But what did we have to lose? We covered that ground as fast as we could, but in the back of our minds we knew we were fighting a losing battle. As we arrived at the saddle that we thought the bull would go through, neither the bull nor the herd of cows was anywhere to be found. I radioed Nancy to let her know we were too late and I would call her with our plan in a little while. She let us know she watched the elk feed over the top 20 minutes before we arrived…So close.
Jon and I decided to climb the rock peak overlooking the saddle the elk went through and lick our wounds. We sat on the lee side of the peak and decided to dry out our sweaty clothes while we came up with a plan. We figured that the bull was probably bedded up in the dense stringer of pine trees we could now see on the back side of the ridge. Our choices were to slowly still hunt the trees or wait overlooking the saddle hoping the bull would feed back out before nightfall. The decision to wait it out was made and we hoped for the best. It was going to be a long day and an even longer hike out in the dark. The afternoon wore on and Jon and I glassed the trees around us every few minutes while Nancy continued glassing from below. With the sunlight shifting, an antler was finally illuminated in the dense stringer of trees. The bedded bull had been spotted!
Now the agonizing waiting game was in its final moments and we jump to where this story began.
My choices now involved waiting until tomorrow (the last morning of my hunt) and hoping to find this bull again or pushing my luck and seeing if I could make something happen. I was now down to 75 minutes of legal shooting light and the herd of cows didn’t look like they were going anywhere. Being that I was now pinned down on a rock covered peak with nothing but loose rocks for 100 yards, my moves were going to be low percentage odds at best. I decided I would bump the cows and pray they didn’t run around the knob the bull was behind and take him with them. With the cows finally starting to mill around, I put my backpack on and started to slowly stand. Just as I did, the bull worked around the knob and into a grassy saddle. I slowly sank back down and radioed for a time update. Nancy replied “You have 60 minutes.” As if on cue the cows got up and started feeding toward the bull. I waited as long as I could for most of the herd to make it into the mahogany’s 300 yards away. With half the herd still in view I slowly stood and started picking my way down the open rock face. I never looked up for fear of what I would see. This would most likely be my last minute bull running away. With my head down I finally arrived at the saddle that the cows had been on minutes before. I slowly looked their way and by some miracle there they stood feeding in plain sight without a care in the world. “You’ve got 48 minutes.” The update snapped me back to reality. My next step would seal my fate. After being so cautious on the open face, I made the trees and started to relax. With one slip and the sound of gravel underfoot, the whole herd stood at attention. A cow barked and I expected the herd to explode in all directions. Knowing the stalk was over, I decided to range the bull and see how close I had gotten. To my surprise the bull was within my range and in a blur my backpack was off and my turrets adjusted. I lay prone and waited for the bull to turn broadside. As the rifle’s thunder echoed down the valley, the bull laid his head down on that mountain for the final time.
It was a long hike out that night with snow flurries and two mountain lions to add to the excitement. When the three if us reunited to celebrate, my hunting partners asked me if I had planned on shooting from the saddle all along. “Nope, I slipped and the cows spotted me so I knew it was game over.” “At that moment the only thought that went through my mind was…It’s now or never!”