Committing to hunting for one particular animal takes extraordinary willpower

Sometimes, in special circumstances, a hunter comes across an animal in a place of opportunity that captures all of his or her attention.  The combination of the right animal, the right circumstances, and a hunter willing to pursue that animal and that animal alone can create an epic hunt.  It’s this “hunt for one” and the willingness of the hunter to apply and commit to the pursuit of such an animal that makes it so special. Not everyone even experiences the opportunity, but if you ever have the chance, could you commit to the “hunt for one?”

I’ve been lucky enough to have the circumstances arise on more than one occasion in my life where pursuing one particular animal was what I chose to do. These hunts have taught me much as a hunter and also shape how I approach future hunts. The biggest bucks, bulls, and rams I’ve ever been a part of taking were all because when the time arose, I was willing to commit to only that animal.

 

A Buck of 10,000 Lifetimes

In 2006, I spotted the biggest buck I had ever seen in an open hunt unit from the window of my truck with a spotting scope, because I had come down with the flu and didn’t feel well enough to hunt that first morning. It was a long distance and I didn’t know for sure how big he was, but I knew he was a dream deer. He was in a place that was physically difficult to access and horribly inconvenient, but I was inspired and driven to keep looking for him. 

I never saw him until the evening I took him. It wasn’t like I was passing other bucks, as there were hardly any deer on that mountain. I finally found him a couple days before the season ended in what I had decided was my last time looking for him. If I had known just how big he was, I might have been even more resolute in the commitment I had, but at that point it didn’t matter. What was lying in front of me was the buck of 10,000 lifetimes – the largest typical taken in Colorado in over three decades.

The success and fortune I experienced that week is really beyond what can almost be articulated, but what it showed me was that something special was worth extra effort and time. The experience instilled a desire to take things to another level and try to find and pursue special animals. Little did I know that literally only about a month later, I would start the next quest.

The Next Challenge

It was the week after the general rifle seasons wrapped up in Colorado, just before Thanksgiving. We experienced a warm spell and melting snow, so I was out in the mountains above my house looking for rutting bucks to watch. 

I saw some bulls across a canyon, and when I saw the last bull through my spotting scope, I got excited. In the mountains I call home was a bull the size you rarely see in an OTC hunting area. I had just seconds to view him, but the sight of that bull kept bringing me back all winter to look for him. 

I saw him in different locations in a wide area through the winter and sometimes went weeks without seeing him. Fortunately, he settled into a small bit of winter range in mid-March and I saw him both days he shed each of his antlers. I couldn’t start looking for a few weeks due to snow depth, but I eventually found his sheds.  

I decided I was going to try to hunt that bull seven months later, hoping that his habits were ingrained. I figured if he was in the area right after the 4th season closed, he might just repeat the behavior the next November.

Two weeks before the season, a friend and I went looking for elk and deer. Surprisingly, we spotted him with some other bulls within seconds of starting to glass. I immediately recognized the shape of his antlers through the binoculars even before we put the spotting scope on him. I remember my buddy saying, “He’s got great thirds and heavy beams!”  

There he was, as I had hoped and planned for months, but with my 4th season opener still almost two weeks away. I decided to come back the next morning, the day before the season, and if I saw him again, I’d trade in my 4th season either-sex tag for a 3rd season OTC tag.  

He was there the next morning but in the next drainage over a mile away. When it started getting light, the bull noticed he was out in the open and literally ran like a racehorse for the trees when he became aware of his mistake. It made me nervous – really nervous – and sleep that night was difficult.  

At 3:30 I was out of bed and we were hiking in well over two hours before daylight to the ridge between the two sightings. I spotted him at first light, moving toward us and feeding at less than 400 yards. Soon, we were standing over the fallen giant.  

The process was now reinforced. I was rewarded for my commitment and resolve to hunt that big seven-point bull. 

It was a great deal of time and dedication to the process. That was the key to success, but I also realize that if it wasn’t for the chance spotting of both the buck and the bull, I wouldn’t have known to hunt for either.  Luck is a component almost without measure. The very idea of a random encounter between a driven hunter and an exceptional animal is the catalyst to these hunts that can be so special. A mature animal with exceptional genetics, combined with a hunter who is lucky and driven enough to encounter him, can make for an epic hunt and experience.

Willingness to Leave Empty-Handed

If you’re hunting one animal and one animal alone, there is a single trait and quality that is almost imperative for success. It’s one of the most difficult for many to come to terms with, and although there are many talented and driven hunters with exceptional levels of fitness and ability, not many possess the trait I’m referring to. It’s the reality that you must be able to accept the idea of failure and of going home empty-handed.  

It’s an easy concept to embrace; to say that you aren’t quitting; that you’ll tough it out. But the hunt for one animal isn’t simply about “no quit in you.” It’s about possibly passing up other quality animals, all while holding out for “the one.” Your resolve must be true, even if it means you don’t have your annual “I got my buck” photo to put on Instagram.  

 

The Ultimate Resolve

When you have a really special “once-in-a-lifetime” type license for sheep, moose, or other highly limited draw tag, the concept and pressure is magnified. It takes an incredible amount of commitment and resiliency to follow through. There is obviously a potential conciliation in mind as the season wears on and time runs out, but if you’re truly hunting for one special animal, your challenge is substantial.

One of the best examples of this is my good friend, Bobby Hebert, and his hunt for the Pope & Young World Record Shiras moose. When Bobby first drew his tag, we knew about his moose from the scouting I had done when I had my tag in the adjoining unit the summer before. Still, Bobby said it was his dream tag and he’d be happy with a real nice moose. 

That all changed the first evening we saw the bull we nicknamed, “Yukon Jack.” The moose was astounding to behold and looked like a bull from Alaska rather than a Shiras. The bull disappeared right after he rubbed off his velvet and for the next five weeks we didn’t see a glimpse of him.

On opening evening, Bobby had a 50-inch Boone & Crockett moose at 40 yards and let him walk. Such was the commitment and mindset of Bobby – he was hunting for one bull and one bull alone. 

Fortunately, I had photographed Yukon Jack in one particular spot rutting cows the year before and told Bobby we needed to keep calling and checking that spot. I knew sooner or later he’d show. The Achilles heel of many mature animals is their philopatric nature, that being they tend to return to a particular area at different times of year. This monster moose was no different.

Bobby finally located him five days before the end of the season. An exciting scenario unfolded with the ambush of the bull as he left the creek bottom. An arrow released from Bobby’s longbow at nine yards was the culmination of months of dreaming, scouting, hunting, and commitment.

 While Bobby certainly didn’t want to be unsuccessful with this incredibly rare tag, he committed to the idea of hunting for Yukon Jack with steadfast commitment and resolve.  To have his own personal dream tag and see the opportunity slowly slipping through his fingers was a struggle to process. I remember him telling me about lying awake in his camper, not having seen a glimpse of the moose in weeks, yet still wanting to hold out because of the unique opportunity of knowingly pursuing a world-class animal. 

A Few Nice Consolation Prizes 

About five years ago, I located another really nice Colorado public land bull elk in an OTC unit. I learned all I could about this bull and how he used his home range in late fall and winter. I managed to see him two different times from over three miles away through the spotting scope, but the place he was in was incredibly difficult to access, thick with timber and deadfall, and near private property. If I bumped him at all, I knew he’d leave and go to private until later that winter. 

Long story short, I bumped him on the last day of the season while sneaking in behind where I thought he might be. He just happened to be bedded on a ridge in the dark timber in a place I didn’t expect. That was a big part of the learning process and added a piece of information to the puzzle. What I found out was that every time it stormed, this bull would go to this spot out of the wind and driving snow where he found cover and feed.

I hunted this bull and never saw him again, but I have four years of his sheds to show for my effort. In turn, I went without killing a bull for a few years. When you write for Western Hunter Magazine, it helps to show credibility by taking a bull elk on occasion, but I was coming up empty.   For me, it became somewhat of an obsession; I wanted this bull or nothing.

 When last fall arrived and I found no sign of him anywhere, I wrote him off, figuring he met his demise somehow. I hadn’t heard any stories or rumors about a giant 380 7×7 getting killed that season, but some hunters work off the grid and keep to themselves. I had given up on him yet, but was lucky enough to kill another great bull that season. I enjoyed the dreaming and hunting for the big 7×7 and have no regrets, but also went without a bull for four years because of it.

It was a bit of a personal internal dilemma for me to go without, but I chose to hunt cow elk in the late seasons so I always had elk burger. This also allowed me to stick to my quest and commitment to hunt for this particular bull. I will say that the off-seasons grew long. The reward/teaser I got was to pick up his shed antlers for a few years and watch his progression from a 350-class mature bull to an OTC unit monster. I’ll miss the old bull.

A Small But Disciplined Group

I’ve admired some hunters from afar and their commitment to hunt for one animal.  One of the best examples of this type of hunter is Randy Ulmer, an occasional writer for Western Hunter, who has taken many great bucks and bulls with his bow. Most hunters never kill a single buck or bull in the class that he stacks up consistently. He does it with target archery accuracy and a high level of fitness, but more important is his dogged tenacity. There are no shortcuts to consistent, long-term success, and Randy’s will and grit show in the quality of animals he takes.

Another hunter that comes to mind is Brendan Burns. Brendan is the Director of Industry Relations for Kuiu but is also one of the most successful big game hunters in the West. 

Brendan has taken some incredible bulls and I know for a fact that the only way he consistently takes super bulls is to pass up lesser bulls. When you’re hunting a true giant, it’s not the 320-340 bulls that are a challenge to pass, it’s those huge 360 bulls that are bigger than what most hunters every see that test your will. 

There is no way of overstating just how challenging this part of hunting a particular giant bull can be. You’re going to have a run-in with a huge 350 bull before you get a chance at a 380 monster. The mathematical odds favor just that, so to call in a whopper bull bugling in your face at 50 yards and let him go because you know a giant lurks out there somewhere requires extraordinary willpower.  

Brendan says the caveat is that you absolutely have to know that a true giant is out there in order to hold out for one. You can’t kill a ghost.

Brendan also took one of the greatest rams ever taken in Montana with his bow a couple years ago in a unit not know for giant rams. What makes the ram so special is he was a true “alpine” ram living in the high mountains. 

The ram was seen on winter range and Brendan was lucky enough to draw the tag. Brendan committed to hunting for that ram and that ram alone, providing he could find out if the ancient 13-year-old bighorn was still alive. 

Brendan backpacked for over 24 nights in those mountains, passing up 33 legal rams in the process before locating the ram he had been holding out for. Brendan finally arrowed the giant ram that had a 42” horn and net scored 189-5/8 B&C.

Examples like I’ve mentioned are part of a small contingent of hunters around the West who strive to take exceptional animals and are consistently successful. They all have one thing in common – the willingness to pass up animals and go home empty-handed. 

These men commit to hunting exceptional animals and when they do find a standout buck, bull, or ram, they commit themselves to hunting that one and that one alone. It’s the ultimate hunting experience.