A rare early-season elk hunt offers memories with good friends
On June 25th, I checked my email for about the hundredth time that day waiting anxiously for Idaho’s hunt results. Finally, the email was there. Like a little kid on Christmas, I opened the email and to my surprise, it said I was successful to draw an early-season rifle bull elk tag! I could not believe my luck. After calling my brother and a few buddies, the reality was setting in. With only a little over a month to prepare and scout for the hunt in an area I had never set foot in, my anxiety was at an all-time high. With a super busy work schedule, I would be able to squeeze in two scouting trips before my hunt started. I began spending more time than I thought possible on Google Earth and OnX maps scouting and looking at places to try out. With endless places that looked good, I slowly narrowed it down to about 25 areas I thought might pay off.
On July 12th, my brother Landon and I skipped out of work early and made the trek to southern Idaho. As we drove, we talked about what to expect for this early elk hunt. My hopes were high, but the part I was most excited about was the chance to hunt big velvet bulls with a rifle. I think it may be every western hunter’s dream to shoot a bull in full velvet. With only a week of hunting until the bulls would be rubbing their velvet, we knew we had to get it done fast.
Arriving in Idaho with only a few hours of glassing light left, we picked a few spots and glassed until dark without seeing a single elk. Once it was dark, we met up with my friend Casey and his son who are residents of Idaho. Casey’s wife and son had drawn the same tag that I had. Camping out that night, we shared hunting stories and talked about the upcoming hunt. When daylight came, it found us on some high points glassing as much country as we could; still no elk. I began to get a little worried. As the summer sun began climbing, the temperature started to heat up. As the day grew late, we found a good glassing point and settled in for the evening. After only a few minutes, Landon found the first bull elk. As the evening went on, we glassed up more bulls, one of which was a good-looking bull. Sunday morning found us at the same spot glassing again, and as daylight came we began to see elk.
Every elk we saw was a bull. As I picked through them, Landon got my attention when he glassed up a good-looking bull. He was a definite shooter in my book, and my excitement was through the roof. As we made the drive home back to Utah, we started to make a game plan. Landon and I both agreed that we needed to stick to the area we had found the bulls in and be persistent since we knew there was a shooter bull there. But we also knew that once the bulls rubbed their velvet, they would start to change their patterns and be harder to find. I knew that if I wanted a velvet bull, we were going to have to get it done fast. We also knew that we would be fighting against the August heat while taking care of the meat, cape, and velvet once we had a bull down. It was going to be tricky.
On the weekend before my hunt started, I made my way back to my unit in Idaho. Once there, I met up with Casey and his kids. We spent the mornings and evenings glassing from the spot we had previously found. We were able to turn up more bulls and we located a good-looking 6x7 that I added to my hit-list. With only four days until the opener, I made my way back home to Utah. For the next few days, I dreamed of big velvet bulls and wondered what the next week would have in store. Tuesday night found me frantically packing and going through my checklist over and over to make sure I had everything.
That Wednesday was dragging on with work. I thought I was never going to get done for the day; I could not wait to hit the road to Idaho. Once we hit the highway, it finally began to feel real. I recall that it didn’t feel like it was time to hunt elk with a rifle. This is the time of year that I am usually getting my bow fine-tuned for archery hunts.
When Landon and I pulled into camp, we set up as fast as we could next to Casey and his family. My friend Tyler would soon join us along with my brother-in-law Seth and friends Josh and Collin. We all made our way to our glassing spot which was ironically just a dirt road in the middle of some farm fields. As we set up to glass, a thunderstorm rolled in. It began raining so hard that I thought the evening was done. After what seemed to be forever, the rain stopped and the bulls began moving. Tyler glassed up the 6x7 I had just seen days before with another shooter bull; both on the same hillside feeding. As we watched both bulls until dark, I told the crew that I would be happy with either and the target would be the first one that we could find opening morning.
Back at camp, we made dinner and made a plan for the morning’s hunt. Once in my sleeping bag, I lay awake for what seemed to be hours in disbelief that this was about to happen. The alarm went off and I jumped out of bed. The day I had been dreaming of was here. We all got ready and with a quick breakfast, we were on our way. Knowing there were three shooters in the area, we all went together to the glassing spot. With the first rays of daylight, we began picking apart the hills. With six sets of eyes belonging to some of the best hunters I have met, I had all the confidence in the world that we would find a good bull.
Right On Time
As the daylight trickled into the valley, the 6x7 was right where we had left him the night before. He was moving and feeding slowly and we knew he would be finding a cool, shady bed soon. As we watched him start to bed, something spooked him and he trotted around the hill out of sight. With the sun up and the heat already setting in, I knew that he hadn’t spooked too badly and would be looking to bed. We went back to camp, studied OnX maps, and made a game plan to get to a place that overlooked the little canyon the bull had slipped into. We then took the side-by-sides across a two-track road to the base of the hills. With it being super hot and the wind blowing hard, everyone elected to glass from the vantage point we had. I decided to hike up the hill a few hundred yards farther to get a different angle. When I reached a good vantage point I slowly peeked over the hillside into the opposite side of the canyon.
Less Than Ideal
Within a few short minutes, I located the bedded bull across the canyon. I set up my spotting scope and after getting some PhoneSkope footage of the bull, I radioed down to my friends and told them to get up to where I was. Once they made it to my position, everyone located the bedded bull. There was only one problem; he was 680 yards straight across a canyon and the wind was howling down the canyon, making a horrific crosswind. I was shooting Josh’s RedRock Precision 30 Nosler so I knew the gun could make the shot but judging the wind was going to be difficult. At that point, I knew that I wasn’t going to risk wounding the bull with poor shooting conditions. I took the time to look around at my friends set up with their optics. I could not have asked for a better group of guys to share this experience with. It made me choke up, and I wished this moment could last longer.
We quickly made a game plan. Josh, Collin, and I would make our way back down the way we had come up and cross the canyon to the side the bull was still feeding on. We would then need to gain some elevation to get in position for a shot and hopefully we would be out of the wind. Landon, Tyler, and Seth were still spotting for us from across the canyon.
The plan went well and we made a quick stalk – belly-crawling through the sage – to the edge of the hill. As we peeked over the hill, the bull was at 340 yards but was on the move, quartering hard away from us, and not offering a good shot. As the bull disappeared around the hill into the next canyon, I lost all hope in catching back up to him. The thick, dense cover was almost impassable in places. As we hiked back down towards the side-by-side, the rest of the crew met up with us.
My brother took a chance glassing back up the hill into the canyon where we had last seen the bull. Surprisingly, there he stood in a small clearing surrounded by dense cover. With daylight diminishing fast, we knew it was a gamble. Still, all six of us took off back up the hill. The ground was covered in crispy leaf vegetation that made it almost impossible to be quiet. Without time to be too sneaky and daylight fading quickly, we made a beeline for the bull.
A Second Chance
As we fought our way through the dense cover in the bottom of a small canyon, we slowly crested the top of the hill and peered over. The bull had not even moved one step from where we had seen him 20 minutes before from the side-by-sides. Josh and I crept forward around the face of the hill until we found an open spot. I quickly laid my pack on the ground and steadied the level through the scope. Josh read me the range, “490 yards, you got this.” I adjusted the turret, took a deep breath, let it out, and squeezed the trigger. The Red Rock Precision 30 Nosler leaped in my hands as I heard the “whack” of the 210-grain Berger VLD bullet hitting the bull. Before I could find the bull in the scope again, Josh excitedly confirmed that he was dead. The bull had taken just three steps and tipped over.
As I jumped up off the ground, the hoots and hollers from the rest of the team below us filled the canyon. The crew made their way to our position and we all took off, trying to fight our way through the dense trees to the bull before it was too dark to see. After literally crawling through the thick cover, we made it to the bull. As we walked upon him, I was in utter disbelief; his mass was unreal. His body was so big that it had thrown me off on how big this old bull really was! With lots of hugs and high-fives all over again, we took at the moment.
The velvet was so amazing and as perfect as I could ask for. It's not every day that you get to hold a big bull in full velvet. After lots of pictures, we had our work cut out for us breaking the bull down and getting him off the mountain. One thing I was not prepared for was how tedious it is to get velvet horns off the mountain in the dark without damaging them. Thanks to my brother, we got the job done.
This was one of the most fun hunts I have ever been on, to say the least. Even though it all happened on opening day, I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful bull. I would like to thank my brother Landon for taking the time to help me scout and get the bull on the ground. Also, I could not have asked for a better group of friends to share this experience with. Big thanks to Tyler, Seth, Josh, and Collin! There was never a dull moment with this group.