Back Country ELK HUNT
I anxiously awaited the results for the 2015 limited entry bull elk tags. After some time I was devastated to learn that I hadn’t drawn out again after 13 years of waiting. It seems that all of my family vacations and personal plans were always set aside until the results came out. It looked like I’d have at least another year to prepare for the hunt.
I was at work one day in August and received a voicemail from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. They told me that someone had turned a tag in and that I was the alternate for the limited entry bull elk hunt. At first I thought it was a joke so I listened to the message several times before I let myself get too excited. When it all sank in that this was for real, I knew I had to start making phone calls. I only had 24 hours to accept the tag.
Of course I called my wife first and crossed my fingers that she’d be supportive of my hunting obsession. We have had many arguments and debates about how many days a man should hunt each year. However, my wife was very supportive and knew I had waited for this tag for years. She even sacrificed going to a Twenty One Pilots concert so that I could be gone for this hunt. She’s amazing.
I personally had been saving up vacation time for the last four years in preparation for this hunt. However I knew the amount of time off depended greatly upon a longtime friend of mine, Mike. I quickly called Mike and told him about the message I had received from the DWR. He of course thought I was joking. I have known Mike since the beginning of the boy scouting program at 12 years old. We lived just down the street from each other. Mike and I have been best friends for 26 years. We’ve hunted just about everything you can imagine and have gotten into more than enough mischief than most kids. Mike has always been one to hunt anything and everything and he climbs hills and spots animals better than anyone I’ve ever seen or at least he used to. He asked me how much time I wanted to take off for the hunt and I told him all 12 days. Without any hesitation he said “I’ll see what I can do with work.” Mike really pulled through for me. He called back and said he’d made arrangements to take all 12 days off.
Preparations for the hunt began immediately. It was all I talked or thought about. My wife was actually looking forward to me leaving so she wouldn’t have to hear about the hunt or what I should eat on the hunt, etc. I only had one month to prepare. I started talking to anyone that had hunted or guided on that unit. Mike and I decided we wanted to hunt areas that were less accessible and more difficult to hunt so we could have a chance at a bigger bull. Our plan was to hike in deep, where no one else goes, accompanied by Mike’s eight llamas. We picked out a spot on the map and scouted the area two weeks before the hunt started.
On the first day of scouting we counted over 15 bulls, all of which were smaller rag horns and satellite bulls. There was nothing of any size that we wanted to pursue. However we were optimistic that the big bulls were hiding out somewhere, getting ready for the rut to begin.
The week before the hunt started I brought up my camp trailer to prepare for the 12 day hunt, we planned to make various spike camps with the llamas and get re-supplied at the trailer every two to three days.
The hunt started Monday, Sept. 21st but I met Mike Sunday evening at the trailer on the mountain. It was a restless night with the anticipation of the morning hunt. We woke early the next morning to decide where the best location would be to set up our first spike camp. We walked in the dark along the top of a ridge line. At first light we glassed down into the bottoms of the steep rocky ridges. While spotting with the 80 millimeter high definition Vortex Spotting Spoke, it didn’t take long to spot a bull herding cows over two miles away. At that distance we could tell that he was a mature bull and the biggest we had seen so far. We also could see that he had some good length on his back end. However, we weren’t able to tell how well his fronts looked. The bull was working the cows into some dark timber and we knew from the previous weeks scouting trip that there was a trail that would get us to get half way between him and where we stood now.
The bull was located in the worst possible place to access him and it was difficult to get close enough to see how big he really was. We knew that he had not received much pressure from the other hunters because of this location. As a result, we decided he must be a big bull. We knew our best chance to get a better look would be to make a spike camp above a rocky ridge with the worst possible deadfall and terrain you could imagine. I didn’t put in for this unit to have a big bull just handed to me. I knew it would take a lot of sacrifice and work to get. We decided to head back to camp and make preparations with gear, food, and the llamas to close the distance on the bull. Once the llamas were loaded in the trailer, we went up the road two or three miles to park and start our three mile hike into our spike camp.
The funny thing with llamas is that they each have their own personalities, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses. For example, the lead llama named Riley just wants to get to his location as quickly as possible and will try to walk in front of his lead rope, passing you by. Another llama named Coco likes to eat grass every chance he gets and often gets caught in his lead rope while grazing. This causes all sorts of problems and quite the circus when his feet get all tangled up. Besides these problems you always have some llamas that decide to just lay down on the trail and refuse to go any further. All of these complications arise when walking so many llamas into the backcountry. Despite the troubles, it’s better than carrying all the gear on your own back. Another bonus is that these animals will go places a horse will never attempt to go.
After about a mile in, along the ridge that we knew would lead us to the bull, we had to climb a steep 45 degree rocky slope with deadfall and thick saplings. I walked ahead of Mike charting an unmarked trail, going up and over logs and at one point getting the llamas to where they had to kneel down on their knees to shimmy under a log. It was very frustrating and tiring and we had only pulled one llama to the top of the ridge. We were running out of energy and were angry and frustrated. The sun was setting quickly and we knew we’d soon be out of light. I’ve never felt more exhausted and tired in my life. The many trips shuttling llamas and gear up the hill was taking a toll on us. We decided to make a spike camp at the base of the hill. In the back of our minds we both knew this bull might be impossible to hunt, let alone pack the meat back out to the road but we were still determined to do it.
After a quick dinner of rib eyes over the campfire, we went to sleep. Before light the next morning we decided to hike in with minimal gear to see if we could locate the bull. Our destination was on an adjoining ridgeline that branched off of the one we were on. This was the last location we had seen the bull the day before. Mike blared out a couple cow calls. It didn’t take long for the bull to respond, however, he wasn’t leaving the thick timber or his herd of cows. After the bull gave his position away by bugling we moved in for what we thought would be a perfect shooting situation. The bull was in some dark timber on a parallel adjacent ridge. We were on the opposite ridge with a drainage in between us that was about 500 yards across. We were hoping we could call the bull out of the timber and down into the bottom where it wasn’t as thick. Mike got behind me 30-40 yards and began calling. With the camera rolling and the muzzle loader in position, I could envision the bull coming out and having a 100 yard shot. At this point we still hadn’t seen the bull and he was not going to be easily persuaded to leave his cows. The bull soon went quiet, we knew he was starting to bed down in the dark timber and we’d have to wait him out to see how big he was. We could see a few of his cows in small openings and knew it’d be a matter of time before we could size him up.
After hours of studying the timber, we caught a glimpse of his six points and knew he had great mass, ivory tips, and a huge whale tail. His front end was a little hard to see but we could tell he was really symmetrical and a beautiful dark horned mature bull. I knew I’d be happy with him. After what we’d been through so far and the discouragement of not seeing any larger bulls while scouting, I knew I’d be happy if I had an opportunity to shoot this bull.
The bull soon started moving his cows down the drainage that separated the ridge that we were on. We knew that if we side hilled and paralleled him we could close the distance to 200 yards. At that distance I was comfortable with the shot from the muzzle loader that I had been practicing with in preparation for the hunt. As we closed the distance on the bull, one of the cows that was just below us barked out a distress call to warn the other elk. The cow must’ve smelled us. Suddenly all of the elk started to act really nervous and we could sense that they were all going to bust out of the timber and be over the hill into the next county. We quickly set up for the shot as we predicted the bull would step out approximately 230 yards away. I told Mike that when the bull steps out, he should cow call to stop him and that I would try to get off a shot.
It seemed like an eternity but the bull finally stepped out into the opening. The bull stopped just as we had hoped in the small clearing and turned, quartering away, giving me a split second shot. I squeezed the trigger and the bull’s legs went out from underneath him. He struggled to get up as he crashed through the timber. It soon went silent and we thought the bull had fallen down. We started with the high fives and replaying what had just happened when suddenly the bull decided to get back up. He stumbled out of the thick timber into the trees and we could tell he was hit hard. At about 300 yards I shot again, knowing that having another bullet in him would be to my advantage. I missed the shot but could tell as he plowed through the saplings, that it would just be a matter of time.
We decided eat some lunch and wait him out for an hour. When we were done we followed the ridgeline down further to where we had last seen the bull. We looked over to the ridge and could see his body laying down, however, his head and antlers were still moving. We got set up to do a finishing shot. The bull stood up and at about 200 yards I shot again and it missed just over his back by inches. The bull laid back down where he stood. I needed to reload and as I went to put on my 209 primer, I discovered the lanyard with my extra primers had fallen off my pack. Without the primer I wouldn’t be able to fire the gun to finish the bull. Mike didn’t carry any primers and I didn’t have any extras. We had to backtrack our footsteps and, with silent prayers, were able to find the small square of primer holder underneath a tree. I put on the primer and got into position. The bull was still laying there trying to keep his head off the ground. I shot one last shot and hit the bull. He started rolling down the hill and after watching for several minutes, we knew the bull was done.
I walked over to the bull and was amazed at the size of it’s body and how awesome and perfect the antlers were. It was the bull of a lifetime. After pictures, we caped the bull and put all the meat in bags. As it was getting dark, we hung the meat in the nearby shaded timber. We would have to come back in the morning to retreat the bull. Mike and I were both very concerned about getting the bull out the next day. We wondered if the llamas would even be able to get in here as it was in the worst possible place imaginable and several miles from roads. This country would be extremely difficult to access even with horses. We walked back to our spike camp in the dark knowing that we may have to carry out the bull on our shoulders.
We woke the next morning and knew we had to try getting at least four of the llamas up the steep ridgeline through all the deadfall. We loaded up the four best llamas with the best saddles and panniers (saddle bags for llamas), and started easing our way up the slope. We would go 30-40 yards at a time, resting the llamas and giving them words of encouragement. Half way up the ridge we had to take the saddles and panniers off each llama and work them underneath the fallen log. To our amazement, we made it up to the top of the ridge with all four llamas. Our next worry would be getting the meat out of the drainage without having to fight the llamas. We got the llamas to the bull and without any trouble loaded up the meat. Mike took the cape on his back, I took the antlers on my back and we slowly worked the llamas out of the hole that we were in. Carrying the antlers on my back made the trek back even more difficult because they’d get caught and tangled with each step. It took us all day and we eventually got back to our spike camp as it was getting dark.
Although this hunt was the toughest hunt I’ve ever done, I now look back and think of the memories and how glad I am that those llamas made it up that ridge. I’d like to thank my wife for supporting me in my hunting adventures and for a great buddy that keeps me young.