The Cancer Bull
Hunting has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started hunting and fishing with my dad when I was around four years old. I was either sitting on the bank of a lake or river with a fishing pole in my hand or literally walking in his footsteps through marshes hunting ducks or in snow-covered fields chasing pheasants. Some of my fondest memories with him came from our deer/elk camp in the Cache Valley Mountains of Northern Utah. Back then my dad killed some monster deer and elk but we never kept one set of antlers. Like everyone else from that time, they were left on the mountain unless you needed a coat rack or somewhere to hang your hat. It was a purest time to hunt where no one cared about the score. It was the body size that mattered. Large body meant more meat and meat was the trophy. Sadly the days of hunting with my dad were short lived. He was 42 and I was 11 when he lost his life to cancer. Still, the hunting memories and lessons he instilled in me left a lasting impression. I loved being raised in a hunting family and wanted the same for my kids. Many years later I married my wife Gaylene. She’s a wonderful women who likes to camp and spend time in the outdoors but hunting just isn’t her thing. She does however allow me to continue to follow in my dad’s footsteps by passing that same passion of conservation through hunting to our kids.
In 2013, after applying for our family to hunt in Utah, I started feeling kind of strange. I had some cramping in my stomach that had become quite unbearable. I went to the doctor, who seemed to think it was the onset of a kidney stone. He gave me some meds and sent me on my way. Within two days, I could tell it wasn’t a kidney stone. The next morning at 2AM, I woke up with an incredible pain in my bladder area. I knew I was either going to die right in my bed or explode on my way to the hospital. My wife heard me groaning and saw me trying to stand up. She insisted on driving me to the hospital since I was in too much pain to drive myself. There are about 3700 cracks in the road from my house to the hospital and I felt every single one. Once in the emergency room, a doctor came walking toward me with a very large catheter. Having never had a catheter before, I thought it was impossible for a tube that size to fit where he intended to put it. As I began to protest, he placed the catheter and a wave of relief washed over me. After some additional testing, the doctor diagnosed me with colitis and sent me home with some prescriptions. I took the meds and felt better, but all the while something was nagging at me, telling me that something was still wrong.
Two months later, I told my wife I needed to have a colonoscopy. I had just lost a good friend to colon cancer at 36 years old and I wanted to be able to rule that out. As I awoke from the procedure, the doctor told me he had found something. Trying to lighten the mood, I told him I was missing the TV remote and my high school ring and asked if maybe he found them. He didn’t laugh. I guess my doctor’s sense of humor was not up to par considering he was about to drop the bomb that I had colon cancer. He said it had escaped the colon wall and was attached to my bladder and had gotten into my lymph node system. Not good on any level.
I was sent to emergency surgery where they removed 17 lymph nodes and six inches of my colon. I try to be an upbeat guy but this was a tough thing for me to handle. I was not ready to die and needed something to keep me going. That’s where my wife and kids came in. They were very supportive and encouraging and always trying to keep me positive. In many ways it was harder on them than me. On one of my down days, where I needed an extra boost, I got it from the DWR (Division of Wildlife Resources). They had written me, saying I was successful in drawing the Fish Lake archery unit. That is a unit that will usually take 10-15 years to draw and I drew it with two points. My new drive in life was to get well and hunt that unit with my bow. My wife would shake her head as she watched me schedule all of my future surgeries, chemo, and radiation treatments around the hunt. I did all that I could to stay in shape. However, due to the chemo’s affect on me, I ended up fat, round, and easily winded. I still wanted to do all that I could to hunt that unit.
As all cancer fighters know if the disease doesn’t kill you the cure just might. The chemo I received was called O5-FU and it lived up to its name. After receiving my treatments I was in pretty bad shape. It lasted for about a week and a half, which was just in time for the next dose so I never felt on my game. My saving grace is that I have a lot of great friends and family that were willing to help out. When the day came to enter the woods I knew they would have my back. The day before the opener, I camped with a group of good friends. We had a great camp set up and although I was pretty high in spirits, I was not feeling well. The night was short and the sleep didn’t come easy but on opening morning I was ready to get going. I left camp with my friend Clint and we took a short walk in areas that had held elk in the past. We hiked around and called most of the day but didn’t see or hear anything. By that afternoon it was clear to me that my hunt was over. I was too weak and sick to keep it up for another day much less two weeks. I called the Utah Division of Wildlife and explained my situation with cancer and they were gracious enough to take my hunt back and allow me to keep my bonus points. Later that year I was able to take my two daughters Baylee and Kali on a cow elk hunt that they had drawn but I was so beat up and sick that I could only walk maybe 100 yards or so. I had come to the realization that my hunting year was over but I had a renewed spirit and desire to beat this disease and to hunt harder the next year.
Fast forward one year and with lots of healing prayers of faith that were sent my way, I am still alive to hunt another season. I had beaten cancer but the luck of drawing that same tag alluded me. Another good friend of mine, Dan Derrick, said we should try our luck and go hunt archery elk in Colorado. Well he didn’t have to ask me twice. I was all in for the adventure and to not only prove to myself that I was back but to celebrate life. We had planned on staying 5-6 days and just hunting until we couldn’t stand it any longer. The night we pulled into camp, we quickly set everything up and took off on our mountain bikes for the last hour of light to see if we could locate anything. We had traveled maybe a mile and I knew my strength wasn’t back yet. It takes a while to get the effects of chemo out of your body. Dan was able to locate four bulls and several cows and although I didn’t see them it was great to know they were in the area. That night we talked about the morning strategy and planned on heading back to where he saw the bulls.
Morning came quickly and we headed out. We were only 40 yards from camp when we decided to let out a locating bugle to see if anything was close. To our surprise we had three different bulls fire back at us. About 500 yards away two rag horn five-points stepped out of the timber and kept bugling to us. I was trying to make a plan on how to approach them without spooking them off but Dan said we should be aggressive and go straight at them. The plan worked flawlessly. Within ten minutes we were 50 yards from the bulls. As we cow called to the two closer rag horn bulls, the third bull, and I assume the herd bull, stayed in the trees and kept bugling. Not wanting to look a gift bull in the mouth we decided to try and take one or two of the rag horn bulls. The bull that was closer to me went to my right and dropped below me and caught my wind. He was gone, taking the other rag horn with him. We stayed put and continued to cow call. While I was calling, Dan put together his Montana cow decoy and it seemed to work. One of the bulls came back. It was closer to Dan than it was to me but he said, “This is your shot”. The bull stood broad side to Dan but head on to me so I had no clear way of taking a good killing shot. We played him for several minutes and I could tell he was getting nervous. Just then, he turned and started to move away from us. I stopped him with a cow call and he gave me a slightly quartering away shot. Without any prompt, Dan said, “70 yards”. My 70 yard pin found its mark and I loosed the arrow. For the first year ever I decided to use expandable blades and a lighted nock.
The arrow flew fast and straight out of my Hoyt carbon matrix and the red nock looked like a laser ripping through the early morning air. This allowed me to follow it all the way to impact. The sound of the arrow as it whacked the bull’s side and the quick direction change of the bull let me know the deal was done. I looked at Dan in disbelief. As we stood there looking at each other we heard a loud crash. I wondered what it was and then it dawned on me. It was probably the bull going down. Not wanting to spook the bull, and to be sure we didn’t lose him, we decided not to walk toward the sound but rather to follow the blood trail. After covering about 75 yards we found the bull piled up next to a pine tree. He was a beautiful big body 5x5 and the first that I have ever taken with my bow. I have guided several friends on hunting trips and have bugled in many bulls for others to claim for their own but this was my own. From the time we heard the first bugle to the time we laid hands on him was maybe 30 minutes. We have hunted together for years and have had thousands of experiences but nothing like this has ever came so quick and easy. This was a Godsend.
As we stood over the bull we hugged and high fived but it seemed so surreal. As I began breaking down the bull, Dan said, “I’ll head back to camp and grab the pack frame”. By the time he got back I was about half done so he began to pack out the meat. This is not the first time he has helped me pack out my game. By the time I was done he had packed out all but two loads of meat. We had the bull broken down and to the butcher by noon. Later that night we went back to that same spot and called in another rag horn 5x5. I think it was the one that had winded us earlier that morning. Dan moved into position but the light was failing fast. As it sometimes happens we ran out of daylight before he could take a shot.
We hunted a few more days but the bugling had stopped and I think Dan noticed my health was wavering so he made the call to fish a day and then head home. It’s hunts like this, with friends and family, that make up the memories and trophies that keep me craving more. Thanks to those early years spent in the woods following my dad, I learned to appreciate the joy of the hunt by the experiences that I lived and to not judge the hunt by the size of the trophy on the ground.
By: Tom Hooker