From the Editor – A Trophy to Remember

Posted on June 8, 2012

By Joe Bell

elk huntingThe roar of a rutting bull elk reverberated down the sage-filled canyons, stirring that excitement every serious elk hunter knows.

Although it was barely light enough to see, my friend Ron Niziolek and I were watching several dark shapes through our binoculars as we glassed out across the big drainage. With each passing minute, and the additional streaks of daylight, it became more clear that we were seeing five cows and a giant bull.

This hunt marked an entirely new hunting experience for me. I’ve hunted elk extensively in the high country, as well as a couple seasons in my home state of Arizona, but I’ve never hunted “fringe” elk country, where rolling sage hills make up the predominant form of landscape. In this part of Wyoming, amazingly, elk thrive in such terrain as long as there’s water and feed around. The best part of all this is that most hunters overlook these public-land hotspots, and only the locals seem to know about them, so hunting pressure is nearly non-existent.

Moments earlier, Ron and I left the main highway and four-wheeled his GMC up a rut-filled two-track. Our climb eventually brought us up 1,000 feet or so. I was growing ever so doubtful of Ron’s secret spot, as all I could see was nothing more than empty grasslands with one barren-looking rock outcropping at the top of the ridge.

“Elk here?” I muttered to Ron, somewhat bewildered by what I had got myself in to.

“See those big boulders up there,” Ron said, as he pointed to rounded silhouettes in the sea of grass. “Well, the country changes beyond that…you’ll see.”

Prior to the hunt, Ron had mentioned that calling rarely works on these elk. The country is so open, that bugling and rapid cow calling only educates savvy, mature bulls to a hunter’s whereabouts. For this reason, bulls are best ambushed on foot by getting in front of or flanking them, and keeping the wind right until they are approachable for a stalk.

Being a serious western bowhunter, the idea of running-and-gunning elk had me all pumped up compared to the usual get-close-enough-then-call-blindly type of hunting that I had done so much in mountainous, heavily wooded settings.

As the sun began its slow crawl to the horizon, more and more of our surroundings came to life. Suddenly, I could see the elk’s attraction to the area. It was a masterpiece of transitional terrain. On one side of the canyon was semi-heavy tree cover, while below was a broken valley floor, interspersed with grass and sage hills, along with several large wallows. Beyond were boulder-strewn gullies leading up to a large mountainside and a complex assortment of massive mountain ridges and peaks. There was lots of great elk-looking turf amid the vast boulder, pine, and cedar country. It was perfect for rutting bulls to venture off the high mountain country in early September to chase cows in the lower ranch-style landscapes where they seemed so prevalent.

By now, Ron and I could hear two bulls talking, and one was very close. We dropped off the steep canyon wall and made our move. As we zigzagged through the willows and buck brush, we could hear a symphony of elk talk, growing in intensity with each downward step.

Once we reached the bottom, we took cover in the sage, and Ron began cow calling and squealing like a young bull, just to see what would happen. As I stated earlier, Ron usually doesn’t call, but with it being only our first hunting day, he was curious.

The giant bull we spotted early had some elevation on us and clearly had us spotted. He was now moving away, but this other bull, which seemed all “heated up,” was not. I couldn’t believe it…30 minutes into the hunt, and I was this close to elk. Everything seemed so surreal.

Five minutes later, Ron stopped calling, and he had his thumbs pointed down. About then, a 260-class bull strolled out, then quickly ran away. Although the spectacle was exciting, to say the least, the bull wasn’t what we were looking for. I was hoping to hold out for a more mature animal—at least, this early in the hunt.

Hiking further down the valley we came upon another bull, which was feeding contentedly and all alone. This one we guessed close to my trophy hopes.

After mapping out a good route, I tore off after the bull as Ron held back to watch. The bull was on the side of a hill with several cuts that would aid in hiding my approach. I felt a wave of confidence as I sneaked in for the kill.

Yet, as with most stalks that look simple from afar, this one became problematic as I got closer. I eventually lost sight of the bull in the brush. There was nothing left to do but to begin still-hunting down a well-used trail, hopeful that I’d spot the bull before he did me. As I tip-toed along, I could hear faint bugles coming from up the valley. I became curious and stopped to glass. I quickly located the large-racked bull, half covered in mud, working toward a main wallow I had walked past about 20 minutes earlier. I glassed for Ron, who was apparently listening to the bull and trying to get up high so he could glass. Later, he was frantically waving his arm, flagging me in.

I hot-footed it off the side of the canyon, sliding into a cut to stay hidden from the watchful eyes of the approaching bull. By the time I got to Ron, he was amped for action.

“Get set up—fast!” he said, blowing his diaphragm cow call in between segments of conversation. The bull was out in the open, and a stalk was out of the question. I positioned myself about 30 yards in front of Ron, hidden behind a clump of sage.

Within minutes, the bull was in view about 120 yards away and closing in. I had already visualized every conceivable shot scenario and logged the shooting distances using my Nikon rangefinder. A small canyon separated me from the next open knoll, where I had a 45-yard sage bush all picked out. Beyond that, the bull would drop into the small canyon below, which would be bad, since a large dead tree with protruding branches would block all possibilities for a clear shot.

While contemplating all this, the bull had come closer. Now he was 50 yards away, but standing straight-on to me. His horns seemed to have rapidly grown in inches, too, I should add, now looking about 20 inches larger than before. Expecting him to turn broadside soon, the bull avoided my shot script and quickly stepped forward into the gulley. He swept past the dead tree, broadside, offering no shot. His body disappeared, and all I could see were supersized antlers swaying from side to side. He would be in my face in a matter of

seconds!

I got ready for point-blank action. Just as his chest appeared above the brush, he quickly swapped ends and ran away! I was up on my feet at this point, tracking the bull with my sight pins as he ran. I felt panic as my chance to arrow this tremendous bull was becoming a fleeting memory. That’s when Ron blew a pleading elk squeal. The bull stopped near my 45-yard distance marker, standing straightaway.

I held aim anxiously, waiting for the right angle to appear. A moment later, he took a step to the left and I placed the pin where it needed to go. The powerful Hoyt Katera speed bow thumped, and the 390-grain arrow, tipped with a G5 Striker fixed-blade broadhead, drove deep into the bull’s chest, all the way to the fletching.

As the bull disappeared over the next hill, we watched intently to see if he’d make it to the next rise. He didn’t, and in minutes we were walking up to the fallen bull. We were both in complete, utter amazement at the size of this elk and the fact that my nine-day hunt had abruptly come to an end.

As I handled the bull’s impressive headgear, I became speechless. He was by far my largest elk. It was a moment of unforgettable proportions, where everything had come together in complete harmony. All I could think was, how could I be given such a great trophy so soon in the hunt?

Perhaps it was a token for all the hard, unsuccessful hunts I had endured over the years. Or, perhaps it was just sheer luck. I seriously didn’t know what to think. But I know this: I will honor this animal to the fullest, unquestionably.

 

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