It has been a long time coming. Each year you try your hardest to adopt the mantra, “this is my year” while recognizing the odds are stacked against you. My dad believed it was his year for 18 years. It began in his mid-forties. To think of my dad at that age means to think of myself at 16 years old. That seems like a lifetime ago. During the past 18 years we have attempted to draw bull elk tags on the Monroe, Book Cliffs, and San Juan units of Utah. Draw results only brought disappointment and a 12 month refresh. At times we questioned whether my dad would ever hunt big bulls in Utah by way of the draw? Each year he privately cursed the DWR. He joked that soon he was just going to run his own program. Given my dad is straight as an arrow his threats were hilariously empty.
Over time we learned and studied Utah’s limited entry elk units. With 16 years and 16 points under his belt our focus had shifted to the Wasatch. We accepted that other units across the state might produce bigger bulls; however, we also liked the idea of hunting in our own back yard. In a lot of ways this was a once in a lifetime hunt. We settled in on a unit that would allow us to logically put in the time scouting. We felt putting in the time outweighed the benefits of a better more distant unit.
After 16 years and with an affinity to all forms of hunting, my dad concluded he was willing to wait for a premium Wasatch tag. In Utah the premium tag allows you to hunt all 4 seasons. (archery, early rifle, muzzleloader, and late rifle) He didn’t draw that 16th year. In his 17th year the odds look favorable for landing a guaranteed tag. “Surely we’d be hunting this year Dad!” Again, year 17 resulted in disappointment and a 12 month refresh.
In his 18th year, credit cards began to get hit with pending charges. This happens several days before draw results are officially posted. To those that draw their dream tag this day is likened unto Christmas. For the rest of us it’s likened unto hell. To have your card hit represents the first clues to the year’s draw results. It looked as though another year of hell was unfolding before our eyes. His card had zero pending charges. Can you picture it? A bunch of men and women sitting around refreshing online bank statements just waiting and begging to be charged? It’s the one time a year that I pray someone will take my money. Please, please take my money! It didn’t seem that Utah was going to take his money. After 2 days the reality of another 12 month refresh set in.
All seemed lost. It was as if someone was sitting at the DWR office giggling the words “let’s jack with this guy.” It seemed to be in the last hour that my mother discovered my dad’s credit card was finally hit. The charge was indeed pending. We were going to hunt big bulls on the Wasatch in 2015! He had drawn a premium tag and his hunt would start with the upcoming archery season. How would we break the news to him? My mom printed the statement, purchased a gift card at Cabela’s, and delivered both to my dad as he attended a church function that evening. To you loved ones of a hunter… take notes!
We started funneling through past video footage and past years’ trail camera pictures in an effort to take inventory. We tried to determine which bulls likely made it and which bulls were rumored to have been harvested? We weren’t going to wait for 2015’s new antler growth to start developing an early hit list. Legendary bulls from the Northwest corner of the unit to the Southeast corner of the unit began racing through our minds. We knew where we wanted to start and we patiently prepared.
With 4 gaited horses, 12 trail cameras, four-wheelers, and several waypoints we set out for what would be many weekends and weeknights of scouting. Although fit as a whistle, my dad was experiencing severe back pain from the previous year. It flared at its worst while horse packing in on a mule deer hunt in 2014. Tough as an ox he joined us on many of our scouting trips but not all of them. I often worried that we’d mess up his back before we even got started.
Over time our hit list grew 4 deep in addition to some alternate bulls we determined we’d take a long look at later in the hunt. We never banked on any of them sticking around so we continued to do the time. My longtime friend Evan Ault was putting in long hours as well. Help poured in from several people and we were grateful to have more eyes in the field. Bulls were turning up, horn growth was unprecedented, and this hunt was shaping up to be one for the books.
Going into the last week before the hunt we felt we had taken great inventory of our key hunting areas. We were confident in the bulls we were seeing although a couple key bulls on our list hadn’t shown themselves in some time. We concluded that if things didn’t shake out in our favor it wouldn’t have been for lack of effort. Things were looking up.
The archery hunt came and went. We made attempts to bow hunt these bulls but I would say our attempts were halfhearted at best. For us it was hard to get motivated knowing we had the time and weapon selection of a premium tag. Don’t get me wrong, bow hunting is exhilarating and challenging. Bow hunting is something we love. The idea of killing a bruiser with a bow was top on the list; however, with family and work commitments we were allocating our time to the rifle season. We bow hunted weekends.
I had to travel for work the week before the rifle opener. We had determined we’d rest my dad’s back as well then hit it hard the Friday before the hunt. As I traveled, Evan took one last trip into the back country. It was Tuesday. I received a text that he’d located a stud bull not previously seen. He uploaded the video to dropbox and from Seattle I sat in my hotel room drooling. This new bull’s backs couldn’t be ignored! This bull would be added to the list!
I couldn’t get back from Seattle soon enough. Thursday night we prepped and Friday morning we were up bright and early. We determined we would glass Friday morning, set up camp in the afternoon, and glass again that evening. We located the bull with the backs first thing Friday morning. He hadn’t moved far from his location earlier in the week. Fact is he was now moving a little bit slower. Earlier in the week he was a ruttin’ bull on a mission. 3 days later it was if he was hurt, beat down, and worn out. We figured he’d got in a fight with the wrong bull. I’d sure love to see that bull! That morning our bull fed along an opening as he walked gingerly to his bed. At this point we pegged him as a bull my dad would whack if an opportunity presented itself.
That afternoon we took one last look at our trail cameras in the area. There wasn’t anything notable or new coming into the cameras until we realized we had actually seen that bull in 3 previous trail cam pictures. You see the Saturday before Evan spotted this bull on the hoof, we went in and discovered 3 pictures of him on one of our trail cameras. We looked over the pictures that Saturday and said, “he’d be a bruiser if he didn’t have nubby fronts.” We didn’t put any more thought into the bull until we connected the puzzle pieces on Friday afternoon. It was the same bull. For the first time we began to question whether or not this bull should be on our hit list. We were concerned with his fronts, I was concerned with his fronts. The rest of the afternoon we evaluated the footage and the 3 trail camera pictures. Evan added this bull up to be 365” but maintained you’d never pass a bull with “backs like that.” I was less sure. My dad was just happy to be up hunting big bulls. I will never forget the smiles and the excitement expressed by my dad!
That night me, Evan, and my brother in law Trevor Sharp got back to glassing. My father stayed back to cook dinner and relax his back. As we glassed we immediately located our bull with the backs. He hadn’t moved more than 100 yards. He was feeding and we were able to capture a significant amount of footage. We headed back to camp still debating whether his fronts warranted an opening morning bull. On the way back we located a bull that was also on our top 4 list. We hadn’t located this second bull in over 3 weeks so to say we were excited was an understatement. We were able to put 2 of our Top 4 to bed the night before the opener. As we rode back to camp the wind swirled the scent of dutch oven ribs, biscuits, potatoes, vegetables, and cobbler down the canyon towards us. We were soon to partake of most spectacular elk camp dinner ever served on no tell em’ ridge!
That night I didn’t sleep. I’d love to blame it on the jitters but it’s mainly because I am a weirdo. My mind tends to play tricks on me when sleeping in the back country. Without further detail I will just tell you I am a pansy despite hundreds of nights in the field. To forget my ear plugs is a sure fire way to a crappy night’s sleep. I have issues. That being said, the alarms finally sounded.
You know the feeling right? The butterflies of opening morning took over as we prepped our gear for the hunt. It was on! Trevor and I hiked to our pre-established vantage point. Evan and my dad got into position. Visibility slowly improved. Elk began to present themselves in the coolest ways. Soon Evan and my dad were on one of our reserve bulls. Do not shoot a reserve bull! Before trigger itch kicked in, Trevor glassed up the bull with the backs bedded at the edge of some aspens. It was determined Evan and my dad would move into position and get a closer look. The bull was still moving slow with each calculated step. He fed much of the morning within the same 100 yard radius. We captured a ton of additional footage. Within 30 minutes Evan and my dad were in position despite some intense back pain. They were staring at this old monarch bull at approximately 375 yards. The final conclusion was obvious, you’d be crazy to pass this bull. “Get ready, he’s shooting.” We braced for impact but impact never came. What’s taking them so long? Are they having second thoughts? Again, they announced that he would soon fire. We braced yet again for impact. From our vantage point the sound of gun powder combusting was delayed. Looking through my glass at that distance things began with the bull hunched as he tried to gather his footing. “He shot, he shot.” The sound of a distant boom soon arrived. “He’s hit, he’s hit.” A epic tumble ensued and it was lights out.
Some hunters stop and take it all in an act of reference for the animal they just killed. Some hunters react with emotion reminiscent of winning the super bowl. We joke that my dad was giggling like a little school boy. Love me or hate me but we’d just won the super bowl! From our vantage it was all high fives and irreverent outbursts. To me it was and is a celebration. It’s a celebration of time, energy, dedication, and hard work. Sometimes it’s a celebration of luck. At all times it is a celebration of the animal we’ve been blessed to harvest!
Trevor and I made our way over to the bull. Initial reports from my dad and Evan was that the bull had zero ground shrinkage. Walking up to the bull confirmed those initial reports. On the ground this bull was still a bull you’d be crazy to pass on any day on the Wasatch. He is an absolute brute rarely matched characteristics. More high fives and irreverent outbursts issued. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. From the moment my dad’s 300 win mag discharged to moment we rolled into camp 12 hours had passed. We could not have done it without a team of 5. Later that afternoon Steve Ault rode in on horseback 15 miles to help retrieve us and get all that meat out of the back country. We had run out of water and to say he was a welcome sight was an understatement. I offered him a kiss. He declined. In the end, the day was perfect. The help was perfect. The look on my dad’s face was perfect. The bull was perfect.
One of the greatest parts of elk hunting 2015 is this perfect story is only half way over. I also drew a Wasatch limited entry elk tag with 10 points. My hunt began November 7th so stay tuned for the last half of the story and season.