Elk Hunting Extreme

The most recent rain had been a brief shower two days ago, and judging by the lack of fresh tire tracks on the road, no one had been this way since. Considering we were hunting public land, that was a good sign. It would be nice to hunt an area that hadn’t been pressured. The second surprise came a few minutes later when we pulled the truck off the Forest Service lane into a small grassy park.

As soon as we stepped outside we heard bulls. To the east two particularly deep-sounding bugles continually shredded the still mid-morning air. They sounded fairly close so we headed off in that direction. Ten minutes later we seemed no closer, but then everything changed; the herd was moving our way. In response, we headed up the ridge to cut them off, but we were already too late.

Tan sides and yellow rumps passed through the timber above as we froze in the shadow of a big pine tree waiting to take our cue from the elk. We flinched as the sharp, angry bugle of a bull suddenly pierced the silence. He was right above us, and close, but we couldn’t make out his antlers through the pine trees. An immediate challenge came from farther back on the ridge. For the next 30 minutes the two bulls exchanged insults without moving more than few hundred feet. It would have been a great opportunity for a stalk but there were cows all over the place, grazing on the wide-open grassy hillside between the bull and us. Circling might have been an option, but we were pretty well pinned down by all the cows. We couldn’t do a thing until they drifted out of sight.

Rather than move off, the cows began bedding. At the same time, the distant bull began drawing closer. A showdown was in the offing. The nervous bull above us circled his harem several times as his rival drew near, then everything broke loose. I don’t know for sure if one of the cows finally spotted us or if the approaching bull stirred things up, but in a flash the entire herd was up and moving – fast.

“Come on,” my guide hissed through his facemask as he took off running toward the ridge top and the rapidly departing herd. In front of us, the bugling intensified until it was almost continual. It sounded like there were at least three bulls in the herd now, and another converging fast from our left – a totally different bull. The fourth bull had a particularly high-pitched, almost hideous bugle. It sounded like some kind of prehistoric dinosaur screaming. The sound of it made my hair stand up. His voice was easy to separate from the mêlée. Apparently one of the cows was in heat because the bulls were really going crazy.

Finally, we could see the herd 150 yards ahead of us through the open timber of the ridge top – moving steadily away from us. There were three bulls. One was a very interesting 6 X 6 with heavily palmated tops. He was a 300-inch plus bull and a possible shooter.

The bull with the high-pitched shriek continued to angle up out of the dark ravine to our left. He was moving fast on a beeline straight for the action. The moment had the tension and urgency of a lit fuse sizzling toward a stick of dynamite. And, we were pushing to get right in the middle of it – waiting (hoping) for the explosion.

My guide on this hunt was Sonny Tappia, a young man who had grown up right here in eastern Arizona and now guides for George Taulman’s United States Outfitters. Sonny knows most of the Apache National Forest as well as I know my living room. In fact, I’ve never hunted with a guide who knows his country better. Sonny knows where the elk will be and where they will be headed in dozens – maybe hundreds - of similar out of the way spots.

This was our second hunt of the day and had we been a little more aggressive right out of the blocks, we would have been field dressing a bull 15 miles away instead.

That first hunt had been somewhat the product of desperation. We’d been seeing lots of bulls but precious few shooters. After seven days of hard hunting Sonny decided to try to sneak an ace card out of his shirtsleeve. A few days before I arrived for the hunt, one of Sonny’s friends called him and told him about a 340-inch bull that was feeding each morning in an alfalfa field only a half-mile from a nearby town. According to the report, the bull and his herd were leaving the field by the same route at the same time each morning.

Sonny told me the story the day I got into camp. We both agreed that elk aren’t cattle, and filed it away as a last resort play. Finally, after getting our hind ends kicked in all parts of the national forest we were ready to check it out.

Lights from town were still clearly visible on the morning of day eight as we pulled onto the shoulder and cut the engine. As soon as we rolled our windows down, we broke into broad grins. Why hadn’t we tried this sooner? We could hear at least three different bulls and two of them had very deep, raspy bugles. It was all private land in this area, but Sonny had permission. Off we went, scaling a high promontory that flanked the field. We waited on the ridge for daylight so we could get a look at this “340 bull”. When the sky finally turned pink in the east we were shocked. Sure enough, there he stood and he was that big!

Now all we had to do was figure out where they’d been leaving the field each morning and this “last resort hunt” would be a slam-dunk. I wanted to run right into the herd with a knife clenched between my teeth. Actually, I was urging that we immediately look for the trail. Sonny pressed for patience. He wanted to watch from our vantage point, assuming we had plenty of time to get in front of the herd once they began to move. In situations like this, patience is generally rewarded, but not this time. We didn’t count on a rush for the exit that would have made a fire panic look sluggish.

As soon as the sun broke over the distant peaks, the entire herd literally trotted out of the field. We could only watch with our mouths hanging open as they quickly skirted the end of the ridge where we sat and headed for the hills on a trail that was easily as wide as a sidewalk. There were several cedar trees within bow range of the trail that would have made for an easy ambush. Rather than chase them into the rim-rock, we vowed to come back the next morning and take advantage of what we’d learned.

In the meantime, Sonny wanted to check out a few honey holes in the national forest nearby. That’s what led us down the little-used Forest Service road and put us in the front row for the remake of Jurassic Park.

“There he is,” Sonny hissed over my right shoulder. “He’s a shooter.” The screamer from the dark ravine was finally in sight. After seven days I wasn’t about to question a green light, so I quickly jumped behind a two-foot diameter pine tree and nocked an arrow. Sonny flattened on the ground and sent out a single cow call. The bull instantly whirled and began heading our way at a fast walk, stopping only long enough to bugle right in our faces – that same hideous sound – once at 60 yards and again at 40.

Standing, I kept the tree between the bull and myself. When he stopped at 40 yards I drew, but the angle was bad – he was still facing us. Now, as he continued he was clear of the tree and I was seemingly visible, but he never picked me out of the tree’s shadow.

“When you’ve got a shot I’ll stop him,” Sonny said in a low whisper.

I was struggling to hold things together. It was awesome watching such a huge animal walk majestically through the wide-open timber mere yards away. I’ve shot a lot of good-sized deer and other big game, and I always got excited - but nothing like this. There is something different about elk – they freak me out, and I know I’m not alone in that regard. It was only by sheer willpower that I waited for the bull to present a shot.

Finally, he came broadside. “Ok,” I said to Sonny in a hoarse, choking whisper.

He chirped once on the cow call and the bull stopped on a dime and turned to look quizzically in our direction. I brought the sight onto his massive chest. Flustered, I didn’t know if he was 20 yards or 30 yards, but I knew he probably wasn’t closer or farther. Fortunately, his chest was so big that both pins fit nicely right in the pocket behind his front leg. I’m sure the form wasn’t pretty – a little trigger punching was likely involved. The most lasting impression of the shot was the arrow dipping lower than I’d expected and impacting a few inches farther forward. The shaft struck the meat at the back of the front leg with a solid thwack.

The bull immediately whirled and broke the shaft off before running only 75 yards down the slope toward the deep ravine. From there he walked out of sight into the ditch. He’d been out of sight for only a few seconds when we heard a crash. Immediately Sonny reached out and shook my hand. “He’s dead,” he said. “You got him.” After 7 ½ days of hard hunting, we were both pretty well pumped.

As we discussed our options, we convinced ourselves to wait a full hour. That crash didn’t necessarily mean he was down, but we conceded that it was very encouraging. As we waited, I directed Sonny to the broken arrow – a full 30 yards away. That explained the hit being slightly lower than expected – bull fever explained the rest. Comparing the arrow to the ones still in my quiver we were relieved to see that it had penetrated 14 to 16 inches, certainly deep enough to get both lungs.

When we finally did take up the trail it was shockingly light, causing me to second-guess my enthusiasm. I stayed back to work it out as Sonny headed for the bottom of the ravine. I didn’t have long to wait before I heard him shout. The bull was stone dead at the bottom of the ravine. The arrow had passed through both lungs before lodging in the shoulder on the other side. The broken-off shaft was still blocking the entry hole, explaining the scant blood trail.

Walking up on any trophy is always bittersweet. I live for the thrill of the chase and when the tag is filled the chase is over. Plus, it was a majestic animal that lay at our feet. His death deserved respect rather than exuberance. We paid him his due in the next few minutes, quietly discussing the hunt and the beauty of the animal. Then reality set in: we were looking at 1,000 pounds of elk at the very bottom of a steep ravine. At that point I reminded Sonny that I was on a guided hunt!

Hunting Arizona

My Arizona hunt was with United States Outfitters (USO) on public land. Such hunts are surprisingly affordable (under $3,000) because no lease fees or landowner tags are involved. When you consider the quality of the animals present, this may be the most affordable trophy elk hunt in the world. But, of course there’s a catch; getting the tag is tough. Arizona elk permits come only through a low odds drawing. I spent five years accumulating preference points before getting my tag. According to George Taulman, six or seven years is common.



Cheyenne, WY
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