Because of the long summer drought, it was predicted to be one of the worst years ever for hunting Elk in Montana. I didn’t see much in the way of size that year, until after a week of hunting and right before dark, the mammoth of all bulls appeared 40 yards in front of us.
The beginning of archery elk season in Montana was only a few days away, and the blood in my veins was starting to flow with excitement and a nervous anxiety. Avid elk hunters everywhere were awakening to the call of the bulge. The small coffee shops around town were full of old timers retelling stories of their youth of how good the hunting used to be, and how they used to hunt better than we do today. And, of course, how good they shoot their long and recurve bows back in the day.
In my mind, I could already see the hunt unfolding in front of me. I could feel the early September heat and sweat rolling down my face, listening to the early morning bugles in the distance, and the chasing and stalking to where we thought we had heard the bugle come from. There is no better time to be in the woods than during the elk rut. I knew hunting was going to be tough and slow as we were chasing a 1000 pound monster through the dry and brittle forest. The drought had dramatically slowed antler growth and there were only few mammoth bulls out there with nice racks.
I had spent most of the summer with my family in Montana so that I could scout the woods all summer. It is a challenge to leave my two daughters for 8 weeks. One advantage of being a teacher is that I have the summer off. I rented a small cottage outside of Paradise Valley for the months of June, July, August, and the first few weeks in September. The girls were happy to get away from our suburban home outside of Washington, D.C., and enjoy the mountain air. While I knew my daughters would miss their friends, I knew that they would enjoy the quality sister time ahead. While I scouted along the ridges and bluffs during the day where I had seen elk in years before, the girls enjoyed playing outside, fishing, boating, and swimming in the lake.
The majority of the big bulls I had seen had weak fifth and sixth points, and there were some smaller five by five bulls around that I would see through my spotting scope from time to time. The morning before opening day, I found a very large bull with another great bull tagging along with it. I was excited about this duo of bulls. The bigger bull was very unique and his rack was off the charts. The terrain he was in was extremely steep and rocky. In addition, it had some rolling hills and wooded areas. This is definitely not the favorite type of terrain for a chubby hunter like me. There was almost no way to approach the bull from where I had glassed him. From any direction, he would be able to hear me, smell me, and probably even see me. The valley was deep, rocky and extremely long. Above him, about three miles, there were a lot of cows with mountainous terrain and tall timber. A few miles below him, there were also some cows and some ponds low on water. There was still enough water in the ponds for the cows to wallow in. Cow elk like nothing more than blowing a hunter’s cover as they approach a big bull; they are the watch dogs of the herd. I cannot lie, I enjoy shooting cows just as much as bulls. Hey they all taste great. This year, however, I drew a bull tag, so that is what I was after.
Longtime client and friend, Jimmy Decico, and I were heading out into the hills the first week of September. Jimmy had scheduled to hunt with me the first through the sixth. Jimmy had more money than God, and always made it a point to book with me the same week every year for a public land hunt. I only guide five clients per year, and Jimmy was one of them. These five elk hunts would make up a large part of my salary. I charged a flat rate of $2000.00 per day. There is five day minimum, though most clients will book ten days. If they tag out early, most will stay for a few days, unless there is some pressing need at work. My clients were not average people; they were titans of industries, who book with me yearly to escape the stress of their daily life. Some would bring a spouse, or occasionally a client. On more than one occasion, I had to remind my clients to leave the phone at office, if they cannot go hunting without answering every dam call they get. They are used to having people bow down to them; this is the one time of year where they are taking orders instead of giving them. The price included lodging, food, and, of course, a world class guide. I took care of their transportation needs, as needed. Although, majority of them drove trucks that most only dream of.
Jimmy, like all of my clients, set tough personal standards of never shooting any animal smaller than one they had previously taken. Over the last five years, we had been successful in besting his previous year’s harvest. This year, we had to find something bigger than the 800 pound bull he shot the year before to best his mark. We hoped during the six days of Jimmy’s hunt, the big bull I had seen the other day, or another one as big, would move in our direction; or at least toward the cows to signify the beginning of the rut. Our plan was to catch the bull on the way toward the cows, or catch him moving around them heading to the ponds.
The first three days, we hunted in the open, rolling, country hillsides. The temperatures climbed into the high eighties each day and at night would luckily drop into the fifties. The sun would beat down on us each morning as we glassed the open expanses for the bull I had seen before Jimmy arrived. We would cover a lot of ground in the early morning before the full heat of the day would set in. The afternoons were spent sitting near a variety of water holes hiding from the sun hoping a giant bull would appear. Late in the morning we would hike from where we were glassing, and head towards where we thought the bulls would come out of the timbre and into the ponds to wallow at night. Every day seemed to produce the same results. Sporadic calling, long stalks and lots of smaller elk. We would see a few small herds of cows and some smaller four by four and three by four bulls that would have worked for most people, just not Jimmy. But there was no sign of the giant bull or his traveling partner that had been with him. We had yet to see any signs of the beginning of the rut or even to hear consistent bugles. I wondered if the bull had gone to another area from where I had first glassed him. With that thought bouncing around in my head, we decided on day four we would head to another area where we might be able to hear some bugles and close some distance on him or another bull.
The fourth morning we arrived at a new location about a mile away from where I had seen the bull. We made a big loop calling, stalking, and still hunting. Three different bulls answered my calls, but each of the bulls only answered to say hello. The good part was they were starting to talk, the bad news was they were not crashing through the forest looking for a hot date. The afternoon was spent sitting by another waterhole in the area. Partly because we thought that the bulls would come through the forest to drink at the waterhole, and partly because after four days of hunting we had log nearly forty miles, and Jimmy’s legs were starting to tire. We saw nothing on the forth evening, but there were lots of positive elk signs around the waterhole. We discussed, at length, and decided the remainder of our hunt would be spent hunting here by the water hole. Jimmy and I each had a gut feeling this was the place to be.
The next morning, we arrived back at the area at 4:00 AM, after a big breakfast, in order to catch any predawn bugles that we could hear in order to get an early jump on a stalk. We drove into the area in an electric Bad Boy Buggy, so not to create any excess noise. I parked the Buggy, and covered it so not to get busted by any elks that might come up from behind us. We sat there in the dark and listened to the world around us come to life as the sun began to rise over the horizon. A cool breeze blew lazily from the north. For the first time in days, I was actually cold. I knew that it was only a matter of time until the sun was once again baking us like a couple of biscuits. As we began to glass the surrounding area in the early morning haze, there was now enough light to make out objects off in the distance. Suddenly, we could not believe our ears. It was like someone had turned on the light switch and the rut was finally on. Bulls were bugling in all directions, and they were bugling loudly and aggressively. With the adrenaline pumping through our veins, we gave each other a high five and scrambled around to the back of the Buggy for our bows and our backpacks with all of our gear.
We were on a flat stretch of land, on a steep hillside, that had been logged and cleared out a few years earlier. Tall, native grasses and small evergreen trees now littered the area and provided us cover as we moved cautiously toward the sounds of the bugling elk. A large group of cows started to move up the hillside and the bulls followed behind in a single file line; filtering into two drainage areas with long thin fingers of pine trees and spruce trees in between. Running up the middle of the pine trees was a thin old dirt logging road. It was perfect. The elk were on both sides of us, and the logging road would allow us to be quiet, and easily move up on the bulls without being discovered by the cows.
The elk that were wallowing to our right were starting to move over to the next drainage and across the finger we had moved into. We managed to sneak up on two bulls that were bugling, but did not shoot them, they were smaller at only around 500 pounds. They needed another year to grow before they were big enough for Jimmy. I called in another three hundred inch bull that we also passed on, as he had a smaller body frame than you would expect on a 300 inch bull. Let me tell you how hard it is to pass on three hundred inch bulls with a bow standing broadside at 35 yards! But, it was not my hunt, so we moved on.
No matter how fast we moved, we just couldn’t catch up to the lead bull to see how big his rack was. We knew that he was a solid bull, but how big was he? The whole time, we hoped it was the big monster that I had seen just the week before during my summer scouting trips. We just needed a look, and we knew we would have to be aggressive if we wanted to see him. The bull moved into a thick patch of spruce trees and bedded down in the shade for the day; he wasn’t moving anymore. He would answer our cow calls, but just wouldn’t come out. By mid-morning, I thought we might be able to slip down to where he was holding in the spruce trees and glass into the thick timber to get a look at him. We snuck all the way up to within 50 yards of where we thought he was and started glassing into the shade laded timber. I could not see any sign of the bull. I knew that if we got any closer, we could spook him, so we backed out to regroup and devise a new plan for the afternoon.
As the mid-afternoon arrived, it had started to rain lightly. I had hoped that this might be the lucky break we needed. The moisture from the light rain would soon soften the ground and wake up the bull from his afternoon nap. The game plan was to go back to where we had left the bull and set up an ambush point. He was bedded on the side of the hill of a very long ridge with drainage below him, and with another cut off drainage to the southwest. I felt the best place to wait for him was 200 yards below where he had bedded down and let him come to us. At that location, the wind would be right in our faces and it would be on the way to where the bull would be feeding and staging for the night. We arrived at our ambush point around 2:30 pm, and the rain was now coming down harder. Jimmy set up 80 yards in front of me, and I began to cow call periodically. We hoped the bull would walk towards the cow call so Jimmy would have an easy shot.
30 minutes passed, and not a sound. Making eye contact with each other, we both had the puzzled look of “what happened to all the elk? Did they all just leave without us seeing them?” We sat patiently through the rain awhile longer, the raindrops bounced off my hat and landed on my jacket. After about an hour of hard rain it began to slow, and then stopped. As the rain came to a halt, we heard a bugle, then another, and another, and then the bull we were waiting for bugled. He was still there and was moving into the bottom of the drainage coming in our direction, just as we had hoped. He was right there in front of us, but we still could not see him. Cows started popping out at 50 to 75 yards away, but still there was no sign of the bull. The bull we wanted was bugling, but circling the cows on the side hill of the opposite ridge we were setup on. The cows started to move up the drainage to our left. I moved quickly down to Jimmy and said, “See that hump where the drainage leads? If we can make it up there before they do, we have a chance.”
We hustled up the opposite side as quickly, and as quietly, as we could go to get setup on the bull. On the way up, I caught some movement through the pines and spruce and could tell it was a 350 inch class bull. With only one day left, I had hoped Jimmy would decide to take him rather than go home empty-handed. We turned our attention to stalking to get a better look. The bull was pushing a few cows through the thick timber, towards the same hump and bugling all the way. On the opposite side of the drainage, the bull we were originally after was bugling. Sneaking to within bow range of the 350 inch class bull, I told Jimmy to range him and shoot. He paused and said, “That’s not what I’m here for; let’s just stick to the game plan. Let’s try to catch the other bull. We still have time.” It made me sick to think we might go home empty handed, but I was the guide and he was client, so it was his decision. I knew that Jimmy was going to say that, so I was not in total shock. It just speaks volumes about the types of clients I have.
So we moved aggressively 200 yards toward the hump, and then all of a sudden it sounded like the bull had dropped into the bottom of the hillside right below us. With weak, tired legs, and sweat pouring down my face, we moved ahead of him trying to cut him off. We still had not seen the bull that we had been pursuing all day. The bottom of the drainage was open and had been logged a few years before. The side of the hill the bull was on was full of thick spruce trees. From the thick side of the ridge, a cow popped out, then another. A total of five cows came out feeding on the new grasses right towards us. Then here he came, but he was another 300 inch bull. When I saw him, I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach like the one you get when you have a flat tire on the freeway.
Where’s the big bull? The five cows and bull fed only 20 to 40 yards in front of us. The bull was now 25 yards away. Jimmy had an arrow nocked and was ready to rock and roll, but this was not the monster we were looking for. I cow called just to see his reaction. He picked his head up and bugled and started to feed off in the distance.
With only 15 minutes of shooting light left, I knew we were just about done for the day. Then Jimmy said, “Look to your right, where the other elk came out. “ I turned and saw the top of a rack; I quickly threw my binoculars up. A very large bull was walking right at us on the same path the other just came through. He was much bigger and had eight on one side, and his sixth points were at least 15-inches long. His eye guards were unreal; well over 20 inches. This was him. This was the bull we were waiting for.
Jimmy was ranging everything. “I’m ready,” he said. “Make sure you make a good shot,” I replied.
The bull walked up to 40 yards and stopped behind a big pine tree, with only his head sticking out. He stood there just looking in our direction. I was watching through my binoculars, shaking so badly I was seeing double. He started to step out and Jimmy started to draw. The bull stopped and stepped right back behind the tree in the same position. It was as if he knew he was safe standing there. He stood still for another minute and then decided he didn’t like this and turned to leave. When he whirled, Jimmy drew. He cleared the tree, and I cow called. The bull turned, quartered away and stopped.
Just as soon as he stopped, the shot was in the air. WHACK!!! The arrow hit mid-body, but quartered away. It should be good, I thought to myself. I turned to Jimmy and asked, “Did you hit him?” He said, “I think so.” Then, he asked if he was a good one, and I said, “Oh, yea!” We sat quietly for an hour in the dark. After that long hour we walked down to where the bull was standing, and I found a volleyball-sized spot of blood with a piece of stomach in it. We looked past where the bull was standing and found the arrow with the same results. With darkness overhead, lack of moonlight and given the indication of the strong blood trail, we decided it would be best to recover the bull in the morning.
Now, you can only imagine what the ride back to camp was like after describing the bull to Jimmy and what I thought he would score. We were both beat and soaked to the bone with sweat and rain. Both of us probably could have slept all the next day; but due to my companion, I can say we literally didn’t sleep at all that night. We spent the whole night talking about the bull.
The next morning, we arrived an hour before daylight to the spot we had just left hours before. This time though, I had attached my long trailer to the back of the Bad Boy Buggy. As the sun peaked over the mountain tops, we begin our search. Carefully, we followed the blood, noting each speck on the ground. Finally, we saw him; he had gone only 150 yards and was lying there dead. Plenty of hugs and high fives were shared between us as we celebrated the kill of this magnificent bull. This type of bull usually eludes hunters, except in the myths and stories that are told by the old timers in the coffee shop. This is what keeps us returning every fall. When he was officially scored, he came in at 405. Jimmy has already booked for next year and said he hopes to go even bigger.
We carefully quartered the bull and saved the hide and the rack and loaded it in the trailer so we could get it hung to age before Jimmy headed home.
Once everything was cleaned up and put away I dropped Jimmy off at the airport and headed back home. Tomorrow another client was coming, and it would be time to do it all over again.