Idaho, 2008, DIY, Public Land
Two years ago in March, a good friend, John, and I were out stomping around, fighting the mud and the last lingering snow banks left over from the winter. It was the time of year that we diehard hunters spend looking for the sheds of all the trophies that eluded us the previous fall.
We had reached a draw in an area we knew some elk had wintered. From there we split up; I took the left side and he took the right. Not long afterward, I lucked upon one side of a small six-point. Since I was excited and knew John wasn’t far, I hollered for him to come and give me a hand finding the other side. He heard my yells and headed right over – but instead of stopping when he got to me, he kept running right on past, yelling, “Here is your other side!”
Not expecting anything different from what I had, I headed over to claim my prize. It soon became apparent, however, that what he had was far bigger than the shed I’d found. In fact, it was the biggest shed we’d ever found. We both stood in amazement, holding that monster of a Bow shed antler. Then we bolted off like a couple of kids loose in Wal-Mart, frantically trying to be the first one to pair up the other side. After six hours of panic and fast-paced hiking, neither of us had turned up anything, so we decided to call it a day and come back later.
This all happened in an area where I had hunted religiously and had taken many nice bulls, but none like the one that had shed that antler. We spent countless hours searching during the rest of the spring and the summer, but didn’t come up with anything but sore feet. And that is really where this story begins.
Summer had come and gone and the 2007 bow season was just around the corner, but still no sign of the big bull. That archery season I hunted hard, passing up smaller bulls and hoping patience and persistence would turn up the ultimate trophy. It’s an easier state of mind to keep when you know that there’s a bull in your area packing antlers of ridiculous proportions.
Finally, the second to last day of the season arrived; I couldn’t take it any more and had to settle on a smaller bull. Shooting any bull with your bow is definitely one of the greatest thrills a hunter can have, but not when you know somewhere out there is a bull of a lifetime.
The determination to find that bull grew stronger every time I visited John and saw the giant shed leaning in the corner. Little did I know that the day would finally come when I would get to see the ghost of a bull that had eluded me for so long.
It was a cold, snowy morning in January 2008, and John and I were out once again looking for any sign of the ghost bull. We had just parked and were setting up the spotting scopes when we spotted five smaller bulls making their way out of the higher country where the snow had piled up, making it difficult for them to find food. Right behind them was another bull. I adjusted my scope; it was completely filled with antler. I knew it had to be him.
The bull would see a lot of me that winter. I studied him from a distance and eagerly waited for him to drop his rack. The winter wore on, and the elk started heading back to their hiding places. It got more and more difficult to keep track of him until, finally, he was nowhere to be seen. Even though I had lost him in the early spring and failed to find his sheds once again, at least I knew he existed and was out there somewhere.
By the first of August 2008, all my scouting trips had still proven fruitless. However, a few elk were starting to show up in the area where they rut and spend the rest of the fall. I couldn’t give up; I was more determined and committed to find him than ever before. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, to hunt something I knew was there but had never seen during the season, but my patience would eventually pay off.
On the morning of September 5, I was hunting alone and working up a canyon. I suspected the temptation of the cows in the area might lure him in. Sure enough, not long after shooting light I heard a cow mewing up the trail ahead of me. After checking the wind and determining it was in my favor, I quickly nocked an arrow and started a sequence of cow calls. As soon as I finished, a bull responded right back.
I couldn’t tell from the sound of his bugle alone, but I hoped it was the bull I had set out for. My heart was beating hard and my body was shaking like it does every time I call in a bull elk, no matter the size. Slowly, one at a time, ivory tips started appearing over the brush ahead of me – 15 of them to be exact. It was him, looking bigger and better than I had ever seen him!
He came in nervously, testing every molecule in the air and wondering why a cow wasn’t standing where he had just heard that sound. I was at full draw and shaking like it was ten degrees, waiting for him to take one more step. After what felt like ten minutes of holding at full draw, the bull’s wary instinct kicked in, sending him right back were he had come from; I couldn’t get a clear shot.
The years of frustration and disappointment made me want to chase after him, but then I thought about all the time I had already spent just getting a chance to see him. I knew I had to be patient and wait for the right time. I backed out and let things settle down. Even so, I knew that on public land, anything could happen. I wasn’t sure if there were even any other hunters in the area, but it was just a chance I was going to have to take.
Later that afternoon I was back on the mountain, anxiously scanning the area where I had last seen the ghost. Finally, there he was. It was only ten minutes before dark - too late to make a move. You can only imagine how much sleep I got that night as I lay there, replaying the picture of those antlers coming toward me.
I returned the next morning but, once again, there was nothing. I was shocked that I had gotten so close to that bull, done the right thing by not pushing him, yet once again he had gone silent and eluded me. How could an animal with antlers that big hide so well? After seven more days of fighting the alarm clock and keeping the motivation to even get up and look for the ghost, I was rewarded with another chance.
On the morning of September 13, I headed out to where I had my first encounter with him. Once in the area, I heard a cow call not far ahead. I crouched down and put my binos to work. There he was, right behind the small herd of cows that had lured him out of his hiding place.
I checked the wind and made my move. The herd was making their way up the bottom of a canyon, headed for the dark pines. After hiking up that same trail for what felt like the fiftieth time that year, I knew it well; if I could beat them to the top, I might be able to intercept them.
Within five minutes, I had managed to stay undetected and get ahead of them, but not by far. Seconds after I got into position, the first cow peered nervously over the ridge. She stood there for just a second, scanning for any hint of human scent. Luck was with me, though, and the wind was perfect. She continued on, luring the big boy right to me. The cows passed single file in front of me. Not far behind them was the ghost, totally unaware of what was about to happen.
All the cows had passed, leaving just him and me. I drew my bow back, placed my pins behind his front shoulder, held my breath, and shot. He immediately jumped and took off, scattering the confused cows ahead of him.
Because I was by myself, I decided to hike out, give the bull some time, and call a buddy to give me a hand. Those were two of the longest hours I have ever sat through. When my friend finally got there, we started down the trail to where I had last seen the bull. Before long, we started finding spots of bright red blood. Since I was still uncertain where I had hit the bull, we moved ahead cautiously. It was a painstaking and gut-wrenching process, but every time I thought all was lost, one of us would find a small clue that kept the search alive.
I had my head down and was looking for the next step the bull might have taken when I paused, trying to decide whether to look right or left. SNAP! A branch broke. I looked over my shoulder and there he was, no more than 20 yards away. I nocked another arrow, placed a perfect shot, and finished him.
The emotion I felt right then was more than I can describe. The bull I had been working so hard to find was lying motionless in front of me. Walking up to him was something I will never forget; his antlers got bigger with every step. As I put my hands on them, I began to realize what I had. His tine length and mass were bigger than before, and I knew he had to be pushing that magical 400-inch mark. He was later estimated to be over 12 years old.
All of the waiting, tracking, and scouting in a desperate hope for one close encounter just made me appreciate everything that much more. I also learned a valuable lesson – to never give up, no matter how much you may want to at times. I also knew that this bull was something I could always be proud of – taking a bona fide giant trophy bull on public land with a bow.