Arizona, 2008, DIY, Public Land
The drive from Arizona back to Idaho in 2005 was particularly long and bittersweet. We were still six hours from home, and as the daylight faded, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had squandered my only legitimate chance of killing a true trophy bull elk. We were extremely fortunate to have drawn three coveted archery elk tags. We were even more fortunate to have killed three nice 6x6 bulls the previous week, including a beautiful 345-inch bull by my hunting partner, David Burdette. With a full week still left in the season however, I had grossly misjudged a bull and experienced serious ground shrinkage as I walked up to him.
I had made the decision to shoot and was extremely grateful for the incredible experiences we had been blessed with on the hunt, but in the back of my mind I still felt a slight sense of disappointment. I stared out the truck window as we passed the lights of Salt Lake City, wondering if I would ever have that kind of chance again.
Each spring brought back the memories of that hunt. I would apply diligently for another chance to chase the monster bulls of Arizona. I had finally come to grips with the fact that it would likely be 8-10 years before I would have a fair chance of drawing another tag. Then this spring, only three years after my previous hunt, I drew another tag. Although it was my second choice unit, I knew the area held good bulls.
I spent much of the summer preparing for a second chance in Arizona. As we loaded our hunting gear, I couldn’t help but feel a little déjà vu as I recalled the same anticipation and eagerness I had felt three years before. My good friend, Donnie Drake, had graciously sacrificed two weeks of vacation time to tag along and video the hunt. Good friends David Burdette and Dave Perry were also giving up valuable hunting time to make the trip.
After a 16-hour drive, we arrived in our unit and quickly found a good area to set up camp, brimming with anticipation. The hunt started out slowly, hindered by a full moon and extremely warm weather. We had several close encounters with bulls during the first four days, including a nice 6x6 that came in to 12 yards to check out our decoy. With five days still left in the season, we were holding out for something a little bigger.
On day five, we located a bugling bull in the bottom of a canyon just before dark. We took off to close the distance; it would be the last hunt for both Daves – who were heading home the next morning. As we neared the bottom of the canyon, David Burdette’s bugle produced an immediate answer. We got set up just as the bull came into view in a meadow of brilliant, yellow flowers directly below us. I whispered to Donnie that he was a shooter, and if given the chance, I was going to take him. I ranged a tree at the edge of the meadow – 43 yards. I waited as the big bull continued straight up the hill toward us. As he passed behind the tree I had just ranged, I came to full draw. The bull froze, staring right in my direction with one last tree blocking any chance I had at an open shot. The bull’s massive, long tines whirled as he turned to head back down the hill, displaying an incredible 6x7 rack. It was the closest I had ever been to shooting a bull of that caliber, and after hunting hard all week with no opportunities even close to that one, I was extremely disappointed. With the big bull still bugling down the draw, we hiked back to the truck as the last light of a beautiful sunset faded.
With the Daves headed to the airport, Donnie and I went back to the same location the next morning. We quickly made our way down into the canyon and found a draw filled with bugling bulls, including one bugle we distinctly recognized from the night before. The big bull was fired up and we managed to work ourselves within 30 yards of him, but couldn’t find an open shot. With all the bugling he was doing, we were sure he would be heading to water that afternoon, so we backed out and circled around to locate the waterhole he would most likely be using. There was only one tank shown on the map within three miles of the canyon, so we climbed out of the drainage and over the far ridge, hoping for a chance to ambush him later in the day.
The afternoon sun pounded down on me as I sat tucked up against the base of a gnarled juniper, 25 yards from the waterhole we hoped our big bull would be using. After six hours of sitting in the sun, I couldn’t take it any longer. With the evening shadows beginning their rapid approach, we grabbed our gear and dropped over the rim and into the canyon where the bull had spent the day.
As we reached the bottom, I bugled to locate him. He immediately responded 300 yards in front of us. We set up and could hear him glunking as he came crashing down the hill toward us. Suddenly, I saw two cows veer off 70 yards in front of me. Then, as if Murphy himself was supervising the situation, the bull turned and followed, crossing in the exact location we had just descended through. The direction of his bugles indicated that he wasn’t moving toward the waterhole.
As daylight faded, I told Donnie we needed to follow the bull to find out where he was watering. After 30 minutes of stumbling our way across the rocky hillside in the dark, his bugles hung up at the same location for 15 minutes. We sat there listening to his high-pitched screams, agreeing that there must be an unmapped waterhole hidden in the draw below us.
We took the next morning off and drove up to the camp of my friend, Steve Chappell. Steve operates Chappell Guide Service and his hunter had taken a beautiful 367-inch bull the night before. Steve also had a warm shower at his camp, and after a week with no shower, we were in need. A generator and a TV allowed us to review the video footage of the bull we had been chasing and Steve confirmed that the bull needed our continued attention.
We had four days left in the season, and I had made up my mind that I would hunt that bull exclusively. If we weren’t able to connect, I was willing to go home with my tag.
That evening, Donnie and I drove back into the same area intent on doing a little scouting and hoping to locate an unmarked source of water. A hidden twotrack road with no vehicle tracks sent our anticipation soaring, and as we rounded a corner we spotted lush foliage rising up out of the dry, rocky landscape. Up the draw we discovered an awesome waterhole, littered with fresh sign and muddy wallows. We had found it!
As we drove back to camp, we phoned Steve and invited him to come along with us the next day, hopeful we would be able to get in on our bull. We met Steve early the next morning and drove to the bottom of the draw with a plan to move in below the waterhole, keeping the wind in our favor and allowing us to get on the bull as he made his way across the canyon to bed.
As we approached the waterhole, a bull bugled below us and was answered by another bugle 300 yards up the ridge. Neither bugle was the unmistakable sound we had come to recognize, but as the morning light started to break over the ridgeline the bull above us answered again, this time 200 yards closer.
Donnie set up to our left with the video camera as the bull bugled, this time only 60 yards away. I peeked out from behind a bushy juniper and saw a large bull coming toward me, with enormous thirds sticking straight out off the beams. The bull stopped and turned broadside, and as I peeked around the tree in front of me, I saw that he had incredible fourths with long, sweeping beams. I decided to take a shot.
I drew my bow and anchored the 40-yard pin tight against his shoulder, then squeezed the release. The bull whirled and ran 60 yards, then stopped to look back in our direction before turning to walk up the draw. We waited for what seemed an eternity, and then started up the draw. After 100 yards, we found a few drops of blood; not the kind of bloodtrail we were hoping for. Donnie stayed back to look for more blood while Steve and I circled above the trail.
When we reached the top of a small rock outcropping above Donnie, I spotted something brown lying on the hillside. I turned to Steve and asked him if I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. He pulled up his binoculars and confirmed that it was my bull, and it was big!
We whistled to Donnie, and as the three of us approached the big bull, his antlers just seemed to grow. He wasn’t the big 6x7 but he was equally magnificent. With main beams of 58 inches, an incredible spread of 55 inches between his 24-inch thirds, 30 inches of mass per side, and 22-inch fourths, our big bull scored right at 390! I never imagined I would one day be standing next to a bull that big, wrapping a tag bearing my name around his antlers. The pictures, quartering, and packing were all a blur.
The long drive home was much different than in 2005; each glance in the rearview mirror brought another uncontrollable smile to my face. Any sense of lingering disappointment from my first Arizona hunt was quickly erased with a glimpse of those big antlers obstructing the view behind me. I was fortunate to have drawn a second Arizona elk tag, but even more so to have experienced the rut in full swing and to have taken a bull of a lifetime! What made the hunt even more memorable was the opportunity I had to share this adventure with good friends. Thanks to Donnie, we were able to capture some great footage which will be included on Steve’s upcoming video, Extreme Bulls 6. I would also be extremely ungrateful if I didn’t credit my sweet wife for patiently staying home with our three children once again, allowing me to pursue my passion!