The Birthday Bull

By Rick Stinson

The Birthday BullRick Stinson as told by Eric Stinson
Washington, 2009, DIY, Public Land

Dad and I were perched high on the hillside when we saw the 6x7 bull for the first time. The sight of the majestic giant was overwhelming considering it was the largest living elk we’d ever seen. From our elevated position, we watched him masterfully control his harem and fend off another large bull. As we formulated a plan to intercept the bull, we were startled by a loud bugle to our right. We turned to discover a large five-point 50 yards away heading our direction. This 300 class five-point was a trophy bull in its own right, but the 6x7 was getting away...

Just three months earlier Dad and I were planning our hunt. Neither of us had hunted the area before, so we solicited the services of an outfitter, Dave Waldron of Western Life Outfitters, not for a guided hunt, but to supply a drop camp. My dad had always hunted hard on his own and was reluctant to hire any help, but with him being 62 years old, I was fully aware of who’d be packing his harvested elk all over those mountains. With some persuasive arguments, Dad agreed to the supplied drop camp.

Our hunt began the Sunday before Labor Day with a five-hour road trip. We met Dave at the trailhead on Monday morning, and after loading our gear, we headed for camp. Upon arrival, we immediately unpacked our gear and quickly acquainted ourselves with our home away from home.

It was now time for some quick scouting before opening day. It wasn’t long before we heard that distinct sound all elk hunters crave - a bugling bull. Before the night was complete, we’d located three bulls, including one we figured would go 330-340 - a definite shooter.

The alarm sounded early the next morning. We quickly dressed and stepped outside to listen for bugling bulls. Within minutes, we heard multiple elk talking. This was a hunter’s dream! Of course, it’s never that easy. The entire first day’s and most of the second day’s events brought us back down to Earth. In fact, the inability to summon a bull was disconcerting. We’d covered a lot of country and performed several calling sequences without a single response.

As fate would have it, late in the afternoon on the second day we crossed paths with a hunter and his hunting partner on the trail that separated the two units. It was a chance meeting that set events in motion that led to taking the bull of a lifetime.

The Birthday Bull

After talking with them, we headed down the trail to the next drainage. As we split off the trail into the drainage, we were welcomed by a bugling bull deep in the timbered draw below. After a couple of bugles it was clear he was heading our way. It was the 6x7 mentioned earlier - a majestic giant.

What do we do now? Do we try for the five-point 50 yards away or pursue the monster 6x7? Faced with a tough choice, we elected to pass on the big five-point and risk it all for the 6x7. We remained motionless as the giant bull and his harem headed toward the unit boundary. If they crossed over, our opportunity would be lost.

After a long stare-down with the five-point, he scented us and let out an alarm bark, which sent the harem racing toward the boundary. The confusion riled the giant bull as he roared to regain control of his harem. Then we heard cow calls coming from the other unit; it was the other hunters. They had heard the bugles and were positioning themselves for a shot as the herd came toward their unit.

But the confusion wasn’t over. Seconds later the herd must have detected the other hunters’ scent, because they reversed course and headed right back into the deep draw. It was complete mayhem; elk were running everywhere as the giant bull was frantically calling to collect his cows. We listened in anguish as the bull’s bugles faded into the distance down the drainage.

As the action settled, we felt deflated knowing we’d never see that bull again, but what an amazing experience! The sight alone was awesome.

The big drainage was divided into two large draws by a finger ridge. As the mayhem was going on, we heard another bull bugle in the opposite draw. That bull would become our target for the evening hunt.

Setting up midway down the finger ridge, I began calling. The bull answered and the hunt was on. We soon had a spike at five yards, with three others close behind. After the spikes spooked, we got an answer from a bull we later named the mystery bull, but he wouldn’t leave his position. Darkness approached and we slipped out of the area knowing we would be back in the morning.

Winds gave us fits early the next day, and it was noon before we had a favorable situation. Around that time, we stopped to bugle and a bull answered immediately. After setting up in the timber, I began cow calling and the bull answered again. He was on the opposite side of the drainage, bugling from his bed.

After fifteen minutes of getting the bull worked up, I caught a glimpse of him. He walked out onto a rock outcropping, let out a bugle and came running down the drainage toward us. The bull sprinted down the steep drainage and up on our side in a matter of seconds.

Suddenly, he let out a bugle within 50 yards of Dad, right on a path that would lead him downwind of his position! At that point, I sprinted up the hill away from the bull in an attempt to redirect the bull’s path. I stopped and began to cow call and could see a cloud of dust just below the cut of the steep hillside. Before the dust settled, a 340-class 6x6 was standing broadside 35 yards from Dad. I stood behind a tree with one eye on the bull and the other on Dad, and noticed he wasn’t drawn back. Before Dad could draw his bow, the bull caught his movement and was gone instantly.

Dad had a look of disappointment on his face and knew he had just blown an opportunity at a great bull. As we replayed the encounter, I said to Dad, “That was supposed to be my birthday bull.”

Dad said, “Is today your birthday? I must be destined to kill a bigger one.”

By 4 p.m. we were set up midway down the finger ridge. I was just about to do some calling when the mystery bull sounded off. I moved off and let out a bugle and got an immediate response from another bull. I hustled back to Dad and let him know, and we chose to leave the mystery bull to try our luck with the other bull, feeling confident the mystery bull wasn’t going anywhere.

The bull was bugling like crazy but wouldn’t budge from the ridge across from us. We decided to get aggressive by calling and closing the distance. Soon we were nearly in the bottom of the draw, directly in line with the bull.

As Dad and I discussed what to do, I heard a faint bugle deep in the draw below. We continued to work the bull above us while the bull in the draw was closing the distance. Dad ranged every possible shooting lane while I continued to call. The bull let out a dragon-like bugle as Dad sat motionless, arrow nocked and ready.

The bull continued to close the distance and then I caught a glimpse of antlers - it was the 6x7! As is often the case, the bull decided to swing below a downed log that would lead him below Dad and ultimately downwind. The bull rounded the downed log, with Dad at full draw, but he was quartering hard, allowing no shot.

The Birthday Bull

The bull continued uphill on a path that would lead him within five yards of Dad. He was only two steps away from getting our wind when he turned away and presented a shot. I was screaming in my head “SHOOT!” when Dad released the arrow and I heard it hit. The bull spun and ran, but I stopped him with a cow call. Dad grabbed another arrow, drew and released. The bull then disappeared.

Not sure if the second arrow had hit its mark, I waited for Dad’s body language to give me some indication. Dad was kneeling with his head down, which gave me a sour feeling in my stomach. He stood up and gave me the hands-up signal, indicating he was unsure. I went down to him and we talked, and then I said, “You got the giant from last night!” He said, “What? Are you sure?”

He had no idea, having no time to accurately judge.

After waiting, we moved down to the spot of the first shot to look for blood and the arrow. We found no blood, and those feelings of doubt began to creep in. I followed his tracks up to the second shot as Dad searched for his arrow. The second shot location yielded the same result - no blood. Minutes later Dad returned up the steep hill holding the arrow and shaking his head “no”. He had found his arrow stuck in a log; he had missed the bull entirely with his first shot. “What about the second shot? Did you hit him?”

He replied, “I’m not sure.”

An hour had now passed but we kept searching. Thirty yards from the second shot location we got the sign we were hoping for. It was blood, and good blood at that. We were overcome with jubilation!

We hadn’t gone 60 yards when Dad raised his arms in triumph, signaling the bull was down. As we stood next to the monarch and admired him, Dad turned to me and said, “Now that’s a birthday bull to remember.”

We continued our celebration and I thought about how lucky I was to have shared such an amazing life experience with my dad. We replayed the events that led to the successful harvest and realized just how many things went in our favor.

Dad and I stayed in camp a couple more days to relax and enjoy our surroundings. We also had some unfinished business to attend to…the mystery bull. The next morning we decided to see what he looked like. I bugled and he immediately replied. We got into position, armed this time with only a video camera. It didn’t take long before we got our first look. He was a mature 7x7 350-class bull, but was a bit broken up. After getting over eight minutes of video within 30 yards, he slowly moved back to his cows.

As we broke camp, we reflected on the experience, from the horse ride in to our ultimate success. The birthday bull represents a trophy and experience of a lifetime. Dad’s bull gross scored 390-5/8 with an official net score of 371-6/8 – the third best in Washington history.