January/February 2012 EBJ (Issue 69) - Hunting elk in my home state of California has been a dream of mine since I started hunting at the age of 12. For the last 14 years, I have religiously applied to hunt all species of big game in California, never missing a single year. Each year, the big game draw has left me disappointed, until this year. A friend of mine called to share that the draw results were up early, so I finished up work and went home to check the results. I had drawn one of the few and highly coveted Roosevelt elk tags in California.
When I was 18, I moved to northern California to study wildlife at Humboldt State University. I was excited to be on the north coast, and able to capitalize on my love for the outdoors. Students earning a degree in wildlife mangement are expected to complete a senior project. I chose to do my study on the herd dynamics of Roosevelt elk in the area. During the time I was in school, and especially when working on my project, I realized that one area in particular had the potential for producing big Roosevelt elk. The herd genetics were first class, and I spent the last six years videotaping and taking pictures of these magnificent animals.
Most of the land in the unit is under private ownership, and the area where I spent most of my time observing and photographing was private. There are a number of landowners that allow hunting for a trespass fee, but their rates were higher than I could really afford or justify. I never considered access fees when applying for the hunt, and once I got the tag, it quickly became a stressful reality that I may not have been able to hunt the area I knew held the largest bulls.
I spent two very stressful months talking with numerous landowners and checking out every inch of the hunt area. My good luck continued and I was able to secure access to a great place to hunt. It seemed as though everything was too good to be true; things were panning out just as I had always envisioned. My hunt area wasn’t a large tract of land, but I knew the odds of taking a trophy bull were high. My tag allowed for any legal method of take, and since I had 12 days to hunt, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to try with my bow. The thought of harvesting my first elk in an area with such great genetics using archery equipment was an exciting prospect, and my anticipation and excitement was very high.
I started scouting well before the season started. The hunt area was relatively close to my home, so I was able to spend a lot of time photographing and videotaping. I wanted to know the area like the back of my hand and have the bulls patterned as best as I could. Mornings in my hunt area were typically cold, foggy, and wet. The terrain consisted of open meadows leading up to a spruce and redwood forest with patches of alders, thick salmon berries and blackberry thickets - perfect terrain for ambushing a big bull. Game trails and elk sign were everywhere.
While scouting, I observed two bulls that were of the caliber I was looking for. One was an absolute giant 6x7 with a 22-inch crown point and main beams that were pushing 55-inches. He was not heavy, but had incredible length and character. He had been the herd bull the week before I started religiously scouting my hunt area. The second bull was a heavy 8x9 with unbelievable character, and had displaced the 6x7 as the dominant bull in the herd. It was very exciting and almost surreal to contemplate that I might be presented with an opportunity to choose between the two. At times, I felt greedy, as I tried to talk myself through the pros and cons of each of these two bulls, either of which anyone would be rightfully proud to take and would be the bull of a lifetime.
I scouted daily the week before my hunt, trying to keep tabs on the herd and be in a position to predict their next move first thing on opening day. I found the main herd three times that week with the 8x9 tending his cows. One foggy morning, just days prior to the opener, I found the herd, but the big bull was nowhere to be seen. Satellite bulls were herding the cows and sparring with one another. My heart sank as I pondered the fate of the big bull. Had he been poached? Gored by another bull? Regardless, I thought he was dead for sure.
After a few hours of desperate glassing, he rejoined the herd out of nowhere, and the smaller bulls quickly assumed their position at the periphery of the herd. The evening before opener, the herd was feeding just 300 yards from my location. I felt confident that I had patterned them well enough to predict their location on opening morning.
I contacted my brother, Don, and told him to make the trek north. He arrived at 2:00 a.m. after a six-hour drive to hunt with me on opening day. Needless to say, neither of us got much sleep that night.
Opening morning arrived and it was foggy and wet. Just after first light, I saw the herd moving from where I had last seen them. My friend, John, and my brother, Don, were with me. Don was running the video camera, as we were hoping to get everything on film. Things were happening much faster than I had anticipated, but I quickly got into position. The entire herd, more than 50, was within 40 to 100 yards of where I set up, but the herd bull was obscured in the middle. Two 300-class 6x6 satellite bulls came within 20 yards trying to get near the cows. It was very exciting to have that much action on the first morning of my hunt! I never had a clear shot at the herd bull before they fed out of range and eventually bedded down. Unfortunately, Don had to head back to work after just the first day, so I lost my main hunting partner.
On the third day of my hunt, my friends, Kevin and Chris joined me. We did a small hike, glassing meticulously and calling occasionally. By 10:00 a.m., we hadn’t seen any elk or heard a single bugle. We sat down and cow called for a little while. Out of the brush came a large black bear. He was moving along a trail and eating blackberries. I had a bear tag, and the season was open so I decided to make a move. He was a big bear, and looked to be between 300 and 350 pounds. With the camera rolling, I started the stalk and got within 25 yards. He was just on the other side of an alder thicket, and decided to take a different path than I had anticipated. As quickly as he came in, he was gone. We got the entire stalk on film, and in hindsight, watching the bear take the upper fork in the trail was almost comical. It was an exciting twist to a relatively uneventful morning.
That evening, my girlfriend, Heidi, came with me. We located the herd, and closely watched every move the herd bull made. As we were sitting behind a log glassing, yellow jackets started swarming around us. It turned out that we were sitting on a ground hive! Luckily, neither of us got stung. Unfortunately, the herd spent the remainder of the day safely out of reach.
On the fourth day, I hunted alone. At sunrise, the lead cow showed the herd the way. I quickly took position behind an old redwood log. As the cows started funneling past me at twenty yards, I knew the herd bull wouldn’t be too far behind. He was in full rut, letting off bone-trembling bugles and chasing off other bulls. I knew that my chance was almost here and I would have a shot between five and 20 yards. I peered over the log and saw him running at me in a full sprint. In a flash, he covered over 200 yards.
He stopped just 20 yards from me, and as he grunted, steam bellowed from his nostrils and mouth. Wide eyed, he looked to the left and right, and then put his head down and started thrashing the ground with his huge antlers; dirt and grass were flying everywhere. I slowly lowered myself, knocked an arrow, and hunkered down, waiting for him to cross between the log I was hiding behind and a patch of impenetrable blackberry brambles just 20 yards away. I waited for a solid minute then peered through a crack in the end of the log. He had run back the 200 yards and was standing with the other half of the herd. In the process of the sneak peak I took, I spooked all of the cows and calves and blew my cover. I thought that I had totally ruined what could have been my only shot.
I watched the drama unfold in the herd as satellite bulls in the 300-class tried to get near to the cows, the herd bull chased them off. The herd was on the move and they seemed to be on edge - there was a lot of tension. The rut was in full swing for the first day since the hunt started. The lead cow was uneasy, and wanted to make her way back toward my direction.
To my amazement, the herd started to cross back, this time, a couple hundred yards from where I had set up. I knew that I had to move quickly or they would disappear into the thick salmon berries. Most of the herd was making their way back around the base of the hill and the herd bull stopped pushing the cows around, put his head down and started to feed out of sight. I knew that he wouldn’t be feeding for long, so I decided to make a quick and risky move.
I had no way to get within range without moving through an opening in plain view of some of the cows – it was my only shot, so I took it. As I moved through, I startled a dozen or so cows and calves, hoping to get to the bull before he realized that I was there. I quickly closed in the distance, and got into a position just 12 yards from the quartering bull. I didn’t have time to range him, but I knew that he was close. I drew back, settled in my pin and released. I made a solid hit, and the shaft of my arrow was buried up to the fletchings. The bull didn’t know what hit him. He trotted off, herding his cows for the next few seconds. He was down within 30 yards from where I had shot him. I couldn’t have asked for a better hunt and I think I am still in shock as to how it all went down.
When I finally got my hands on the bull, it truly set in. I’m still in awe and can’t believe that I was able to take the pending new world record Roosevelt elk taken with a bow. I had him officially measured at 406-3/8 gross and 395-3/8 net P&Y. I want to thank all of my friends and family that put up with my passion for hunting and for all their support over the years.