Lightning Strikes Twice

By Howard Hooper
New Mexico, DIY, Public Land

Lightning Strikes Twice - Howard HooperMarch/April 2013 EBJ (Issue 76) - As the massive 6x7 bull walked over the ridge I silently sat down to give him time. This provided a couple of hours to reflect in the cool, New Mexico morning air as the sun worked its way up the eastern ridges. Had my years of faithfully applying for elk hunts in the Western states, the thousands of hours of exercising to challenge their mountain domain, the hundreds of shooting sessions to perfect my form, finally culminated in the bull of a lifetime? I was hopeful, but not certain.

How well did I hit him? How much time should I give him before I begin the tracking process – an hour? Two hours? I can hear the bulls from the split herd continue their morning chorus of bugles, trying to reassemble the herd - Satellite One, Satellite Two, and numerous others calling to each other.

Then I hear the monarch, just over the ridge. My anxiety level rises. He has lung capacity! Oh, NO! Did I really just botch this opportunity? Do I dare go look for my arrow yet, or do I just sit and enjoy the mountain melodies of these beautiful creatures? I must have patience… I keep reminding myself how incredibly tough bull elk are, and know I can’t push him; I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.

I’ve been hunting elk for nearly 30 years and have always relished taking a DIY approach, adventuring deep into the mountains to pursue elk in their pristine habitat. Once able to afford it, I’ve religiously applied for the best limitedentry hunts the western states have to offer. Yet, up to this point I had not been able to draw outside of the state of Idaho. But this year, lightning struck twice. Not only did I receive word of acquiring a highly coveted Gila archery hunt, but also one of Idaho’s elk super tags.

Many of my hunting buddies asked me, "Why in the world didn’t you buy a lottery ticket this year?” But in reality, I had won my lottery, having recently being diagnosed cancer-free and still having the strength to pursue my first hunting passion of elk.

The following months were spent poring over Google Earth, topo maps, closely monitoring the Whitewater-Baldy fire reports, and talking with the local fish and game officer, Casey Gehrt, about how my hunting partner, John Hepton, and I could optimize our Gila hunt experience. Casey was an invaluable resource and spent many hours on the phone talking with us about hidden mountain pockets and areas we could access with the horses, knowing we were committed to getting well off the beaten path.

Unit 16 was not new to us, as I had the pleasure of joining John to call in 2010 and 2011 when he drew Gila archery tags. But this was the year I was going to have a weapon in my own hand. September couldn’t come soon enough!

Howard Hooper - Lightning Strikes Twice

Arriving in early September, we had the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with some of our favorite spots. We were encouraged as the summer monsoon rains put the Gila fire out and greened up our targeted hunting unit. The elk were present and vocal, but not responsive. We hunted hard, blanketing many of our previous haunts, generally logging 10 or 12 miles a day, but the shot opportunities eluded us.

We eventually determined that neither bugles, nor cow calls would prove to be effective as they had in years past. Instead, we would have to locate and ambush or run down our quarry. Since we’re hard-headed and slow learners, it wasn’t until the fifth day that we decided hunting separately was a viable alternative.

That day started like all the others. We were up at 4 a.m., and in the woods well before daylight. But this time, my partner would hunt a basin to the south while I revisited an area we had hunted earlier in the week. As I got to my jump-off point I could hear four bulls singing to each other on an opposite lower ridge. My theory was that I could pursue on a parallel ridge and cut them off at a bowl where the two ridges met. I proceeded up the mountain as the herd moved up the opposite ridge.

As the morning nearly approached shooting light I was near the top of the bowl and the herd had decided the burned bowl looked like a great area to feed. The herd matriarch was leading the feeding herd 20 or 30 yards under my position. Given sparse cover, there was little I could do. With the morning downdraft she would be able to pick up a portion of my scent, regardless of all the ScentLok I was wearing. To my good fortune, whether it was scent or just her prey instinct, she stopped, turned around, trotted 100 or so yards back to the main group, and calmly led the herd over the ridge.

I determined that they were committed to their targeted bedding area and that she would choose Route B, so I had to get to the next saddle as quickly as possible. As the herd disappeared over the ridge, I quickly threw on my felt boot covers and hurried up the ridge, targeting the next saddle. I could hear the herd bull and the numerous satellite bulls chorusing below, paralleling me 100-150 yards below the ridge.

As with most of hunting, seconds and minutes count. I arrived at the saddle and nocked an arrow with probably twenty seconds to spare. There was the lead cow. I estimated she passed in front of my shooting corridor at 30 yards, followed closely by a nice 6x6 satellite, who took the opportunity to stare at my motionless form for a few minutes. As the lead cow ridged out, the 6-point faithfully followed. Then, in the corner of my eye, I saw a stream of cows and calves, somewhere between twelve and fifteen, like ants in a line, head to butt, following the path of the previous two elk. To my wonderment, I heard the characteristic bugle of the herd bull just behind them.

There was a large alligator juniper that would block his line of sight, allowing me to draw undetected. As he came into view, I really didn’t know just how big he was, but I knew he was big enough. At this point, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember looking through my peep sight, nor do I remember selecting a pin. All I remember was I knew it was 30 yards, and I knew that I needed to thread an arrow behind his shoulder. Now I know those hours of practicing made the process automatic.

After I stopped him with a soft chirp and released the arrow he lurched and turned around, giving me a few moments to think I might get a second shot. He didn’t run. He just walked over the ridge, oblique to the path of the herd, ignoring my soft cow calls.

Had I just done it? Had I just shot the bull of my dreams? These moments of contemplation in the pristine ridges of the Rocky Mountains feed the elk hunter’s soul like few other experiences. All the work, all the effort, all the persistence, culminated in a few small, magical moments.

After thirty minutes I walked over to find my arrow just beyond where he had stood! It was coated in blood, yet missing the abundant foamy blood I hoped for, with only a few small bubbles on the vanes. Did I only get one lung? Did I shoot him in the void? Did I just commit the archer’s cardinal sin? I would need to have immense patience and give him sufficient time.

The split herd still called to each other up and down the ridge but I hadn’t heard the characteristic answer of the herd bull for a bit now. Maybe he moved off further? Or maybe he had expired? I decided an hour and a half was the minimum I needed to wait. I then grabbed a protein bar and a hit of water from my water bladder. It was empty! It must have leaked out of the cap on the morning ride up. The closest water was three miles away at the main creek, so a little panic started to set in as I possibly had a very long day ahead.

When I finally began to track the bull there wasn’t a sustainable blood trail but only calm, determined tracks of the bull that proceeded down the hill. This made it difficult to conclude which tracks were his. I slowly trailed out numerous sets of similar fresh tracks. It wasn’t until I got 100 yards into the third set that I found some blood on a twig and a smear on some oak brush. Since I was not going to push him, I pursued him like I was still-hunting a Whitetail buck, taking slow, small, resolute steps, while picking out every feature of the downslope before me with my binoculars. After following his serpentine path, my heart leapt as I saw a tan body lying on the ground about 100 yards in front of me, yet still obscured.

I sat down and studied the form to see if his antlers or chest cavity moved. After five minutes I was quite certain that he had expired. As I made my way to the downed monarch I was amazed at the size and width of this Gila monster. He was a 7x7, with over a 50-inch spread, heavy 50-plus-inch beams, incredible mass, 22-inch G3s like I’ve never seen, and bonus non-typical features. I was overwhelmed and so thankful to my Lord and Savior for blessing me with this opportunity. I had such a warm peace knowing that my father, who had passed away from cancer three years prior, was celebrating with me as I took in this marvelous trophy. I could hear his words in my mind, "The fun’s over boys. Now the real work begins…” As I spent the day processing the bull alone, minus water, it was a sweet day of hard work.

Howard Hooper - Lightning Strikes Twice

It wasn’t until that evening, about an hour after dark, that I was able to reunite with John, my hunting partner. I found him sitting by a blazing fire at the trailhead where we had separated early in the morning. I enjoyed hearing about his day and his close encounters in the new area he explored. I then told him it was probably time for us to head back home because "my bow was screwed up.”

While he looked at me with utter disbelief, I told him to go over and look at my bow because I wasn’t going to be able to use it the way it was. Inspecting it in the dark with his headlamp, he said it looked fine to him. I told him it was my arrows that were the real problem. When he recognized the dry, blood-coated arrow in my quiver, my long-time friend, nearly tackled me into the rocks with his excitement.

When I told him that it was a BIG bull I thought I was watching the reenactment of Kevin Costner dancing around the fire in "Dances with Wolves.” He was so excited and tried to talk me into hiking back up the mountain that night! These are some of the sweet hunting-partner memories we’ll both remember forever.

All I can say about the pack out is that horses are not my favorite creature on the earth, but I sure love them when they’re carrying out hundreds of pounds of meat and antler down a steep mountain for me!

Soon after returning to Idaho after a 20-hour drive, I had just a few days to put some things in order at work, coach my son’s fall baseball team, and get ready for one of Idaho’s prime areas that historically open on September 25th. My faithful partner had similar challenges, yet Monday afternoon of the following week we were again trailering horses into some of the finest elk habitat the state of Idaho has to offer.

After a couple days of some hard hunting and looking over twenty or so bulls, I was able to find two fine bulls fighting and separate them with my decade-old "Rocky Jacobson” bugle. After one challenged back and trotted down to me wild eyed and snot bubbling, I was able to finish off a fantastic couple of weeks and wrap my hands around the rack of this fine 330-class bull.

Last year, 2012, was the type of year I’ve been dreaming of for decades and I will cherish for many more. I wish every honest, hardworking elk hunter out there could have a similar experience before age, disease or circumstance steals the opportunity to go mano y mano with one of these monarchs.

My New Mexico Gila bull green scores at 379-1/2 inches and my Idaho bull scores 330-1/2 inches. I’m simply overwhelmed with the blessing of these two western trophies.