Vision Quest for the Big 7

By Mike Duplan

Mike DuplanMike Duplan
Colorado 2007 DIY Public Land

If there was a single moment that seemed to embody the life this bull led, it was during a bitter-cold evening that I observed him during winter of 2007. I was bundled up behind the lens of my spotting scope watching a steep, south-facing sage hillside. I was waiting for the "Big 7" to come out of the dark timber he bedded in during the day, hoping to catch a glimpse of him in the fading light. Fifteen other bulls had already left cover and were feeding in the burned off aspects of the hillside. During a brief period of thaw, the sun had exposed enough food for these bulls to hack out a living at nearly 10,000 feet during these harsh winter conditions. The hungry herd was taking full advantage of it.

I saw the tan and russet form moving stealthily through the last few lodgepoles before I glimpsed his magnificent rack. The "Big 7" paused at the edge of cover, survival instinct at work, honed from years of living a life of caution and evasion. For minutes he stood locked in place, motionless, other than a slight rotation of an ear or possibly a shift in his gaze that was unseen to me at that distance. He hadn't seen, heard nor smelled a hunter in three months but, still, the bull had sensed something that made him uneasy, shifting his senses into overdrive.

I was struck by that moment. Here was a creature reduced to surviving the elements in one of the harshest environments in the West yet, even then, the bull still fell back on what had brought him this far - his instincts. Who knows what had brought the bull to full alert; a raven croaking somewhere, a branch snapping from the burden of snow, or something unperceivable to human senses. The younger bulls fed with disregard, giving into hunger and the cry of empty stomachs. As the alpenglow faded from its pinks to the cold blue of last light, the "Big 7" joined the rest, using his size and dominance to quietly displace one of the young bulls from a choice piece of dried, frozen vegetation.

The first time I saw the "Big 7" was two days after the 4th rifle season of 2006 in Colorado's high country. I was glassing for rutting bucks in a transition zone between summer and winter ranges when I spotted four bulls high on the shoulder of a mountain. The largest was an exceptional elk for this area of unlimited over-the-counter license sales - a total anomaly in what I refer to as the "land of raghorns." While a small portion of Colorado is managed to produce mature bulls, most of the state is managed strictly for hunter opportunity. The majority of the harvest is two-year-old raghorn bulls; very few bulls live beyond their third year. For a bull to have lived to maturity in one of these units, he must have received a Ph.D. in Hunter Evasion combined with exceptional luck for years on end.

I watched for him throughout the winter, hoping to keep tabs until he shed his antlers. Sometimes I would go days without spotting him, only to have him show up a mile or two away. In early March, another mature bull joined the group. I recognized him as a bull I had watched in September in the high country, miles away from this location. He was an aggressive bull with a wide and heavy but somewhat short-tined rack. During the rut, I had watched him battle an overconfident five-point bull. While the bigger bull seemed to have no problem dispatching the younger aggressor, he took a brow tine into his left nostril that poured blood the rest of the evening. This seemed only to enrage him; he went into a rutting frenzy, herding cows and chasing off satellite bulls. From then on, I simply called him "The Big Angry Bull."

Both of the two big bulls shed their antlers in March, but deep snow and sheer distance precluded an immediate search. These bulls were undisturbed and deserved to be left alone until they moved on to new pasture. I certainly fretted over waiting to look for the antlers I coveted so much.

In mid-April, Barrett Rowles and I went searching for their sheds. Even with waiting a few weeks for the snow to melt some, we post-holed through thigh-deep snow in places. It took five hours to get into the area these bulls had chosen as their winter hideaway. A few minutes after entering the timber, I spotted one of the antlers from the "Big 7" lying next to a depression in the snow where he had bedded. The bed was at the far edge of a forested bench at the edge of an extremely steep north-facing hillside. The branches and needles filtered out most of the direct sunlight and to me, it seemed a formidable and unnecessarily harsh location to bed down. To the "Big 7", it represented security and quick escape. While the immature bulls bedded just inside the timbered edge, the big bull chose to punch through belly-deep snow to a more strategic location. I was in awe of this bull and began to wonder if he ever let his guard down.

The shed antlers of the "Big 7" sat propped up over the fireplace the rest of the spring and summer as a constant reminder. My quest for fall of 2008 was simple; it was the "Big 7" or nothing. My imagination worked overtime for months. Where did he spend his summers? Was he an alpine bull summering at 12,000 feet dodging lightning strikes? Or, was he a bull of the spruce and aspens in a forgotten pocket that offered him seclusion? The fantasy of having both bulls make it to the next season, combined with a successful hunt on our part, seemed a pipe dream. Still, dreams like these fuel the fire inside hunters and keep us coming back for more.

Three days before the opening of Colorado's 3rd combined rifle season, Barrett and I met up. The bulls were running the gauntlet now, having already survived archery, muzzleloader, and the first two gun seasons. On a hunch, I suggested we do some glassing the next morning.

We awoke hours before light and went for a hike in the dark that most people would consider to be on the silly side of sane. At first light, we saw four bulls on the mountain above us. Setting up the spotting scope, Barrett was the first to take a look. "That bull in the back is pretty heavy and has huge fronts."

I took one look at the bull and could see it was the "Big 7". He had a distinctive wiggle at the top of his fourths, and his fifth points tipped in at 45 degree angles. His rack was no longer a symmetrical 7x7 but now had more mass, longer tines, and one small extra tine off his right brow tine. Still, it was him!

We watched as he fed and then turned broadside. It was quite a sight to see this magnificent creature make his way up the ridgeline, with his long fall mane flowing in motion with each step. It was 47 hours until opening morning of the 3rd combined rifle season, when hoards of blaze-orange-clad hunters would scour the hills for any legal elk. How would this bull make it another 10 days until the 4th season - our season?

Repeating the same long hike the next morning, we were shocked to see the bull over a mile away. I now had a choice. Cross my fingers and hope he made it one more season or turn in my 4th season tag and get a 3rd season over-the-counter bull tag and hunt him in the morning. With no snow and warm temperatures, this might be a serious gamble.

My philosophy is to never walk away from opportunity. You never know what the next day might bring, so be aggressive and take advantage of what's offered. We drove to the nearest Colorado DOW office and I traded in my tag. I knew the following morning would bring a rush of hunters. It was a gamble, but the only choice given the situation. Barrett chose to wait until the 4th season in hopes that we could locate "The Big Angry Bull" later.

Barrett and I repeated our ritual for the third morning in a row, rising at an obscene hour and hiking for hours in the dark. This morning was different, however. I woke up at 1:00 a.m. and couldn't sleep. My gut was in knots from the anticipation. For months I had dreamed of this day, fully realizing the odds were against us ever encountering the wise old bull again. Now, first light was only hours away.

I started mentally preparing myself for the disappointment of not seeing the big bull again. I had packed my video camera, hoping to get the hunt on film. But now as I stood at the tailgate of the pickup, superstition and the feeling of an impending jinx caused me to pull it out and bury it under a coat on the seat.

Increasing light on the eastern horizon revealed more details of the mountainside. Barrett spotted the two bulls first 800 yards distant. I quickly set up the spotter, confirming the identity of the bigger bull as the "Big 7." We dropped off the ridgeline and quickly cut the distance. We then belly crawled up a finger ridge and set up in a prone position. Light was rapidly increasing and the bulls were on the move, walking across a series of small timber pockets en route to a steep north-facing hillside. As the "Big 7" came out of a draw above us, he paused and swiveled his head, checking his backtrail. I held high on the shoulder and nudged the trigger from my rock-solid rest. The bull piled up on the spot.

I was in disbelief, and my head was spinning. I walked up to the bull in awe of him. Even in death, the bull's majestic aura could be felt by both of us. I couldn't help but feel a certain sense of sadness. This bull had developed a supreme sense of survival, honed by many years of evading hunters during six different elk seasons per fall. All told, this bull had survived an estimated 48-54 opening days on Colorado's heavily hunted public lands - an astonishing feat for any creature.

That afternoon, I carried the great rack from the "Big 7" with pride and reverence. The hike back to the truck was to be savored for rarity of circumstance.

The day before 4th season, I hiked up a trail I hadn't visited that time of year. What I saw astonished me. Five bulls fed in a small aspen pocket; the biggest was none other than "The Big Angry Bull." I hadn't seen him where he had been seen during the previous autumn and just assumed some lucky hunter had taken him. His rack looked huge. He had an outside spread of over four feet and his main beams looked 50 inches plus. Long, massive brow tines framed his huge head. This bull had really grown and now possessed some serious "wow factor."

I called Barrett later that morning, anxious to tell him. "The Big Angry Bull is back, bigger and angrier than ever. He's huge!"

Now it was Barrett's turn to get all knotted up. He would have to make the 200-mile drive that evening with his imagination working overtime.

By now, we had the ritual down pat; it was another hike in the dark under crisp, starry skies while Orion the Hunter watched over us. The dawn of the day revealed the bulls were on the same hillside, but this day they were strangely spooky. Suddenly, the whole herd was galloping across the mountain as if they had been shot at. We glassed for an unseen hunter who might have spooked them but saw nothing.

It was a long day of anticipation. Barrett and I agreed it would be best to avoid spooking the bulls from their secure bedding zone, and instead try for another opportunity that evening. The shorter mid-November days brought quick relief to the boredom; the first of the bulls started filtering out of the timber sooner than we had anticipated.

Expectedly, "The Big Angry Bull" was the last to exit the timber, but Barrett was ready for him. Two solid shots to the shoulder put the bull down for keeps. I kept watch on the fallen bull while Barrett made his way across the canyon in the twilight.

We had just accomplished what I would have previously considered impossible. First was the fact that two extraordinary bulls like these actually existed in this unit. They had lived long and run the gauntlet for many seasons. We were lucky enough to discover them at the right time. We had found their sheds and hoped like hell that we would be lucky enough to have an opportunity at them the next fall. It seemed ridiculous to even think such fortune could fall on us but, still, the potential was worth the hope and effort.

In the days that followed, I showed pictures of our bulls to friends that live in the area. They couldn't believe two bulls like these actually existed in those mountains. After emailing the pictures of our bulls to Mike Eastman and other friends, Mike probably said it best: "What you have achieved is quite possibly the pinnacle of big game hunting in the West. The taking of a big, mature bull elk on heavily hunted public land is a remarkable feat." I would have to humbly agree.

I know the odds would be against this type of thing happening to us again. Sure, we hunted hard, hunted smart, and made the shots when it counted but there was also a lot of luck that all went our way. I wouldn't suggest our hunt was a feat that will never be equaled; perhaps more simply, it was against extreme odds. Fortune befalls the hard working and the lucky. We were a little of both.