Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 Muzzleloader Elk Hunt Part 1: The "Luck" of 13

 Well here it is, after a 2 month wait, the story of my 2013 muzzleloader bull elk.  I have submitted this story to a couple of magazines in edited form, in order to fit their specs, but I want to share the longer version here in 2 parts.  For me, just going through the emotions from the day I placed the application until the day I drew made the experience all that is was.  I think there are a lot of you out there that are waiting the 10 plus year wait to draw yourselves.  It's my hope that you can look at the emotions and preparations to take from it yourself to prepare you for your experience.  This is also an opportunity to share with you some of the pictures and video from the season's scouting as well.

I hope you enjoy it!

The wait for draw results in Utah is a long enough period of time to give an avid hunter an anxiety attack!  January’s application period to May’s drawing results available can seem like an eternity…
A 2013 prospect
As January of 2013 rolled around, I eagerly applied for all of my normal Utah hunts; desert bighorn sheep, general season deer tags for my wife and other family members, her bison tag, and of course, limited entry elk for both my wife and I.  As I finalized the application I took a second to review the summary and faced the ugly truth, it probably wasn’t going to be a very exciting year.  Of course, I had already secured my dedicated hunter tag for deer, and the family would most likely draw their general season deer tags as well, but our local deer unit has struggled over the past few years, so no need to get spooled up about deer, even though I did look forward to time with family then.  But I had to face it, 2 points for both bison and bighorn, yeah, that’s not going to happen.  Those coveted once-in-a-lifetime tags are for those with max points, somewhere in the neighborhood of 16-20 bonus points!  Then there’s elk.  We are getting ever so close, but my wife and I were both realistically 3-5 years away from drawing the tags that we wanted more than anything.  I did however decide to play the odds.  I was tired of waiting for my opportunity to hunt and I didn’t like the thought of waiting up to 6 years or possible more for the rifle tag I wanted most.  So, I instead opted for the muzzleloader tag, which seemed to be hanging right there about the 2-4 year range if current trends and numbers of applicants held true.  I also filled my wife’s application for a late season rifle hunt that also looked to hold better odds for us.

It wasn’t the easiest decision, as we all know that waiting longer to hunt elk during a season means there’s a higher likelihood of the big bulls you are after getting whacked before you have a chance to hunt, or those good bulls being busted up by fighting during the rut.  I had noticed, however that during my time hunting muzzleloader deer over the past 4-5 years (muzzy deer and elk hunts run the same dates each year) that I was consistently seeing very big bulls, and even calling them in.  In fact, I was having more fun calling elk than hunting deer quite often.  To me, the rut seemed to be in its prime during the muzzy hunt.  Elk were much more active than during archery or rifle.  This is what sold me.  I just hoped that it stayed true to form this year.  Like I had a chance of drawing anyway, so I clicked the confirmation button and rolled the dice.

Honestly, the next 3 to 4 months flew right by.  I seldom thought about the draw as I had accepted my fate.  I actually held out more hope on my wife drawing.  

As May came around, my interests in the draw began to arise once again as my hunting buddies started the discussions of how great of a season it would be, and how they held high hopes of drawing tags.  We were fairly certain my friend Zach would draw, as he was a clear front runner in bonus points for a late season rifle tag on an adjacent elk unit to mine.  We all began to wait for that time about a week before the official results were to be emailed when we could check our credit cards to see if charges had been applied.   

On May 15th at about 9 PM I found myself browsing through Facebook when I came upon a post from a friend claiming to have a charge to his card in the amount of a tag.  I thought it was way too early for this to be happening.  Curiosity got the best of me and I had to check.  Reviewing my recent transactions I found nothing at all.  My heart sank!  Why had I got all wound up about nothing?  I knew what the results would be!  Then I had a second thought; call them (Cabela’s Visa).  I anxiously waited to be connected, again, I’m not sure why, I knew the answer.  The associate answered, and I asked if he could tell me about any transactions.  He read me the same ones I knew about already.  Then I asked him if I possibly had any transactions made that had not officially posted to the account.  Silence, I could tell he was a bit confused, or something.  So I began to explain that I had applied for hunts, and I had heard that Utah transactions had begun.  As I did so he cut me off and asked if I was from Utah.  I answered yes.  Then he told me I was the 9th person to call that evening, and quickly continued that there was a charge for $285.00 that was yet to post, and he was sure that’s what I was looking for!  Initially, it was disbelief and silence.  Then I quickly thanked him for making my day, hung up the phone, and ran down the hall to tell my wife.  We had no idea which of us had the elk tag, but we had one…and the deer tags of course!  I immediately called my grandpa to share the news, and began to text friends.  My wife then told me I needed to tell my boys, who were in bed.  I nearly cried as I told my 9 year old and 7 year old that both love the adventure of hunting that we were hunting bull elk this year!  

Anxiety was killing me to get the official results; it just wasn’t happening fast enough!  I was sure it was my wife, as her odds should have been better, and I was excited either way.  My friend Zach had text back to confirm as we knew, that he had drawn his limited entry elk tag, late season rifle.  For 13 being an unlucky number, 2013 was looking to be epic!  This was adding to the anxiety.  A crazy thought came to my mind, as I wondered if I went into the application system if it would show an additional bonus point added one of us from what we had prior to the draw.  I logged into my draw history first.  My bonus point total was now at zero, and to the right it showed my last permit awarded in 2013!  I had my elk tag after a 12 year wait!

What luck!  I had drawn with 11 bonus points.  I was 1 of 2 people holding 11 points to do so, out of 12 of us.  That’s not counting the 14 people that had more points than I did.  Now it was time to get to work.

Scouting has always been a challenge for me.  After 12 years you would think a guy would want to be out scouting as much as possible, especially after late July.  I work as a wildland fire engine captain, and it’s nearly impossible that time of year as it is the height of fire season.  So scouting was a constant worry to me.  I tried to get out as much as I could, and I placed my trail cameras in places I had luck with in the past.  These cameras were turning up some amazing bulls this year, the best being a 380” 6x7, very long beamed, wide, and long tined.  Friends that were also out and about were being very helpful with sharing information.  Plus, I had a 10 day rifle hunt with a friend on the same unit that would allow me time to scout hard while helping him with a bull as well.  Well, true to form, fire season hit late in the summer, and my scouting time was next to none.  

 I did take advantage of the time I had to shoot my muzzleoader every chance I got.  I talked with several experts about different powder and bullet combinations to shoot with my .50 caliber Thompson Omega.  I tried a few out, but ultimately became very impressed with the reviews of the Barnes Expander MZ bullet (300 grain) coupled with Blackhorn 209 loose powder.  This was actually recommended by Barnes via a response to a question about what Barnes would suggest for me.  I submitted the question on Facebook and was super impressed with the fast response, links to resources, and contacts for personal review from satisfied hunters that used it.  I have been a big fan of Triple Seven pellets, so I was skeptical of the powder at first.  Upon field trial I became completely satisfied with the best groups I have ever shot with my Omega.  I had what I wanted, but continued to shoot and fine-tune until about a week before the hunt.

One thing that did excite me was the drought that had set in.  Though I initially worried about antler growth, I was actually seeing more big 360” plus bulls than I had in the past!  Less water meant that hunting a few secret wallows that I liked was going to be very possible, and these wallows were the spots I was seeing the best bulls, including the 6x7.  I shouldn’t have opened my mouth about it.  

As fate would have it, a little 2013 “luck” kicked in after all.  In August, the normal southern Utah monsoonal rains kicked in, but they didn’t stop after 2-3 weeks like normal.  It started fairly normal, and then intensified in mid-August.  Nearly 6” of rain fell over the next 3 weeks!  We had gone from a drought to a rain forest!  There was standing water everywhere, and elk had completely abandoned my wallows.  To top it off the weather had scattered herds, pushing them into grounds they typically do not frequent.  They were now scattered across the top of the mountain, a thick, flat, timbered plateau.  There was nowhere to glass and access was getting tough.  To top it off my worst fear had happened; the rut had started early this year!

The rifle hunt brought little change; the rains continued.  On the bright side, there were breaks in the storms, the rut was on, and hunting was getting good!  It was finally time to hit the hills and scout.  Over the next 10 days I was fortunate to finally start getting into elk, including several decent bulls in the 340”-360” range.  Then, with only 4 days left to hunt, while hunting with Blake we were finally presented with the opportunity of a 370-380” bull!  Well, things didn’t work out, and Blake also had 3 other chances for bulls over 360”, and several in the 350” range.  It was gut wrenching to watch Blake not tag after a 20 year wait!  He was devastated, and it had broken my morale as well.  I had now began to doubt what I thought would be fairly easy success for myself.  To add to the negativity, the rut was starting to taper off a bit.  This is when I reset my goal of a 370” plus bull to a 350” plus bull, which is still an accomplishment with a muzzleloader.

 A little scouting fun

A week later found me preparing for the hunt of a lifetime, just days before my hunt!  The rains had still not ceased, and actually intensified once again.  I found myself scouting the top of the mountain during intense downpours and lightning not turning up much at all.  Water stood everywhere, and my 6x7 had still not been seen for well over a month.  I was getting desperate and very worried.  My buddy Zach and I had located a decent bull on the west side of what was a huge unit, and I had a few 340” bulls scouted out closer to home.  Then, just 4 days before my hunt a friend called up.  “You need to call Phil as soon as he can, he’s found a bull”!  I didn’t even really know the guy, but I was so desperate I would take anything now.  There was a lot of urgency in my friend's voice for me to talk to Phil.

Just how good was this bull? 

Check back in a couple of days to find out!

Part 2: