Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 Muzzleloader Elk Hunt: The "Luck" of 13, Part 2

After a rough start, things were starting to look up!  Forecasts were even showing a short relief from the nearly 2 months of rain!

Out scouting
Phil not only told me where to find the bull, he offered to take me there, to a spot I had never hunted on the mountain where I grew up.  I met Phil just 3 days before the hunt, before daylight.  The morning again greeted us with showers and lightning.  It was an eerie feeling walking the trail in the dark with the lightning lighting up the darkness, followed by the bugles of what had to be about a dozen bulls each time the thunder clapped.  In no time at all we were in the thick of them.  They were fighting, pushing cows, and running everywhere.  We quickly found the herd, which was being escorted by a 350-360” bull with weak 5ths.  We ended up seeing 3  We left this group and headed to a new bugle.  
bulls of that caliber, along with raghorns.

We were back into another small group just ¼ mile from the main herd, though these were concealed in thick oak and we had trouble seeing them.  As we moved around the ridge, I looked down in the flat to see a very wide bull which was very impressive, but we couldn’t get him to turn to see his tines.  So we continued following bugles in the oak, only coming across a 340 bull that was on a determined course back to the main herd.  Now getting to be 10:00, and things quieting down, we decided it was time to go.   

 As we left the ridge and moved back to the timbered bench where the herd was the activity again picked up.  After a short discussion Phil and I decided we had better take another look.  As we came over a rise and laid eyes on the herd we were surprised to find 2 bulls we had not seen previous, 1 being a very unique bull with huge 6ths that we guessed to be over 360”.  As we prepared to leave again we heard a very odd bugle, very raspy and squeaky.  “Sounds like a young bull” I told Phil, who nodded and smiled agreeing with me.   Then he stepped forward!  It was just enough to see his front tines but in one look we had no doubt we had found a monster!  He ran a raghorn off, grabbed 2 cows, and pushed the herd back into thick timber and out of site.  It was a quick look, but we knew this bull was well over 380”!  We had found exactly what I wanted, I was elated, and it was time to go!  I didn’t want to mess this up.  

The "very wide" bull we saw during the scouting trip.  With only a glimpse I wasn't sure we would see him again.  This photo was shared on Facebook a few weeks after the hunt (courtesy of Tines Up)
The next 2 days were spent packing gear and moving camp 45 minutes away to be closer to the location I was to hunt.  I had a very large group lined up to join me, but as the hunt started on a Wednesday it turned out that only Zach could make it, although we had at least 6-8 people coming in for the weekend.  A colder storm was also on the way, which I was happy for.  The rain had ceased, and now the warm before the storm had me fearful of the herd moving higher again.  Surely if this happened cooler weather would bring them back. 

Taken at "the pond" the night before the opener.
Zach and I arrived the day before the hunt, set up camp, and headed for the bench that evening to see if they were still there.  As we made our way in, we almost made a very fatal mistake as we topped a ridge and I found myself staring at a cow not 60 yards away, bedded down in aspen!  I quickly dropped to the ground, pulling Zach down with me.  We sat in silence and heard nothing.  I peeked over the brush to see her still lying in her bed, staring in the opposite direction.  She hadn’t seen us!  We eased out and circled around to the pond, sitting above it on the ridge, waiting for that magical hour.  As we sat there I will forever remember Zach saying, “This would be an awesome place to shoot an elk”.  Right he was!  Open meadow and the pond just 100 yards below us, tons of shooting lanes.  The two main trails in also flanked our location, giving more options for a shot as they came in and out of water.  It was perfect, but I was sure we would kill on the bench to the south where everything had been.  As darkness came the herd did come out.  We were shocked to only find a 330” 6 point, not a bull we wanted at all.  As our hopes sank, we heard several more bulls start to move in, bugling as they did so, coming up the hill to the west of us.  We didn’t have enough light tonight, but we hoped they would remain until morning.

Opening morning, what a thrill!  I am actually surprised I slept very well.  Everything was ready, and everything was perfect!  Arriving to our “trailhead”, we were greeted with a steady southwest breeze; perfect for covering our approach.  The start had seemed to all align.  So I thought!

The hike consisted of ½ mile of making a steady, easy climb through a bit of oak brush, then into a bowl of dead and down aspen, followed by the short climb to the bench.  As we topped the first ridge of oak we began to hear their bugles, though not nearly as actively as when Phil and I had come just 3 days previous.  We also heard a couple of bugles behind us, very close to the truck which really made us scratch our heads for a bit.  After a brief discussion we decided to press on.  “Probably lone bulls, small stuff”, Zach said.  I agreed.  There was more concentrated ahead of us, at least 3 bulls.  So we began to make our way into the aspen patch.  We were no more than ¼ of the way into the stand when we heard him scream.  He was within 200 yards!  It was a complete surprise; we had not seen them here before nor seen much sign here.  It wasn’t the strange bugle Phil and I had heard, but it was a good, deep, mature bugle.  We had to get a look.

As we pressed forward cautiously light came to the aspen stand.  It was a minefield of dead and downed logs!  Although wet from rain, the aspen branches were still snapping, and the logs echoing a hollow “thud” when struck.  We were doing well, and the wind was in our favor.  Zach motioned me to stop, and pointing ahead I could see a couple of cows working towards us.  I hate to say it, but I began to shake.  Twelve years of waiting began to surface in nervousness and anxiety, something I swore I would never allow to happen to myself.  I tried my best to breathe deeply, and began to coach myself on what I needed to do.  More cows began to appear, at least 15 now.  This was the largest herd I had seen for months; surely this bull was a giant.  More cows, 20-15 now.  We could hear the bull running back and forth behind them, screaming responses back to the 2 bulls to the south of us.  We waited eagerly, but patiently, knowing if we moved the cows would see us as easily as we could see them.  

After what seemed like an eternity he finally came crashing down the hill.  “There he is, but just hold tight until we know” Zach advised.  “What do you think?” I asked him.  “Well, it’s not as big as what you described, I don’t think you want this bull” he responded.  Then he was back up the hills chasing cows.  “Yeah, he’s not huge, alright, but not huge” Zach stated.  “I would like a look, and then we can go check out those other bulls”.  Zach agreed, and we pressed closer slowly.  All we could get was glimpses of the bull over the next 15 minutes.  We had left our packs, and we were crawling and picking our way; he was staying just out of reach.  Finally, with cows only 40 yards away he came at us.  That’s when we finally got a glimpse of his frame.  “I don’t know; I may want that bull Zach” I nervously told him.  “Yeah, he’s bigger than I thought” he replied, “Wide…but I’m just not sure on the mains”.  As we discussed the bull we knew his fronts were good, but he lacked a bit on the 5ths.  Everything else seemed to be there, although his 3rds were by no means huge.  We were taking a guess at 350-360”, not nearly as big as the bull Phil and I had seen that was knocking on the door of 400”.  After our discussion, we decided to break away to go see the other bulls, but in my heart I didn’t want failure; I didn’t want “tag soup” as I had seen others do, and I thought maybe I should just do it.  So I was still looking for the bull to stop and for a shooting lane as we moved away.
As we backed out we were greeted by 5 head of cattle!  Well, we weren’t going that way, or they would run and ruin everything.  So we started off to the north to make a wide circle of the herd of elk.  As we did so we looked up to see a doe and fawn moving straight down towards us.  Our last option was to move between the cattle and the elk to the south, which was risky.  Just as we looked to do this a satellite bull was walking towards us right down that path.  We were pinned from every possible direction now!  I had never had this happen before.  Our only option was to be still and wait it out.  It didn’t work.

The doe and her fawn continued to move in, and at less than 10 yards she caught wind of us.  The two bounded off, the thumping of their hooved shattering the morning silence.  The bull gathered the cows and moved them up the ridge.  This was a blessing in disguise!  It finally afforded me my best look at the bull though he didn’t stop to allow a shot.  Zach and I had now changed our minds, and I told him this bull would do!

We knew they hadn’t seen us or winded us, and as expected they stopped at the ridgetop, back up on the bench and went back to feeding and bugling.  In a perfect spot now, we circled north and pushed in slowly using the wind to our advantage.  We were within 5o yards, he was screaming right behind a patch of oak and it was just a matter of sneaking in for the shot!  That’s when the satellite bull reappeared, walking broadside across our path not 30 yards in front of us, yet again, he hadn’t seen us!  We gave him plenty of time, and it sounded like he was well below us now, so we began to sneak in to seal the deal.  We barely covered 10 yards when I looked down the hill in pure shock!  The satellite bull had circled back and was staring right at me.  AS soon as we both realized what was going on, he was up the hill in a hurry, crashing through the timber as loud as could be.  Instantly, we heard the rest of the herd begin to thunder away.  I rounded the oak patch to see the back end of the bull in a blur, as he pushed his cows into timber and was gone.  We followed them to a ridgetop where we stopped to think.  They were nowhere in sight.  Just as we began to discuss breaking off and heading to the other bulls we heard a bugle up the ridge in spot we hadn’t heard anything all morning.  They’re at the pond!” Zach whispered, and without hesitation we both began to retrace our path up the ridge to the north that we had hiked the night before.  “I think it’s them, I don’t think it’s a new bull” Zach whispered as we hiked quickly up the trail.  “I think they made a circle to the west and stopped at the pond”.  They hadn’t seen what spooked them, so it made sense.  The satellite bull had not joined them; so maybe, just maybe they would stop again.  

As we topped the ridge and approached the big ponderosa pines where we had sat the night before Zach pulled up his glasses exclaiming “there he is”!  I was below him on the side hill.  All I could see was cows pushing up the draw in front on me, and into the oak disappearing.  Again, my heart sank; he was going to be gone soon.  I looked up at Zach who was pointing down below me.  There he was in the open meadow just starting up the trail, which would lead to a perfect shooting lane.  As he climbed the trail, I moved towards short oak looking for a rest.  I found one, a small forked branch that worked for me.  “There he is, shoot him!” Zach whispered.  Zach cow called and stopped him; the bull was facing me, a shot I wasn’t comfortable taking with my muzzleloader.  Zach looked at my rest, “What the hell are you doing, come up here and shoot him!” he begged.  I was hesitant; worried my movement would spook him.  He had his eyes on us.  He started to move again and rather to chance moving and having no time for a shot I took my rest in the oak again.  Zach hit the cow call and stopped him in his tracks yet again, this time broadside.  The last thing I heard from Zach was “165 yards”.  I placed the Vortex "Strikefire" red dot right behind the shoulder, opting against raising the dot by compensating with the distance in elevation drop and fired a quick shot!  

Smoke filled the air in front of me and I lost sight of the bull for a moment, and then saw him run out of the smoke cloud to the left.  I was sure I muffed the shot.  “Did I get him?” I asked Zach.  “Dude, you smoked him”!  Just then the bull stopped, began to squat back on his hind legs, his legs shaking, then took a giant lunge forward and crashed into a patch of oak out of sight.  It was over in about 30 seconds, but that span of time from the shot to "bull down" seemed more like a half hour to me as I wasn't going to rest easy until I knew for sure he wasn't moving.  I let out a loud wail of excitement which was immediately followed by a holler from Zach who was running down the hill to tackle me.  It was the best feeling of hunting accomplishment I had ever had, my body shaking, tears close to my eyes as we high fived and slapped backs over a job well done!

We made our way down to the bull, picking up the blood trail where the bull had began to wobble before his last lunge.  The blood trail was amazing, one like I had never seen before.  We trailed it from there a short 30-40 yards, finding him just 70 yards from where I had shot him and feet from the pond.  Zach was right the night before, it was a very good spot to kill a bull; it was perfect!  We spent the next half hour taking pictures, sending a text or 2 out to family and friends, and then we went to work preparing him for an easy ½ mile pack out. 

 The damage of the Barnes Expander MZ
The job the Barnes Expander MZ did was simply amazing, textbook even.  The well placed double lung shot had an entry hole more than the size of a quarter!  The bullet had stopped just behind the hide on the opposite side; the damage to the vitals more than I had hoped for.  I have so much confidence in the MZ coupled with Blackhorn 209 powder (120 grains) that I will continue to use the match on future game with my muzzleloader, although I'll opt for a bit lighter grain bullet (and powder amount) for deer.

When we had the bull packed out to our ATV’s and the head secured to the 4-wheeler, we began to really grasp his width.  “How wide is a 4-wheeler?  Zach asked.  “Well, most are 48” I laughed.  The bull stuck out on both side of the ATV by a good distance.  Back in camp a measurement confirmed, 54” outside spread, 49” inside.  “Widest bull I’ve ever seen” Zach commented.  As for the rest of him, his mains were a little short, just as we suspected, at about 52” each.  Good fronts, a bit weak in the 5ths, but this unique bull grossed out at 354”, which I was very pleased with.  

This will always live in my memory as one of my favorite hunts.  Although only a 2 hour hunt, I will always cherish the memories I made that day with Zach, although we did catch a lot of flak from the others that planned on coming that weekend!  It also started a trend for our 2013 hunts, as what once was a group that held out to the bitter end filled tags with great animals early in the hunt.  In fact, Zach’s deer hunt lasted only 30 minutes (a beautiful 29” wide, 170” buck) and his elk hunt lasting barely an hour.  I guess that tells you what kind of bull he harvested.  But that’s another story for another time.