“What the heck was wrong with shooting him when he was 400 yards from the road?” my hunting partner, David Burdette, asked as he gasped for oxygen, some 2 ½ miles up the mountain. Our morning hunt had started three hours earlier as we were getting our packs together at the truck, and finally concluded nearly 2500 feet higher, and much farther from the truck and the roads than we had hoped for.
While loading our packs that morning, I had let out a soft cow call and was immediately answered by a good sounding bull, followed by several frantic cow calls 400 yards away. We quickly grabbed the essentials (bow and bugles), and raced to get ahead and downwind of the bull.
David stayed back about 100 yards to call as I moved up to the edge of a clearing to find a good place to set up for a shot. I found the perfect place with wide open shooting lanes in every direction and ample cover for myself, as well as enough cover to see the bull approaching in time to draw and aim before he stepped out into the wide open.
David bugled, and the bull responded immediately. He quickly rounded up his cows and his next bugle was 100 yards farther away than his last. I quickly jumped up and moved towards the bull through the middle of the meadow as David raked a tree and screamed a challenge back to the bull. Seeing movement through the trees on the opposite side of the meadow, I knew the bull was coming back. I found a patch of brush on the right side of the meadow and jumped in front of it just as the big 6X7 bull stepped out into the open. He stopped and bugled, looking intently for the source of the bugling. David raked the tree again, and the bull started towards him, only 50 yards from me. I was caught out in the open with the bull walking right at me, not presenting any opportunities to draw without spooking him. At 15 yards he passed by me perfectly broadside and oblivious to my presence, still walking and looking for David. I decided to wait until he got 5-10 yards past me and hope that as he was quartering away I could draw my bow and get a good shot off. Unfortunately, he dropped his nose to the ground just as I raised my bow to draw and caught my scent where I had crossed the opening a few minutes earlier. He whirled and ran back past me, circling around the opening away from his cows.
I immediately jumped up and sprinted straight towards his cows hoping to cut him off as he made his way back to the herd. The plan worked perfectly as the last cow came across in front of me at 25 yards. The bull was following, but swung out away from the timber and stopped to bugle at 60 yards. I was able to get between him and all but one of his cows, and we began a game of cat-and-mouse all the way up the mountain. I stayed within 100-150 yards of the bugling bull and had several close calls over the next 90 minutes, but the bull always managed to make his stands or come back to me when I was in the worst possible positions.
Finally, sweating and out of breath, I got him in the set-up I had been waiting for; 100 yards away in some open timber and huckleberry brush, with the wind in my favor and the bull in sight. I bugled at the bull and he instantly turned to circle below me, letting out a very agitated bugle. I quickly ranged a large Ponderosa Pine tree at 40 yards and screamed a challenge back at the bull. He turned and headed straight towards me, no longer concerned about getting the wind in his favor. When he stepped out from behind the large pine tree, I was already drawn. A cow call stopped him in the shooting lane as the 40 yard pin found his vitals and I released. The bull ran about 40 yards and crashed within sight. I gave a couple of consecutive bugles to David, who had been following a few hundred yards behind, to let him know that it was over. When he got to the bull, we shook hands and shook our heads in disbelief, reliving the past 6 days.
What started out as a season full of doubt and discouragement had turned into a dream season. The previous fall, David and I, along with our good friend Ralph Albright, had drawn archery bull tags in a coveted unit in Arizona and ended up harvesting three nice six-point bulls in a three-day period down there. It was a hunt of a lifetime – big bulls bugling everywhere, no other hunters to be seen, good friends – that’s what it’s all about! In addition to that hunt, we had managed to sneak out for three days in Idaho before heading to Arizona, and David killed a beautiful 300 class six-point a few days before we left. We knew we’d have a hard time ever experiencing another season like that, especially going from a prime unit in Arizona to a heavily hunted, over-the-counter archery area in Idaho.
But here we were, six days into our hunt, having already packed out two nice bulls with another one on the ground. I had shot a nice 5X6 our first morning out, and now we were getting ready to pack out my second bull, taken with a left-over non-resident elk tag I had purchased after David shot his beautiful 6X6 on the third morning of our hunt.
David’s hunt had started out very similar to mine. We located a herd bull bugling down under an old logging road on his way up the mountain with his cows. David side-hilled up towards the bull while I stayed back and called to the bull to keep him located, hoping to intercept him as he came up the ridge. The plan was working as we had hoped until we were busted by a spike and some cows.
We decided to hike up the ridge and go back into a basin that held some good pockets of elk in hopes that we could get a bull to bugle from his bedding area on the north side of the drainage. After a 60 minute hike, we got a bull to answer from a high point on the top of the mountain. The wind was pulling up the hill, but we decided to give it a try and take our chances with the changing thermals. Thirty minutes later, and with luck on our side, we found ourselves on a finger ridge 80 yards across from the bull, with the wind angling up the finger ridge away from the bull. I let out a cow call and the bull responded immediately. I cut him off with a challenge, and for the next 20 minutes we battled back and forth, neither one wanting to give up our vantage points or take a chance with the swirling wind.
I began raking a tree and the bull screamed as he came thundering down the hillside. David moved out another 20 yards in front of me to a small opening we hoped the bull would come through. With David at full draw, the big bull stepped out at 23 yards. One well placed shot and the bull went down 40 yards away, within sight of where I had been calling.
The pack out was one that will not soon be forgotten, but the memories of that hunt and that monster bull will remain fresh long after our knees and backs heal up. In fact, here we were three days later, having momentarily forgotten about that pack, getting ready to do it all over again.
And two days later we were back at it again with me calling for David, our sights set on filling David’s second tag, also a leftover non-resident tag. On the morning of our 8th day of hunting, David made another perfect shot on a nice 5X6, and we were back to packing elk meat once again.
Despite the great hunts we shared in 2005, we both agreed that 2006 would be the season that topped them all. I was excited to get home and see my wife and children, but at the same time reluctant to leave the mountains of Idaho that had been the stage for the once in a lifetime experiences we had been a part of the past couple of weeks. Sharing time in God’s country with a great friend like David Burdette, with understanding and patient families cheering us on at home, coupled with big bulls and the changing fall colors, will make the 2006 elk season a year to remember for many years to come.