About a decade ago when giant bulls still wandered many back-country hideaways here in North Idaho, I matched wits with a monster of unforgetable proportions. These were the days when it was not uncommon to find huge rubs on trees of eight inches or more in diameter and pie plate sized hoof prints in the mud. Large herds of cows were the norm, and wolves were a bed time story. “Growler Bull” was the name given to this behemoth by my brother Lance and I due to his unique bugle. Many years and thousands of vocal cord-damaging bugles had given this old monarch his distinctive voice. Rather than a typical three note bugle, his was a raspy wheeze-like scream, minus the high notes.
My first encounter with the Growler was on the last day of bow season with with none other than Corey Jacobsen. We had spent a long hard week chasing bulls, and had ran out of fresh buglers. Corey asked if I had any other spots where we could find a last minute bull. I scanned my memory bank and remembered a growly bugle that I had heard early in the season, but due to the nasty nature of the terrain my brother and I opted out, looking elsewhere for an easier target. When I mentioned the place, Corey jumped at the notion.
Daylight found us at the top of a large drainage with bugles in hand. Corey called and the Growler answered back immediately, almost like he had been waiting there for us to return. He was located on a ridge that plummeted deep into the drainage. Since the morning thermals were headed down hill we had to drop straight off to get on his level, then side hill over to the bull. No easy task due to the nearly vertical, brush choked hillside. We called, scrambled, and fought our way down and over toward the bull through ten foot high brush until we had climbed onto the bulls ridge.
I was in the lead with Corey following close behind when the bull decided to make his move. With a thunderous crash, Growler herded his ladies our way with screeming guttural insults. Cows started streaming by us at fifteen yards in a single file line. Cow number thirty went by with a spike following up the rear, and following them was an elk colored “army tank”. His body dwarfed every cow in his harem, and his beautiful sweeping six point rack was equally impressive. With a very quiet cow call, I stopped him at eighteen yards….right behind a bark-less snag who’s dead twisted branches covered his vitals. Meanwhile, the cows were all pooled up in the brush over by Corey, waiting for their marching orders. At full draw and burning a hole through the branches with my site pin, the cows spooked returning on the same path they had just traveled. Confident the bull would take a step in my favor, I held my eighty pound round wheel bow at full draw for what seemed an eternity as the cows filed by. When the spike who was heading up the rear finally ran by, Growler lunged, turned, and following his harem to safety. Rubbing our eyes in disbelief, we giggled like school girls.
My next encounter with the old monarch was the following year. It was near the end of September again and had snowed a light skiff the night before. My brother Lance and I had several bulls answering our calls down and across the drainage. One bull’s wheezy growly bugle had me zeroed in on his location. Struggling down through the cold, wet snow covered vegetation, we closed the gap with the bull. We set up shop, close as we dared, as I fired up again working the bull without much luck. He wouldn’t budge, but continued a constant flurry of bugles. I urged Lance to move forward and stalk in on the bull as I kept him talking. Lance got setup and I could see him in the distance motioning me to move up. Crashing down the hill like an elephant screaming insults was all the Growler needed to hear. He wheezed his reply and came in on a string to Lance. At five yards, Growler passed behind a hemlock sapling allowing Lance to draw his bow. Since this was back in the days before D-loops, his arrow had been nocked for quite a while with his release putting pressure on the back of the nock, causing it to push forward. As Lance drew his bow, the nock pushed off the string causing it to fall, clanking against the riser then to the ground. Miraculously, the bull looked the opposite direction allowing Lance to recover his arrow, and draw back just in time for the Growler to turn around and return from where he came.
My last meeting with the giant bull was two years later. It had been pretty slow, due to warm dry conditions. I was camped by myself that year except for three guys who were across the same campsite from me. One fellow at the neighboring camp had invited me over for a cold beverage when his compadres went to town that night, so I walked over to his camp to join him. We talked about elk hunting long into the night and then I bid him good luck and good night. When I awoke the next morning, the sun was fairly high and my pounding headache reaffirmed why cold beverages should come after your tag is notched. I shuffled around camp head hung low, loaded my gear and headed out to salvage the remainder of the day. Mad at myself for being so foolish, I mumbled and scolded myself as I walked through the waist high huckleberry brush. I made a few quiet cow calls trying to disguise the cornflake crunching noise as I made my way across the ridge. Then it happened, Growler ripped a devastatingly growling bugle just out of site, less than fifty yards away in a thicket of hemlock saplings . Much to my chagrin, he was almost directly down wind. Backtracking a bit, I tried in a last ditch effort to gain the wind’s favor, but with no luck. His huge hooves crashed off safely, back into his secret place.
With my skull splitting headache and uneasy stomach, I reasoned that if I were to bail off into the hole where the Growler had went, I could hang out till evening and perhaps get a second chance. Walking down the ridge on remnants of an old game trial I dropped in elevation looking for an ideal place to make my set-up. Crash! A spike that was bedded about ten yards away jumped up running and barked, giving up my charade. With a quick witted idea, I turned the spike’s bark into a series of grunts since he was still only about fifty yards away. Evidently, it worked like a charm because Growler fired up again. I positioned myself to where he would have to crest the ridge to see his challenger, giving me a perfect shot. He bugled five times within about one minute while he closed the gap. Brush began to pop and swish just out of sight and I readied my bow as the wind started fanning my sweaty neck. He crashed off, so I sprinted to an opening hoping to catch a glimpse of my unseen Growler. I found a clearing just in time to watch him run up to the fringe of a huge, head high brush field. He began to make motions like he was going to rake his enormous rack, but instead he was trying to part the brush. His giant rack was huge, freakishly long curly tines, beams with “baseball bat” like mass carried all the way back to his sweeping whale tails. Finally, he leaped into the thicket, and all I could do is watch as his head and horns floated through the sea of brush. I guess he didnt like the smell of barley and hops!
At this point in my life I was overtaken by my obsession to kill this bull. All I could do is eat ,sleep, and plot against Growler. Hours of pouring over maps, running scenarios, scouting, and only talking to my closest of friends recounting all the details. I’m sure my wife was quite annoyed by my blank stare and bugling in my sleep for the next two years.
The following two seasons I couldn’t find him. I checked all his old haunts and new areas where I thought he might have relocated to. I hadn’t heard of any hunters bagging a bull of his magnitude in the area, and hoped he had temporarily moved away do to the new presence of wolves in the mountains. In the spring following his second year hiatus, I learned of a local dirt bike enthusiast finding a huge dead bull in the trail at the bottom of Growler’s drainage.Appeared to be a wolf kill. When I finally saw a picture of the rack, I had to hold back the tears. It was him. His horns had regressed a bit but were still very impressive and still carried all his old character, and some new.
Heartbroken I did what any elk hunting fanatic would do, I set out looking for the next one. Call it crazy, but Ive carried a picture of his rack every year since then, just to remind me to never give up till I put my own arrow or bullet into a bull of a lifetime like Growler.