Freezer Full of Meat and a Thousand Elk Lessons Learned
by Chad de Alva
Opening morning found me rallying down a dirt road to meet up with a friend, Colton Choate, who had graciously offered to guide my rookie self. Within minutes of linking up with Colton, we were stalking through the woods chasing a bugle. Across a small break in the timber, we could see the muddy body of a bull eagerly searching for Colton’s cow calls. I setup behind a tree on our side of the break, with Colton behind me working the mouth reed. A few seconds later, I got a good look at the first bull of my hunt; a small four-point. I felt myself relax; I knew I didn’t want to tag out on a young bull on opening morning. Colton had called the bull within 80-yard, but a truck rattling down a nearby road spooked the bull, and he bolted. The encounter with this young bull only served to validate all of the stories I had heard over the years of rut-crazed Arizona bulls racing to the call. However, I was about to have that notion shattered, as I spent the next few days getting absolutely skunked.
Reality has a way of getting in the way of hunting, and other commitments kept Colton and I from hunting together for a few days. My friend Chase had also drawn the tag, and he along with a few mutual friends had been working on a few mature bulls at another end of the unit. Chase also had other commitments during the week, and his good friend, Jay offered to help me out when he wasn’t helping Chase. Jay worked with me on a number of bulls, and we got close a couple of times. Yet, a poorly placed tree, or some other obstacle kept me from launching an arrow. Chase was back in the woods a few days later, and the three of us enjoyed a few great encounters, while calling bulls.
One evening, Chase and I were setup on a ridge just below the summit of a mountain where there were multiple bulls bugling back at us. Jay was behind us to our 7 o’clock and was setup for filming. Sunset came and went, and as the light faded, we could hear the elk starting to work their way down the mountain. Just as we were about out of light, a bull came down the hill and walked right past Chase and me. Elk are smart, and this one took the one line that afforded him cover from where Chase and I were setup as he walked right towards Jay. The bull was literally one stride short of walking right over Jay when he must have decided that the Kuiu covered blob with the big black thing on a tripod wasn’t something he wanted to be next to, and so he barked and teleported out of sight quickly. With shooting light gone, the four of us hung out in the moonlight and continued to call the bull who kept barking back at us from 30-yards away.
I had two encounters with bulls where I would expect that any of my more experienced friends would have gotten it done. Chalk it up to me being the rookie, but I didn’t make the right move and the right time and I got busted on some great opportunities. Yet, after each blown opportunity, I took the time to ask the friend(s) that I was with what I did wrong, and how I could have played the situation differently. Here is where I need to express my sincerest of thanks to the guys who got me in on the bulls that I didn’t harvest. Your patience and tutelage is seriously appreciated.
Time was growing short–and I still hadn’t filled my tag. Knowing that my chances of getting on a bull solo were slim, I opted to help Chase out with a monster bull that he had been chasing around. On this afternoon, I was grinding up a hill to glass when I started to rationalize outcomes of the hunt like humans do when we know there is a real chance that we may not achieve a goal. I started to reflect on the hunt and everything that I had happened in the last dozen-odd days. I felt thankful that I had this opportunity to be out here hunting in this country and to have gotten to spend time with some exceptional folks. I spent the evening glassing with some great people, and while we only found a “trophy spike” and a bunch of other hunters; it was still a good use of an evening. I was almost out of time, yet I was committed to hunt hard until the end.
The morning of the second-to-last day of the hunt did not go well for me. Colton and I had spent the morning looking for bulls we had previously been flirting with, but for whatever reason, the bulls had gone silent. Mid-morning found us glassing the side of a mountain hoping for anything when Colton finally heard a distant bugle. Tripods were quickly collapsed with the excitement of knowing we were back in the game, and we rallied off in the direction of the bugle. A few minutes later, standing at the toe of the mountain we could hear two distinct bugles coming off the mountain–it was time to earn this stalk. We moved up the side of the mountain as quickly as we could, homing in on the bugles while snaking through timber and a clearing that left us in the wide open. Finally, we poked our heads around a tree and there was a bull.
The shot wasn’t anywhere close to ideal. The bull was bedded with his head downhill pointing right at us, and thanks to some intricate topography lines, Colton and I were looking slightly down on the bull. Thankfully, he made the “don’t shoot” choice for me when he stood up a second later, and walked up the mountain a little way screening himself with some Christmas trees as he went. Colton got on the mouth reed and started telling the bull that he was the hottest cow in Arizona, while I setup behind a downed tree. The bull started coming right into my shooting lane, and then about 80-yards out, he took a 90 degree left turn and started orbiting my location through the timber.
I quickly assessed how the bull’s change in course would affect how this deal was going to play out. I had shooting lanes that the bull would hopefully cross, but there were more than enough spots along the way for the bull to make yet another turn and disappear into the woodwork. Colton kept working his call, and the bull acted like he was interested in what Colton was saying as he kept on his course. Just before the bull entered my first shooting lane, I ranged the bull, dialed my sight appropriately, drew back, and settled in. The bull stopped perfectly, offering a wide-open broadside shot. Everything felt perfect, and I pressed the trigger on my release.
The bull bolted, and we heard two distinct instances of him crashing through the timber. To me, it sounded like any other spooked elk heading to the next county at a high rate of speed. To Colton, it sounded like he crashed hard. I marked where I shot with some survey flagging, and then walked to where the bull was when I shot him. Not five feet from where the bull took off, Colton found the back third of my arrow covered in blood. I tied a second flag where we found the arrow and we started looking. The timber was thick and there were tons of deadfall in this section of forest. The minutes felt like hours as we searched without finding a drop of blood. The fear of wounding an elk was starting to claw its way into my mind.
What felt like hours later, I crouched through a hole in a wall of trees and took a minute to gaze out at the jumbled mass of deadfalls before me, seeking solace in the beauty of the moment. It was then that I noticed that there was a rather tan-looking rock in the jumble of downed trees. Thinking that I was about to trick myself with a big limestone rock, I pulled my 10X binos up to my face, and found my bull.
I climbed my way over the jumble of timber to the bull and looked back in the direction which I knew he had come running. Not 50-yards away, I could see my survey flagging fluttering in the breeze. Colton was there a minute later, and we took the obligatory photos to help us remember the day, and then set to work getting this bull off the mountain.
Things finally came together for me, and know that it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of everyone who offered their time, guidance, and patience to put up with me. I know that putting in all of those hours at the range paid off too, as I felt absolutely confident in my ability make an effective shot at any range. I have to say, I was proud of the double lung shot I made, and that resulted in a freezer full of meat for my family. Looking back on this hunt, I had a 1,001 elk lessons learned about bowhunting. I am looking forward to my next elk tag. Moreover, I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to spend time outside with exceptional people, while having some incredible experiences, and hope to again soon.