Well, it finally happened. Delvonie drew a big bull tag! In Utah, it seems like this has become almost a once in a lifetime hunt, and for Deli it almost definitely is. Luckily, we have quite a bit more experience hunting elk than when I drew my tag about 12 years ago. Her tag was for a Muzzleloader hunt at the end of September in an area where we've been spending considerable time chasing elk (and deer) the past few years. Even with the knowledge of past seasons, with the help of my brother Jeff we put up some trail cams to try and locate a few good bulls. To say we found a few would be a huge understatement!
As the anticipation for the hunt built, we kept looking at pictures of bulls and talked about what kind of bull Deli would like to come home with. Even though she repeatedly told my brothers that she was going to shoot the first bull she saw (just to annoy them), the ideal animal started to take shape in her imagination. When we finally set up camp a day and a half before the hunt started, one last trail-cam check and shooting the guns was all that was left to do. My boys had both drawn deer permits for the same unit, so grandpa came up to help them find a deer while Deli and I were chasing elk.
Opening morning was finally here! We left a vehicle parked at the bottom of an old closed road and drove up to the top to start. The plan was to hunt our way downhill all morning. Right when we got out of the truck we heard a bugle in the opposite direction that we were planning on going. We hurried and loaded the gun and headed off in the direction of the bugle. When we got within what seemed like a good distance, we started calling. The bull returned our calls and I tried to get him as worked up as possible! He was bugling and raking trees, so I bugled and raked trees just trying to challenge him enough that he'd leave his cows and come check us out. It was at this moment that another vehicle pulled in behind us. I hurried down the hill to let them know that we were in the area (since we had parked with the intention of heading the opposite direction) and they graciously backed out even though they had the same tag. By the time they started their vehicle back up and drove away the bull had wandered pretty far from us.
With the bull moving off, we decided to go back to our original plan with the hope that their path would cross ours just down the ridge. This wasn't just blind hope since we'd seen elk do this in years past, but you never can be sure of what an elk will do. We worked our way slowly down the ridge, calling to elk off of both sides of the ridge but nothing committed to coming into view. An exciting morning hunt came to an end without an elk spotted, but hearing all those bugles and coming close to calling in the elk first thing in the morning had us anticipating the evening hunt.
Back to camp for lunch and a quick nap before heading out for the evening. I know some people would be critical of our decision to take a mid-day break, but Deli had been very clear about enjoying her hunt and nothing is more enjoyable than spending time with family in camp. We ate like kings and enjoyed each other's company. Well rested, we headed back out for the evening hunt.
We decided to try a different spot for our evening hunt, but on the way to the trailhead, we spotted a bull just off the road. Deli jumped out and tried to get a good look but the bull didn't stick around too long. She said that he didn't look like a 'shooter' anyway, but I still wished we could've gotten a better look at him. We decided to head down a nearby closed road that would circle us around the ridge the bull had gone up and over. On the backside was a huge meadow where elk like to hang and we'd seen some good bulls on one of the trail-cams. We never caught up for another look at that bull, but we did hear a few bugles that made for an excellent end to a great first day.
The next morning we went back to the top of the same ridge that we went down the first morning, hoping that we'd be able to get a bull to come in. Unlike the previous morning, this hike started out quiet but as we worked our way down the closed road we started hearing some bugles off both sides. We picked out the one that sounded like it was the closest and moved into position. After a few minutes of stalemate, we decided to get aggressive and move towards the bull to do some more calling and I began raking a tree. We checked the wind and based on where he was and where the wind was going we adjusted our position so he wouldn't wind us before coming into range. I've called to elk for years, but I'll never get over how they suddenly appear much closer than you thought they were without a sound. This six-point bull appeared below us and walked up slowly. It only took moments for him to get into range, but we knew pretty early on that this was a young bull and not what Deli was looking for. So, we used this as an opportunity to practice getting him as close as possible and got into position for a shot. Everything went perfectly. The bull angled his way up the hill, passing by us broadside within range for what would've been an easy shot.
The rest of the hike was spent calling to far off bugles, but the bulls weren't interested in playing so we called Atley for a ride and headed back to camp. Another big lunch, a nap, and some epic Dime-Hockey in camp before we headed out to check another area for the evening. The plan for the evening was to walk a new ridge where we've seen and heard a lot of elk in the past. In fact, during the muzzleloader deer/cow elk hunt the year before Deli and I had called in a nice bull elk.
Unfortunately, there wasn't much of anything happening on that ridge or the small canyon that you can see from it so we backed out and tried a different spot. We decided to check an area where I'd never hunted until last year in the middle of the last day of the Spike-Elk Hunt. I called in a nice bull that was alone when Wes and Dad started honking the truck horn to get me to come back. Then we saw a raghorn on the drive out (probably coming to check out the commotion from me and that nice bull). He spooked when he saw the truck but came right back after I called. Of course, when you're on a spike hunt everything but a spike will come in when you call. Jeff and I had checked on this area while scouting and we found a tree that had been uprooted by a bull.
We parked where a finger ridge would get us out on a north-facing slope and made some calls. The elk sounded like they were in the bottom and our wind was perfect to slowly drop in towards them. This canyon is a big one, so we wanted to get a bull to come up and meet us halfway. Several bulls were below us bugling, some up canyon and some down, with at least one directly below. It didn't seem like they wanted to come up and play when suddenly there was an elk off to our right. I couldn't tell what it was, but when it moved its head I was excited to see antlers! My camera caught what turned out to be a spike that came in close and hung out for almost 30 minutes within range. Just before dark, we decided to start heading back to the truck and took a route that almost followed where the spike had gone. This allowed us to get eyes on what turned out to be a raghorn bull that was calling nearby.
After an exciting evening, it's tempting to go right back into the same area, but I wanted to give our 'typical' morning routine one more chance. Calling in the six-point the morning before helped us to stick to this plan. We drove a different route to the ridge just to see if anything was happening in that area when we spotted a nice six-point bull with some cows just off the road. Deli quickly got out of the truck but struggled to get a primer in before he gathered his cows and dropped off an extremely steep side of the mountain, never to be seen again. This was a great bull, and Deli would've been really happy to get a shot, but we were both glad that we weren't trying to trail a bull off that side of the mountain. With nothing left to do with that bull, we parked the truck and started off down the ridge without hearing any elk.
Once we got to the area where we had called in the bull the day before we started hearing bugles again, so we got set-up (we even put out the decoy) and started calling. One bull made his way to us quicker than I expected and instead of circling around where he would've been in plain sight of both me and Deli, he came on a straight line. When Deli saw him she made the decision to pull the trigger. I didn't even see the Bull's antlers, but Deli insisted that he was a mature bull. We waited about 30 minutes, continuing to call in hopes that it would keep the bull close by if he was wounded. We looked everywhere for blood and followed his tracks for quite a ways, but found nothing. A bull that we think was him started bugling again soon after the shot, but he wasn't going to come in and give us another opportunity. We finished our hike down the ridge, feeling dejected despite our successful morning. Once we back at camp we shot Deli's muzzleloader to check, and it was not sighted in. We're not sure what happened, but we got it re-adjusted and ready for the evening hunt.
We decided to hike into the area that we heard all the bulls the evening before, but from another access point. This was an area that I'd never hiked to, but we knew it would be a tough one. Once we got to the bottom of the canyon, after going down some steep hills, it was obvious why the elk were hanging out here...There was water!
We hiked down far enough that we were sitting directly downhill from where we'd been the night before. There was a great looking meadow and a wallow next to a running creek. We set up the decoy and got comfortable. Five different bulls responded to my cow calling! I decided not to bugle, but instead, we tried to figure out where each bull was and not rush into chasing after one. Two bulls were in the draw right in front of us, one was up-canyon from us, one further down-canyon, and what we figured was a spike was on our North facing slope where we'd sat the night before. Our wind was perfect for all but the one down canyon.
One of the bulls up the draw in front of us sounded like he was getting closer (as did the spike) so I just kept on cow calling. A nice-looking bull crossed the hill in front of us about 150 yards away (out of range) and circled down into the canyon bottom just above us. He was just out of sight once he hit the bottom but I got enough of a look at him that I whispered to Deli that I thought he was a 'shooter'. I didn't expect him to come right in since he'd already seen our clearing from the hillside above, but maybe he'd seen the decoy? The bull came right down the middle of our clearing, pausing when Deli tried to re-adjust her gun, twice. He looked right at us, then kept walking towards the wallow. Once he reached the water he casually took a drink and Deli took her shot. She hit him in the neck, dropping him right into the wallow! Deli hurried and reloaded, but the bull was down for the count and Deli had her first elk ever!
A great shot had ended Deli's hunt with a great bull. Unfortunately, with his last struggling efforts, the bull had dug himself deep into the mud. We tried everything I could think of, but the bull wouldn't budge. I decided to try and get as much of him out of the mud as we could, thinking that if we could lighten the carcass maybe we could pull it out of the mud. A lot of work goes into breaking down an elk even in the best spots, but trying to break one down when he is stuck in a couple feet of mud is extremely challenging. I removed a front quarter, a rear quarter, one back strap, and his head while he was still stuck in the mud. Even with all that weight gone we still couldn't budge him. With our batteries quickly dying we decided to hang the meat that we'd removed further up the canyon towards our truck and come back in the morning with a winch to retrieve the rest.
The hike out was brutal. We really should've taken more time to find a good route out of the canyon. With our last batteries about to die, we decided to stash the head (the one part of the elk we tried to get out that night) and climb out wherever we could. The deadfall made it almost impossible with logs piled up as high as my head on a very steep incline, but in the end, we made it out. When we were grunting out the last couple hundred yards, which were mostly clearings, our last light finally died. Luckily for us, my Dad had gotten worried and came to find us. He was parked by our truck with his headlights blaring. When we made it back to the trucks, he told us that Atley had been successful that evening too! He had shot his third deer, his second while with Grandpa, a nice little two-point.Lots of excitement, but the next morning was all about getting the work done and hoping nothing had gotten to our meat. The boys, Deli, and I all went to retrieve the elk (we had to insist that Grandpa not try it, so he headed into town to buy ice). We found a good route and made quick work of the hike in. Even with the winch and some proper ropes, it took quite a bit of work to get the elk out of the mud. Once he was out we finished breaking down the carcass and saving as much meat as possible. With the pack-frames loaded to the max, I was worried that we'd have a tough time getting everyone out safely. Deli and the boys all did great, with Atley going above and beyond. Once he had his load back to the truck, he turned around and went back to help his mother. Deli begrudgingly gave him the pack and he brought it the last couple hundred yards to the truck while Cado and I unloaded our packs into the truck. I had to make one more trip into the canyon for the head, and Atley came with me. It was a huge help to have him there helping to get the head onto the pack. He also helped me navigate with the wide load and soon we were back up the hill to the truck. Good thing too, my legs were completely dead and shaking after the 11.5 hours of processing and packing the elk out.
Back to camp where we got Deli's elk and Atley's deer into coolers and tried to recover from the pack out. It was a great feeling having accomplished what we set out to do! The only thing left was to try and get Cado a buck, so after a much-needed nap, Grandpa took us out to try for the complete tag-out. For those of you that might not know, my Dad is good luck. It seems like every time we head out with him we see something, and that evening was no exception. We saw several deer, and Caden even got a couple of shots at small bucks but didn't connect. We decided that we'd try one more time in the morning before heading home. Again, Grandpa's luck came through and Caden got two more shots, this time at a good-sized 3-point buck. He didn't connect, but just having those opportunities was pretty awesome and a great way to end out our hunting for the year. On the way back to camp we ran into the guys from opening morning. They had shot an elk the night before and were just getting it back to their camp, we ended up talking to them for a few minutes, sharing our stories. They were really nice guys, and I was happy for them. They even let me take a picture of their elk:
Cleaning up and coming home when we could've stayed for a couple more days seemed a little weird, but it was really nice to be able to get everything cleaned up, the meat all processed, and be ready to get back to regular life. I even had time to do a Euro-Mount on Deli's elk while taking care of everything else. I know that some people don't understand the keeping of antlers, or 'trophies' as some like to call them, but I like having a reminder of the best hunt that I've ever been on with the most important people in my life.
Hope you're as lucky,