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The Greatest Show on Earth
October 1999
Dave Cooley

Two weeks before opening day I had come up to unit 4A to do a little scouting with two boys of my acquaintance. One was my nephew Chris, and the other was Justin, a ten-year-old boy from church whose mother is divorced and who isn't able to do much camping. We drove up to the area on Friday night and got up early Saturday morning to sit a tank, which had shown evidence of elk traffic the previous year. We found a few new tracks at the tank but were not visited that morning.

We left the tank about seven for some breakfast and then set out to build a blind next to a fence with a broken top strand on a ridge where the elk had obviously been crossing. The boys were helpful in dragging logs and branches, over which I stretched some camo netting for a makeshift blind.

The weather was clear and cool so we elected to hike south from the blind, walking along the ridge about halfway up, looking for another tank about a quarter mile away. We had stopped for a rest and were discussing the various differences and benefits of pocket- knives when Chris spied some elk coming down the ridge about 200 yards south of us. We sat quietly, although in the open, and watched them make their way down the ridge angling toward us. The boys whispered in hushed tones as we watched the elk. I was grateful that they were able to see some elk while we were there.

There were about eight cows in the group. About half way down the ridge they split up with one half angling on down the hill below us and the other half taking a trail along the side of the ridge which would bring them within 15 yards above us. The excitement was almost too much to bear. The elk came closer with every step and soon they were on the hill right above us.

The three of us sat there on the rock watching them as they paused about 15 yards away. Neither of the boys had even seen elk before let alone get this close. It was really exciting. Whether we were winded or the elk saw some movement we'll never know but after stopping in mid-stride they took off up the hill and were gone in a second. The boys were now more watchful than ever.

We continued south to look for the tank and then headed east back to the road and back to camp. After a lunch of sandwiches and soda we brought out the pellet gun and sharpened our shooting skills with some cans behind camp. Again that evening we sat the tank along the fence-line and again saw nothing. It would have been nice to have a coyote or bobcat come in to water but it was not to be. Dinner Saturday night was hot dogs and Bush's beans and with no complaints from the boys. There's something about roasting hot dogs over a camp-fire that boys just love.

We were back up early again Sunday and took a long hike along two canyons, which took us to lunch-time. While we saw no elk that morning, the trip had definitely been a success. We had built the blind, seen elk up close and enjoyed the country and weather and the escape from the city.

Two weeks later, my son Jason and I left the house late Thursday afternoon to rendezvous with a friend of mine from church at a campsite with several other men for the '98 elk hunt. I had given Steve my portable CB so that once we were in range he could guide us to the camp in the dark. They were camped in a small meadow just off of the road in four tent trailers. Seven of us had elk permits and we were all pretty excited about opening morning the next day. I had taken Jason out of school for Friday in hopes that he would be able to get a shot during the first three days of the hunt. We had no idea just how exciting that hunt would be.

Early Friday morning we drove to where I had camped two weeks previously, parked the truck and hiked to the blind in the dark. It was easy to find since we only had to follow the fence to the top of the next ridge. Jason sat on a small stool near the front of the blind and I sat on a log toward the back. Before it began to get light, we could hear the elk bugling in the distance and it sounded like they were coming our way. There were several bulls bugling and they were definitely coming closer.

As the eastern sky began to turn orange the bugling was still getting closer but seemed to be moving toward the ridge to the west of us. While we had hoped they would cross the fence by our blind, Steve was in a tree stand on the next ridge over. We thought, perhaps they would offer him a shot.

Sure enough, not long after we heard the elk pass to the west of us, Steve came huffing and puffing up the steep ridge to our blind saying he had shot one from his tree stand. It was a complete pass through shot so I left Jason in the blind saying I would call him with a coyote call if we needed his help and returned with Steve to track his elk. Jason is an amazing tracker and has helped me find elk I wouldn't have found without him. But, since Steve's shot sounded good, I expected a good blood trail and thought Jason might yet have a shot at an elk if he stayed in the blind.

Steve and I tracked the elk for about two hundred yards where the blood trail petered out. We had looked for about 15 minutes when I coyote called to Jason over on the next ridge and we resumed our search. Several hours later and another two hundred yards and the trail had stopped completely. Steve was really bummed. We elected to go back to camp and return with more help after lunch.

We were back shortly after lunch with the help of Dan who is a veteran elk hunter and began combing the ridge where the elk had disappeared. Dan is a quiet kind of guy who isn't always talking about his successes but he's taken his share of elk and deer and knows his stuff. Again, after several hours of searching, Jason and I left Steve and Dan and returned to the blind hoping the elk would use our ridge for their return trip north while Steve and Dan continued looking for his elk.

Having seen or heard nothing all evening, Jason and I returned to camp for the evening and a great dinner of fresh elk liver and onions courtesy of Albert, one of the others in camp, who had gotten his elk that morning. So much for opening day.

Saturday morning came early as we were camped far from where our blind was and we wanted to be there before daylight again. It seemed to take forever as the truck jostled over the rough road to the old campsite by the fence. We parked under the tree where the other boys and I had camped only two weeks ago. Once again, settled in the blind, we heard the elk come down from the north but then again they went to the west before crossing the fence. This time we would try to intercept them.

An old skid trail led from our blind to the south in the direction the elk had gone on Friday. As we hurried down the trail we could hear them ahead of us but could not catch up to them without making way too much noise. We got close enough to sight a couple of cows but were discovered before getting close enough for a shot. Once again we returned to camp for lunch but this time we had at least gotten within sight of them.

We now knew that the elk did not return to the north by that path in the evening so we decided to move farther to the west and set up some makeshift blinds on the ridge near where Steve had placed his tree stand. All was quiet as we waited in separate blinds until dark when we walked back out to the truck.

Sunday would be Jason's last day hunting, as we had to return to Phoenix so that he could go to school on Monday. Taking him out on Friday was the most school we wanted him to miss due to hunting. Well, it's the most school his mom wanted him to miss. We pondered several new options for the morning hunt but ended up going back to the same blind as before, and boy were we glad we did.

Sure enough we heard the elk coming down from the north again but this time they stayed on the ridge we were on. The excitement really began to build as we could see their antlers as they worked their way south to the fence where we were hidden. There were three bulls, one with only one antler, two five by fives and about eight or ten cows and calves.

It is impossible to describe the tension in the air. The bulls were bugling non-stop. The cows would trot over to one and then back to the other, all the while coming nearer the fence and the blind. They seemed to be everywhere. Jason and I just sat there in awe watching all this take place. Soon some of them were at the fence. Several of the cows had followed one bull down the draw to our right but the others had stayed with the other bull near the blind. The noise was tremendous. It was incredible! The bulls were just screaming at each other. I've never seen or heard anything like it. The excitement was almost too much to bear.

I decided to sneak out the back of the blind, to go after the ones that went down the draw and leave Jason to tend to the ones by the blind. I was sure that one of the cows would decide to cross the break in the fence and he would have an eighteen-yard shot.

Just as I was out of the blind a cow down by the draw decided to switch her allegiance back to the other bull and came up the other side of the fence-line headed toward the break and offered a good shot. She was about 20 yards away and I was behind a small juniper but I elected to pass, expecting Jason would get the shot after she went a little further.

As he moved to draw the bow, another cow farther up on the ridge spooked and jumped back a couple steps. He remained perfectly still except that I could see he was shaking. I knew exactly how he felt. I don't know if it is the adrenaline or what, but your heart is pounding like you think your having a heart attack, your mouth is all dry and it feels like if you don't do something you'll explode.

The cow calmed down a little and the other cow approached the break. As he drew his bow and was lining up the shot, I could see the arrow bouncing on the rest. Watching him shoot was more exciting than doing it myself without a doubt. The arrow went high and sailed over her back. The elk exploded in all directions and soon all was quiet.

Wow! This was indeed the greatest show on earth. In twelve years of hunting I have never been more excited. It was incredible! We attempted to go after the elk for awhile but they were long gone so we returned to camp to get ready for the trip back to Phoenix.

I returned to camp Monday afternoon with more ice and supplies intending to spend the full eleven days if that's what it would take. One fine addition to this elk camp was a shower that Steve had erected behind the tent trailer. It is fabricated from pipe and a tarp and assembles in minutes. There is nothing like a nice hot shower after spending a couple days in the woods. It's also quite nice if the ones you are sharing a tent trailer with takes one once in a while.

Tuesday morning I sat the blind again and not having any success decided to hunt over to the west some just to do something different. After crossing the draw by the blind I worked slowly up the other side, past Steve's stand, keeping into the wind. I keep a small squeeze bottle of baking soda in my pocket to check on the wind periodically as it changes with the terrain. There was a small stand of jack pines just to the north-west and I thought I heard some cow talk in that direction so I started to still- hunt over there.

In order to get there however, I had to cross a small clearing. Aside from a couple of large ponderosas, there was next to no cover. I didn't want to take the time to walk all the way around it and risk losing them so I started across, staying clear of the few ponderosas because they were surrounded by noisy pine cones. It would be like walking through a mine field. One false step and, crack, the whole forest knows where you are.

As soon as I was in the middle of the clearing I spied a large set of antlers coming through the jack pines my direction. I froze. There was nowhere to hide and I didn't want to spook the bull for fear he would run off with all of his cows in tow. So I stood there. Right out in the open.

He walked into the clearing, feeding as he went. He'd take a step or two, pick up a mouth-full of grass, look around a little and take another step. All the while getting closer and closer to me. In a few minutes he had closed the distance to about fifty yards and was still coming straight at me. I stood like a statue, bow hanging at my side, peeking out from under the brim of my hat, watching him, hoping he wouldn't spook. Now, this was exciting.

His cows were still out of sight behind him. He kept coming. He had to turn to one side or the other any time now. As he closed the distance to under ten yards I began to get worried. Part of me wanted to see just how close he would come, just for the excitement of it. At the same time, a more sensible part of me was looking at those huge pointy antlers and saying I'd better end this game of chicken before I was skewered. I was thinking of just how much damage that animal could do if he wanted. But I waited.

And still he came. He would stop, raise his head in the air with his antlers almost touching his rump, look at me sideways so that I could see the whites of his eyes, then, he'd resume eating. When he was only six or seven feet away he paused like he had been doing and looked straight at me. Good grief! We were exactly eye to eye and I could have touched him with my bow! He was that close. He cocked his big head to the side and looked again. I remember looking at his eyes. They were so big! Then, not knowing anything better to say to an elk, I said in a shaky voice "I think that's far enough!" He jerked his head back but still didn't spook.

Now I was really getting worried. This was one big animal and I was in his bedroom uninvited. And, as a matter of fact, I was interested in his cows. This time I raised my hands in the air as I yelled "get outa here". He trotted off back to his cows but still really didn't spook. I just stood there for a while. Now that was the greatest show on earth.

Wednesday was uneventful. Steve and I tried sitting different tanks in morning and evening but were not having much luck. Thursday, after sitting my blind in the morning and hearing the elk go on by to the south again, I decided that they must be bedding in one of the small canyons down there and I would go find them.

I went over to the ridge that they seemed to be using most of the time and still-hunted quietly south. I found a trail where they had crossed back across the draw and followed it. Sure enough, on the east side of the draw were fresh beds, lots of them. Now I had a plan. The next morning I would come in from the south and meet them there.

While discussing the hunt Thursday night I told Steve of my plan. So Friday we took the road that I had walked out the previous morning. We parked the truck and walked north a ways, then crossed a draw to the east and immediately found ourselves in very dense, cool cover with lots of elk sign and fresh beds. We hid ourselves and waited.

When nothing came down the draw we decided to look around and found another hunter walking a skid trail, coming from the north where the elk should have come from. Well, that explained the disappearing elk. Now, having some time on our hands we thought we would explore some of the other two-tracks in that area so we took one that headed farther east and spooked two cows as we came around a bend.

Things were looking up but we needed to be more careful. We then snuck up on a bull and watched him for a while hoping he might have some cows with him and then sat down for a snack and to discuss what to do next. Just as we were deciding to split up and meet back at the truck I spotted movement through the trees in the direction we had been moving.

We couldn't tell if they were bulls or cows but we quietly stowed away our food and began to stalk them. There were at least two and as we closed the distance we could tell they were cows. We decided that I would sneak up behind them and Steve would go off to the left in the direction they were moving in case I spooked them. Having recently read Stalking and Still Hunting by G. Fred Asbell, I put on my best effort. He would have been proud.

Slowly, quietly, I took a few steps at a time. Toe first then heel. Weight on the rear foot until the front one was solid. The cows had split up now and only one was in sight. The others had gone in Steve's direction. So far so good. One of us should get a shot. I continued my stalk.

Each time she would put her head down to feed I would take a step or two. When she would look up, I would freeze. It seemed to take forever but I was soon only thirty yards away but directly behind and still closing the distance. The timber was thick with small trees and twigs and would make a shot difficult. I had to get closer and more to the side.

I slowly started moving to the right to make for a quartering away shot. I was now about twenty yards close and she still didn't have a clue I was there. Just a few more steps. No, now there is another small tree in the way. Another step. At this angle I will have to shoot in behind the rib cage, aiming for the far shoulder. I figured the arrow would go through the liver and at least one lung before stopping at the far shoulder.

I quietly drew my bow and, instead of the jitters, I am strangely calm. Earlier in the week I was shaking like a leaf as I drew on one from the blind. Somehow this was different. I was not shaking. I was deliberate. The twenty yard pin settled on the spot, paused for a second, and the arrow was away.

It felt like a good shot and the Zwickey Eskimo tipped XX75 buried to the fletching exactly where I wanted it to. The elk crashed off to the left and I wondered if Steve saw her run. Then it was quiet. I paced off the distance as eighteen yards and marked the spot with a lucky piece of surveyor's tape given me by Albert in camp after he shot his elk on opening day. I knew it was a good hit so we began tracking.

Although the hit was good there was absolutely no blood trail. Not a drop. Her hoof marks were easily distinguishable from the others because they were deeper. Steve thought that she had circled back to the right so he took a shortcut in that direction and I followed her steps in the soft earth one at a time making a trail with biodegradable tape.

In about 15 minutes Steve called and said he had found blood. I rushed to where he was standing and there was the cow, 110 yards from where she was shot. After tagging the elk I knelt down and thanked God for this gift of his great creation and for providing food for our family, for good health and the privilege of spending time in the outdoors.

While all of the elk that I have killed have affected me emotionally, this one was, for some unknown reason, the worst. It is a feeling of both great sadness and happiness at the same time. I cannot explain it. It just is.

To top off an already great hunt, complete with the greatest show on earth, she fell right beneath a huge juniper that was only about 50 yards from a skid trail. Steve was able to use the GPS to go directly to the truck and then back to where I had begun field dressing the elk. We were able to put a snatch block in the tree and use the Ramsey winch to pull her up for skinning and quartering. By noon we were back in camp with the meat cooling in the air-conditioned 4Runner.

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