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Jason's First Elk
October 2003
Dave Cooley

My hunting partner Steve and I had done our pre-season scouting two weeks prior to the hunt and had identified some well used water tanks and tree stand sites. The bulls had already started to bugle so we were encouraged about the upcoming hunt. We arrived in the early afternoon the day before opening Friday to finish setting up camp and to get ready for the hunt. Jason had to work until 4:00 and so did not arrive until after 8:00 that evening. Our plan was for Jason and I to set up for the morning hunt on a knoll south of camp where I had shot two elk in previous years. In the evening, the plan was to sit a new tank that Steve and I had discovered using my new Magellan GPS and the TOPO! software I had installed on my computer this year. This seemed a year destined for success.

We were up at 0-dark thirty. Steve set out for his tree stand and Jason and I drove south to where we would hike into the secret knoll. The bright full moon allowed walking through the dark without flashlights and we soon found a couple spots where we could have good visibility without being too conspicuous. As we sat there we could hear at least nine bulls bugling all around us in the lower areas but nothing came up on top. It was pretty easy to identify the older bulls as each has his own unique sound. The younger bulls all sound pretty much the same. One thing is for sure. None of them sound like the textbook calls you hear on a tape. I knew that at least one of the older bulls had a cow with him as I could hear her mew occasionally. Around 9:30 we ventured around the knoll a bit but the bulls had moved on to the north taking whatever cows that were around with them. We returned to camp to find that Steve had seen a cow near his stand but it did not come close enough for a shot.

After a lunch of foot-long hot-dogs and beans we showered and took it easy for the rest of the afternoon until we left for the evening hunt on the tanks. Steve spent the time in a tree stand over what we have named Good Tank. He shot a 4X4 bull there opening day last year. Jason and I climbed into a ground blind next to the new tank which we christened Good Tank 2. Neither of us had anything come in during shooting light although Steve had a 6X6 bull come in a little after 7:00. Evidently the full moon was working to our disadvantage and elk were watering later in the evening.

Our plan for the next morning was for Jason and I to take up spots on either side of the knoll, down where the elk were the previous morning. He would sit by a large tree on the east side where we hike in and I would go over to the other side and wait for some activity. My plan was to sneak close to the largest bull that I heard bugling and see if he had any cows with him. I knew that if any of the bulls had cows it would be the largest. Their bugling was mostly off to the west so I began to still hunt in that direction. The first bull I closed in on turned out to be a nice 4X4. Nice but evidently not nice enough to solicit the attention of a cow. Then I heard the bellow of a monster up on the next ridge west so off I went in pursuit. I love this part of the hunt.

After about a half hour of sneaking I was able to catch glimpses of him on the ridge and sure enough there was at least one cow with him. Now I had to close the distance to the cow. They are much more wary than the bulls who’s sole focus is the cows.

She was beginning to angle down the hill to a point about 30 yards in front of me so I stopped, shielded by some skimpy jack-pines. Just before she would have come into the open I drew my bow. She stopped and looked right in my direction. Right through those trees. I had been had. The game was up. She barked once and trotted up the ridge to her sweetheart. So much for that one. It was certainly exciting though and at least I now knew we had some cows in the area. That was the first one we’d seen.

My strategy now was clear. I would continue pursuing the largest bulls that I heard in search of their harems. I continued to hunt farther north, following the calls of the larger bulls for the next couple hours and then began hunting back toward where I had left Jason on the east side of the hill. At one point I stopped to shed some clothing and sit on a stump to eat my bagel and get a drink of water. I heard some footsteps behind me and, even though I knew better, my curiosity got the better of me and I turned my head around to find a cow elk, all by herself, staring at me from about 30 yards away. We stared at each other for a few seconds before she decided that I wasn’t her type and trotted away. Foiled again. The temptation to look for the source of the noise might come from all of the bears we have seen in that area.

When I arrived back at the big tree and didn’t find Jason there I sat down to wait. It was then that I distinctly heard him yell “Dad?” I looked around but couldn’t see him. After awhile I headed back toward the truck figuring he might meet me there. While unloading my bow and eccoutrement into the back of the 4Runner Jason drove up in his usual style, at warp nine. “I’ve got one down he said”. “You shot one?” I answered. I could hardly believe it. “Yep, but she’s a long way from here and I didn’t know how to mark the spot on the GPS” he said. Wow, I couldn’t believe it. This was terrific. It’s what I had been praying for for a long time, ever since we were drawn. But then reality set in. We still had to find the spot where he was when he shot it, track and find it, and then get it to the truck. The real work was about to begin.

Jason had shot the elk along an old skid trail very near where I had been hunting that morning. In fact, we were probably less than 500 yards apart since we were both pursuing the same bunch of larger bulls in hopes of finding some associated cows. He had marked the spot with a white handkerchief and then, using the GPS, hiked a mile directly back to camp, got in his truck, and drove to where I was waiting.

We drove back to camp and picked up the bone saw and some water and then drove around to where my topo showed was the nearest road to where he thought he had shot the elk. For some reason neither of us thought to throw the large gambrel hook in the 4Runner. Big mistake. While the winch on the truck does a terrific job of pulling an elk up a tree, it needs something to attach to. The gambrel hook is home-made out of rebar and over 30 inches wide. It’s perfect for elk. Jason had taken distance readings with the GPS both to where we had left my truck and to camp. So, using those measurements, we triangulated to where we thought the shot was taken. After hiking east from the truck we found the skid trail that he shot from and shortly afterward, the handkerchief tied to a tree limb. We soon picked up a scant blood trail and about 20 minutes later found the elk. She was a beautiful animal that I later aged at 5 ½ years old using the book from AZG&F. The shot had been perfect if a little high and she went less than 100 yards.

After tagging the animal and taking a couple pictures I said a silent prayer thanking God for providing this animal for our family and for granting my wish that Jason tag an animal this year. He is truly a wonderful provider giving us so much more than we deserve. We finished cleaning the elk and then hiked back to the road and the truck, marking our way with surveyor tape to enable us to return with the truck to where the elk lay. Fortunately there was a large, old, dead tree near the elk that we could tie the winch pulley to and we only had to drag the elk a few yards to get to it. It was then that we discovered I had forgotten the gambrel hook. Good grief! We debated skinning the elk on the ground but were able to improvise by cutting a stout log about 4 inches in diameter and with some discarded APS fish tape fabricated one that worked fine, although we kept a wary eye on it and the old tree limb in case one of them decided to break.

With both of us skinning and sawing, the job was soon finished and the four elk quarters were in the back of the air-conditioned 4Runner. I was using a new Buck Folding Alpha Hunter knife that has an ATS-34 blade of Rockwell 60 hardness. It sailed through the skinning job with ease and still shaved hair off of my arm when we were done. The gut hook also did a great job of opening up the elk for cleaning and other hide cutting chores. We had the meat to the butcher in Payson by early afternoon and I was back in camp that evening to prepare for another five days of hunting.

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