As many guides know it is hard to find a balance between work and play. The season is only so long, and sacrificing a week or two for some personal time in the field can be a difficult decision financially speaking. Last season, I managed to take off a few weeks at the end of the rifle season here in Montana as I had some new guiding opportunities open up in Sonora, Mexico that would make up for the lost wages. To be honest, I needed the break, and was excited to get some personal time on the mountain, to hunt how and where I wanted, and not be held back by anything or anyone.
Last year, my guiding season started in New Mexico in September and went full bore into the middle of November in Montana. A lot of long days with a variety of people, both fun and irritating, left me pretty ragged and needing some isolation on the mountain.
The three weeks leading up this time off had been especially difficult. I’d been guiding rifle elk hunts in my home state of Montana and getting my ass handed to me. I had seen a total of three mature bulls in those three weeks and only managed to kill one of them. And on top of that, it had been a total fluke. The bull was just standing off an old logging road and stood there as we got out of the truck, confirmed he was legal and shot him. It is still the only elk I could have loaded whole into my truck on National Forest land here in Montana.
By the end of that last hunt, I was more than happy to get out on my own and hunt some of the more rugged areas I rarely get to experience these days. I took a few days off after guiding, reset my mind and body, and woke up at 2:30 a.m. for what would be my finest day in elk country.
Some things are meant to be, falling into place, or fate as some would say. I choose to believe certain events are gifts, divine experiences given by the great spirit. In my hunting career, I have been privy to a few of these days on the mountain. Each one of them has seemed too perfect — being completely keyed into the environment, spot-on timing, perfect shooting. These moments make up for the days, or in my case weeks, unsuccessfully trying to locate bull elk.
I hadn’t been able to make it to the trailhead that morning, deep early November snowfall had made the road impassable for everything except a snowmobile. Even making it as far as I did was downright terrifying. The pucker factor was off the charts. I probably could have shit out a diamond when I got out of the truck. I was close to calling it a day after nearly taking the short way down the mountain when I was forced to turn the Tacoma around on a steep out-sloping section of road. But being stubborn I told myself to quit bitching and get on with killing a bull.
It was one of those days you could feel the kill at your fingertips. The unexplainable feeling that you know you are going to have success. I have developed a keen awareness of that feeling — the hunter’s intuition if you will. So when I felt it rising in me throughout the morning I trusted what my gut was telling me. That is a skill every hunter can and will struggle with at some point in their career, following your gut when your mind is breaking things down analytically and telling you there is no chance in hell.
As I crested the ridge nearly 1500 feet above where I had abandoned my truck, Jupiter, Mars and a crescent moon were in perfect alignment just over the horizon. Alpenglow began to consume me and the snow-laden high country, as the sun dawned on a bluebird November day. It was, for lack of a better word, perfection.
The cosmos has always deeply stirred me, and I was reminded of all the amazing experiences I’d been a part of in the months leading up to this day. Alaska. Montana. New Mexico. All the epic highs, and of course the lows…the last three weeks were the worst of my guiding career. I had begun to question my legitimacy as a professional guide, killing only two animals out of the six clients I had taken out in Montana’s general rifle season. But today was new, fresh and glorious, and as I stated before, I simply knew I was going to kill a big bull.
Sheltered behind an ancient fir I changed layers, as a savage north wind was scouring the ridge with thirty mile per hour gusts. As I changed, I wondered how I was going to shoot much beyond bow range in these conditions. I made my way down the ridge, stopping for a moment to glass a large south facing aspect.
Seven elk fed near the bottom of the opening, three-quarters of a mile away. I hastily got the spotter out and dialed in, the wind making it agonizingly difficult to hold steady. Seven bulls came into focus, one of which was a monster, a large non-typical 7×7. I saw all I needed to see. I threw my spotter and tripod into my bag and started raging down the ridge below me, not knowing if I would be able to work into position for a shot, or for that matter if the wind would die down enough to permit such a thing.
Once I dropped below the tree line I lost all visuals, I was going on full blown instinct. Ten minutes down the ridge I saw him through a small hole in the timber, still feeding but now only 519 yards distant. I was getting everything but comfortable for a shot. I looked further down the ridge and decided to chance it and get closer in hopes I would find a better spot to shoot from. I quietly worked down the ridge, and my instinct had been spot on. I came to a small level outcropping 365 yards from the bull. I threw my bag down, racked a shell, and got settled in.
Laying prone, I was rock solid, not only was his rack enormous but he was a true heavyweight, probably tipping the 1000 pound mark. I thought briefly about my hold, the perfect trigger pull, and the follow through. I eased the safety off, settled just behind his front shoulder and sent it. The 178-grain bullet hit him hard, he staggered down the hill ten yards and I was reloaded and ready when he paused, this time holding dead on his shoulder. He had taken his last step, the bullet dropped him and he began to tumble down the steep hillside. He slid 200 feet down the mountain before his heavy antlers dug in and stopped him.
“The bull of a lifetime,” I told myself as I lay there, watching the bull in his final resting place. What a journey, that had led me to that moment in time. Countless days afield guiding and hunting and I had finally killed a very large, very mature bull. I have guided several giants over the last seven years but until that moment, I had yet to put one of that caliber in my own crosshairs.
He had chosen one of the finest November days to give himself to me, and for that moment I am eternally grateful. I hope I am lucky enough to leave this world on a day as beautiful. I have felt for a long time that animals give themselves to a person that is true of heart and desire. One unselfishly there on the mountain for the experience and state of being, rather than solely for the act of killing.
I was taking it all in, slowly maneuvering the deadfall en route to the bull. “Did that really just happen?” I kept asking over and over. I had never thought I would unearth a bull with that kind of character. The MASS, the split 5th, those whale tails. When I got to him it was very evident I wouldn’t be able to break him down as he lay. The slope was every bit of 55 degrees and there was nothing I could tie him off to, so I gently worked his body downhill of his rack and let gravity take over. He began to slide-fast. His rack hung up in the small fir trees 150 feet below and his weight had him firmly secured in that position. I could not for the life of me get him free.
It was one of the more difficult animal breakdowns I have had to endure. Doing it solo sucks in general, and it sucks real bad when you can’t flip the bull after you have removed the meat from the top side. I had no choice but to remove the entrails and then try to saw through the eight-inch fir tree his rack was firmly wrapped around with my small hand saw.
I was finally able to free him, but not without considerable effort. It was then I was really able to take in the true mass, character, and beauty of his headgear. There was no ground shrinkage, no second-guessing.
I have gotten to the point as a hunter that I would rather eat my tag than harvest an animal I am not completely satisfied with. After all, taking a life is not something that should be taken lightly. This bull truly embodied the effort I had put forth this season. I was and still am profoundly grateful for the life taken, a life that now will live on through me. The moments of truly feeling alive on the mountain are the moments we all are hopefully searching for out there — all too often they are short-lived. In the kill, I think we feel the most alive, most cognizant of the fragility of our own being. It helps us better understand mortality.