I don’t like it when hunters give names to the animals they pursue. The Fireball Bull. The Fenceline Buck. Steve. It implies a familiarity and a routine that doesn’t do justice to the wildness of the animal or the chase. It might work for those of us who have whitetails living in the backyard, but it doesn’t work in the places I hunt. I’m lucky if I ever see the same animal twice. However, I’m going to compromise. I don’t have a choice, because the story is just too good not to tell. It’s the story of one of the few times when I’ve seen an animal repeatedly over the course of a trip. This is the story of a bull who ran his mountain like a dictator, and who managed to get under my skin. If ever I was going to give an animal a name, it would have been this one, but I won’t. I’ll just say that he was a tyrant. Not “Tyrant,” but a tyrant.
Every two years my father and I fly to the Northern Rockies of British Columbia to hunt elk, goats, and sheep. Elk are high on the priority, mainly because it’s hard to resist an animal that screams back at you. Elk hunting is a two-way street; a conversation that demands participation on both fronts.
One of the younger bulls in the herd, shortly
before being run off by the tyrant.
This year we had the company of other friends, and our party was a total of five. Our trip began like many others, the tin can winging its way into a miserable excuse of a landing strip, alarms flashing. We set up our wall tent at the end of the strip, unpacked our gear, and settled in. Our plan was to capitalize on the three-point elk season early and get a bull down to fill the freezers. After that anything was up for grabs.
My father had gone through a dry spell the last couple of years that had resulted in an overly itchy trigger finger, so he was at the front of the line for shooters. My brother-in-law was next, this being his first fly-in trip. I was happy to bring up the rear and fill my boots helping these two bring home the meat. The other two gentlemen in our party were non-hunters who had somehow decided that packing insanely heavy loads of meat for ten days sounded like a great idea for a vacation. We weren’t complaining.
We camped on the narrow, spruce-covered margin where the talus slopes falling from the vertical limestone ramparts slid into the lake. When glassing this lake from above, the September light rendered it a pool of molten lead, the loons leaving inscriptions traced on its surface. This was a magical place. The lake received a fair amount of hunting pressure along its shores, and so our tactical plan called for us to immediately spike camp a day’s hike back from the lake and try our chances in an alpine bowl.
A lot of times the phrase “top of the world” gets
over used. This isn’t one of those times.
We met with early success at that first spike camp, my Dad filling his tag on a four-point elk that played cat-and-mouse with him in the balsam fir before the 7mm round caught him in the ribs at 50 yards. The rest of us were settled in to a pocket of spruce on the ridge above watching the play unfold. That’s where I first saw the bull I referenced at the outset.
He appeared as a dot on the horizon that only a hunter would notice. He was sky-lined on the very top of the furthest mountain range we could access from our location, and I could tell before I threw the spotter on him that he was a bull. Not just any bull, but the bull. I pulled him into 60x focus and caught my breath. He was the biggest bull I’d ever seen, but it wasn’t even the size of him that quickened the pulse — it was his presence. You could feel his arrogance from three miles away. The stiff-legged walk, the turn of his head, the dull sheen in his eyes, and the way he ran his herd. Even more, he maintained complete disregard for his exposure. This was no benevolent king, carefully protecting the herd. He was a tyrant, pacing back and forth along the ridge top, in full view of the world, lording his position over his empire; enforcing with fear. This was his country, and everyone knew it. Part of his confidence came from his position, which was completely unassailable. The entire ridge he was on didn’t have a stitch of cover on it, was higher and further than any other elk was willing to go, and was steep to boot. Really steep. The vertical shale slopes gave way into slopes barely able to hold grass. This was country the sheep and goats called home, and an elk had no business there. So, we ogled over him and then pushed him from our minds, focusing on the elk we had on the ground.
Feeling small…and loving it. There’s something about hunting in
the mountains that puts you in your place.
Packing meat back to base camp the next day, we came across the only other hunters we would encounter on the trail. Doubled over under our loads and propped up by our rifles, we shot the breeze for a few minutes. Before we went our respective ways, one of the other hunters asked if we had seen the bull up on the ridge. We nodded. It’s rare that hunters will share information on animals they’ve seen when they are both working the same area, but he wasn’t afraid to tell us he had seen him, probably because he had no intention of making a play on this bull. His words were, “Anyone going after that one is taking their life in their hands.” We said our good-byes and moved on.
We filled the next five days by getting the meat back to camp and trying to rustle up a second bull in a more reasonable position. The season had switched to bulls with six points or more, and the going proved tough. Attempt after attempt to lure the big bulls from their timber beds ended in the flash of an antler disappearing into the bush, and many of the bulls that did show up lacked the all-important sixth point. We attacked the mountains relentlessly, finding new ground and disregarding elevation and weather conditions. We left each day before dawn, and when we crawled in to camp each night well after dark, our bodies collapsed onto our bedrolls, muscles quivering, the lactic acid swelling our knee and ankle joints. The tents stank of wet socks and sweaty, unshaven men. During these five days, the bull taunted us repeatedly from his throne high in the clouds.
Walking the high line…this bull took us on a journey we were
more familiar with on mountain goat hunts.
Mental toughness is a critical component of any hunt, and we were losing ours. Beyond the physical limits to which we were pushing ourselves, it was the repeated “almost” situations that wore us down. One morning we woke to two inches of snow on the ground, the first of the season. Knowing this would get the bulls into the open, we threw our packs together and headed for tree line. It wasn’t long before we had a bull calling, and the spotter confirmed that he was legal. Three hours and too many missed shots later (we had forgotten the rangefinder and vastly underestimated the distance), and the bull had vanished. I’m generally an optimist, but that morning the bottom dropped out, and we made our way back to camp and collapsed next to the fire, seeking our redemption in the bottoms of our sleeping bags.
Later, we pow-wowed around the fire and kicked around several ideas for how to spend our remaining three days. The banter went back and forth, but we were dancing around the issue. In our hearts, we all knew what needed to be done; we just didn’t want to admit it. There was a long pause, the Fireball made its final round, and we finally acknowledged that there was only one play here. We needed to try for the bull on the ridge. The tyrant demanded attention. The deck was stacked in his favor, but there was a quiet confidence that settled into our group — and the satisfaction of committing to an extraordinary challenge.
It doesn’t matter where you are, the place you make your fire is home.
The next morning, we packed our bags and headed out. There’s an efficiency that kicks in after many days living out of a pack, and we made good time on the trail with light packs. Late that afternoon we made camp on the banks of a creek that afforded a view of the steep face the tyrant called home. We dragged in a few old snags, lit up a proper fire, and got the coffee going. That evening the sun sank and lit the willows on our river bank in crimson and bright yellows. It was a good evening to be in the mountains, and our hearts were full.
The bull showed up like clock-work, peeling around the corner of the mountain at the tail end of his group of cows. A few other bulls drifted out of the lower timber, and he put the run on them in a hurry, spitting and screaming. This wasn’t simply a dominant bull reminding the others who was in charge; this was a highly insecure megalomaniac working out his personal issues.
We watched him for half an hour before we lost the light and worked out the challenges: He only showed up a half-hour before sunset; he was a three-hour vertical climb from camp; there wasn’t a stitch of cover on the face he favored; he had a large group of cows that he pushed in front of him, ready to sound the alarm; we had no idea what the wind would do up there; and finally, the face he was on was so steep I didn’t like the odds of what would happen if we did plug him.
Being successful is hunting hard and smart. I can’t count the
number of times this fly-tarp has let me stay longer and go further.
No matter how many angles we looked at this from, we couldn’t come up with a strategy that gave us a convincing solution to all these issues. After further deliberation, we settled on the highly strategic option of, “let’s just get up there and see what happens”. This detailed approach has served me well in the past, and in the absence of a better plan, that’s what we were going with.
The next morning, we played around with a love sick five-point in the timber before cutting him loose and pointing our boots uphill. The climb took us through a golden aspen stand and eventually onto an old sheep trail that snaked its way higher. Knowing the thermals would kick in, we were careful to pick a line that brought us up the mountain well ahead of where the bull typically showed up. The trail ran out, and we hit the steepest part of the face, negotiating this carefully. Arriving at the middle of it, we surveyed the battleground. It was virtually treeless, and the only concealment was a small bulge smack on the face. It had the advantage of being within shooting distance of the ridge where the elk normally popped out, but it was so small that it only provided concealment when lying down. We dropped our packs and dug out ledges big enough to give our emaciated rear ends some purchase. I racked a shell, put my rangefinder within easy grasp, and settled in for the wait. The sun felt good on our faces, and with a king’s view laid out in front of us, our eyelids dropped and we were fast asleep.
Simon dug an elbow into my side and hoarsely whispered, “They’re here!” I awoke with a start. The atmosphere had changed — the sun was gone, the wind had picked up, and the air was heavy with nervous anticipation. Three cows had worked their way into full view from around the corner of the ridge. Minutes passed, and we watched as the full complement of cows appeared. The lead cow was headed straight for us and she held up at 50 yards. I didn’t like the way this was going. The wind was swirling, there was no sign of the bull, and we were about to get busted. We belly crawled backwards and put a little more distance between us. The smaller satellite bulls started to filter out onto the face. Two of them were legal bulls, and I put the scope on the largest. My mind told me to pull the trigger and seal the deal, but my heart told me I’d regret it. I went with my heart. The cows were getting closer again, and we were within a hair of blowing the whole thing when I heard a bugle that quickened my pulse and had the adrenaline pumping. Thirty seconds later the tyrant walked into view. He was something else, and as I watched him strut impetuously towards his cows I couldn’t believe that the plan was coming together. I snaked my pack from behind me and propped up my rifle to clear the grass. Simon put the range finder on him and called 250 yards. Our activity had raised the attention of the cows, and we knew it was now or never. There’s that moment before the shot, when everything goes strangely quiet, when the world around you fades away and all is reduced to a simple equation of the rifle, the target, and the blood drumming a staccato beat in the ears.
I counted him through the scope just to make sure, and then I squeezed. The bullet hit the bull hard, and he buckled, found his legs again, and headed downhill. I sent another round his way for good measure and then he dropped from view. I rolled over onto my back. Normally this is when the high-fives and backslapping starts, but Simon and I both lay there with these ridiculous grins on our faces, not quite grasping what had just happened.
Coming to grips with the moment, and hoping the bull isn’t
still planning on dragging me off the mountain.
And that’s when we heard it. A throaty, dirty bugle, pregnant with arrogance that cut through the wind and sat us upright. Our heads snapped to the ridge and watched as he stepped his way into view. Like any proper tyrant, he had sent his general ahead of him to test for danger and clear the path, and it was the general that had fallen to my bullet. He posed there, and it was hard not to admire him. Dark, massive antlers, reaching far down his back, thick as small tree trunks. He wore a coat of black mud over his pale hide that clotted his neck mane into thick strands. He turned towards us, giving a look of complete disdain, and then proceeded to run his cows back and forth, 150 yards away from where we were sitting in plain view. The tyrant had played us. Sitting there watching him, I laughed; somehow I found myself completely okay with this.
Coming out heavy. This is when you find out what your heart, muscles
and pack are made of. No thinking required.
Simon and I made our way down the mountain, leaving the tyrant to his gloating, and found my bull. He’d rolled 200 yards down the face and then piled up on the only flat spot on the entire mountain. We sat there next to him, watching darkness crawl up the valley, knowing the work that lay ahead. My brother-in law, who had been trolling the mountain below us for stragglers with his bow, joined us, and the three of us sat there next to that magnificent animal.
The tyrant had the last word, but somehow we were better for it. We gave our thanks for the mountains, the animals in them, friends that became brothers, and this wonderful experience we call hunting.
THIS SUBSCRIBER STORY IS BROUGHT TO YOU BY SITKA