Fourteen Bulls
Upcoming Article in the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Bugle Magazine

Ahh! September and an elk hunt! Finally. It’s been seven years of application rejection, but finally the gods of the hunt have cast a raised brow in my direction, an opportunity I seized like a thirsty man in saltwater. I’d drawn a much coveted area in southwest New Mexico around Quemado Lake, an area just off the Gila Wilderness, and one I’d never hunted. But my partners had and they were going to show me everything they knew. Yet sometimes life interferes and the end to my seven year drought was delayed by five and a half days, leaving me with the tail end of the season. Imagine my chagrin when arriving upon the hallowed ground that my partner in the hunt, a man who is far more dedicated and lucky than I, has spent the last five plus days in the woods and spied nothing more than a single very lonely cow (At least it was a cow elk). His friend has seen some deer. Ohh, major let down… Yet I buck up, put on my best happy face and ask about all the usual things. Bugling at night? None. Hunting pressure? Light. Rain? A little. Their current motivation? Eh, so so, and that’s pushing it. The plan for the afternoon and later days? They have a plan for an evening hunt, and tomorrow they would go home. I suppress my emotions and go with the flow. Hey, I was the one who was five and a half days late for the party after all. The plan that evening, one man watching a fence line with a natural crossing and a waterhole, one man going after deer in another area, and me, hunting the way I always hunt. I would walk and stalk and they would pick me up at dark in a location totally unknown to me and designated by GPS coordinates (I had scouted the area once, so was not totally lost), With that we were off, seeking that one lonely cow elk.

Did I say I liked to walk? I do. No patience for stand hunting, and with elk, I believe you need to go find them. And walk I do. In fact, we were half way to my partner’s stand when I noticed I was missing a prime piece of necessary equipment. Didn’t I mention GPS coordinates? I didn’t grumble, just gripped my bow and headed back. A twenty minute addition to my hike and I was finally set. The season was open and I was in the woods. Now I am not one to worry over much about what other people say they've seen or not. Everyone hunts differently and I believe one reason my success rate is low is because I get distracted by simple things as I enjoy the full experience. The view, a squirrel, a flashy piece of mineral, a field of wild flowers, clouds, and many times the songs in my head. For some reason, a song will pop in and I repeat it over and over ad nausium. I don’t remember that song though; it evaporated as I stumbled upon my first elk of the season. Whether it was the same lonely cow or not, I do not know. If it was, she had now hooked up with several friends. All of them looking at me for a mere moment prior to leaving. Unhurriedly, which was a good sign.

Fast forward a half hour. Me sneaking down a path surrounded by mature Ponderosa in an area that looked like a manicured park with its lack of underbrush and dead limbs. Ahead of me I see movement which resolved into a bull elk. He's lying in the path about sixty yards away, facing me and yawning repeatedly at the sky. I watch through my binos as he chases flies or perhaps contemplates a bugle with half closed eyes. All I see at first is a single long tine. Spike? No… He’s a 3 x 5, the small side with an eye guard and an odd point then a very long spear with shredded velvet still hanging from the tip. My binoculars also reveal another bull standing behind and facing away, rack in the trees so I don’t know how big. I watch awhile contemplating a stalk in conditions less than favorable. The ground was covered in sun dried detritus making each step like treading on crushed glass. My dilemma was solved for me by the breeze (A problem that would plague me the rest of my hunt). They didn’t run but leave they did, headed toward my partners stand. One can hope… but he never saw them. So passed bulls one and two.

Fast forward again about two hours and I am at the planned rendezvous awaiting pickup. It's here I commit my first hunting cardinal sin of the trip. I sit next to a tree. You may think this is good. Some cover to break up my outline. It’s a very tall tree though, with no limbs within reach of my six foot plus frame and worse, no bushes within a twenty yard dash. But lord it sure was comfortable in those soft pine needles. Enter stage left, one spike and a lovely 5 x 5, both walking straight at me. The wind was perfect but that was about it. With no cover and my bow sitting beside me, I sit there impotently as the spike feeds to within twelve long paces, stops, then stares at me with a clump of sweet grass hanging from his lips. You can see his eyes go wide, his mouth drop open and the grass drop slowly to the ground. He snorts once and bolts out to about forty yards taking the somewhat bewildered 5 point with him. I don’t compound my mistake by a bugle or cow call and slowly they drift into the dusk. So pass bulls three and four.

One advantage of sleeping in a tent over sleeping in a camper is you really are still out in nature. You hear all the night sounds. The wirr of a bat wing, coyotes calling the hunt, thunder from across the horizon, and hopefully, elk. That night I heard three whistles in the distance, each a far off echo and enough to keep me listening for more and far far from slumber. Finally I could stand it no more and I rolled out of the rack well before even a glimmer of dawn blushed the horizon. My partners opted to sleep in, cozy in their campers, and I can’t blame them. They’d been in the woods for many days, were worn out and would leave today. I appreciated they’d stayed as long as they did. Leaving them be, I executed the plan I had been contemplating all night, heading toward a fence-line close to a road where I would catch a game trail that burrowed into the forest. Imagine my chagrin when I hear voices in the dark. Two or more hunters preparing their own plan of attack, and none too quietly at that. Adversity makes us stronger so I simply sigh, scrap my plan and head off in a different direction.

One ridge and a half hour later the sun is just brushing the tree tops. I pause and listen to a sound barely heard as I snuck along. A far off bugle just echoing away and leaving me wondering if my imagination and hope had caused it. Maybe it was a hunter not the imagined behemoth. A thought that was totally disabused a moment later as more bulls opened up. From near and far they screamed at each other, all at once, their grunts, whistles and bellows echoing across the basin. Then a pause. Then one up the hill bugling. An answer to my left, two screams right and one far behind. At one point I counted seven distinct calls and two more possible. The chills flowed up my spine and the excitement froze me in place. Let me tell you ladies and gentlemen, this alone was worth the price of admission. I know of no more primal call, no other sound that defines nature than the full bugle of a bull elk. Now my dilemma, how to get one, and… which one?

Fortunately I had choices as it was a target rich environment. I decline a bugle or a cow call at this point and with the wind in my face I move up hill toward the closest bull. I have not snuck a hundred yards before spying a silent bull just ahead and he’s also moving toward the unseen bugling bull on the ridge. I’m a pretty good judge of bugles and can usually pick out hunters, but even so, I don’t count bulls I hear; only those I see. So this small 5 x is bull number five. I'm at sixty plus yards and following. He’s slow but faster than me in the crunchy dry forest and eventually he hears a crack. Maybe he fears a larger bull behind because I know he didn’t see or smell me. He simply went. Disappearing like a ghost. Though the bull above is bothered not at all, continuing his challenge by screaming every few minutes. He’s answered by rote by the other bulls, none of which seemed willing to leave their high places, content with just bellowing their defiance across the valley. The bull above me sounds big and I am not disappointed when I finally put the binoculars on him. A nice heavy animal with long spears and six ivory tips to a side. If my heart wasn’t racing before it is now. I watch in awe as he lays out his neck, opens his mouth exposing a black maw and yellowing teeth. Then he screams a challenge that rings and echoes with seven long chesty grunts. He cocks an ear and listens as the call is returned fivefold. I’m in despair though. I can see he has command of an open saddle and the wind up there is swirling. The open ground between us give me zero chance of a stalk and, given his contentment, I am sure one squeal, bugle or cow call from me will do little but reveal my presence. Given the circumstances, I pass on bull number six.

Ahh, not to worry, there’s other game afoot, because only a few hundred yards away on another finger of the ridge, another bull is doing his best to fell a tree. The raking and clacking of antler on wood is like a siren call. If he’s that occupied maybe I have a chance. Creeping along the crispy ground I move only when he’s bugling or raking. But I move with purpose as the magic can’t last forever. However, this time nature is against me. I get to about fifty yards and I can smell him, musky rank and oddly sweet at the same time. An honest breeze kisses my face as it has for the last hundred yards, then suddenly turns and paints the back of my neck. I know I’m had and how right I am. I see him leave, head back and nose high, decent 6 x 6 rack pointing to the sky, letting me know he won this round. Into the distance trots number seven, and now silence almost reigns. All the near bulls have gone quiet and when I check my watch I am shocked to see almost ninety minutes have passed. An hour and a half of wild calls and bulls. In the far distance one other bull still sounds off every few minutes taunting me and the other bulls. He probably thinks he's shamed us into silence. A testament to the time of the year, none of these bulls had any cows with them yet. At least that’s what I believed. I will be disabused of that though a bit later.

Ok, plan four of the day and sometime later. Close to the top of the tallest ridgeline around and believing the elk are heading to cool timber or ridge saddles for the cool bug free breezes, I move forward. My thought born out when I top the ridge and almost step on a 4 x 5 I never knew was there. I stifle the well deserved curse I cast at myself as number eight thunders away, no doubt taking every other elk in the county with it. Ok! Deep breath and a plan for the long hike back to camp and lunch to bid my partners goodbye.

Seventy two paces later, (I went back and counted) I see the outline of an elk in the shadows.  She’s standing, but several others are bedded around her, one a spike, his eyes closed and his head rocking slightly in cud chewing contentment. I count those I see and find four cows, two calves and the spike. Yet the sentinel cow has sensed something. She doesn’t snort, just steps cautiously away followed by one of the calves. The spike rises to follow and stands broadside at about thirty yards. I have an arrow kissing the string so the question is, “shoot or don’t shoot?” My mind is settled on the issue as movement to the left catches my eye. A 5 x shakes his head, still bedded but bunching his muscles in preparation of levering to his feet. The spike is forgotten as the bull rises and steps into the clear. But he doesn’t stop, instead following the other slowly exiting animals. My call is nestled safely and uselessly in my coat pocket (sin number two), so I have few options. With very dry lips I force a whistle. The bull stops leaving me with a perfect broadside, shootable at thirty four yards. One big problem, he’s staring right at me and I am out of position to draw. I hold my breath and turn my eyes down hoping he won’t recognize the threat. He looks a long moment then steps forward. I whistle again and again he pauses and stares at me. Then, when I can almost stand it no more, the bull that had been bugling every few minutes sounds a lonely wail. My bull swings his head around and stares off into the distance leaving me with the hunters dream. Slowly my bow rises and I pull, groaning and straining with the effort. I try twice, straining with every fiber in my body, and yet the bow would not break over. I drop my arm as the bull walks away never knowing the threat it left in his wake. So pass nine and ten.

I am not despondent as I reach camp, I am triumphant. I have just experienced what few people will, and only those that have can understand. My partners are waiting, their camp packed and ready to leave. They were merely waiting to see if I might need help carrying out a bull. They cock their heads in question and I’m reminded that they have seen little. I ask, “Do you want me to tell you the truth or lie to ya?” We discussed the hunt over a coke and they plied me with questions. I guess I wasn’t convincing enough because then they headed home, leaving me alone in the woods and with a freedom most people only dream of.

One more digression and I promise it’s the last. There is a reason I couldn’t draw the bow. I’d had a shoulder procedure a couple months prior and, despite exercise and practice, conditions needed to be about perfect for me to get to full draw. Up the hill I’d been slightly off balance and not square with the bull. I was out of luck on that one and had only one other real option. Quickly I pulled my tools and dropped the weight on the bow then practiced awhile to make sure I could still hit my target, though my comfort level plummeted from 35 – 40 yards down to 25. Then lunch, rest and an evening hunt.

That night I hunted long and hard seeing two cows and a coyote but nothing else. Ah, but there was the marrow and I spent a night listening for bugles. I heard coyotes and more far off thunder, but no elk. I heard the wind rush up and down the canyon and I heard the hoot of an owl, but again no elk. As dawn came on the woods, I tried again.

It was not a repeat of yesterday. I spent four hours scouring the woods, all in the same area where I’d seen the bulls, and found nothing. No fresh sign, nothing. It was as if there were no animals anywhere and I began to think yesterday a dream. The only thing I can really remember was a few ravens and a tassel eared squirrel. No bugling and no tree raking. Wow! What a difference a day makes. I returned to camp thinking a nap and a new plan was in order. But no. This was my last full day and I was determined to make the most of it. A bit disappointed, I decided to make another pass in the same area though lower down, leaving another part of the mountain for later. The wind was blowing hard and honest and clouds were building as I set out, though it was hot and muggy. My idea was to check some dark timber and some bedding areas. I never made it.

Cruising down a logging road I kept an eye out for anything. The wind was steady and I watched as it moved the trees this way and that across the hills. Thus, at first I missed it. I was glassing when I saw a Ponderosa sapling whipping in a very un-tree like matter. Pulling the binoculars back I see that the tree has a very nice bull attached to it, raking the small pine for all he’s worth as he polished his antlers and marked his territory. A perfect setup. His butt is facing me and several trees are between us. I stalk forward, moving only when his face is buried in the tree. I get to thirty yards, just ready move to the side and take a shot. But the wind swirls a bit and a cow elk comes boiling out of the trees fifty yards to my left, cutting up hill and away. The bull looks at her, mostly in curiosity, then trots about twenty yards and stops behind a small grove. Thinking I still have a chance, I cow call just once. He groans and starts in on another tree. Then the wind shifts again and he’s gone. Bull number eleven. Bull twelve comes as I walk back to camp on the same logging road. He is a rag horn and is less than a city block from my tent. He went one way, I went back for my delayed lunch.

At 1:30 the clouds were building even higher and I decide the change is good. A little rain to stir things up and it’s been a long time since I hunted in the falling wet stuff. I hike a mile and rain it does, driving me into a thicket where I hear several animals. Bull or cow? Buck or doe? Moo cow? I never find out, though as I walk ghostlike across the mountain top I run face to face into lucky bull number thirteen. He is on the same trail and we both clear the top of a rise only a few yards apart. Which is more surprised? Me I guess. He reacts first and is gone, crashing down the hill only to turn somewhere in the brush and bellow at me once. Given the position on the ridge I believe it was the same bull that had called so often yesterday. Though of course, I will never know for sure.

3:30 has come and the soaking storm has passed. I’m excited. The woods will be perfect for still hunting and stalking. I spend the time until dark combing the forest, finally finding a small herd a few minutes before the sun hits the horizon. Seven cows, a couple of calves and bull number fourteen, a spike, all of them feeding just inside the trees along a meadow. I literally walk beside them for two hundred yards deciding whether to shoot. I have tomorrows hunt as I am here until noon and have little desire to shoot a spike or a cow. Were it a bigger bull I would light him up. Instead I walk the other way, hunting back toward camp and arriving after dusk. Four separate hunts in one day, each very different. I check the GPS and find just how far I’d gone. 11.82 miles of hard country hunt. No wonder my feet were sore and the beer tasted so good. 

Late that night I crawl out of the tent to answer the call of nature. It’s black and I expect cloud cover, but the stars are shining above though drifting in mist. It’s a bit surreal. Around me there are little flashes of light caused by lightening in the distance behind the hills and very far off. No thunder just a half seen flash here and there. I crawl back in and a lone bugle follows me to slumber. It comes from back up the ridge where I’d met the bull in the rain. Methinks he mocks me. Later in the night it mists a fine drizzle and at dawn it’s pouring. An hour later I don my clothes and pack up a wet camp. I’m done. Bulls fourteen Greg nothing. It was wonderful.

What didn’t I mention in this story? Desk bound muscles screaming at me for the abuse I put them through. The smell of wet sage, the crushed pine needles I rub on my clothes to mask my scent. A patch of wild raspberries and an outcropping of shale, vertical and moss covered that goes across a ridge top for a hundred yards. A thousand other things I can’t describe but will remain alive within me. The solitude and the freedom. I can’t wait till next year.

Greg Saunders

September 2008