Ron's 2011 AZ Archery Elk Hunt
I felt very blessed to have been drawn two years in a row for AZ archery bull elk hunt. I had previously figured this would be the ‘year of the deer’, but I quickly changed focus once the elk draw results were out and started preparing for my upcoming elk hunt. While September felt a world away, it quickly came and was upon me before I knew it. Even though I had made several pre-season summer scouting trips to my unit, I didn’t feel quite ready. I didn’t have a particular bull picked out yet, but I told myself to be patient as I had taken off 3 weeks for this hunt, the week prior to scout, and the full 2 weeks for the hunt itself. If I tagged out early that would just be a bonus as I’d be able to dedicate more time to my dad’s and/or friends’ elk hunts.
The weeks leading up to my hunt were busy with work, last minute preparations, and squeezing in as much family time as possible since I knew I could potentially be away from them for two plus weeks. The time finally came to load up the trucks and set up elk camp. My wife and kids accompanied me up to help set up camp and hang out for Labor Day weekend. I appreciated the help in setting up camp and it was nice to have them up there for a few days. Sunday was the first day up at elk camp and even though I knew scouting time was precious, I chose to just hang out in camp with the family for most of the day. It was nice to unwind and relax some after the hectic previous few weeks. Rob and Joe had pulled in late Friday night from Rob’s Utah trip where he had harvested his ‘camp buck’.
Camp consisted of my Cabela’s Bighorn II tent with Vestibule, my popup canopy for my kitchen, and a borrowed propane heated shower. I was going to be as comfortable as possible for the potential 3 week hunt.
Careful What You Wish For
I’m not sure when it was, but I believe it was sometime on Sunday as I took the family out for a drive commenting to my wife, Karly, that it would be nice to get a little bit of rain each day to quiet things down and settle the dust. Little did I know how that would ultimately affect me. The next couple of days I spent glassing and checking out new areas. Jay and his family came out to elk camp on Labor Day. It was good seeing his family and the kids enjoyed each other's company. That afternoon the rains started. They wouldn’t let up until Friday, Sept 16.
Karly and the kids went home on the Tuesday following Labor Day. I escorted them into Flagstaff and we had an enjoyable breakfast at Mike and Ronda’s. I then got a tire patched up at Discount in Flagstaff since I had picked up a nail somewhere along the way.
The week prior to my hunt I checked out some places I’d been before, and a few new places. I had a list of areas I wanted to check out and there were more things to do than what I had time for. The anticipation built as I checked places off that looked promising and I either saw elk or heard bugles. I literally looked high and low in the unit. One memorable day was hiking up to 11,500 feet to check out a spring I’d heard about, but had never been there. I hadn’t planned on hunting it for my elk hunt, but curiosity got the best of me and I turned that into an eight plus mile hiking day. It was neat to see a spot seldom seen by others and realize how hard the early settlers worked to access water for their livelihood.
Even though archery deer was open the week prior to elk season and I carried my bow with me everywhere I went, I wasn’t really focusing on deer at all. The elk weren’t as plentiful as I was hoping and even though I had a couple of semi close encounters, I never got to draw back on any deer that week prior to the opener.
Opening day finally arrived. While I had been seeing elk and a few spots looked promising, I didn’t have as clear of a plan as I had hoped. I hit the low country opening morning, hoping to find a bull that I’d seen early the week before. That evening I met up with Jay and we hunted a spot that had been good to us in years past, but the only thing we ended up seeing that first night was a bear.
Rob arrived later Friday night and after too little sleep we were up hitting an old hotspot. Things looked up on the way up the mountain as Jay gave out a bugle and got a response. We hustled up a little higher and not expecting much, Jay gave out another bugle and got another response, this time much closer. We hunkered down in the meadow we were in and waited. It didn’t take very long and I heard footfalls coming from an approaching bull. I put my binos up in time to watch him stop and let out a bugle followed by a few chuckles. He wasn’t the biggest bull in the woods, but I figured with my good friends (meat packers) there I shouldn’t waste a given opportunity. I had ranged some trees at 50 yards and when the bull walked in front of the trees I drew back, catching both Rob and Jay by surprise. I surprised them even more when the bull stopped and I let loose with my arrow. Not hearing anything but the arrow hitting a couple of branches, we figured I missed, but waited and followed up on the shot. No blood was found, and when we found the arrow, it was totally clean. I’m not sure how I missed, but miss I did… Rob and Jay consoled me in the fact that I’d be happy later that I missed that bull, but it was unsettling that I did miss him. That would make two misses in as many hunts with my new bow. Not a comforting feeling…
The rest of the weekend was spent glassing and hitting other good spots. The elk were keeping quiet and our midday glassing only turned up lonely cows, spikes, and rag-horns up feeding. We had tentatively planned an overnight trip up on the peaks, but figured we’d be tied down to one particular spot for both an evening and morning hunt if we did that. It proved to be the correct choice as we had a heck of a storm hit Saturday night. It seemed like it lasted a while and was one of the most intense lightening shows I’ve seen in a while.
Rob had to leave midday Sunday, and Jay left shortly after. While they were with me they provided me with a couple of opportunities, the first at the bull I missed Saturday am, and the second on the world record smallest spike. Saturday night we had the spike walk by us at maybe 10 yards. Rob was whispering in my ear, “I dare you!” Needless to say, I didn’t bring a towel with me to wipe the milk from his lips before taking trophy pics, so he got a free pass that night.
I had originally planned on being alone most, if not all of the week. It turned out I never was alone very much. Brad, a buddy from work, came up Monday morning and hunted with me through Wednesday, helping out by glassing and giving moral support. It was nice to have someone else in camp and be able to bounce ideas back and forth. I ended up hitting a spot several nights in a row that I could only hit in the evenings due to logistics, and it was about the only place I’d found that had rutting elk. I had a few close encounters those few days, but never with a bull worthy enough. One night I passed up a raghorn a couple of times that I bugled in. I was too high up and away from the truck and there were bigger bulls in view.
The one thing constant and somewhat challenging everyday was the rain. It rained every day in the afternoon and evening, some nights, and most mornings. Luckily, the roads in most areas I was hunting were pretty good. There were only a couple of spots where the roads got bad on me. While hunting my evening spot it was almost a routine that I’d hike up in the afternoon and get to my clump of trees just as the afternoon rain and/or hail storms hit. It got a little exciting up high a couple of times with the hail and lightening!
Wednesday night I camped out of my truck to put me closer to my evening spot and I wanted to do some ‘scouting’ to see where the elk were going back into bed, allowing me to set up in a good spot for them to come down the mountain on Thursday night. Needless to say my plan was thwarted by the rain Thursday morning as it socked the mountain in with clouds made glassing impossible. I instead checked out a few other areas and met up with another buddy from work, Curt, who came up that morning to spend a few days with me.
I was glad to have Curt’s help on the elk hunt as I knew he loved chasing bugles and working elk in the rut as much as I did. We had a few hours until I wanted to start up to my evening spot, so I showed him around a bit. We hiked up a different trail for a mile or so to listen for bugles and see if we could get anything to respond to me. I glassed up a cow on an open ridge ahead of us. We continued up the trail and at the bottom of the ridge she had been on we let out a couple of bugles, getting some responses. We now had a decision to make as it was getting late in the day. Turn around now and get headed over to my afternoon spot, or stay here and work the bugles to these unseen bulls. We decided since we had at least 2 bugles above us, we’d stay on this side of the mountain for the afternoon and evening and see what we could do.
We continued up the trail and eventually popped out in the meadow we’d first seen the cow in. Curt spied a cow and calf across the draw approximately where we’d heard the bugles come from. We knew we had to close the distance, but we’d be in the open for about 300 yards or so. While watching the elk to see if they’d go behind any trees and give us our opportunity to close the distance in the wide open, some clouds moved up the draw, filling the opening between us with moisture. We couldn’t see the cows, and they couldn’t see us. We hot footed it down the trail to a stand of young Aspens where we figured would be a good spot to get set up. Curt got above me and prepared to bugle and rake a tree to try and draw one of the bulls over our way. I set up along the trail and proceeded to range a few trees to get some ranges determined.
|I set up in the higher stand of Aspens to the right of the trail|
Curt bugled and raked a tree and the bulls responded. He bugled a time or two again and we didn’t really have any response from the bulls. I figured we might be too far away and was considering getting up and going to Curt to tell him we might have to close the distance when a bull sounded off right below us. I readied myself and then saw antlers through the trees down below and off to my left. I realized this bull would pop out in the open a little further out than I wanted, so I got up and crept closer to him down the trail, only moving when I couldn’t see his head. Right before he came out of the trees and onto the trail I drew back. He walked up on the trail and took a few steps towards me before turning to go further up the hill. When he turned broadside I picked a spot and released my arrow. I saw it sink in to the fletching on his left side. The bull spun, and ran down the hill. I moved over to where I could see down the hill and watched him run down the hill, stumbling right before he went out of sight behind some trees. My arrow hit a little further back than I had wanted, but I hoped his stumble meant he wouldn’t go far.
|Curt is standing about where the bull was when I shot.|
I went up to where Curt was hidden behind his tree. He said he saw the bull’s antlers and then heard a swish of the arrow and heard the bull run off. I told him I hit him, but wasn’t too sure about the shot. We gave him some time, but with the quickly approaching clouds and rain, not too much time, about 30-40 minutes. There was good blood right where I shot him as well as good blood in the thigh high grass. I started down the blood trail with Curt hanging back 20-30 yards observing the big picture. It wasn’t too far down the blood trail and Curt got my attention and signaled ‘bull down’. I was elated. He hadn’t gone but maybe 150 yards and piled up under a tree. He crashed not long after I saw him stumble.
I couldn’t believe how everything came together that afternoon that allowed me to shoot my bull. From going up that particular trail, seeing the cow the first and second time, the clouds moving in at the right time, being set up in a good spot, and having a horizontal shot on a steep mountainside. I was truly blessed that everything came together the way it did.
I shot my bull up at 9800 feet and recovered him at 9600 feet. Of course he crashed into some trees, so we moved him slightly and took pictures, sent some texts, and then got to work on him. I’d shot him about 2:30pm. We quartered him out, caped the skull, hung the quarters in the trees (hoping a bear didn’t snack on him overnight), loaded up the head and horns on my pack, and Curt loaded a 50 lb bag of meat into his pack. We knew the trail was straight down below us and it was a shorter distance to drop straight down than take the main trail above us, so we dropped down the ridge and did more slipping and stumbling down the hill than we did walking. After making it to the trail it got a lot easier to walk. We got back to the truck about 11pm that night. We then headed back to camp and got some sleep to rest up for the pack out ahead of us the next day.
Friday morning we gathered up the necessary supplies from camp and headed back up to where I’d shot my bull. On the way in there was a truck and horse trailer ahead of us. They turned down the same road we were heading down and I joked with Curt that I should ask them if they do any meat hauling since I saw they had mules in the back of the truck. When they pulled off to the side to let us pass, I couldn’t help myself. I asked them if they haul meat off the mountain and they said they were on their way to haul down an elk a local guide’s client had shot the night before. They said they’d cut me a discount since they were already there if I was interested. I told them I’d think about it and Curt and I headed up the mountain to my bull, hoping to find everything as we’d left it, unmolested by bears.
Nothing had been touched, and after our 3 mile hike up the mountain, I decided it would be worth the cost hire the mules to pack my bull off the mountain. I did some calculations and figured it would be about a 9 mile round trip (3 miles up and 1.7 miles down for at least 2 trips), which would make for a long day of packing meat. I have no doubt Curt and I could have done it, but when we got back to the truck I pointed out that we both had smiles on our faces and I doubt that would have been the case had we hauled the meat down ourselves.
Overall, it was a great hunt! It was tough, both mentally and physically. The rain made it hard a few times and I met a couple guys who headed home to dry out after a few days of the rain. I was in much better shape after my hunt and had lost about 5-6 lbs over the course of the 2 weeks I was scouting and hunting. I don’t think equipment makes a person successful, but I know having the right equipment definitely made a positive impact on my hunt. The several things that come to mind are my tent (no leaks at all with the 10 days of rain), the propane shower I borrowed from Curt (kept me clean, refreshed, and feeling good), my KUIU and Stika technical clothing (managed my sweat, the rain, heat, and cold temps very well), my rain gear (no leaks, kept me dry and breathed well), and my bow (I’ve had 3 shots this fall and while I missed 2 (operator error), I don’t think any of the three animals heard my bow and didn’t really know what happened based off their reaction).
I’d like to thank my wife and kids for their support as well as the good friends who came up to help me on my hunt. Thanks Jay for taking some great pictures and video. Many of the above pictures were taken by Jay. My overall goal for the hunt was to be safe, have fun, experience the hunt to the fullest, and be successful, hopefully with a branch antlered bull. I met all my goals and then some. Someday I hope to experience the second week of the archery elk season, but I definitely can’t complain about the last 2 years!