Hunting > Big Game

What Makes a "Good" Bull?

That can be a tough question, but Editorial Director John Zent knows one thing that matters is if you’re looking up or down the mountain.

Among all of elk hunting’s many rewards, the greatest for me over the long haul is how it helped to make me an honest man.

By day eight of my fourth elk hunt, the plain truth was even worse than my BO: “I suck at this,” I gasped. Dave, Lynn and I had done our level best to hustle to where we could get another look at the three elk diving over the skyline, but wet snow stacked knee-deep on the Idaho mountainside made every inch a fight and we were too slow. Those were the only elk we’d seen in nearly a week, and our time had run out. My self-loathing self-appraisal came as we hunched panting and sweating in the snow, and my companions didn’t disagree. It would be a long trek back to the tent and an even longer pack out to the trailhead the following day. Once again I was going home empty-handed, zero for the 1980s.

Why this should happen wasn’t exactly clear, but somehow I knew I deserved it. Invariably I would find myself wallowing about in snow and bitter cold, chasing last week’s elk (as in “you shoulda been here last week”) and encountering more hunters than prey. Apparently I just wasn’t cut out to be like my Uncle Bill Brakken, whose incredible run of elk prowess filled freezers and produced tubs of venison bologna for more than 50 years, or even a lucky duck like my friend and former colleague Ron Keysor, whose giant Montana bull from his first and only elk hunt became a focal point of NRA Publications office décor. The only thing I could figure was that if I kept trying, the odds would have to shift in my favor … right?

Eventually that did happen, my lucky break coming at 10,000 feet, in the Colorado Rockies, when I rolled a young 5x5 down an alpine slide to his final resting spot against an Engelmann spruce. The two decades since that turning point have been much better.

A few American Hunter readers have written to point out that the bulls from my articles aren’t all that from a trophy standpoint, but when you factor in everything—antlers from a string of 6x6s, chestfuls of rich red meat, a shoulder mount that’s too big for any room I have to put it in, and friends and memories from widely scattered camps—I can honestly say, for a guy who’s sometimes inept and sometimes unlucky, I’ve done okay.

But when last year’s elk guide posed the standard, first-day question—What kind of bull are you looking for?—I hedged.

Instead of laying it out (A monster … a Booner … Mr. 400 … the biggest one in Utah!), I shrugged, “A bigger one than on my last hunt.”

“And how big was that?” asked guide Joe MacFarland.

“Almost 340. Arizona bull.”

There was a pause. He looked me over. “Well, there are some here like that.” Another pause. “Not many.” Joe turned to my partner and host, Mason Payer, a young marketing whiz from Nosler. “How ’bout you?”

Mason wasn’t pulling any punches. “Since I’ve never killed any bull before, I’m … I’m just looking for a good one.”

The honest guy in me abruptly knew the truth of it: I was just looking for a good one, too.

Finding a good one didn’t take long. In fact I doubt my barrel had completely cooled from our post-lunch pitstop at the ranch’s sight-in range. After driving a short distance, the sight of cow elk ducking across the two-track prompted us to bail out and proceed on foot. The rut was in full swing, so it stood to reason a bull might be nearby.

ooWEEEEEeee-yuhh … unk, unk, unk! Oh yeah, there was a bull in the thick aspens below and he was piping up a storm. Joe and I slipped along the roadway following the tenor bugling. Several times we caught glimpses of tawny hide, and one time a flash of antler, but the brush blocked our view and any chance of getting a clear shot. That scenario kept repeating for 20 minutes until we heard a stampede of hoofbeats and parting brush. Just like that those elk were gone, but 50 yards farther we found ourselves in a staredown with two bulls drinking at a small water tank. “Decent,” mouthed Joe. “Maybe kind of young.”

Staying on the track, Joe, Mason and I kept walking. Soon the timber thinned and ended, and we looked out over a broad valley bronzed in fall colors. The guide glassed the far side and soon pointed out pale forms strung out in groups. There must have been 20 to 30 elk visible, including a half-dozen no-doubt-about-it bulls back before I’d gotten so picky.

We walked back to the pickup and followed the track down to where two big canyons ran together. There were more elk in the bottom, more on the adjacent sidehills and more up the far canyon. There was a time when I would’ve counted, but since we just kept seeing new ones I didn’t start. They had to outnumber the grand total from my first five or six elk hunts, I’m quite certain. I had heard about the great hunting on this ranch, but this many elk … was beyond my reckoning.

Another round of bugling pierced the timber behind our glassing spot, and that was answered by a couple of bulls down below. They began yodeling and grunting so fiercely it almost sounded metallic, as if only machines could issue such a racket. Another faraway voice joined the chorus and he could really hold the high note.

With his bino, Joe found that bull about 800 yards away as it crossed a small hump stalking stiff-legged in our direction. The guide tracked it a few minutes then switched to his spotting scope. When the bull walked past a knot of cows I could see it was decidedly bigger.

“Big-bodied,” Joe agreed. “Not too bad.” “Looks pretty good, but maybe missing a point on the right. Really heavy beams. Could be an old bull.”

Those last two observations piqued my interest. Most of my bulls were pretty spindly, so I really appreciate mass. Also, I buy into the thinking that old-timer animals are a special trophy class unto themselves. Soon I took a turn at the spotter, but in truth the elk was still too far for me to confirm Joe’s detailed observations.

“You interested? Want to go closer and get a better look?” he asked.
It was almost late afternoon. “Sure thing,” I replied.

We closed the gap at a fast clip, threading through trees where the pine straw was an absolute mess of elk sign. We tried keeping tabs along the way, but couldn’t see the bull, and Joe figured he was either staying put or moving in our direction. When we finally found the old boy, he was practically too close, standing on a knoll overhead and staring our way. “You want him?” Joe said.

At that point my cards were all in. I crabbed sideways and tried to lock in kneeling and then sitting, but couldn’t target the kill zone because of overhanging branches. That left prone, my body in a U-shape with head and feet higher than my belt. Miraculously the bull stood stock still while I contorted and settled in. It was going to be a neat 80-yard shot, but from this awkward position …

Bang! The bull wheeled, ran and was nowhere in sight as we charged uphill to get a look. Joe was calm but unsure. “Did you make a good shot? Looked like you might have hit him high.” He looked me over. “Wow, you’re bleeding!” He indicated my forehead.

From that awkward position I figured I’d get whacked but wasn’t going to let that stop me. I wiped at my brow and withdrew a smear of red. Not again, I sighed.

Fortunately the bull was also leaking blood when we found him dead nearby. After entering low in the ribcage, my shot ripped diagonally through the chest and exited the off side a couple handsbreadths beneath the spine. The bull did indeed have massive, but short, beams and he sure did look old.

Joe’s call about the right antler’s missing point was correct as well, but making up for that was an odd, thumb-like stub protruding from the left brow. Though not a bull to excite antler accountants, I was satisfied it was more than just a good one.

With that the baton passed to Mason, who not only faced the task of killing his first bull, but also had to contend with two opinionated guys twice his age. Fortunately he is an easy-going chap, and if he was feeling any jitters, it sure didn’t show. Despite his elk status, it turned out that Mason wasn’t lacking for hunting accomplishments. Previously, he’d had the good fortune to draw a bighorn sheep tag in his home state of Oregon, and then went out and connected on a big ram. And during a bowhunt for elk, Mason chanced upon a rare close encounter with a mountain lion. Since he had a cougar tag and the season was open, he changed focus and pulled off a feat few hunters will ever know.

It also came out that Joe possessed many years of guiding experience, and I liked seeing how he was, by turns, both patient and aggressive in conducting the hunt. He was very knowledgeable about the ranch and its game populations, had funny stories to tell from past hunts and obviously knew lots of real hot spots for elk. Turned out the abundance we experienced the first day was not all that exceptional for the place. It wasn’t quite an elk-in-every-canyon proposition, but many areas were thick with herds and the bugling was nearly nonstop.

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