Again, Wes and I stood and scratched our heads. Each day it got extremely hot: Maybe I could get lucky over a water hole during midday. So I set up in a blind, ate my lunch and watched a flock of turkeys water there—and little else. By early evening I was bored stiff, and glad to see Wes’ Ram pull into the clearing.
We’d cover a fence crossing on the property’s edge for the evening. Wes explained how the bulls here would jump the fence. If we spotted one in time, and if it paused, I could get a shot, which seemed like another good plan.
My guide was from Trinidad, Colo., and a big proponent of self-sufficiency. We got along swimmingly, what with complaints about the White House and a populace increasingly dependent on government aid producing plenty of common ground to dissect. His family liked to hunt, and they liked their guns, he said. When he wasn’t guiding hunters he fought forest fires, I learned, which made me realize he led a pretty cool life: Make money and find adventure and camaraderie fighting fires in the spring and summer, and come fall make money and find adventure guiding hunters. In fact, he found time in the spring before fire season roared full-bore to get in some turkey hunting, too. It all sounded like a good way for a young man to pass his time. The more he talked the more it was evident to me he dearly loved his work—all of it.
In the midst of our conversation Wes changed gears.
“Hey, we could sit here until dark—and it’s not a bad plan,” he said. “Or we could pull stakes and beat feet to another water hole—make it there before dark if we hurry. There might be a bull there. We don’t have much time to make that move, but it could work. Your choice, man.”
“Sure,” I replied. “We’ve got all week. We can always come back here tomorrow. Let’s see some country.”
The 8,000 feet of altitude didn’t seem to bother me much until then, when I fell behind Wes in our rush for the pickup. My guide ran ahead, leaving me to my force-march, rifle at sling arms, spare hand swinging to spur me faster toward a rendezvous somewhere ahead. When Wes lurched to a stop I unloaded and climbed in, magazine in hand, barrel out the window, and breathed deeply to slow my heart rate.
Which was a good thing, because what happened next can only be described as great, good luck.
Both of us squealed: “Look at that!”
About 60 yards to our left stood a magnificent 6x6. We were speeding so fast the bull had no chance to disappear. It pranced nervously in circles, as if to say, “Where did you come from?” You know how they say you don’t have to look twice at the big ones? That was this guy. I didn’t know whether he was a 5x5 or a 6x6, and it didn’t matter. I saw long main beams. I saw whale tails—whale tails! I’d never shot a bull with tails.
Wes slammed on the brakes, shut down the engine and hissed, “Shoot that bull.”
He needn’t have bothered. I knew when I exited the truck I would shoot the bull if it stuck around. There was no time to internally debate ethics. I was on private land. There was no blacktop within miles. I’d hate myself if I passed on this bull. I had time only to insert a magazine, load a round and throw up the gun. I took half a breath and began my trigger squeeze as the creature paused before wheeling again.
The bull ran as I wracked the bolt. A follow-up would likely hit the tree he was headed for but I had to try. And sure enough, I knew when I swung and squeezed that I’d hit the tree. The bull galloped out of view. My last sight of him was a white rump diving down an embankment a hundred yards away.
The whole encounter took less time than it did to read the words that describe it. I reloaded, put the gun on safe and took a deep breath.
“Did you see that?” I asked Wes.
“Did I see it? Man, that bull was huge. You hit him. You hit him good. I saw him shrug when you shot.”
We walked on shaky legs to the last point we saw the bull, following blood along the way. When we looked over the bank we saw nothing … until we glanced to our right. Piled up amid rocks and pines was the biggest bull elk I have ever shot.
Later that evening we learned John Fink tagged out, too, on a 6x6 with broken tines and tips running a harem of 25 cows. That made three bulls in two days. The sight of my bull and John’s and the rack from Slaton’s bull in the back of Wes’ pickup parked at the bunkhouse was a sight to behold. We called the Ram the “Bone Bus.”
I thought about my good fortune and realized it didn’t pay to try to spin it as anything but dumb luck. I’ve paid my dues in elk country. I’ve gone home empty-handed. I’ve spent weeks hiking up and down steep mountains trying to line up shots. I’ve spent agonizing hours at night going over muffed shots in my mind again and again. I know better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. Wes and I figured my bull taped somewhere between 350 and 360 inches. But I didn’t measure it and don’t plan to do so. I’ve seen enough elk to know what I’m looking at, and besides, regardless what it measures it won’t enter any record book except my own.
It was Columbus Day. Perhaps it’s fitting to remember that when Columbus and his crew set out for the New World in 1492, elk roamed as far east as the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Today elk are beginning to filter back into Virginia, but it will be years before anyone hunts trophies in the Old Dominion. In the meantime, elk hunters get their fill out West. Sometimes it doesn’t take long.