Over the course of two decades enrolled with U.S. Outfitters Professional Licensing Service, I have drawn nine tags, including elk, whitetail, Coues deer, mule deer, bighorn sheep and oryx. All were great opportunities, but not every hunt turned out as I hoped, because getting lucky in the draw is just the first hurdle. Though it’s often said, “drawing the tag is the hardest part,” that’s not altogether true, as borne out by my two most recent tag-draw hunts.
As noted above, I waited 22 years to draw my tag in a state that places more than its share of elk in the record books. My late-season hunt with USO in northern Arizona was unique in that we were hunting the winter range of bull elk that filter in from the north and east, and literally no cows were present. So the elk you see are bound to be bulls, but they’re not at all plentiful and are widely scattered.
USO’s George Taulman told his hunters that the success rate here averages 50 percent, and some genuine monsters are out there. He also said the odds would get better toward the end as hunting pressure pushed elk into the secluded, difficult areas where we’d be waiting.
The country is comprised of deep, rugged canyons choked with pinon, juniper and cedars that make it tough to glass and so USO has found the most productive tactic is to sit tight watching certain canyons where they’ve found elk in past years. My guide, Kevin Keune, has even adopted a tall cedar tree as his perennial vantage and will perch there most of the day monitoring small breaks in the cover.
The tree-view paid off right away when Kevin spotted four bulls, including what, to that point, was likely the biggest trophy elk I’d ever seen. It was just the first morning, so I kept telling myself to be patient. I also kept thinking it was goofy to pass on a 330-inch bull. And after that we didn’t see a single elk for the next few days.
Expecting it would be pretty balmy, I packed cool-weather gear but not my real heavy-sledding stuff. And so, wearing almost everything I’d brought, I shivered on single-digit mornings, especially when it was windy or snowing. It sure wasn’t the Arizona that attracts throngs of snowbirds.
Then one day right at dusk we spotted a couple bulls at very long range, and while they were too far to assess trophy quality in the dim light, it gave us a plan for the following morning.
That plan worked like a charm. After climbing a ridge and crisscrossing the flat area on top, Kevin and I emerged at a point overlooking a winding stretch of canyon. But we didn’t have to look long because directly across the divide was a feeding bull, and a big bull at that. I settled down, gathered myself and shot him, using a Blaser R8 outfitted with a Zeiss Varipoint 3X-12X scope and Hornady Custom .300 Win. Mag. ammo loaded with their new GMX 150-grain bullet. With my first hit the elk stumbled, and a quick follow-up put him down for good.
I’m happy to report that upon closer inspection, there was no ground shrinkage. The elk was an absolute tank and his antler mass was equally bulky. Some short and broken points will depress the score about to the level of the one I passed earlier, but even so this one’s a keeper.
Immediately before and after I fired, we heard shots from over the ridgeline, and that turned out to be another hunter in our party, in fact a 12-year-old Florida girl making her first Western hunt who also killed a super bull. Want proof that anything can happen when you apply for a tag? She drew that one on her first try.
After 11 years in the mix I drew for an area bordering Yellowstone National Park. Since it does not outfit there, USO referred me to legendary outfitter Ron Dube, operator of a famous wilderness camp for some 30 years. Along the way Dube has guided many prominent outdoor writers, and so I had read numerous stories about his rugged territory, extended horseback rides and high adventure in pursuit of bighorns, elk, muleys and other game. I wanted some of that … or so I thought.
The eight-hour ride to camp was every bit as grueling as advertised. When we finally arrived, I slid off my horse and nearly passed out. As the hunt progressed we kept riding a lot, usually right up to our glassing vantage. I was amazed at where those horses could take us, and grateful I didn’t have to climb it all on my own legs. Dube was none too impressed with my horsemanship and, being an outspoken sort, let me know about it. Crusty as old French bread, he was full of entertaining stories, which helped ease our struggle to find a good ram. In the end we rode out of the mountains empty-handed and beat up, but agreed I would come back for the season’s final days in a last-ditch effort to fill my once-in-a-lifetime tag.
Even though winter was coming to the high-country upon my return, the day we eventually found rams was a classic slice of sunny Indian summer. We spotted a foursome holed up in a timbered draw just under the rimrock and pushed hard to reach them. The going got too steep for horses, so Ron and I had to make our longest hike together, pulling ourselves up through the rocks, pushing the packs and my rifle ahead in order to squeeze through tight, vertical outcrops. When my chance came, the bigger specimen had wandered off and those remaining were all legal but quite young. Convinced this may well be my last chance, I killed one and was happy to do so. Though that ram wasn’t what I had envisioned nor typical of the trophies Dube’s clients normally take, I’ve been around enough to know the game ofttimes determines the outcome. It does matter to me, but I can fix that simply by hunting again and shooting a bigger one. And if not, I certainly was not shortchanged on the sheep hunting. Every time, it proves to be so much more compelling than I expect.
Dube, in his late 60s then, told me he was trying to sell his outfit and was planning to retire. Since I was there at season’s end, I figured to be the final sheep hunter in his long and storied guiding career. I liked that notion. But the following Christmas he sent photos of new trophy rams. Not surprising, and even though I won’t have the last-hunter distinction, seeing what he did when pushing 70 reignites my hope for another go at the bighorns.
For more on the author's experience with western big-game draws, read "Beat the Odds on Big-Game Tag Draws."