From “Daddy Day” to “Bulls Down”: An Epic Tale of Memories Made!
As soon as the Arizona early archery elk season was well under way and I began to see posts online from successful hunters in Arizona’s unit 23North, I began to reach out to some of the successful hunters to pick their brains about the most recent elk movement and activity. So many of them were so helpful, offering information on the ones “that got away” but that I’d have no problem getting with my rifle. One particular hunter I spoke to (who shot a dandy bull himself!) gave me some sage advice…advice more sage than I could ever know: “Whatever you do, don’t shoot two bulls in one day. If one of you gets a bull down, the other guy needs to set down his rifle. Packing out one bull will absolutely destroy you….I can’t imagine having to do two in the same day.” When you hear advice like that before the hunt, there are a couple of possible responses. For me, it was hard to imagine the world where where we would both take trophies within 24 hours of each other. It wasn’t that I didn’t value the advice, but it just didn’t seem a likelihood when I was sitting at work before we even left for the trip.
The morning of the day we left, I had the privilege of being able to go to “Daddy Day” at my 3-yr-old’s school. Let me tell you…I could’ve easily blown it off to get up north earlier, but there are certain things that should always take priority over the outdoors for me, and this was one of them. It was such a special time for me to meet her friends, paint faces, make paper airplanes, eat snacks together, etc. This little girl is the one who is waiting at the door every time I come home from a fishing or hunting trip, anxiously waiting to go through every picture with me and hear about my trip.
After Daddy Day ended, I met up with my Dad in Fountain Hills and we headed up. Three weeks prior, during a scouting trip, we had a mishap when we broke the leaf spring off of our quad trailer, leaving the axle floating completely on one side.
We had managed to transport it into Payson on another trailer (shout out THANK YOU to Mr. Mark Sopeland for his help!) and leave it at a welder, so we stopped in to pick it up before heading on up to pick up the quad from our cabin and then on to camp in 23N!
Though we had family that would be joining us for different portions of the hunt, this first night was just me and Dad, so we dropped camp and headed down into the Canyon Creek area. Dad had never been down to the creek before, so we headed down and checked out some pools (especially the pool where I caught this big guy in July….but alas, he didn’t make an appearance)
As the sun was starting to dip, we were heading back to camp when I thought I heard a bugle. We stopped the truck and listened as a few bulls in the bowl across from us became vocal. We headed up into the bowl and never managed to see the bulls, though we spotted a lone cow on lookout. We decided that this is where we would be the next morning at first light. That evening, Dad actually had an offer come in on a listing which required some wireless internet, so we drove into Christopher Creek to take care of business and grabbed dinner at the Creekside Restaurant. We didn’t make it back to camp that evening until 10pm, but we were ready for the morning.
Day One: Ugh…good ‘ol first light. Give or take 3 hours. We were out of our bags at 3am opening morning, grabbing a quick breakfast (I believe the menu that morning was a granola bar, a pudding cup, and a bottled frappuccino) and heading out. We were definitely the first ones out of camp and arrived at our spot long before light. We sat down and listened as the bulls bugled in the dark. That morning was a bit frustrating, as we got sat up in the bowl listening to bugles all around us. About an hour after light, we spotted two hunters making their way towards us. When we flagged them down, they headed up the hill across from us rather than turning back. We had a pretty good feeling that they would be pushing the bugling bull across from us out of the area. Shortly after this, we spotted a black bear making his way over the ridge across from us, likely spooked by these hunters. A few minutes later, there were six shots that rang out from the ridge across from us, assumedly the hunters we had seen shooting at the elk that we had been listening to. It’s not that this is a rare thing when hunting, but I guess when there are only 20 hunters on your hunt (as opposed to 300-600 on other elk hunts), you just don’t expect to be bumped into by many other people!
That Friday afternoon I walked across the road from camp and glassed a big valley. After spotting a few cows running through the bottom and cow-calling to stop them, this little bull surprised me at 8yds and stood watching me for about 10 minutes from that distance! Good for him I was looking for something a bit bigger!
That evening we headed a bit south from camp and looked at some new country for the next day. On the drive back to camp, we spotted a larger herd of cows with a good 6×6, so we headed off after them. We lost our light, but we ended up in the dark surrounded by 6 different bulls screaming like crazy….it was AWESOME! The bulls were anywhere from 200yds-50yds away, so it was exciting to say the least! We ended up seeing some of the cows and a small satellite bull, but the other bulls sounded much more mature and we planned to be here the next morning.
That night, our neighbor in the campground came over and he had taken a nice 320″ bull that afternoon. We headed over to his camp to see the bull and it got me really excited to see some of the bigger bulls that this unit has to offer!
That night, we were joined by a soon-to-be new member of the family, Trevor Rose. Trevor just got engaged to my cousin last week and I was so thrilled to have him with us! This guy knows his stuff and can spot animals like you wouldn’t believe. Him showing up made me pretty confident that we would be able to find animals the next day! That night got down pretty cold, so we all slept in our respective trucks, enjoying dreams of bugling bulls despite fitful sleep in a reclined Tacoma passenger seat.
Day 2: We began this day by heading out where we’d been surrounded by bugles the night before. Almost immediately we located a couple of bulls and spent the entire day chasing bulls. This day was so fun and reminded of just how amazing the experience of hunting bulls in the rut is. The only time the bulls got quiet was from about 11a-2p and the rest of the time was spent chasing bugles! We passed a number of bulls this day. So often we’d hear a deep, gurgling bugle that sounded like it must belong to the king of the mountain, only to sneak up on him and find a young bull. This running around was all in thick timber, so there were lots of short glimpses of moving elk, though we did manage some close encounters with some bulls. Here’s a short video of a nearby bugling bull that will give you a idea of what the day was like!
After a full day of chasing bulls that sounded bigger than they were, we headed back towards the truck when I spotted a bull moving through the trees to our right. The bull stopped broadside looking at us long enough for Trevor and I to see that he was better than the bulls we had seen and range him at 128yds. Dad knelt and fired one shot from his 7mm Magnum and the bull ran about 40yds before we heard him crash to the ground. We walked up to a beautiful 7×6 bull (his left G6 was broken or he’d have been a perfectly matched 7×7) and Dad was thrilled! We were also fortunate that a pretty remote road happened to be within 30yds of the bull, so we were able to bring a truck and quad in to bring him out!
(Fast forward to about 3:00 to see the bull)
I can’t describe how blessed I felt to be able to see my dad harvest this bull. I can honestly say that at this point in the hunt, I felt that I could even handle not getting a bull myself and be perfectly content having experienced this success with Dad. We made it back to camp late that night and I knew it was going to be difficult to wake up the next morning after the long day of walking and long night of dressing his bull.
Day 3: Sure enough, I slept through my alarm and was shaken awake by my uncle Marlon at 4:45a. He, Trevor and myself left camp at 5:15a and left my Dad, Uncle Darren, and cousin Will to take Dad’s bull down to the processor in Payson. We headed into an area where Trevor had seen some nice bulls during his archery deer hunt a few weeks earlier and almost immediately located a small 6×5 bull pushing some cows over a ridge. After deciding to move on, we stopped across from a very thickly covered hillside about which I remember thinking to myself, “That could be covered with elk and we’d never know it because we couldn’t see them.” After a couple of bugles and no replies, we were preparing to move on when we heard one deep and grunting bugle, seemingly right across from us. We couldn’t spot him, so we moved further down the ridge to get a different perspective. Almost immediately, Trevor announced that he had a bull. At this point, the bull had stood out of his bed and I could see the sun on him with my naked eye. I threw my binos on him and immediately saw that he was considerably better than the other bulls we’d seen on the trip. And so….the wait began. We watched the bull in his bed for about 2 hours, only able to see his right antler move every now and then. Finally he stood and moved beds, but always behind cover and never providing a clear shot. This picture was snapped as he moved
Trevor estimated the distance of this bull to be around 500yds, as his rangefinder had a max of 400yds and the base of the hill that he was halfway up was 400yds. 500 yards is further than I came expecting to shoot, but I do feel very confident with my Ruger .270 and we talked through how much drop to expect on a shot like that, just in case he presented a shot.
We debated what to do after he bedded back down. We weren’t sure that he would move all day, so we discussed leaving and looking for some other bulls and then heading back to him that afternoon and hoping he would still be there. This option made sense to me, but I just couldn’t bring myself to walk away from a bull that I was certain I would be happy with. So, we settled in the shade to rest and snack for a while. To be honest, I was terrified that this bull would move while we weren’t looking and, because of the thick cover, we wouldn’t be able to find him again. As I settled in, I set up a spotting scope to try to locate the bull and keep tabs on him. I had a hard time finding him from my vantage point, so Trevor came over and set up his scope on the bull and went to help set up the other scope. It was while he was setting up my scope that he remarked, “The bull is up and moving!”
I ran over to the truck to retrieve my rifle (as I said, we expected the bull to be down for a while), and yelled at my Uncle to wake up from his nap because the bull might be giving me a shot. I didn’t see him stir, so I just assumed he was about to have a rather abrupt wake-up call. I scurried back up to Trevor and got in a prone position and began the task of finding the bull in my scope.
After locating the bull and confirming how high to hold, I waited for the bull to show his vitals. Finally, after what seemed like forever, I saw his shoulder and vitals appear between two trees, let out a long breath, and squeezed off the first shot. Immediately, the bull began moving and Trevor was confident in a hit. The bull continued moving through the thick cover, giving brief glimpses here and there. In the back of my mind, I heard my recently awakened Uncle Marlon scrambling up the hill to us and I fired three more shots as the bull provided opportunities. We finally lost sight of the bull entirely, but we could track his movement by the lurching trees on the hillside.
Trevor and I began the grueling, straight-up-straight-down hike after studying the hillside and feeling confident we could find the area we last saw movement. Meanwhile, Marlon took the truck and headed back to camp to get my dad, uncle, and cousin as additional help. When we reached the location of the first shot, we found no blood and I began to worry. This was the kind of country that would make it impossible to see a down bull unless you were within 10 or 15 feet of it, so we split up and it wasn’t long before I heard those sweet words from Trevor: “Zach…I found your bull!” The pack out was a crazy one and I was so thankful for Trevor (who took 90lbs of meat plus his pack!!!!!) and my uncle Darren who carried out a hind quarter!! Special props to cousin Will who carried my pack out for me so that I could wrestle the head through the thick brush with my Dad!!
I am convinced that there is NOTHING like a rut elk hunt! I know it takes many years to draw a tag, but I can now guarantee you that it is worth the wait! This was hands down one of the greatest memories with my dad and family that I can recall!
NOTE: Since I began this post I was contacted by a fellow outdoorsman and guide, Jed Larson of SneekFreak, (who, by the way, guided his client to this amazing bull in the 23N archery hunt and took this monster 6×6 for himself)
Jed let me know that he had some trail camera pics of my bull from the month before I shot him, as well as some video of him before he was broken (when I killed the bull, his left G2 was broken, as well as the tips of his left G1 and right G2). Here are those pics and video….Thanks, Jed!!