My brother, John, and I left Saturday, September 8th for the 30+ hour drive to Arizona. Late Sunday night, we were setting up base camp to the sounds of multiple bulls bugling in the national forest land (public land) we’d be hunting the next couple weeks. It was 5 days before season so we had a week of scouting ahead of us to locate bulls and some favored areas for hunting starting Friday, September 14th.
Our week of scouting was invaluable. It was very important to learn the area, access points, and which ones held good bulls, lots of bulls, small bulls, no bulls, etc.
Studying good maps is a huge key to success.
Our scouting consisted of basically chasing bugles with the video camera until we got into about 100-150 yards, enough to film them and see if they were a shooter or not. Then we’d back out and look for more. Along the way, we’d mark key points on our GPS, take note of terrain, sign, access, obstacles, etc.
The evening before the opener, John and I back-packed into one of our top two areas. We intended to bivvy-camp and hunt the first couple days in this area. Our hopes were high as we filmed a great 7×6 bull for over half an hour as he ran a cow around and then left her to run off at least three other bulls that were trying to get in on the action.
John and I the evening before season opened, before striking out to bivvy camp for the first couple days of season.
Enter the public land aspect of this story…
Opening morning, John and I woke to see three different groups of hunters pass by our little bivvy camp either on foot or mountain bike. We could hear the bulls that had been bugling within a few hundred yards of us all night long quickly shut up and head for the canyons a few miles to the west. This was not going to be easy.
Starry skies and nights spent listening to bugling bulls from our tent was a highlight of the trip.
Opening day gave us several setups on some very vocal bulls but none were interested in our calling and each left in the other direction. We’d had a close call with a big bull, as I tried to bugle him in with John in front of me a ways. But he left before he got close enough for John to shoot. We took a brief nap to rejuvenate and then headed off for where they’d gone.
At 4:30pm, we re-located that bull and soon John had him bugling back at him as I crept in closer. The beautiful bull passed by at 50 yards in front of me, broadside. We walked through my first lane without stopping. I didn’t want to shoot a walking animal at that range. As he reached a second opening, I softly chirped like a squirrel to get him to stop. I held my 55 yard pin low and touched my release.
At the shot, the bull began to duck and I could tell this wasn’t going to be good. The arrow hit the bull high in the back just below the spine. He ran off without much problem at all and I felt sick.
Long story not as long, we did not find this bull. We tracked his footprints in the pine needles for over 500 yards with zero blood. As I coped with the unfortunate start to the season, my brother reminded me that it was only day 1 of a 14 day season and there’d be other opportunities ahead. Still, I hate losing an animal and not knowing its real fate.
Day two had us chasing more bugles for a few miles that morning to no avail, then returning to the basic area we’d lost the trail of that first evening bull and looking more, to no avail.
Water was scarce in this area, to say the least. By the afternoon of day 2, John and I decided bivvy-camping wasn’t going to do us much good in this area if we couldn’t find water regularly. We decided to hike out the 3 miles back to base camp and re-hydrate ourselves.
That second evening, we hunted just south of our base camp. We had some late bugling action and got in close to a couple bulls that we never did see.
John and I went to an area we were really high on based on one evening of scouting the previous week. We had heard several bulls bugling and saw one really good bull along with a borderline mature 5×5.
As we crept up a trail just before daylight, we walked up on two bulls converging in the darkness. They broke out in a full out fight. It was really cool to hear, but too dark to do anything about except keep a safe distance and parallel them until daylight.
Daylight found us running to get ahead of the bulls as they quickly headed for their bedding areas. Since I’d had my opportunity the first evening, I felt like John should get the next crack if possible. I had him go to the bottom of this valley and I stayed about a third of the way up it as the down drafts and south wind kept things in our favor of the north-walking bulls.
Our first temptation came soon after we were in position as a decent, but young, 5×5 walked past each of us at 20 yards. I’d have shot him last year on our Wyoming hunt in a second but our scouting told us we should hold out for something bigger.
As the 5×5 and cow passed by we could still hear a couple really great sounding bulls going to the south of us. I was convinced any minute they were going to come through on the same trail as the earlier elk.
An hour later, the bulls were still in the same place bugling but another bull began working into the bugles from the north on the opposite ridge. John, being at the bottom of the ridge, decided to start creeping up the other ridge to try intercepting the converging bulls. John was out of my site at the bottom of the ridge so I didn’t know he’d left to head up the ridge, so I held my ground and waited things out where I’d been.
As John neared the top of the ridge, he saw a shooter bull about 70 yards away in the trees. He got into position and gave out a few cow calls. Almost immediately, a cow John hadn’t seen yet came up over the hill and walked by in front of him at a mere 17 yards. John’s anticipation soared as the bull started to follow.
The bull walked the exact trail of the cow, and as he entered John’s shooting lane just uphill from him, John cow-called to stop him. His shot was true and the double-lung-shot bull ran just 30 yards as John watched him topple over.
Over from the other ridge I heard a loud “Yeeeaaahhhh!!! Jarrod I GOT HIM!!!” That was all I needed to hear to start running over to John.
John with his 367″ 7×6 bull
John and I with his bull
I rolled the video camera as John recapped the events and we walked up to his first elk. It was a giant 7×6 with great mass and tine length. We later taped it out at 367″ gross non-typical Pope & Young.
We spent the rest of the day and night skinning, caping, quartering and hauling out John’s tremendous bull the 1.5 miles back to the truck.
I was in bed that night by 12:30am and not looking forward to getting up at 5am for the morning hunt, but I didn’t come to Arizona to sleep in. A storm rolled in during the night, and by 6am I was walking the trails in a 30+ mph wind and rain. I knew a bull would have to be close to hear him bugle so my plan was to just walk and still hunt until I heard or saw something.
About an hour after daylight, a bull was bugling close by. I quickly moved in using the wind and rain to shield my noise. I came up a ridge slowly, knowing the bull had to be close. Suddenly, 100 yards up the ridge, a great bull stepped out and I could tell he was heading somewhat towards me. I used trees to shield my movement as I quickly had to make my way forward about thirty yards so he’d pass by in range.
With no time to range the distance, I quickly guessed it to be 45-50 yards as the bull entered a 4 foot opening. He stopped to bugle as if on queue. I settled my 40 yard pin just a bit high on the chest and touched the release.
I watched the arrow fly true and strike about half-way up the chest right behind the front shoulder. I watched the bull run off about 100 yards before disappearing, convinced he wouldn’t go far.
A few minutes later, I walked up to where the bull stood to find my arrow laying soaked in bright red blood from a pass through.
I excitedly returned to camp to tell John our hunt was over and that I’d just killed a giant bull of my own! An hour later, we were back on the trail with all our pack gear and cameras to document what I thought would be one of the best bowhunting days of my life. It turned out to be the worst.
Six hours of searching later, there was no bull, no blood, and a bowhunter that wanted to quit. I couldn’t believe it and still cannot to this day. I’m normally a pretty good judge of where my shot goes and I don’t know what happened here. My three-blade broadhead (Wac-Em) had one blade that was really bent up from the shot. MAYBE the arrow deflected somewhat upon impact? I really can’t explain this one…only that we spent about 5 hours each of the next 3 days searching for this bull. I gridded off the area with my GPS and searched over and over in circles out to a half mile, along with listening for crows and coyotes. Nothing. I couldn’t have felt lower. I had called my wife and told her to tell the kids daddy had killed a big bull. Now I was not only a loser bowhunter, but a liar too.
Warm temps during the days spoil elk quickly so we continued to hunt mornings and evenings while searching for that bull those next few days. My heart really wasn’t into those hunts as I was just so distraught over not finding that bull. After Day 6 of the hunt and Day 3 of looking, I finally decided I’d done everything I could to find that bull and that I needed to move on and focus on what was ahead and not in the past. We were into bulls everyday and on the hunt of our lives to this point and here I was miserable from the events. I prayed for a different outlook on things and for trust that things happen for a reason.
These middle days of our hunt were very frustrating, yet I slowly felt myself feeling better and enjoying our trip more. We had high winds for several days and little bugling. We got in close on a few bulls and just couldn’t get shots or they were too small. Then, when the winds died down and the weather got nice, it was too quiet in the dry woods to stalk close and the bulls still were not call responsive.
After one of our morning hunts on Day 8, John and I made a run to a local small town to grab breakfast at a great little place devoted to elk hunters. We had some great food to break up the granola bar and trail mix diet that had become staple the past two weeks. We also ran into an elk hunter from Phoenix who encouraged us to keep at it as the rut really hadn’t kicked in and the best hunting was ahead? Ahead? Wow, I was feeling some excitement again. That local hunter had also given us a heads up on one other area to scout and hunt should we grow tired of where we were or burn it out.
A beautiful sunset from the area we camped
That evening we again hunted the same general area John had killed his bull in. We chased a couple good bulls until dark but never really got close due to bad winds and bulls that seemed to be on a mission to leave the county. After dark, we headed to that new area to scout. This scouting consisted of driving up the roads, shutting the truck off, and listening for bugles. Using the topo maps to pinpoint bugles, we could get a quick idea of where the bulls had come from and where they were heading, which allowed us to make a quick plan for how to hunt them.
The following morning we hunted that new area, first by driving the roads again and relocating the bulls we’d listened to the previous night. Then we parked and began the dash back to the bedding areas about a mile and a half back where the bulls started heading right at daylight.
We had a couple close calls on bulls this morning but never set eyes on any to even know how good they were. Winds were still and conditions were dry. We had to rely on calling and that still wasn’t working.
Storms were forcasted for the evening and that night. I headed back to our familiar area. It’s a series of ridges and valleys of aspen and spruce and pine, just beautiful and more reminiscent of Montana or Wyoming than Arizona.
We got hit with about a one hour shower in the early evening hours but then things cleared up pretty well. I chased one lone bull as he started bugling just before dark. But it was like he’d been shot out of a cannon when he left his bed as he never really stopped walking and bugling through daylight hours.
About dark, the real storm rolled in. Torrential rains began. I only had my rain jacket with me, no rain pants. Rain quickly ran down my legs and into my boots, soaking them thoroughly. At 7800 feet in elevation we were in the clouds and visibility dropped to about 30 yards. As I headed back to the truck, I got soaked to the bone.
During the night, the rain and wind continued and blasted our tent. My brother John questioned my sanity as I rose again at 5:30am to hunt. No filming in this weather so John slept in as I once again headed for the woods.
With absolutely miserable conditions, I put on my soaking wet boots from the previous night, pulled over the hood on my rain jacket and hit the trail. I felt the elk would be bedded, waiting things out, so I headed for some bedding areas we’d located a few days earlier while chasing a few bulls for miles on a morning hunt. It was a long 2.5+ miles back from the road, but what else was there to do, sleep?
My strategy was to still hunt the bedding areas and bugle occasionally, hopefully rousting a bull to come check out a nearby intruder.
When I reached the general area, I heard a bull bugle. I couldn’t tell where it had come from because of the downpouring rain blasting my head. I let out a bugle and immediately got an answer. This time I knew right where it had come from so I headed that way.
As I crept over a ridge, I spotted elk legs heading my way. I knocked an arrow and got a group of trees in between us as I readied for it to appear either left or right of them in bow range. After about a minute, nothing. The wind was bad and I hadn’t had time to circle or anything. I figured the bull winded me and slowly started peeking around the trees to give a look. Sure enough, he’d held up, probably because of the wind, but my movement caught his eye and this gig was up for sure this time. He headed away, directly downwind. I caught up with him enough to see he was with a cow but they soon put some serious distance in between us and I knew this effort was futile. I needed to get the wind back in my favor, so I did a 180 and headed back to the bedding areas.
It was about 8:30 and despite the still heavy winds and rain, I could tell the updrafts were starting, so I started making my way up the ridge from the valley I’d been in. As I neared about the top third of the ridge, I glanced right and saw a small tan object.
I hadn’t pulled out my binoculars yet that morning because of the conditions but felt I needed to check out that spot before moving on. My soaking wet gloves wiped several times at the lenses before I finally confirmed that I was looking at elk hair!
I took a small step forward and up the ridge to get a clearer view. It was a big bull and he was bedded, facing away, and quartering away!
I quickly assessed what was in between us so I could plan my stalk. He was about 80 yards away and I’d need to cover most of that given the cover and conditions…no long range shots in these conditions!
My main obstacle was a large blown-down tree. Once I safely cleared it, my confidence in getting a shot off soared. I quietly stepped through the spruce thicket. I kept the bull’s antlers in view but his body blocked by trees as I crept closer. If the bull’s antlers moved, I’d freeze…but they never really moved.
As I neared the opening I’d been eyeing, I knew the shot would be less than 25 yards. The angle he was bedded at was already a pefect, quartering away angle. I came to full draw and calmly settled the top pin just in front of the rear left hip, knowing this would put the arrow up into the chest where it needed to end up.
At release, the arrow hit its mark exactly. The arrow disappeared in the bull as he lept to his feet and bounded about 10 yards. Then he suddenly stopped, facing away. I watched as the bull stood there what seemed like forever but was probably only about 30 seconds. His head lowered and his stance widened…game over. The bull toppled over and I knew that my dream had finally become a reality.
I slowly approached the fallen giant and touched his eye with my newly nocked arrow. No response. The bull was mine. I held his giant rack and counted 8 points on the left and 7 on the right. I couldn’t wait to get back to camp to tell John!
My 8×7 Arizona bull
Rear view of my bull
Another view of my rainstorm bull
Over 2.5 miles later, I was back at the truck and headed to camp. It was like deja vu from day 4 when I’d cried wolf to John about having killed one. THIS TIME, I assured John I’d watched him fall and confirmed there was no tracking necessary. We exchanged hugs and high-fives and excitedly prepped our packing gear for our final trecks of the trip.
We spent the rest of the day skinning, caping, quartering, and hauling my bull as we had done John’s bull exactly one week earlier. The haul out was farther and uphill so we only got the first load out that night. We returned the following morning to pack out the last load. After a much needed break, we broke camp and headed back to Michigan. Mission accomplished. The 30+ hour drive home didn’t seem nearly that long with two great Arizona bulls in tow and having avenged my earlier disappointments of the trip.
Our campfire the final night in Arizona