By W. Gary Sitton
Veteran hunter cherished his last opportunity to act like a 10-year-old.
My wife Judy and daughter Holly threw a big party to celebrate my upcoming 70th birthday, our 48th anniversary and a book I recently had published. More than 250 people attended the bash.
One person I’d hoped to see was Michael Labrum, my elk guide for the last 14 years. In his final semester at the University of Wyoming Law School, he just couldn’t join us.
Since 2000, close friends Al Sue, Jeff Armstrong and I have hunted elk at two Utah ranches, each about 10,000 acres. We call them the East and West ranches, and they differ in elevation by about 1,000 feet. In the 14 years we have been hunting there, our success rate has been 100 percent with bulls measuring between 320 and 330 inches. One even surpassed the 350-inch mark.
We normally hunt when the bulls pull off the cows and form small bachelor groups, but Michael called me in late August and said his father-in-law had spotted two very large bulls on the East Ranch.
One bull was called Growler, a very symmetrical 6x6 with well more than 350 inches of antler. They nicknamed the other one Split Tine because of an odd sword tine on the right side. Also, the base of that antler was 2 inches closer to his nose than the matching point on the left.
Michael expressed his regrets for missing the party and asked if he could give me a special 70th birthday gift by having me come out in early September and spend two days trying to find the bulls. He said he would play hooky from law school on Sept. 2 and 3 to guide me.
I jumped at the chance, of course. To make the present even sweeter, Judy was able to rearrange her calendar to accompany me. She had never seen the magnificent place where I hunt elk.
On Aug. 31, Judy and I began the long trek from Chico, California, to Utah. We had a quick hotel stay in Nevada and arrived at our Utah hotel around 1 p.m. on Sept. 1. I had arranged with Mike Sr. to make an afternoon scouting trip to look for the bulls.
Mike is a very successful Stanford-graduate attorney with two offices in Utah. His true passion is hunting elk. Mike and his wife Darcy picked us up at our hotel around 4:00, and we drove to the East Ranch.
Despite a thunderstorm, we got out of the Jeep and set up our spotting scopes to scan the mountainside where the bulls had last been seen. In only a few minutes, we spotted Growler and Split Tine, along with six smaller 6x6s and a few cows.
I was thrilled to watch Judy’s excitement as she was able to make out the big bulls in the spotting scope. Her comment was “My god, they are enormous!”
The bulls were nearly a mile away and, while very tempted, we decided not to put a sneak on them; to wait for Michael to arrive for the next morning’s hunt. After all, it was his present, and I doubt he would have enjoyed missing all the drama that usually unfolds while going after a big bull.
Michael drove from Laramie to our location after his wife, Jacque (a nurse), got off work. They pulled into our area in the wee hours of the morning with their two daughters, Jayda and Dylin, in tow.
Mike Sr., Michael, Michael’s father-in-law, Roger, and another friend named Jay met me at 6 a.m. to hatch our plan. I was brimming with optimism based on what we had seen the previous evening. Michael, although badly sleep-deprived, was raring to go.
Mike Sr., Michael and I went up in the Jeep, while Jay and Roger took Jay’s pickup. The weather had cleared, and spotting conditions were excellent.
We started out where we had seen the big bulls. In spite of our unbridled optimism, all we could find were a few raghorns and some cows. We scoured the ranch morning and evening, but the big boys were nowhere to be seen.
The next morning, we all met up to hatch a new plan. I suggested we check out the West Ranch, but Mike Sr. was convinced the two bulls were still out there.
En route to where we’d first spotted the big bulls, we stopped to glass an area known as the Long Valley, a stretch with 800-foot-high mountains to the north and south. Almost immediately, Roger and Jay spotted Split Tine with a few cows and a small bull near the top of the south mountain.
The elk were feeding in and out of juniper patches.
Michael and I planned to hike to a vantage point east of the animals, while Mike Sr. and Jay would enter from the valley floor to drive them to us.
The elk didn’t cooperate.
While I returned to the head of Long Valley and joined up with Roger, Michael and his father hiked the rim of the south mountain and Jay checked out the north.
Mike Sr. and Michael found the bulls and cows bedded down on the south mountain face, about 2 miles west of where Roger and I were glassing. Mike Sr. called Roger and told him to have me walk down a road to the bottom of the valley. Michael would meet me there and lead me to where we might spot the bedded elk.
After I’d gone about 100 yards, the road disappeared. I made my way down drainage ditches to the floor of the valley. I was very relieved when I finally spotted Michael because I was not sure exactly how far I was supposed to go.
Michael described where the elk were bedded, checked the wind, and then we started climbing the south mountain to find a vantage point. Michael selected a small knoll where we could set up the spotting scope.
Eventually, we spotted a yellowish body — an elk — at just beyond 400 yards. It was in a little v-shaped clearing (about 20 feet wide) surrounded by junipers. We could not tell if it was a bull or a cow.
Michael set me up in the prone position on top of my pack and his coat. I was rock-solid, except for the uncontrollable tremor in my left arm caused by my excitement. Michael’s expression showed considerable concern as he watched my entire left arm oscillate like a tuning fork.
I told Michael I couldn’t make it stop, and he said we needed to take that left arm out of the equation. He took his boot off and nestled it under the butt of the rifle, and we made minor adjustments so I was focused on the V-shaped clearing, using only my right arm.
I shoot a .300 Ultra Mag with a 4-16x scope, stoked with a 180-grain Scirocco bonded bullet. We dialed up 420 yards on the turret, and I tried in vain to stop trembling.
Michael did a couple of cow-calls and bugles to see if the elk would stand up and reveal its gender. When it finally rose, it was indeed a bull.
Just as I pinned the crosshairs behind the animal’s shoulder, Michael said, “Do not shoot that bull!” It was a lowly 3x4.
The small bull eventually melted into the junipers, but Michael and I remained in place, watching the V-shaped clearing. About 9:30, Michael said we might have to wait there until 7 p.m. to get a look at the big bull.
Although he showed no signs of it, Michael must have been tired from his marathon drive and too-short night’s sleep. I know my 70-year-old carcass was whipped from the 4-mile forced march I had just experienced. At my age, everything at 9,000 feet elevation seems uphill. I train at 235 feet elevation.
When I suggested we alternate watching and napping, Michael agreed and told me to take the first nap shift. I immediately fell into a deep REM sleep. Michael said I was snoring so loudly he was afraid the elk would hear me.
The next thing I knew, Michael was shaking my foot, saying, “Get up. The bull is coming.” Evidently his calling had caused a few cows to get out of their beds and walk through the clearing.
I scrambled to get back into the prone position. Michael said he would cow-call when the bull entered the clearing, and he told me to shoot when it stopped.
I had ceased trembling and was feeling pretty stable with the rifle. I hadn’t had enough time to get rattled again.
A few more cows came through the V, left to right, and then Split Tine appeared. Michael cow-called, and the bull stopped. I could see his enormous rack, his neck and his right shoulder. He was looking directly at us.
I laid the crosshairs on the shoulder and squeezed, and I heard the telltale whack, but the bull did not move. Michael said, “Shoot again!”
I took careful aim, squeezed, and heard a click. I had not pulled the bolt back far enough to seat another round. Now that rattled me.
I pulled the bolt back and made sure the round went into the chamber, and then I touched off another shot. Just as I pulled the trigger, the bull lunged forward and out of sight. Again, I heard the whack, but I had no idea where I’d hit the thing.
We spent nearly an hour glassing the areas where the bull might re-emerge from the junipers. Eagle-eyed Michael finally said he thought he could see part of the bull lying below a small spruce that had been rubbed down to one shinny stick.
We waited another agonizing half-hour before slowly making our way to where Michael thought he’d seen the bull.
When we finally got to the magnificent 7x8 bull at 11:30, he was stone dead. The first shot had entered in front of the right shoulder and exited behind the left shoulder, severing a large artery above the heart. The second hit his paunch.
By 6 p.m., we had it quartered, tied on the Jeep and had returned to the head of Long Valley. Hearing of our success, Judy, Darcy, Jacque and the two girls drove from our hotel to meet us, to toast my bull and to watch grown men act like 10-year-olds.
This article was published in the February 2016 edition of Rack Magazine. Subscribe today to have Rack Magazine delivered to your home. Read Recent RACK Articles:
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