By Dustin Jones
Back in 1994, my dad drew a controlled hunt tag for a bull elk hunt in an area he grew up hunting. However, this was not an average controlled hunt tag. It was a new hunt the Idaho fish and Game had just offered, a rifle hunt for an antlered elk. It ran from Oct. 1-9 after the archery season closed and before any general rifle hunts started.
There were only five tags offered, and my dad was lucky enough to draw one. This particular tag is an elk hunter’s dream. The elk are chasing the cows like crazy, and no other hunts are taking place.
He was excited for the chance at a big bull, but really just wanted to harvest an elk. He’d never shot a big bull and thought this could be his chance. He had not convinced himself to shoot only a big bull because he has always taught us to hunt to get meat for the freezer. The horns a nice bonus. He thought he might hold off, but he might not.
He headed out at 4 a.m. on opening day with two of his friends, Kendall Berry and Vail Codling. Kendall would do the bugling and Vail was there to film the hunt. They parked along an old logging road 1½ hours before daylight. An elk was already bugling at the top of the ridge above them. They had over an hour before it would be light enough to shoot, so they kicked back and listened to the sweet elk music!
As they waited, they all ended up falling asleep, but were awakened just before dawn by a coyote howl. Quickly they grabbed their gear and headed out.
As they reached the top of the ridge, Kendall bugled, hoping for a close response, but got nothing. He continued to cow call and finally they heard something walking toward them. They set up for a shot and continued to cow call, sitting just inside the edge of the trees looking out into a clear cut.
As the sound got closer they caught a glimpse of a couple of antler tips above the grass coming over a slight hill. The elk took a few more steps and stopped.
They realized why they only saw two antler tips. It was a young spike elk. This explained the silence, yet interest in the cow calls. My dad raised his rifle and took aim at the spike. He then heard a voice from behind saying don’t you dare shoot him, or you are walking home! My dad kept aiming, picturing the great venison steaks that would come from that fat spike! Again the voice sounded, don’t do it! He was eager to pull the trigger knowing that would be some great meat for the freezer. Just then there was a bugle off in the distance that broke the concentration. Kendal said, “That’s a big bull!” and convinced my dad to hold off.
They walked for over a mile in the direction of the bull but never closed the distance. The animals were on a steady pace heading straight away.
The bugling stopped, and the elk went silent.
The elk activity was slower than expected. They kept following the old logging roads snaking through the numerous clear cuts. After a few miles of hiking and bugling, my dad really started to second guess his decision to not take that spike.
On the way back to the truck, they turned on another logging road. A few minutes later, they heard a faint bugle off in the distance. It was in the direction they were headed, so they picked up their step.
They came upon a slight hill overlooking a large clear cut, and decided to stop and bugle. Kendal ripped off a bugle, and before he could even finish, a bull answered.
Through his binoculars, Dad saw several cow elk moving through the trees. Then the cows took off across the clear cut on a dead run. That’s when the bull bugled again. He had just topped the ridge, following the cows.
He was moving slowly through the trees, and then my dad found out why. The bull had to weave his way through the trees, tipping his huge 6 point rack from side to side.
Dad immediately dropped his binoculars picked up his Ruger 300 Win Mag. He could not believe what he was seeing! He said it was like a dream come true.
He watched as the bull approached the edge of the clear cut and then stopped 300 yards away. The bull was angling towards him slightly and didn’t present a clear shot. Suddenly, the bull bolted and headed across the clear cut.
The bull then slowed as he reached the middle of the clearing. That was all Dad needed! He squeezed the trigger and the .300 boomed. The bull stumbled, but kept moving, so Dad shot again, putting it down for keeps.
Dad started whooping and hollering and jumping up and down. As they walked up to the bull, they were amazed at how big it was. It was by far the largest elk my dad had ever harvested. They took lots of photos and began the job of skinning and preparing the elk so they could pack it out.
On the pack out they realized how far they had hiked in. It was over four miles back to the pickup! The bull ended up gross scoring 358 B&C.
I was only 10 years old when my dad had his hunt. In July 2007, I found out that I had drawn a tag for the same hunt my dad had years earlier! I had to call my dad, almost in shock! I read the hunt number and asked him to confirm that it was the same hunt and he double checked and told me congratulation son you are going after rutting bull elk with your rifle.
When September rolled around, my dad spent a lot of time archery hunting/scouting in the unit that I had drawn a tag for. He told me he was just “scouting for me an elk.” I kept telling him he had better not shoot my elk. He had many encounters during the month of September with a number of really nice bulls and some very nosey cows.
The day finally arrived, Oct. 1, 2007. We left the house at 4 a.m. We figured it worked great before. As we drove to the hunting spot, we discussed what size of elk I might shoot. I had never harvested an elk before, so my dad told me not to be too picky. I told him I would like to shoot one as big as his, he then told me he hoped I would shoot one even bigger!
I asked if could use my dad’s Ruger 300 Win Mag to shoot my bull. You could tell my dad was so proud to have his son use his rifle for his hunt. We arrived at the spot, unloaded our gear out of the vehicle and began the hike up the bottom of the canyon.
It was a crisp, clear Idaho October morning. We had only gone about a hundred yards in the dark when we heard a cow elk mew. She was just above us on the ridge top.
Now what? We kept listening for the sound of thundering hoofs running off, but it didn’t happen. The cow just kept mewing. Then a bull answered on the other side of the canyon. I couldn’t believe it. We had elk on both sides of us. We thought for sure we were busted.
Luckily, the breeze was steadily blowing in our faces and the elk were above and slightly in front of us. We just sat and listened for a while and could tell the elk were moving at a steady pace up the canyon.
We waited a while for them to move up the canyon ahead of us. We decided to cross the next canyon and try to get in front of the elk herd. The wind at daybreak usually changes and blows up the canyons, so we hoped it would be in our favor.
After about another 45-minute of hiking steadily uphill, we were in place above the elk. It was still about a half hour before daylight. We sat under a big fir tree waiting for my old man to catch his breath! I thought for sure he would scare off any elk with his wheezing! When he finally could breathe again I bugled to see if a bull would answer in the dark. Sure enough a bull answered just below us!
After that elk bugled, another bull answered him to our left. Then another bull answered to our right! Dad looked at me and he said he could see this big white smile through the dark.
We listened to the elk bugle and the coyotes howl until it started to get light. The elk didn’t seem to be moving much, so we just waited for light and enjoyed the music. As it got light, the elk bugling slowed to a stop, so my dad bugled as we prepared to move toward the closest bull.
The bull answered but was farther down the canyon. We were not sure if the elk had smelled us, and that was why they moved back down the canyon. The wind was now coming up the canyon from the elk, so we headed back down toward them. After closing perhaps half the distance, we stopped and glassed the trees below. We could see a number of elk down the canyon about 600 yards away, including two bulls that looked pretty good and a number of smaller bulls and cows.
One bull really looked interesting. He had palmated tops that looked almost like a caribou’s. The elk were occasionally bugling, so we just planned to stalk within a good distance then cow call to see if we could pull one of bulls to us.
We had covered about 100 yards when we watched in disbelief as the elk all took off across the canyons! We figured they had winded us and were going to go around us and up the next canyon.
We took off down one side of the canyon and back up the other side. At the top of the canyon, we stopped and glassed. Nothing! I thought we had spooked them. We waited about 10 minutes and decided to bugle. To our surprise, a bull answered about 200 yards straight below us. Then another bull answered him!
We both regained our enthusiasm and grabbed our packs. The wind was in our favor, and we stalked within 100 yards of the bull. We were slowly sneaking down a game trail and around a large bush when my dad looked ahead and saw two cow elk standing 50 yards in front of us looking right at us!
We froze. The stare down was on! We found out a cow elk can stand still and stare at us far longer then we can her. It seemed like a half hour, but then my dad tried to lean back behind the bush and that was all it took. The two cows turned and headed down the canyon.
He told me he knew they were headed, and it was very open terrain there! We ran to the edge of the canyon and saw the cows below us at about 200 yards. My dad told me to get ready because the bulls will follow.
I held up the Ruger .300 Win Mag and watched through the scope as the cows ran out into the clearing. Then a small 5-point bull appeared. I asked, “Should I take him? Dad said, “ It’s your call.”
Just then another bull stepped out and headed across the bottom of the canyon on a full run. He was far bigger! The cows had slowed and stopped on the opposite side, so he figured the bull would also. Sure enough, the bull stopped broadside and looked back at us. My dad asked me if he was big enough.
Boom! He had his answer.
It was one of the best experiences of my life. We took a bunch of photos and skinned and boned the elk to pack out. We only had a half-mile to pack the elk back to the vehicle. My bull gross-scored 298 B&C.
I felt so lucky to have experienced this great hunting experience with my dad using his rifle. It was a great experience I will never forget. Thanks, Dad!