I’d never been this close to a bull elk my entire life.
It was surreal, like when you hunt whitetails hard for days on end, only seeing does and fawns, and then a Booner enters the field. Like working a hard gobbling, hung-up Eastern longbeard for an hour and then you finally see a bronze tailfan pop up over the ridge into the morning sunlight. “Holy s#*t, this is actually going to happen…”
But there we were. The bull a mere 12 yards in front of me. My buddies Ed and Michael 75 yards behind me. All of this is happening 2,000 miles away from my studio, in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming.
The first three days of hunting had been fun, but hard. We were fresh and ready to explore. We were in “find elk” mode and covering a lot of ground to do so. We hiked 6-8 miles each day, chasing elk down into rugged, rocky canyons. The type of terrain that you only hike once or twice, when you’re new to a place and don’t know any better. The kind of canyons that you dub with a nickname once you’re done with them and vow to never to do again.
Ed’s dad, Dave, was the much wiser, experienced big game hunter of our crew. Known affectionately as Papa E, The Sage, and Lucky Dave, he’s seventy-four years old and has hunted with a recurve for the majority of those years. We were amazed at how well the ol’ man did on the 1,000 vertical foot hikes in and out of these hell holes. But after three days of grinding, Papa E wanted to take a day off, eat a real breakfast and rest his legs.
The four of us had been purchasing Wyoming preference points for a decade, knowing that one day we’d use them together. But rather than all four of us burn our points for this one trip, we decided that Dave and I would cash in our points this year, with Michael and Ed saving theirs for another year. With Dave taking a day off, I was the designated shooter when “the three boys” headed out together.
To make a long story short, we struck a bull with a locator bugle around 10 am on that fourth morning. He was on the opposite side of a large canyon, in a saddle that Michael had marked on OnX month’s earlier as a likely spot for elk to bed. He was the only bull we’d heard all morning and, being the only game in town, we made a move on him.
We were already at the same elevation as the bull. To avoid losing any of that precious elevation we’d worked for, we made the mile hike in a large, horseshoe path around the canyon and approached the bull at his level. As we drew closer, a hailstorm stopped our progress, and we hunkered down to wait it out. Once we stopped getting pelted and the storm let up, we finished our trek and moved in for a setup.
Our first setup yielded nothing more than a glimpse of movement about 75 yards below us, which Ed spotted. He couldn’t tell if it was a bull or cow, just an elk shape moving through the dark timber below. After a half hour, they put their reeds back in their pockets and we went silent for a while and rechecked the wind. The combined force of the thermals and wind had our scent blowing everywhere. Like a football team wrapping up a dismal first half, we took a knee and headed back to the locker room to regroup and make adjustments. We backed up a couple hundred yards to figure out our next move.
For the next two hours, life kinda sucked. As we sat down to gameplan, a rainstorm settled in, and the three of us huddled individually under our ponchos and didn’t talk much. We checked the weather to see when the storm might pass and looked at the terrain on OnX to see if another alternative stood out. I think we were each hoping that by staring at our phones, technology would somehow give us the magical answer of what to do next.
One thing was for sure though – we were too committed to do anything else. By now it was 4:00 in the afternoon and there wasn’t enough daylight to hike all the way out and make another play before dark. We had to see this one out. We pushed in, moving through saddle where the bull had been bedded and stopping to cow call when the conditions and the setting felt right.
Eventually, a bull responded a few hundred yards above us on the mountain. Whether this was our initial bull or a new one, we didn’t really care. We were back in the game. We repositioned to get the wind and terrain in our favor and as I set up, Michael and Ed started cow calling and popping limbs, sounding like a rambunctious herd moving through the saddle.
The bull seemed timid though. His bugle seemed passive and nonchalant, and his chuckle was fast and low, like a cartoon ape scratching his armpit. I was after my very first bull though and I wasn’t going to be picky when it came to antler size. Assuming this was a satellite, Michael kept his bugling to a minimum so as not to intimidate the bull to a point he turned around and left.
But after an hour of actively working this bull (and nearly eight hours after locating him), he had yet to come significantly closer. Something had to give. I began slipping closer to the bull, moving tree to tree until I felt good about my cover and my shooting lanes. At the same time, Michael moved closer in behind me, turned his bugle tube to face the bull and directly challenged him with a long, loud, aggressive, ballsy bugle. We collectively held our breath to see what would happen next. The brief silence was broken with a low growl that rose to a high-pitched scream, followed by the bull’s signature chuckle. As the kids say these days, this time when he responded, he had that dawg in him. We’d struck a nerve.
Minutes later, I glimpsed the right side of his antler raking a pine at sixty yards. The bull had come directly down the hill and was thrashing this poor, small pine. He was maintaining the high ground while doing this, no doubt trying to locate the bull that challenged him and intimidate him from above. He was upwind and staring past me though, looking towards the cow calls that echoed through the saddle. He had no idea I was in the world.
I’ve seen lots of videos where bulls get within feet of the hunter, then turn inside out and run off once they recognize their folly. This bull was at twelve yards quartering hard to me, about to step over a log an end up within feet of my broadhead. I wasn’t about to let this situation get out of hand, so at ten yards I settled my pin ahead of his front shoulder and let it fly. The bull ran fifty yards, crashed once, then crashed again, and all was silent.
The silence was soon broken by three buddies doing what all dudes do when something like this happens. We fall apart. All of the focused precision, whispering, breath holding and self-restraint it took to get to the kill shot fades away like a scent puffer in a stiff 25 mph wind. The pendulum swings back the other way, with fist bumps, hugs and “Holy s#*t, this actually happened!”
The rain had cleared and, like it always does after a storm, produced an epic sunset. We took pics with the bull, facetimed our kids with our spotty service, then began the work of quartering the bull as darkness settled in. The pack job wasn’t terrible, and we miraculously found an unmarked horse trail in the dark that led right back to the trailhead which made our trek out much easier.
Lucky Dave had been out of the loop all day, as his cell phone couldn’t get a lick of service. He spent the day drinking coffee, watching tv and chumming it up with other elk and mule deer hunters back at camp. At 1:30 am, we burst into his hotel room with the skull and antlers of my bull, like three boys in bib overalls showing their grandpa a giant bullfrog they had caught.
The boys had gotten the job done.
As an artist, I’m always looking to learn from nature. The mountains are an infinite source of new ideas and inspiration for new art. But sometimes the classroom surprises me, and the lessons are much deeper and meaningful than simply watching a golden aspen and wondering what colors I would mix to paint it. Sometimes the lessons are grit, determination, and persistence. To put one foot in front of the other and trust myself, and my buddies. It’s learning to stop in the middle of a pack out and appreciate the pain, the sweat, and the breathlessness and appreciate it all, knowing that it’s a rare experience and one that should be felt and cherished.
Those Bighorn Mountains gave me a lot that trip – my first bull, inspiration for a new painting and a freezer full of elk steaks. But more valuable than all of these are the laughs, lessons and labor I put into it this with my buddies. Those are the things that will remain long after the last bite of elk steak.
“I’m excited to get back to my studio to produce new elk paintings from this experience. In the meantime, check out my favorite canvas prints featuring bull elk below. You can also see my full lineup of elk and western big game art by clicking here.
"Blowing Smoke" Canvas Print