Two, Once-in-a-Lifetime Bulls
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Whether you’ve known me my entire life or you’ve just started reading these stories, you’ll know that I love the outdoors. I mean, I choose to live in Montana where until about a year ago the number of cattle was higher than the human population. Though I wasn’t born in this state, my parents hauled me and my older sister from the flatlands of eastern North Dakota to the beautiful Gallatin Valley. Our first house was on the border of the Bridger National Forest and I spent my youth exploring everything public lands have to offer including, particularly for this story, big game hunting.
Before I get into the details, I’d like to preface this story by acknowledging hunting can have a negative stigma associated with it. There’s no avoiding it, unethical hunters exist. There are unethical people in every walk of life. I take the sport seriously and act as ethically as I can. I don’t take harvesting another creature’s life lightly. I don’t kill animals for the racks or the bragging rights. Most of the time I take the first opportunity that presents itself. I hunt to preserve an honored tradition and provide a source of lean protein each year. When I harvest an animal I’ve killed, I try not to let anything go to waste and take pride in knowing exactly where the meat in my freezer comes from. I make sure I’m as ethical a hunter as I can be.
Growing up, I literally walked in the footsteps of my father, tracking elk through the mountains. He had a 270-caliber rifle, and I had his 22. I took hunter's safety when I was twelve and killed my first elk at thirteen with that trusty 270 Savage. Through the many fall days I hunted with my father, there’s one hunt that will always be ‘king’ in my mind. It was my first big bull.
This was ten years ago now, and I was twenty years old. I’d come home from college for Thanksgiving break and the last days of the general elk hunting season. Finals were looming around the corner, and it was the last opportunity to fill the freezer. On the last day of the season, my dad suggested a day hunt in one of his favorite spots. Being the end of November, the lower elevations had accumulated a decent amount of snow. We got up early and headed to the trailhead. The plan was to do a loop, up one drainage and back down another. Stepping out of the Suburban in the freezing temperatures, we geared up. Multiple thermal layers, thick wool pants, snow boots, jackets, hats, gloves, and high visibility orange. With our backpacks lightly packed for the day’s hiking needs and my dad’s trusty 270 Savage slung over my shoulder, we started through the deep snow. Now, my dad’s rifle had a scope, but due to falling on it several times over the season, the scope’s sights had become too far off to be trusted in making accurate shots. My dad is a commercial pilot and didn’t have the time between work and the holiday to sight it in again before our hunt, so he just took it off. I’d practiced shooting iron sights many times before and felt proficient to trust my shot up to a hundred yards. The only tricky part is getting within a hundred yards of an elk during rifle season is often hard to do.
Soon after starting to hike, shooting light was upon us, meaning hunting was legally open for the day. Nearly an hour into the hike, we were heading up slope to crest a ridge when we heard a rifle fire. The nearby blast jolted us to attention, and we quickly tucked behind a thick tree. We had our orange on, but with a shot so close, you can’t be too careful. After a few seconds, my dad whispered, “Put one in the chamber in case elk come running this way.” The thought hadn’t crossed my mind. I was reliving an elk hunting experience from six years prior when my dad and I snuck around a herd of elk that were stuck out in an open field. People were lined up on the two roads keeping the elk from crossing. When the herd spooked, people started shooting, even while we were beyond their targets. I still remember hearing the shots and seeing dirt fly near where we were standing.
I chambered a bullet and waited at the ready for elk to come running down the hill. After several minutes with nothing showing, I unloaded, and we continued up the slope. Within two hundred yards we came across the hunter who fired the shot. He was filling out his tag on a nice six-by-six bull elk. With a general elk tag in this area, it’s legal to harvest brow tine bull elk only. We admired the animal with him, congratulating him and learning that there were more in his party on the other side of the ridge. He said the other elk with the one he shot went up-slope. My dad and I kicked ourselves for not showing up earlier and getting the chance to fill an elk tag. Had the other bulls ran the other way, we might’ve had an opportunity. Regardless, we took it as a good sign that the elk we could harvest were in the area. When elk are spooked they can run miles and miles over steep and rough terrain very quickly. We had our work cut out for us if we wanted a shot at the bulls that were in this group.
We followed the tracks for a while, but after seeing that they weren’t slowing down from their sprint up the mountain, we reverted to our original plan. To get into the next drainage over, we needed to come down, cross the creek and go up the next ridge before dropping down again. At the creek, the snow was over waist deep and it took a great effort to dig and pull ourselves across and up the hill. By the time we made it across, we needed a rest. Cold lunch and nearly frozen water gave us the fuel needed to continue.
We walked for about three or more hours, not seeing anything but steep hillside and thick forest. It was getting to be midafternoon and here in Montana at the end of November that means dark is coming. I was at the point in the day where I was complacent, just looking every once in a while at the slope below, but only seeing the same white forest floor as before. Soon, we paused and my dad said, “Keep an eye on those rolling benches. This could be a suitable spot for elk to bed.” Within about ten minutes we saw fresh elk tracks. I started following them, rifle ready for when we might see them. When something like this happens, my heart rate goes up and I get a tingling sensation about the prospect to come. After about a half hour following the same two tracks, I was thinking these elk had passed through that morning and were long gone. The excitement faded, and I went back to complacently side-hilling, no longer tracking the elk. We were nearing the end of the descent and coming close to the other drainage’s trailhead. Our plan was to angle away when we hit the forest service boundary and head back to the Suburban.
I was in the lead, side-hilling slowly down when I slipped. I fell right on my butt and just sat there in the snow. I was tired and being seated on the ground for a few seconds felt pretty welcomed. While I was on my butt taking a few moments to rest, I saw a dark elk’s antler sweeping out to the side from around a tree. That’s all I saw of him, but that was enough to let me know that there was a big bull elk a few hundred yards downhill. My heart leapt into my throat and started racing. I got the tingly sensation and adrenaline kicked in. I told my dad I could see a bull. It moved out of view and we couldn’t spot it from where we were. He told me he couldn’t see it, but that I should go for it. So I did.
With just iron sights, I knew I needed to get close. Luckily, the snow was fresh and dry. It was cold powder that barely makes a sound when you walk through it. I chambered a round and stared angling above the bull. After a short way, I caught sight of him again. He was most certainly big, and more importantly, legal. I started down the slope, stopping a few times behind a tree to gauge my distance. The bull was with a cow elk and they were grazing slowly across the slope, stopping to dig through the snow for fresh feed. With the snow silencing my feet, I snuck to about seventy yards away from the bull. I was in comfortable shooting range for my no-scope rifle.
My heart throbbed from nervousness as my body tremored with adrenaline. From behind a tree, I knelt on one knee and rested the rifle against the tree trunk. I could see the bull clearly and had a good bead on him with the iron sights. There was a tree blocking his vitals, so I placed the bead just ahead to a gap in the trees that was ahead of him. It’s crucial at this point in the hunt to not let the adrenaline pumping through your body drastically change your shot placement. To do this, there are a few techniques. The first is to slowly squeeze the trigger and have the shot almost surprise you when it comes. This prevents pulling or jerking the gun when you fire. A second trick is to try to time your squeeze between breaths. Master marksmen can do it down to between heartbeats to ensure there’s no movement in their body when they squeeze the trigger.
The elk was approaching the gap in the trees where I held my iron sight bead. I slid the safety off and mentally prepared for the shot. When his shoulder met the tree before the gap I took a deep breath, slowly exhaling and readying my finger on the trigger. The elk walked out from behind the tree, giving me a broadside shot through the gap. I timed my exhale and squeezed the trigger. The muzzle flashed and the boom deafened in my ears. Instinctually, I chambered another round. Even with a lethal shot, elk can run for a distance. He picked his head up, standing right where he was. I steadied my aim and fired again, this time seeing him start to run. I too got to my feet and started after him, running down the slope. As the elk came out from behind another tree, I took aim and fired the third and final round. As I did, I saw the elk turn and look at me; I saw his eyes when he fell. They went wide. Whether that was from seeing me or from the shot, I don’t know, but he fell.
I thrust the gun into the air, whooping and hollering with joy. My dad came running down the hill after me, a big smile on his face. When we came to where the bull’s body lay, antlers pinned on a tree, we were both astonished at the size of his body and rack. The freezer would definitely be full. It took a while for it to sink in how much bigger the bull was than others I’d seen. After a photo and filling out my tag, we got to work on processing the animal. We tried to get him off the tree, but the way his body slid downhill, his antlers wedged on a tree, and we couldn’t move them. With his body downhill, we got him gutted and saw where my shots hit. The first shot ashamedly missed. My second hit him right in the heart and the third in his neck. After taking the time to prepare for the shot, taking the time to ensure what’s beyond it is safe and making your placement as accurate as possible, even when you think you’ve had a good shot and the animal continues to run, it’s hard to know exactly how good it was until you see it fall. While gutting this bull, we discovered a broadhead and arrow, broken about five inches from the broadhead fully healed over in the bull’s lung. Normally a lung shot is a kill shot and its part of the vital area hunters aim for. The person who took that shot likely did it ethically, seeing as how it hit the mark, yet the animal still got away. It’s remarkable how tough elk really are.
Not being able to process the elk in time before dark, my dad and I decided it was best to come back the next day with his friend’s team of horses and pack it out in sections. We marked it on the map, flagged the tree where it was hung on, and hiked out. Once home, we got to tell the tell story to the rest of the family. Because of my final exams back in Missoula, my dad sent me back to school the next day. I didn’t get to take part in the retrieval, but with the help of my dad’s friends and a few horses, they got the animal out. My dad said it took a come along winch to get the bull’s antlers off the tree that they were wedged on. Luckily the bull was down low on the hill and surprisingly close to the trailhead. It was a short pack for the horses. I certainly owe my dad an elk retrieval or two after that!
After getting the meat processed and seeing the set of antlers that came from that bull, I was committed in thinking that I peaked early with harvesting my largest bull elk. Like I said, I do it for the meat, not the rack. I’d just as soon taken a shot at any legal bull as I would’ve at that monster. That was until this year.
I moved to Columbus, Montana a few years ago with my wife. The small town country life has lots of perks, including the hunting opportunities. Most of the public land out here is divided up into the 16th and 32nd state land sections. If you’re from Montana, you’ll probably know about how the land was divided up in the 1800s and understand what I’m talking about. That means most of the land is private, meaning to hunt you either need to know someone and get permission or use the Block Management System.
When deciding which of the two rental opportunities we looked at when moving here, we unknowingly settled on the one that has elk. I found tracks and some sign while first exploring the hill behind our house. The next year we saw them a few times and I found a bull’s antler shed. After this, I looked into what it would take to hunt one of these bulls. In this district, it’s cow elk only for general rifle season. To get a bull tag, I had to put my name in the lottery and hope for the best. I wasn’t expecting to get the tag since the success is around ten percent, but sure enough when the results came, I was a lucky winner.
Throughout the year leading up to rifle season, I was tracking and paying attention to the group of elk on this property. During archery season, I patiently watched as the group of bulls came within a hundred yards but never close enough to get a shot I was comfortable with. On opening day of the rifle season it finally happened. It was an unusually wintry day this year. We had about eight inches of snow and the temperatures were in the single digits. Winds were steady in the teens and it was overall not a good weather day. Knowing the elk’s pattern, I went out to the area they like to come and feed before continuing off the property. I waited in the cold, sitting and shivering. With five minutes until shooting light was over, I decided to head in. I figured where I was sitting that I could see them if they were going to be in the spot. It was near zero degrees and I was going to call it for the day. Before leaving the spot I was in, I stopped to relieve myself. While I was, I glanced across the field and saw the group of bulls walking quickly toward me.
I knew there were only a few minutes left, but they were heading in quick. I got down on my stomach and crawled through the snow, setting up my rifle. I took my gloves off and found them in my scope. I could see four total. The one out front was the closest and was going to be the one I had a shot at within legal hours. It also happened to be the biggest in the group. I’d used my range finder earlier and saw that he was at my four-hundred-yard mark. With him moving quickly, it didn’t take long before he was within my two-hundred-yard mark. I wanted a clean broadside shot at him, but I was running out of time and he was heading straight at me. I’d just sighted my gun in a few days before and knew it was dead on at two hundred. With my bipod resting my gun, and me in a prone shooting position, I was more than comfortable taking the shot. I put a single bullet in his neck, right above where it met with the rest of his body. He dropped instantly.
Knowing the nature of an elk's toughness, I sprinted out to where he lay and put a shot point blank through his vitals. Being close to the house and with some help from great friends, I had the bull skinned, quartered and hanging within a few hours. A couple days later, my dad and I determined this bull was in fact bigger than the one we harvested ten years earlier.
I’m grateful for the luck I’ve had with finding such magnificent animals. This year, our freezers are full with the nearly three hundred pounds of lean meat I was able to harvest off that bull.