It took 10 years to draw the coveted Arizona archery elk permit.
“The Arizona draw results are up online,” my buddy said. “So what?” I thought, “I never draw anyway.” This was back in May, but when I went to the website and saw that, after 10 years of applying, I had picked a coveted September archery elk tag, I about peed my pants. Are you kidding me?
Having been down this road before, I knew that having the tag is just the beginning of a long quest at getting a shot at a good bull. Despite what many might think, the days of accruing bonus or preference points in several states each year, then when you draw just showing up, hunting on your own and shooting a big bull or buck is not as easy as picking blueberries in a year of good rain. That’s why I called my friend Gary “Goose” Howell and booked his services. Goose has over 20 years of experience in the outfitting business in this region. In fact, he is so good he has been selected by many well-heeled hunters who have purchased governor’s tags in Arizona and elsewhere to be their personal guide. It was some of the best money I ever spent. Here’s why.
“Because it has become increasingly difficult to draw a top-quality, high-demand hunting permit on public land in the western United States, it is imperative to implement a plan and conduct your due diligence if you hope to be successful,” Howell said. “You must do all of the research and do your own pre-scouting or hire a qualified, experienced guide/outfitter to do the work for you. This is critical! Failure to do either or both of those things will lead you to certain failure and disappointment.”
“Even if you opt to hire an outfitter, you must make sure they both know and have successfully hunted that specific unit, what class of trophies they have harvested in that unit and what you should expect to harvest, given your goals, weapon proficiency and physical condition,” Howell said. “It is also imperative that the outfitter and his guide(s) are available to pre-scout everything and do everything for you, so you may make the most of your hunting opportunity.”
I began my preparation the day after I drew my tag. My archery setup is a 70-lb., 28-inch draw length Hoyt Carbon Element bow, 28 ½-inch Beman ICS 340 shafts fletched with NAP QuikFletch vanes and tipped with 125-grain Thunderheads and for a total arrow weight of 425 grains; raw arrow speed is right at 270 fps and it shoots like a dream. For four months prior to the opener I had been shooting my bow five mornings a week before work and was confident in that regard. Plus, I upped my regular fitness regimen, which was a good thing, since guide Jon Vance’s GPS told us that in four days we had hiked something like 47 miles over rough, rocky ground in search of “Big Tommy.”
Before the hunt began, I made two scouting trips with Goose and Jon, and we formulated a game plan that included four different contingencies based on what we thought the elk might do, as well as what other hunters in the unit might do. We made camp three nights before opening day and hit the ground running. The evening before the season opened, Jon and I were scouting when we spotted two big bulls wallowing on an open lake shore. One Jon–who has successfully guided numerous AZ elk hunters over the years–figured was a 350-class stud. We called him The Wallow Bull.
We spent the next several days in the middle of the elk, and in fact I was within shooting range of three bulls Jon and I both thought would push 350. Problem was, we were hunting in the thick cedars and even though we were close, there were no shots. On the end of day three, after we had put in 16 miles of hard hiking, we ended up near the first evening’s wallow. About a half mile farther down the lake I spotted a giant 6×6 bull with cows. Jon cranked the video camera up and I took off running, circling into the trees in hopes of getting close enough. By the time I got there it was too late, but another whopper bull bugled hard and began running cows after leaving the tree cover from a spot behind a small peninsula that blocked his exact entry point from my view. I watched him for 30 minutes, but the closest the cover would allow me to get was 120 yards, so not wanting to spook them, I backed off.
Next morning, Jon and I hunted near the lakeshore and called in a small 5×5 to 12 steps, but I passed him up. Pressure from other hunters had taken its toll by then, and daytime bugling had dropped from the raucous screaming of the first two days of the season to a stray bugle here and there. Thankfully, our scouting and hard hunting had shown us the pockets in which the elk were living, so we had a plan. At lunchtime I showed Jon where the big bulls had come out of the trees and crossed the small isthmus. “I brought some blind material with me,” I told him. “I want to build a blind in the snag trees right here and see if we can get lucky this evening.”
And so we did, setting up on the edge of the thick cedars with about 80 yards of open beach between the blind and water’s edge. I set some yardage sticks in the ground and topped them with wicks dipped in Wildlife Research Center’s Elk Fire cow estrous scent in case something came in downwind and, by 3 p.m., I was nestled in while Jon went to check trail cameras and do some scouting. By 5 p.m., the plan was for him to be back where he had videoed the action from the evening before, since sitting this tiny blind was a one-man game.
By 6:30 it would be too dark to shoot, so when I had not heard a bugle nor seen an elk by 6 p.m., I began to have my doubts. Then, out of nowhere, several cows and calves came out of the cedars 45 yards upwind of my blind, passed behind thick snags, and stopped to feed on the open grasses. My rangefinder told me they were 60 yards off. “If a bull comes out, I can make that shot,” I thought. Then I looked up and, to my surprise and horror, a huge cow was standing not 30 yards from my little semi-open blind, staring my way! Oh, no…
But she looked right through me, turned her head and walked toward the other elk, her calf in tow. At that same moment, a raucous bugle almost took my hat off! Right where the cow had exited the thick cedars, the bull screamed and trashed a tree! Then I saw his antler tips just over the tops of the cedars as he strutted his way toward the cow. When he stepped clear I was already at full draw. Two steps and he was broadside, 27 yards, and I cow chirped. He stopped and swung his head my way, but by then the arrow had been launched. In a blur the fletching disappeared right behind the shoulder–a perfect double lung hit. I watched him race through the cows, across the water and onto the other shoreline, but he only made it about 100 yards before piling up.
Ohmygawd! The plan worked! Later, after pictures, butchering and meat packing, back at camp we plugged the video into the little TV Goose has in his trailer. That’s when Hunter Weems, a cool 18-year old who wants to be a guide and will end up a really good one, said, “That’s The Wallow Bull!” Neither Jon nor I had noticed the two little extra points on the end of the left beam when we had videoed him the evening before the opener, but there they were. We had shot the bull we had hoped to find, something that made it even more special.
That this old bull gross-scores 360 SCI points is outstanding, but it doesn’t define this hunt. It was the fact that, as a team, Goose, Jon and I had done our homework, constructed a game plan, and then hunted our petunias off to make it happen. And so, after all had gone to bed in preparation for the next day’s hunt (Goose had another client, Iowan Kevin Loy, in camp; Kevin killed a dandy 6×6 bull a few days later after the team spent several days in pursuit of a monster 6×6 we all thought would push the 400 SCI point mark), I sat alone out under the stars, thinking. Orion’s belt was visible in the Milky Way, and a sliver of moon rested just above the horizon in the cloudless sky. How lucky we are, I thought, to be free men in America and able to enjoy the great outdoors. We sometimes take it for granted that it will always be this way. That night I prayed that, for the grandchildren, it will always be so.– Bob Robb