Editor’s Note: On Friday we search through the extensive Safari Magazine archives and bring you a story from the past. This week we join Don Myers on a handgun hunt for a majestic bull elk in 1991. This story originally ran in the March/April 1994 issue of Safari Magazine.
The air had something extra in it that morning as we topped the ridge overlooking Cotton Mesa Valley. It was crystal clear, clean and charged with electricity and the smell of pine needles. We had walked a mile and were not totally hidden on an outcropping of rock surrounded by pine and juniper trees. Robert Gegenheimer -who with his father Lester owns and operates Cotton Mesa Trophy Elk -was my guide. I had earlier met this father-and-son team at the hunters’ convention where I purchased my hunt. The Gegenheimers had told me the area was beautiful and they had told the truth. We were right in the big middle of their 10,000-acre hunting area and it was breathtaking.
I was admiring a pair of golden eagles soaring on a thermal when I heard it. It sounded like a lion, a hawk and a Hereford bull had all got together and were trying to imitate Tarzan! It was an eerie and wild sound that echoed up and down the valley. Surely this same sound had been heard by some ancient brother hunting the highlands for the prehistoric Irish elk. This bugle sounded prehistoric, too! My eyes strained through the binoculars trying to find the creator of the call when I heard it again. My grin was 100 percent legitimate. To my amazement, there were two perfectly symmetrical, above-average tree limbs moving in the brush parallel and across the canyon from us. Suddenly, the big bull elk broke cover. That’s when another magnificent 6×6 bull and its harem of cows moved out of the cover down below us. They had been unseen in the thick brush. As 20 or more cow elk moved off, the great bull surveyed the ground between itself and the intruder, much as a commander looks over the battlefield before engaging.
I was being quiet, considering I felt as though I had just found the equivalent of King Tut’s tomb. I drew the .454 Cassull handgun from under my arm, knowing for certain the bull would hear my heart thumping at any moment. Just as gun cleared holster, I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard Robert’s voice say, “I think we can do better.”
Rats! I felt like a little boy whose mother just told him, “Maybe you’ll get that present next Christmas.” But, I was a complete novice and Robert the consummate professional. I lowered the pistol. As I did, the herd bull saw the cows disappear over the rise and must have realized there was no longer a need to fight. All was still, as if it had never happened.
That evening at the lodge, the conversation sounded a lot like a bunch of sports writers getting together after a big game. There are many types of terrain on Cotton Mesa’s thousands of acres, so the three other hunters had stories to tell. We discussed sightings of mule deer, white-tails and, of course, elk. Over a dinner of rainbow trout we made plans for the next morning. During the next three days I saw many more elk, and some were trophy bulls. By now, the other men had collected record book animals but I kept looking for that special one.
On the afternoon of the fourth day, we had walked to the head of a dense canyon and stopped to look and listen. We heard a noise about 50 yards away, so Robert gave a chirp on his cow call. There was no immediate response to his call. Then, ever so slightly, a 20-foot cedar tree began to sway in the breeze. It bent back and forth a bit more with each wave until it started to look like Johnson grass in a high wind. About then I noticed that none of the other trees was moving.
The sound we heard had been a bull elk. We carefully crawled toward the natural disaster, looking like a couple of praying mantises in camo. We approached to within 20 yards where we got a glimpse of its antlers. With head down and aimed right at me he looked, well, prehistoric! The beams were so wide and long, I actually thought it would be the new world record. But then, I was more than a little excited. The cactus I was lying on didn’t hurt a bit.
We were still downwind with no chance to shoot. All I could do was watch the spectacle and appreciate the situation. I was in the middle of nowhere, lying on the ground 20 yards from something completely wild that could shake a tree the size of the national Christmas tree in Washington, D. C. The motion stopped abruptly as we all heard a bugle from farther down in the canyon. Our bull must have backed away from the tree because we never saw it turn. It was … gone!
We got back on a trail and slowly started after the big animal, trying to keep the wind in our favor, pulling through very thick timber and brush. It is amazing how a creature the size of four linebackers, carrying a television antenna on its head, can move so silently in these overgrown woods. We lost the bull three times over the next two hours. Each time, just as we thought it was over, we would hear the bugle. Our bull was still challenging the now retreating bull who had thought it over, we were sure, and was in the process of acting on another primeval instinct -discretion.
One ingredient a trophy hunter needs in the ol’ bag of tricks is luck. And, as luck would have it, we swung around and ended up ahead of the bull with the wind in our faces. We stopped, out of breath, and listened. The bull was coming and it was close. It was very thick where we were now and I did not think I’d have a shot. But luck was with me. It came up and tapped me on the shoulder, like Santa Claus, with one more forgotten gift. The bull stopped walking and started working over another tree. That’s all I needed. With the raking sounds covering my movements I quickly took a position that gave me a three-foot-wide shooting lane on the bull’ s trail.
Finally. It had come down to this. The end of the game. One second on the clock. Time to turn all the cards over. It was getting dark fast. Now or never. If it took another trail, the game was over. If it went back the way it had come, it was over. If either of us waited too long, finito! But sometimes things just work. And hard hunting does pay off. I listened hard, heard a rock turn, it was the bull. It was coming and still on the trail that would lead straight into the record book.
Time shifted into slow motion. Not too slow. But slow enough to see every little detail surrounding me. I looked at Robert. He smiled and silently said, “He’s all yours.” Then Robert very slowly faded behind me. As the huge bull made the final step into my everlasting memory the gun jumped in my hand and the bullet split the hair it had been fired at. The muzzle blast blew leaves off of trees and flattened the grass in front of me. Between recoil and dust cloud, I lost sight of the bull for an instant.
When I recovered, the bull was gone like a puff of smoke. In the next second I was bounding down the side of the canyon that moments before I had chosen every step to traverse. Like a Cape buffalo in long grass I parted the cedars on my 20-yard run to the bottom. There it was. Magnificent! The shot had been a good one, just as I had dreamed it would be a few seconds before. The bull was mine!
Robert thought I had broken a leg from all the yelling. I sat down beside the bull and admired it while Robert worked his way toward me. This would be, in the autumn of 1991, the No. 2 elk taken with a hand-gun. It was almost dark now. We took some quick pictures then field dressed and caped the elk, leaving the meat in the cold night air until morning. On the way back to the lodge we relived the entire experience just as I have done many times since that day on Cotton Mesa when I was privileged to hunt the King of the Valley.—Don Myers