Growing up in Virginia, I spent most Sunday afternoons with my dad watching reruns of old Westerns like Gunsmoke and Rawhide. As a 10-year-old, I often fantasized what it was like to live during the wild gold rush days in California. I was reminiscing about those days of prospectors and outlaws as my plane touched down in California for my Tule elk hunt with Cary Jellison at the Shamrock Ranch. Cary was recommended to me by Huntin’ Fool, and after a couple years on the waiting list, it was finally my turn. As I drove along the winding dirt roads headed to the ranch house, I felt like a prospector in an old covered wagon headed to stake his claim. Finding gold in 1848 was just as much of a challenge as finding a trophy Tule elk today, and I was honored to be on this journey.
Cary has a fantastic ranch house with all the comforts of home, so I convinced my wife, Judy, to come along with me on this hunt. She is not a huntress herself, but she has made delicious meals out of every critter I have brought home over the years.
As soon as we arrived at the ranch house, Cary and I started planning our hunt while Jeb was hard at work in the kitchen preparing dinner.
Cary showed me some pictures of a nice bull he had caught on his trail camera the previous day. He said he constantly sees different bulls throughout the year, but this bull was brand new to the ranch and he was a definite shooter. We agreed we would spend the first few days trying to locate this bull.
On the first morning, we heard some great bugling and glassed up several nice bulls, but we decided to pass on all of them. It was late morning and we were hiking along and sharing stories about past hunting experiences when all at once Cary stopped dead in his tracks and said, “That’s him!” I got my binos up just in time to see a really nice bull and four cows go over the ridge. We were not sure if we spooked them or not, so we decided to take it nice and slow hiking up the ridge to see if the bull stopped in the canyon or if he headed off to the next zip code. We had to belly crawl the last few yards to remain undetected, and that is when I was introduced to these thistle bushes that had to be planted by the devil himself. These plants had needle-like spikes that would poke you in your hands, knees, legs, and anywhere else that was close to the ground. We managed to get to the top (after using several words that would make a seasoned sailor blush), and to our surprise, the bull and all four cows were grazing just on the opposite side of the canyon. We retreated over the ridge, took cover, and started calling. We were in a perfect spot, and the wind was right in our faces. We could not have drawn up the setup any better! That big ol’ bull ignored Cary’s first few bugles, but after a few minutes, he could not stand it any longer and roared back at us. He refused to move, but at least we knew we had his attention now. Over the next half hour, despite our best efforts, the bull would not move. Cary has years of experience with these bulls, and he knew exactly what to do next. He and Jeb backed down the ridge and got further away from the bull and fired up the calling again. Thinking his cows were being stolen, our bull got motivated and the next time he bugled he had moved over 100 yards closer to us. He kept walking, and in the blink of an eye, the bull was 8 yards from me, looking straight down the canyon toward Cary, and he had no idea I was even in the world. Standing next to me, he let out a bugle so powerful that I swear he slung snot on my hat. It took me a few seconds to collect my composure so I could draw back my Mathews bow and send an arrow in his direction. The bull had no idea what happened as he whirled around and walked off a few yards only to give me another shot. I knew I had a good hit with the first arrow, but anytime you have a chance to send a second arrow in a bull this large, you do it. After the second arrow ripped through the boiler room, he stumbled down the canyon and lay down. Cary and I decided to hike back to camp, have lunch, and come back in a few hours.
On our hike back for lunch, we crossed paths with an ornery rattlesnake blocking our path. I was still picking thorns out of my hands and legs from our belling crawling exercise a little earlier, so I was not up for any games. We did our best to get past the rattler, but he was determined to confront us at every move. Being completely out of patience, I decided to nock an arrow and end this Mexican standoff. Oddly enough, it was the same arrow I had used on the bull. No matter what happened with the bull, at least I knew I had a nice hat band for my cowboy hat.
We finally got back to the cabin for lunch, and that was the longest lunch of my life! I knew I had made a good shot, but elk are tough critters and I was a wreck thinking he would not be there when I returned. After pacing the floor, gnawing all my fingernails to the bone, and telling my wife the story for the third time, we decided to head back in hopes of having some butchering to do. We returned to the very spot where I shot both arrows and starting glassing. I looked where I last saw the bull and there was nothing but a patch of bloody, matted grass. I felt my heart drop to my boxers as Cary said, “I cannot believe he is not here.” As I stood there trying to keep my lunch down, I started glassing over the entire canyon. It seemed like we could see for miles. After a couple of minutes that felt like a couple of days, I noticed the sun glittering off the very tip of an antler, and when I took a closer look, I saw the other side! The bull was less than 75 yards from where we had left him, but he was in a small saddle that kept him mostly hidden from our vantage point. That ray of sunshine bouncing off his antler looked like a golden nugget in the meadow.
As I posed for pictures, I could not help but think back to the prospectors in those old Westerns I used to watch as a kid. I may never know what it feels like to be a real prospector, but I now know what it is like to find my own kind of California gold.