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November 2023
Story by Robert Bell
Hunters: Dan Bell
State: Arizona
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

As my children and grandchildren get older, I see and recognize the importance of hunting together. I enjoy hunting with them more than my own hunts, especially if I get to tag along. This year, my grandson, Dan, will graduate from high school. I thought long and hard about what to give him for graduation.

In 2022, I drew a late season Arizona elk tag and knew this would be the right choice for Dan’s graduation gift. He loves to hunt and had never shot an elk, so I checked out the opportunity for Dan to join me. Each state wildlife agency has a different take on licenses and tags for junior hunters. Arizona Game and Fish has a program for “gifting” your big game tag to a minor relative. The process is simple and costs $8 for the processing and Notary fees. Following the AZGFD process, I was able to gift my tag to Dan as his upcoming graduation gift.

Dan and his sister both harvested nice mule deer locally, but Dan was really excited about the trip to Arizona. He practiced with a couple of rifles throughout the summer and fall. He likes his great-grandfather’s 30-06 Ackley Improved in a pre-64 model 70, ultimately deciding to use it to backup Black Betty, my Remington Sendero 300 RUM which has scope turrets for a bit more reliability in case of longer shot opportunities, and he shoots it really well.

A friend and I drove down a few days early while Nick and Dan arrived the afternoon before the opener. Like only a great hunting partner and friend would do, Paul had been glassing and scouting ahead of our arrival. We did some scouting only to confirm Paul’s intel. We were ready for the opener.

Opening morning was clear, cool, and crisp. The plan was to post up a couple of lookouts with Dan, Nick, and myself hiking into where a good bull had been spotted. The good bull was observed by our spotters as on the previous morning, visible only during the first five minutes of light and then heading into a steep canyon.

The three of us followed the plan, working slowly down the canyon into the wind. We located a 6-point bull feeding a couple hundred yards in front and down in the bottom. Dan slowly set up for a prone shot off his pack. A couple minutes later, he calmly asked if he should harvest this bull the first day. It was a younger 6-point bull and very narrow. All I told him was it wasn’t the bigger bull we’d been looking for, but it was up to him. Dan decided to let it walk.

Across the drainage were a couple of pickups with multiple spotters glassing and a couple hunters with rifles. They had watched us and were closer to the bull than we were, but they couldn’t see it due to the topography. The wind had switched and was now wrong to continue this direction, so we needed to back out and come around to the other end. Once out, we moved a mile down the drainage. We started to sneak up to locate the bigger bull, all the while watching one of the other hunters and some of the spotters try to find the bull we had left.

As we got close to where we had seen the bigger bull go into the drainage, we saw a shooter set up and shoot at what we believed was the bull we had passed. This is when things got crazy. Five 6-point bulls came running down the drainage towards us. Trying to determine the best bull was difficult and then one stood out. The grass was so tall Dan couldn’t get down prone and even had a hard time sitting without grass impeding his shot. The bulls didn’t stop running, and the body of the bigger bull was never exposed, just head and horns. They got past us, but we didn’t see the big one go out and down the drainage. Paul was on the opposite side watching. I called him, and he said, “It’s coming up slope right at you guys.”

I was on top while Nick and Dan were 50 yards below looking in the drainage. The big bull trotted right past them in a side draw, but they only could see tops of horns. As they scrambled up slope, the bull topped out and stopped to look back. He was broadside at 50 yards from me, yet now completely out of view from Dan. Then he ran out of sight. That was day one.

In the next few days, we had some close calls, heard a few shots, and had put some fun sneaks in. Dan was starting to wonder about passing the opening day bull. I explained that this happens, but I had had a similar experience several years earlier, passing some decent bulls on the opener then nothing for four days after. Finally on day six, I located and harvested a good bull.

By day six, we had begun to learn some of the dirt and had a good plan. With two spotters hiking into newfound high points and planning on making their way towards us in the middle, Dan, Nick, and I made a hike in along a side drainage. The ground ran from flat to near vertical, with a million hiding places and a few spots of water present. Two miles in, I saw Nick hold up his hand for me to stop.

I was behind and above the boys watching the flats above, doing my best to not spook anything in front of them. Nick motioned to me that he’d located a good bull and we were to back up and reposition. I waited for instructions since he had the plan. We joined and moved a couple hundred yards back and then around to a rock outcropping for a possible shot. Yep, perfect place. We could see the bull feeding with a couple of cows. We took our time building a crib and shooting platform for Dan as they continued to feed.

Dan was almost perfect and relaxed when he said he needed the pack under the butt raised just little more. I reached over, gave the pack a slight push to gain elevation, and a plastic water bottle in a side pouch made a horrible crinkling sound. The bull, at just under 400 yards, didn’t raise his head or look our way, he just started to run. I hit a cow call. He stopped and looked back, and the 180 Nosler E-Tip was on its way.

The bull didn’t appear hit, running about 20 yards as Nick and I both calmly told Dan to send another one. Before he could, the bull stopped, walked back almost the same 20 yards, and fell over.

I told Dan to keep an eye on it until we were sure he had expired. Dan watched as it took its last breath, a single leg kick. Then he took a deep breath, turned, and looked at us and said, “I smoked him.” Seeing a tear run down my cheek, he asked if I was okay. All I could say was, “I’m fine buddy. You’ll understand someday.” He had shot a good bull with my gifted tag and the same rifle that his father and I had each shot our own first bulls with – Black Betty.

The walk down to the bull was amazing. We let Dan be the first to see and touch it. That look on his face was priceless and was so very worth gifting my tag. The hugs, high fives, and photo session were fun as we had time to take it all in and not be rushed due to darkness or weather. Dan has always been the guy who boned the quarters as we cut them off. This time, he wanted to be the one to break it down and let us bone it out and bag it up.

The pack out wasn’t too bad. We did it in one heavy trip with Dan packing a big load, then adding the head and horns. Later, at Paul’s house, we hung the meat to cool and I caped the head. We reviewed the GPS, seeing an average 11.5-mile daily hike. We processed all the meat and got it in the freezer for the trip home.

Once home, Dan was able to share his Arizona elk hunt with his five classmates, explaining why he had been out of school.

As always, we have many to thank. My hunting partner Paul came through, as always. He and Debbie were gracious hosts. Cory was a huge help driving, hiking, glassing, and packing for us. AZGFD provided great game management and the opportunity for me to gift the tag to Dan. And of course, the wives, mothers, grandmothers, daughters-in-law, and sisters that supported us and had Thanksgiving dinner at home without us, again! Love you guys, thank you!
Happy graduation, Dan!