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An Unforgettable Hunt

September 2023
Story by Crew Bailey
State: Utah
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

My limited-entry elk hunt started like most do, with a charge on my bank account from Fish and Game. Once I saw that, the guessing game began of whose tag it was, telling myself it wasn’t mine because I didn’t think I had enough points for it. My wife said otherwise and kept saying it could be mine. The day the email arrived, my wife called and said, “It’s not my tag, it’s yours!” I couldn’t believe it!

Once the shock wore off, the planning began. I was shooting my bow three times a day, every day until the hunt came. I also took a handful of trips to the unit so I could learn the area. I had never been there before, and I wanted to be familiar with it. I took off work for the entire hunt so I could put in the time necessary to get the best chance at a good size elk.

The night before the opener, I scouted two really nice bulls and was getting excited as I saw where they were going to be for the next morning. When morning came, I found one of the bulls from the night before and started to put on a stalk. When I see what I’m going after while archery hunting, I immediately take my pack and shoes off during my stalk. I ended up sneaking down and started to notice how thick of cover this unit has. I couldn’t see more than a few yards in front of me, but I kept moving slowly through the brush. At 40 yards across, I saw the heavy six from the night before. He was bedded, but with how thick it was, I wasn’t able to get a shot. I stood there with him bedded in front of me for a while with nothing I could do.

Finally, he got up and walked deeper into the thick brush. I was starting to realize this was going to be a hard hunt to stalk these bulls and get a shot with it being so thick. This was the first of all my struggles I would end up having. Right after that bull got up and left, it started to downpour with hail and lightning. I was about a mile and a half away from my RZR with no shoes and just a t-shirt on. I prepared myself for a long, wet hike out.

The rest of the week proved to be no different. It ended up raining for the rest of the first week. I was determined, however, and went out every day. I was still finding bulls and putting on stalks. On another one of the rainy days, I had left my shoes and my pack again on top of the mountain and hiked a ways in after a bull. It started to pour rain down on me, and it was getting very late. This was kind of a problem because I had only a short-sleeved shirt on and no shoes and no flashlight. I looked at my phone’s onXmaps one last time for directions back to the RZR before my phone would die and leave me with a three-mile hike out in the dark.

The next day came, and I could see my troubles weren’t over. I snuck down to a small 6-point and was going to see how close I was. As I put up my rangefinder and pushed the button, I noticed it was not working. I started to panic a little knowing I was on this hunt solo without a backup. I returned to camp later that night and decided to call my older brother to see if he would buy me another rangefinder and bring it down to me. He was kind enough and told me he would. I finished up that first week with wet clothes, and the second week would be totally different with 95-degree heat all week. I think that had an effect on the rut not starting because I hadn’t heard one bugle yet and hadn’t seen one cow.

On day 12, my dad, who is also my boss, decided to come down because his two boys, who are his only workers, were both out on separate elk hunts. The night he came down, we sat there glassing a hillside when all of a sudden the only words that came out of my mouth were, “That’s a big bull.” I had just glassed up a bull I hadn’t seen before, and he looked big. I got some quick video of him as the sun went down and was hoping in the morning I could find him again. When we got back to camp, we kept replaying the video and I couldn’t stop talking about how good I thought this bull was. In my head, I knew this unit held bigger bulls, but this was the bull for me.
When the morning came, I couldn’t wait to get out on the mountain to look for that bull. To my disappointment, we glassed up a lot of bulls but couldn’t find the big one from the night before. The elk were moving in and out of the area a lot, so I was worried he had moved out. Later that morning, my dad and I decided to go for a ride to look for a new area. I kept wanting to just get back to the spot where we had seen that big bull. We headed back to camp for a quick bite to eat and then headed back out for the night hunt.

We got back to the spot where I had found that bull and started glassing. We had been glassing for about an hour when I spotted the smaller six the big bull was hanging out with. I immediately headed out, hoping that big one was still with him. When I got to the other side of the mountain, which was about a mile away, my dad called me and confirmed he had just seen the big bull come out with the other bull. He then told me that it just went right back into the thick brush with the other bull, but he once again could no longer see either of them. I was on my own again. I started to take off my pack and my shoes and knew I had to go really slow because of how thick it was and I only knew the general location of them. I started to close the distance to where I thought they were and went slower and slower. All of a sudden, 15 yards in front of me I could see the big, dark-horned bull bedded, facing me with his head down. I completely froze, trying to figure out what to do next since there was thick brush between me and him. I looked to my left and could see an opening in the brush about six feet away. I slowly started to sidestep to my left, hoping he couldn’t hear me or see me.

When I got to the opening, I slowly started to draw back. He lifted his head and looked right at me. I knew this was my chance because if I waited, he would bolt. I quickly put my pin on his chest and let it go. I knew the shot was good as I watched the fletchings bury into him. The bull immediately jumped from his bed and took off down the mountain. As I started to track, I called my dad and told him I had just shot. He told me he had watched the bull run through a small opening back into thick brush and guided me to that spot. When I got there, the blood trail was getting heavier. I knew he couldn’t be more than 100 yards. I got down to a drainage in the bottom of the canyon and found my bull piled up against a tree. I called my dad, and with all my emotions, all I could get out was, “I’m done.”

My dad called my older brother and told him I just shot one. Then my older brother called me and said he and my nephew were leaving to make the three-and-a-half-hour drive down to help pack out. I ended up caping the whole body out because I’m going to do a full body mount. We made two trips, and on my second trip, my pack weighed 170 pounds with the head and horns and full cape. My legs were shaking by the end of an all-night long pack out, but it will be a hunt I will never forget.