We all awkwardly stood around our vehicles in the trailhead pullout, none of us saying anything. The husky southerner who had just pulled off the highway and bailed out of his vehicle pressed us with more questions. “Y’all are on the dream hunt of my life! What are you after, sheep? Goats? Deer? How long you been out huntin’? I don’t see any horns. You have any luck so far?” The big fellow poked his head around the trucks, looking for horns or antlers. My hunting partner, Brad, the old game warden, the young game warden, and I all traded glances, but nobody answered the interloper until I pointed at the old warden and blurted out, “He just filled his cow tag this morning.” The old warden laughed. It was true, but he knew what I was up to. Diversion tactics. No one mentioned the meat in the coolers, the phones full of pictures in our pockets, or the two big elk heads waiting for us a few miles beyond the horizon. After a few pleasantries, the blustering southerner drove off again, obviously unsatisfied by our answers.
We’d met the pair of wardens, one retired and one newly trained, a couple days earlier as Brad and I were packing out our bulls on foot from six miles deep into the unit. It didn’t take much conversation for us to realize we were all cut from similar cloth. Hunters, conservationists, lovers of nature and wildlife from a young age, the products of small western towns in Montana and Wyoming. Conversation came easy, and each could tell the others had earned their place on the mountain through many years of hard experience, failures, learning, and successes. They had earned the right to hear, appreciate, and protect our stories. It was mutual.
Days earlier, Brad and I were hunkered down in our small tents, tucked into the lee of a rock spine ridge that didn’t block nearly enough of the snow and wind that whistled over the treeless alpine. We’d been stuck in those tents all morning, visibility at mere feet, after hiking in and setting up the spike camp in the foggy dark the night before. We knew the elk were there only a mile or two downslope, right at the edge of tree line. Dozens, maybe over a hundred by now, they’d been gathering from other areas in the alpine as hunters, the rut, and the impending storm made them restless. We’d been watching them for days from distant vantage points, sizing up the bulls and waiting for opening day. The storm had nearly blocked our access to the unit with road closures and terrible visibility. We’d trusted technology to guide us to our spike camp location, packs laden with everything we’d need for a week away from the rest of the world.
Finally, in late afternoon, the storm settled. Antsy, we dove into our hunting clothes and gear. Distant bugles came up to us through the fog. We knew the big, slow herd bull was there with his cows, and we floated over the ground as we made our way through mist and snowy grass, looping around the valley to get the wind right. There were no trees for cover, just the fog. It worked, and an hour later, we were crawling up a barren hill 400 yards from the sounds of elk. Like a dream, the fog lifted and they were right in front of us. We’d nicknamed the bull “Grandpa” because of his stiff, almost painfully slow walk and droopy features. None of the other bulls in the area challenged him. The tired, old bull chortled and lumbered up the hill as Brad slid into position near a rock. It would be a long reach across the valley, but Brad was well equipped and had a solid rest. A shot rang out. Two. Three. “If they keep standing, I keep shooting,” he told me later. They were all great shots, but the fourth finally tipped the old bull over. The cows and satellite bulls scattered as the fog closed back in around us. It was truly a divine opportunity. Skinning and butchering would have gone much faster if we hadn’t stopped so often to admire the size and mass of the old mountain man. His huge antler bases were caked with pitch, bark, and mud. He smelled as old as he looked. Long after dark, we were still packing meat and antlers up to the ridgeline above camp where we could bury the cache in a snowdrift. Teeth worn to the gums and broken, the bull was a true veteran of battle and Brad’s biggest to date.
The following days found me picking through groups of elk across the alpine meadows, looking to fill my own tag. There were several solid bulls on the plateau and a couple great ones but with badly broken tines.
It had taken us more than a decade to build the points needed for this unit, and I wanted to do the tag justice. I’d already broken my camp to move to another location a few miles away when a lone, secretive bull finally showed himself. He’d been tucked into the fog at the end of a cliffy finger ridge for days only a couple miles from camp. Once he peeked out of the fog long enough for me to get a good look, there was no question.
The fog fell into the lowlands during the night, and the bull was obvious the next morning. Still on his little ridge, slow moving, cautious, alone. He’d positioned himself well, and as he slipped back into the trees before the sun crested, I realized he’d only be approachable in the evening, just as the wind shifted before dark. It was a nervous day of waiting, wondering if he was still in the area, if he’d step out of the trees at dusk. I couldn’t figure out why a bull that size was by himself and not out harassing cows. Part of me expected not to see him that evening, but as the sun sank, wind tester in hand, I crept down the ridge and waited until the air started flowing downhill. Aiming for the crest of the ridge overlooking his hideout right at the tree line, I slipped forward, eyes darting through holes in the trees to the meadow beyond. I froze as a patch of tawny hair moved behind one of them. He was close. A leg. The flicker of an ear. Antlers. At only 60 yards, the bull had no idea I was there and slowly grazed into a gap in the trees. He didn’t know where the shot came from, and two more hit him before he reached tree line on the edge of the meadow. I guess if they keep standing, I keep shooting. I knew he was my biggest bull to date, and I whooped, thanked God for his gifts, laughed, and did it all again. Skinning him by the light of my headlamp, I discovered why he’d opted out of the rut and been so secretive. The arrow wound in his front leg through the thick of the brisket and into the opposite foreleg was barely healing, fresh from the September archery season. Four inches higher and a lucky bowhunter would be the one writing this story.
On the drive home, Brad and I recounted the long miles on foot, over 100 for each of us, and the elk, the storms, the cracked lips and wrecked feet, and the nights of half-sleep as we kept an ear out for bears in camp. We talked about the two wardens.
We liked them. We decided that if each person’s life is a long culmination of their efforts and values, their decisions and experiences, the four of us had likely walked many of the same paths. Valued many of the same things. Learned many of the same lessons. I think we live in a time of major change for hunters and hunting with so many new hunters, companies, and products flooding onto the scene. I usually can’t relate to the busyness, the pursuit of celebrity, and the gamesmanship I sometimes see. I don’t want to. My interest in social media, endorsed products, public approval, or inch-counting is nearly at rock bottom. Maybe I’m just falling behind the times, but I think Brad and those wardens would agree. The young warden and the old warden. We’ve earned our knowledge and experience the long way. The old way. We’ve become careful whom we share it with. The more I interact with hunters of many ages in different states, the more easily I recognize those like us. Men and women who hunt not for self-promotion or scoresheets but for camaraderie, wind-scoured ridges, whitebark pines, satisfied exhaustion, and raspy bugles echoing through fog. Men and women who sometimes keep their secrets. A brotherhood of the old guard.