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March 2023
Story by Rich Howard
State: Utah
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

Breathless astonishment is the best way I can describe opening the congratulatory email from the Utah Hunt Expo. Time froze for a bit while the information sunk in. I received the email informing me of successfully drawing a late rifle bull elk tag shortly before the results were posted online. I eventually had to scroll through the results to double check that the email was real. Out of more than 5,300 applicants, my name was drawn. Astronomical odds! I didn’t know that regular, everyday people could draw these tags.

I called my good friend, Phillip Peine, who had hunted the unit and was familiar with it. He assured me that we should be able to find a good bull. My oldest brother, Sherman, also killed a great bull there. I entertained thoughts of hiring a guide or hunting with friends and family. I went back and forth and ultimately decided to go with a guide. Shortly after sending in a deposit and without signing an agreement, circumstances changed and I had to plan this hunt without a guide.

Phillip was still confident we could do it, so we proceeded to gather as much information as possible about the unit, especially where to find elk in the late season. We talked to a lot of good people and began to narrow our focus to several areas. My onXmaps was filled with possible glassing points and wintering slopes where big bulls tend to hang. I also heard a lot about having to pick through broken antlers and declining quality. I remained optimistic. I finally had a chance to hunt bulls I had only dreamt of.

September found me focusing mostly on my brother, Sherman’s, Utah moose tag that took him 27 years to draw. We had a phenomenal hunt, and he was able to harvest a great Shiras moose. On that hunt, I bumped into the family of Russ Nielson (Utah Premier Outfitters). He is a great guy and has an awesome family. As I started scouting and hunting for my elk, we kept in touch. In the future, I’ll look for an opportunity to book a hunt with him. He was guiding on the same elk hunt, and we had fun discussing the bulls we found.

I carved out four days to scout. The first three days, my 20-year-old daughter, Amelia, came. She absolutely loves animals and the outdoors. She doesn’t like to pull the trigger but loves to observe. We had a blast and covered a lot of ground. We set up a tent in a snowstorm, found bugling and rutting bulls in late October, hiked in knee-deep snow, and went on some gnarly ATV rides. Amelia is a published author, and we enjoyed passing time by wordsmithing, coming up with clever words and phrases. We found a few decent bulls, one of which had enormous G3s but petered out on the top end.

The week before the hunt, I had one more day to scout. This time, I went alone. I turned up a few bulls, including another bull with massive front tines but a small top end and short beams. He looked good, though. I had a near incident at the top of the mountain on my ATV with tracks. I was traversing five to six-foot snowdrifts on the road in a 50-60 mile an hour wind. Blowing snow froze and blocked the cooling fan, so the motor overheated, boiling out a bunch of antifreeze. I let it cool and refilled the tank with drinking water to make it back. Later that afternoon, I got myself into another predicament and sunk my 10,000-pound truck up to the frame in mud. I called my brother, Roger, and he dropped everything and came to the rescue. Tow trucks refused to help. After four hours with a high-lift jack and shovel work in the dark, we got my truck out. We were covered head to toe in mud!

Family concerns did not allow me to hunt opening day. I felt terrible having to cancel. Seven friends and family members had planned to be there to help. I was able to start on day three with Phillip, his son, Weston, and my friend, Anders. Phillip spotted a decent 7x7 early on, but he practically had to hold me back, assuring me there were better. Almost all of the bulls we found were at 8,000 feet elevation or higher.

About midday, I was glassing lower due to a snowstorm and spotted a large set of antlers popping out of the snow one and a half miles away. “Wow!” was all I could say. He was a super tall and heavy 6x7, but it was hard to judge his real size. He was with a giant bull that turned out to be a legend on the mountain. Last year, the giant was estimated at 385", but this year, he grew a severely stunted left G1 and G2 and a stunted right G1. All of the stunted points were broken, so from a distance, he looked like a big 4x5. There was another bull that looked possibly bigger, so we put a plan together and made a stalk to get a closer look. By the time we popped out 800-900 yards away, the bigger bull had disappeared and the big 4x5 and 6x7 could hear us and were moving away. We looked at 12 bulls that day.

The next day, we found 20 bulls, but none were as good as the day before. I felt a little bad because we talked to some other hunters who hadn’t seen an elk in three days. The key was patient, quality glassing. We found several bulls at the very top of the mountain on the other side of the peaks where most glassing wouldn’t find them. Phillip, Weston, and Anders had to go home, but another friend, Garrett Stucki, joined me for a couple of days. We split up the next morning, and not long after sunrise, he called me up and told me to head back. He had found a great bull to go after. He watched it bed, and I hustled over. On the way, rocky mud from getting stuck the week before broke loose and lodged in my left front rotor/brake complex. This caused a terrible squeal and got the rotor smoking hot. The timing was impeccable because I was trying to hurry. After stopping twice, jacking up the truck, and taking off the wheel both times, I still couldn’t clear the rocks and mud. I broke a wrench trying to remove the brake caliper. I cooled the rotor with water bottles and decided to leave my truck at a shop and have Garrett come get me. Just before reaching the repair shop, the mud cleared and I was on my way.

We made a plan. The stalk would be about 1.25 miles and 1,000 vertical feet. It took us two and a half hours. We climbed up the gut of an adjacent drainage to get level with the bull. We scaled cliffs, handing the rifle to each other on our way up. At the 8,000 foot elevation, elk sign was everywhere through the mahogany belt. We crept up to the edge of a ridge and peeked over. There, 142 yards below me and fast asleep, was the heavy 6x7 I had seen two days earlier. He looked pretty good to me. Garrett said the one he had seen was bigger, but it was a straight 6x6 with a broken G5, so I held up and didn’t shoot until we picked the drainage apart. The other bull was not in sight. Garrett started to move into the drainage to look for the other bull. The 6x7 jumped up and ran to the top of the ridge. I knew if he ran into the next cut he could blow everything out and the odds of seeing the other bull were slim, so I took the shot on the largest bull I have ever had the opportunity to shoot. He was down within 40 yards. On my way across, Garrett said that he saw the other bull, but it had run up and over the top to the other side of the mountain.

The closer I got to this bull and the more time I spent with him, the more I appreciated his mass and uniqueness. He had a large body too! He was old with only one worn ivory bugler left. We packed out a load that evening and had a great night’s rest. The next morning, Garrett talked another gentleman into helping us with the last loads. Eric was helping a friend of his fill his tag and generously hauled a load to help bring the rest of the bull off the mountain.

I thank my wife and family for letting me pursue my passion for hunting. I especially thank Amelia, Phillip, Weston, Anders, Roger, and Garrett for their time and efforts that made this hunt happen.