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It Can All Change in a Nanosecond

January 2020
Story by David Dexter
State: Arizona
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

I’ve been a member of Huntin’ Fool for a number of years, and they keep emphasizing that you can’t draw a coveted tag if you don’t apply. On a whim, I applied as a party with my brother for the early muzzleloader rut hunt in unit 27. With only 9 points, Charlie and I drew the tags. I couldn’t believe it, nor could the guides I contacted, some of whom had been applying for the very same hunt for many years. We finally settled on Steve Chappell Guide Service.

My hunting guide was Austin Atkinson, Huntin’ Fool’s own Editor-in-Chief, and Charlie’s guide was Chris Struble, a St. John’s, Arizona firefighter. We met our guides on September 26th, the day before opening day of the muzzleloader hunt. Austin’s dad, Mitch Atkinson, who is also a guide, brought his trailer for our accommodations. We shot our muzzleloaders to ensure they were on target. Mitch is also a Huntin’ Fool, and he and Austin make a formidable hunting tandem as Mitch assisted our efforts as a spotter for the first three days of the hunt.

Friday morning, Austin and I dropped deep into a canyon where during archery season one of Chris’ clients had missed a 370" bull. We didn’t see the big bull, but we did find a nice 5-point. We connected with Mitch on an old road and began the steep ascent all the way to the truck. I felt the 9,200-foot altitude, and it was definitely a long pull for me, especially climbing over countless deadfalls from the great Wallow Fire of 2011.

Saturday was unseasonably warm with a low of 42 and a high of 74, and the bulls were not bugling. We hunted a different area, and Austin and I were below Mitch who chose to climb a high ridge. We located a small herd with a good 7x6 bull, but they were moving west. Austin checked his onXhunt app to gauge the distance to intercept them. We climbed into his truck and drove to a small forest side road that allowed us to gain significant altitude and then we started hiking. We hadn’t gone far when we heard the first bugle and others quickly joined the chorus. They were getting closer, so Austin set up behind me with a cow call. Five minutes later, a big 5-point came in at 42 yards. Austin moved us another couple hundred yards on top of the ridge and I got a great rest across an old growth tree stump next to a fence line. At 82 yards, here they came, one bull after another. Austin whispered that the herd bull would be last, and he was right. The big 7x6 bull stepped out. He didn’t want to jump the fence, and he stood there broadside as he surveyed his domain. This was the second best bull I had ever drawn down on, and it was very tempting, but I had a great tag and this was a great hunting experience, so I passed on the shot. Ten minutes later, the bull reappeared at 42 yards, but I remained resolute in my decision.

It was Saturday evening when Austin located a big bull nearly three miles away in his spotting scope and he wanted a closer look. We drove to a point about one mile closer, and after locating the bull, we could see that was a big 8x8 with devil (forked) brow tines. The bull was at the top of a mountain with no roads or discernible trails, but we made a pact to try for him the next morning. We drove to a point that put us near the bottom of the mountain and started climbing in the dark. As dawn commenced, the terrain became more open forest with dense, thorny brush and young aspen trees. Mitch was positioned out at three miles with a spotting scope, and he had located the 8x8 with his cows close to where he was the night before. Using their on??hunt program, Mitch and Austin could tell the bull’s position. Mitch would provide a distant view of the approach and changes in the bull’s position. The terrain became almost impassable. There were no game trails through it. Austin busted trail, but it took a mental and physical fortitude to continually fight our way through it. When you’re motivated by the prospect of an 8x8, you’re willing to push yourself hard, and we did.

Finally, Austin told me we were within several hundred yards of the bedded 8x8 and he wanted me to stay put while he located the bull and a vantage point for a shot. Austin returned after 30 minutes and informed me that he had found the bull and we would now move in and position ourselves for the shot. Suddenly, Austin stopped and looked back at me anxiously as he intently listened to an update from his dad. The 8x8 had been challenged by a big 6-point bull, they had fought, and though the 8x8 had clearly won the battle, he was now taking his cows over the top of the mountain. After hours of climbing the mountain, just minutes away from a successful stalk, we came up empty-handed, but that’s elk hunting.

On Monday morning, we took it easy as Charlie and I were feeling the physical effects of the hunt. Charlie decided to stay in camp that afternoon despite Chris’ energetic efforts to persuade him to come on the hunt. Austin climbed a mountain again to search for bulls, while Chris and I stayed low. As dusk fell on the land, Chris heard several bugles above us. We hiked to a good meadow, and Chris started calling. Both bulls were coming in. The first bull was a big 5-point that came in to ??0 yards before ambling off. The second bull continued bugling and came in from the side at 40 yards. He was a nice 6-point that I’m sure my brother would have shot. I passed on both, thinking of that big 8x8. We discovered that evening that another hunter with multiple spotters had now located the 8x8, so we decided we would look elsewhere.

Tuesday morning, the fifth day of the hunt, Austin located another 7x6 bull several miles off. We planned to look for him that evening. Around 9:30 a.m., we hooked up with Chris and Charlie where they had been hunting. Bulls had been bugling that morning. Austin and Chris started looking for elk sign, and I followed closely behind. We had been walking about 100 yards with both of them talking in normal voice levels when both guides hurriedly waved me forward. As I joined them, they pointed and whispered, “Big bull.” I love elk hunting because your luck can all change in a nanosecond. A bull had been bedded not 50 yards away and had stood up when Austin and Chris had approached. The bull’s cows started running across the meadow with the bull bringing up the rear. I turned to Austin and Chris and asked, “Is he a shooter?” but they didn’t answer. Their eyes were locked on the bull.

I turned quickly back with my left arm in the sling and started to swing on the bull, which looked plenty big to me, and he was moving fast. I gauged the distance at 120 yards. Knowing my muzzleloader was sighted in three inches high at 100 yards, I purposely aimed low on the chest as I swung offhand and touched off the shot. Smoke from the gun obscured the bull, but I knew the shot was true. His momentum carried him about 10 yards, and then he stopped and his heavy antlers toppled as he fell abruptly to the ground. He was dead on his feet. All three of us let out a celebratory yell, and it was high fives all around.

The bull had a massive body, and his large, thick, symmetrical 6-point horns were dark mahogany. It was everything I had hoped for in a big bull from unit 27. Austin quartered the bull, and Chris assisted by bringing his Rhino to haul out the meat and horns. I couldn’t be more pleased with the bull and the hunt.

I want to thank Austin Atkinson and Steve Chappell Guide Service for providing a superior hunting experience. I’ve hunted with many guides over the years, but none better than Austin, and Chris worked his rear end off calling bulls for Charlie. They are true Huntin’ Fools and justly earned our utmost respect. Overall, it was a great experience and I’m grateful for the opportunity to hunt majestic bull elk in the beautiful wilds of the Arizona high country.