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Two Once-in-a-Lifetime Hunts

January 2020
Story by Jeff Campagna
State: Arizona
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

This past spring, I received a call from Austin Atkinson at Huntin’ Fool. He told me that after 18 years I had finally drawn my Arizona archery elk tag. I wanted to find the best outfitter to work with, and A3 Outfitters was an easy choice as they kill some of the biggest bulls in Arizona every year. I had a great conversation with Chad Rhoton, one of the A3 owners, who said that he would put me with Jed Larson, one of the best guides in the business. Jed called me soon after, congratulated me on the tag, and told me we would find some really big bulls to chase.

Along came May, and I got another call from Austin. He told me I had drawn a bighorn sheep tag in Colorado as well. I was flabbergasted! I had two once-in-a-lifetime hunts in September only a few days apart. After talking with Matt Schneider from Geneva Park Outfitters, I felt comfortable in making them my choice. Matt decided that one of the best guides he could put me with was Terry Sandmeire, who has a tremendous amount of experience throughout central Colorado guiding for sheep and mountain goats.

My wife, Dasha, and I decided to make a month of it. We packed up our truck and a small trailer and drove to Colorado. Dasha would be videoing both hunts as she hunts almost as much as I do and knows where to be at the right moment. She was in great shape to handle the demanding physical and mental ups and downs of mountain hunting. Sharing this experience with her would mean so much to me.

We met up with Terry the day before the start of the hunt. It was obvious that he had done his homework. On the first day, we saw some great country and a few mountain goats but only a distant group of ewes. On the second day, we found four rams back in a bowl. One of the rams was certainly a shooter for many people. Since I had already taken one ram approximately that size, we decided to hold out for something larger. For the next couple days, I wondered if I had made a mistake as we didn’t see any rams worth making a stalk on.

On day four, we spotted a ram working his way down an open rockslide high up on a distant slope. When I pointed him out to Terry, he looked him over in his scope and said we needed to see if we could get on the ram before dark when he should come out to feed. We made the four-hour climb to the rockslide where we last saw the ram that morning. We set up and waited three hours, hoping the ram would step out before dark. With about 20 minutes of daylight left, Terry spotted him coming out to feed about 600 yards away. We had to make a move and fast! We closed the distance to about 400 yards, set up again, and waited for him to step out into the open and hopefully turn as he was walking directly toward us. Light was fading fast, and with only about five minutes of shooting light left, he stopped and turned almost broadside at about 320 yards. At the report of the rifle, we all heard a distinct bullet slap and the ram disappeared. We felt that the shot had been good, but even when Dasha played back the shot on the camera, all we could see was the ram disappearing.

By the time we got our packs and headed over to the spot, it was pitch black. After searching for 10-15 minutes, we heard Terry yell out that he had found the ram. When we got to the ram, he was even bigger than I could have possibly imagined. After taking pictures, we got to work caping out and butchering the ram. We then descended about 1,000 feet to a spot where we’d left some gear and food. It was 1 a.m., and with a storm approaching, we decided to camp out for the rest of the night and pack out the rest of the way in the morning.

This was a fabulous trip for Dasha and me. I would like to thank Matt and Terry. We really appreciated Terry’s patience, professionalism, sense of humor, and friendship.

Now it was September 7th and time to get on the road to Arizona. We got to our elk camp and spent the following day with Jed, getting familiar with a few of his favorite spots. Opening day was all I could ask for. Within the first 45 minutes of daylight, Jed called in a great bull in the mid-340" range to about 15 yards, standing broadside. In any other archery elk hunt, I would have never turned that down, but that’s how special this tag was.

As the days came and went, we continued to see a number of bulls in the mid-300s, but they were not what we were looking for. We were closing in on day 10. We were working hard and putting in long days, but we were not alone. One of the other things that A3 is known for is teamwork. While we were out physically chasing bulls, Jed’s teammate, Colton Fish, was glassing other remote locations for us. Additionally, Stephen Naranjo, another A3 guide, stepped in to help out after his hunter tagged out on the sixth day.

On day 10, Jed talked to a couple of his guide friends, Colton Boulanger and Caleb Miller, who knew of a large bull or two in another area of the unit that they would be more than willing to take us to. By the time we got to the area in question, we had only about 20-30 minutes of daylight left. With just a few cow calls from Jed and Colton, a bugle rang out several hundred yards below us. In another moment, out stepped the exact bull we had come there to find. As we raced down the hill to try and get within bow range, we lost the battle with daylight and had to turn around to go back. By the time we got back to camp, it was already 10:00. Jed’s new plan was to get up at 2 a.m. so we could be back in the area where we had found the bull by daylight.

Early the next morning, Jed, Colton, and Caleb escorted us back to the same mountainside. As soon as it was light enough to glass, we found a different, yet very large bull 700-800 yards down a steep drainage. Jed asked if I wanted to make a play on this bull. It was day 11, so I said sure, even though he had a dozen or so cows with him and I knew that getting within bow range would be very difficult. Colton and Caleb stayed back up on the ridge to glass and give guidance from their position. We were a third of the way down the hill when Jed found the other bull not far from our original position. Jed asked me what I would like to do, and I said, “Let’s go back and get that other bull!”

When we found the guys on the ridge, they pointed the other bull out about 400 yards away and he only had one cow with him. We watched the elk as they moved slowly up the hill toward the ridgeline where they were sure to go over and bed down on the other side. With the wind already in our favor, we got behind them and ran up the hill to close the distance. One hundred yards ahead, we could see the bull totally engrossed in thrashing a pine tree. Our opportunity had arrived! We ran in as close as we dared, stopped, and Jed whispered, “37 yards.” I was already at full draw and managed to find the gap between my 30 and 40-yard pins. The release went off, and the arrow found its mark. The bull made a mad dash just below the ridgeline.

I looked over at Dasha and asked her why there were tears on her cheeks. She said it was because she was so happy for all of us. Colton and Caleb joined us as we got on the blood trail. We found the bull piled up in less than 100 yards. High fives, yells, and hugs erupted. What a hunt!

Thanks to Jed, Colton, Stephen, Caleb, Colton, and Chad for their passion, persistence, and friendship! Dasha and I can’t thank you all enough. How lucky can one guy get to be able to spend the month of September in such grand company?