When the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife finally updated its website on June 20, which for the record is the latest they have been published in recent memory, I entered my information and waited for the page to load. I was anticipating seeing one “Successful” since my deer tag was the only tag we “should” draw. I glanced at the page, then glanced again. What?! I didn’t trust what I was seeing, my brain must be superimposing the impossible … I had drawn my limited entry elk tag, a tag that typically takes no less than 15 preference points/years to draw. While I had 5 points at the time it was my first attempt at drawing this particular tag. The kicker… my dad and I had “partied” on the application and we were both successful for one of the best elk units in Oregon!
My dad and I have hunted together for my entire life. He’s been at my side or the ridge over for nearly every animal I’ve ever harvested. Over the course of this time I have become aware of a transition of sorts. When I was in my teens and ’20s, I followed his lead and soaked up as much as possible. As I began to evolve as a hunter our roles have somewhat reversed. While I may take a more active role in the decision making on hunts, there is no one I trust more when at crunch time than my old man. Recently I have begun to recognize how much I have taken for granted in regards to the adventures and memories we’ve made and shared. This year, I had one goal. I wanted to my Dad to get an opportunity at a truly special bull.
I took a screenshot of the page and called my Dad. No answer. I called my wife. No answer. I called my buddies. No answer. I was pacing around, freaking out and no one was on the other end to freak out with me! I’d spent all winter and spring preparing for this year, obviously not knowing the tag we would have in our pockets but this was going to be our year. My preparation began with competing in the Oregon Train to Hunt competition with two of my close buddies. I knew I needed some form of accountability to shed the weight I needed to lose and get myself mountain ready. The Train to Hunt competition was a ton of fun and gave me the kick start I needed. Additionally I continued my support and involvement of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers by organizing and leading the central Oregon effort for the “Hike to Hunt” competition. These activities served two purposes. Not only was I able to shed nearly 50 pounds of extra weight over the course of a year but I also extended my personal network of support. Both of which proved to be invaluable to our success during season.
Pre-season scouting began immediately. I utilized a two prong approach to this, utilizing electronic scouting methods and good old fashioned boots on the ground. I spent time scouring the internet reading forum posts, connecting with previous tag holders, studying OnX and Google Earth maps and making phone calls to area biologists. My first of three “boots on the ground” trips to the unit was in June. My goal was to identify areas with evidence of the rut from years previous, set cameras and become familiar with the road system. I tirelessly soaked up as much information as possible all summer long. Between YouTube and podcasts my wife, family and friends were sick of hearing about elk hunting by the time season rolled around. On my second scouting trip, my dad and I were checking, placing and moving cameras around good looking areas. As we climbed out of deep canyon I stumbled across a 340” class set of shed antlers. I’ve never hunted big bulls… I have always looked for big bulls but this was my first experience with a legitimately big bull. The opportunity that lay in front of us all of a sudden became very real and very apparent.
In addition to my physical preparation I focused on my mental readiness as well. One challenge I was faced with was managing expectations. I did not want to enter this hunt thinking screaming bulls would be in every canyon. I wanted to be realistic, I needed to be mentally resilient in order to ensure I was ready to give my all on every hunt. I would be remiss to omit my Dad’s own preparation; he burned a lot of boot rubber on Misery Ridge, shot consistently and worked his tail off to be in the best shape he’s been in for a hunt in recent memory.
Opening weekend was upon us, and Oregon had just suffered through an extremely hot, and dry summer. Like much of the West, our skyline was shrouded with a thick blanket of wildfire smoke for all of August. We were prepared for 80 degree days and warm nights. Opening day included a full moon and a dry forecast. Needless to say I expected us to spend the first morning getting acquainted with the canyon we would call home for most of the season. Lucky for us, the weather changed for the better leading up to opening morning. We slept under a clear sky illuminated by a giant moon and a billion bright stars. Morning felt like it was miles away. Like many do on any opening day we stirred and rose before our alarm, a behavior that becomes harder and harder to repeat as the season continues. We camped at the head of a long ridge with a deep canyon plunging nearly 1,500 feet to the bottom on either side. The top of the ridge was long and narrow but possessed a good trail that we could travel quickly, quietly and with relative ease. Soon, we learned that this was a luxury we would not experience often. We left camp shortly before the daylight, traveled a mere 100 yards before I ripped our first bugle. My dad gave me the typical eye roll notorious for showing low confidence in my decision. My bugle was immediately met with a response. Which was met by another, and two more to follow. Just like that we were hunting. It was August 25, the moon was barely below the horizon and we had four bulls screaming their heads off in the canyon below. It was on!
That first day will be one I never forget. We dropped to the bottom, crawled in to position and played cat and mouse with a bull we called “the growler.” At one point we were within 45 yards of him, but never put eyes on him. We chased bugles all day long. When we finally crawled out of the hole and made our way back to camp we were smoked. This would prove to be one of the most challenging hunts I have ever been on. Not for the reasons I originally thought it would. There were literally bulls screaming in every canyon. We found the canyons to be choked with box elder, vine maple, Yew trees, and berry bushes that made escaping Alcatraz look like a walk in the park.
Oregon’s archery season includes five weekends and up until the final nine days of the season we hunted weekends only, which included a 12-hour round trip, leaving a day and a half of hunting was tough. The country was tougher, but each and every day brought new and more exciting opportunities. We saw bulls every day, we chased bugles every day. This unit was living up to all of the hype, and some! That being said, we were getting pretty beat up. It felt as though each time we located a bull they were always on the wrong side of a big and steep canyon. We put on tons of miles and more elevation than I have ever considered hiking. When our planned vacation approached we were beginning to feel like we may not be able to make it happen: the ground was too rugged, the cows too cagey and the bulls too wise.
On the third day of this particular hunt our alarms went off, and we hit the snooze button, and again, and again until finally we both shut off our alarms and continued to sleep. We rolled out of bed at the crack of 8:30. Most years I would have figured we had squandered our opportunity for that day. This hunt was different. We were confident that we could locate bulls at any time of the day, and we ultimately needed to hunt them in their beds. We determined we would hunt a new canyon, with a new approach, after a friend and former tag holder tipped us off to a gated road that would provide easy walking to miles and miles of draws to look for bulls.
We got to the gate at 10 a.m. and meandered down the old road, now choked with maple and downed trees. I would occasionally cow call in hopes of getting a bull to give up his location before showing my cards. No love. Finally at about 11:30 am I ripped a bugle down into the canyon. Two bulls immediately responded, one on our side but far down, another directly across and slightly below us. We worked down off the road and attempted to get the bull to come to us. No dice. He was staying put. He was aggressive though, raking, chuckling and screaming after each of my calls.
We worked our way to the bottom, but with midday thermals rising uphill we had to be strategic on our approach. We worked our way to a spot that we felt was on the approximately same elevation that we thought he might be. My Dad was 10 yards ahead of me with a shallow shooting lane of about 12 yards by 5 yards wide (this was normal). Once in place I gave him one short but aggressive challenge bugle attempting to sound as big and aggressive as possible. Immediately we heard a stick break directly above us. Dad swung his bow around a big fir tree he was standing near and within seconds the bull’s horns broke through the brush at 25 yards. At this my dad drew his bow, and the bull continued to advance on our location. I’m glad my dad was the shooter, I was worthless, mouth agape, complete shock like I have never experienced before. When the bull entered the lane in front of my dad at 10 yards I snapped out of it realizing I had to do something to stop him and provide my dad with a shot. It would be frontal, there would be no other option. At 5 yards I cow called, the bull took two more steps and hesitated looking my direction. Dad settled every one of his pins just in front of his shoulder and two-thirds of the way up his chest and let ’er rip. The bull immediately spun and took off near where he had entered. I cow called and bugled, or at least attempted to do so. Within seconds we heard the welcome sound of him falling and his final breathes.
For good measure we gave him 45 of the longest minutes of our lives. I tried sleeping, but I couldn’t. My Dad attempted to eat his sandwich. Nope. So we waited, and pretended we hadn’t done what we knew we had just done. When our watches read 2:00 pm we picked up his trail, which wasn’t hard. He was bleeding profusely and ultimately within 40 yards of our position he lay expired in a field of thimble berry bushes and on possibly the flattest piece of ground in the entire canyon. After three trips each, we had Dad’s bull back to the rig and we were in our beds at 1 a.m. What an amazing feeling.
We have never chased inches. It’s just not our style. Rather we chase memories and experiences that we will never forget. The moment after Dad’s arrow hit its mark he turned to me and pumped his fist. His look was 100 percent confidence. It’s a memory I will never forget and honestly makes me misty eyed as I write and relive it. Thank you Dad. You have given me more than I could possibly ever repay you for. This day, and this season will be one we won’t soon forget.