Approaching 70 years old, and I've seen a lot in my time, but nothing compares to what happened on an unforgettable day in October 2004. A few weeks before Idaho's general season elk hunt, my son, Kim, and my grandson, Joshua, began making plans with me for our upcoming hunt.
We made sure to cover the normal details-ensuring the horses were shod and that we had adequate tack in good repair. We also purchased food, packed the bedding, made up our daypacks, sighted-in our rifles and dusted off our tents. These preparations not only ensured we'd have what we needed for the hunt, but they also brought our anticipation level to a fevered pitch as opening day approached.
I usually bring the horses to our place in Iona, Idaho, a couple days before a hunt. When we leave, we have to load them long before sunrise. Having the horses in the home corral allows us to quickly catch and load them into the trailer in the dark so we can arrive at the staging area near Palisades Reservoir in time to prepare for a several-hour pack trip into our campsite. I started using this camp in 1964, and it's become a favorite site for friends and family. The group last fall included me, Kim, Joshua, and our friends Dave Hoover and Jack Stabler.
After arriving at the staging area, we unloaded the horses, saddled our mounts and loaded up the pack horses. Riding the trail to the campsite is, in itself, a magnificent experience as it winds through some of the most beautiful country that has ever been created.
Second Chance Bull
We finally arrived at our campsite with only one minor mishap, the young horse Kim was riding got a rope under its tail. It jumped around pretty good and almost lost its rider with a couple of giant leaps! At the campsite we unloaded the horses and put them in hobbles in a natural meadow and then all pitched in to set up camp.
After that was finished, we settled down for a dinner of venison, pork and hamburger steaks and fried potatoes cooked in Dutch ovens. After dinner, we sat around the campfire talking about past hunts and trying to decide where we'd each like to hunt the next morning.
During past hunts, elk have been known to come within 20 yards of our camp, but I knew Kim and Joshua wanted to go to a high mountain meadow where they'd seen a nice herd with a couple bulls when they were scouting the area a few days earlier. Dave has taken several bulls out of this area and knew exactly where he wanted to be. He and Jack talked it over and decided to wait until almost daylight before they approached their area by horseback. I announced to the group I was going to walk up a switch-back trail to a basin where I'd taken several elk in past years. Despite my age, I was confident I could still make it up that steep trail.
With the excitement of opening morning, I was up at 4 a.m., dressed and ready for the day! I adjusted my headlamp and turned it on as I started my long climb under the night sky. Approaching the ridge, I switched the headlamp off. As I reached the summit, the smell of rank, old bulls filled my nostrils. There was a herd of elk in the brush below me making a lot of noise. With the wind in my favor, I decided to stay put until daybreak.
Soon after, elk started bugling all around me. Looking around, I decided to move to a spot on a high, rocky cliff closer to the middle of all the activity. The timber in this area is heavy and thick, and I knew it was imperative for me to move through it as quickly and quietly as possible. I've learned through the years that it's possible to move through and past elk in the dark, especially on horseback. But this magnificent animal's excellent sense of smell and keen eyesight will alert it to any danger in the daylight, and I knew sunrise wasn't far off. I reached the high, middle point of the cliff just as it was getting light out. Looking down, I could see two cows, a calf and one bull below me, but it was still too dark to clearly see the bull's antlers. Suddenly, a big, gruff-sounding bull bugled above the elk. I struggled to try and catch a glimpse of him, but he remained hidden in the timber. The herd I'd located in the dark was bugling enough to keep these two brutes yelling back at them, which helped me pinpoint their locations.
The bull with the cows was 350 yards below me, and as it became lighter out, I could see he had a fair rack and was quite large. He was feeding out of a depression toward a good horse trail. I considered my options and decided to let him go and try to locate "Old Gruffy." However, as the first bull followed his cows into a small canyon that was just out of my sight, I began to question whether I should have taken the shot when I had the chance.
Just then, a three-shot volley rang out in the distance. Even though it was a long way off, the lead cow in the canyon did a 180-degree turn and took off. Then, out of seemingly nowhere, a whole string of cows and spikes lined out on the same game trail. I frantically searched the area for Old Gruffy, but he was still hidden from view.
However, the bull I'd passed up earlier suddenly appeared in a flat area in the ravine. After giving him another hard look, I decided I just couldn't pass him up and steadied my rifle for a shot. I centered the crosshairs on him and carefully squeezed the trigger on my old .270 Wthby. Mag. My shot was dead-on, but the bull didn't even flinch! My heart was pounding out of my chest as I watched him casually walk up a ridge approximately 30 yards. Finally he stopped, and I seized the opportunity to put another bullet into his vitals. That shot brought him down, and he fell into the bottom of the ravine.
Scoring The Trifecta
By the time I'd field-dressed the bull, it was noon, so I decided to return to camp, pasture the horses and get an early start on supper for the gang as they arrived back from their hunts. As the day wore on, Jack and Dave returned. They'd seen lots of country, but no elk. Eventually darkness fell and as it got later and later, I began to worry as Kim and Joshua hadn't come back to camp yet.
I know they're strong men and in good physical condition, but the late hour made me uneasy. I began thinking, however, that their late return was mostly my fault.
When I was younger, I'd position myself high on a mountainside so that camp lay below me, ensuring I'd only have to go downhill to get to camp. I did this because oftentimes I'd shoot an elk or buck just before dark, and it was simply easier to get back to camp using that method. Kim had witnessed my late arrival more than once, and had passed that same strategy onto Joshua.
It was nearly 11 p.m. when they finally showed. When they came in, I could see from the look on Joshua's face that they had good news. Although I already knew the answer to my question, I asked them how their day had gone. Joshua was bursting at the seams to tell me he'd taken his first bull, and that it was a 6x6! He's a good shot, and the new 7mm Rem. Mag. he'd worked so hard to buy had done the trick. Meanwhile, I could tell Joshua wasn't the only one who had a story to tell, as I noticed a sly grin on Kim's face. After I questioned him, he announced that he'd also taken a nice 6x6! We congratulated each other, and as I settled down for the night, I couldn't help but marvel at the fact that three generations of hunters had all taken bulls on the same day.
Nowadays, whenever our family gathers together, it's only a matter of time before the conversation turns to that unforgettable day: the great enjoyment and pride we take in being able to hunt as grandfather, son and grandson, and having all three of us come home with 6x6 bulls. I've been on countless hunts and have taken many animals in all my years of hunting, but nothing will ever compare to this once-in-a-lifetime experience.