It was a classical bugle, starting at the bottom of the scale, ascending for 4 or 5 notes and then dropping off in to a series of deep chuckles. And it was close!...maybe 200 yards uphill with a steady breeze blowing downhill. I couldn't believe it and thought, "this is going to be good!"
My hunt began back in May when I saw my PC monitor saying "CONGRATULATIONS", telling me I had been successful in drawing one of Idaho's early rifle antlered elk hunts near Salmon, Idaho.
With only a 12.8% chance of drawing this unit in 1999, I felt really lucky. I knew several guys who had hunted the unit and began talking to anyone I could about the area. After lots of map scouting and gathering information about the unit, I selected two possible areas where I could get back in several miles with my llamas. I wanted an area that would not be too pressured by bowhunters prior to my hunt, or by other rifle hunters who might stick to the more popular, easily-accessed places. Due to my work schedule, available vacation time, and because it was more than a 7-hour drive up there, I was only able to make one 3-day scouting trip near the first of September. The country was awesome, with sagebrush flats near the lower elevations that rose quickly and fingered up into thick timber and topped out into rocky peaks above timberline. I planned to hunt the high basins where there were small pockets of open meadows and sagebrush hillsides.When scouting my first choice area, I was disappointed to find it had been hammered by cattle. I worried that there would not be enough forage to keep the elk in the area and that they'd move out by the time my season started on October 1. I saw 20-30 elk and a couple of 300-class bulls, but I decided to scout my second choice area. It looked a lot better with apparently no recent cattle use. I later talked to a forest service biologist and learned that the unit I was hunting was divided into many grazing allotments, and that grazing use in the allotments was rotated each year. My second choice area had been rested this year. After hearing a couple bulls and seeing a 340 to 350--class bull, I was confident I'd found a good area. I knew this was not a popular area so I felt it might not get pressured.
Finally the opening weekend drew near. My hunting partner hadn't drawn a tag but had planned to go along until things at work got in the way. I was going to go alone, which I love doing anyway, when my wife surprised me and said she'd like to go! I've tried to get her out hunting since we were first married but she never expressed much interest until this year. In January, I put her in for a spring bear hunt and she drew a tag! Because it was such a good tag I finally convinced her to go. She kind of reluctantly went, but ended up having a great time. We saw 13 bears, and she harvested her first big game animal, a nice blonde-colored bear. We stalked within 70 yards of it and she dropped it with one shot using a 165 gr. Nosler Partition from a .308 Remington 700. Anyway, I was happy to have her wanting to go with me, but knew how tough this elk hunt might be compared to her bear hunt. I worried that I'd push her too hard and make it a bad experience. Anyway, we made plans for the opening weekend.
That trip should have been great. The elk should have been in the peak of the rut and bugling like crazy. But we never heard a bugle in almost 3 full days of hunting. We saw a bull and a few cows one afternoon but never had a shot opportunity. I tried everything I knew, but that's the way hunting goes sometimes. My wife was quite a trooper and stuck with me over some pretty tough country from before light to after sunset everyday. She ended up spending the last morning in camp reading a book. Luckily, she says she had a good trip and would do it again. Anyway, on my next trip out it was going to be just me and the llamas. I knew it would be my last chance to hunt and I wanted to go for bust.
It was about 8:00 PM, an hour or so after dark on Sunday, October 17. My plan was to hike in along a closed logging road for 2 miles and then cross-country about a mile to another ridge. With 3 llamas in tow and about a half mile from the pickup I heard the bull bugle.
I was excited, but then got concerned. I didn't know if I should go ahead back in the 3 miles following my plan, or go back to the pickup and hunt this bull in the morning. Since the llamas were all packed up, I decided to keep going and get back in a mile or two at least. I tried to slip by the bull, but I'm sure he could hear us walking, maybe supposing we were other elk. He flanked us and kept bugling down at us for several hundred yards then stopped following but kept on bugling every 10 minutes or so. Knowing he probably wouldn't move too far at night I decided to find a camp spot far enough away that he wouldn't get down wind of me and spook. I could head back to where I'd heard him in the morning.
I worked my way down a ridge for about a half-mile and found a spot big enough to pitch my tent. As I made camp, and staked out the llamas, I could occasionally hear a faint bugle from the direction I had left the bull. I was excited thinking that if elk were bugling in the morning I could zero in on one and sneak in close before daylight.
As I lay down about 9:30 PM , I could hear occasional faint bugles from several directions! As the night grew on the bugles got closer and closer. I don't think I slept more than 30 minutes that night. I'd hear a bugle, try to mark what direction it came from and then lay there waiting for the next bugle. At one point I heard a pack of at least 3 wolves howl.
At about 1:00 AM, I felt the hair raise on my neck as a bull blasted a bugle off not more than 100 yards from my tent! The breeze was still blowing downhill but I was worried that I had picked a camp spot too close to the action. I could also hear at least 4 other bulls, two fairly close, and two in the distance, all upwind. I was paranoid that the closest bull, which sounded like the biggest one, would move downwind of me and the llamas and spook out of the country, maybe shutting up all the rest of the elk.
At 5:00 am I couldn't take it any longer and got up and dressed in the dark, being as quite as possible. The bull had bedded down 100-125 yards from my tent and had bugled off and on for hours, about every 20 minutes! I crawled ever so quietly out of my tent, and with my daypack and rifle, I inched forward about 30 yards to the edge of a clearing. I was sure when it got light I would be able to see him from there. I still had to wait about 2 hours before it got light, praying the whole time the bull wouldn't move any closer, and the wind would keep blowing downhill. It was incredible to sit there and listen to the bulls singing all morning.
Just before it was light enough to see, the bull got up and started to move sidehill towards another large-sounding bull in the distance. I wasn't sure that he was really on the move, but sure enough, each time he bugled he was farther off. I started to carefully follow and cow call. I could hear cows calling and bulls bugling in several directions. I just tried to blend in with the sounds. Each time he bugled he still seemed to be getting farther away. I decided I'd better move fast to catch up to him. I was glad to be able to move. I'd gotten chilled sitting there almost 2 hours and had started to shiver. Each time he'd bugle I'd close the distance as fast as I could. When I got as close as I dared, I'd stop, get composed and cow call. He'd bugle again and I'd run in, closing the distance.
Finally I could see an open sagebrush slope ahead and thought I might catch him when he broke out of the timber. He bugled again and I could tell he was on that open hillside about 150 yards ahead of me. As I moved in another 20 yards, trying to see between trees that obscured my view of the hillside I spotted a tan object on the slope. I pulled up my binoculars...a cow. Then I caught sight of another elk...a spike bull, then another...a big bull...that must be him! In one motion I seemed to pop my scope covers off, crank my scope up to 9 power, find a spot to sit down and ready for the shot. Through a gap in the trees, I watched the bull as it fed directly away from me up the slope. He raised his head and bugled one more time, looking up the hill. I remember thinking that his antlers looked really wide and dark, but I wasn't sure how long the tines were. Nevertheless, I was sure he would score well and when I had a good shot I was going to take him.
I was still too out of breath from my quick approach and the excitement, and couldn't hold the cross hairs still. As I tried to calm down, I noticed another bull moving in the top right edge of my field of view. I swung slightly to look as this bull trotted down to the first one, stopped short about 10 yards, and then turned and ran away. I swung back on to the first bull thinking he much be the bigger one. By the time I'd gotten lined up on him he had turned broadside and tipped his head down to feed. I let out half a breath, picked the spot and slowly applied pressure to the trigger.
At the shot the bull crumpled. The 180 gr. Winchester Fail-Safe from my .300 Win. Mag. had entered just behind the near shoulder, gone through both lungs and broke the off-shoulder. I instantly reloaded and watched. Suddenly the bull got to its feet. I had fears of him running off and then having a hard tracking job, so I quickly shot 3 more times as he staggered toward the timber. The last shot anchored him for good, breaking the near shoulder and blowing clear through him.
As I approached the fallen bull, I could hear one still bugling in the distance. What an incredible morning! As I neared him, it was just like what I've read from other hunters...how the animals' rack seems to get bigger with each step. I sat there for a few moments in awe of what had just happened, so thankful for the experience. I was sure this was the same bull that had bedded down by me all night. Soon I started whooping and hollering. It was the biggest bull I've ever seen on the ground. After a few pictures and self portraits the real work began.
The rest of the trip was just an exercise of love...beautiful weather, easy hiking, and good llamas to do the hard work. I surprised my wife by getting back early. She now wishes she'd gone on this trip too. I'm just excited that she's so interested in hunting with me now, after 14 years of trying to get her to go. I wish every hunter could have a hunt so easy, exciting and fulfilling as this one.
Note: This 7x6 bull's gross green score was 338 2/8 with a net of 324 3/8 B&C. It has 51-inch main beams and a 46.5-inch outside spread. It's right G-2 is over 23 inches long. If the G-3's would have been more normally developed it might have easily been a 350-class bull.