Sometime in late October of 2022, while I was preparing to hike out to a glassing location for bears, Chad got a hold of me on the phone. He explained he had drawn a unit 23 rifle bull tag for the fast approaching late rifle season and was interested in hunting with us. We talked through the details, what to expect and prepare for, and set the plan in motion. Fast forward to Thanksgiving day and we were wrapping up our initial strategy for opening morning and organizing our gear.
We started the morning off with a simple breakfast and began our long journey into the day’s hunting spot. Ethan, Chad’s son, joined us. The three of us would spend the next serval days tearing apart the countryside in search of a few particular bulls. Elk movement was minimal throughout the days. Only the first and last hours of light would accompany movement of the ashen amber bodies of the rut worn bulls amongst the brush and timber.
Unit 23 may have a reputation for some of the highest quality elk in Arizona but it is not without good reason. Like a fortress, the precipitous rocky slopes and overground mountainsides shield elk from the conquests of hunters throughout the year. Naturally protected by the extreme habitat, bulls add years and inches, seldom seen by the casual observer. Nothing we did would be casual on Chad’s hunt. We approached from every conceivable vantage point in order to dig bulls out from where they were buried.
After several days of searching, our focus began to shift towards killing a bull we had passed on early in the hunt. The enormous bodied bull had a spectacular frame and width. With a broken royal flush with his beam, it was a bittersweet discovery and easy decision early in the hunt. Now, after not seeing any of our better bulls, he had moved up the hit list. We returned to the area we had previously seen the bull and quickly located him in the frigid air of grey light. We found him so early I had Chad and Ethan keep an eye on the bull while I scanned the ridges for others. “Forget that bull get your glass on this one!” I practically shouted. “Seriously, I’m not joking get your glass on this bull now!” As soon as they picked it up in their optics the gravity of my excitement was self evident. “Holy crap” Ethan stated. Five or six ridge lines to the right, approximately 2 miles from our current location, a clean long tined 6x6 bull fed on a shaded exposure.
Chad and I loaded up as Ethan kept his eyes glued to our newly acquired target. It was going to be a huge play. Chad and I had to leave the area entirely, drive around a complex of mountains, finally we would have to descend a mile in order get get positioned appropriately 400 yards across from the bull. Minutes stacked up and we made every effort to cut the distance. The elk moved up into an ancient thicket of 8-15’ tall manzanita brush - typically a waist-high plant, densely covering the ground, with twisted and jagged branches. This patch resembled a smooth red-barked forest of thigh diameter trunks and astonishing heights for the usually ground dwelling flora. Basking in the cool morning light the bull’s head gear remained visible to Ethan as we approached. Chad and I hurtled through the rocks and deadfall on our approach. In the final approach, as we remained obscured by the crest, the bull swiveled his head and stood. Minutes later he was absorbed into the impenetrable manzanita. He would cease to materialize again.
Back to the broken royal bull we would go. Time was running out. Unfortunately for the moose-footed behemoth bodied elk, he was habitual. Habits will get you killed. We were done messing around. It was time to kill a bull and let the feeling return to Chad’s legs after miles of hiking. Once we decided to kill this bull, he decided to play cat and mouse. We would get in position, he would move behind a juniper, switch beds, feed below our sight line, or slip away unseen. We were a bit irritated. After sneaking into 120 yards and still having no shooting lane, I asked Chad what he wanted to do. “I trust you, whatever your gut says, I’m following you” he stated. I looked back at him. “Let’s get off this mountain, get to the buggy, and go look for the very first bull we tried to relocate on opening day. We have just enough light to get there.”
The race was on. We abandoned the bull bedded 120 yards away and made our move. I stopped the Honda and we raced out to the rocks to glass as the sun touched the horizon. I looked over naked eye and caught a body in the trees at the far end of the canyon. Quickly throwing my binoculars up, I examined the bull. “That’s him, we’ve got go, grab your gun!” At a jogging pace, we scrambled down the ridge to get into range. I jumped down the boulders and set up the shooting tripod. “How far?” Chad asked. “674, let me get the binos on him.” I stated. “Ready when you are.” Chad’s reply was the bark of the rifle.
Nearly a full second later, the bull collapsed. Overcome by gravity, the elk toppled down the 45 degree gravel slope until its hulking body became entangled in the brush below. With less than two minutes of light remaining, Chad and I had pulled it off. On day 6 of a 7-day season, Chad took the bull Matt and I had incidentally located while scouting for early deer hunts. It had been 42 days since the bull had last been seen, now he had taken his final steps within 300 yards of that previous location.
The cliché “and then the work began” couldn’t be more of an understatement. Ethan had to leave early in the day, his help was replaced by Dave's. The three of us delicately navigated the loose terrain in the pitch black of night. The bullet struck around 5:30 PM, we arrived at the bull around 8:30 PM traveling with little delay. With a fire rolling, we cut away until close to midnight. I let the guys know that we weren’t going to be getting this elk or ourselves back tonight. With a large stick I excavated three small beds near the fire pit we had established earlier. We settled in for what was surely going to be a below freezing December night. It was simply too dangerous to load our packs and navigate back under load without the sun - a fact made all to real when I slipped gathering dry wood. With an armload of oak, I slid down the gravel face and ducked to avoid colliding with a larger branch below me. My body rolled left and the energy of my fall was slammed into the left side of my legs. Instantly, just above my left knee heat radiated. A small piece of bone had fractured off the end of my femur near the joint. Luckily I had avoided a serious injury, but I would deal with the sharp fragment irritating my knee indefinitely.
After shuffling hot rocks near our bodies to sleep and tending the small fire throughout the frigid night, the stars finally faded as the sun lit the eastern sky. Together we finished the final cuts and began the first trip back to the vehicle. We then returned for the second load. 24 hours after Chad’s shot, we rolled back into camp. “I thought I had a good idea how tough this hunt would be, but I think this might have been far more of an adventure than I anticipated showing up for” Chad jokingly stated.