Bone Pile: Arizona Archery Elk
Updated: Jan 17
Check out the film from the hunt here.
For the 2016 archery bull elk hunt I had the pleasure of guiding Russ Johnson. Russ had drawn his first archery bull elk tag and we would be hunting a challenging unit. Anyone familiar with Arizona knows there are huge variations in the quality of hunts between elk units. Some areas take decades to draw tags for while others may only take a handful of years. With several hundred other hunters in a very well known unit our work would be cut out for us.
Prior to the season I had located a few above average bulls for the unit. As with most hunters, Russ's hopes were high of arrowing a giant and he was ready to wait until the last day if need be. I was not so optimistic about his lofty goal. There is always the possibility of killing a giant, however the tag numbers in the unit we were in were astounding and the average quality of bull in the unit was realistically 30-40 inches smaller than what we were hoping to kill. A 350" class bull in any unit, in any state, on any hunt is a giant.
A couple days before the opener of the hunt I hooked up my travel trailer and headed north. I met up with my hunter at camp and we formulated a plan. I hoped to relocated the elk I had seen the week before in the low rolling Utah junipers, in country I felt held generally bigger elk than the unit is commonly known for. Russ and I took a drive a few miles from our camp and climbed up to a vantage point. To my surprise I picked up the elk I had seen before in short order along with several dozen others. Over the course of the evening six bulls stood out from the rest in the area, ranging from 320-360" I was impressed with the quality we were looking at.
The night before the hunt my worries were realized. Camp after camp rolled up the rough roads and set up shop in every corner of the area we had seen the best elk. The bulls for this area we uncharacteristically bugling early in the month and would continue late into the morning. We knew in would quickly become a zoo with how much activity we had seen and heard. Our only hope was that we could get in position and get it done on one of the two better bulls around. The number one bull on the list was "Quattro" he showcased huge royals followed by average fifth points, he by all rights was the herd bull in the group. The other dominate bull was a 360" case 7x7.
Opening morning we were joined by Russ's son Zac and my good friend Cole Kemp, they would be our spotters on a high point overlooking our bulls. In the blackness and cool air Russ and I headed out on his Ranger. We took off through the trees and hiked to a small rise a half mile directly towards the bugling bulls. As we sat and waited for it to get light we had our main bull less than a quarter mile out. Not surprisingly, as grey light approach flashlights could be seen approaching from different areas. We could hear several other hunter already calling in the darkness from an unfavorable spot. I knew the elk would get bumped as quick as we could see so we began to move to an area ahead of the elk and away from the other hunters who were making every mistake possible. As our the sky got brighter we had the big bull under 150 yards. I could hear one bull making his way in to us so we set up. shortly after the group crashed away... Cole came through on the radio that two other groups of hunters had approached from up wind and it was all over. The elk winded them and left the country.
We continued to play the game in the area for the next few days. Stalk after stalk cut short by other hunters poor calling, approaching with no cover, coming in from up wind, or simply trying to drive to the elk then chase them on foot. Our frustration continued to grow, it wasn't the elk we were having problems with it was that too many other hunters now knew where these elk were and they were all rushing in and blowing the elk out. On Sunday we had had enough, it was time to abandon the spot. We pulled camp and said "adios" to the zoo of people.
Our new camp was located in vastly different terrain. We would be hunting as far from people as we could get, hopefully turning up some giants. In an area where we couldn't glass we would rely on my calling to locate bulls. In short order we were back in the game. For the next few days we poked around in the high timber away from anyone else. Playing with bull after bull Russ elected to pass several opportunities on decent elk. I would call to locate them and we would slip in for a look, if thing were promising we would keep pushing forwards if our wind allowed.
After several days of this the weather made a shift on us. The calling activity plummeted and things got tough. Some afternoons we sat on various tanks in the area in blinds killing the mid day lulls. We did have a few encounters doing this but nothing of the quality we were hoping for. Into the second week of the hunt we went through our usual routine. I called and got a response on a mountain. Russ and I stalked in, checking the wind every so often. As we approached, the bull moved up on us after a swirl and we thought it was over. I called again and after some silence we got a response. Continuing onward we approached the elk from behind the cover of a sharp ridge. In short order we were in position to expose ourselves for a shot.
Russ and I slipped through the shadows until I could see ivory tips through the thick tangle of brush. We adjusted positions and kept tabs on the bull as he moved. The elk cut left and headed down the mountain, as he passed into our shooting lane I gave him a soft cow call. My calling stopped him perfectly as the bull looked into the shadows towards us, Russ carefully drew his bow back. As he settled his pin and squeezed off the arrow It cut erratically in flight and slammed into the elk. It was a shoulder hit. In the last few feet the arrow had deflected and twisted off course, centering the bull's shoulder, only penetrating 5 inches. Regardless we tracked the bull some ways but agreed our effort was futile. We would simply have to try again and hit true.
The hunt days were winding down quickly at this point and with the low activity I was starting to get worried. We hadn't been on a bull in some time and things were looking bad. In the back of my head I had a feeling on where to go all day. After exhausting every other option, it was time to commit. We would hike across the canyon and into the bull's house and hopefully get on a good one before dark. Russ and I made good time across the steep thick canyon and popped out on the other side. I quickly caught my breath and ripped out a call. With excitement i spun around "there he is!" as I pointed. Moving quickly we cut down the distance to the elk. I was calling as we went, getting updates on their location. To my left I caught movement and froze. "Holy crap, there is a bear right there!" I quietly pointed out to Russ a large male black bear feeding next to us. Taking some quick film we continued on, eventually running out of light on a great bull at the edge of our range.
It was now the last day, at first light we made the same move across the canyon and got back into our group of elk. We stalked in over the course of several hours and miles. Three times getting caught by other elk in our way. Finally after 4 hours the activity died off. What now? I had Russ hold up and we decided to methodically work towards where I thought the bull had last called. I was sure they had bedded down and gone quiet for the morning. Creeping over some underbrush I saw an antler glimmer in the sunlight. In front of us was a bedded bull. I signaled to Russ and he got ready for a shot. As the bull stood he was aware of us but could not pinpoint what we were. He circled twice and stopped in a cut. As he did I gave Russ a range "101" as I looked at him. He knelt down, steadied himself, and buried a Rage broadhead deep into the bull! both of us we amazed as we walked over and picked up a flow of blood as far as we could see. Russ had smoked a solid 6x7!
We opted to wait one hour despite the good blood before tracking. In the mean time I looked around our spot. "hmm, this spot looks oddly familiar..." I glance down and picked up a bone pile. At that moment it all made sense. This was my 2014 client Brian's bone pile. We had killed his bull not 10 yards from where Russ had arrowed his. It was a strange coincidence considering we had followed these elk several miles through the forest. After an hour we began tracking. After a short distance I pointed out his bull, a perfect double lung shot. We took photos, caped, quartered and broke down the bull. While we worked Cole Kemp, his dad, and friend drove out to help us. We made short work of a pack out and wrapped up the season with a solid bull!