Plateau: Unit 22N Late Rifle Bull
Updated: Jan 1, 2021
Check out the hunt film here.
Phone rattling across the night stand I woke up to the blackness of the early morning, quickly grabbing my camos and what remained of the gear. Tanner had driven up the night before and we headed out from the house on our early morning drive. The morning was clear and cold; December elk hunting in the rim country is a stark contrast to the heat of the September rut. We had about an hour drive ahead of us to get into my unit. Fresh off the first unsuccessful leg of my dad's desert bighorn hunt we were both warn physically yet ready for the next challenge ahead. If all went well we would quickly find a bull, wrap the hunt up, and head back to the wilderness in the desert for the two sheep tags.
We pulled off the pavement a bit behind schedule passing by an old Chevy truck with a 340 class bull poking out of the bed. I thought to myself "sure would be nice to be that guy right now." A lone cow elk crossed the road up ahead of us. Maybe this would be a quick hunt! everything seemed to be moving through the area. Shortly after we parked under a thick stand of ponderosa and unloaded the quad from the bed. Ramps extended Tanner backed it down as I gathered the optics, packs, and the gun. Our plan was like most other hunts, get high and glass, hopefully turning up a bull I could let the air out of.
A rough but short ride to the top or the ridge line offered us a spectacular view of the treacherous escarpment at the edge of the Mogollon Plateau. I was noticeably exhausted when we had woken up that morning and Tanner quickly passed me up and hit a few key glassing spots. In short order we had seen 30-40 elk across a small thick canyon feeding away through the timber. No bulls were spotted and as shots from other hunters rang out through the cold air we headed to a new area.
We set back out in the truck. We spent quite a bit of time venturing further away with the quad and glassing country we felt had less pressure. Nothing came of it that day. The next morning we began our same drive out from the house and headed to a new region of the unit. We crossed an ice filled creek bottom and saw a small hear of mule deer just off the road before shooting light. We dawned our packs and hiked off around a canyon rim. Every so often we set up and glassed searching the shadows as the sun drifted higher in the sky. Several cows and calves were bedded amongst the oaks and manzanita but no bulls. We glassed until dark picking up cow after cow as they arose from the thick brush. Our hike back to the truck that evening we could hear a few elk vocalizing nearby, an odd sound for mid December. At this point we had seen 50-60 cows and calves, not a single bull.
I had applied for this hunt expecting to have the entire time to hunt it. When draw results later came out and two sheep tags were in play the expectations of my bull hunt were quickly put on the back burner. My goal now was simply to shoot a branch antlered bull and get back to sheep hunting. We headed back, pretty discouraged by the amount of country we had covered and the lack of antlers we had seen. I went to bed that night considering just heading back to the desert to search for the elusive ram that had been taunting us since the opening of the season. Comparatively Desert Sheep hunting sounded a lot more appealing. However, I had a goal to accomplish to shoot a late rifle bull.
The alarm broke the silence of our sleep. I didn't feel like getting up. Kalea looked at me and said "you better go, or you'll be mad you didn't later." she was spot on, I hadn't been doing the best physically and it had warn of my mind. I got up and Tanner and I headed back out with some bit of renewed optimism. This was the day, feeling well or not, we were killing an elk today.
Our hour long drive brought us though the pines to a narrow pull out. We had left the quad behind and grabbing our gear we hiked up a two-track to gain some elevation for glassing. As usual we methodically stopped and scanned the hillside as we worked further up the ridge. Again we located a couple cows and calves not far from us. We made it out of the trees and into rolling hillsides of manzanita. As we continued further Tanner said "elk" picking up his glass " ...and they have antlers!" I laughed a bit as I hit them with the 15s, sure enough, two bulls were two canyons away from us feeding. They were bulls on most other hunts I would have never given but a glance. For this hunt it didn't matter all I saw was my first rifle bull and a backpack full of steaks!
We crossed a fence and got set up after closing some distance. I clicked the range finder with no return, apparently we needed to get closer. Leaving most of our gear we headed through the thick shoulder-high manzanita to a lone stand of a dozen pines on a small rise. I cleared a shooting lane as Tanner set up the camera. I flipped out the bipod on my Ruger M77 and arranged some rocks to steady the gun. The bulls were slowly feeding to the right as they followed the shadows back towards the mountains. The rifle steady, I took a final range of the larger of the two bulls. 542 yards lit up across the eye piece. I settled in behind the gun and confirmed we had the video rolling. "Alright, I'm gonna take him."
I clicked the safety off and took a few slow breaths. I set the proper Mil dot in on the bull and began my squeeze. The .300 Win roared through the quiet cold morning the shot surprising me a bit. I felt confident with it. "He's still sitting there" Tanner quickly said. I asked "did I hit him?" the bull merely lifted his head after the shot. "I had to have hit him, everything was perfect and the shot felt good" I mumbled to myself. Tanner replied "I think you hit him good but put another one in him." the bull turned and took a few steps left. I cycled a new round and began the process again, this time opting for a high shoulder placement. I sent the second one, this time vaguely seeing the impact through the recoil. "That one hit perfect." The bull took another step and crashed into the ground.
We were in awe, today was fairly fasted paced. As we gathered ourselves we reviewed the first shot on the video. It had been right on target, the shot rippling across the bull's entire body. The bull had been walking dead when the second one passed through it. We recovered the rest of our stuff and made our way down the trail to the drainage below the bull. A few hundred yards walk up the bottom and we cut up the side. Piled up in front of us was my bull. My smallest by far, but my only late rifle bull to date. We spent the next couple hours skinning and boning out the elk, loading it in our packs, and hiking back to the trail we had come down. We managed to load the entire elk and all of our gear between our two packs. This was getting done in one trip and nothing was going to stop us. We made it
the mile or so back to the truck with relief coming over us as we un-shouldered our overloaded packs. A truck load of steaks was in the back and we were headed out. Now we could take a day to recuperate and then head back to the desert to finish off our more serious hunts.
Had I not chosen to ignore the aches and pains of my body and mind and fight through it to go out again I would have never filled that tag. Some hunts the landscape itself offers the obstacles, others it is simply your own body and mind. The best way to not fail is to never quit. Spending weeks at a time for over half of the year guiding, hunting, and scouting can weigh on your mind mentally. Even though opting to pursue the more priority hunts of my dad and brother was more appealing at the time, quitting wasn't on the table. It was an obstacle to be overcome, to say to myself "I will finish what I started." I kept my hunt in the spectrum of realism. Going back to the more exciting or higher priorities tags would have been to compromise. This hunt was about more than antlers it was about completing a personal goal.