A Day to Remeber

Matt Hammond

Published in the May/June 2022 Edition of Western Hunter Magazine

There’s something special about your first time. A first kiss, first car, first house are all imprinted in our memory for a reason. Hard as we try, we can never recreate the anticipation, wonder and emotions that only come when experiencing something for the first time. Hunting the west has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. As a lifelong east coast resident, the lure of the west aroused my longing for adventure and wild places. When I received an invite from my friend Elijah, a Utah transplant, to join him and two fellow Floridians on a DIY bow hunt for elk this fall I jumped at the chance (after clearing it with my wife of course).

I’m far from the first person to be drawn west. Having spent my entire life hunting woodlots parceled like checkerboard girdled with “No Trespassing” signs, the chance to feed my wanderlust in a seemingly borderless land was more than I could resist. For Mike, Jeff and I this would be our first time hunting in the Mountain Time Zone.  Planning for a hunt of this magnitude was exciting. We devoured every podcast and Youtube video about elk and backcountry hunting we could find (shout out to Remi Warren). More than once, after reviewing our checking account, my wife inquired if the trip was here yet. As the summer waned towards September our anticipation reached a fever pitch. It was clear this trip was going to be a “first” that would leave an indelible mark in our lives.

When the day we had all been waiting for finally arrived, three expectant hunters converged in the early morning hours at the Orlando International Airport on my birthday from different corners of the state to embark on an adventure we had only dreamt about. Landing midday in Salt Lake City we were met at the airport by Elijah and after a brief stops to grab lunch and load our gear into a small U-Haul trailer we started the trek into the mountains. As we drove the panorama through the windows of the four-wheel drive Tacoma  was more than the narrow lenses of my eyes could capture all at once. Three hours later, we pulled into a trailhead I’d only viewed through a computer screen during e-scouting sessions.

Daybreak came quickly and at the same time not fast enough for our weary yet eager group of travelers. Our plan was to hunt our way up a small, timbered, flat-bottomed drainage calling and looking for fresh sign. Excitement came quickly with two encounters with spike bulls before lunch. After gaining 1,300 feet of elevation our legs and lungs let us know that it was time to break for lunch. Refreshed by our brief respite we spent the afternoon hunting above 10,000 feet finding only dry scat and year-old rubs.  It was clear that the fresh sign was down lower and so after waiting out a brief storm that rolled through we pointed our gate back down gradient.

While descending the high alpine timber through intermittent rain showers, one of our locate bugles was finally answered by our target quarry in a secluded bowl several hundred yards east. It’s amazing how a hunt can go from doldrums to frenzy in an instant. Within seconds, three eager hunters were staged, bow-in-hand, straining our senses in the direction of the foreign noise ahead while the most experienced caller of our troupe dropped back to continue the vocal performance. Barely after setting up the big bull ripped a bugle and raked a tree in front of Mike who was at the center of our skirmish line. In even less time the bull’s nostrils filled with our repugnant odor and about faced while Mike temporarily earned the nickname “Travis Barker” for the abuse he inflicted drumming an innocent pine in the frenzy as the mature 5x5 ran away.

Our first close encounter with a rocky mountain bull elk left us shaken yet exhilarated. We took a short break to allow our heart rates to drop back into the green zone and think out our next steps. While recouping a plan was put in place to hunt towards a north facing slope a mile and half from camp for the balance of daylight. On the way we scrambled over two rocky spines, anxiously waited for looming thunder to pass and learned what being cliffed-out is.

Shortly after cresting onto the target slope we were met by a pungent odor I can best describe as similar to a wet barn animal. Our deliberations about the source of this strong odor was interrupted by a curious 3x3 bull who trotted in from behind us before quickly turning heel after closing the distance to 30 yards, disappearing from our life before any of us were able to get a bow drawn. Our second close encounter ended even faster than the first leaving us looking at each other thinking “What just happened!?!”

With an hour and a half of daylight left we resumed our descent which was interrupted again 15 minutes later by another bugle 150 yards to our left. Another scramble positioned Mike and me facing the presumed direction of the bull while Elijah and Jeff hung back to attempt to draw the bull in. While waiting, the wind briefly picked up blowing over a dead 4-inch pine close enough that I momentarily questioned my sanity. Before I was able to come to a conclusion on that thought the bull appeared below me on a path that would intersect about 40 yards away. Scanning the hillside, I spotted a window through the pines directly below me that would be my only shot opportunity.

As the bull approached I drew back and waited. When he filled the opening I split the difference between my 30 and 40 yard pins and released.

The only indication that the arrow found its mark was a flinch before the bull continued his purposed march out of my sight and into Mike’s. I quietly cheered as I watched Mike draw his bow and loose an arrow, followed by the all too familiar crack of a projectile hitting a tree that spooked the bull back passed me and out of sight. Still in that “zone” when your entire focus is on a singular task, I knocked a second arrow and slipped in the direction my shot flew just seconds before. As I cleared the opening, the bull was facing away at 40 yards with the look of a mortally wounded animal unsure of what was ailing it. Drawing back again I whispered to the bull “Just give me something.” As if hearing my plea the bull turned back to look, providing the quartering away shot I needed to penetrate a second arrow. 

With the bull out of sight again I looked down to find the first arrow at my feet with the red tint I was praying for that confirmed the arrow found its mark. Returning the arrow to its quiver the dam holding back my emotions began to breach. At that point Mike walked up and we excitedly told our versions of what just transpired which were repeated when Elijah and Jeff joined us. Cautiously excited, our foursome fanned out to begin tracking. A mere 50 yards down the trail we spotted the tawny hide of the elk laying on the mountain floor. After the bull was confirmed dead we threw our caution to the wind and our band of brothers celebrated an accomplishment none of us were certain would actually happen. 

In reflection, there were many ingredients that made the trip and that day as memorable as it was: the generosity of a friend sharing in the culmination of the 4 years of learning he had invested, the rugged terrain sculpted at the dawn of time and the wild creatures that call it home, the comradery and unselfishness of four kindred spirits sharing life together, listening to the bugles of rutting elk while gazing at satellites arcing across the starry night sky, the satisfying feeling of exhaustion after packing out the spoils of a successful hunt, and much more. I only need to gaze at the mount on my wall of the beast that drew us to this incredible place for the memories to come flooding back. We were fellow sojourners in a wild and beautiful land whose paths briefly crossed on one memorable day. While the elk’s journey has come to an end, ours continues on with a memory of an unforgettable  first experience that we will carry with us and retell until our’s reaches the same conclusion.

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