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Missed Him By That Much January 2003
Dave Cooley  

We knew going into this hunt that it would be difficult. This for several reasons. First, we were now into the fifth year of a drought and there wasn’t much water available for the elk. Second, the Arizona Game & Fish department has been continually reducing the number of elk in the state for the last ten years and it was now down to less than half of what it was ten years ago. Every year we see fewer and fewer elk. Third, we had drawn our first choice bull tags and, while we have seen them in this area during previous hunts, we have never seen as many bulls as cows.

My hunting partner, Steve has been wanting to put in for bull for several years now as he has wanted a good, mountable bull. I would have preferred a cow tag as I believe the meat is better but we had not put in for bull for several years so it seemed about time to give him a chance at that bull.

Sunday, the weekend before the hunt, Steve and I drove up to our area to set up his second tree stand on “Good Tank” and put a temporary camp in place to hold our camp site. We also wanted to check for elk sign and see which tanks in that vicinity contained any water. We arrived to find our old campsite already taken, with a trailer sitting there but we were able to find a better spot across the road a ways that was more secluded, nicer and had more fire wood.

Of about 20 tanks that we checked, all were dry except for four. We also found as we drove in that there had been much more rain to the south near the rim as most of those tanks held water. We returned to Phoenix skeptical of our odds for this year’s hunt.

The day before opening day Steve and I drove up in my 4Runner and arrived about noon. The 4Runner can be driven to almost any place an elk is down and has a winch that makes skinning an elk much easier than doing it on the ground. Out of the last seven elk, I have been able to drive to six. My son, Jason, drove in separately from NAU in his roommate’s truck and got there later that afternoon. Dinner was Johnsonville brats with sauerkraut and Bush’s beans. Truly tough to beat. That night the temperature dropped into the high 20s, which we hoped would encourage the start of the rut and would help us find the bulls.

Friday morning Jason & I hunted the bedding area south of the fence and saw five cows. One passed within 15 yards of us. It would have been an easy shot for Jason had we had cow tags. We also saw one bull, but he was out of range and spotted us before we could make a stalk.

The bulls were now bugling some and it appeared that the rut had begun. As we prepared to walk back to camp, Jason found my arrow from the elk I shot there two years before. Things were looking up.

That evening, he and I sat in a portable blind on the fence tank. After setting up the blind we noticed a stand in the tree next to us, but no one came in to use it that evening. Lots of trucks were driving up and down the road but no elk. We might as well have been sitting on Bell Rd. for all the traffic.

We left a little after 7:00 and arrived in camp about 7:30 to find a note on the lantern and another on the door of the tent trailer from Steve asking for help with an elk. He had shot one on Good Tank that came in to water about 5:30. It is a small four point that came in without cows. So much for his holding out for that big bull. To add insult to injury, he was asleep in his stand when it came in and woke him up. That tree stand hunting is tough work. We finished up around 11:00 that night. Using the winch on the 4Runner allowed us to skin the elk in short order.

Saturday morning found Jason & I in the blind under Steve's tree stand. There was no sign of elk. Jason left for NAU to be able to ride into Phoenix with Chelsey around lunch time, so that evening I sat the blind on Good Tank with Steve. One five point bull came in with seven cows right at dark about 7:00. It was just past the hairy edge of too dark to shoot. If I had been outside the blind or in a tree stand it might have been light enough but inside that bull blind it is much darker and extremely hard to see the pins or peep sight. Besides, I was sitting on the left side of the blind, which would have prevented me from being able to shoot out the right window anyway. While two can fit in one of those blinds, it makes it difficult to draw a bow in all but a few directions.

Sunday morning Steve and I again sat the blind under his stand. We heard a couple bulls bugling as they went south down the ridge just west of us, so I left the blind to go after them. While trying to hurry around and get ahead of the bull on the right, I walked right up on the other one. It’s darned impossible to be sneaky while going faster than the elk. We stared at each other for about a second before he ran off. The first bull kept heading south at a good clip so I followed almost a mile down into Wilkins canyon. I never did get ahead of him. Lots of exercise that day. Chasing elk is a losing proposition.

Sunday evening I sat the blind on Good Tank while Steve sat in his tree stand and watched with a video camera. Three cows come in over the berm right at dark. It’s as though they know when it’s too dark for us to shoot. We took down his tree stand and returned to camp after dark.

The next morning I decided to walk the bedding area from the south and work my way north. I knew that the wind was wrong but that’s how I got the last elk in that area. I spooked a few just before getting to the old elk spot and then spent the next hour in that area and saw nothing. Monday evening I sat Good Tank by myself. No elk. I removed the blind and hiked out in the dark.

Tuesday morning I returned to the bull blind under Steve’s tree stand and watched the squirrels. There were three Aberts squirrels chasing each other up and down some large Ponderosas. Finally at about 8:00 a four-point bull came in slowly from the north on the trail that passes by the blind only 18 yards away.

When he passes by a blind spot between two windows I started to draw the bow. In spite of trying several times, I just can't get the bow back. I helplessly watch him pass by the shoot-through window and proceed past the next blind spot to the fence, cross it, and turn to the left. I am still shaking but finally manage to draw the bow and shoot at him through the fence. The arrow splits the fence post and sticks there, halfway through the post. I couldn’t hit that post in a hundred tries if I wanted to. Obviously, the elk takes off for the next county. I tried calling him back with the cow call to no avail.

About half an hour later a camo’ed hunter comes walking down the fence from the west and spies my arrow sticking there. He looks around but, incredibly, doesn’t see the blind, which is only 20 yards away. When he starts messing with the arrow I whistled to get his attention. He is startled but comes over for a chat before leaving. Nice guy. Can’t believe he didn’t see the blind.

At 9:00 I prepare to leave and start to disassemble the blind. I pull up stakes from the inside, throw out the fanny pack, chair and bow through the open zipper. When I stick my head and shoulders out to exit I see a five point bull is only 70 yards away and looking straight at me with a puzzled look on his face. He probably thinks this weird contraption is giving birth.

I slowly sneak back into the blind, which should really confuse him, wait for the bull to walk past the blind spot and come up the trail. He comes by, but is not on the trail as I thought he would be. He is much farther up the hill at 43 yards, which I checked later with the range finder and not the 25 yards that I thought. My shot goes low between his legs. He makes haste up the hill and I pack up the blind and return to camp and to Phoenix.

Later that same week on Friday I arrived back at camp around noon and hiked out to Steve’s stand to set up the blind for Saturday morning, then came back to camp about the time that Jason and Cody drive up in Cody’s truck. We set up the tent, table and stuff, then Jason and I leave early to set up the blind at Good Tank and sit there that evening. The only elk that showed up that night was a beautiful 5X5 that came in at 7:02. Once again, too late for an ethical shot but it sure gets your heart pumping. We pack up the blind and return to camp.

The next morning Cody and Jason went out to the first blind and I stayed back at the second elk fence crossing. Two hunters were working their way west along the fence, about 100 yards on the other side with one tooting incessantly on a cow call. Wheeeya, wheeeeeeyyya. It sounded like a cross between a sick cow and a bull. I snuck in on them just to see what was making all the noise. Good grief. I wanted him to choke on it. I found out from my son later that these two tooted their way all the way over to the blind where Jason and Cody were, sat near them and called on that thing for 45 minutes straight! I believe a jury of our peers would have forgiven a blunt shot in their direction.

I ended up at our old blind up on the ridge, not far from where the boys were. As I sat there, I heard a noise behind me. When I turned my head to see what it was, I spooked a small four point who ran down toward the boys but not close enough for them to get a shot. I guess it just wasn’t my year. Didn’t want to eat bull meat anyway.

Lessons: Don’t leave the blinds until at least 9:30 and take a good look around before getting out. Let the bow down to 65 pounds for the hunt. I know you practice at 70. Do it anyway.

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