By Randy Finch
After fumbling over the keyboard on the Arizona Game and Fish website with hopes of what the 2011 elk and antelope draw had in store, I input my information. Twenty-eight years old, and I had finally drawn my first “trophy” elk hunt. My last archery elk hunt was in 2006, and with the draw odds not in my favor on this 2011 hunt number, I couldn’t be any happier.
The anticipation never stopped in the months I had to wait to start this journey. It was always in the back of my mind. Hunting is what I live for. It’s ingrained in my blood. If you ask anyone I know, they’ll tell you that the AZGFD has been extremely good to me as far as tags go. I’ve been called many a dirty name out of sheer jealousy. I don’t believe in the saying “don’t pass on anything the first day that you would take the last day.” With an amazing opportunity like this, everyone always asks you what you’re holding out for. Well, 360 was my answer, but I would have no shame in taking a 300 type bull the last couple of days. My last archery bull scored 355, and I’m a big fan of trying to beat my previous accomplishments. I’m also a huge fan of DIY. Even if I had the money, I would never hire a guide in Arizona. I’ve been outdoors with my family since I was old enough to walk, so the first thing I did when I drew was call my dad and my brother Richard. Together, the two have had 6 or 7 early tags in this unit, so the knowledge was definitely there and a very good resource.
About seven days before the hunt, I left Phoenix for the duration. The next morning, as the sun came up, my buddy, Luke, and I were perched on top of a great glassing spot. The scouting had begun. We scouted for the next two days in a very popular, well known area. There were quite a few bulls found on this scouting trip, but nothing I would wrap my tag around the first half of the hunt. Then the rain started. Unbeknownst to me, this rain would be a game changer and prove very useful in the weeks to come. I headed to my hometown and hung out for a couple more days waiting for the rain to stop. It didn’t.
Well, as things turned out, my brother-in-law had a limited opportunity tag the same time as mine. My dad decided he would be more helpful going on his hunt. It was a little disappointing, but completely understood. It was a tough hunt. This left Richard and my long-time friend Brandon. We departed the day before the hunt. Heading in to the place we planned to camp, I realized that this might be one of the wettest hunts I would ever be a part of. It was a complete mess. Never ending mud and pond sized puddles lined the roads. This may have affected the other hunters more than me. I hate sitting water and didn’t plan on doing it. We like to use more of a “run and gun” type tactic on the early elk hunts. We keep the calling to a minimum and use it only as a locator. Then we figure out the future path of the herd and cut them off. I think this leaves the fate more in the hands of the hunter than the bull.
Opening morning, like any opening morning, started early. Hopes were high, and anxiety was through the roof. We needed to get to a certain funnel that most of the elk would use at first light. This meant weeding through screaming bulls with only the moonlight as our guide. I think there’s one thing that is absolute in all elk hunters; when the bulls are ripping, we’re all on cloud nine. Richard, Brandon and I made haste on our way to the funnel. We got to a higher spot in the cedar-scattered valley just in time to see the herd we were trying to cut off. They were about 600 yards in front of us moving quickly in the opposite direction of where we stood. Just like that, the morning hunt was over and the bugling ceased. There was a 345-350 type bull in the herd. There were two smaller bulls running in the herd as well. 350 is a great number, but not what I was after. We made a three to four mile loop back to the jeep and headed back to camp until the evening hunt. That afternoon was poor as far as the elk hunting goes. That night we got some hellacious rain, then hail. I could tell the weather was going to give us a run for our money. It would pour for about thirty minutes, then clear up for an hour, then rain again like clockwork for the next four days. The next morning we were back at it. We got to the funnel before the elk did and found the same bull with about thirty cows. He was about 300 yards from us and covered in mud. 300 yards was close enough for me. I didn’t want to shoot this bull, and I knew if I pursued him, I couldn’t stop myself if I had an opportunity. Richard and I said goodbye to Brandon on Sunday night. We discussed what we wanted to do the next morning. Richard had a spot he wanted to check out, so we were there dark and early the next morning. We made a decent loop around a couple of ridges and back to the jeep. There was plenty of time left that morning to check out another spot. We hopped in the jeep and headed that way. When we got there, I sounded off and immediately got a deep, throaty response. It was coming from a very thick area. We proceeded with caution and ended up jumping a bull and five cows. I didn’t get a good look at the bull, but I could tell from the look in Richards’s eyes that he was a boomer. He looked at me and said, “if you get a chance to shoot that bull, do not hesitate.” We made our way over the next couple ridges trying to relocate the bull. With all hope almost lost, we crested over one more ridge and spotted some cows about 200 yards away feeding in a small flat. After what seemed like an eternity, I found the bull…or at least I what I thought was the bull. He was about a 370 class straight six. Richard said that wasn’t the bull we jumped. Just then, he said, “there’s the big one.” I looked a couple ridges behind the 370 bull with my binos and caught about a five second show of probably one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. He was seven on both sides, beams touching sixty inches; I swear he was twenty inches all around with eight to nine inch sixths. I have never seen a bull that would hit the 400 inch mark, but I would bet everything I have on this one breaking it. He had his head back, and he was hauling ass. That bull was long gone. It was very difficult for me to even think about pursuing the 370 bull after seeing the seven, but that’s what we did for the remainder of the morning. We lost the cat and mouse game and headed back to camp with a big mental boost thanks to our two new finds. The evening hunt was brutal on the ego that Monday afternoon. We were back in the same area, and the only thing we found were a couple of cows. The morning hunt on Tuesday was much of the same. The elk had quieted down, and they were hiding all too well. Richard had to go check on his business for the next couple of days, so after getting skunked that morning, he headed to town. We discussed what the game plan was. I wanted to stay in the same spot, and he had no objections. I headed to a closer town to gas up the tanks and get a much needed cheeseburger and fries. I called and left Luke a message telling him if he wanted to come up and help, I would be all by myself for the next couple of days. I got back to camp, dropped off the gas tanks and made it back out to the hot spot at about 3:00 in the afternoon. I had a big loop I wanted to make, covering a lot of ground. I would make a “D” shaped loop, hitting the road about three miles ahead and make my way back to the jeep. It rained off and on the whole evening. I didn’t have my rain gear, but it didn’t matter. I was on a mission. I trudged on in the mud, and after only seeing a couple of cows, I made it back to the road. I was about three and a half miles away from the jeep, just like I had planned. There was about an hour left of light, so I would crest the ridges slowly, glass them carefully, and cross them quickly. The rain was brutal and getting worse with every step. With about forty-five minutes left of shooting light, I came over a ridge and immediately saw a bull with my naked eye. He was across a yellow grass flat on the opposite ridge. I put my binos on him and found that he was a small five. Since I hadn’t seen a bull in about a day, I just stood there checking him out. Out of the corner of my eye to the right, out of my binos, I caught movement. There was the bull I had been waiting for. A quick glance was all I needed. I saw the fifths and the remainder of the main beam and knew the bull was the yeti I had been holding out for. He fed along the bottom of the ridge about 100 yards on my side of the raghorn. Surprisingly enough, I kept my composure and made a plan. There was no way I could slip around the trees and wait for him to come to me with the light fading. The clouds had rolled in and were stealing most of my light. I had to go for broke, and I had to do it quickly. As I made my descent down the ridge to the grass flat, I noticed the only four cedar trees in the flat. They were in a row about twenty yards apart, staggering away from me. I knew if I got to the first one, it would up my chances at on opportunity ten fold. The problem was the fact that the first tree was about 200 yards away, across the flat. With my only cover being the rain and the cloud cover, I started across the flat, keeping my eyes glued to the bull. Every time the bull lifted his head, I would freeze. This lasted about fifteen minutes. I made it about 100 yards. As he fed towards my target cedars, I knew he would soon be behind the third one. The second his head was hidden behind the tree, I took off. The now pouring rain muffled my footsteps as I ran through the mud. I had made it to the first cedar. I slipped around the first cedar to the second, grabbed my rangefinder, nocked an arrow and ranged the fourth cedar…sixty-two yards. “Green pin, green pin,” I told myself. Just then, the bull came from right to left out in the open. He was still moving as I drew my bow. I set the pin on my target and mewed. The bull didn’t stop and kept walking broadside to my left. I mewed louder and he planted his front feet and turned his head, looking right at me…a textbook, broadside shot! I settled my pin and punched the release (still can’t squeeze it on an animal). I watched the florescent yellow vanes disappear in the rain. Then, an archery hunter’s favorite sound…THWOPP! The bull spun and took off. This was the first good look I had at him. I stood there completely blank, soaked and cold. I had no clue where I had hit him. Then the doubts came. “Should I have added five yards for the gallon sized rain drops?” I walked over to the point of impact and saw that the three inch deep hoof prints were already full of water. Thirty yards behind that, I spotted my arrow and made my way to it. I picked it up and examined the little blood that was left on it after it sat in the rain. I followed the tracks about 100 yards and ran out of light. As much as I hated to, I had to back out and come back in the morning. I took the remaining two mile, mind-bending, cold, wet walk back to the jeep. That night, I slept like a baby. Call me crazy, but I was spent.
I was back on the scene at sunrise, found my marker, and followed the tracks. There wasn’t any blood for the first fifty yards. Then, finally, I found one lone drop that didn’t get washed away in the storm. I had my head down looking for impressions in the mud. I was concentrating so hard at trying to stay on the tracks that I didn’t realize the bull was five yards in front of me. I looked up and let out a huge sigh of relief. A perfect double-lung shot. I couldn’t wait to get him home and show him to my family and friends. I ran into my buddy, Luke, on the way out of the unit. He was driving in to help me. I said, “what do ya think, 370?” He said, “I’ve killed 370, and that bull’s way bigger.” When I got him home to take the meat to the walk in freezer in the barn, it was a great homecoming. A lot of my close friends and family were there. We had a few barley pops to celebrate, and the rest is history.
I want to say thanks to Richard, Brandon and Luke. I couldn’t have done it without you guys. I ended up tight taping the bull for a green score and came up with 387 7/8 gross P&Y with a 380 net typical P&Y.