When I was 20 years old – full of youthful energy, a passion for big game hunting, and plenty of physical strength – I would look at a steep, distant mountain peak and think, “How long will it take me to climb to the top of that mountain?” Now, as I approach age 50 – nursing a bone-on-bone knee – the question has become, “I wonder if I can get there?”
Acknowledging the effects of age can be humbling. So, when I unexpectedly drew the premium, multi-season elk tag for Beaver, Utah with just 13 points, I recognized my extreme good luck and knew, at my age, this would likely be the only opportunity in my life to harvest a real trophy-class bull.
When I stood on the scale to check my pre-hunt weight, the scale said, “Get off me, you’re too heavy!” 25 stubborn pounds needed to go. 185 became my target weight (you can do the math). Hours of hiking, biking, and weight lifting became part of my daily routine, recognizing that a full knee replacement was on the horizon. By mid-September, the scale and I had come to terms.
6 weekend scouting trips to a place I’d never hunted before allowed us to spend 18 days learning the roads, locating water sources, hiking trails, identifying rutting grounds, observing the elk herd, and meeting new friends. We turned up more than 70 bulls. 10-12 of these bulls appeared to be in the 340-380 inch class.
My 3 sons, Tyler (23), Morgan (22), and Jim (15) along with several extended family members had drawn archery deer permits for the same unit and we spent the first 3 weeks of the hunt chasing big bucks, while keeping an eye on the elk herd. Jim made a nice 62-yard heart shot on his first ever archery buck, a good looking, deep-forked two point. I’m not sure who was more excited, Jim, his brothers, or me, as we watched his practice pay off while the rain poured and the shooting light faded. A great memory was made. The larger bucks eluded the young archers and both hunters and prey were “educated” after several close calls.
September 14th found me alone in a high country basin listening to 7 different bulls sing their mountain songs. The leaves had begun to change and the air had cooled noticeably. One bull remained in the trees, but his deep, raspy bugles were consistent – about every 3 minutes. This allowed me to pinpoint his location and close the distance. With a steady wind in my favor, I was able to silently slip to within 40 yards undetected, close enough to smell his strong, musky scent.
I waited for 20 minutes, but he wouldn’t leave his hideout and the winds began to change. My instincts told me not to force the issue, so I backed out to about 400 yards, deciding to wait him out. 8 long hours I waited. From 10:00 am until 6:00 pm, I sat quietly just outside his comfort zone, hoping I’d catch a glimpse before dark. Finally, a deep bugle broke the silence. Then another. It was him. As I eased closer to the bugles below me, a 20 foot aspen swinging wildly from side to side caught my eye as the old bull raked his antlers, thrashing the young tree back and forth. Branches were flying everywhere as he did his work.
Through my binoculars, I was able to get a good look at his top end. He looked dark and heavy, with good length on his 5ths and 6ths. I knocked an arrow, checked the wind, and ranged the bull. 120 yards. Creeping closer to the edge of the clearing I stopped behind the last tree. Another deep piercing bugle reminded me how close I was. 90 yards. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a string of 14 cows and 5 smaller bulls emerge from the cover and begin feeding in the meadow, 70 yards away, and coming my direction. The wind was still good, but I sensed it wouldn’t last. I hunkered down. 5 minutes later, the big bull finally made his appearance, covered in mud, trailing a cow, with a serious swagger. He stopped, let another bugle rip, and then chased off two satellite bulls.
I quickly examined him under my 8-power glass. No weaknesses. Solid front end. Long 3rds. His 20” 4ths looked like daggers. Beautiful ivory tips. Good mass. Dark, chocolate antlers. He was simply magnificent! At that close range I could see two devil tines on each of his G1’s, four in total. I estimated that he would score between 360 and 370 and had a serious decision to make, as I knelt and watched this amazing scene unfold. “Should I shoot him?” My sons would be arriving the next day to be with me on the opener of the rifle season, just 2 days away. I wanted them to be with me when I pulled the trigger so they could share the experience. He bugled again and laid his head back to test the wind. The thermals were shifting. “He’s got everything,” I reasoned as I struggled to decide what to do.
With some reluctance, I quietly set my bow on the ground. “I’m going to let you walk, old man.” My decision was final, but I wondered if I had just made a mistake I would later regret. This beautiful herd bull strutted, gathered, chased, glunked, raked, and bugled over the course of the next 20 minutes. He came to within 60 yards – inside my kill zone – twice as he managed his harem before moving the herd into the trees. I sat there for a few moments, took a deep breath, and inhaled the moment.
On my way back to camp, I arrived at a large meadow at the same time as another group of elk, being led by a young, impressive bull. Focused on his cows, he was unaware of my presence, just 40 yards away. I sized him up. He was a solid, 350 class bull with that beautiful, classic look. Another shot opportunity at a solid bull. Passing on Lucifer just 40 minutes earlier made my decision to pass on this bull a little easier. But, still. I didn’t knock an arrow as I watched and listened to this beautiful bull disappear over the skyline and into the darkness. What an incredible way to end an amazing day!
The rut was nearing its peak and Tyler, Morgan, my two brothers (Scott and David), and my nephew (Logan), joined me. It was time to go after my #1 bull. During the summer we had seen a glimpse of a big 7x8 with two in-lines, a kicker, and extra long main beams. This bull had my full attention and he was impressive. The first 7 days of the 9-day rifle season were spent trying to relocate him. Day after day we searched. We hiked. We hunted hard, from dark to dark. No bull.
With the help of some new friends we met in Beaver, we also explored several other locations and were able to find several other bulls in the 340-360 range. Each bull I passed caused me to wonder about my decision to pass on Lucifer. After 6 days without seeing the 7x8, my resolve was really being tested. We’d been seeing good bulls every day and it was becoming more and more difficult to pass them up. “You just walked away from another 350 inch bull,” I thought as I watched a young, handsome 7x7 walk away. A 340 class 7x7, a 350 class 6x6, and a beautiful 360-370 class 6x6 were all carefully examined, but no shots were fired as I continued to hold out. “Am I crazy?” I was beginning to wonder.
Unable to turn up the 7x8, on the morning of Day 8 I reluctantly decided to give up on the trophy bull and we returned to a promising area 13 miles away we had scouted in the summer. At 11:00 am, we noticed a group of 3 cows, 2 miles away. Soon, 4 more joined them. Before long, we were watching a dozen cows and I knew there had to be a bull nearby. Finally, he stepped out. “Oh, he’s a good one,” I said. “He’s got at least 7 on one side and he’s really long. He’s a shooter,” I announced.
One of my earlier scouting trips had included a 5-mile hike (10 mile round trip) on a trail that led to a meadow above this bull and his harem. I knew how to get to him, but I also knew it would be a grueling hike. 12 straight days of hard hunting had begun to take its toll on my mind and on my body, particularly on my right knee. As I looked at that old bull and the location he had chosen, I wondered: “Am I physically capable of making a 10 mile hike right now?” Only one way to find out. Tyler kept an eye on the bull through the spotting scope while Morgan and I hustled up to the trailhead for our long march. We hoped the bull would stay put and knew if he did we’d be able to get to within 300 yards straight above him. I pushed through my mental and physical fatigue going as fast as I could go, but much slower than I would have years earlier.
A chorus of bugling bulls welcomed us to the high meadow above the 7x8. The bugling became more frequent and intense. Things were heating up. The wind was swirling and there were bulls everywhere. And I mean Every. Where. They were above us, below us, to the north and to the south. And they were screaming! The bugling was so frequent we began to time the intervals between bugles. 15 seconds was the max. We counted at least 20 different bulls bugling. Unreal. Almost magical. The fall colors – bright yellows, vibrant oranges, and deep reds – were on full display under the clear, blue sky. The storm had left snow on the ground, which was slowly melting. I had one son with me, another watching from a distance, the whole mountain to ourselves, and a trophy bull protecting his harem within shooting distance.
The setting was perfect. It was prime time! A text message from Tyler indicated the bull still had his cows – 25 of them – in a clearing, at the base of a cliff, below our meadow. During our hike, Tyler had watched the old monarch lock antlers with 3 different bulls, each trying to steal some of his ladies. He had won each battle and had proven that he was, indeed, the master of this herd. A nice 6x6 screamed as he exited the quakies 100 yards below us. The old man immediately answered with his deep, guttural growl. His bugle was unique and easy to identify. We slowly navigated our way to the edge of the meadow above the bull, keeping close tabs on the wind. We peeked over the edge of the cliff, looking down the vertical real estate 300 yards below and heard the cows chirping and talking, occasionally giving us a glimpse, as they fed in the trees below us. They seemed to be enjoying all the attention.
Another deep bugle from the herd bull, followed by his familiar, throaty grunts. We could definitely hear him, but we still couldn’t see him. 30 minutes passed when a daring 5x6 approached the cows from our right. The herd bull darted out of the trees, ran him off, and quickly returned to his cows, but not before we had a chance to look him over. “He’s the one.” 7:15 pm and the sun was dropping. The sound of bugles continued to echo through the canyon, one after another. An impressive, heavy 5x5 emerged from the trees to our left, ready for action. I chambered a round and took my gun off safety.
It was go time. The old, herd bull screamed a warning and sauntered out of the trees, head laid back, swaying slowly back and forth – his long, dark antlers nearly reaching his tail. He was a dominant, imposing sight to be sure. He was a beast and he knew it. So did the 5x5, which quickly retreated when the old boy charged him.
“It’s him, dad. He’s at 272 yards. Shoot him!” Morgan urged. I took a deep breath and let it out. The shooting angle was extreme, but I had a clear lane. “Execute the shot,” I thought. I was calm, but my heart was pounding. The old dragon stood in the clearing – all full of himself – looking back at his harem. Time slowed way down as I took another deep breath and settled the cross hairs behind his shoulder. I half expected to hear the exciting music that always plays before a shot on the TV hunting shows. Nothing. Only the mountain music provided by 2 dozen bugling bulls. I held my breath and gently squeezed the trigger, as the bull moved slowly toward a cow.
Elk scattered. The bull bolted to a cluster of nearby aspens, still in view. “Why isn’t he dead?” I wondered, as I instinctively chambered another round and quickly found him in the scope.
“You hit right above him. Clean miss,” Morgan said.
“Warning shot,” I smiled, trying to reclaim my confidence. He stepped out of the trees and began circling below his cows.
BOOOM!! The shot was instinctive. He dropped to his knees, shot through the heart like an outlaw in an old western movie. He stumbled down the hill a few yards and 30 seconds later, took his final breath. A brief celebration and a quick phone call back home to my wife to get the horses lined up were followed by the realization that we had limited daylight and a lot of work ahead of us.
It wasn’t until I approached the downed trophy that I got the biggest surprise of all. As I laid my hands on his heavy rack I noticed the kicker on his left side. It was then I realized I had just shot the giant 7x8 I had been looking for 15 miles away!
He was everything I had hoped for in a bull. 56-inch beams. 23-inch 4ths. Inline 7ths. And a kicker. He stretched the tape past the 370 inch mark.
By 11:00 pm we had him quartered up and cooling down. We left our packs behind and headed back to the truck, guided by dim moonlight, where Tyler was waiting. A full 24 hours after crawling out of my sleeping bag, at 3:00 am, I crawled back in. Exhausted. And really happy. My brothers and nephew were bringing horses in the morning.
I closed my eyes and drifted into a state of gratitude for all who had helped along the way and for the rare opportunity of hunting giant bull elk during the peak of the rut in God’s country with the people I love the most. An experience 50 years in the making. Words don’t suffice…
- Tracy Flinders (my dad)-- @rimrockrider
- Tyler Flinders-- @tflinds
- Morgan Flinders (Brother)-- @morganflinders3
- Jim Flinders (Brother)-- @muledeeroutdoors
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