Smoke Bulls

Smoke Bulls

A special-draw unit in northwestern Wyoming sets the stage for a do-it-yourself dream hunt.

By Jeff Waring, Publisher

SPOUTS OF SMOKE puffed and swirled, spreading a warm haze over the mountain tops, hiding the Tetons. No fewer than three forest fires burned in nearby drainages, and a key road had been shut off, but I couldn't smell the smoke as we dropped down off the ridge into big timber.

In the shimmer of mid-afternoon heat, a bull had answered Bowhunter Editor Dwight Schuh's pleading bugle as we ate our lunches and sipped from our hydration packs. "You just never know," Dwight said, shaking his head. We were well into our second week of hunting, and this was the first bull to answer our calls. Why would a bull stay silent all morning and then have something to say? Who knows? "That's why you keep calling," Dwight concluded.

He and cameraman Steven Jones quickly gathered their gear, threw on their packs, and began picking their way down a steep slope toward the bull. I shuffled along behind the two experienced elk men, steeling my nerves and hoping the bottoms of my feet wouldn't sheer off.

Massive thunderclouds to the west had begun to rumble, and the wind was churning. Several times we turned away from the bull to get the wind in our favor. The changing wind would make this difficult, but the bull was still coming. So we were still going.

In fact, the bull was coming hard.

As he bellowed and chortled below us, we raced into place. At Dwight's direction, I slid ahead of Steven and hastily swept clean a spot on a sidehill game trail. Steven hunkered behind a fallen spruce tree, while Dwight called from thick cover above us.

With horse-like strides the bull silently crossed a brushy bench below us and angled to the right and uphill. And then suddenly he stood 25 yards away behind a large spruce blow-down, where I could see only his antlers and head. My arrow bounced rhythmically on the rest. Stay calm!

Then the bull began to rake a tall, spindly sapling. With no way to thread an arrow into the bull, I simply watched in amazement as he thrashed the little tree. Then I felt a dreaded, cool wisp of air upon my neck, and in seconds the bull was gone.

"Well, there you go," Dwight said as we regrouped.

"That was your chance," Steven chuckled.

They were just kidding, I think, but I felt some emotional cord draw tight in the pit of my stomach. They could be right, I thought. Had a breath of wind ended my one-and-only chance, all the while cruelly stoking my fires within?

I just couldn't get over how quickly the bull had called off the fight. One nose full of our scent, and he simply turned off, dissipating into the forest like a puff of smoke.

WE'D ARRIVED MORE THAN a week earlier, on August 31, the day before the archery season opener. I'd flown from my home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Dwight's home base in Boise, Idaho. He and I made the 10-hour drive with Dwight's Dodge pickup, truck camper, and a trailer loaded with Dwight's three llamas. We would use the llamas for setting up spike camps and packing meat - we hoped. On the way, we picked up Steven in Jackson, Wyoming.

Driving toward our unit near Pinedale, Wyoming, we could see fires burning in several drainages, and the Forest Service had warned us that the fires had closed some major access roads. A heavy pall of smoke hung over the mountains.

Arriving in our unit we set up a base camp consisting of Dwight's camper and a 10x12 wall tent equipped with a woodstove that proved welcome on rainy days and chilly mountain mornings.

Base camp.

Continued -- click on page link below.

Making plans.

Dwight had hunted here the previous year, and in July he had scouted and packed two Summit Deer Deck treestands into the high country where he placed them overlooking springs for early-season hunting. He had manned one of the sites with a Stealth Cam trail camera.

While scouting, Dwight also had marked good places on topographic maps and had saved them as waypoints on his GPS, and we planned each day's outing around this background. From the beginning, hunting out of base camp, we probed marvelous elk country and found ourselves close to elk, but the bulls were not talking. We got within range of some small bulls but had no shooting opportunities.

So a few days into the hunt we packed up the llamas, hiked several miles onto a remote ridge, and set up camp near a gurgling mountain stream. Dwight was eager to show us the stand sites he'd located. We hoped the springs of summer would be converted into wreaking wallows by now.

The first afternoon in spike camp we hiked to a high meadow where Dwight had placed a stand and trail camera. Unfortunately, the spring contained very little water, and no bulls had wallowed there. However, the Stealth Cam showed a couple of bulls that had come in to drink a few days earlier. With that encouragement, Steven and I sat over that spring several evenings, and we hunted over a couple of fresh wallows higher on the mountain. A spike came in but did not give me a shot, and that's the only elk we saw on these springs. The Stealth Cam showed some movement at night but nothing during the day.

With this lack of activity, we decided if the bulls would not come to us, we would go to them, and we began to focus more on hiking long distances, glassing and calling. Every morning we rose well before first light to hike several miles up a ridge to glass high meadows at sunrise. We saw elk every day, but in the first week of hunting we never even heard a bugle. By then we were running low on grub and had to hike out to base camp to reconnoiter and resupply.

WHILE IN BASE CAMP we decided to check out some of the places we'd hunted the first couple of days, and that's when we'd climbed to the top of the ridge and Dwight called the big bull in only to have an errant wind blow the opportunity up in smoke. That evening we heard a couple of other bulls on the vast ridge but couldn't get on

them before dark.

So we marked their position on Dwight's GPS and, early the next morning, headed straight back up there, and it wasn't long before a roaring bugle answered Dwight's calling. Once again the wind was switching badly, so we backed off, ate lunch, took a nap, and waited for the midday thermals to blow steadily uphill. This time we would do everything right.

Unfortunately, the wind and the elk didn't care. After waiting a solid two hours, we decided conditions were as good as they would ever get. Cautiously we moved toward the dense trees where we felt sure the bull and his cows were bedded. Move slowly. Listen. Look. Sniff. They're here. Do everything right!

Crash! The elk were blowing out right in front of us. Had they smelled us? Had we got too aggressive? It's hard to say. But, again, a great opportunity was going up in smoke. As we listened to the crashing of the escaping elk, I swear it suddenly got more difficult to breathe, as though one of those distant forest fires had sucked the air right out of our little hot spot.

Dwight seemed frustrated because he so badly wanted to be a good guide and help me get an elk. I was frustrated because I so badly wanted to get my first elk. What did we have to do to make this work?

Fortunately, bowhunters who chase elk have short memories, and by the time we reached the bottom of the mountain our eyes were once again fixed on spike camp and the hazy mountain range above it. The elk hunting over there is much better. The bulls are probably screaming up there right now.

Makeshift blind.

Continued -- click on page link below.

Cameraman Steven Jones and me in a treestand.

THE NEXT MORNING, however, our first back in spike camp, the high mountain meadows were surprisingly silent, maybe fittingly so because it was September 11. Feeling a bit desperate, we pushed on over the highest ridge and dropped down toward a marshy meadow in the creek bottom. It was a long way down.

"Well," Dwight mused, knowing my feet were hurting, "should we keep going?" There was no easy way down and no easy way out. And we might not find elk. At this point, we had no clue where they were.

I waved him on. I'm not sure who wanted me to get my first bull more, Dwight or me. And I really wanted another chance.

Steven and I followed Dwight as he still-hunted along, reading the terrain, stopping frequently to cow-call or bugle. We soon picked up fresh sign, got on a well-traveled trail, and angled down toward the big meadow. As we hurried along, chirping and bugling, whispering back and forth about various things we'd seen, we were content, lost in the process.

Suddenly a cow elk barked, startling us into awareness, and a raghorn bull appeared in front of us. Pointing and gasping for me to shoot, Dwight dropped to the ground, but I couldn't get a shot before the bull turned and ran off. Dwight cow-called in a desperate attempt to draw the young bull back, but he'd obviously seen enough. Dwight was probably thinking, There goes another opportunity up in smoke! What do I have to do to get this guy an elk?

For a moment, the frustration returned. But it could not control us. Short memories! Dwight got up and dusted himself off, and we continued on down toward the big meadow.

ONLY MINUTES LATER, we climbed onto a rock promontory and Dwight bugled. Immediately a bull answered enthusiastically.

"Okay," said Dwight, after the bull had responded several more times. "This is our bull."

We moved quickly toward the bull, and when we came to a small bench on the steep hillside, Dwight and Steven helped me get into position. A large, lone boulder stuck up out of the ground about 20 yards in front of me.

"If the bull comes down behind that boulder," Steven said, "watch the tops of his antlers and draw before he steps out."

Quickly I ranged several shooting lanes and settled on my knees. Steven hunkered behind me with the camera, and Dwight hid behind some fir trees 30 yards down the hill to call and rake tree branches with a big stick. He planned on starting a fight.

The vocal sparring lasted only a few minutes before Steven whispered, "He's coming." Then I saw the bull walk into the sunlight above us and then stroll down the gentle slope - right behind the big boulder. If he turned to the left, it would be very difficult for me to get a shot; if he came down to the right, he'd pop out in front of me. I would shoot as soon as his chest appeared.

When the antler tops turned, I drew, anchored, and waited for him to step into the clear. I wasn't going to let him get through the shooting lane, because then I'd have to let down, and he'd be at pointblank range and possibly by me and between Dwight and me in no time at all. As he sauntered around the boulder, I held tight to his slightly quartering shoulder and released.

As the bull lunged backward around the boulder and ran off to my left, I saw the back of the arrow break and fall out. The bull ran about 50 yards, stopped, wavered, and then crashed to the ground. It was literally over in seconds.

Simultaneously, Dwight and I jumped up and ran toward each other. We'd done it, together! The rush of joy was tempered by the humbling experience of having taken such a perfect animal on such a somber morning. But, he had no idea. It was just our day. He was our bull. Finally, one that did not go up in smoke.

My bull.

Continued -- click on page link below.

Llamas packing.

We spent the rest of the afternoon shooting video and butchering the elk, and early the following morning we returned with the llamas for the long pack out. It was an all-day job, and by the time we had hauled the elk, spike camp, and our treestands back to base camp, it was after midnight. We had one day left to hunt.

EXHAUSTED BUT NOT ABOUT to waste a day of hunting, Dwight and Stev

en were gone before daylight. They would search for one of those bulls we'd chased earlier out of base camp while I kept busy in camp caring for my meat and cape.

When the guys pulled back into camp at noon, I knew they'd found another bull. Dwight would never quit before dark.

As we ate some lunch, Dwight and Steven related the story. They had hiked up the ridge in the dark, listening for bulls. The woods were quiet, so at daybreak they started covering ground fast, bugling as they went.

About 9 a.m. a bull answered in the distance, but he was like a ventriloquist and for more than an hour they could not find him. He seemed to be playing with them.

Dwight calling.

About 10 a.m. they came to a bathtub-sized spring hidden in a tangle of blown-down timber. One call from Dwight's bugle, and Dwight and Steven knew the bull was close - and coming hard. They had barely hidden among some low firs near the spring when they heard a bellow from the bull and saw antlers weaving through the woods.

Within seconds the bull ran out 15 yards in front of Dwight, and with Steven's camera rolling, Dwight sent an arrow through the bull's chest.

As the bull whirled and disappeared into the timber, Dwight and Steven waited for some time and took up the trail. The blood was sparse, but using his binoculars, Dwight caught a glint of sunlight off an antler tine, just into the woods, 200 yards across a sagebrush opening. It appeared the bull was lying down, perhaps dead. But then Dwight saw the tine move. The elk was alive.

Dwight marked the exact spot, and he and Steve returned to camp to give the bull time to expire, to get me, and to get the llamas for packing meat.

Upon our return to search for the elk, Dwight shed his boots for maximum stealth and stalked to the point where he'd last seen the bull. He would take no chances.

His caution was not needed. He found the bull, a beautiful 6x6, precisely where he'd seen the gleaming antler tine. After using every elk-hunting tactic we knew, and with no time left in the hunt, we had tagged out. Leading the llamas, loaded with elk meat that last afternoon, we noticed the air had cleared. What a beautiful day. We were all very happy. And that's no smoke!

Dwight's bull.

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