By Nick Franklin, as told to Dwight Schuh
AS MY BUDDY TRAVIS Mast and I drove in the dark toward our hunting area, I could not get rid of that feeling.
"Travis, if I was going to Las Vegas to place a bet, I would bet that guy was lying to me. He just had that look in his eye. I'm sure he had seen that big elk."
Little did I know that, within 3 hours, my words truly would prove prophetic. How could I even imagine they might lead me to a world record elk?
I AM A 33-YEAR-OLD, third-generation Arizonan living in the Phoenix area. My wife, Carrie, and I have been married 7 years and have a 5-year-old son, Tyler. I work as a diesel bus and air conditioning mechanic, and on the side I build high-power, off-road buggies, the kind used in desert races across Baja California. As if I needed another hobby, I'm going to start building fast boats. Ironically, I'm not a competitive person and don't do any racing myself. I just love speed and machines with lots of horsepower, and I get real satisfaction from building good products for other people.
I also love bowhunting. A couple of buddies got me started at age 15, and in those early days I went to bow shoots nearly every weekend, all local stuff just to work on form and practice. I've never shot serious competition, but I have hunted mule deer nearly every year and have taken three with my bow. While I've taken one deer with a rifle, I far prefer bowhunting. Getting within 20 to 30 yards, right in an animal's playground, is what I really like about bowhunting.
With my job I'm pretty much of a weekend hunter, and I've hunted only in Arizona. Since all elk tags in Arizona are issued by drawing, I've had few chances to hunt elk. In fact, over the years I've drawn only three elk tags. I filled a cow-only tag one year, and in 1998, I drew my first bull tag and had a chance at a big bull but could not put it all together.
In the Southwest, antler growth depends a lot on precipitation in spring and early summer, so I watch weather patterns and apply in areas with the best spring rainfall. In 2003, things looked good near the town of Williams, so that's where I applied Ã‚ — and drew.
SIX WEEKS BEFORE the season, I started scouting, going up every weekend. I even worked in a couple of 4-day weekends. In scouting I check waterholes and look at tracks just to evaluate the amount of activity there. But mostly I scout by glassing. With my Swarovski 10x42 binoculars, I climb to the highest vantage points and glass morning and evening Ã‚ — in mornings to see where the elk are going to bed, in the evenings to see where they're coming out.
Most of this is pinion/juniper country with lots of little meadows and openings, and you can see the elk as they cross or skirt these openings. This is the very basis for my scouting, and 2 to 3 weeks before the season, I pretty much knew what was in that area. I had actually seen a couple of big bulls. And even where I saw only satellite bulls, I could tell bigger bulls were present by the reactions of the younger bulls.
My brother, Charles Franklin, who drives for UPS and delivers packages in the Williams area, was another good information source. Charles talks to everybody on his route, including ranchers, so he gets some pretty good tips. He had heard about several big bulls, but one stood out in particular.
Actually, this bull was pretty well known. In 1999, an Arizona bowman named Les Shelton had shot at and missed a giant bull. Since that time, people had seen this same bull and even videotaped him. Even though neither of us had personally seen this elk, Charles and I felt sure that the huge still existed in the unit.
ON SEPTEMBER 11, the day before the season opened, I parked my 14-foot camp trailer in a central location as a base camp. From there I would drive my truck to various hunting areas and walk from the truck.
At 4:30 a.m., an hour before first light on opening day, September 12, I walked to a ridge where I'd been seeing a good bull. But almost immediately I ran into some other hunters who said they would be hunting this spot for several days. Since that area was pretty limited in size and could not handle a lot of pressure, I moved on.
Spending the next couple of days in another good location, I saw a couple of bulls every morning and evening but had no shot opportunities. So on September 15, I moved to yet another spot. Rumor had it that this was where Les Shelton had missed that bull. And I liked the looks of the area, because access was limited and hunters would have to walk some distance to hunt here. Maybe there would be less competition. That hunch seemed right as I saw a good number of elk, including a big 6-point, and the elk here were not as spooky as in the other areas.
On the morning of September 17, about 10 a.m., I ran into another hunter, a really nice guy. Terry offered me something to drink and some jerky, and as we chatted he told me he had walked in about 5 miles to reach this spot. He said my brother Charles had delivered a bow to him earlier in the year.
While he was friendly, he was hard to read, and I could tell we were both dancing around each other a little. I told him, "I've seen a few small bulls, but nothing really big," and he offered a similar story.
Then, as we were about to head our separate ways, I decided to be more direct. "Have you seen that big bull Les Shelton missed a few years ago?"
"No," he said, "I haven't seen that bull." From the tone of his voice and look in his eye, I knew that bull was still there.
MY BUDDY TRAVIS MAST was supposed to join me that evening, but he got held up with business. As a result, he arrived at 3:30 a.m. and fell asleep on the seat of his truck. Shortly afterward my alarm went off and when I turned on the lantern at 4 a.m., Travis groaned, "Man, I need some more sleep. Maybe I'll just go out with you this afternoon." But as I loaded my truck, he had second thoughts and climbed in. He was pretty excited about seeing some elk.
As we drove in the dark, I couldn't help but think about my conversation with Terry the day before. "Travis, if I was heading to Las Vegas right now, I bet that guy was lying to me. I'm sure that big bull is right there." How could I know my words would prove prophetic?
About 4:45, Travis and I walked out to a water tank, some 45 minutes before shooting light and sat there until 5:50, when we heard the first bugle of the morning. It sounded maybe three-quarters of a mile away. We walked that way quickly and had gone a quarter mile or so when we stopped to listen.
"I think I heard something," Travis whispered. "Maybe a twig snapping."
Just then two small bulls ran by. As they disappeared into the trees, we continued ahead, and when we came across some warm elk dung, Travis smeared some on the brim of his hat and on my pack. He was getting pretty excited about seeing and hearing these elk.
Hearing another distant bugle, we walked fast, nearly running, for a half mile. That brought us near the edge of a canyon where we could hear two bulls fighting. As they crashed and banged in the brush, we hurried toward them, trying to make some ground under the cover of their noise.
When we reached the canyon rim, the bulls were 150 yards below us. We stood quietly, planning an approach, when Travis motioned and hissed, "Look to your left."
A spike walked out at 15 yards and crunched across a shale slide, heading off to our right. When he had passed, we eased 100 yards down into the canyon. At that point we spotted a half-dozen cows in an opening and then heard a bull bugle off to the left. For 2 to 3 minutes we peered through our binoculars, trying to locate that bull. We never did see him, but then we spotted antler tines near the cows and heard a high-pitched, clean bugle coming from that direction. That growling bull off to the left sounded much bigger. We had two bulls here.
"Let's try to get in the middle of them," I said. We sneaked ahead, but when we were within 80 to 90 yards, we couldn't get any closer. As we searched with our binoculars, Travis gulped, "Look at the bull with the cows. Holy cow. Holy cow! He's at least a 9x10."
"Travis, don't tell me stuff like that!" I growled. "You're just making me nervous."
As the bull to the left bugled again, the bull with the cows started raking a tree. Maybe this was my chance. Two big pine trees stood between me and him, and if I could keep those trees blocking his vision, I might be able to get within range and shoot between the trees.
As Travis stayed put, I crept slowly forward. Each time the bull lifted his head, I stopped, and when he attacked his tree, I moved. Soon, standing within 35 yards of the bull, I thought, Don't try to get any closer. You can make this shot.
The bull tore into a tree and turned broadside, giving me a good chance to shoot. At the release, the arrow blew through the elk and clanked off rocks beyond. The bull simply lifted his head and looked that way as if to say, "I wonder what made that sound." He stood there for 4 or 5 seconds and then trotted off, stumbled, and, 35 yards from where he had been hit, fell and rolled onto his back with his feet straight in the air. He had lived less than 15 seconds after the shot.
Seeing the bull run off, Travis quickly joined me and said, "I think you missed him."
"I don't think so, Travis," I responded. "He's lying right down there."
Wanting to take no chances, we backed off and had some jerky and juice. When we returned 15 minutes later, the bull had not moved. We were jubilant.
Amazingly, the bull had fallen on an old forest road, so we walked out and got my truck and drove right to the elk. After taking some pictures, I laid my camera on the back seat of my crew cab truck. Then, using a heavy come-along, we cranked the bull, whole, into the back of the truck. As we drove toward camp, I noticed the back door of the truck was ajar, so I reached back and opened it to give it a good slam. At that very instant, the camera bounced out and I ran over it! There went all my field photos. I felt sick.
WITH ONE MAIN BEAM lying on the bed of the truck, the other side of the elk's rack rose 2 feet above the cab of the truck. This sight was not lost on people as we drove to Williams to buy some disposable cameras to get more field photos. Within 5 minutes seemingly the whole town knew about the elk, and traffic literally stopped. After we got the cameras, we dropped by a local taxidermist, and he and a kid helping him Ã‚ — along with half the town of Williams Ã‚ — returned to the woods to get some photos.
When we'd got the elk on the ground, the truck was in the way, so I let the truck roll forward a few feet. What I did not know was that someone has set the cameras on one of the truck's tires Ã‚ — and I ran over three more cameras! I felt jinxed. I had killed a monster elk and could not get photos of it. Fortunately some other people in the crowd had couple of cameras, and we finally got our pictures.
Then we took the carcass to a local processing plant and the head to the taxidermist's shop. As we were working on the head and rack, Arizona elk guru John McClendon showed up. By videotaping elk in Arizona for his productions, Awesome Bulls and Awesome Bulls II, as well as guiding hunters and hunting on his own (he personally bow-killed a typical elk that measures 398 P&Y), John probably knows big elk better than anyone.
"John, I know you're familiar with this bull," I said. "Everybody is. But had you personally seen him before now?"
He said, "Not only have I never seen this bull, I have never seen a bull this big!" That was a pretty incredible statement coming from a guy who has seen as many big bulls as John McClendon.
"What do you think he'll measure?" I asked.
John eyed the rack for a few minutes. "Right at 440," John said. He then went to work with his tape measure and came up with green scores of 453 gross and 439 6/8 net. Some shrinkage will take place during the mandatory 60-day drying period, but if the net score is even close, the bull will easily become a new P&Y world record in the nontypical category.
That's a pretty good ending for this story, but I would be remiss not to clarify one point. I later talked to Terry, the man who inadvertently had led me to this bull.
"Terry, now that the season is over, let me ask you," I said. "Had you seen this bull?"
"No," he said. "I had not seen that bull. But I had seen another big bull I was working on."
So he was telling me the absolute truth. Nevertheless, my suspicions proved wonderfully prophetic for me.
I was hunting with a PSE SRL 1000 at 70 pounds draw weight; PSE carbon arrows, and Thunderhead Pro Series, 85-grain broadheads. I used Scent Shield products to reduce human scent. Before going into the field, I shower with unscented soap and apply hunter's deodorant, and in camp I
seal my clothes in a plastic bag to keep them free of camp smells. I've had little problem with elk smelling me.
For bugling I used an Abe and Son Terminator and for cow calling, a Primos Hoochie Mama. Sometimes I find the bugle works better, other times the cow call. When I'm moving through thick brush, making some noise, I cow call every few minutes to make nearby elk think I'm an elk. Normally I do not try to call-in elk. Rather I call every 10 minutes or so, hoping to get a line on the direction the elk are moving. Then I take off at a run to cut them off. Rarely can you come up from behind elk and get a shot. You almost always have to get in front of them.
THE RUMOR MILL
I'm amazed at the reaction of people to an animal like this. As I've said, it literally stopped traffic in Williams, and people were driving all the way from Flagstaff to see this bull. And, of course, the rumors started. Here are some of the rumors I have heard about myself:
A 14-year-old boy shot the giant bull.
A 33-year-old girl shot the giant bull.
I tranquilized this bull in Unit 9 near Grand Canyon, put it into a horse trailer, and took it to my hunting area.
The bull was wrapped up in a barbed wire fence, helpless, when I shot it.
Two bulls had exhausted themselves fighting, and I had walked up and shot the bigger one as he lay helpless on the ground.
Not knowing who my brother was, a man told Charles, "My butcher's daughter is dating the guy who shot that elkÃ‚€¦" (I hope my wife doesn't find out about that!)
On the web sites, I see, "This guy is a great friend of mineÃ‚€¦" I've never heard of them.