November 04, 2010
"Why had I bagged such a great bull? Was I merely lucky?"
TIME. THAT IS THE essence of a successful Nevada bowhunt: time not measured in minutes, hours, or days, but time measured in weeks.
To do well as a bowhunter in Nevada you must have patience, and patience requires time. I know this well. I've drawn several tags in that state and each hunt has been an experience in endurance.
Take my desert bighorn hunt, for example. On the day 21 of the hunt I pulled myself up a red sandstone cliff, eased my exhausted body onto a ledge, and peeked over the top, 15 yards from a feeding sheep. I rose up with violently shaking limbs and arrowed that ancient ram.
I have also hunted deer there. After being consistently outsmarted by a buck whose giant rack was only outsized by his eerie intelligence, I tagged a lesser deer on day 17.
I thought my elk hunt would be different.
I was wrong.
RURAL NEVADA, OR, MORE accurately, Outback Nevada, has been left behind. Geographically speaking, 99 percent of Nevada lies outside the clutches of the sin cities, Reno and Las Vegas. In the rural, things haven't changed much in 30 years. Life moves slowly and people are friendly. Out there, it is as if you've entered a time machine and been shot backwards. Out there, if you are lucky, you will find yourself settling into Nevada time.
You'll know you are on Nevada time when your mind quits racing, your pulse slows, and your breathing becomes steady. You'll take the time to sit down after the sun sets and watch the moon rise. You'll lie down after a morning hunt and take a nap under a juniper tree. You'll skip an evening hunt and sit around camp, eating elk steaks and watermelon. Elk steaks cooked over a real bed of coals. Then you are on Nevada time.
I always sense this change while passing through Las Vegas on the way from my home in Arizona to the Nevada hunting grounds. The line of demarcation is distinct, and once I'm beyond that city, time slows down. This trip was no different.
When Greg Krogh and I first drove into my elk area in August, the desert was oozing moisture. We looked at the top of the mountain in my hunting area and saw snow. At least it looked like snow. It later proved to be hail, huge nuggets of ice, nearly a half foot of it stacked up. Huge swaths of trees and brush were denuded of leaves, twigs and bark. The roads to the mountain had been washed out by a torrential flood.
"This seems like something out of the Old Testament" Greg said.
How could any living creature have survived? we wondered.
MY GOOD FRIEND Greg is a guide by profession, one of the best. He looks like a cowboy and usually dresses like one. He is accepted into this lonely country as though he were born here. Greg and I have hunted together many times. I help him, he helps me.
But Greg was different on this trip, not his usual carefree, happy-go-lucky self. He was the father of brand new twin girls, and he worshipped them. I could sense some deep angst flowing through him.
We set up camp in a little patch of stunted juniper trees on the edge of antelope country. When we'd finished we sat back and watched the sunset. Greg was uncharacteristically silent as the last of the colors faded to black.
"Miss your girls?" I asked.
He kicked the ground. "I can't explain it," he muttered, almost embarrassed. "Leaving on this first trip of the year was one of the hardest things I've ever done."
"It won't get any easier," I said.
"I'm going to have to get a new profession, something that keeps me closer to home," he said, seriously.
Greg had volunteered to help me look for elk while scouting for his rifle deer hunts. Then he would be off to Arizona to attend to his paying clients -- and his family. Because his help is always indispensable, I wanted to make the most of his time here. We had several days before the season opened. Our plan was to split up and glass, looking for a concentration of elk to hunt. The day before the opener, Greg found a good bull.
"What do you think?" he said.
After some thought, I replied, "I think we can do better." With the entire season to hunt, I wasn't anxious for my elk season to end.
Greg grinned. "You're taking this trophy hunting pretty seriously, aren't you?
I looked down a while before speaking. "This is a tough tag to come by, and I want to make the most of it."
"Well, suit yourself," Greg said. "But I seem to recall the last time you passed up an animal early in the hunt, you nearly went home empty handed."
"I'm willing to take that chance," I said, sounding more sure of myself than I felt.
Elk hunting in Nevada is not unlike sheep hunting, as you move and glass, move and glass. With elk so spread out, the traditional method of moving and calling would be frustrating. It might take a week to get an answer. One afternoon while glassing from a vantage in what appeared to be poor elk range, Greg spotted a big bull walking alone below him. The bull had two huge nontypical points off the main beam just behind the fourth points. Greg knew this was a shooter.
So we returned there the next morning to get a better look at the bull. We heard him bugle in the distance, but then he vanished completely.
A FEW DAYS LATER, Greg had to leave. I watched him drive away across the broad valley. His dust cloud was like a contrail, marking his progress long after the truck was out of sight. I was alone.
When younger I dreaded being alone in the wilderness, but with age I've come to embrace loneliness. Yes, it's uncomfortable, but it can make an experience far more powerful. Few places make you feel as lonely as the high desert of Nevada, especially when the time is long — as it always is in Nevada. With two weeks remaining, this hunt could be a powerful experience.
Over the next week I saw perhaps 2-dozen bulls, mostly from a distance. None seemed large enough to justify a closer look.
One afternoon, as time drug on, I was feeling unusually lonely. T
ired of my own cooking, I drove 20 miles across the short grass prairie to the nearest commercial establishment, 10 miles from any pavement. It was an interesting place, a combination general store/cafe surrounded by items billed as antiques. To my untrained eye, they looked like junk.
The place seemed deserted. I sat at the only table, wedged between shelves drooping with old candy bars, Mason jars full of rocks, antique irons, and 30-year-old comic books. The waitress/cook/proprietor materialized suddenly and quietly — as if my wishing alone had made her so.
The smells and the sight of her cooking with a cast-iron skillet brought back memories of my grandmother. Time. That was a long time ago. But the memories were vivid and pleasant. Then the lady placed an immense hamburger in front of me. The burger was nearly buried under home made, unpeeled French fries. It was all delicious.
Later, walking out the door, my gut bursting, I looked to the mountains in the west and noticed the aspens leaves had turned gold. A lot of time had passed since I'd first arrived in Nevada. Did enough time remain?
NO MATTER HOW MUCH I love to chase elk, a time comes each season when an animal must fall and the hunt must end. I love elk meat above any other, and to come home empty would negate my justification for hunting. By now I'd been in Nevada for nearly three weeks, and the season was winding down.
Taking mental inventory of all the bulls we'd seen, I decided the best of the bunch was the big nontypical with drop tines Greg had seen. I decided to hunt him.
Well before sunrise, I walked into the area where we'd last heard that bull and lay on my back. The ground was still damp from a recent rain. I stared at the countless stars in the black sky and saw the sage outlined by distant lighting.
Above all I smelled the sage. A person might not notice that smell at other times, but after a rain, especially at night, you cannot ignore the potent fragrance of sage. It is earthy, comforting, western.
Somewhere in the distant darkness, a bull bugled. It sounded like the nontypical Greg had seen.
I'VE LONG HELD a theory that some truly dominant bulls don't hold a harem. It's too much effort and is biologically inefficient. These elk let other, lesser bulls expend the energy necessary to gather and maintain a herd, a task that is all-consuming for the better part of a month. Why manage a cow for a month when she's only in heat for a day?
I believe such a dominant bull makes his rounds each night, going from one bugling herd bull to the next, checking each cow along the way. He may check several herds each night. If a cow is in heat or about to come into heat, he either cuts her out of the herd or boots the other bull. More than likely he has already established his dominance over the lesser bull and doesn't face much of a fight.
If he finds no cow in estrus, he leaves the other elk and spends the day alone.
This morning's activities seemed to lend credence to my theory. I knew at least three herds lived in this area, and as I lay there listening in the hours before first light, the distant, lone bull seemed to be going from herd to herd. Then, just before daylight, he headed south, alone, while all the other elk headed north.
Because he bugled infrequently, while all the other bulls were now bugling regularly, it took all of my will power to follow him and not the herds.
After following him for some distance, I finally saw him moving through dense pinion/juniper across a swale, 200 yards away. In my binoculars, he seemed larger than life. I wanted him.
Now it was a cat-and-mouse game as I tried to stay within striking distance without bumping him. My ally was time, always time, and I would take as much as was needed. The game continued all morning, and twice I unknowingly passed him, only to hear him behind me, moving through the trees.
Then he moaned softly, 100 yards ahead. He was about to bed.
Stalking through the thick growth, I searched for a patch of tan, an antler tip, legs beneath the tree limbs, anything. Suddenly he was there, very close, only his head and neck exposed, his great antlers swaying gently as he fed. I could hear him chewing.
Moving slower than the hands on a clock, I nocked an arrow and remained motionless, heart thumping. Time. I had to take time. Each cardiac pump hammered in my ears. The minutes struggled by.
The bull took one tentative step, then another, exposing his chest. As his head turned away, I lifted my well-worn Hoyt and eased the string to my face and held the pin shockingly steady. The few days left in the season didn't enter my mind, nor did the thought of missing, nor did the outsized rack. My entire focus was on the sight pin and the exact spot I wanted the arrow to strike. I took a full breath, let it half out, and squeezed, doing everything right, just as I teach — but rarely implement.
The arrow struck, and the bull crash pell-mell through the trees. As the sounds of his crashing died out, I collapsed to the ground, full on my back, and looked up through the pinion boughs into the cloudless blue sky, muttering out loud, "I did it."
Even though the morning chill was long past, I was shivering.
THE BEAUTIFUL bull lay on his side, long, curving, white-tipped points half buried in the earth. He smelled of battle, pungent and wild.
I knelt and touched his antlers, unbelieving. Their width and length and mass were disproportionate to his body. At the bases, they were as big around as my arms. I closed my eyes and thanked God for my good fortune and added thanks and apologies to the elk. He would feed my family.
Then the September sun, so warm on my back, stirred anxiety. The meat required instant attention. Having done this many times, I knew what was required. I ran the 2 miles back to my quad, raced to my truck, drove to camp to get all the necessary gear, and then headed back to the elk.
The plan was flawless until, while speeding across a rocky flat in my truck, I heard a distinctive whooshing sound. Pulling over, I jumped out and discovered air escaping from both front tires through jagged rips.
Abandoning the truck, I unloaded my quad and raced to the elk, took a few pictures, and spent the next several hours boning out elk. Time. Wonderful time.
THAT NIGHT I LAY in bed exhausted, neither asleep nor awake, looking down a long tunnel, half gray, all thoughts abbreviated, irrational. Perhaps I did not deserve this bull after all. He could have met a hundred fates: Another hunter, a lion, a harsh winter.
Why had I bagged such a great bull? Was I merely lucky? Is eve
ry successful hunt, every prized trophy taken by accident, merely a random event in time? Or is it determined by some formula only God knows?
Through the fog in my mind a lucid thought formed, and in a brief moment of intense clarity I realized God does not care who bags a big elk. He has more pressing matters. It is purely statistical, the small probability of success multiplied by time spent hunting. I had put in my time.
And that was it. The sole reason for my success on this hunt was that mine was not time measured in minutes, hours or days, but time measured in weeks. That's just how it is in rural Nevada.
Editor's Note: Randy Ulmer's bull officially scored 409 7/8 Pope and Young as a nontypical. Prior to 2003, the largest bull taken by an archer in Nevada measured 398 P&Y.