“Do you have a muzzleloader? Put in for the muzzleloader hunt in 6A. If you get drawn, I’ll guarantee you a bull.” Those were the words from my friend that began the adventure. I had stopped in to ask my friend Greg McBride what hunts and units I should put in for, in Arizona’s fall Big Game draw. Being a fine taxidermist, and an experienced hunter, Greg is a good friend to have. He is also my Number One source for advice, and for the past 2 years, his consultations had become a must. This was my 8th year living in Arizona, but only the 3rd year putting in for the Big Game Draw. So far, I had only been drawn for javelina; I still hadn’t filled a tag of any kind. I was hoping that 2005 would be my year!
Twenty years ago, I was prowling around the softwood forests, cedar swamps, and hardwood ridges of New Brunswick, Canada where I was born and raised. I fished, hunted, and ran traplines. My worldly travels had taken me as far as northern Maine, a half hour away. I lived in Maine for about five years, before moving to Arizona. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined I’d be someday hunting elk in far off Arizona. You might as well have told me that I’d be stalking keeflongs on the surface of the moon.
One never knows where life will take them however, and Arizona is indeed, where I ended up. Although I had arrived in Arizona in the spring of 1997, I had a delayed start, when it came to experiencing the outdoors. With a new job, a new wife, and ultimately – a new baby – I had really gotten sidetracked. Finally, in 2002, I started getting my feet wet again, so to speak. Not having any hunters at my job, I began to learn the strategies of Arizona hunting on my own. I found some websites, made “outdoor friends” when I could, and even signed on for a hitch as Assistant Editor of the Arizona Outdoorsman magazine. I had written outdoor columns back east, and had offered my services to the fledgling Arizona publication. I had started dabbling at being a Booking Agent as well – ironically, representing New Brunswick Outfitters at the Outdoor Shows here in the southwest. Ultimately, that is how I met Greg. I was in need of some mounts for my trade show booth, and Greg kindly offered to lend me some of his.
My home is located just east of Phoenix, and due to some logistical issues, I am limited to day trips. Greg knows my situation well, and always provided recommendations for the draw based on Unit distance, draw odds, success rates, etc. As I said, this was my third year entering the big game draw; so far, all I had drawn was javelina tags. I wasn’t totally discouraged, as elk tags were getting harder and harder to draw, in Arizona. I was a 2-year veteran in seeing “Not Drawn” on my applications for antelope, antlered (rifle) deer, bear, elk and turkey. Finally, my 2005 applications were filled out, double- and triple-checked, funds inserted, and mailed in – about a week and a half before the deadline. Then the waiting began. I don’t know how it works in other states, but in Arizona, the fall draw (and spring draw, to a lesser extent) is an interesting phenomenon. It’s all hunters talk about, from the deadline, to when the results are announced. It is an obsession, really. The websites are buzzing. Hunters are antsy. Arizona Game & Fish adds to the agony by saying the drawing will “occur no later than…”. No firm date. No mark on the calendar indicating for sure when hunters can either jump for joy, or resign themselves to another year passing them by. When the “no later than” time period draws near, folks’ activity reaches the point where it almost frantic. The AZG&F website gets pounded as people check the draw results every 5 minutes. The phone lines get a work out as well, due to the sheer volume of people calling in to see if the results are available. It is indeed, a frenzy.
As the draw deadline drew near, my anticipation began to build, right along with everybody else’s. On a particularly slow day at work, I logged on to see if the results were up. For a day or two, there had been a message on the site saying something to the effect that “The draw results were being loaded, and would be available soon”. When the screen came up, the same old message was still there. About 10 minutes later, I got away from what I was doing, went back to the site, and hit “refresh” after typing in my ID numbers the screen wobbled, and then it appeared:
Turkey Not Drawn
Bear Not Drawn
Elk, Bull 6A Permit #xxxx (ML only)
Mule Deer, Any antlered 24B Permit #xxxx
I blinked at first, kind of like a kid looking at a pile of gifts left by Santa or the Easter Bunny. For a few moments, it just didn’t sink in. Gradually, it dawned on me – I had drawn an elk tag, and a deer tag! My first call was to my wife Karole. Now, Karole has always been supportive of my hunting related activities, but admittedly, she doesn’t quite “get it”. She was happy for me, but her reaction was certainly less than animated. I had to call Greg! I called and dang it – he wasn’t in. Excitedly, I left a message. Over the weeks and months to follow, he and I would be seeing a lot of each other, as we made plans. Greg asked if he could include a good friend of his, Bruce. Bruce was intimately familiar with my Unit, and was scouting it on a regular basis.
The next several weeks passed quickly in some ways, and agonizingly slow in other ways. Greg regaled me with Bruce’s reports, every time I stopped in to the taxidermy shop. Excitement was building, for sure. Sleepless nights became the norm. Bruce and Greg were constantly adjusting “the plan”, and the “guarantee” of a bull was so far, unscathed. Greg’s only caveat was – “I’ll get you a shot, the shooting is up to you”. Shooting was the least of my worries – I had never experienced a problem with my shooting ability. Never had succumbed to “buck fever”. My worries were on the logistics of the trip – not with making the shot.
As it turns out, Greg and Bruce drew tags for New Mexico. Their hunt started the day after we had planned our elk hunt. The finalized plan was that Greg and I would leave at 2:30 AM, drive north to meet Bruce at daylight, (hopefully) kill an elk, and head back. As I would stop at home, Greg and Bruce would drive all night to New Mexico (silly hunters!). Finally the day arrived, and true to my life’s experiences so far, Murphy was along for the ride. The weekend before, I was doing some final sighting in, with my muzzleloader. That night, while struggling with a stubborn breech plug, I turned the scope in the rings. Wednesday after work, I stopped at the range, and 3 shots confirmed my fears – they were not even on the paper any more. Luckily, I had a “Plan B” – Greg had been suggesting all along that I use his rifle. A nicer model than mine, and it was dead-on at 200 yards – it looked like I would be using his after all.
Friday morning, I picked Greg up at 2:15 AM. I loaded my gear into his truck, and away we went. The trip to 6A was quick, and uneventful – by 5:30, we had pulled up alongside of Bruce’s truck. We got out, Greg made the introductions, and we loaded up. Bruce briefed us, we had a game plan, and we ambled across the road, down into the forest. Crisp morning air and the smell of pines was something I hadn’t experienced in years. I was nervous, excited, and anxious to see an elk!
We had strolled for less than half an hour when a strong odor wafted across my face. We all looked at each other, and Greg muttered “Elk!”… I had no idea those creatures would smell so strong. Less than 5 minutes later, Bruce spotted some elk trotting through the trees ahead. We ascertained where they were heading, and trotted ahead, intent on cutting them off. Finally, there they were – about 8 or 10 elk, about 120 yards away. I shed my pack, and Greg and I sprinted up to a suitable firing position. Greg pointed and hissed “There – a good bull! Shoot!”. I had braced my rifle on a branch. In my scope I saw a bull indeed – but he was quartered away, with 2 cows directly behind him. I waited to see if they would move. Greg was clearly excited – “Shoot!” I replied that I couldn’t. “Yes, you can! Shoot”. I answered again, that I couldn’t. Greg was clearly agitated, as the elk wandered out of sight. “That was probably your one shot for the day”, he said. After some discussion, we determined that we were looking at 2 different sets of elk. We had barely figured that out, when Bruce was motioning for us that he had spotted more elk. Again, Greg and I were quickly tromping up to a firing point. Frankly, I had been exercising working up to the hunt, but I was not ready for all of this running. An hour into the hunt, and I was getting pooped already. My eyes were taking it in, but my brain was having a hard time processing it. 180 yards across the little pasture in front of me, 50-60 elk were streaming from right to left. It looked like the Serengeti, on a National Geographic special. I found a rest, and picked a bull. He trotted into the opening, but as he stopped, 2 cows pulled up next to him. They then moved ahead, and he was in the clear. I picked a point-of-aim, and squeezed the trigger. “BOOM”, followed by the cloud of pungent smoke. The elk kept trotting along. Greg and I quickly reloaded as the bull moved over the draw, with the rest of the herd. There was no chance for a second shot. The elk had filed past Bruce, and he hadn’t noticed any bulls acting as if they were hit. Greg and I checked the spot where the bull had stood. No hair, no blood. Just tracks and tracks and tracks. I was in disbelief, and was disappointed.
Soon we were chasing another herd through the trees. We got ahead of them, and planned an ambush. Greg pointed to an opening about 120 yards away. “They will be going by there” he said, “get ready”. My sight picture was focused on a 3 or 4 foot opening in the trees ahead. As I focused, Greg called it out “Cow, cow, calf, calf, calf, cow, spike, cow, cow…bull.. there he is…get ready!” As the bull stepped across the opening, I sighted and squeezed – “KABOOM” – with a belch of fire and smoke. Again, no bull fell. We inspected the spot, and again – found absolutely no sign of a hit. As the day progressed, we put a lot of miles on, and saw a lot of elk. I had packed my pack too full, and was in misery. After bull Number 2, I had relaxed my previous “I’ll shoot any bull except a spike” rule. I was growing concerned, and discouraged. By noon, Bruce had to leave. We had been rained on, snowed on, and hailed on. As the end of the day drew near, we trudged back towards the truck. My mind was racing, I was sore and exhausted, and I was sad beyond words. Worst of all -I had taken shots at 5 different bulls! If we had seen one elk, we had seen 200. Greg stated that it was the most elk he had ever seen in a day of hunting. I was in shock. My dream hunt had turned into a disaster, and I felt guilty for wasting Greg and Bruce’s time. When I arrived home that night, I was near tears. My socks were a bloody mess. I was exhausted – by my calculations we had walked about 12 miles total that day. I had decided that I would never hunt again. I was disappointed beyond all belief. I had nary a clue of what happened. Over the next few weeks, the self-pity began to recede. I wrote a mini-account on some hunting websites that I participated on. Friends were supportive, and encouraged me to write the full story. It took courage they said, to relate my experiences so that others may learn. “We always hear the success stories” said one, “but never the other stories. Mistakes are the best teachers.” “That’s why they call it hunting”, said another. “We’ve all had trips like that – most of us never mention them.”
Pulling up my boot straps, I analyzed the trip. I decided to make this a giant learning experience, instead of something terrible. Maybe other new elk hunters could learn as well. After a great deal of thought, I came up with the following “root causes”:
1. Weapon – I shouldn’t have “settled” on the other rifle, especially without shooting it. That is just stupid. I deferred to the experience of my friends, however. Also, as noted – time was a factor, and even finances (ammo) came into play. Regardless, I should have scheduled things in such a way that I had the time to get mine sighted back in, or at least – done some familiarization shooting with my friend’s rifle.
2. Confidence – Well, in this case, over-confidence. I was so confident that my buddies would get me into elk, that I was overly affected by the whole thing, when it turned sour. From the first missed shot, to the trip in its entirety; over confidence had added fuel to the humiliation and embarrassment. I had bought a freezer, and being a freelance writer – was already thinking of titles for an article. Confidence good; cockiness stupid.
3. Pressure (self) – Arizona hunting hadn’t been kind to me. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and 3 seasons without a javelina led to me being even more determined to fill my elk tag. The quest for articles and photographs; not wanting to “let down” my friends and family, you name it. Instead of just relaxing and having fun, I put far too much pressure on myself.
4. Pressure (time) – Having only one day to hunt only added to the pressure. Add to that, my 2 buddies were driving to New Mexico, that night, for a deer hunt. There was a feeling that we needed to get this done, which resulted in rushed shots, or shots I wouldn’t normally take. More available days in the field would have definitely made a difference.
5. Attitude – I have always hunted by myself. Re-playing all of those shots in my head, many of them I would not have taken – either farther than what I was comfortable with, or at walking animals. My buddies were just trying to get me an elk; I think though, that being by myself, I would have chosen shots more carefully, not felt rushed, and probably – been more successful.
6. Fitness – I had been working out (particularly for the mule deer hunt) for about 6 weeks. It was mostly back and leg strength stuff, with some cardio. I was not prepared to run (in order to get ahead of herds). Next time, more cardio.
7. Equipment – I was evaluating a pack on behalf of a national Hunting Magazine (see #3 – pressure ). Thinking I only had a mile or two to go, I had packed it wayyy too heavy. I wore the wrong boots. At some point, my discomfort that day surely added to my lack of marksmanship, and certainly my frame of mind.
In summary, I know “that’s why they call it hunting”, but the experience certainly threw me for a loop. In spite of all the influencing factors I listed above, I still don’t know what REALLY happened that day. I used to teach marksmanship in the military. Like I said, no sniper – but I never would have imagined that not only would I miss once, but FIVE times. I am relieved that they were all clean misses (no animal reaction, no blood, no hair). We did check each time, and had I knowingly wounded an animal, my hunt would have been over. Looking back, it was a great trip. I had seen more elk in a day than some people see in several seasons. I learned a ton about their habits. The air was fresh and crisp, and I enjoyed (sort of) a great day with an old friend and a new one. I learned a new area well. Best of all, I think I hit almost every “what not to do” possible. I can’t wait to draw another tag!