My friend John Greiss was AZGFD’s 2013 “Mentor of the Year”, and that was no mistake. John has been in on dozens of hunting “firsts”, for nearly every species, and all over Arizona. He was in on my daughter Mikaela’s first javelina, he led the way for my first Coues, and last spring he helped me with finally – my first javelina.

John really liked the idea of me going 3 for 3 on Arizona big game tags, so he was all about strategy on the elk draw. “Put in with me for the late season 22 south tag”, he said. “You’ll likely draw, and we’ll get you a bull.” Lo and behold, I drew that tag along with John and our friend Miguel. From the moment I saw the draw results, the excitement started to build.

John spends a ton of time in that Unit, and between hunting trips, scouting, and other outdoor adventures, he was confident we would score. In the old days, “the curse” would have had me stymied, but I was 2 for 2 with John, so the excitement was there for months. I started a quest to lose weight (ended up losing about 35 pounds), got side-tracked with a heart-health scare, had a job change, and finally, a bunch of back issues. As a matter of fact, I hurt my back bad, 2 weeks before the hunt and it was bad enough I was pretty concerned I wouldn’t be able to hunt. Luckily it had eased enough that the morning after Thanksgiving, I packed my truck and was on the road to Tucson. I only had Friday through Sunday to hunt, so the pressure was on!

John and good friend RL Gray had been watching bulls for a couple of weeks, and RL’s wife Sherri had shot an awesome bull in that unit during muzzleloader season. By the time I got there, they had a plan.

By 7:30 or so I was on a hilltop near Payson, helping glass for elk. My hunt was upon us! By mid morning the guys had spotted a couple of cows, a 4×4 and a spike. They asked if I wanted to chase them. I said to John “you tell me, what do you think?” John said he thought we could do better, and that we should pass for now, and that’s what we did. The afternoon was relatively uneventful, and the next morning we were up and at it early again.

It wasn’t long before we heard from John that he had a good bull located. He was on a point a couple of miles away, so RL and MIguel and I loaded up and made our way over towards him. He watched the elk the whole time, who were nonchalantly moving up a hill, away from a waterhole that we knew was in that area. He had a good 5×5, a spike, and a couple of cows located. RL and I started working our way around the bottom trying to get set up for a shot. Finally we had him spotted! RL was on him and I was getting set up but he moved into some brush. We reset, RL helped me get lined up and by the time I settled down,got my sight picture, moved off the safety, started my trigger squeeze…. a cow stepped directly behind him!He was quartering away up the hill and the cow was located in such a way that had I missed or passed through, I might have hit her. Arrrggghhhh!!! At that point he was near the top, and they ambled up over and out of sight. I was mad,and frustrated that I took too long and at the same time, glad I didn’t take the shot once I was ready.Later that afternoon we saw a spike and 2 cows in a different spot, but no shot opportunity. In the evening, John was in another area, and Miguel glassed up a 4×4, 2 spikes and some cows, but they were way too far away to chase, at last light.

We were confident with all the elk we were seeing, that Sunday we would have a great chance. The morning was odd. Miguel and John went one way, RL and I another. In spite of the fact we hadn’t seen a ton of cows and the days prior, we saw between 20-30 cows and calves in the space of an hour, and then the action stopped abruptly. Nothing was going on, and RL had’t had any sleep. His house wasn’t far away so he suggested a pit stop for lunch and a nap – so off we went. Miguel and John checked in and said they were going to check another spot, then meet us back up at the original hill for the evening shoot. We had a couple hours so RL was snoozing on the couch and I was watching a football game when the phone rang. It was John. He said “I got bulls”. RL said “We’ll be there in 10 minutes” and we scurried out the door.

To make a long story not quite so long, John walked RL and I into shooting position. We were fighting a stiff breeze and it was tricky getting set up. There was a spike and bigger bull feeding in the manzanitas. By the time we were ready, it was a 300 yard shot, a pretty good downhill angle. I was shooting a .270 WSM off of my tripod, using a TriClawps shooting aid. The bigger one stepped out, and I shot clean over his back! Ugh. RL was positive I missed, having watched the vapor trail pass cleanly over him. He scampered off, but the spike stayed put. I missed him underneath. I took a breath, shot him, and he took a step and faltered. RL says “He’s down, but trying to get up. Shoot him again”. I found him and could only see his face and brisket through the bushes. I shot him through his brisket. RL said “He’s done”. John was on the radio saying “Bull down!!”

True to form, John did most of the dirty work, expertly dressing that bull and getting every scrap of meat off of him. By pure luck, the bull went down about 120 yards from an ATV trail. I shot the elk around 4:30. With 4 sets of hands, a Ranger, and a lucky ATV trail nearby. I was cleaned up, packed, and on the road towards Phoenix by 8:30 PM

I learned a lot on this hunt, as I do on most of my hunts. I spent a lot of range time last year, getting loads dialed in, a new scope zeroed, and a custom turret by Kenton Industries installed. That was mostly bench shooting though. My whole off-season range-work this year will be spent shooting off my pack, off the Claw, and from sitting, kneeling and standing positions. I know these things happen, but I was not happy with misses, and needing to shoot that animal twice – regardless of how quickly it was over, it was unacceptable to me. I shot a lot in the military and in those days it was open sights – from 100-800 metres. I need practice getting set up quicker and being accurate – off a variety of positions, shooting angles, etc. I never had problems like this in those days. My glassing is getting better. I’m no expert by any means, but I am finding stuff now and then. Practice helps, but like I said – I’m always learning something hunting with these guys.

I am very indebted to John, RL and Miguel. RL did a lot of scouting before I got there, and was a huge help and coach on my hunt – usually operating with little or no sleep. Miguel helped, gave advice and is just a good guy to hunt with. He had the same tag and passed on opportunities so I could get a bull first. John is an amazing friend and truly is a mentor. I’m always learning from him and he is a warrior on these trips, usually doing all the heavy lifting – figuratively and literally. He sacrifices his time, opens up his home, uses his vehicles – to help people hunt. And he loves every minute of it. I need to thank my friend Greg McBride too. He helped me learn to relaod and develop great loads for my rifle, he always has good advice, he’s a good shooting coach and finally – an awesome taxidermist too.

Ironically, in the weeks leading up to my hunt John kept asking me what kind of bull I was looking for. “Anything but a spike”, I’d say. “Spike elk look weird”. Well, we all know that our standards go down as the hunt draws to an end and honestly – I think my spike elk looks just fine! A muley and a bear are on my bucket list for the coming year. Truth be told though, I’m already anxious for my next elk hunt.