9,500 feet above sea level, short on oxygen, praying to the Lord God Almighty!
“PLEASE, let that bull expire; don’t let him get up!”
This was the fourth Rocky Mountain elk hunt of my career, and I was looking as forward to it as if it were my first. That is how hunting is; that is why we do it. Every experience is so unique, and this trip would prove no different!
9:30 A.M. – “You hit him,” says LB with a surprised chuckle. “Shoot him again!” Where was he?
I’ll tell you where: approximately 800 yards away, stumbling up a snow-covered mountain, surrounded by his herd, more than 120 of the most majestic Rocky Mountain elk ever seen. My thoughts interrupted “SHOOT HIM AGAIN!” My gun jammed! Was this it? Were we going to watch a guesstimated 300 inch public land bull become an easy meal for a local mountain lion or worse yet, escape into the wilderness and die in a slow, harsh winter? Not a chance!
“He’s down … He went down!” The celebration had begun! As we were still in awe of what my guide would say was a “lucky shot,” LB decided to head back up the mountain, where we had thrown off our gear, to gather it up, so we could start our hike to retrieve my bull. I decided to take a seat, pull up my binoculars, and not let that bull out of my sight. This would prove to be a chore, however, in that I could not stop glassing the rest of the herd as they milled around, encompassing their fallen, fearless leader.
10:30 A.M. – “No! He’s up! He got up!” He was slowly but steadily putting distance between us! Suddenly, I was sick. Was it the exhausting two mile approach we had made on this bull, the uncontrollable overdose of adrenaline, or too much whipped cream topping on my morning pancake? Yes, yes, and yes!
Before another thought could develop, we were literally running out of control down the mountain, only to begin our ascent into the last place we saw my bull, Big Horn Country. Shear rock cliffs covered in snow, ice, and loose rocks were no worry for my young, questionably crazy guide. He could not have been more excited to overcome this animal in his own habitat (habitat made for the escape and leisure of a big horn ram, NOT of a human being). We pursued on a 1,000 foot elevated climb. I became a bit more hesitant than my colleague; my steps were focused and purposeful.
11:30 A.M. - We scanned the mountain, overlooking and ignoring the massive blood trail, while making our way to the last location we had seen the Bull. He was not there! We had covered over 1,200 yards and changed 2,000 feet in elevation, only to discover he had placed another 450 yards between us, the roughest 450 yards, yet! But finally, there he stood in all his glory, sun reflecting off his caramel-colored coat and 12 white-tipped antlers: yes, he was a beautiful, heavy-antlered six-by-six.
12:30 P.M. – LB excitedly whispers, “Finish him!” The second shot rang from my 300 Winchester Magnum, finally overcoming the old bull. I started to tremble; I rested my gun across my lap as I wedged myself between two boulders, the only things that could harness my quivering body! My eyes began to well up; my chest hurt from the pounding of my heart; my breaths were quick and shallow. What was happening? I could only recall a similar occasion: when I harvested my first whitetail buck with my father at age eleven.
Yet still, the challenge was not over. You would think nothing would stop me from getting my hands on that bull for which we had just worked four hours, or more accurately, four years! However, we were on the face of a rock cliff that big horn rams within 100 yards of us were using as a playground. (Note: I am a commercial roofing contractor by trade and know the importance of safety, and on at least two occasions on that mountain, I wanted to be harnessed and tied off to something!)
Thankfully my guide did not sympathize with me, because within the hour, he had me posing not with my first bull, but with my best to date.
1:30 P.M. – Time to get to work! After several photos, high fives, and handshakes, we quickly realized that the horses were only going to be able to get within three-quarters of a mile of us, the mules only within a quarter of a mile. So we de-boned the entire bull, placed the meat in game bags, and prepared for packing him out. No, we would not carry him out this day. Darkness was approaching, and we still had a three mile hike back to the horses, then an hour and a half ride back to camp; nonetheless, we would be back with a full day’s work ahead of us!
3:30 P.M. – As we continued our ascent to the ridgeline, a large ram stepped into my path about 60 yards ahead, broadside, proudly looked down on me, and then trotted aside, as if to say: “You may pass.” He climbed above the trail and stood with the sun behind him, his silhouette appearing as if it were painted on the mountain. It was perfect … the day, the surprises, the experiences.
I would be amiss not to recognize the major contributors and influences of my success. The first of whom, is God in all His glory for His creation of this earth and all its inhabitants. What a blessing it is to be a part of it!
Secondly, just as many young men, I am thankful for my father in his forethought to share with me the outdoors and this wonderful heritage of being an avid hunter!
As a sportsman and proud supporter of Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), I am grateful for the terrific people and organizers of such a vast, rewarding cause. As I stated prior, this was a public land hunt, the type that is becoming increasingly harder to experience. Such opportunities as I have shared would not be possible, if it were not for RMEF in its conservation of elk habitat and support.
Lastly, Gary Ballard and LB of West Elk Wilderness Outfitters runs an exceptional operation, with tremendous guides, wranglers, and cooks. I have hunted with Gary on three consecutive hunts, harvesting on two of the three expeditions! This year was no exception with all seven hunters taking shots at quality bulls.
It was at the conclusion of the day of the kill that I realized this had not been just a five day hunt that had only lasted three days. This was my fourth attempt over a fourteen year period. I have had some wonderful hunts, without harvests, over the years; however, this was the most memorable. I expect I will hunt many more years and species to try to match the rush of excitement I experienced on November 16, 2012, but deep down, I know this adventure will always be the hunt of my lifetime
Published with permission
Story by: Bass Pro Shops customer Heath Barber from Lebanon, Missouri