BULL FEVER

NOTH­ING GETS A HUNTER’S HEART RAC­ING FASTER THAN A BU­GLE AND A CRACK

Outdoor Life - - WILD AMERICA - BY BEN LONG

“AS HE TURNED TO LEAVE, MY DAD’S RI­FLE BOOMED AND SHOOK ME FROM THE STUPOR. ”

Squir­rels rus­tle leaves. Bucks snap twigs. Bull elk crack branches. And on a still moun­tain morn­ing, that crack is a tur­bocharger that floods your blood­stream with adren­a­line. That crack might mean you’re busted and the herd is about to un­leash pan­de­mo­nium across the hill­side. Or it might mean the bull you’ve been track­ing has stood in its bed to of­fer a shot be­fore bolt­ing. Three decades ago, on my 16th birth­day, the crack meant the herd bull was ap­proach­ing. My fa­ther and I had hiked 3 miles into the Idaho back­coun­try to hear a bu­gle at day­break. Over the next six hours we stalked closer, with Dad draw­ing in the bull with bu­gles from a home­made call con­structed out of PVC pipe. At noon, we heard the crack. We were hud­dled un­der a sub­alpine fir at the edge of a small meadow with a wal­low in the mid­dle. We had yet to see the bull, but I was al­ready trem­bling. A bull elk may be three times larger than the big­gest white­tail buck, but bull fever hits with even more than three times the wal­lop. That’s be­cause bull fever re­flects not just the an­i­mal’s size, but the hunter’s in­vest­ment. Pub­lic-land elk re­quire an im­mense down pay­ment in time, sweat, and mis­ery. When you blow a chance on a big, pub­lic-land bull, it could be years (and count­less miles of hik­ing) be­fore you even see an­other one. And know­ing this—not just un­der­stand­ing it sta­tis­ti­cally, but also feel­ing it deep in your bones—makes the like­li­hood for a melt­down all the greater. Sec­onds after the crack, an in­com­ing set of 6x6 ivory tines floated above a cur­tain of young fir. Then the bull cleared the meadow, heav­ing and steam­ing, now only 50 yards away. But my Mar­lin .30/30 shook so badly, I couldn’t find him in the scope. My dad mouthed “Shoot!” but I was frozen in a panic, mind blank, trig­ger fin­ger a stone. Then the bull’s nos­trils flared and his head jerked back. As he turned to leave, my dad’s ri­fle boomed and shook me from the stupor. The bull dropped. We walked up to the mas­sive bull, my ri­fle cold in my trem­bling hands. I knew I had choked. That was my first—but not last—taste of bull fever. Over the next 35 years, I’ve punched my share of elk tags, mostly on pub­lic land. And I’ve taken some nice bulls, though none that would match the size of that birth­day bull. So dur­ing elk sea­son, you’ll find me on pub­lic land, stalk­ing his kin, chas­ing the ghost of that mem­ory. Bull fever is an ail­ment you wish you never had but hope never goes away.

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