A life­time's ob­ses­sion with gi­ant elk leads to an en­counter with a pub­lic-land bull of his­toric pro­por­tions

Outdoor Life - - NEWS - By steve felix

What started as a week­end hunt on pub­lic land in eastern Mon­tana ended with the new world-record archery bull.

Noth­ing Spoils

a promis­ing elk stalk like cows star­ing di­rectly at you. The big bull was about 100 yards away, but hap­pily I couldn’t see any cows or calves, or even foot-stomp­ing mule deer, in the thinly tim­bered basin. Clear sail­ing be­tween me and that bull. I glassed him again through my binoc­u­lar, and as I watched him, a voice in my head grew more and more ur­gent. “Oh my God, he is mas­sive!” Then, ten­sion tight­en­ing with every step he took to­ward me, I heard my si­lent voice again, scream­ing this time. “He is go­ing to walk right down to you! Be pa­tient! Don’t look at his head! Do not call! He’s go­ing to walk right to you! Be pa­tient! Be pa­tient!” I pulled my rangefinde­r from my pocket and ranged a scrawny tree the bull had been rak­ing when I first spot­ted him. It was just un­der 60 yards. Then I ranged the bull. He was about 90 yards away, slowly feed­ing and bugling along the top of the basin some 20 yards be­hind a smaller bull.

He’s about to turn and head for the tree, I said to my­self. Not 10 sec­onds later he turned and slowly started down into the bowl. He ripped a knee­shaker of a bu­gle to­ward the other bull and stared my way. He then started on the line to my tar­get tree. Eighty yards. Sev­eral min­utes went by. Seventy yards. What seemed like a life­time passed as he threw a few more bu­gles to­ward the other bull. He would lay his head back and growl and bu­gle. I re­mained calm and tried not to stare at his enor­mous rack.

The out­side of my bow range is 60 yards, and I knew he was go­ing to be at that thresh­old soon. While what seemed like hours ticked by, I thought about whether or not to shoot, weigh­ing the pros and cons of tak­ing a long shot at such a re­mark­able an­i­mal. Fi­nally, I told my­self that if he pre­sented the per­fect shot at that range, I would take it. One of the traits of long­time bowhunters is that we rou­tinely talk our­selves out of sit­u­a­tions that other hun­ters would con­sider layups. But the vari­ables were com­ing to­gether here, at this mo­ment. I was con­fi­dent that if this bull stood com­pletely broad­side, I could kill him.

I ranged him: 65…64…63…62…61…and as he stood broad­side, with his head down and front shoul­der for­ward, I de­cided it was now or never. I locked the re­lease on the bow­string, raised my bow, and drew. He kept his head down, feed­ing, so I had a clean draw. I set­tled the 60-yard pin in the spot I picked, just be­hind the crease of his shoul­der, and re­leased the ar­row. The sight of the green-and-black-fletched shaft streak­ing to­ward him will be etched in my mind for­ever.


My life as a hunter started with wood ducks in the hard­wood bot­tom­lands of the Min­nesota River. It was en­cour­aged by neigh­bors who helped me to my first white­tail. And it was helped along by my mother, an English teacher who might not have known that most of my time in the li­brary was spent read­ing as many hunt­ing and fishing mag­a­zines as I could get my hands on.

One of those mag­a­zines was the Jan­uary 1960 is­sue of Out­door Life. It con­tained an ar­ti­cle, “High, Wide and Hand­some,” by Fred Mer­cer, de­tail­ing how he hunted and killed the largest elk in Mon­tana his­tory up to that time. I dreamed of some­day be­ing able to hunt elk in the West, just like Mer­cer.

In 1988—the year of the dev­as­tat­ing for­est fires in Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park and else­where around the West—i got my chance to hunt Mon­tana. I didn’t get an elk, but I got a great ed­u­ca­tion on elk hunt­ing and on the state. I was hooked on both, and in 1994, I moved there.

Over the years, I har­vested sev­eral nice bulls with my bow and rifle. All but a cou­ple of the bulls were killed on pub­lic land. That’s worth em­pha­siz­ing. Pub­lic-land ac­cess is crit­i­cal to my hunt­ing part­ners and my­self, along with most Mon­tana elk hun­ters. My story would sim­ply never have taken place with­out the op­por­tu­nity to hunt pub­lic lands.

my god, that's a mas­sive bull

The most re­mark­able week­end of my life started on a down note. I work for the Mon­tana De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion in Mis­soula as the area main­te­nance chief, and we were called out un­ex­pect­edly to as­sist the High­way Pa­trol with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of an ac­ci­dent that re­sulted in a dou­ble fa­tal­ity—a fa­ther and his young daugh­ter.

I hadn’t planned on hunt­ing that week­end. My hunt­ing part­ner, Chad Tiffney, was un­able to get away, and I had in­tended to wait for his sched­ule to clear. But I re­turned to my of­fice from the ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion with a head full of bother. I looked at my sched­ule and de­cided that I could get away for the week­end and clear my mind.

So I spent that early-septem­ber Fri­day driv­ing sev­eral hours east to a chunk of pub­lic land that isn’t known for tro­phy elk, but which had in­trigued me ever since Chad and I dis­cov­ered it—and some mon­ster bulls liv­ing there—dur­ing a mule deer hunt. My head got clearer and clearer as the miles melted away, and I looked for­ward to a week­end of solo camp­ing and archery elk hunt­ing.

My plan was to hunt all day Satur­day and Sun­day and then re­turn home Mon­day night. I pitched my spike tent, made a cou­ple of sand­wiches for the next day, and loaded my pack. I slept rest­lessly as I an­tic­i­pated the day ahead. At 4 a.m., I slipped out of my sleep­ing bag, gath­ered my gear, and drove to a spot I had scouted in pre­vi­ous sea­sons. In the cool and still very dark Septem­ber morn­ing, I rolled down all the win­dows and just lis­tened for a few min­utes, hop­ing to hear that first bu­gle of the sea­son. Noth­ing.

I lis­tened for an­other 15 min­utes, then gath­ered up my pack and my bow, and stepped over the fence onto Na­tional For­est land, not­ing that the con­stel­la­tion Orion the Hunter was over­head. Just then, a dis­tant bu­gle pierced the still air.

I was about a mile into my hike to­ward a glass­ing spot—a high ridge with a good van­tage point— when the first hint of sun­rise ap­peared, along with the wind ris­ing in the pon­derosa pines. I heard a cou­ple of dis­tant bu­gles but couldn’t tell what di­rec­tion they were com­ing from. I sus­pected the bulls were mov­ing in the same di­rec­tion I was go­ing, so I was fairly con­fi­dent I might catch up with them later in the morn­ing. As I lis­tened in the dawn light, I mar­veled at how green and lush the grass was, even into Septem­ber. All this for­age is bound to grow some good antlers, I thought to my­self.

I had just reached the ridge when a strong bu­gle rang out not far from me, fol­lowed by a se­cond bu­gle from a dif­fer­ent bull. I started eas­ing my way to­ward the bu­gles. When I reached the end of the ridge, I glassed be­low me, and not 400 yards away was the big­gest bull elk I have ever laid eyes on. He was broad­side to me in a small bowl, rak­ing a young pine tree. I stared at him with my mouth hang­ing open, think­ing, Oh my God, that’s a mas­sive bull.

He was at least a 7x7, in­cred­i­bly sym­met­ri­cal, and his thirds were off-the-chart big. As I watched, a bull that was out of my sight line sounded off, and the big boy re­sponded with a growly bu­gle. I just stared in awe of this mon­ster, but then my senses re­turned, and I re­al­ized that the wind was di­rectly in my face and that the bull was in the per­fect spot for a stalk.

“I can get right on top of that bull if I play this right,” I whis­pered to my­self. I glassed all around, try­ing to spot other elk or deer. See­ing none, I pin-

i stepped over the fence onto na­tional for­est land, orion the hunter over­head.

I re­ally had no idea of his di­men­sions. I was think­ing some­thing north of 380.

pointed the spot I wanted to reach, then I backed up the ridge. Once out of sight of the bull, I quickly closed the dis­tance. I was headed to a gen­tle sad­dle on the right side of the bowl. If I could get to that spot un­de­tected, then I was likely to be in bow range. As I ap­proached the spot, I nocked an ar­row and gin­gerly peaked over the top. The bull wasn’t there. I told my­self to stay. Some­thing told me he was go­ing to come back to that lit­tle tree. Just then, an elk ripped a strong bu­gle just out of sight, and shortly af­ter­ward, I spot­ted its source. A 310-class bull emerged at the top of the bowl. A nice-look­ing elk, but he was not what I was af­ter. Not a minute later, the mon­ster bu­gled and walked slowly up be­hind the smaller bull, and then took that life­time work­ing his way down to my tar­get tree.

af­ter the shot

The sound of the ar­row strik­ing was the sound every bowhunter wants to hear—hol­low and loud. The sound of an ar­row in the boiler room. As the bull bolted straight up­hill and away from me, I could see my ar­row buried up to the fletch­ing in his chest. Just as he topped the ridge crest, he stopped again, and then stum­bled a bit as he went out of sight. I thought I heard a crash a cou­ple of sec­onds later, but I couldn’t be sure. Then ev­ery­thing got eerily quiet, and that’s when it hit me.

My knees start­ing shak­ing un­con­trol­lably. I had to sit down to process what had just tran­spired. I had spot­ted the big­gest bull elk of my life. I had stalked into po­si­tion, man­aged to get a good shot off, and might have just killed a true gi­ant. I looked at my GPS: 9 a.m. I re­solved to wait half an hour and then to crest the ridge to see if I could find the bull. I re­played the shot over and over in my head, want­ing to re­as­sure my­self that the shot was true and try­ing to re­gain my com­po­sure. My hands were trem­bling so hard that I spilled Ga­torade all down my shirt as I took a drink.

A lot went through my mind while I was wait­ing. What is my plan if he is dead? How am I go­ing to quar­ter, bone, and cool the meat? How warm would the day get? How would I carry 400 pounds of meat by my­self the 2 miles back to my truck? There’s noth­ing like fret­ting over meat you don’t yet pos­sess to make the time fly. Be­fore I knew it, 30 min­utes had passed.

I worked my way to­ward where he was stand­ing when I shot. No blood. No hair. But I knew the very spot where I last saw him, where he crossed the crest. I reached the ridge with my head down, look­ing for blood. Noth­ing. But when I raised my eyes, the first thing I saw was what looked like an elk rump and belly stick­ing up out of the tall grass.

I raised my bino and there he was. Stone-cold dead, his dark antlers stick­ing into the air. I slowly ap­proached, in dis­be­lief. My God, he was beau­ti­ful, a dream bull. Like a dream, it didn’t seem real. But my tears—of pent-up emo­tion, of grat­i­tude, and of re­lief—were very real. I wiped them away, took a quick video with my cell phone, and then snapped some pic­tures of the bull on the ground and some re­ally lame self­ies. Then I got to work.

It was warm­ing up, so I had no time to ad­mire the gi­ant. I knew he was big, but I re­ally had no idea of his di­men­sions. My ini­tial thought was some­thing north of 380 inches, but it never oc­curred to me that I might have killed a 400-class bull. My more im­me­di­ate con­cern was cool­ing down the meat.

I hung his quar­ters in the cool shade be­low the ridge, and carved off the back­straps, ten­der­loins, and neck meat. It took me all day to pack out the first load and most of the se­cond day to fetch the rest. It was a long and ex­cru­ci­at­ing or­deal. But there’s some­thing about mak­ing meat that takes the edge off the chore. I headed back to my home­town of See­ley Lake with cool­ers full of wild meat and a re­mark­able rack in the bed of my pickup that turned every head I passed on the high­way.

in the com­pany of leg­ends

As I drove, I re­flected on the last few days. I had dreamed of killing a truly gi­ant bull for many years, and I was over­whelmed with an in­cred­i­ble sense of ac­com­plish­ment. I wished Chad had been with me, and thought about how his in­cred­i­ble per­sis­tence had mo­ti­vated me to hunt this slice of eastern Mon­tana in the first place. I thought about how re­lieved I was to get the elk in the cool­ers and to have saved all the meat. But mostly I was thank­ful for hav­ing the abil­ity to have this in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence on pub­lic land. And there was some­thing else. I had un­der­gone shoul­der-re­place­ment surgery in 2015, and I hon­estly wasn’t sure at the time that I would ever bowhunt again. The thought of never be­ing able to pull back a bow haunted me, but it also mo­ti­vated my re­cov­ery. Un­be­liev­ably, here I was, a year later, haul­ing a tro­phy bow-killed bull home from the field.

But how big a tro­phy? When I fi­nally got cell ser­vice, I pulled off the road and texted pho­tos to Chad, and he replied that he thought my esti-

mate of 380 inches was way too low. I wasn’t far from Billings when I re­called that the Ca­bela’s store there had a 400-class bull mounted in the en­try­way. I de­cided to stop and take a quick look to see how my elk com­pared. I walked in the store, looked over the rack for a few min­utes, and then walked back to my truck and stared at my rack for a long minute. Mine was no­tice­ably larger, but it never crossed my mind that it could be a po­ten­tial record-breaker, so I just con­tin­ued to­ward home, leav­ing a mes­sage for my taxi­der­mist, John Berger, let­ting him know I’d be drop­ping off the skull and cape at his shop as I drove through Boze­man.

When Berger dropped the tail­gate of my pickup and saw the rack, he just stared. Then he turned to me and said, “How big do you think that is?”

I told him around 380. He just laughed. “I think it’s way big­ger than that. Let’s put a rough score on him, just for fun.”

He grabbed a dusty manila folder off a shelf, scrounged a black Sharpie, and found a cloth seam­stress tape mea­sure. “Write down these num­bers,” he com­manded. Berger said he was go­ing to be con­ser­va­tive and would round down his mea­sure­ments. He started tap­ing and rat­tling off num­bers and I wrote them down, end­ing up with two col­umns of mea­sure­ments and a spread credit. I added the num­bers with my phone’s cal­cu­la­tor, and when the sum of the first side ap­peared, I chuck­led a lit­tle, fig­ur­ing I had mis­cal­cu­lated. I added again and came up with the same num­ber. The smile left my face. I added up the se­cond col­umn and came up with the same sum as the first col­umn. Then I added the two col­umns.

“It’s 390 inches. With­out the spread credit,” I told Berger. I then added the spread and came up with 432 inches. We both just stood look­ing at each other be­fore Berger said, “What’s the world record?”

We both grabbed our phones and started search­ing the in­ter­net. It didn’t take long be­fore we both came up with the an­swer: 412 inches. Which would mean…my elk was the new world record.

“We need to call Fred,” Berger said. Fred is Fred King, for­mer Mon­tana Fish, Wildlife & Parks em­ployee and renowned Boone and Crock­ett and Pope and Young scorer who lives nearby in the Gal­latin Val­ley. King has mea­sured more record­book heads than any­one ei­ther of us knows. He's the mea­surer that big-name hun­ters call when they have an es­pe­cially im­pres­sive tro­phy. Fred said he’d be right over.

As King mea­sured, he talked about pan­elscor­ing Denny Aus­tad’s world-record “Spi­der Bull” and Milo Han­son’s world-record white­tail. I felt like I was in­di­rectly in the com­pany of im­mor­tals as I held the rack and King barked out mea­sure­ments. King took his time adding up the inches, but I could see the num­bers that he wrote 4∕ 8 at the end: 448 gross, 429 6∕ 8 net.

What started as a quick get­away week­end hunt on that beau­ti­ful Fri­day morn­ing cul­mi­nated in the re­al­iza­tion 80 hours later that I had killed the new world-record archery typ­i­cal Amer­i­can elk and the big­gest elk in Mon­tana his­tory, big­ger even than Fred Mer­cer's bull of my youth.

I wasn’t sure what to think. I was tired, needed to get home and take care of the meat, and had a busy work­week ahead. Be­sides, Chad still hadn’t had a chance to get out, and I was deter­mined to join him on his hunt later in the month. Maybe there would be an­other out­size elk roam­ing that same pub­lic land. Af­ter all, stranger things have hap­pened.

what started as a quick get­away hunt cul­mi­nated in my killing the new world-record elk.

I can get right on top of that bull if i play this right.

I snapped pic­tures of the bull on the ground and some re­ally lame self­ies.

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