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