Story and photos by: Jon Yokley
It was April 2015 and Arizona Game & Fish released the draw results. After logging on to the web site, it said “successful.”
My friend Ken “Tiger” Thompson and I drew not only archery pronghorn, but also archery bull elk! Surprisingly, these were both second choices but that didn’t bother us. We were hunting multiple species in our home state that fall and excitement was high!
Pronghorn took place first at the end of August. To me, this is usually a more difficult hunt than elk, so scouting, trail camera placement and Google Earth became a huge part of our lives. All our work and study finally produced fantastic Pronghorn for Tiger and I, but it took a good chunk of the season. Now we could focus on elk!
Arizona elk tags are one of the most pursued and coveted tags in the country and quite possibly one of the hardest to draw as a non-resident. As a resident, I average drawing a bull tag once every seven years so keeping up with the changes in each unit is difficult. The unit we drew is very popular, one of the largest game management units in the state, and allotted 775 bull tags plus 25 cow tags for the early archery rut hunt. We knew we’d be in this unit with almost 800 other tag holders. On average, this unit produces bulls in the 300” to 320” class range which is small for Arizona, but still a lot of fun and action packed.
Because we put so much time and effort into our previous pronghorn hunt, it didn’t leave us much time to pre-scout our elk unit. We were only able to sneak in a few days among the two weekends between the two hunts. Our elk scouting trips were productive though and we located many different bulls and cows. Arizona had a record-breaking monsoon season that fall so water sources were extremely full and feed was abundant. The elk seemed to be concentrated in the same areas I found them in 2001, the last time I drew this bull tag. We felt confident after finding elk, and having seeing very few vehicle or boot tracks in the area, decided this would be our starting point for opening weekend.
After making our plans, we decided to hunt in the cooler high country due to the record breaking warm weather Arizona was still throwing at us. On the morning before opening day, we headed up to set camp. On this hunt, Tiger and I were joined by our good friend Ron Stephenson. I have hunted with both of these men for many years and knew that I could count on them for anything that was thrown our way. After settling in, we made a solid plan on where to start - a very remote area where I had taken a good bull many years ago.
Our morning strategy was to locate bugles and make our move to stay with a herd that would hopefully produce a shot. Tiger and I would alternate as the shooter on each set up whether it produced or not. In the evenings, we planned on sitting water or fence line crossings. Depending on the terrain, we also chose a vantage point to locate the elk then spot and stalk. Finding a secluded and productive wallow was nearly impossible in this unit due to the large amount of water in every draw. Ron would either be behind the Heads Up Decoy if needed or off scouting for future areas that might produce more opportunity. Ron’s strongest asset is discovering new country and logging his findings; he’s very exact when it comes to re-locating his previously scouted areas.
Opening day we headed for the prime location we had previously scouted. We were shocked to see so many hunters in this area that just weeks before had little to no sign. Despite this, we decided to stick with our plan. Mornings were dedicated to being on the ground. We made numerous attempts at being aggressive with and without the decoy while moving close with the herd before setting up, but it didn’t work. Then, we tried moving in front of the herd before we began cow calling, but that didn’t work either. Every attempt seemed to push the elk deeper into the canyons. Possibly, the elk had become “call shy,” which can happen on heavily hunted public lands.
The bulls were talking at daybreak and at dusk, but very quietly, mainly just to locate other bulls and keep tabs on one another. Even at 7400 ft. elevation, temperatures were still up to 70 degrees by 9:00 a.m. every day, causing the elk to head to their bedding area early. The nights were chilly, in the mid to high 30’s, and the moon phase was at its best for some daytime activity, so now what? Maybe the evenings would produce if we could get into an area away from all the other hunters sharing the passion. After searching, I found a nice water hole to sit. Ken decided to sit a fence line or just still-hunt in the general area. Ron was still doing his homework and trying to locate a more secluded area.
The water hole I found was remote, lined with ponderosa pines and oak brush. This water had it all; plenty of tracks, nearby ridges that led from the deep canyons and plenty of cover. During these days I had two different bulls with cows pass by. The first night, a nice bull came in with an odd 1X6 rack and a 30” spike. He was running eight cows but never committed to water and hung just outside of bow range for 30 minutes or so. I learned quite a bit from watching this bull. He kept his cows in a tight little group without making a sound, another indication that the rut was still a week or so away. A few nights went by without seeing an elk but I enjoyed watching many mule deer and turkeys came in to feed and water.
Later in the week, I had a great 320” class bull come screaming off the hill with his 10 cows, but he took them into the thick oak brush and disappeared. I could hear him chuckling and his cows mewing so I patiently waited. A few minutes later, he reappeared out of the trees and stopped 40 yards at my hard left, outside the rickety barbed wire fence that lined the tank. This bull had one of the most perfect pine-darkened racks with smooth ivory tips I had ever seen. I took a deep breath, drew back, settled my pin just behind his shoulder, and released. A split second later, I saw a spark along with my deflected arrow. “What happened,” I asked myself in disbelief. I pulled up my bino’s and saw a light gray strand of wire which wasn’t visible to the naked eye in the early dusk. I was bummed to say the least, and watched this almost perfect 6X take his cows and head out.
Also in the first week, Tiger was out one evening and heard a bugle. He thought “He’s close by!” so he quietly moved in toward the sound and found a fantastic 300” bull all alone raking a tree. The wind was just right and the bull was occupied so he made his move to get within range. Just as he got inside his comfort zone, a truck came out of nowhere, bouncing down an unused two track road heading right toward the bull. Needless to say, that evening came to an abrupt halt. On another late afternoon, Tiger had a great bull and his cows feeding directly to him like they were on a string. He was preparing to get into position, but they winded another group of hunters that had just passed by, causing the elk to move out of sight.
At camp each evening, we shared our experiences. Tiger had many close calls on different bulls. He tried sitting and still hunting which was productive, but most bulls hung up just outside of bow range. Ron found some great areas, but one in particular stood out, a secluded tank in a “Quiet Zone.” The Game & Fish close these areas to motorized vehicles most of the year so many hunters stay away because of the distance and rough terrain you have to hike from main roads. These Quiet Zones can produce a lot of elk and some great bulls. Ron told us the first night he sat this tank, he had 36 elk come in. There were 26 rag horns in one herd then thirty minutes later, nine cows followed by a 350” plus class bull came in. He watched as they drank, swam and wallowed, unaware of his presence.
This pumped me up! I decided to spend the rest of the evening hunts sitting this tank, the mornings would be used to hunt from the ground either by calling or spot and stalk while Ron filmed. Tiger decided to continue hunting the area north of us that he had become very comfortable with. Temperatures were reaching mid 80’s in the afternoon at this 6000’ elevation where I decided to hunt the last part of the season. The moon was becoming full, but we were still in high hopes of seeing some action in the very late afternoons. We went in early the next afternoon with excitement running high. This had to be some of the best looking elk country I have ever seen in Arizona. The canyon had it all from tall ponderosa pines to thick scrub oak and abundant alligator junipers mixed in. While making the walk in, I couldn’t help but notice how the entire area smelled like elk. The rocky lava ground was filled with an unbelievable amount of track and sign. Once we approached the tank, I couldn’t believe it’s near perfect location. It was completely covered with tracks and had numerous active wallows. We decided to rebuild the existing ground blind to accommodate two people and quickly settled in for the evening hunt. Winds started swirling once again and not in our favor, action was slow and it was hot. We patiently waited for the sun to disappear behind the nearby mountain, getting us closer to that magical time of evening. But darkness approached fast and we were past legal shooting light without a single elk showing up. As we gathered our gear and headed out, the bulls began to scream as they were doing in the higher elevations, right at or after dark. The next three nights were a repeat of the first. What was going on? The wind was the same as the first night Ron sat this tank. We were now running toward the end of our hunt and made the decision to head back home for a day and a half to get work squared away. We weren’t about to give up hope at this location, but knew we had to make a different, more effective, plan.
After a quick day back at home and 300 miles later, we were on the road again to hunt the last two evenings, leaving us one morning hunt. Most hunters had left the area but we were approaching the heart of the rut. The plan would be to sit the water but this time, we brushed in my Double Bull Blind against some existing juniper trees on the south end of the tank. Not only would this be more productive, it would give us a great view from most angles. We packed up our gear and headed in.
As we approached the tank, we determined the best location to set up and went to work. We finally got settled in about 3:30pm and felt really good about the location of the blind. At 5:00pm the first 6X6 rag horn bull came in, pleased to see he was unaware of the newly brushed in blind. We watched as he wallowed for 15 minutes. I ranged him and he was inside my effective range, but I chose not to shoot, just hoping the afternoon would get better, and it sure did. Within minutes to my right, we had a 300” class bull chuckling at his four cows. He was rutting hard, keeping the cows in a small area. After a few minutes of watching the action packed show, he started to move toward the water. I was ready to try and take this bull if he gave me the opportunity, but as soon as he was within range, we heard a loud bugle from the opposite end of the tank. We looked to our left and saw a huge bull with large tops and bright ivory colored tips with many cows approaching. The cows didn’t waste any time and came in on a dead run, plunging into the deep water. The large bull made a straight path going through the water and right at the 300” class bull to our right side. As luck would have it, the large bull stopped just where the small rag horn had stood 30 minutes before. My heart was pounding at the sight of this magnificent bull. I knew the range and could make the shot. I hooked up, settled my pin just behind the shoulder, then released. We heard the familiar "crack!" He bolted for about fifty yards, leaving his cows behind before reaching the nearby junipers. He stopped and stood there for about 20 minutes, then slowly moved out of sight. I was stoked! We waited 30 more minutes for dark before getting out of the blind to check for blood, but couldn’t find any or my arrow. After long and careful thought about my shot and because the nights were still cold, we decided to go in very early the next morning to pick up where we left off.
After a long sleepless night, morning finally came and we were able to quickly pick up his trail, but as the sun rose it became more difficult. Because of the terrain and very little blood, we had to go inch by inch to track this bull. The problem we were having was the ground was unlike the country up north where it was receiving rain storm after rain storm. This ground was very dry and dusty, covered with dark lava rock which made it nearly impossible to pick up a good blood trail. We tracked him for several hours, still in high hopes and very determined to recover this bull. After deciding we needed more help, I made a phone call to Tiger to give him our GPS coordinates and he made his way to our location to join us in the search. By the time he arrived, we found the bull had worked his way into a very thick draw made up of many different leveled benches and numerous trails covered in heavy pine needles. Now, we had completely lost his blood trail so we made a plan to fan out fifty yards or so from each other to grid the area, even if it meant covering the entire draw which soon turned into a deep canyon. Ron would work high and Tiger would work low with me in the middle. As we carefully searched every square foot of the first bench, I suddenly saw an odd brown shaped object 50 yards in front of me. As I looked closer, I could make the image out and my heart started pounding. It was my bull! He had tucked himself deep in amongst the heavy oaks and junipers. I could hardly control myself as I got my friends' attention. As we approached him, we could not believe the body size supporting this truly magnificent rack. Not only was this animal nearly 900 pounds, he had the most unique rack I have ever seen. His left side was enormous, carrying what could be a 380” bull. The right side was deformed but had so much character with 10 total points. Our emotions were out of control at this point. Hugs were in order, prayers of thanks were given and many tears were shed. Once we calmed down, it was time for pictures before the real work began.
This is largest bull of my career, grossing 353 4/8”. He is deformed on his right side which sports 10 total different sized points. He has very stubby g1 and g2 which caused him to lose over 28” of score-able points. This could have put my bull into the mid 370’s or possibly better! As I said earlier, this is not a unit known for producing large bulls.
Not only did this hunt get taken down to the wire, but I was able to share this time with my two great friends in God’s country. I could not have recovered this bull without the help of these two fine men and for that I am grateful. This elk is truly a bull of my lifetime!