CAMERON, Arizona — Snow exploded from a small juniper and billowed into the churning winds, briefly hiding the bull elk that triggered the avalanche by banging its antlers into the tree’s burdened branches.
As the powdery cloud whirled clear of the bull, I recognized it as the modest 6-pointer I passed up two hours earlier on the canyon’s opposite hillside. Seconds later, a smaller bull with a spindly 4-point rack appeared 15 yards behind it.
I recognized that elk, too. They were the same pair of bulls I’d watched grazing at dawn on tufts of grass poking through snow left by overnight squalls. As the bulls fed downhill, I checked them with my 10-power binoculars while the gray light brightened. I then checked the distance with my rangefinder, and steadied my .30-06 atop its bipod to see if I could get a steady rest for a 300-yard shot at the larger bull.
After verifying the range and steadying the rifle once more, I sighed and sat back without touching the Winchester’s safety. The bulls moved downhill into thicker cover, never realizing they had been spared.
Why didn’t I shoot? Well, I had over six months to think about it. I figured this was a bonus hunt; one I had lucked into. I hunted the same early December season a year ago after drawing one of north-central Arizona’s coveted elk tags, and shot a wall-hanger of a 5-by-6-point bull on opening day.
It took at least eight years to draw that 2017 tag, so I never expected to draw the same tag this year. When a 2018 tag arrived in May, I stared in disbelief and logged onto the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s website to verify it wasn’t a mistake. Yep. It identified my application as “successful” for the early December bull-elk season.
I still wasn’t convinced, so I asked my wife if Arizona’s wildlife agency had billed our credit card for several hundred dollars. Penny went online, looked up recent activity in our bank account, and verified the transaction.
“Huh. Well, I guess I’m hunting elk in Arizona again this fall,” I said, still disbelieving my luck.
OK. Back to the hunt. While planning my second consecutive hunt in Arizona’s Kaibab National Forest, I decided I wouldn’t shoot unless I got a chance at a bull bigger than the one I shot in 2017.
That’s why I didn’t give into temptation at dawn on opening day last week. Even so, when the 6-pointer and 4-pointer reappeared two hours later 200 yards down the ridge from my post atop a rocky spire, I reinspected the bigger bull. It was tempting me a second time, and maybe my assessment would change with a better look at closer range.
But when I stood for a clearer look through white-crusted pines and junipers, a third elk stepped into view, causing the 4-pointer to scurry downhill about 20 yards. My heartbeat accelerated. Judging by that younger bull’s reaction, it feared the third elk.
I raised my binoculars again, wiped wet snow from their lenses, and studied the third elk as it strode slowly through the timber. Its body looked larger than the bulls I’d been watching, but I wasn’t ready to swap my binoculars for my rifle.
After getting a better look seconds later, I dropped the binos, grabbed my rifle and looked through the scope. The third elk was another bull, and its body and antlers were clearly bigger than my 2017 elk. The two smaller bulls edged aside submissively, keeping about 15 yards between themselves and the bigger bull when lowering their heads to resume grazing.
The bull was facing me head-on, and my rifle’s crosshairs circled and wavered on its brisket. I had no shot as I teetered on my tiptoes to get a clearer look at the bull’s chest. I needed a solid rest for the 225-yard shot.
Thinking I saw a shooting lane nearer the ground, I dropped onto my butt and snapped my shooting sticks into position between my outstretched boots. Still no shot. My aim was steady, but snow-burdened pine boughs blocked my shot to the bull’s vitals.
Scooching three yards to the left, I tried again, but it was futile. And then the bulls vanished into yet another squall. I stood and scampered 20 yards east, thinking it was the only way they could have gone without me noticing. But no bulls.
Scanning the thick brush and snow cover where I last saw them, I reconsidered. Maybe they had simply moved back down the hillside, retracing their route into the canyon below. Again I sat and watched, rifle poised atop my shooting sticks.
Now, however, the squalls were stronger, quickly filling my boot prints on the hillside behind me. Unless the bulls reappeared quickly, I’d never know how or where they disappeared. I never saw the big bull again that day, or the five days that followed.
In fact, I returned to that rock spire each day before dawn Dec. 1 to Dec. 5 to sit and glass for bulls from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but never saw another elk, large or small; male or female. One, however, walked behind me Dec. 5, passing about 75 yards into the woods. I know because I found its tracks in my boot prints from my trek in at dawn.
Despite high winds most days, single-digit temperatures some mornings, and few fresh tracks overnight to spur hope, I’ve remained optimistic throughout. Resident friends who often hunt this region assure me I’ve picked a good spot. As one told me in a midday phone call, “I can’t say I have a better suggestion than where you’re sitting now.”
And so I’ll give it one more try. As I write this column, my plan is to hunt Thursday till 10:30 a.m., and return to camp to repack the truck and head home. If I succeed, I’ll fill you in next week.
If I fail, I won’t bore you with the reasons or excuses. Besides, I’m satisfied. I hunted hard, and nearly got a crack at one of the biggest bull elk I’ve seen while hunting. I won’t soon forget that adrenaline rush.