Successful hunts don't have to hinge on accuracy of shots

A common misconception among the non-hunting public (and even some sportsmen) is that for a hunter to be successful, he or she must wrap a tag around an antler or horn.

Everyone would like to fill the tag they have and have a freezer full of meat, but the fact of the matter is that most of the time the animals win the battles - and hunters bring home their tags unfilled.

Recently, my lady friend Page McDonald and I hunted elk on the Camp Navajo Army Depot. This 45,000-acre storage area, established in 1942, is located at Belmont, which is between Parks and Flagstaff on the south side of I-40.

We thought we'd really hit the jackpot this year. Page, who had 10 bonus points, drew tag No. 1 for an any-elk hunt from Sept. 30 to Oct. 7.

There were only three tags issued to civilians for that hunt, which should have been at the end of the annual rut.

I applied for one of the two civilian antlerless elk tags offered at the same time, and as luck would have it, I drew tag No. 1.

With tags in hand, we decided that Page would hold out for a bull, while I concentrated on filling the freezer with tender elk meat. That was the plan, but as we all know, plans don't always work out the way we think they should.

You are allowed two assistants on these hunts, and Page enjoyed the help of good friend Jay Chan and Dave Bruns, who is one of my guides.

My two assistants were my brother Gary and good friend Joe Hererro, who was making his first trip to the depot.

We were lucky in that we met a couple of really good guys who were participating in the archery hunt for military personnel that was held just before our hunts started. Dale Farrish and Skip Holland became good friends in a short time and were a huge help to us in locating elk.

The problem, as we would find out, was that the elk rut seemed to be over and there wasn't much bugling going on.

The vast majority of the elk were also safely inside the limited area, which is closed to non-military personnel. No firearms can be used in this area.

Page and I made sure that our rifles were sighted in before we left for the hunt. We made several trips to the 7 Mile Hill Range, and on our last trip Page shot a four-shot group with her .260-caliber Remington Mountain rifle that measured just over five inches at 200 yards.

I used my venerable Mark V Weatherby in .300 Weatherby Magnum. Both rifles were topped with high quality Leupold scopes.

I got lucky on the second day of the hunt and bagged a young cow, so we have meat for the winter.

Page had a couple of encounters with bulls while with Chan and Bruns, and on the third morning of the hunt, she had an incident that every hunter fears.

We heard three bulls calling at the crack of dawn in the buffer area, a place where we could hunt, and Jay and Page headed in to work them before they crossed into the limited area.

I could hear the bulls bugling while Jay was calling to them. Then I heard a shot and just knew Page had got a bull - but she hadn't, even though the bull was just 112 yards away, standing motionless and broadside.

We tracked the bull after the shot for almost half a mile before he jumped the fence and went back inside the limited area.

There was no sign of a hit.

Befuddled, we went back to camp, where Page shot her rifle off a bench at 100 yards. Two shots were almost touching, but they were more than 7 inches low. Jay tried to adjust the scope, but it was inoperable.

Between the day we checked the rifle at the 7 Mile Hill Range and the third day of her hunt, the scope had been bumped and had broken. She used my gun for the remaining four days of her hunt, and while she saw elk every day, she never fired a shot and in the end brought her tag home unfilled.

But the experience that we all shared was awesome.

We saw black bears and the largest flock of Merriam gobblers I have ever seen. There were 35 jakes and longbeards in one group.

We saw elk, mule deer, squirrels and birds of prey.

The weather was cold and clear, perfect for hunting, and the friends that were with us were the best.

It was a long, hard hunt for Page, who is 72 years young, but she was ever the trooper - up at 4 a.m. each day and not getting to bed to 9 or 10 p.m. each night.

We tried to spot and stalk elk, and we even made a really cool blind where she sat for two mornings.

The last evening, we worked two bulls that at one point got close enough for us to hear them and the cows that were with them, but due to the thick brush we never saw them.

We all agreed that this was truly a successful hunt in every sense of the word.

While Page didn't wrap her tag around some bull's antlers, she shared the experience of hunting bull elk in the ponderosa pine forest of northern Arizona.

Those experiences we shared will stay with us forever and will be talked about around campfires for years to come.