This fall has produced a lot of critters that are in local hunters’ freezers and at taxidermy shops, but hunts don’t always end with a critter being taken by a sportsman.
After all it is called hunting and not killing. While every hunter, myself included, will tell you going in that they won’t be the one with an unfilled tag, the fact of the matter is, and it can and will happen to all of us.
Does that mean that if a tag isn’t filled that it has been an unsuccessful hunt?
I submit it does not.
There is more to hunting that just wrapping a tag through the gambrel of an antelope, deer, javelina or elk.
We celebrate not because we have taken the life of an animal, but because we have shared an experience with friends and family and we are putting meat on the table. Plus, we have been part of the conservation effort that is overseen by wildlife agencies such as the Arizona Game & Fish Department.
Each year the department issues a limited number of tags for any given big game species. They utilize sportsmen to remove what they consider to be the excess of a species. It is part of the total conservation process.
I want to share with you a recent hunt that ended not with a freezer full of elk meat, but of a hunt filled with a lot of hard work and effort that demonstrates that sometimes, no matter what you do, or how you do it, you just don’t fill a tag.
This year, I had encouraged my friend, Golden Valley resident Bill Schleeter, to apply for the same elk tag that I did, an antlerless tag in Game Management Unit 10. Bill, who has hunted elk just one time previously in Unit 9, wasn’t interested in antlers. He just wanted to fill up his freezer with elk meat.
Bill also wanted to share his hunting experience with his 9-year-old grandson, Holden. Holden is an exceptionally bright young man who wanted to see what this hunting thing was all about.
Lady Luck smiled on Bill when he drew one of the 800 antlerless tags offered up for the early hunt in Unit 10, which is a massive unit that borders the Hualapai Reservation on the west, Cataract Canyon on the north, and actually goes east all the way to Highway 64 north of Williams.
It is a mixture of state and private lands, and two major ranches dominate the landscape in Unit 10, The Big Boquillas Ranch, and the Babbitt Ranch.
Both allow sportsmen access to hunt on their ranches, though the Big Bo charges considerably more than does Babbitt.
Since 1972, my staff and I have had the opportunity to either hunt or assist other sportsmen hunt on the Big Bo ranch for elk, deer, antelope and predators. I think it is fair to say that most of the time our hunters were successful in putting a tag on a critter when they hunted with us.
Under the current ranch rules, those who want to hunt antlerless elk on the Big Bo pay a $50 fee and are given one free assistant permit, while others who want to help out on this hunt also have to pay a $50 fee. These access fees generate in excess of $150,000 yearly for the ranch to help pay for improvements and maintenance on water lines and other ranch infrastructure.
This year, Jay Chan was designated as the assistant for Schleeter. I would buy a permit for Tad Levandowski for the hunt, which I didn’t really think would go longer than a couple of days based on our past experience.
Sharing our camp were Kingman residents Travis Allman and his friend, Aaron Davis. Aaron had drawn an elk tag, too, and Travis was going to help him out.
The hunt started out as most do. We scouted a couple of days before. Allman had been up in the same area in late August on an archery antelope hunt where he took a neat buck with his bow. He had photos of a good number of cow elk in the area we planned to hunt.
On the day before the hunt opened, Schleeter and I looked at some of the areas we would go.
We saw antelope and coyotes, and right before sundown, we spotted a single 6x6 bull elk. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a pattern we would see over and over again for the next week.
Aaron wasn’t able to be in camp with Travis on opening day, but Travis decided to go out and scout in the same area we were going to hunt.
Opening morning Bill, Holden and I were on one glassing point, while Tad and Travis were on another.
Smoke from some fires near Flagstaff permeated the area, and at sunrise, a smoky haze was everywhere. As I was glassing I got a call from Tad. They had found a small group of elk.
We started to move towards their location when I spotted movement out on a faraway hillside. It was four antelope and a herd of 35 elk. There were 32 cows/calves and three bulls in the group, which I assumed had been spooked by other hunters.
I watched them run over a hill, but we never saw them again.
When we got to the glassing point where Tad and Travis were at, they said the elk had moved into a small canyon several miles away.
I was designated as the “eye in the sky” as the group moved down towards the canyon where the elk were last seen.
Turned out those elk just seemed to vanish. I saw a big bull and a group of nine mule deer come out of the canyon, but we didn’t see the elk.
Oh well, that happens sometimes.
Jay joined us later in the day. Travis had glassed up a small group of 7 elk bedded just below a mesa a few miles from camp. There were six cows and calves and one big bull with them.
Aaron still had not got to camp, so we decided to have Bill take a crack at them. A plan was made to get Bill and Holden up to the area where the elk were at.
Once we arrived, Travis, Bill and Holden went to the edge of the mesa and got set up for a shot. Bill did get two shots, but the range of the bedded elk was much farther than they thought.
The hunt would continue.
Saturday, Travis was joined by Aaron and Lady Luck smiled on them when Travis found another group of elk in essentially the same spot as he had on Friday. Aaron was able to bag his elk.
In the meantime, we continued to look for elk; and though we found them, they were always a mile or two away, and we just couldn’t get close enough for a shot. It was a pattern that would be with us for the entire hunt. For seven days we hunted, and with the exception of one day, spotted elk. Mostly what we saw were bulls, and not the antlerless elk we sought.
On the last morning of the hunt, we got lucky when I glassed up a spike bull. I watched as he started to move through the trees when I noticed a much larger bull in front of him. And behind the two was a yearling cow.
Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t get to within range of them. The big bull led them to the safety of the Hualapai Reservation.
Bill had enough. The effects of the previous day’s six and a half-mile hike, plus the three-mile hike we had just made were causing both of us some issues. Remember, we are both in our 60s.
I told Bill we should stay for the last evening hunt, but he declined. So we started to pack up camp to leave.
In a touch of irony, shortly after Bill left camp, I got visits from a hunter who told me he was scouting for an upcoming deer hunt up there. He asked if we had been elk hunting and I told him we had.
He said that he and his son had been glassing at a spot that we had looked at no less than four times during the weeklong hunt. And just that morning they saw two bulls and two cows and knew where they were.
I tried to call Bill to get him to come back, but in the area he was in there was no service.
In the end, Schleeter didn’t fill his tag, but we had a heck of a fun time, sharing camp and stories and planning each day’s adventures.