For some the mention of “paradise” might bring to mind visions of palm trees, blue waters, sandy beaches, a laid back chair with umbrella and coconut drink in hand. That’s ok if you want to remember the time you slowed your heart to boredom level and get a sunburn. For the rest of us, it might be something like an early rifle bull elk tag in Arizona’s high country! That’s exactly what my good friend Ryan Cluff said he had when he called me on the phone!
“No way!” I kept telling him. Ryan had never taken an elk before. Now he had one of the most coveted elk tags in the world. His permit had only a 1% chance of draw and he drew it without any bonus points. I assured him he was one of the luckiest guys there was, and he might think about picking up a lottery ticket or two. Plans were made and soon the hunt had arrived. Ryan informed me that he was left with limited time to hunt and that his main goal was to take his first elk. I assured him taking an elk would not be a problem, and his tag was about which elk he was going to take. We had scouted many bulls that fit into the “jaw dropping huge” category. Now it was just a matter of, could we find one of them before Ryan’s trigger finger started to itch.
Ryan’s cousin, Dale, would come along to help out and to enjoy a little paradise of his own. When shooting light arrived on opening morning we had talked Ryan into holding out for “really huge” or “big and unique.” For those who haven’t witnessed the elk rut in Arizona, try to imagine lots of really big bulls running around through the trees and the meadows. All of them screaming their brains out as they try to kill each other over who gets a chance at the cows. And that’s just the satellite bulls!
We checked meadow after meadow and flowed through dark timber with herds of rutting elk. Ryan passed bull after beautiful bull. Dale and I only had to threaten to take his bullets away a couple of times. By noon the elk had settled into their beds and weren’t responding well to our calls. We were tired and although there was a small road where we were, we were a long way from the truck. There were still bulls in that area that we hadn’t gotten a look at yet. Plans were made to return and we set off for the truck. During lunch at camp, we recalled the morning’s hunt. Ryan talked about how it was truly an elk hunter’s paradise. He had passed up easy shots at 16 different bulls! He let me know that the majority of those would have made him very happy. But now, he was realizing what kind of tag he had drawn. By three o’clock we had found our way back into the little two track road where we left our sleeping bulls.
We stepped from the truck into a lazy afternoon. The air was thick with the smell of warm spruce and ferns. Sun rays broke through the timber and baked the forest undergrowth. It seemed such a different place compared to the frenzied bull screaming, hearth pounding, elk stinking, bushwacking foot race that engulfed the area that morning. We stretched, yawned and began to gather our gear for the afternoon hunt. Of course, the first thing I grabbed was my bugle tube. I let out a soft lazy bugle to match the presence of the evening. Immediately an answer came back. A bull that hadn’t given us the time of day all morning, was exactly where we had left him. I hit him with a couple of cow calls. He answered me right away and we could tell that he had gotten up. We frantically got our stuff together and Dale tried to ready the video camera. “Hurry guys, hurry! He’s coming down the road! Hurry! He’s coming fast!” We made it a full 15 yards from the truck. Dale was trying to get the camera on. Ryan was loading his gun. I held my binos to my eyes, my call to my mouth, and the bull was rounding the corner. Ryan got his gun to his shoulder, the camera came on, and the bull stepped out at 80 yards still on our little two track road. The bull gave us a “that’s not what I was looking for” type look, then turned off the road to leave. That was the first good look I had at his rack. I knew he fell into the “big and unique” category so I hit him with another cow call and said “Shoot him!” BANG! The bull went down. “Shoot him again!” The bull tried to get up. BANG! Down he went again. It all happened so fast that “Dude” was all that Dale could say.
The air began to cool, the birds began to sing, the handshakes were firm, the high fives were many, the pictures were great, and the truck was backed up to the bull. We were headed in by four o’clock to relax and enjoy a beautiful Arizona sunset. A day in paradise? We think so. I’m sure most of the people reading this would too. Ryan’s first bull had 24” swords with cheaters coming off of both and 27” whale tails. He was high, wide and heavy. And like Ryan said he was worth holding out for, even if it was only for half a day.