Confessions of an Elkoholic

A renowned big-game hunter admits to only one addiction-hunting elk.

A native of Montana, Jack Atcheson Sr. is the founder of Atcheson & Sons, one of the top-rated hunt booking agencies in the world. He is also a lifelong hunter who has traveled the world in search of all types of game. Here, in his own words, are tales of hunting his favorite-the elk of the American West.

When I was 15, I set off on my own, going to work for a lumber company and living alone in a tent in the Montana woods for a few years. That might sound rough for a boy, but in those days men started life early.

My idea of a big weekend has always been to go hunting-especially for elk. I'll never forget my first one. A group of us were over by Anaconda, Mont., in a place called Dry Creek. I walked into a meadow and unexpectedly spooked some elk. They bolted, heads up and hooves thundering. I flung up my old .270 and shot and shot. That's how I got my first elk, a fat young bull.

I wasn't a very good student in school-except in geography and biology, things that had to do with the land and wildlife. One Christmas I enrolled in a mail-order taxidermy course and wound up spending all of my homework time mounting birds and small game.

I hunted every day I could. I talked to hunters and guides and read hundreds of books about animals and the places they lived. For as long as I can recall, I've been gathering information on animals and where to hunt them.

I got out of the army in the early 1950s and worked odd jobs around Butte for a few years. People kept asking me where to go hunting, because they knew I hunted all the time and figured I must know some pretty good places. In 1955, deciding there was enough money in it to live on, I finally went full-time into the taxidermy and hunt-booking business. I've enjoyed a lot of success, but let me tell you, cash was tight in the early years. We had one vehicle, a 1956 Ford. You'd be surprised where you can go in a car if you have a good set of chains and put plenty of weight in the back end.

[pagebreak] One time a friend and I were hunting and shot two large six-point elk. We hung them on a pole between two trees, and I backed the Ford beneath them. The plan was to lower one bull, slow and easy, on top of the car, then lower the other elk onto the trunk. However, the pulley broke and both elk came crashing down onto the Ford. One bull landed squarely on the driver's side, smashing the top of the car in.

Luckily, I am not a tall person and was able to drive all the way home slouched in the seat-one bull riding on the caved-in roof and the other tied across the trunk. It didn't bother me much, but the Ford belonged to my wife. Some things are hard to explain.

The Butter Knife Bull
Some years ago near Gardiner, Mont., elk hunting was open every weekend through the end of February. Needless to say, that is where I spent all my spare time. There were some big bulls hanging out on the high ridges above the Yellowstone River. Around three o'clock each morning my hunting companion, Jerry Manley, and I would start the long trek up. Depending on the snow, it would take three to five grueling hours to get to the elk.

One morning we got a late start, but as it was bitter cold, way below zero, many elk had come down a big mountain near Trail Creek. Only a couple of hours into the climb I spotted a couple of truly giant bulls. One of them I will never forget. His royal points were about 25 inches long and flat like butter knives. There was no mistaking that elk. Suddenly, he whirled and was gone, heading for the high country with Jerry and me in hot pursuit.

We followed a maze of tracks for hours and eventually crested a rise where we could peek over into Bassett Creek. There we spotted a herd of about 200 cows and 40 bulls moving along a ridge just a couple hundred yards away. Most of the bulls were 5 by 5s, except for two, which were exceptional six-points. They wereasily record-class bulls, but neither one was as large as the Butter Knife Bull.

"Those two bulls are the biggest ones we're gonna get," said Jerry. "We're running out of time, and all this climbing is killing us."

[pagebreak] The rising sun turned the snow a delicate pink, and beads of frost glittered like diamonds on the trees. It was beautiful. The elk walked single file, streams of breath shooting out 2 feet from their nostrils. We decided to shoot the six-points. But just as we settled in to shoot, a gust of wind blew the snow around, forming a brief whiteout. When the snow cleared the bulls were gone.

"I don't think the Butter Knife Bull came up this far anyway," I said to Jerry. "You head back down one ridge, I'll hike down the other, and we'll meet up at the bottom at dark. We might jump him somewhere between us."

I laced on my snowshoes and headed out. A half hour later I spotted elk moving toward me, less than 100 yards away. Fifty head emerged from the spruce timber, and the Butter Knife Bull was with them! Just then, I slipped on a patch of ice and took off down the slope. I'll never forget it. The wild-eyed elk turned and trotted parallel to me. I somersaulted and lost sight of the big bull, but I knew he was headed toward Jerry.

"He's coming," I hollered just as I slammed into a tree and ended up upside down in 4 feet of snow. Then I heard a single shot.

As luck would have it, an old hunter had driven his Jeep as far as he could up a two-track before stopping to build a fire. It turns out that's not a bad way to hunt. Jerry, who hiked toward the sound of the shot a few minutes later, found the guy with the Butter Knife Bull. "Not only did the old-timer shoot the elk, but it fell with its front feet in the fire," Jerry told me. I later heard that the bull scored 390.

The Magic White Bull
Roger Stradley was a phenomenal Super Cub pilot. All the Fish and Game people wanted him to fly them around when they did their game surveys because Roger never crashed. For years I figured Roger knew where the big elk were. One day I saw him in a diner and bought him a hamburger. We made small talk a while, before Roger asked me where I had been hunting the past few years. I told him. He almost choked on his fries and roared, "You're hunting where I've been seeing two of the biggest bulls in all my years of flying over the West."

One of the enormous elk lived in immense, rough country near Ennis, Montana. I called him the Magic White Bull. His hide was very light and was accentuated by his dark legs and mane. He was clever and had luck like you wouldn't believe. The white elk hung out with two other bulls. One of his buddies had a huge foot; the other had a broken hoof. I almost hated to find those tracks. Every time I did, I would follow them for miles. It became a wild obsession.

[pagebreak] One day, sneaking below the timberline, I spotted an elk bedded in the snow. It was the Magic White Bull. You couldn't miss those towering antlers! I figured if I moved closer, the elk might get up and go in a long jump. If I whistled to make him stand up, he might just crash away. The bull was close, so I decided to kneel and aim at the snow line where the point of his left shoulder should be. I fired and a cloud of snow blew up. I was sure I got him.

I ran over and found that the bull had vanished. He'd been lying behind a snow-covered log with a fresh bullet hole in it.

Another day it was incredibly cold and windy, about 42 below zero. Shivering on a mountainside, I spotted a trio of bulls ducking into some timber a couple hundred yards away. I aimed my rifle toward a strip of meadow on the other side of the trees and waited. Out came the elk-first an enormous bull, then another monster. The white bull always brought up the rear, so when the third elk cleared the trees, I fired. There was a big whump and down he went. Man, was I excited!

I started over to the elk and there, not 50 yards away in the timber, stood the white bull staring at me. I had never seen another bull traveling with the trio. The unlucky fourth one was a heck of a trophy with 56-inch main beams. But he couldn't compare with the three bulls I'd been hunting. All were record-class, and the white bull was near the top of the book.

That was my final opportunity to take the Magic White Bull. For eight years he drew me out on long hikes in rugged country. But I never got him.

A Last-Chance Bull?
I couldn't believe it. I had had a heart attack? There must be some mistake.

"No mistake," my doctors said. "And if you hadn't been so active, you would have had this heart attack twenty years ago." Doctors Hubbard and Corbett loved to hunt. Corbett particularly wanted to know which area I would recommend for hunting sheep. "I'll tell you after I come through the surgery," I responded.

Fortunately, things went well. Dr. Corbett saved me, then drew a sheep tag and shot a great ram that fall. As for me, I was hunting elk in Idaho again by September. That was in 1989.

[pagebreak] In 1994 I had another heart attack. I was told that I would have to cut back on my mountain hunting. I didn't like the idea. But after the success of my second surgery, the doctors changed their minds. I could still hunt elk.

That fall I hit all my secret spots in Montana and Idaho. I hunted for 33 days and passed up 35 legal bulls. I wanted a big 6 by 6. Although I was feeling well, a lot of people were concerned that I would wander off into the mountains and drop dead, and nobody would find me until the spring. But I wasn't pushing it. When you hunt slow and easy, you spot more elk.

One morning in Idaho I cut a huge track in the snow and decided to give the bull a run for his money. The elk moved slowly and I moved even more slowly. Six hours into the stalk I spotted a glint of sun reflecting off something inside a strip of timber. I froze, leaned left and saw brow tines.

When you spot a piece of an elk, the whole animal seems to pop into focus. The bull was bedded. I could see six points on one side, seven on the other. My only shot was through a hole the size of a business card between some limbs. I raised my .338 and fired. The bull never moved from his bed.

I walked to the animal, trembling and thinking, I've shot a lot of elk in my life, but this bull is as important to me as the first one I killed more than 50 years ago. I was, again, an elk hunter. It was something I feared I'd never get to be again just earlier that year. It's something I still am.

_Jack Atcheson Sr. has likely shot more trophy elk on public land than any other hunter in North America. Now retired, he lives imp and down he went. Man, was I excited!

I started over to the elk and there, not 50 yards away in the timber, stood the white bull staring at me. I had never seen another bull traveling with the trio. The unlucky fourth one was a heck of a trophy with 56-inch main beams. But he couldn't compare with the three bulls I'd been hunting. All were record-class, and the white bull was near the top of the book.

That was my final opportunity to take the Magic White Bull. For eight years he drew me out on long hikes in rugged country. But I never got him.

A Last-Chance Bull?
I couldn't believe it. I had had a heart attack? There must be some mistake.

"No mistake," my doctors said. "And if you hadn't been so active, you would have had this heart attack twenty years ago." Doctors Hubbard and Corbett loved to hunt. Corbett particularly wanted to know which area I would recommend for hunting sheep. "I'll tell you after I come through the surgery," I responded.

Fortunately, things went well. Dr. Corbett saved me, then drew a sheep tag and shot a great ram that fall. As for me, I was hunting elk in Idaho again by September. That was in 1989.

[pagebreak] In 1994 I had another heart attack. I was told that I would have to cut back on my mountain hunting. I didn't like the idea. But after the success of my second surgery, the doctors changed their minds. I could still hunt elk.

That fall I hit all my secret spots in Montana and Idaho. I hunted for 33 days and passed up 35 legal bulls. I wanted a big 6 by 6. Although I was feeling well, a lot of people were concerned that I would wander off into the mountains and drop dead, and nobody would find me until the spring. But I wasn't pushing it. When you hunt slow and easy, you spot more elk.

One morning in Idaho I cut a huge track in the snow and decided to give the bull a run for his money. The elk moved slowly and I moved even more slowly. Six hours into the stalk I spotted a glint of sun reflecting off something inside a strip of timber. I froze, leaned left and saw brow tines.

When you spot a piece of an elk, the whole animal seems to pop into focus. The bull was bedded. I could see six points on one side, seven on the other. My only shot was through a hole the size of a business card between some limbs. I raised my .338 and fired. The bull never moved from his bed.

I walked to the animal, trembling and thinking, I've shot a lot of elk in my life, but this bull is as important to me as the first one I killed more than 50 years ago. I was, again, an elk hunter. It was something I feared I'd never get to be again just earlier that year. It's something I still am.

_Jack Atcheson Sr. has likely shot more trophy elk on public land than any other hunter in North America. Now retired, he lives i