Zumbo's Elk Adventures

More than 30 years of elk hunting have produced a lifetime of campfire stories--some silly, some scary and some simply outrageous.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

The elk tracks in the snow were smoking hot. At least five bulls were just ahead, and I knew it would be only a matter of minutes before we could spot them. An hour of tracking had kept my adrenaline up, and I was ready for something to happen.

Suddenly, a patch of brush erupted in snow and antlers. I caught a glimpse of a big bull, but couldn't get on him in time. Then all hell broke loose as bulls appeared everywhere, scattering in all directions like a flushing covey of quail.

I had hoped to get a good look at the bunch while they were undisturbed and then take the best, but the chaos surrounding me required a split-second decision. One of the bulls was confused and ran my way. The elk was so close his chest filled the scope, and he went down at the shot.

He wasn't the biggest bull I'd ever taken, but he was one of the most significant. A lifetime quest was now fulfilled. The Arizona elk tag in my pocket represented the last of the nine major elk states I'd hunted, along with Alberta and British Columbia, Canada's premier elk provinces.

With the Arizona hunt behind me, I couldn't help reflecting on my many adventures hunting elk -- some funny, some sad, some memorable, others I'd like to forget.

My first elk hunt was in Colorado, more than 30 years ago. Hunting with a couple of relatives and a bunch of locals, I was dumped off on top of a mountain after a wild ride in a Jeep. My host drew a rough map of the area in the dirt with his boot and left me to fend for myself in country I'd never been in before.

I can remember seeing a zillion elk tracks but no elk, yet the memory of the mule deer buck that almost ran me over is as clear as if it was yesterday. He was and still is the biggest buck I've seen in my life -- at least 35 inches wide and 30 inches high with five massive points on each side and more mass than you can imagine. Unfortunately, being a young forester working for meager wages, I couldn't afford both a nonresident deer license and an elk tag. Sadly, all I could do was stand there and watch him wander off.

A couple of days later I spotted an animal on a slope across from me. It appeared to be big and was the same color as an elk, so I logically assumed it was an elk. All I could see was part of its midsection; the rest of the animal was screened by brush. I quickly descended the slope, climbed the other side and drew within rifle range. Lying down on the ground, I glassed the animal with my binoculars and noted with approval that it was still there, but I couldn't see any more of its body. I had a bull tag, and needed to confirm I was looking at a bull and not a cow.

Suddenly I saw the tail. I hadn't seen it before, but now it swished back and forth. It took a microsecond to realize that elk don't have long tails, and another microsecond to conclude that I was looking at a horse. The animal was tied to some brush and only partially visible. You can imagine my disgust and disappointment. Not many people stalk horses. So much for my very first elk hunt.

One of my wildest elk hunts was in Alberta's Canadian Rockies. My hunting companion, Steve Ferguson, had won a fund-raising contest with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. I was invited along to write a story for the foundation's magazine, and I'd be able to shoot a bull, too. What a deal.

We'd be hunting elk that migrated out of Banff National Park, in the same area where Clarence Brown had shot the third-biggest bull in the world a few years before.

The late-November weather was brutally cold. One day we rode our horses up on a high ridge and had to bust through a four-foot snowdrift at the edge of the timber to get to a big opening that we had to cross. As soon as we left the shelter of the forest, we were hit by hurricane-force winds. The horses couldn't buck the wind, so we dismounted and led them, but only for a few minutes. The sshing wind was so strong it sucked our breath away, and actually pushed the horses. We had to scream to communicate, even though we were on the lee side of the horses and only a few feet apart. It wasn't long before we gave up and slipped back into the shelter of the timber. Later I learned the wind was blowing 100 miles per hour, and the temperature was 20 below zero.

We hadn't seen a single branch-antlered bull during the entire hunt, and with one day left, Pat Bates, our outfitter, reflected as to how nothing short of a miracle would turn up an elk. Because of the publicity surrounding Clarence Brown's trophy bull, more than a dozen camps were within a half-mile of our site.

On the last afternoon of our hunt, Pat suggested we try working a muskeg bottom near camp. Someone had seen tracks there, so it was worth a try even though other hunters routinely rode by the spot.

An hour before dark three bulls showed up, feeding at the edge of the timber. I couldn't believe it, and neither could Pat or Steve. One was a giant six-point. The other two were good bulls, one of them a seven-point that I'd try for once Steve took first shot at the big six-point.

After Steve hit his bull, I was stunned when my .30/06 misfired. I quickly rechambered another cartridge and once again heard the sickening click of the firing pin striking the primer but not detonating it. I knew in an instant what was happening. In the extended subzero temperature lubricant had gummed up in the bolt causing the firing pin to be sluggish. Lining up on the bull a third time, I tried again. This time the gun fired and I felt the reassuring thump of the old rifle in recoil and saw the bull stagger and go down.

That was a Cinderella story with an incredibly happy ending. The odds were woefully against us; it was the kind of scenario that makes one truly believe in miracles.

Not all my elk hunts have been during cold weather. Once I hunted in Idaho in mid-August with Nick Siefert, who worked as an editor for outdoor life at the time. The hunt unit was in the desert, and the temperature was over 100 degrees every day. We based out of my camp trailer, which we parked in a lovely campground next to a lake.

We hunted by slogging along in sand dunes that were a unique part of the landscape. The elk we hunted were allegedly raiding croplands, which was the reason for the hunt, but we never saw an elk or a fresh elk track, and neither did any of the other hunters we talked to. About the only living things we saw on that hunt were a rattlesnake, a couple of lonesome sage grouse and a bevy of bikini-clad women enjoying the beach by our campsite -- a bizarre hunt indeed.

Hunting with horses on one late- November hunt in Montana, our party rode 12 miles into the backcountry, intending to make a one-day excursion and ride out at night. In late afternoon, one of the hunters was supposed to tie our horses while we put on a drive. The plan was to meet at the horses after shooting light was over and ride out.

Jack Atcheson Sr., a well-known booking agent; Vin Sparano, former Editor-in-Chief of outdoor life; and I were standers on the drive. The outfitter, Keith Rush, and his guides tried to run elk by us. The plan didn't work, but that was just a minor disappointment compared to our surprise when we discovered that our horses were gone.

The deep powder snow offered no clues to their trail, since elk, moose, deer and horse tracks were everywhere. Vin, Jack and I started walking out in the dark, while the outfitter and guides looked for the missing horses. It was bitterly cold, well below zero, and we pushed along, making little headway.

About two hours later, Keith rode up and pointed out an interesting fact.

"You guys are headed for Ideyho," he said. "Camp is in Montana."

Jack dug out his compass, while I walked out into a small opening and found the Big Dipper that pointed to the North Star. Keith was right. We indeed were headed to "Ideyho," walking south instead of north.

About 2 a.m., after many more hours of walking through deep snow and brutal cold, we saw a campfire on a distant ridge. There we found our missing horses. Vin promptly kissed his, but the adventure was far from over. On the way out that night, my horse slipped on an icy trail and went down. I bailed out of the stirrups, but the horse rolled over my leg and twisted my ankle. Vin suffered a scratched cornea when an unseen branch stabbed his eye. For the remainder of the hunt, I was crippled and Vin was half-blind. I did manage to hobble within range of a five-point muley, but the elk remained elusive.

One of my biggest disappointments happened on a hunt with my son Dan more than 20 years ago. It was the last day of the season, and we hunted an area in Utah that had few elk, particularly on the public land we hunted. Dan was too young to hunt, but he talked me into going that day.

I drove up the mountain long before sunup, pessimistic about our chances of seeing even a fresh elk track. In those days, people who were lucky enough to shoot a spike bull drove up and down Main Street all day with the bull in the pickup, proudly showing off their prize.

I wasn't surprised when our efforts were in vain, and I was out of ideas after hunting most of the morning. Then I talked to some pals who claimed they'd seen elk tracks near a livestock watering hole down in the lower-elevation cedar forests. I was skeptical because I'd never heard of elk in that dry country.

Nonetheless, we checked it out, and there were indeed some elk tracks in the dust. Dan tagged along behind as I hiked into the forest, and within 200 yards we startled a cow and a calf. I was amazed. Just seeing any elk was a major triumph.

Moments later I spotted an elk bedded under a cedar tree. The branches of the tree were low enough that they obscured much of the animal's head. Slowly I reached for the binoculars hanging around my neck, but they weren't there. I'd forgotten them.

I raised my rifle and looked at the elk's head through my scope. I thought I saw antlers, but couldn't be sure. I lowered the rifle, raised it again and was almost positive I saw antlers, but I still wasn't certain.

Suddenly the animal bound out of its bed, and I saw huge antlers. Unfortunately, my rifle was down and by the time I shouldered it the bull had leaped over a small ledge and was out of sight. I never saw the elk again.

I couldn't believe it. That bull was enormous, and he was bedded within 200 yards of a road that was constantly traveled by hunters who had to pass the spot on their way up the mountain from town. I'm sure the binoculars would have allowed me to confirm annto a small opening and found the Big Dipper that pointed to the North Star. Keith was right. We indeed were headed to "Ideyho," walking south instead of north.

About 2 a.m., after many more hours of walking through deep snow and brutal cold, we saw a campfire on a distant ridge. There we found our missing horses. Vin promptly kissed his, but the adventure was far from over. On the way out that night, my horse slipped on an icy trail and went down. I bailed out of the stirrups, but the horse rolled over my leg and twisted my ankle. Vin suffered a scratched cornea when an unseen branch stabbed his eye. For the remainder of the hunt, I was crippled and Vin was half-blind. I did manage to hobble within range of a five-point muley, but the elk remained elusive.

One of my biggest disappointments happened on a hunt with my son Dan more than 20 years ago. It was the last day of the season, and we hunted an area in Utah that had few elk, particularly on the public land we hunted. Dan was too young to hunt, but he talked me into going that day.

I drove up the mountain long before sunup, pessimistic about our chances of seeing even a fresh elk track. In those days, people who were lucky enough to shoot a spike bull drove up and down Main Street all day with the bull in the pickup, proudly showing off their prize.

I wasn't surprised when our efforts were in vain, and I was out of ideas after hunting most of the morning. Then I talked to some pals who claimed they'd seen elk tracks near a livestock watering hole down in the lower-elevation cedar forests. I was skeptical because I'd never heard of elk in that dry country.

Nonetheless, we checked it out, and there were indeed some elk tracks in the dust. Dan tagged along behind as I hiked into the forest, and within 200 yards we startled a cow and a calf. I was amazed. Just seeing any elk was a major triumph.

Moments later I spotted an elk bedded under a cedar tree. The branches of the tree were low enough that they obscured much of the animal's head. Slowly I reached for the binoculars hanging around my neck, but they weren't there. I'd forgotten them.

I raised my rifle and looked at the elk's head through my scope. I thought I saw antlers, but couldn't be sure. I lowered the rifle, raised it again and was almost positive I saw antlers, but I still wasn't certain.

Suddenly the animal bound out of its bed, and I saw huge antlers. Unfortunately, my rifle was down and by the time I shouldered it the bull had leaped over a small ledge and was out of sight. I never saw the elk again.

I couldn't believe it. That bull was enormous, and he was bedded within 200 yards of a road that was constantly traveled by hunters who had to pass the spot on their way up the mountain from town. I'm sure the binoculars would have allowed me to confirm an