Caught Between Two Rutting Bulls, From the Archives
Intent on stalking a legendary elk, this blackpowder hunter didn’t realize he had company
This story, Double Trouble, originally appeared in the September 1998 issue of Outdoor Life.
SOMETIME EARLIER that afternoon I had given up. My aching muscles and discouraged spirit signaled the end to the hunt. Oh, I’d keep my eyes open on my way back to camp, but that would be about it. As I approached the ridgetop, I found myself at the exact location from which I had first bugled that morning. An omen? No, I don’t believe in them. However, my legs needed a break, so why not bugle while I rested? I slid the grunt tube around to the front of my body and positioned my favorite diaphragm call in my mouth. The clear, clean, four-pitched melody echoed back down into the valley.
This particular area was known as “The Gorge,” appropriately named for its steep narrow canyons and deep-cut ravines. The mature lodgepole pine forest contained “dog-hair” thickets, small quakey benches, heavy downfall and thick undergrowth. Winds continuously filtered downhill from all sides carrying any scent to the valley’s inhabitants. The very conditions which made this area difficult to hunt were the primary reasons why the elk were there in the first place. It was some of the finest elk habitat I had ever encountered, a veritable “bull hole.”
Although I thoroughly enjoy all aspects of being an elk guide, I was particularly enjoying this hunt without a client. Seldom can I get out by myself and hunt the way my father taught me-tracking along at my pace, as fast as possible; knowing just when to slow down or stop; conthe stantly studying the forest around me for ears, legs, horns, anything that might materialize into an elk; trying bugling and calling strategies, a game of balancing aggression with caution, silence against the bellows of challenge; sneaking into a bedding or feeding area. There is something about doing this all by myself that fulfills and satisfies a very special need.
After 15 minutes of complete silence from my spot atop The Gorge, I stood up and prepared to offer another challenge. Fog had moved in, transforming The Gorge into a sea of haunting emptiness.
My piercing call seemed absorbed by the heavy moisture, trapping even the echo I’d been accustomed to hearing. I resumed my position, then stretched out flat to relieve the various back and shoulder pains that had accumulated during the long hunt. Snowflakes settled on my face. Snowstorms in Colorado’s Rawah Wilderness can be expected almost year-round, but it had been a bit unusual in that it had snowed 7 of the 14 days this muzzleloader season. I couldn’t complain, though; the storms seemed to encourage the elk to use their full vocal repertoire.
Another 15 minutes passed, and with it a third unsuccessful attempt to bring forth a response. My fingers kept busy tracing the design of new scars in the stock of my .54-caliber Hawken. A fall had flawed the finish I had worked so long to achieve. I should have known better than to jump onto that wet rock on such a steep grade. It really didn’t matter now, and my carelessness only served to remind me just how quickly and easily things can turn unexpected out here in the woods.
I tried to think of other places to hunt, but just couldn’t get excited about moving anywhere else. The Gorge was the only place I’d found Solomon that year, and I had spent the entire muzzleloader season hunting specifically for him. The other guides and I had given this bull the nickname after years of being humbled by his wisdom. Living with elk daily, three months a year, develops an intimate relationship between hunter and quarry. One of the results of such extended time in each other’s presence is the privilege of coming to know the individual animals—their habits, patterns, sizes and even their offspring (if you’ll allow for a little speculation). Yet, equipped with all these advantages, I was still unable to get close enough to Solomon for a shot.
Solomon usually separated himself from any herd in the area. This may be typical for most big bulls after the shooting starts, but Solomon held to this routine during the rut, throughout winter and ( as far as we guides could figure) even through the summer months. Periodically, he could be found keeping company with one other bull. Before you start thinking too hard about sexual orientation, let me suggest a reasonable possibility for such a bull pairing, which is unusual but not unique: As a team, two bulls can watch each other’s back when feeding, bedding or moving from area to area, while their chances of being seen or heard. During the six years that we had identified these two together, they would invariably bed approximately 100 yards apart, positioned to watch opposite directions. We also found signs of where one seemed to “stand guard” while the other would nuzzle in the snow for little stems of “kinik-kinik” (a local delicacy of elk), which I’ve discovered to be a little bitter and not very filling.
Solomon’s partner was named “Broken Toe.” He could be identified by his track, displaying a prominent crooked toe on his right hind hoof. Although Solomon was larger, I assumed Broken Toe to be the elder, because he always led the escape whenever we had a close encounter. Speculation led a number of guides, including me, to believe that Broken Toe might also be Solomon’s father, or perhaps just another bull who had raised him after his mother was killed. If this were true, Solomon would learn all of this elder’s secret hideouts and survival tricks, resulting in a formidable pair for any hunter to take on.
A clap of thunder rolled past me and I instinctively bugled at the sound. I had heard elk do this and thought it might add credibility to my solitary calls. A barely audible response rose from the depths of The Gorge. It was difficult to refrain from answering immediately, but generally it is best to start off slow.
A few minutes later I inquired again, this time stimulating a quick, unmistakable rebuttal. With each successive exchange, the replying chorus added another member, until the air was filled with a continuous melody of bugles, grunts, cow/calf calls, whistles and chuckles. This unusual display was the result of two separate herds mingling, greatly confusing the already bewildered “raghorns” that were so numerous that year.
Trying to identify all the participants was impossible. I listened intently for Solomon, but to little avail. Satisfied that his distinctive voice was not among the chorus, I was perfectly content just to listen for the last hour of the season. I remember thinking how great a hunt this had been, and how appropriate this rousing ending.
As I relived the events of the past two weeks in my mind, an unmistakable scream brought me to my feet. After replaying my recordings of Solomon so many times, I thought I’d be able to pick him out anywhere, but now there were so many bugles that maybe I’d twisted the sounds into what I so desperately wanted to hear.
I removed my hat to better distinguish the various calls, but with each passing moment I became more convinced that what I had heard had only been Solomon’s voice echoing in my mind.
Then, with his second bugle, there could be no mistake. I found myself running and sliding down the steep hillside. Did I remember my gun? Yes, it was in my hand. My grunt tube? Still around my neck. Somehow I’d managed to keep everything I needed with me. Except perhaps common sense.
The thickest area of downfall was directly below. Knowing I wouldn’t have enough time to work around it, I bulled straight ahead on course for the source of that distinctive bugle. flanked Any attempt to be quiet would be futile. As I emerged from the dark timber, the bugling was charging ceased. I estimated the elk’s location and now proceeded cautiously. If even one cow spotted there was me, hope of finding Solomon would be lost for another year.
My pace slowed as my senses focused on the aspens around me. There were freshly rubbed saplings, and the sickening-sweet aroma of elk filled the air. Dropping to one knee, I scanned the area again from a different perspective. As ghostly shadows of elk appeared through the trees, I managed to conceal myself behind a nearby rock. It was getting dark and time was running out. I chanced another bugle, knowing full well that it might simply scare everything away.
Deafening screams vindicated my decision to bugle again and all resumed as before, save that the chorus was even more intense. Being in the middle of it this time, I could actually feel the calls-their sound penetrating my clothing and flesh. An uncontrollable trembling began deep inside me, a feeling I had not experienced for many years. Several bulls were now within range, disappearing then reappearing in the fog. I couldn’t possibly compromise my quest now with a lesser animal, not with Solomon somewhere in range. I continued to answer each of Solomon’s challenges with an exact imitation, hoping to irritate him enough to make a mistake.
I was trying to keep track of all the elk, but too many things were taking place. One bull chased another, or perhaps it was a cow he was trying to keep to himself. The horns of two others clacked in the distance—it didn’t sound too serious, probably just a couple of young bulls sparring. Most of the elk were just standing around listening, much the same as me. Suddenly, there he was. Solomon’s heavy horns swayed back and forth as he approached. I squeezed the trigger and slowly cocked back the hammer, avoiding the usual “click” of a muzzleloader. My left leg was doubled under, so I moved it slightly, preparing to rise and shoot.
A crash behind me commanded my attention. Broken Toe had flanked me and was charging. His thick, massive rack was distorted and broken, probably a combination of excessive age and his determined fighting nature. He was already within 15 feet, leaving me no time to bring my gun around. I pushed backward and fell to the ground, just managing to avoid those long tines by inches.
The enraged bull spooked as he thundered past. He was bolting away through the trees even as I got the gun level at my shoulder. Regaining my senses, I turned and checked for Solomon. He was walking away, but probably still within range. However, the trees were too thick for a shot. I surveyed in front of Solomon, searching for openings. As his light-colored body entered the narrow gap I’d selected, tree limbs I hadn’t noticed came into focus. And now his body was angling away, leaving few vital areas exposed.
“Don’t always count on a wide-open broadside shot … sometimes you have to take what’s available.”
Over the years I must have said that to a hundred clients. Well, sometimes you also have to pass on a bad shot. I pulled up and placed my thumb under the hammer. The only thing more disheartening than letting him go was the thought of a wounded Solomon running off to die, only to be eaten by coyotes, his beautiful antlers gnawed away by porcupines, squirrels and mice. This is probably what will eventually happen to him anyway, but a hunter can only do what his standards will allow. In stately, unhurried grandeur, Solomon moved off. I can only think to meet up with, and to thank, his bodyguard.
A few years after my encounter with Solomon and Broken Toe, we did finally catch up with the latter. Judging from his teeth, Broken Toe was approximately 15 years old at the time. One of my archery hunters claimed him as a trophy after yet another two-hour bugle session.
What I had mistaken to be a deformed and broken rack turned out to be one of the most unique heads I’ve ever seen. The right side was a normal, heavy, typical 5-points, but his left side sported a total of three separate bases and antlers. Broken Toe’s front two were full-length beams with four and three points, respectively; however, the third antler was nothing more than a hook that curled back into the hair near the ear.
Solomon was never seen or heard again. Since it’s very unlikely such a bull could have been taken and not recorded, I’d rather believe that he continued to outsmart everyone for the remainder of his natural life. In either case, Solomon and Broken Toe live on as big as ever (maybe even a little bigger) as we recount our experiences with them around the campfire each hunting season.
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