Nothing spoils a promising elk stalk like cows staring directly at you. The big bull was about 100 yards away, but happily I couldn’t see any cows or calves, or even foot-stomping mule deer, in the thinly timbered basin. Clear sailing between me and that bull. I glassed him again through my binocular, and as I watched him, a voice in my head grew more and more urgent. “Oh my God, he is massive!”
Then, tension tightening with every step he took toward me, I heard my silent voice again, screaming this time. “He is going to walk right down to you! Be patient! Don’t look at his head! Do not call! He’s going to walk right to you! Be patient! Be patient!”
I pulled my rangefinder from my pocket and ranged a scrawny tree the bull had been raking when I first spotted him. It was just under 60 yards. Then I ranged the bull. He was about 90 yards away, slowly feeding and bugling along the top of the basin some 20 yards behind a smaller bull.
He’s about to turn and head for the tree, I said to myself. Not 10 seconds later he turned and slowly started down into the bowl. He ripped a knee-shaker of a bugle toward the other bull and stared my way. He then started on the line to my target tree. Eighty yards. Several minutes went by. Seventy yards. What seemed like a lifetime passed as he threw a few more bugles toward the other bull. He would lay his head back and growl and bugle. I remained calm and tried not to stare at his enormous rack.
The outside of my bow range is 60 yards, and I knew he was going to be at that threshold soon. While what seemed like hours ticked by, I thought about whether or not to shoot, weighing the pros and cons of taking a long shot at such a remarkable animal. Finally, I told myself that if he presented the perfect shot at that range, I would take it. One of the traits of longtime bowhunters is that we routinely talk ourselves out of situations that other hunters would consider layups. But the variables were coming together here, at this moment. I was confident that if this bull stood completely broadside, I could kill him.
I ranged him: 65…64…63…62…61…and as he stood broadside, with his head down and front shoulder forward, I decided it was now or never. I locked the release on the bowstring, raised my bow, and drew. He kept his head down, feeding, so I had a clean draw. I settled the 60-yard pin in the spot I picked, just behind the crease of his shoulder, and released the arrow. The sight of the green-and-black-fletched shaft streaking toward him will be etched in my mind forever.
My life as a hunter started with wood ducks in the hardwood bottomlands of the Minnesota River. It was encouraged by neighbors who helped me to my first whitetail. And it was helped along by my mother, an English teacher who might not have known that most of my time in the library was spent reading as many hunting and fishing magazines as I could get my hands on.
One of those magazines was the January 1960 issue of Outdoor Life. It contained an article, “High, Wide and Handsome,” by Fred Mercer, detailing how he hunted and killed the largest elk in Montana history up to that time. I dreamed of someday being able to hunt elk in the West, just like Mercer.
In 1988—the year of the devastating forest fires in Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere around the West—I got my chance to hunt Montana. I didn’t get an elk, but I got a great education on elk hunting and on the state. I was hooked on both, and in 1994, I moved there.
Over the years, I harvested several nice bulls with my bow and rifle. All but a couple of the bulls were killed on public land. That’s worth emphasizing. Public-land access is critical to my hunting partners and myself, along with most Montana elk hunters. My story would simply never have taken place without the opportunity to hunt public lands.
My God, That’s a Massive Bull
The most remarkable weekend of my life started on a down note. I work for the Montana Department of Transportation in Missoula as the area maintenance chief, and we were called out unexpectedly to assist the Highway Patrol with the investigation of an accident that resulted in a double fatality—a father and his young daughter.
I hadn’t planned on hunting that weekend. My hunting partner, Chad Tiffney, was unable to get away, and I had intended to wait for his schedule to clear. But I returned to my office from the accident investigation with a head full of bother. I looked at my schedule and decided that I could get away for the weekend and clear my mind.
So I spent that early-September Friday driving several hours east to a chunk of public land that isn’t known for trophy elk, but which had intrigued me ever since Chad and I discovered it—and some monster bulls living there—during a mule deer hunt. My head got clearer and clearer as the miles melted away, and I looked forward to a weekend of solo camping and archery elk hunting.
My plan was to hunt all day Saturday and Sunday and then return home Monday night. I pitched my spike tent, made a couple of sandwiches for the next day, and loaded my pack. I slept restlessly as I anticipated the day ahead. At 4 a.m., I slipped out of my sleeping bag, gathered my gear, and drove to a spot I had scouted in previous seasons. In the cool and still very dark September morning, I rolled down all the windows and just listened for a few minutes, hoping to hear that first bugle of the season. Nothing.
I listened for another 15 minutes, then gathered up my pack and my bow, and stepped over the fence onto National Forest land, noting that the constellation Orion the Hunter was overhead. Just then, a distant bugle pierced the still air.
I was about a mile into my hike toward a glassing spot—a high ridge with a good vantage point—when the first hint of sunrise appeared, along with the wind rising in the ponderosa pines. I heard a couple of distant bugles but couldn’t tell what direction they were coming from. I suspected the bulls were moving in the same direction I was going, so I was fairly confident I might catch up with them later in the morning. As I listened in the dawn light, I marveled at how green and lush the grass was, even into September. All this forage is bound to grow some good antlers, I thought to myself.
I had just reached the ridge when a strong bugle rang out not far from me, followed by a second bugle from a different bull. I started easing my way toward the bugles. When I reached the end of the ridge, I glassed below me, and not 400 yards away was the biggest bull elk I have ever laid eyes on. He was broadside to me in a small bowl, raking a young pine tree. I stared at him with my mouth hanging open, thinking, Oh my God, that’s a massive bull.
He was at least a 7×7, incredibly symmetrical, and his thirds were off-the-chart big. As I watched, a bull that was out of my sight line sounded off, and the big boy responded with a growly bugle. I just stared in awe of this monster, but then my senses returned, and I realized that the wind was directly in my face and that the bull was in the perfect spot for a stalk.
“I can get right on top of that bull if I play this right,” I whispered to myself. I glassed all around, trying to spot other elk or deer. Seeing none, I pinpointed the spot I wanted to reach, then I backed up the ridge. Once out of sight of the bull, I quickly closed the distance. I was headed to a gentle saddle on the right side of the bowl. If I could get to that spot undetected, then I was likely to be in bow range. As I approached the spot, I nocked an arrow and gingerly peaked over the top.
The bull wasn’t there. I told myself to stay. Something told me he was going to come back to that little tree. Just then, an elk ripped a strong bugle just out of sight, and shortly afterward, I spotted its source. A 310-class bull emerged at the top of the bowl. A nice-looking elk, but he was not what I was after. Not a minute later, the monster bugled and walked slowly up behind the smaller bull, and then took that lifetime working his way down to my target tree.
After the Shot
The sound of the arrow striking was the sound every bowhunter wants to hear—hollow and loud. The sound of an arrow in the boiler room. As the bull bolted straight uphill and away from me, I could see my arrow buried up to the fletching in his chest. Just as he topped the ridge crest, he stopped again, and then stumbled a bit as he went out of sight. I thought I heard a crash a couple of seconds later, but I couldn’t be sure. Then everything got eerily quiet, and that’s when it hit me.
My knees starting shaking uncontrollably. I had to sit down to process what had just transpired. I had spotted the biggest bull elk of my life. I had stalked into position, managed to get a good shot off, and might have just killed a true giant. I looked at my GPS: 9 a.m. I resolved to wait half an hour and then to crest the ridge to see if I could find the bull. I replayed the shot over and over in my head, wanting to reassure myself that the shot was true and trying to regain my composure. My hands were trembling so hard that I spilled Gatorade all down my shirt as I took a drink.
A lot went through my mind while I was waiting. What is my plan if he is dead? How am I going to quarter, bone, and cool the meat? How warm would the day get? How would I carry 400 pounds of meat by myself the 2 miles back to my truck? There’s nothing like fretting over meat you don’t yet possess to make the time fly. Before I knew it, 30 minutes had passed.
I worked my way toward where he was standing when I shot. No blood. No hair. But I knew the very spot where I last saw him, where he crossed the crest. I reached the ridge with my head down, looking for blood. Nothing. But when I raised my eyes, the first thing I saw was what looked like an elk rump and belly sticking up out of the tall grass.
I raised my bino and there he was. Stone-cold dead, his dark antlers sticking into the air. I slowly approached, in disbelief. My God, he was beautiful, a dream bull. Like a dream, it didn’t seem real. But my tears—of pent-up emotion, of gratitude, and of relief—were very real. I wiped them away, took a quick video with my cell phone, and then snapped some pictures of the bull on the ground and some really lame selfies. Then I got to work.
It was warming up, so I had no time to admire the giant. I knew he was big, but I really had no idea of his dimensions. My initial thought was something north of 380 inches, but it never occurred to me that I might have killed a 400-class bull. My more immediate concern was cooling down the meat.
I hung his quarters in the cool shade below the ridge, and carved off the backstraps, tenderloins, and neck meat. It took me all day to pack out the first load and most of the second day to fetch the rest. It was a long and excruciating ordeal. But there’s something about making meat that takes the edge off the chore. I headed back to my hometown of Seeley Lake with coolers full of wild meat and a remarkable rack in the bed of my pickup that turned every head I passed on the highway.
In the Company of Legends
As I drove, I reflected on the last few days. I had dreamed of killing a truly giant bull for many years, and I was overwhelmed with an incredible sense of accomplishment. I wished Chad had been with me, and thought about how his incredible persistence had motivated me to hunt this slice of eastern Montana in the first place. I thought about how relieved I was to get the elk in the coolers and to have saved all the meat. But mostly I was thankful for having the ability to have this incredible experience on public land. And there was something else. I had undergone shoulder-replacement surgery in 2015, and I honestly wasn’t sure at the time that I would ever bowhunt again. The thought of never being able to pull back a bow haunted me, but it also motivated my recovery. Unbelievably, here I was, a year later, hauling a trophy bow-killed bull home from the field.
But how big a trophy? When I finally got cell service, I pulled off the road and texted photos to Chad, and he replied that he thought my estimate of 380 inches was way too low. I wasn’t far from Billings when I recalled that the Cabela’s store there had a 400-class bull mounted in the entryway. I decided to stop and take a quick look to see how my elk compared. I walked in the store, looked over the rack for a few minutes, and then walked back to my truck and stared at my rack for a long minute. Mine was noticeably larger, but it never crossed my mind that it could be a potential record-breaker, so I just continued toward home, leaving a message for my taxidermist, John Berger, letting him know I’d be dropping off the skull and cape at his shop as I drove through Bozeman.
When Berger dropped the tailgate of my pickup and saw the rack, he just stared. Then he turned to me and said, “How big do you think that is?”
I told him around 380. He just laughed. “I think it’s way bigger than that. Let’s put a rough score on him, just for fun.”
He grabbed a dusty manila folder off a shelf, scrounged a black Sharpie, and found a cloth seamstress tape measure. “Write down these numbers,” he commanded. Berger said he was going to be conservative and would round down his measurements. He started taping and rattling off numbers and I wrote them down, ending up with two columns of measurements and a spread credit. I added the numbers with my phone’s calculator, and when the sum of the first side appeared, I chuckled a little, figuring I had miscalculated. I added again and came up with the same number. The smile left my face. I added up the second column and came up with the same sum as the first column. Then I added the two columns
“It’s 390 inches. Without the spread credit,” I told Berger. I then added the spread and came up with 432 inches. We both just stood looking at each other before Berger said, “What’s the world record?”
We both grabbed our phones and started searching the internet. It didn’t take long before we both came up with the answer: 412 inches. Which would mean…my elk was the new world record.
“We need to call Fred,” Berger said. Fred is Fred King, former Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks employee and renowned Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young scorer who lives nearby in the Gallatin Valley. King has measured more record-book heads than anyone either of us knows. He’s the measurer that big-name hunters call when they have an especially impressive trophy. Fred said he’d be right over.
As King measured, he talked about panel-scoring Denny Austad’s world-record “Spider Bull” and Milo Hanson’s world-record whitetail. I felt like I was indirectly in the company of immortals as I held the rack and King barked out measurements. King took his time adding up the inches, but I could see the numbers that he wrote at the end: 448 4⁄ 8 gross, 429 6⁄ 8 net.
What started as a quick getaway weekend hunt on that beautiful Friday morning culminated in the realization 80 hours later that I had killed the new world-record archery typical American elk and the biggest elk in Montana history, bigger even than Fred Mercer’s bull of my youth.
I wasn’t sure what to think. I was tired, needed to get home and take care of the meat, and had a busy workweek ahead. Besides, Chad still hadn’t had a chance to get out, and I was determined to join him on his hunt later in the month. Maybe there would be another outsize elk roaming that same public land. After all, stranger things have happened.