Small Advantage

Written by Ted Schnack Jr

RMEF- Bugle Feature

The old bull had it all: mass, length, width and survival skills fit for modern warfare

It was that magic time a quiet hush comes over an alpine basin the sigh from day to night that time seems to stand still and the earth takes a deep breath, a quiet sigh. There he was like a Golden Ghost. After a few long minutes the bull stepped cautiously forward into full view. I let out a small gasp. “Wow”, what a bull, the bull of a lifetime and he had come to my secret spot.

This bull had it all. Thick and wide, a solid six point main frame, the crowning jewels beautifully matched seventh points which came off the outsides of his of his sabers in foot long hooks. His third points, normally a weakness of great bulls were as long as a mans arm. Built like a prime plow horse with a blocky Brahma bull head, he was not only the bull of lifetime he was the perfect bull, the bull of my dreams.

Old and smart, he had picked his entrance well taking a few cautious steps at a time, sometimes looking relaxed and then a quickly snapping his head in scattered directions trying to catch whatever, or whoever off guard. The small draw he snuck up, an almost invisible fold in the lay of the land could only be watched from where I was hidden from anywhere else on the alpine hillside.

The elk that use this draw usually hesitate just on the fringe of the timber waiting for a wisp of foul air or a flicker of movement to betray anything out of place. Usually this hesitation is brief and once out of the timber the temptation of the sweet alpine grass entices them up and into the meadows. Not this bull, not only did he not move up, he lay down in a small depression to wait for the security the total blackness would bring.

This truly was a huge elk. His sheer bulk made him unable to draw his legs underneath himself and he lay sprawled out like an old dog. He kept up his clever head snap trick and just before all light was lost he got up stepping slowly into the trees that bordered the sweetest of grass, refusing to move out into the open until the veil of total darkness drifted across the land. The waning light changed his copper gold to steel grey and he was soon taken by the whisper of darkness.

He was hidden from sight but his vision burned deep into my minds eye. I laid there for just a few more minutes to relish what had just happened and what I had actually seen. Down in the valley floor far out on the sage flats the light of a lone ranch house twinkled on. The cool air became keen and the first stars blossomed, I quietly made my way to my backpack camp.

My secret spot, a wilderness area that only allows footprints or hoof prints. Too far for most backpackers, too rough for horses it is tucked away high in nook at the head of a 50 mile long valley. Nestled in the highest remote basin above a gauntlet of a dozen hunting seasons.

This bull had pulled off the impossible. Bows, muzzleloaders and three or four rifle seasons, come one come all. This was not a trophy high draw area in Nevada or Arizona or high dollar private land, with minimal pressure, managed to grow big bulls for a small group of lucky or rich hunters. Not an area where bulls are given six or seven years to become their best. The area is a heavily pressured over the counter bull area in Colorado, the most heavily hunted elk state on earth.

Was his caution forged from months of being dogged by an army of hunters? No. This was the third week of August, a week before bow season. Nine months since the last season closed and a little time to relax and maybe let his guard down, not this bull. All those years dealing with scoped rifles, binoculars, expert calling, scents, spotting scopes, poachers, bows and black powder had taught him well.

Wow, what a bull! The thought repeated itself many times as the big cautious animal filled my day dreams during the countdown to bow opener.

The night before opener standing in the glow of the moonlight I heard a lone high bugle from over the ridge. My first wishful thought was it might be him, and then chuckled to myself “rookie mistake”, a bull like that never bugles just to clear his throat, maybe learned that lesson as a first year five point with a cloud of black power or the twang of a string and zip of an arrow. A bull like that never makes the same mistake twice.

Well before dawn, opening morning started in lunar light, the hiss of my small stove and eager looks to the east for the Gods signal the day has began. Softening shadows and a crisp golden line across the eastern peaks told me it was time to move. A short prayer, a deep breath and I was off, the season on.

I would be lying if I told you it was this bull or nothing. My goal is always a mature bull, and am humbled how tough bow hunting for elk is. I would try for any bull and have been known to be thrilled with a cow. I knew this bull was a long shot and likely miles away; he had been too clever for everyone else and most likely would be too clever for me. But I also knew as long as I was on the mountain there was a chance we might meet. Maybe just maybe, I might get close. And maybe, if I got close I might get a shot.

Days drifted into weeks and the summer greens turned into autumn splendor. Each day a gift from God and filled with wonder. The bull was constantly on my mind, but didn’t keep me from putting stalks on several nice bulls with every intention of making the shot. Close enough to hear them chew, blink their eyes and sniff the air. Thick brush or a bad angle kept my bow undrawn.

It had been a great year so far with many up close and personal encounters with elk. The big bull remained unseen. Many times looking at the spot he had appeared from the timber I tried my best to will him back, just let me have a chance at him, just see him once more. The coming rut brought new promise.

Soon the rut was in full swing countless bugles ripped the air, each bringing new hope. Twilight bugles, distant bugles deep in black timber, any might have been him. Groups of cows moved from the timber trailed by their herd bulls. It was never him.

The last week of the season I worked a herd run by a solid heavy five point. Two smaller five point teenagers hung nearby hoping for a quick date. After the herd moved in to the trees to settle for the day the two five points split off and started down a hidden trail. Knowing this trail well and moving quickly I quietly doubled back and set up behind a small pine tree.

The cool morning breeze drifted in my face. Flecks of gold signaled the bulls approach. At thirty yards the bulls stopped alert. They didn’t see me, they didn’t smell me but they knew something in the rhythm of the earth was off. The smallest bull was broadside and in the clear. The snap of the string broke the stillness. The arrow struck true. The bulls bolted and again I was alone.

Months later while sitting in the warmth of the fireplace I gazed up at the young bull’s antlers and was struck by a strange thought. I took the antlers down for a closer look. The third point was long- longer that the rest. Was this the old bull’s son? Maybe, maybe not, but I’d like to think so.

It has been five years since I last saw him. I think of him often, the first few years he would have still been in his prime, that magnificent animal I saw that cool evening years before. He aged in my imagination; the last years would have stunted his perfect rack and thinned his haunches. Had he finally made a mistake or ended up stuck in a snow bank to old to try? I’ll never know.

The path God has laid has led me far from the Colorado high country, about as far away as possible to war. My vistas no longer misty meadows and timberline but now concrete blast walls, razor wire and gun towers. My backpack has been traded for body armor, my bow for a machine gun. Eyes, ears and instincts no longer search for a flicker of gold through timber or brush, the crack of a twig, a distant bugle, but for a suspicious person with a strange bulge underneath an untucked shirt, an over loaded car with sagging springs driven by a lone male, the telltale zip of a missile, frequent rattle of gunfire, the warm sound of a distant boom.

A war torn land where rouge nations and ruthless terrorists have hung a bounty on your head and you are now the hunted. The stakes are high; your life can depend on your training, tactics and tricks of the trade. One of the tricks I use was taught to me far from here on a cool evening in the Colorado high country years before by a wise old bull. I can still see it in my minds eye, takes a little practice, look relaxed, and then make quick unpredictable random snap glances in scattered directions, trying to and catch whoever and whatever off guard. The bull has given me more than a freezer full of steaks or a head on the wall, but a lifelong memory and maybe a small advantage.

This story was written over here. Writing it has been a journey back in time and a daily oasis from the explosions, dirt, sizzling heat, death and unthinkable violence. Back to a time, far from here, back to a time of quiet innocence in a high mountain basin in Colorado.