By Patrick Meitin
The bull appeared through brush just 32 yards away. Where there had been nothing but stunted, ground-hugging cedar, tangled pi-on and juniper, rock and drought-shocked scrub there were now shinning antlers. Huge antlers. Headgear beyond comprehension, with long impossibly curving tines, swords as long as a man’s arm, rear “whale tails” forking inconceivably wide proportions.
And, the elk was close.
Hardened branches and even harder twigs that threatened to deflect any arrow shot through them prevented a bowshot. Earlier Randy Ulmer had run hard, his lungs aching with exertion. Now he knew he must be patient. He moved like the hands of a clock, side-stepping cactus, sinking to his knees, slipping an arrow from his quiver, moving in imperceptible increments, timing these moves to coincide with the bull’s eyes being shielded by brush. Finally the arrow was on the bow’s rest, but Ulmer had to wait seconds, minutes, a lifetime; time is difficult to discern in moments such as these.
The bull finally cleared the brush. It was a shot Randy had made hundreds, thousands of times, on 3-D courses across the nation as a world-class competitor and one of archery’s all-time best tournament shooters, on several record-class bulls he had taken on past bowhunts. He knew the drill, but it was impossible to quit looking at those incredible antlers. The bow came back smoothly, the pin settling behind the great bull’s shoulder….
The elk of Southwestern high desert, of dry places in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada, do not follow convention or an established script. They are far from alpine meadows, black timber, mountain crags and rushing wilderness rivers. Those, of course, are the stereotypical settings of the classic elk chase, subjects of firearms calendars and magazine covers. But not the high desert. Desert elk are different.
The high mountains overlooking lower elevations are simply too rough and abrupt to attract numbers of elk in the Southwest. Elk scatter widely here, which helps them to become unpredictable. And a good number of them for years escape from the pursuit of human and animal predators alike to grow some of the biggest wapiti antlers on the planet.
The term “desert” takes on elastic limits. Desert can be sand and waste, but it can also mean vast cedar and pi-on/juniper flats, an ocean of stunted trees as far as the eye can see, wide-open sage swales ending at sudden walls of deceivingly thick shrub. There is, of course, the occasional cactus. More than one stalking bowhunter, slipping out of his boots to silently tiptoe across crunchy litter, has discovered this the hard way.
Hunting the desert takes patience. Hunting elk takes time, but hunting them in the high desert takes more time. Randy Ulmer is no stranger to such settings. He understands the rules of the desert, patience most of all. He understood that time was all he had. On this hunt, time was his only ally.
Ulmer and good friend Craig Crogh, outfitter and owner of Mogollon Rim Outfitting in Arizona, arrived in east-central Nevada’s White Pine County seven days before the Aug. 28 archery elk season opener. Ulmer and Crogh had hunted together often. They had arrived early to get a feel for the land and the terrain Ulmer would be bowhunting. He was prepared to go the distance, if that was required. He had more than a month set aside for his quest as he and Crogh set out to find elk.
It was early in the season with hot days, and with an occasional bull bugling in the coolness of early morning and late evening, only a hint of the elk rut was in the air. The pair had begun to locate scattered herds of cows with small bulls sneaking around them. Ulmer was determined to make the best of his hard-won Nevada tag, looking for a bull to better a couple of bulls he had taken in the past that qualified for the Boone and Crockett Club’s record book. For this reason, the top-end bulls he and Crogh had located after a week of scouting and another week of actual hunting, proved a disappointment. Crogh only had 12 days to help Ulmer scout, then had to return to Arizona and see to his own bowhunting clients. A week into the season and with only a few days left in Crogh’s time, the guide glimpsed a monster bull. The light was bad, the bull a good distance away, but instincts told him it was the kind of bull Ulmer had in mind.
The pair had returned to the area where Crogh saw the big bull; Ulmer had only heard the bull bugle. It was a bugle that Ulmer would not forget, even after weeks of hard hunting. Ulmer would soon be hunting alone.
Ulmer hunted hard, daylight to dusk each day, chasing what had become his Moby Dick. After another week he heard the big bull once more, but only briefly, distantly, as it moved through thick PJ flats, retreating like a vampire from the first hint of light. It would be another week, maybe more, before Ulmer heard the bull again.
Elk were beginning to show signs of rutting, with the ruckus around larger herds of cows increasing. Ulmer saw many big bulls he had now come to recognize. He understood the behemoth only visited the cows at night, drifting off alone with first light. While other bulls were fervently seeking company, this bull was a loner, which intrigued Ulmer all the more.
This is how it often is with the very biggest bulls. Some attribute such behavior to survival savvy, but Nevada bulls in particular are hunted only lightly, and instilling such intelligence on any wild animal comes at the risk of starry-eyed anthropomorphism. Some bulls simply have a personality that excludes them from set patterns, possessing no desire to fight or answer calls, to engage in rutting activities that waste precious energy. Like the very biggest white-tailed deer, some bulls simply march to the beat of a different drummer. It keeps them alive through coincidence only and makes them all the more unpredictable. Predictability gets you killed in the unrelentingly cruel desert.
Ulmer had no other tags or hunts to go to. He had only his Nevada tag to keep him busy, but after nearly a month of hunting, he was tired and he had begun to grow lonely. Hunting on your own, with only your own thoughts and company, can be difficult. It’s easy to become disappointed with no one to talk to around the fire at night, no one to offer encouragement or support. Ulmer knew he would not give up, but he decided he needed some human contact. He traveled to the nearest town, more a spot on a map
, really. You take what you can get in the outback of Nevada.
He replenished his fuel and water supply, sat in a local cafe and chatted with the old lady there while she fried an overflowing, homemade hamburger and thick fries that soaked the paper plate with grease. The contact rejuvenated Ulmer. He was ready to go again.
Three days later, with the season quickly winding down, Ulmer spotted his bull clearly for the first time. Ulmer had been lured into the area by the siren’s song of bugling bulls, cow chirps and mad rutting activity. Two hours before daylight he listened to various groups of bulls and cows as they took inventory. The big bull seemed to be traveling from herd to herd, bugling only sporadically. With first light nearly all of the elk began moving north. The big bull turned south. Ulmer began following his telltale bugle, ultimately seeing him across a sage swale, heading into thicker trees. Ulmer tailed him carefully.
The big bull only bugled every 20 minutes or so, hurrying along, a destination in mind, pushing deeper across thick PJ flats. Ulmer stalked along, catching only occasional glimpses of the bull, losing him in the thick vegetation. He managed to get ahead of him a couple of times, missing him in the limited visibility. The bull would bugle left or right and Ulmer would adjust trajectory, with the bull nearly always 200 yards ahead. Ulmer thought the bull should bed soon, but he kept moving. Finally he heard a half-hearted, grunting bugle, maybe 75 yards ahead. Ulmer slowed down and began stalking. In a short time he saw the bull, suddenly just there, only 32 yards away. Ulmer sank to his knees and waited.
The bull stepped from behind a cedar, feeding slowly, nipping off clumps of stingy grass. The tendency is for panic, but Ulmer reminded himself to be patient. In time he had an arrow on the rest, waiting. Waiting. Time ceased to exist. Only those monstrous antlers, then slowly, the shoulder, the vitals finally clearing….
A patch of clear vitals showed through the trees. The bull had no idea Ulmer was near. Ulmer took his time, savoring the moment, placing his pin just so, knowing it was done, but cautioning himself to carry through carefully. Time seemed to stand still momentarily. The arrow slammed into the bull’s side, disappearing a few inches behind the massive shoulder, sucking into the tan hair and vanishing almost instantly.
Time raced forward again, everything happening fast and all at once, the bull spinning and smashing through dry wood, raising dust as he departed in a desperate rush. Ulmer knew he had succeeded even before he heard the bull crash to earth 150 yards away and breathe his last.
Ulmer approached the bull with a feeling of utter triumph and unavoidable sadness, awed by the sheer size of him, seeing just how big the bull’s antlers really were for the first time, humbled by his good fortune, understanding the sacredness of the moment. It was a moment to be savored and Ulmer was happy to be alone at that very moment, just he and the tremendous bull. He realized for the first time the bull would break 400 inches.
Ulmer ran several miles back to his truck, racing a rising sun and heat, pushing his truck across rough desert. Soon he heard a telltale sound known to all backcountry hunters. A tire was gushing air. He jumped out to inspect his predicament and found both front tires losing pressure quickly. He unloaded his ATV and marooned the truck. He had a big day ahead of him. There was much to be done. It just didn’t seem to matter right then.
Ulmer’s bull officially scores 409 7/8 inches net, non-typical; its gross score is 416. This makes it one of Nevada’s top four non-typical bulls, according to current B&C records. It misses third by only 2/8 of a point. Nevada’s best non-typicals include a 424 6/8-inch bull taken in 2002 by Cindy Marques, a 414 4/8 taken in 1996 by James Cook, and a 410 1/8 taken in 1997 by George Brown. The latter two rank 28th and 38th in the current all-time listing; Marques’ bull is awaiting a final score revision. Ten B&C non-typical American elk have been taken in Nevada to date, six of them from White Pine County.
By comparison, Nevada’s top three typical bulls include a 425 3/8-inch monster taken in 1999 by Jerry McKoen, a 400 4/8 taken in 1999 by W. Steve Perry, and a 399 6/8 taken in 2000 by Troy Means. Six of Nevada’s top 10 B&C typical bulls have come from White Pine County, with nine of Nevada’s all-time book bulls coming from this county.
The top non-typical American elk listed in B&C records include a 465 2/8-inch bull picked up in British Columbia, a 450 6/8 taken on Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Reservation in 1998, and a 449 7/8 North Dakota bull taken in 1997. Information provided courtesy of the Boone & Crockett Club.
To see how your tr
ophy stacks up, subscribe to B&C’s trophy search service. A $50 yearly fee allows unlimited access. Find the site at www.booneandcrockettclub.com.
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