It may have taken Cody Bradford 12 years to draw a permit for one of Utah’s best limited-entry elk units, but all things considered, the timing was just right.
Bradford, whose elk kills prior to 2001 consisted entirely of spike bulls, dropped a monster 6×6 animal with a field-measured 380 Boone & Crockett points while hunting the San Juan limited-entry unit in the fall of 2001.
Bradford’s secret? Good friend and former team roping partner Whit Hill became a personal scout and spent the summer scouring the Abajo Mountains for big bulls that Bradford might want to hunt.
“Whit was vital in my success,” Bradford said. “He was the first person I called when I found out that I had drawn the permit.”
Bradford and Hill grew up together in Spanish Fork and competed in rodeos together during their high school days. Bradford dropped off the rodeo circuit after graduation, but Hill stayed with it and became a full-time cowboy.
Hill landed a job herding cattle for the Heidi Redd Ranch on the Abajo Mountains in southeastern Utah five years ago. Bradford and Hill had long known about the trophy bulls hanging out in the Abajos, so having one of them working on the land was essentially a dream come true.
“Whit knows that country so well. He has put countless miles there on horseback. He knew all the springs and every nook and cranny,” Bradford said. “When we heard bugling I would always start heading west, but Whit would stop me and tell me they were heading east. That gave us a chance to get ahead of them. I would have been lost without him.”
It certainly did not hurt that Hill had taken a 360-point bull on the San Juan unit two years before. On the day he drew one of the hardest permits to get in Utah, Bradford called Hill and told him the news. “I’ll start looking tomorrow,” Hill told his long-time friend. “We’ll get a great one.”
In June, Hill told Bradford he had seen a big bull and would keep tabs on him. Then, playing a cruel trick only a good friend could get away with, Hill started to tease his old roping partner. “I’ve not been seeing much,” the cowboy told Bradford in late July.
The statement drew the expected response. “I kind of started to get stressed and freaked out.” Bradford said. “I told him I was getting worried. I kept calling him and asking if I needed to come down.”
Hill decided to end the anxiety. “I’ve been watching a good bull since day one,” Hill confessed. “I don’t want you to start loosing sleep already.” Hill watched the solitary bull all summer, but lost him in August. He told Bradford not to worry. “We’ll find him when the time comes,” Hill said.
Bradford found comfort in those words, but a little help from a neighbor gave the elk hunter a view of the San Juan unit that even Hill had not seen before. Next-door neighbor Brad Miller offered to fly Bradford over the unit in a 185 Cessna single-engine plane a week before the season.
“I was amazed at how steep and rugged the country was,” Bradford recalled of the flight. “Down there, you don’t see the elk until September. During the summer, they are deep in the canyons out of the heat. I didn’t really need to scout because I had a guide spending 24-7 on the unit, but it felt good to get a better lay for the land.”
Early on opening morning, Bradford followed his friend to an area where Hill thought the big bull might be frequenting. They stumbled across a bull. Bradford was so excited he didn’t even take time to look at the antlers.
“I didn’t even look at is horns. I just put it on the kill zone. I asked Whit if I should take it, that I could drop it right then if he wanted, but he told me to calm down,” Bradford said. “He took my rifle away and took the bullets out and told me he would give them back when I was ready for them.”
As other hunters had already discovered, the toughest part of drawing out on the San Juan is being patient enough to let trophy bull after trophy bull go by while looking for the biggest of them all.
“It was tough not killing another bull, because there were so many chances,” said Bradford, who says he was within 35 yards of 20 6-point bulls on the opener. “Chad Beck (Hill’s brother-in-law) and Whit were great hunting partners. They were patient and calm when I was so excited. I was ready to drop the next bull we saw,” Bradford said. “They never said anything about the good parts of a bull until after we decided not to take him. They were always quick to point out the weaknesses.”
While Bradford reluctantly ended up letting that first bull go, he and Hill later agreed that it was probably the bull he ended up taking two days later. During the second day of the hunt, Bradford was tickled when Hill mentioned he should go check on some stray cows. “Ever the cowboy, he wanted to make sure they weren’t his,” Bradford laughed.
By the third morning, Bradford and company had documented 128 bulls. “And those were all respectable bulls that anyone would have been glad to shoot,” Bradford said.
Hill had to leave to work as a pickup man at a rodeo. Before departing, he told Bradford to stick with the game plan and to be patient until he saw the big bull. Bradford almost took his friend too seriously.
Now hunting with just his uncle, Mark Brown, Bradford found a bull with about 20 cows trying to keep satellite bulls away around 8 a.m. “I spotted him at about 40 yards and I looked at him for a good three or four minutes. I decided his fives were not big enough and I decided to let him walk away,” Bradford said.
Uncle Mark was not pleased when his nephew made the decision. “He told me I was crazy and that I had just let the bull of a lifetime walk away,” Bradford said. “He told me this was the bull everybody on the mountain was looking for and then, he told he was going home because he was so upset.”
The verbal barrage and threat of losing his uncle’s company forced Bradford to reconsider. “I changed my mind and told my uncle that was the bull I wanted,” Bradford said. “Now, my uncle was mad and said we would never be able to find him again.”
His uncle was wrong. While it took 2 1/2 hours to catch up to the bull and his harem, Bradford finally did at about 11 a.
m. Passing up several other 6×6 bulls and a 7×6, the hunters heard a bugle and went to investigate. They found the big bull surrounded by testosterone-driven satellite bulls trying to score a quick date with a cow.
The bull was chasing off a 4-point that happened to run towards Bradford and came to within 100 yards. This time there was no hesitation. The bull dropped and Bradford uttered under his breath that he hoped the bull was big enough. “The more I looked the bigger he got,” the hunter recalled. “I knew he was the one Whit had been talking about.”
Word quickly spread about Bradford’s bull and hunters flocked to see the rack, but one unfortunate fellow didn’t hear the news.
“Soon after we got back to camp this other hunter came over to show us his bull. We told him how nice it was without saying anything about mine, but my uncle was too proud to let him go without bragging,” Bradford said. “So, he invited him to come look at mine. It kind of took some of the wind out of his sails. He just said it was a nice bull and left.”
And although it must have killed him to say it, Bradford’s father was thrilled. The father and son had been putting in for the San Juan as a dual permit since Cody was 14 without any luck. As time for the 2001 applications came due, Bradford’s father tried to get him to put in for a unit near Scofield Reservoir.
Bradford would not budge and ended up putting for the San Juan by himself. “He decided to go to a different area and when he didn’t draw and I did, he sure was ticked,” the son said.
There are no grudges now: The mount hangs at Bradford’s parents’ home. While outsiders might think hanging his trophy rack at his folks’ place is intended to serve as a reminder to his father about what could have been, the reality is that the rack is too big for Cody Bradford’s house.
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