Nebraska isn’t known as a state for trophy elk hunting but as the recent experience of a Kearney bowhunter shows, maybe it should be.
Once in a lifetime.
That’s a phrase that can get overused, particularly when talking about a moment spent hunting out in the woods or out on the water fishing. But then again, sometimes it’s the perfect fit to an outdoorsman’s story.
Like when it’s used to describe the recent bowhunting experience Kearney, Neb., archer John Rickard had when he pulled a once-in-a-lifetime Nebraska resident bull elk permit in the summer of 2017, one that allowed him to chase wapiti in the surprisingly steep terrain in the northwestern corner of the Cornhusker State.
Thing is, it almost didn’t happen.
“To be honest, I pretty much forgot all about it (the draw),” laughed Rickard, a finance manager for a local auto dealership. “My good buddy Rob Muirhead called me and said ‘Hey, did you put in for your elk tag yet?’ I said ‘No, I didn’t.’ Then he replied, ‘Well, you better get on there (to the computer) and apply.'”
‘I got lucky’
After the friendly reminder from Muirhead — whom Rickard met while selling him a pickup truck a few years ago — the Kearney hunter got his application turned in before the deadline.
A few weeks later, Rickard was surprised to learn that he had somehow caught Nebraska lightning in a bottle, drawing a permit to chase big bulls near Chadron, Neb.
“It just happened to be luck,” said Rickard. “There are people who have been trying 15, 20, and 25 years to pull a bull permit in Nebraska and I don’t think they were all that happy that I drew this tag. I got lucky in year number five.”
With a last moment reminder and a lucky draw result in his back pocket, Rickard — who is 35, happily married, and the father of three young daughters — set out to turn his Nebraska bull elk tag into a freezer full of meat and some antlers for the wall.
Add a little friendly help
After talking with outfitters, landowners and officials with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Rickard began to zero in on where he wanted to hunt in the pine studded terrain that rolls towards the South Dakota Black Hills region to the north.
“They (NG&PC officials) were really great in helping me out,” said Rickard. “I’m kind of anal retentive about doing my research, so I sat down and started dialing — outfitters, landowners, people who had let people hunt on their property in the past, etc.
“I even called the local chapter president for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation group in the area and called the people that he recommended,” added Rickard.
“I did a lot of cross referencing, contacting people, looking at past hunting trip reports, and taking a look at pictures of elk in the area.”
Once Rickard chose his hunting ground, he prepared to use his tag as the Nebraska archery elk season opened up on Sept. 15, 2017. With any luck, he hoped to put his Mathews No-Cam compound bow to good use.
Hunting, not shooting
“On the first day, we went in about 4 or 4:30 a.m. and got into the blind that the landowner had set up as quietly as possible,” said Rickard. “Once we got situated, there were cows calling back and forth all around us and bulls bugling and scraping the ground. I was thinking this might be over almost as soon as it started.”
But when legal hunting time arrived, Rickard and his pal Muirhead — who was along to watch and help get a bull elk packed out — were quickly reminded of why it’s called hunting and not shooting.
“As soon as daylight arrived, we didn’t see a thing,” said Rickard. “There was a little pre-dawn fog and it lifted up a little bit as daylight broke, and after that, it was just crickets on the first day.”
That night, during a strategy session back at their hotel in Chadron, Rickard decided it was time to try and force the action on the second day of hunting by doing some calling.
The next morning, as a similar early morning scenario unfolded — as in fog, drizzle, cool temperatures, and bulls bugling out their amorous intentions — Rickard began working his Primos Hoochie Mama cow elk call, initially getting no response at all.
“When you call and never hear anything, you start wondering, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’,” recalled Rickard. “I waited about 20 minutes and hit the call again, hearing a little grunt. About 20 minutes later, I’m doing it again and I look outside of my blind and I see a cow coming down a trail between where we were and an old (shed) that had fallen down.”
Moments later, a huge typical bull elk was in the sight picture and Rickard was bringing his compound bow back to full draw.
When the bull was 30 yards away trying to herd his cows, Rickard took aim and settled the pin on his Spot-Hogg sight, touching off a shot that sent his Easton carbon arrow downrange where the Muzzy three-bladed 100-grain broadhead could do its work.
But as the shot was cut, the bull moved and changed the angle, causing Rickard to get only one of the bull’s lungs instead of the desired double-lung shot. While lethal, it created a nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse game for the archer.
“I experienced a lot of emotion back in that blind after I let arrow go,” said Rickard. “It was in the mid-50s and kind of damp and cool. I’m a pretty calm, cool and collected guy, but I felt a little cold. I’m from Nebraska and I can stand the cold, but my hands were trembling.”
After searching briefly for his arrow, Rickard decided to let time be an ally, retreating for a few hours to watch a Nebraska Cornhuskers football game with Muirhead.
As it turns out, the bull wasn’t very far away from where Rickard had initially searched for his arrow, expiring at the bottom of a deep ravine.
“The bull was in about the lowest spot you could get into,” said the hunter. “We got him rolled onto a hump and it took six of us to do it so we could field dress him. Then we ended up using a Polaris Ranger — and three tow straps, a chain, a rope and my winch — to drag him out section by section because it was so steep.”
‘Freezer full of meat’
With the bull tagged and out of the rugged country, Rickard has relished several things in the aftermath of his hunt, the first being a supply of succulent elk meat.
“I’ve got a very large deep freezer full of meat,” said Rickard. “The state of Nebraska put it up on their main website and I took some grief from some anti-hunters, asking how I could kill such a beautiful animal that would go to waste. I’m like ‘What are you talking about?’ I’m the guy that takes all of the meat to the point that there is nothing left.
“I cut every little scrap off and we have many fine meals since nothing goes to waste.”
In addition to the main ingredient for plenty of elk dishes this upcoming winter, Rickard has also been dealing with the size of the 6×6 bull’s antlers.
“An official Pope and Young Club measurer put a tape on him and came up with a green gross score of 366 7/8 inches,” said Rickard. “He’s got huge mass and is very symmetrical with only 4 7/8 inches of deductions that give him a green net score of 362 0/8 inches. We’ve now got to wait 60 days for him to dry before they can come up with a final official score.”
A state-record challenger
At the current number, Rickard’s bull has a chance to upend the current Nebraska Pope and Young Club state record. The current American elk benchmark there is a 6×6 bull elk taken in Banner County in 2014 by archer Doug Correll, a bull that ranks #1 in Nebraska and #410 overall thanks to a net score of 362 7/8 inches.
“I don’t really care about the final score,” said Rickard. “I’ll never forget the opportunity I had to hunt an amazing creature like this in Nebraska and to feed my family and friends for months to come.
“If he comes out to be number one, then perfect, but if not and he’s number two, then that’s cool too,” said Rickard. “Like they say, you can’t eat antlers. In fact, they actually end up costing you quite a bit of money.”
In the end, Rickard is thankful for the chance to chase a big bull elk in his native state of Nebraska.
“God was in charge that day and I’m very thankful for all of the emotion that comes out, for the state of Nebraska and how they manage our game animals, for the landowner whose land I was hunting on, and for the elk themselves,” said Rickard. “It’s all a great feeling.”
A once-in-a-lifetime feeling that only a few hunters like Rickard will ever know.