Worth the Wait
By Hunters: John Francis Sunkler and Daniel Wagner; Story by: John Francis Sunkler
I was not your “normal” kid growing up. While kids my age were watching cartoons, I was watching my father’s elk hunting videos from Jim Zumbo, Larry D. Jones, and Dwight Schuh. At the age of 4, I snuck a cardboard wrapping paper tube away from my mother while she busy wrapping presents. What came next probably drove my parents crazy, a bellowing elk bugle from the end of the cardboard tube as I tried to mimic my on-screen heroes. My parents saw the passion in me and bought me a bugle tube and cow call. I quickly became proficient on both.
That same year, 1994, I attended the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Eastern Roundup weekend in Hershey, Pennsylvania with my family and friends. I will never forget one part of the weekend - The Pee Wee Wapiti Calling Contest. Dressed in my best black cowboy hat, camo shirt and vest, blue jeans, and rattlesnake cowboy boots, I made my way to the stage alongside my father. I bugled the best I could and was tentatively awaiting the judges' results. The judges announced that I had won! I came on stage again and accepted a first place plaque and a Marlin rifle. I was on top of the world. No one had the heart to tell me I was the only youth that competed in the contest. Years went by before that wind was knocked out of my sails.
A few months later, a knock came at my front door, and when opened, my mind could not believe what I saw. It was Jim Zumbo. Mr. Zumbo had come to visit with me and fuel the now wildfire in my heart for elk. It was a visit I will never forget and can never truly thank him enough for.
As I grew older, the passion for elk hunting never smoldered. However, the opportunity to head west and hunt never presented itself. In 2008, I lost my father and the opportunity to share elk camp with him. From then on, it became a priority to get out west and hunt the majestic animals I had been dreaming of since I was a knee-high.
When the opportunity presented itself, I booked a rifle hunt for 2016 at Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico. I started physically and mentally preparing over a year in advance of the hunt. My new bride somehow convinced me to start running, and we ran the Philadelphia Broad Street 10 Mile Race, a Savage Race, and a few smaller races this past spring.
Next on my checklist was to prep my rifle. This rifle was given to my father by his best friend and my now mentor. He used it in British Columbia to take several elk, moose, and bear. Needless to say, the rifle meant a lot to me. I spent the summer shooting, cleaning, and letting the rifle become an extension of me.
As the hunt neared, I started to pack my gear, which my wife can attest to was done at least a month in advance and repacked a dozen times. The final week before the hunt, I cleaned my rifle, packed my duffle bag and backpack, and then the worst part, I waited. The last day at work seemed to never end, and I swear I watched the clock tick backwards a few times. I then flew from Philadelphia to Denver to start my hunt. It was my 27th birthday. My wife dropped me off at the airport and wished me good luck. The flight slipped by, and before I knew it, I was in Denver. I met up with my hunting partner, Daniel, who had flown in from Bozeman, Montana. He was just as excited and ready to go as I was.
The drive to the ranch went by quickly with us catching up and taking in the beautiful country. In the late afternoon, we made it to the ranch and met our guide, Bob Newton. Bob had spent more than half of his life on the ranch. Needless to say, we were in good hands. We headed directly to the shooting range to make sure our rifles shot true. With a few small adjustments to my scope due to the elevation change, we were ready.
I will be the first one to say that when I am hunting, food just doesn’t hold the same taste and value it does when I am on a non-hunting vacation or just at home. In my mind, it is just fuel for my body to keep me going and does not need to be fancy or delicious. Well, too bad because we were so spoiled by the kitchen the entire time we were in camp it was unreal. To say the least, I stopped looking at the food as fuel. With full bellies and sleepy eyes, we got some much needed sleep.
At the sound of our alarms, we shot out of bed and met up with Bob. Along the way to Cerrososo Canyon, we encountered a group of three big bulls and one lone giant bull with sweeping whale tales crossing the dirt ranch road. With a full moon, warm temperatures, and windy conditions, the bulls were out and feeding at night.
We arrived with 30 minutes until sunrise. As we exited the truck, we heard our first bugle of the trip. It sent shivers down my spine. That morning, we found numerous small herds of cows, spikes, and small bulls but nothing that came close to the bulls we had seen in the moonlight. Along with the elk, we encountered numerous mule deer, Merriam’s turkey, and other animals. We returned to camp for some lunch as the high temperatures were pushing the elk into the dark timber midday.
We headed back to Cerrososo Canyon in the afternoon in hopes that one of the big bulls we had seen in the morning would show themselves. We made a long hike up the canyon to find elk again. One small bull made a show of herding his small harem up, bugling all the while to show off what was his. As the sun set on our first day, I had to pinch myself. I was in elk hunting paradise!
Daniel and I were up well before daylight with a new appreciation for black coffee. With the full moon high overhead and a strong, warm wind blowing, we headed to Crow Canyon. We arrived in the dark and sat, listening to a few bulls trade bugles, the canyon protecting us and the elk from the wind. As the sun came up, we made our way up the canyon and encountered numerous bulls at first light. They were mainly small bulls, but there were a couple larger bulls that had broken tines and beams.
We headed back to the truck, poured a cup of coffee, and moved the truck to a different location in the canyon. It never fails that when one has a hot cup of coffee, a huge bull explodes from a small patch of oak brush right next to the road and heads up a ridge. All the coffee went flying out the window, and we hit the brakes. We maneuvered up the ridge to try and get a shot on this bull. However, he never stopped broadside and eventually went up and over the ridge into some thick, steep country. With the stalk failed, we headed back to the truck and refilled our cups. This time, we got to enjoy the coffee as we moved the truck out of the canyon and into the prairie on the way to another canyon. We spotted herds of antelope, mule deer, and a road runner with a small cloud of dust in tow, and a short while later, we its cartoon nemesis - the wily coyote.
On the way back to the lodge, Daniel realized the scope was moved and he couldn’t lower the magnification. At the range, I loosed the rings and set the scope back. Daniel got behind the rifle and took a shot, followed by a few expletive words. Daniel explained that he was bitten by the rifle scope and was unsure about firing the rifle again. He mustered up the courage and got the rifle back on target.
In the afternoon, we headed to a place on the ranch called The Canadian. As soon as we arrived, we saw elk. We came across a large herd bedded down in a secluded meadow and stalked in. We had closed the distance to half when the bull bugled, letting us know of his presence. The shot of adrenaline that came rushing through me when heard that bugle was unlike anything I had ever experienced. We snuck in close to the herd and finally caught sight of the bull. He was a young 6x6 with tons of potential. I pulled away from my binoculars and took the whole scene in - the golden aspens and ponderosa pines swaying in the wind, the mosquitos caught in the fading light, making them glow, the herd of cows, and their patriarch. It was something out of a fantasy. It was everything I had wished to experience in elk hunting since my childhood. Then came the tough question, do we pass on this bull? My mind was already made up and the young bull lived on.
We were constantly bumping into elk along the way to check a waterhole, and at this point, we had seen over 100 elk. It was something I could not fathom. As the sunlight waned, we snuck into the waterhole. We were too late as two big bulls with a herd of cows had already surrounded it. We made a decision to put a stalk on the herd. Running up the ridge and then sneaking down the opposite side was not easy, but we closed the distance. Time ran out and the herd entered the timber as night engulfed the canyon. We sat and listened to the two bulls bugling as the stars came out. Something primal stirs in your soul when you hear that bugle. It was a perfect end to an incredible day.
Today was a special day as it was my mother’s birthday. With yesterday’s sights fresh in our mind, we returned to where we had left the herd. With the wind howling, we worked up a ridge towards the meadow where we had last spotted the herd, and the bull let out a deep, raspy bugle. The herd was tucked up into a corner of the meadow, protected from the wind. We crept into range and could see his huge antlers against the ponderosas. It was the bigger bull from last night. As darkness gave way to light, the herd started to make its way out of the meadow. We paralleled the herd into the timber and set up for a shot. Cows and calves made their way through an opening, but the bull never showed. He stayed in thick timber, bugling every couple of minutes. After some time, Bob said we needed to reposition. We repositioned three times before we finally saw the bull. He was with another small bull and a dozen cows. Over the next half hour, I tried to line the shot up, but I never had a good, ethical shot on the bull. We decided to leave Daniel at the third position and belly crawl closer to the herd. As Bob and I crawled forward, we were crawling over fresh elk tracks and steaming piles of droppings and the whole ridge smelled of elk. It was fantastic.
We closed in on the herd and set up next to a stump. I got behind the scope and on the bull once again. This time, he was close. With my scope, I could see every detail of his face - his wet, shimmering nose, his black eyes, the ivory polished eyeguards, the drool coming from the corner of his mouth, and the air as it left his mouth, carrying the sound that had driven me crazy for over two decades. It was poetic. As I think back to that moment, the words escape me. It was a moment where time stood still and I truly felt in tune with nature. We started to feel a soft breeze on the back of our necks, and the herd was finally aware they were not alone. They headed over the ridge and into our memories for good.
It had been two hours since we entered the timber and tried to get a shot on the bull. Bob and I had a collection of pine cones, needles, and other forest floor litter in our jackets, shirts, pants, and elsewhere from the belly crawling. We returned to the third position and found Daniel fast asleep. As friends do, we had to mess with him. A couple of bear growls did not wake him, so we resorted to throwing sticks and pieces of bark at him until he woke up. As the morning progressed, the wind picked up. It was difficult to even hear the strongest of bugles. With the rest of the morning uneventful, we headed back to the lodge.
Back at the lodge, I was unable to eat or sleep. We had come so close and failed; I was starting to worry. The plan was to head back into the same area but by a different route which would allow us to check another canyon called York Canyon. As we were working our way through York Canyon, we spotted two bulls on the edge of a meadow. They caught our wind and went up the ridge. As we peered across the meadow to the far ridge, we could see the larger of the two bulls. As he turned his head, he showed off his impressive rack. Bob said the bull was very old and a shooter. We headed up an opposite ridge from the bull, crested the top, and I set up in a prone position. Bob ranged the bull at 240 yards. I prepared to shoot:,slowing my breathing, attempting to control my pounding heart that had just received another dose of adrenaline, placing my right hand on the rifle the exact way I had done hundreds of times, and slowly squeezing the slack from the trigger. Boom! The bull was hit hard but still standing. I racked a fresh cartridge into the chamber and placed it in the vitals again. The bull took a step as my third round hit him, and then he stumbled and fell. I pulled my extra rounds out and reloaded the magazine. As I finished reloading, the bull stood and I hit him once more in the vitals. He took another step, and I fired my final shot into his shoulder. He fell, and the old bull finally let go. His ears went limp, and his head slumped to the side.
Happiness filled my heart with a lifelong dream accomplished. As we made our way to the bull, I was filled with a mixture of emotion - remorse for ending the life of this majestic animal, pride in the amount of work put into this hunt, relief that I had been successful and ethical in the eyes of my father looking down, and sadness that he was not present. He was and still is the driving force behind my passion for the outdoors.
We approached the bull and made sure he had passed, and we then had a quiet moment, thanking the animal for giving its life. I performed “The Last Bite,” a Bavarian tradition passed down to me by my father to honor the bull.
With my hunt over, I unloaded my rifle and pulled a small glass flask from my backpack. When I was a newborn, my father bottled three liters of Austrian Elderberry Schnapps. We were supposed to open it together on my 21st birthday, but after he passed, I had forgotten about the schnapps. Last August, my mother surprised my wife and me with the bottle, still wax sealed, on the night of our wedding rehearsal dinner. I brought a small flask of it to not only honor the bull and the hunt, but to honor the man and mentor I lost. I wished nothing more than to have him sit next to me on that mountainside with my elk for five minutes, but life does not always go the way you plan. He has been with me every day and on every hunt since he left this world. I feel selfish for wanting more.
We needed to move a fallen tree out of the way to position the bull for pictures and field dressing. The tree needed to be rolled three feet or so, but that was not good enough for Daniel. He decided to pick up the tree and carry it out of the way. As he was lifting, I saw his path brought the large tree trunk over our packs, and I got out the words “Let me move the backpa...”before I heard a crunch. The tree landed squarely on our packs, and more importantly, my camera. Somehow, perhaps through divine intervention, the tree did not damage my camera or the contents of the three packs. All was forgiven, and a good laugh was had. Daniel bear hugged me and congratulated me, saying, “Weidmannsheil.”
Finally, the knives were unsheathed, and before I could say that I would like to gut the elk, Bob was finished field dressing the elk with incredible speed and technique only elk guides and veteran hunters can master. As Bob finished, he let us know how lucky we were. Below us was an old two-track ranch road and we could slide the elk down into the bed of a pickup. We loaded the bull into the bed of the truck and dropped it off at the ranch's game barn.
The fourth morning, we headed to Gonzalez Canyon, a small, secluded canyon. There, we were greeted by bugles as we entered the canyon. We made our way towards the bugle and cow, calling back and forth. Minutes later, the bull bugled back, but this time, it was well in the distance. We spent the morning glassing high ridges and calling in hopes of locating the once vocal bulls. We came across a few large flocks of Merriam’s turkey and spent a few minutes calling to them. In the afternoon, we finally had a break in the wind and Bob had something special in mind. He had mentioned Ash Mountain a few times during the hunt. With the wind now in our favor, we were headed to one of Bob’s favorite places to hunt. Before heading up the mountain, we stopped at a ridge that allowed us to glass the meadows for elk. We did not spot any elk while glassing, but Bob was confident we would find them. A short time later, we arrived at the base of the mountain, geared up, and started the hike.
We entered the first of many meadows on the mountain and shortly spotted elk. Bob spotted a large group of cows bedded in the shadows of the timber. We finally spotted the bull with the cows; he was small and appeared emaciated. We backed out of the meadow and snuck around the herd downwind. We continued uphill to another group of meadows, particularly to one that was hidden near the top. We stopped in an aspen grove for about half an hour to make sure we arrived in the top meadows during the prime time. Sitting in the grove on a bed of pine needles, the picturesque scenery was breathtaking. With the Spanish Peaks and Sangre de Cristos Range in the distance, it was something out of a postcard. We loaded our gear back up and were back to being focused on finding elk. We had not gone 100 yards from the aspen grove when a spike bull pinned us behind a single pine tree out in the open. With nothing left to do, we proceeded to walk straight at the spike in single file. I believe we were the first humans this spike had ever seen. He stood statuesque as we walked within 30 yards of him before running into the timber. Luckily, the spike headed for timber below and not the few remaining meadows we had our sights set on.
As we were working our way up through the timber, Bob froze. He had spotted a bull feeding in the meadow above. A minute later, the bull raised his head and we saw that he was beautiful and wide. With a shooter bull spotted, Daniel needed to get in position to shoot. We worked our way up through the timber to the edge of the meadow as the bull continued to feed away from us. On the edge of the meadow was a fallen tree that would provide a perfect shooting position for Daniel while I hung back. Bob crept up to the log and motioned for Daniel to sneak up as well. Daniel snuck to the position, but the bull picked up on the movement and was studying the log as Daniel set up for the shot. Boom! The first shot hit the bull hard in the vitals. He whirled around and ran into the middle of the meadow. Daniel attempted to reload but had a malfunction. After clearing the malfunction, he fired his second shot, which missed high. The bull, seemingly unfazed by the report, was now standing in the meadow and feeling the effects of the first round. Again, I saw Daniel fighting with his rifle to get another round in the chamber. He tossed a round aside that was not loading correctly and continued to reload. His eyes went behind the scope again. All of the practice with me in Maryland, at his local range in Montana, and the reconfiguring of his scope at camp culminated in this shot. At the report of the rifle, the elk was taken off his feet. It was a beautiful finishing shot on our hunt. We made our way up to the bull and confirmed that he had passed. He was a magnificent, wide-racked 6x6 with a dark ebony mane and caramel ivories. From our view at the top of the meadow, it seemed like we were sitting on top of the world. Well, we certainly felt that way.
On top of having one of my best friends tag his first elk, the scenery was some of the most picturesque country I had ever seen. After thanking the bull for his life and honoring him, we set out to take pictures. Photography along with writing became extremely important to me once my father had passed away. I want my children to know of my adventures and be able to see the places I have been once I have left this life. The sun was setting quickly, and it was time to figure out how to get the bull back to camp. Bob knew this mountain very well and was hopeful he could maneuver the truck up into the meadow. With time running out in the day, he headed down the mountain.
This left one task on my shoulders - field dressing the bull. While I had field dressed many animals, the sheer size of this bull was overwhelming. I managed to complete the task, just not as masterfully as Bob had the previous day on my bull. We stood in the meadow admiring Daniel's bull and the mountains that were now fading into the dark. A while later, we saw the bouncing lights of a vehicle headed up the meadow. Bob had managed to get the truck up the mountain. I was astonished as the meadows were full of hidden boulders, dips, and other items lying in wait to pop a tire or pierce the undercarriage of the truck. Night had set in by the time we loaded the bull up, but a new problem arose. The wind had covered Bob’s tracks up the hill. Daniel and I walked in front of the truck for a few miles down the mountain, mapping the route for Bob to follow. It went at a snail’s pace, but we finally made it back to a ranch road and headed towards the lodge. Back at camp, Daniel excitedly told of our success and the celebration began. We had tagged out and still had a full day left to explore the ranch.
It was our final full day at the ranch, and we planned to make the most of it. We packed fishing rods and lunches and headed out for the day. We headed to Merrick Lake, a perfect, crystal clear high mountain lake. It took little time before we had hooked into a few beautiful rainbow trout. After numerous fish were released, we headed up into higher elevation. We visited three more high country lakes, all of which seemed to hold bigger and prettier trout than the last. As the sun began to set behind the mountains, we knew the day was coming to an end. We returned to the lodge, celebrated the hunt with our guide and now great friend, Bob, along with the other remaining hunters in camp.
When we finally left Vermejo, it was sad seeing the ranch fade into the distance. It was a place I will never forget. We slowly made our way back to Denver. After being in elk camp for a week, modern society seemed a little strange. Too many people and weird technology seemed to throw us for a loop.
We said our goodbyes before heading to our respective flights. The return flight home was a breeze, and I landed in Philly with my wife tentatively waiting, just not at the right terminal. I had to hustle down the busy road to the next terminal with a full hunting pack, cooler full of frozen backstraps, gun box, and duffle bag to catch her before the local police issued her a ticket. Before I knew it, the hunt I had dreamed of my entire life was a memory. I am truly blessed to have the family and friends who allow me these opportunities.
This hunt and story are dedicated to my father, mentor, and hunting partner, Gunter C. Sunkler.