By Shawn McCardell, Hunter Ryley McCardell
Living and hunting on the East Coast has its challenges. Public land is limited, and the variety of huntable big game species is anemic. That’s why with the help of Huntin’ Fool I have been trying to establish a strategy to get myself out west to pursue a multitude of big game species. Last year, after reading an article from Shandi Martinez, I was amazed to uncover that not only did they have strategies to help me hunt out west, but they had them for my son, Ryley, as well. Ever since, I’ve been helping Ryley gain the preference/bonus points he will need to someday hunt states like Arizona and Wyoming for animals I may never get drawn for in my life. I also learned a valuable lesson last year with Ryley – don’t overlook what’s in your backyard for opportunities somewhere else.
Last year, during my research for the best place to hunt elk out west, I learned that both Pennsylvania and Kentucky had decent sized elk herds with odds that gave me a chance to get drawn close to home. Kentucky specifically had even better odds for Ryley. By the end of May, Ryley had his letter from Kentucky DFW congratulating him on being drawn for one of the 10 coveted youth either-sex tags that allowed him to hunt the entire season with any legal weapon.
With that letter in hand, I began in earnest trying to find a guide that would be up for the task of taking a soon to be 11-year-old on his first elk hunt. After some digging around and a few phone calls later, I came upon an outfitter by the name of Lost Mountain Outfitters. In talking with the owner, Hurley Combs, I learned that they had years of experience guiding youth during the bull firearm season. I sent him my deposit, and that ended up being the best money I ever spent.
The eight-hour drive down to the eastern hills of Kentucky was a long one. We arrived two full days before the season opened to make sure we were comfortable, rested, and had a chance to scout some of the areas Ryley would be hunting. When we rolled up into elk camp, we were greeted by Hurley wearing a big smile and speaking in a southern drawl. He told us to make ourselves at home while we waited for the other hunters to arrive in camp.
The next day had us with our guide, J.R., scouting for elk in a reclaimed coal mine. That’s when I took out my Diamondback binoculars and gave Ryley his first lesson on how to glass. We didn’t end up seeing anything except the beautiful hills of the Appalachians. The landscape looked like perfect elk habitat, so we went back to camp with a good feeling about the next morning’s hunt.
Dawn came on opening morning with us looking down upon two elk 300 yards below us. After a few minutes of glassing, we confirmed they were cows but quickly spotted two bulls in the distance. After a brief chase, we called it off and headed to camp for lunch.
That evening found us in the same spot glassing again. This time, our guide spotted a cow behind us up on an outcropping of a hillside. As we waited for any other elk to show up, darkness overcame us and we headed back to camp empty-handed but happy we had finally laid eyes on real elk. Around the campfire, we made plans to hit the same spot the next morning to see if those two bulls would show back up.
When we awoke the next morning bright and early, J.R. had a surprise waiting for us. Trailered to his truck was his Can-Am side-by-side. He said the plans had changed after last night. We were going to do some running and gunning and were going to get Ryley a bull. As we drove off into the darkness, I couldn’t help but get a feeling that he was right.
We drove through the timber, up hills, and through creeks, stopping every now and then to bugle and see if we could get a response. We did this for about two hours as the sun came up and brightened the sky. We decided to head over to a different glassing point to see if we could catch any elk headed to their bedding areas. After about another hour, J.R. said we would make our way back to camp, taking the long way.
As we crested the last ridge that would take us back down the mountain, J.R. habitually stopped and bugled again. Boom! We got an immediate answer, and he was close. J.R. had us jump out of the Can-Am so quickly that all I had time to grab was the rifle and the shooting sticks. As we crept down the old trail, J.R. whispered how we had found the bull in his bed. The plan was that we were going to creep up the trail, set ourselves up, and hopefully get him to come out and play.
It seemed like forever as we crept along the trail with J.R. cow calling every few minutes to make sure we knew where the bull was. Finally, we reached a spot in the trail to set up. When J.R. knew we were all set, he gave a soft cow call. The bull answered immediately, but before he could finish, J.R. ripped a bugle that cut him off. We sat there listening to the bull bugle again and again, each time a little closer than the last. The bugling grew even louder as he came around the corner into view. Just as planned, the bull stood there, facing us, screaming his head off at the bull he thought was somewhere behind us. As he stood there in silence, bewildered by not seeing a bull he thought was going to be there, J.R. whispered to Ryley to shoot. The gun went off, and the bull just stood there. Ryley had missed! After what seemed like an agonizing minute, Ryley managed to get off another shot, this time connecting right in the chest. The bull dropped and began to thrash. Before Ryley could follow up with another shot, the bull stopped moving and stood up. Ryley sunk another round in him, this time in his neck, and the bull went down for good. He went head first over the embankment and came to rest upon a tree 30 yards down.
Ryley had taken a beautiful 6x6 for his first bull. The smile on Ryley’s face was all I needed to confirm that I had just created the next generation of Huntin’ Fools. With a few preference points in hand and plenty of knowledge from Huntin’ Fool, we have already set about planning out next year’s hunts.