By Hunters: Kerry and Craig DeZell, Story by: Kerry DeZell
NM, MT, AZ, NV, Elk and Deer
Most of us “seasoned” veterans learned to hunt with our dads, though it is great to see all the women in hunting these days. I'm lucky to include my wife and daughters in that group. Both my brother, Craig, and I took our first elk with Dad by our side in the same vicinity where he took his first elk many years earlier.
As life took us out of Montana and we started expanding our hunting range, Dad wasn't sure what to think. We talked him into coming on some trips and broadened his definition of “elk country” to include the pinyon/juniper and pines of Arizona and New Mexico, the high mountain basins of Colorado, the aspen stands and canyons of Utah, and the long, windswept ridges and sagebrush of Wyoming. He served as camp cook, mountain taxi, and babysitter and even had hunts of his own in Colorado and Utah.
Dad was first on the list to call when we drew tags or had stories to tell from our hunts, so it was hard when we lost him in the spring of 2017 after a long battle with cancer. One of his wishes was for us to spread his ashes in “his” mountains surrounding the beautiful Bitterroot Valley. As the draw results came in, Craig and I thought we might be able to take his request one step further and include the states we would hunt that fall.
Craig started things off with an early archery elk tag in the Valle Vidal of New Mexico where Dad had watched his young granddaughters while my wife and I had filled our muzzleloader tags with Craig’s help. I joined Craig over Labor Day and there were plenty of elk, but they were still in big summer herds with small bulls and little rut activity. Craig finally located a big bull and came close to getting a shot multiple times, but something always went wrong and the season was waning. Right at dusk, a new gnarly bugle sounded, and Craig snuck in to find a great looking bull rubbing the branches of a downed tree, yet something didn’t seem quite right. With daylight dwindling, the bull turned into the narrow shooting lane and it was now or never. The arrow flew true, and he watched the lighted nock run across the park.
Craig arrived at daylight to find a beautiful 8-point on one side and a thick brow tine and club like main beam on the other. This was a very cool bull upon which a bear had dined during the night. After butchering while looking over his shoulder and getting ready for the five-mile solo pack, some of Dad's ashes found a home in another beautiful mountain setting where the elk will bugle every fall. Next up for Craig was the archery portion of a quality elk tag in Montana and I was off to Arizona with an archery elk tag in an opportunity unit.
My scouting days in Arizona found decent rut activity and some respectable bulls, but I couldn't get on the biggest one on opening day. On day two, I found a definite shooter for that unit. I managed to stay with him and came close several times. Late one morning, another hunter started after “my bull,” bugling constantly as I followed the herd towards a bedding area. Luckily, the bull went quiet, but the wind wasn't good, so I headed out. Just about then, another group of elk came bugling over the hill. They split into two groups, and I glassed one across the canyon with about a 310" bull. The other group came right towards a tank up the draw from me, so I hurried up to try and get a look at the bull. They went quiet and didn't stop at the tank, though a cow did come out for a swim about 45 minutes later, which was fun to watch.
It was hot as I hugged all the shade I could find walking back in that afternoon, headed for a point above where my target bull had bedded, so hot that I when I went by the tank I decided to stop and sit in the shade. I'd been there reading the paperback I always keep in my pack for a while when I decided that I should at least be prepared. I nocked an arrow, broke a bunch of brush to make better shooting lanes, and cleaned up all the downed branches between the lanes.
At 3:00, there was a bugle. Cool! It was about time to go get after my bull, but it was still hot. Fifteen minutes later, another bugle sounded closer than the first. Interesting! Twenty minutes later, I caught movement at the bottom of the tank. Was this really happening? It wasn’t my target but a solid bull. I ran numbers and was going through the "Should I? Should I not?" routine when suddenly, it was like someone had slapped me alongside the head and I knew I should shoot this bull. Thanks, Dad! I butchered and packed for most of the night and will admit to shedding some tears when I spread Dad's ashes where the 337” gift bull had come to rest and at the tank.
Back in Montana, Craig was having a frustrating blast. After locating and patterning a 370 class bull, he just missed getting a shot in the morning. He positioned himself perfectly that evening only to have the bull walk by at 20 yards, missing most of his right antler. Craig wrapped up the archery season and was back for the rifle opener with high hopes. There were a lot more hunters now with the addition of cow and spike tags. Craig was in position early, waiting for the herd bull to show himself, when another hunter shot a spike on the edge of the herd. The big herd bull ran over the hill and was taken by another hunter. Argghhh! After several days of hitting it hard but not finding the bull he wanted, Craig decided to hope for snow and come back later in the season.
My next stop was Nevada with a tough second season rifle deer tag. For this trip, I was packing Dad's beloved 1918 .30-06, which he had left to my oldest daughter. My scouting revealed a lot of sagebrush and big, seriously steep mountain ridges popping out of the desert. There were a lot of elk, some deer with a few small/medium bucks, and one big backed buck that I was afraid was only a 3-point on one side.
As the season progressed, I had located a lot of deer but still just little bucks with no sign of the upcoming rut. Early one morning, when a buck with big backs showed itself just before disappearing over a saddle, it was as if the rifle worked itself. Sure enough, just a 3-point on one side, but it was the best one I'd found and another awesome place for ashes mixed with tears.
Snow had arrived in Montana, and Craig was seeing a lot of bulls but not much quality. Other hunters he'd talked with throughout the season were settling for smaller bulls and going home. Finally, a group of three bulls popped out of the trees one evening, and he liked the look of one. There were matching sides on this bull and he had a score of 354". More importantly, it was another amazing resting place for Dad in his home state where his oldest son had continued the tradition learned from his father.
In Memory of Walter “Mick” DeZell. You helped shape who we are today, and though you are missed, you will always be with us!
Thanks to Lisa and Donelle of Hunt Data for the maps and support. You are two of the hardest Huntin’ Fools I know, and I’m jealous of all the time you get to spend in the field.