By Lance White
Ever since I went on my first elk hunt when I was in high school, I had always dreamed of lying in my sleeping bag, staring at the stars, feeling the cool air on my face, and listening to the sound of one bugle after another during the height of the rut. This would be the ultimate nighttime lullaby. After six different elk hunting adventures, that dream continued to escape me until my hunt in September of 2018.
After waiting 13 years, I drew an early season elk tag in unit 22 in Arizona. According to the statistics in Huntin’ Fool, 66% of the archery tag owners had successfully filled their tag on a legal bull in the past year. This kind of success is extremely high for any archery season in any state in the West. As soon as I drew, I began to plan as any good Huntin’ Fool would by speaking to the previous hunters on the list that was given to me by Huntin’ Fool and to Garth, a Huntin’ Fool Advisor.
I was fortunate to have some great friends as part of my team, like Dustin Schuetze, who, first and foremost, had the flexibility to go hunting for up to three weeks. He is also ex-military, a gunsmith, and a man who absolutely loves to hunt. This would be his first ever elk hunt, and he was ecstatic about the opportunity. Also, Keith Wheeler, my friend of 25+ years joined me. He is not a hunter but has experienced extreme conditions across the globe by carrying a 12-foot cross to 175+ different countries over the past 30 years in an effort to share the love of Jesus. With these two on my team, we were sure to have a lot of laughs and a “never quit” style of hunting.
Our plan was to scout for two days before the September 14th opener and then hunt for the next 14 days or until we got a good bull. Once Dustin and I had driven for two days from Texas and picked up Keith from the Phoenix airport, we headed to the hills. We had numerous options for places to camp and hunt, so we settled on a location northwest of Strawberry, Arizona. Though we were hearing and seeing elk every day, we made a trek to get some advice from Robert “Mule Man” Wonderly, who lived a few hours north of the unit and was a well-connected local hunter. He gave us some advice about four bulls the Forest Service workers had spotted. We picked up camp and moved to the opposite side of the unit in the northeastern area. Every day, we would chase bugles in the morning, sit at waterholes in the evening, and locate bugles at night for the next day. This process continued for the first five days of the season, but the bulls were still eluding us. We were told by numerous people to keep hunting hard and be patient because when the rut began there would be no question that it had. It would be like a green light just got turned on and the bulls will have lost their minds.
On day seven of the hunt, Dustin and I were getting ready to leave camp on another six-mile trek into another area when the situation quickly changed. We kept hearing one bugle after another coming from a valley only three-quarters of a mile away at 2 p.m. That was not normal, so we went to investigate. Amongst swirling winds, we bumped a bull off of his home mountain and figured we were out of luck again. Yet, the bugling frequency kicked up a notch in a nearby creek bed where we had spotted elk five days earlier before other hunters had run them off. As we eased into the area, there were multiple bulls sounding off because there was a cow that was causing all of the bulls to work themselves into a frenzy. We each hunkered down and let out one cow call each. While we tried to see the bulls, on the other side of a dry creek a bull appeared in front of me at less than 15 yards away. I immediately knew he was a smaller bull than I had set my expectations on, but I drew my bow back anyway. Once we took one step into the shooting lane, my instincts took over and before I knew it I had shot a bull right through the heart. It happened so quickly that I did not even have time to psych myself out with “bull fever.” Surprisingly, we continued to call to the other bulls for the next few minutes while trying to get a look at them.
After taking pictures and packing him out, we finally rolled into our sleeping bags at 1:30 a.m. I chose to sleep in our open bed trailer, which was connected to my truck. I wanted to be near my caped out elk, which we scored at 250", and to look at the stars. That entire night, I listened to 10 different bulls bugling from all different directions while I slept under the stars. The rut had finally begun in our neck of the woods, and there was no question that the green light that I had heard about had just been turned on. On my seventh elk hunting trip, I was finally experiencing what I affectionately refer to as my “nighttime lullaby.” I do not think I have experienced a greater sense of fulfillment in my years of hunting than the music I was hearing that night of September 20, 2018 located 20 miles outside of Payson, Arizona in Tonto National Forest. Praise God!