By Michael Deming
As we left our home in southern Utah for the opener of Arizona rifle elk season, the anticipation was high. There was good reason for it. Tag drought and the water drought had finally ended after numerous years in this arid country. Trail camera photos we were seeing were nothing short of spectacular. You could almost watch antlers grow before your very eyes. Arizona manages for some great quality and when everything aligns, you can expect a hunt of a lifetime.
My good friend and shooting buddy Shane Adair or "Long-Range Shane" as we like to refer to him had been applying for a quarter of a century for this tag. We have been watching some of the specific units known for throwing off big bulls year after year and just kept hoping for some good spring and summer moisture. Knowing that some of these units rotate an early rifle season in the heart of the rut is what dreams are made of. To have giant bugling bulls screaming is super exciting. To have a rifle in hand during this time and have the ability to shoot a gnat at over a half a mile consistently really tips the odds in your favor of finding and harvesting a bull of a lifetime.
The hard part was done by February and Shane knew that he had the tag in hand and the moisture and feed levels were good. However, the day to day life of running a business and a family sure hinders your ability to scout and get the most out of your tag when you aren’t hunting your own backyard. Here is where you have to make a decision. Do I hire a proven outfitter or make as many scouting trips as possible and hope for the best? What outfitter do you hire and who do you trust with all of those points to get the most out of it? Since I do outfitter evaluations for a living, I provided some recommendations for Shane to consider. Shane Koury of Koury Guide Service is a name that kept coming up in all of my research as a person who constantly delivered on top quality animals. The past customers I talked to assured us that he wasn’t the kind of guy that sold the biggest bulls to the highest bidder. He didn’t boast about his success, lived in the area, and had years and years of success. Shane’s brother had also provided some feedback on Mr. Koury and that was about all he needed to book his hunt.
Every week Shane would send email photos of the elk that were hitting their trail cameras. It was obvious that some giants were developing and it made waiting for September a daunting task. It finally arrived and we were ready to make the most of the quarter century wait.
Opening morning, September 13th, was hot and a full moon, so not exactly what you want. You just have to play the cards you are dealt. We unloaded the Polaris and motored down the dirt road to a vantage point. We had our guide Ken Owens, Shane -shooter, Travis-brother, Bailey-daughter, and me. The minute we shut the motor off, we could hear the basin screaming with bugles. They were in a frenzy of activity and just what you would expect with such a pristine tag in hand. The jackpines were very thick and finding any sort of opening to view and judge a bull was nearly impossible. You would see glimpses of antlers anywhere from 500 to 1,500 yards and it was obvious that we had well over a dozen bulls in this basin. Shane had harvested a bull in the 390s numerous years before and had his sights set on something equal to or greater on this hunt. By the time the morning temps had headed up to the mid 70s, we felt that we had evaluated every bull in this basin at least enough to know that there wasn’t anything of this caliber with this large group. However, there were some solid shooters that most would be very happy with. It was obvious that our outfitter had done his homework and had us into the elk.
Shane Koury had nearly a half a dozen hunters in the field on this opening morning and by the time we got back into town to eat, the photos started flying of some of the other's success. The success is bittersweet as each giant that hits the deck is one less bull for us to have a crack at. However, it also means that we have additional guides and eyes to help us find the bull we are looking for.
By the end of the first day, we had looked at over 40 bulls and a couple of them were pushing that 370” range, but nothing worth putting that hard-earned tag on. This was truly a hunt of a lifetime and something I was enjoying just being a spectator. Shane’s daughter Bailey was getting a serious education on trophy elk hunting. The experience of being out with her dad and doing something they both loved provided an enhanced memory.
Day 2 had us thirty miles away from day one’s location and much flatter terrain when the sun came up. You could hear the bulls bugling once again and we were fairly close to a handful of them. It was too dark to see what they were, but Ken told us of a giant bull he had seen hitting this water hole. He thought that he was a 9X8 and possibly in the caliber that we wanted to harvest. As the eastern sky started to light up, we could see shapes moving up the valley. We slowly moved that direction and by the time we had gotten within rifle range for Shane, it was obvious that whatever bull this was, had definitely built up a harem. I could see at least 40 cows, but had yet to see the bull running them. We had closed the gap to less than 500 yards when I finally caught a glimpse of antlers. I had the spotting scope on him when he came out into the open. He was a breath-taking bull and was definitely a 10X8. He was a main frame 8X7 with extra points on each side. All of his points were long and skinny except his G3s which were likely only 6-7” long. I felt like this was a bull worthy of shooting, but it wasn’t my tag and Shane turned his nose up at those short G3 tines. As he skylined, he provided a memory that won’t soon fade. Another morning came to a close without Shane pulling the trigger, but two more of Shane Koury’s clients had harvested a couple more giants and one that exceeded the 400” mark.
Every day we had multiple encounters with great bulls, but just not those giant bulls we are looking for. As my grandfather always told me, they don’t get big by being stupid. Shane decided to send us into an area that had a big 400-plus bull they had been watching. He would bed on property that we couldn’t hunt, but would frequently jump the fence and come drink out of a water hole that was huntable. Shane had pulled some trail cameras on the water and the bull had hit the tank two days in a row and in daylight hours. As the sun started to fade, you could hear the frenzy of bugling down on the private property, but one bugle kept getting closer. We had high hopes that it was our giant coming for a drink. By the time the growler got to the fence, we were about out of daylight and instead of jumping the fence, he walked the fence line and disappeared back onto the private land. It was like his sixth sense kicked in and decided that this is a very bad idea. Shane saw enough to know that this was a bull he would be willing to put his tag on, so we spent the next three days playing chess with this big boy. He always seemed to be one move ahead of us.
We never in a million years thought we would take this hunt to the last day of the season. The good thing is that we got to see a lot of elk and got the most out of this tag and the family experience. The decision to go back to the water hole and hope for one chance at the giant or go look for another bull was a decision we didn’t take lightly. Shane shoots long range better than anyone I know and a 1,000 yard shot is more like a 200 yard shot for most and sitting the water hole with likely a 100 yard shot wasn’t using his strengths to its’ fullest. We finally made the decision to try another area. Fortunately for us, Shane Koury had spotters everywhere and had some solid bulls located and we just needed a break.
As we got out of bed for our final day of hunting, a storm was brewing and brought with it some solid 20-25 MPH winds. Definitely not what you want for a long range shot if one presents itself. We were on a perch overlooking a huge flat with lots of pinion juniper trees and cactus. We could hear some faint bugles as the wind wasn’t in our favor. When it got light enough to see, Ken spotted a lone bull moving through the trees over a mile away. I was able to get the scope on him enough to know he had a great top end, but I couldn’t see anything else. By nine in the morning, we had seen over a dozen bulls and the biggest was the one we saw at first light. Ken said he felt like he knew where he would bed up, but it was going to be up to Shane. Bailey wanted to see something hit the dirt and might have been the driving force to get dad to go after this guy on our last day. About an hour later, Shane had maneuvered the Polaris into the area Ken felt the bull was bedded. Sure enough, ten minutes later Ken found a tine in the brush half a mile away. I got the spotter on him and it was obvious this was the bull. He had great 4th and 5th points, but we couldn’t see anything else. It was going to be a waiting game.
We had good cover to about 650 yards and there was also a good shooting perch to get into the prone position. However, the wind was a solid 20 MPH. As I picked through the brush with the spotter, I realized that this guy had a whole herd of cows there. About an hour of sitting and waiting, the bull finally stood up and repositioned himself to bed in some new shade. He was a pretty darn good bull, but not the 390” bull he waited so long to harvest.
We discussed the situation in detail. We could shoot this bull here or go back to the water hole one last evening and hope luck changed or go after something totally different. This was a challenging shot and Shane decided that if the bull stood up again, he was going to put his tag on this guy. As if on cue, I could see his antlers rocking and he stood. He was quartering away hard and provided a horrible shot. As he started to move out of sight, Ken let out a bugle and turned the bull just a hair and Shane sent the bullet. It was a precision shot right through the lung, but with the extreme angle, it was likely only one lung. He stopped at nearly 700 yards and Shane piped another round into the boiler room. The bull jumped and came running back towards us and Shane pounded him on the run one more time just to insure he didn’t drop into the canyon. Six hundred and fifty-yards, 20 mile per hour full value wind, and 3 connecting shots. This was some of the most impressive shooting I’ve ever gotten to experience.
As we pulled up to the bull, it was a very special family moment for Bailey and her dad. He wasn’t the bull Shane had waited 25 years to harvest, but the family experience makes up for a few inches. After all, it isn’t all about the inches and more about the experience. I will guarantee that Bailey had an experience that will last long after her father is gone.