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Hunting Elk in the Arizona High Country

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Bulls Above the Rim

he first light of sunrise filtered over the valley, as we began painstakingly glassing the broken timber. While half of the country was ransacking retail stores in search of “Black Friday” deals, we were picking the valley apart looking for a specific bull elk. Sam spotted the first bull, a mature six-by-six who would be considered a shooter anywhere but Arizona. The next bull was bigger yet, exceeding the size that outfitters, guides, and even the local wildlife biologist told me I should hope for in this area. Having gone home empty-handed after 20-hour hiking days on previous hunts, I was certainly tempted to put a stalk on him. Local knowledge is a powerful tool, though, and the best guy in the area was standing next to me in the snow. “That old bull has been with these guys, let’s just wait.”

Hunting elk in Arizona isn’t something that you just decide to do. Because the state is home to some of the biggest bulls in the world in terms of antler size, the demand for elk tags far exceeds the supply. Certain geographical units require decades of applications in order to draw a tag through a lottery system — even the less-desirable areas take several years if you’re a non-resident like me. Needless to say, after drawing a late-season rifle tag in the Pinetop region near the New Mexico line, I wanted to do it right.

“Trophy hunting” has become a pair of dirty words, a term that conjures up images of fat, old rich guys standing over rare species. Like the term “assault weapons,” these words are carefully chosen by PR firms to divide us, to gin up anger among the non-hunting public and to cultivate anti-hunting vitriol on social media. Let’s talk for a minute about chasing big antlers. All things being equal, big antlers mean age, and age means more muscle mass.

darcy echols riflebull elk hunt

A bull elk with a giant rack is a survivor who has used his cunning to avoid death year after year. To hunt game with the greatest antlers is to hunt the smartest and most experienced animals in the toughest terrain. When it comes to chasing mountain game, inches of horn are often measured in days spent scouting, miles hiked, and sweat produced. To hunt a true trophy animal is to play a chess game with a beast who has come out on top every time; it’s the very definition of a mental and physical challenge.

A do-it-yourself hunt in this area is very much within reason, but it wasn’t in the cards for me. The eastern border of the hunting unit is more than 1,500 miles from my home: I have a real job and three kids in diapers — scouting wasn’t an option. Not wanting to eat such a coveted tag, I set out to find the best set of local eyes in the unit, finding them with Sam Stephens of Beaver Creek Guides & Outfitters ( Sam has lived his entire life in those mountains and knows the area as well as any human. While I went about my daily rituals, Sam spent countless hours on the mountain scouting for bulls. My job was to be sure that my body and my gear were ready when the time came to perform.

It’s the preparation for such a trip that gets me out of bed every morning, a simmering fire that forces me to the gym and onto the range. I approach a hunt like this with the planning mindset of a wilderness expedition: Every piece of gear is carefully selected, each item weighed, and each tool’s suitability assessed and reassessed.

As much research as possible goes into studying local conditions — I talked to everyone I could who’d stepped foot in that unit. Each person told me the same things: Be prepared for nasty terrain, freezing cold temperatures, and the potential for very long shots. Besides making some gear tweaks to account for the specific weather and environment, I came to the conclusion that a mission-specific rifle was in order.

Everything is a trade-off in the mountains. Going in light gives you mobility, but you might freeze and starve as a result. Rifles are no different; a featherweight long gun is great for packing but can be a liability when it comes to making really tough shots from field positions. With the research indicating that precision shooting could be a key element in the success or failure of this hunt, I chose to go light on my gear and a tad heavier on the rifle. Most of all, the setup needed to be utterly reliable under any conditions. I’m fortunate that one of the most talented gunmakers on the planet is a friend.

field dressing elk

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