Full Circle

Full Circle

My Elk Hunt   

   Midway through my senior year of high school, I had a plan: work for the summer, save money, quit my job, and hunt all fall. I was tired of school and just wanted to hunt. With no other obligations and plenty of ambition, drive, and a touch of stupidity, I went for it.

   I vividly remember driving home from work on August 29, 1997, after my last shift at the grocery store, blasting Collective Soul on the radio of my old Chevy; I was pumped to be going elk hunting for a whole month. When I got home, I threw everything into the truck and headed for the mountains to meet my dad and his friends, who already had base camp set up.

28 days

    For the next 28 days, I don’t remember much other than chasing and messing up on many bulls. At the time, I loved nothing more than hunting elk with my dad, so to say I was in heaven would be an understatement.

    On the morning of September 27, I finally felt worn down from the long days of chasing elk with little sleep and no breaks, but I was committed to finishing out the season. The previous day, I had hunted alone in one of our favorite canyons and seen a couple of bulls and some cows across the way. The following day, Dad and I headed back there.

Dad and I

   As we climbed in the gray morning light, the bulls were bugling, so we moved closer. Finally, the two bulls we chased came close together, and I assume a fight occurred. When it was over, the herd came out on the ridge adjacent to us, and a different bull from the previous day had the small herd of cows. After they went over the hill, we spotted the bull who had previously had the herd. He was all by himself on a bare ridge below where the herd had disappeared.

   He was around 1,000 yards away. For the heck of it, Dad let out an estrus call on his Sceery cow call. The bull lifted his head, bugled, and started walking our way. Thinking there was no way that bull would  close that distance, we just sat and watched as he disappeared into the timber, still bugling several hundred yards beneath us. Soon, though, he bugled much closer, and Dad said, “We better get set up because he sounds like he’s coming!”

The Bull is Coming

   I moved to the edge of a small opening with some shooting lanes as Dad dropped back to call. Soon, I saw antler tips moving along the edge of the clearing and watched in disbelief as the bull approached my setup. After a month of hard hunting, I couldn't believe it was about to happen. The bull stepped into my shooting lane at 15 yards, and that was all it took.

   Killing that 6x7 bull with my dad that day is one of my fondest memories. I spent my childhood years camping, fishing, and hunting in this country, and finally, I bow-killed a bull elk in this place, which is so special to my family and me. Since then, I have had the privilege of sharing this special place with family and friends and eventually with my wife, her family, and now my children. It is a place near and dear to us, and we love spending time there.

 Coming Full Circle

   This past fall, my daughter Reese drew a rifle bull tag in the area, and as always, I was beyond excited for another chance to share this place with my family. I spent the fall bowhunting and killed a nice five-point in mid-September. I spent the rest of the season hunting with my son and some friends while also using the time to scout for the October rifle hunt.

   We had some close calls at the tail end of bow season, but no bulls were killed. I had seen some nice bulls, but nothing overly big. The past winter was hard on the elk, and we hadn’t seen any of the top-end bulls we usually see, so we knew finding a truly big bull during Reese’s hunt wouldn’t be likely, but we still planned on hunting hard to find a nice bull.

Gotta Pass

   Working with high school kids' schedules is never easy, but we managed to sneak a few days in over the first couple of weekends. We saw plenty of elk and passed on smaller bulls, but no shots were fired. One evening, we set up in a meadow where a big bull had been feeding in the evenings during late September. An hour before dark, a bull started bugling across the meadow in the timber. Soon, several cows fed into the meadow, followed by what I assumed would be the nice six-point bull we had been seeing, but I quickly realized it was a small five-point making the ruckus. Reese decided to pass on him, so we watched them until dark and backed out of the area.

   Brianna couldn’t go with us the following Saturday morning, so Reese and I tried a hunt where we had seen a nice bull the weekend before. I spotted the nice six-point across the drainage when we set up to glass. Along with his small harem of cows, he was feeding up the mountain towards the timber, trying to beat the morning sunshine that was tailing them. I told Reese we had to go now and cut some distance fast.

Get Going

   We ran off the mountain, crossed the creek, and scrambled up the steep bank. We broke out of the timber and could see the elk, further up the sidehill than I expected them to be. At 500 yards with a steep angle, I knew we needed to get closer. We moved to the side, put a big tree between us and them, and walked straight at them, cutting the distance to 350 yards. I got Reese set up to shoot, but with the steep angle, as hard as she tried, she couldn’t get steady enough to take the shot. She was understandably upset and was beating herself up pretty badly. All I could do was tell her she did the right thing by not taking the shot when she wasn’t steady and try to reassure her that we would get another chance.

Mom's Here

   Midday, Bri showed up, and I had a plan in place to hike into the canyon where the bull from that morning had gone. As we hiked up the ridge, I pointed out to Reese and Brianna where I had shot that bull and told them that my dad had called it from the ridge we were on up to that spot. As we sat and waited for an elk to show that evening, we were within yards, maybe feet, of where I initially spotted that bull with my dad 9,513 days earlier.

   As we sat and glassed that evening, I periodically cow-called. Around 6:45 p.m., thinking I had nothing to lose, I let out a desperate bugle and hoped for an answer. There was a little breeze, but I thought I heard what I wanted to hear.  A few minutes later, I bugled again; this time, I definitely heard a response. This went on for a while, and finally, I spotted the bull near where I had killed my bull so many years earlier.

Decisions, Decisions

   He and I talked back and forth while he was out of rifle range. Although not huge, the bull was a great one, but Reese wasn’t sure if she would shoot it if given the opportunity. She asked my opinion, and I said, “He’s a nice bull. We haven’t seen anything huge, but it's up to you.” I must have said the right thing to the bull about this point, though, because the bull turned downhill and headed our way. I let Reese know that whatever her decision was going to be, she better make it fast because he would be upon us soon.

   She decided she wanted to shoot him just as I said, “Here he comes.” He came out on the ridge above us at 340 yards, and I cow-called to stop him before he hit the timber. Reese was set up, and I told her, “Shoot if you are on him.” She fired, and the bull stumbled. She put another bullet in, fired again, and the bull toppled.

 A Moment We'll Never Forget

   It was getting dark fast, and my girls were freezing, but I was so jacked up I couldn’t believe what had transpired. At one point when she was younger, I wasn’t sure my daughter Reese would even hunt, but now here we were, living this unforgettable moment together. We spent the next couple of hours breaking the bull down in the beams of our headlamps. Reese kept saying how cool her mom was because she knew how to quarter an elk. Reese dove right in and did her share as well.


    On the way out that evening, I took a hind quarter, Bri a front, and Reese the extra meat. The following day, Reese, our son Tripp, Bri, and I hiked back in to carry the remaining quarters and rack off the mountain. The only thing missing to make the day perfect was our daughter Nyah, who would have loved to be there but was in college in Wyoming.

   Walking off the mountain for the second time in twelve hours with a heavy elk quarter on my back, I should have been thinking, "I am too old for this." Instead, all I could think about was how cool it was that my little family and I hunted, killed, quartered, and packed this whole elk off the mountain on our own. I smiled, knowing that it had come full circle and that the family legacy of hunting this special place is alive and well and hopefully stays that way for generations to come.


Zach Bowhay is known as a hunter and writer who has successfully hunted many species all across the western states and beyond. Specifically he is highly regarded in the western hunting community as an expert in DIY elk hunting on public lands. For 15 years he has been a well-published writer, sharing his love of the outdoors and expertise in both gear and tactics through his writing as well as video and photos. When not spending time with his wife and three kids he can be found roaming the mountains of the west in the pursuit of adventure.

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Such an awesome story! Thanks for sharing that

Chase Pearl Pearl

Great story! Thanks for taking us along! Nothing like a successful hunt with our children and grandchildren! It is a privilege to pass hunting traditions along! I thank God for the time and places to spend in His awesome creation! Great story! Thanks and we wish ya many more great hunts with your family! God bless

Michael Kilpatrick

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