It had been five years since I hunted with my favorite hunting partner and father, Mike Patrick. I had plenty of excuses; moving around the country for the Army, getting a new job during hunting season, and long distance. So in the fall of 2018, I was really looking forward to my dad drawing a non-resident Montana deer tag. We would have five days together chasing deer again. I could not wait.
It was a shock when my dad texted me that he did not get drawn for a non-resident deer tag. For the first time, Montana had more non-resident applications than it had tags. To say I was bummed out was an understatement. I felt precious memories and time ticking away. I already missed five years of hunting with Dad; I didn’t want a sixth.
A few weeks passed before my dad and brother-in-law, Scott, called to report they drew a trophy bull tag as a party in their home state of Washington. I was happy for them and wished I could join. I had urged my father for years to take up archery elk hunting, my favorite passion. This would be Dad’s first year hunting a branch antlered bull with a bow.
Days later it dawned on me, I had requested ten days off work for my own elk hunt the exact same time Dad’s hunt was scheduled. I decided to hang my bow at home, drive to Washington, and spend my vacation time getting Dad a bull. I called him up and gave him the news. Just hearing the excitement in his voice made it all worthwhile.
Months passed and the excitement grew. I was impressed with Dad’s work ethic. By the time the season started he was in great shape, his calling had improved dramatically, and he was shooting his bow consistently. He was ready.
Finally, the long awaited day arrived and I drove to Garfield, Washington from Bozeman, Montana. After meeting up with Dad, we drove the rest of the way to his elk unit in central Washington. As we pulled onto the road leading to camp and the rest of our party, we got a surprise. A mule deer doe wandered aimlessly across the gravel road ahead. As she disappeared in the dark, a mountain lion dove off the dirt bank above and bounded after the doe, just a leap behind. We had interrupted the stealthy beast’s stalk, but our hunt was already off the ground with a great memory.
We woke early the next morning with a plan to hike several miles from camp, but the plan quickly changed. As we rubbed sleep from our eyes and poured steaming coffee, we were instantly on full alert. Two bulls were bugling below camp. We decided not to leave these elk and waited for daylight to begin our pursuit.
Our lacking knowledge of the area led us on a wild goose chase circumnavigating a swamp. We never laid eyes on the bulls and they eventually quit talking for the morning. A wild-eyed cow hunter emerged from the swamp. He excitedly informed us of a behemoth he just encountered. The hunter assured us it was a 7x7 bull of a lifetime. We worked the area a short time longer, but shifting winds urged us to move on.
Dad and I walked over 20 miles that day. By the end of it, we were both dragging feet and I was sure Dad would never want to hunt elk with me again! We stumbled into camp with 30 minutes of daylight left. Never one to waste a moment of hunting light, I looked below camp and then urged Dad to sit in the swamp for last light. The man I learned work ethic from agreed and we hustled down to the edge of a small meadow nearby.
After only ten minutes, I looked past Dad and through a line of timber leading into another meadow. Was there a flicker of movement? I didn’t say a word but continued watching. Then, I was confident! I was sure elk were in the next meadow. I tapped Dad on his shoulder and whispered, “There’s elk over there.”
With shooting light waning, we got up and pushed forward. We slowed as we approached the line of timber. Suddenly, elk were thundering all around. We ran forward. I screamed a challenge bugle and began making distressed cow sounds. A bull bugled in response, very close. I let out a bull-calling-cows bugle and Dad pushed into the treeline. The herd bull, growing angry, responded again. This time, I cut him off mid-insult and threw back the meanest challenge I could muster. That did it; I saw an enormous tan body stalking through the dark timber. As I wrapped myself around a tree trunk, trying to hide, the bull of a lifetime emerged into the meadow, raging for a fight. It was unbelievable. The great king of the swamp marched forth, confident in his ability to destroy whatever intruder threatened his harem.
Dad, still in the tree line, moved perfectly. As the bull passed behind a tree, Dad took a step to his left, came to full draw, and released at 20 yards. “Thwack!” The shot sounded good and I began cow calling. The bull stopped to look back, turned in a circle, then disappeared into the forest.
I ran to Dad and almost jumped on him in my excitement. I exclaimed, “Do you know what you just did!?” Dad was excited but did not celebrate too much. He wanted to see the bull was down for sure.
Knowing I would need a flashlight and having lost mine that morning, I ran to camp while Dad looked for his arrow. By the time I got back, it was dark. We took up the blood trail. After 60 yards, the blood started to thin and I began to feel a tightness in my stomach. After another 40 yards, a glimmer caught my eye through the timber. It was him! He was down.
Our initial response was awe. This bull was truly a monarch of the forest, a rare and precious gift. After further celebration and pictures, the real work began. We were back in camp with Dad’s bull by one in the morning.
Surprisingly, Scott and his friend, Rick, were just getting back to camp. Scott had called in a beautiful 6x6 earlier in the afternoon for Rick six miles from camp. The celebration continued as stories were exchanged. Fortunately, sleep came quickly when I finally lay down in my sleeping bag that night. It had been a full day.
The memories continued to build at home as we again shared the stories with family. My mother worked hard in helping break down the bull at home into tidy packages of steaks and burger. This bull would feed the family well over the next year.
This hunt truly turned into the hunt of a lifetime. I am most thankful for the memories with which God blessed us, as well as the camaraderie of the camp. I learned this year it is not about filling your own tag; it’s about the people you make memories with.