I could feel it as much as I could hear it. Less than seventy yards away there he stood, screaming towards us looking for a fight. We were in thick timber on the side of an old road that snaked along a ridge back into the holler. He had stopped bugling by now, a look of bewilderment on his face as he searched for the bull he expected to be there. He stood there, in the middle of the road facing us for what seemed like an eternity. It was now or never. Our guide, JR, told mhy son Ryley to shoot. I whispered words of encouragement in his ear. BOOM, the air split apart, as if lightning had shot out of the end of the barrel. The Savage Axis compact had been bought just a few weeks prior for precisely this moment. The elk just stood there staring at us; a miss.
Month’s earlier I had entered Ryley into the Kentucky Elk Draw with over 35,000 other people. As luck would have it, he drew one of ten youth either-sex tags; the only one allowed for an out-of-state youth. I found various sources of information on what to expect when it comes to elk hunting, most from a western state slant. I reached out to several internet bloggers who had attempted the feat without a guide, I wanted to get their take on hunting elk on public land, in Kentucky, with an 11 yr old. I even found this article on the Kentucky Fish & Wildlife website. In the end I decided that this was indeed a hunt of a lifetime and I owed it to my son to give him the best odds at filling his tag. I started my search in earnest for a reputable guide that could accommodate a youth hunter in the field, with his limitations, while also still having a chance at a successful harvest. I immediately went to Fin & Field to start my search. Looking back, I am glad I did.
I stumbled upon Lost Mountain Outfitters, a full service guide for elk, deer, and turkey out of Somerset, KY. Every year, for the entire elk season, they establish an elk camp right in the heart of one of the best hunting units in Kentucky, the Hazard Limited Entry Area. This happened to be the unit Ryley drew. I gave the owner a call to discuss what LMO had to offer and whether or not they would be a good fit for Ryley and me. Hurley had exactly what we wanted; a place to stay, access to public and private land within the Hazard LEA, and years of experience guiding clients of all ages on their first elk hunt. After the initial call, which lasted about a half an hour, I knew that this was the man I wanted my son to hunt with.
The plan was simple; we would arrive on Thursday evening and spend the day on Friday scouting for bulls. Saturday we would hunt the low light in the morning and evening and hopefully catch a bull while he was out of the timber so that Ryley could take his time and make a good shot. It’s funny how things never seem to go as planned.
The truck had been packed for weeks. The gun was dialed in and Ryley had spent time practicing with the 7mm-08, 139gr Hornady Superformance bullets. With a hopeful heart and a tag in hand we headed off to the Bluegrass state for a chance at an elk. From the moment we arrived at elk camp we were treated like one of the family; food is in the fridge, drinks are in the coolers, make yourself at home. We spent the next morning unpacking our gear and preparing for the hunt. We sat around getting to know all the other hunters and guides in camp. As the sun started to set we headed out the door to try and lay our eyes on some elk. We spent the next hour or so glassing the reclaimed strip mines for any sign of life and came up empty. Not entirely discouraged we headed back to camp for some food and entertainment; Kentucky bluegrass.
The next morning we woke up early with the prospect of seeing our first elk and hopefully being able to get Ryley close enough to make a clean ethical shot on a bull. As the sun started to ascend in the sky things did look promising. We had two cow elk about 300 yards below our berm making their way towards the timber. As we continued to glass, our guide, saw two bulls on a knoll across the way from us. We quietly backed off the berm and decided to take a chance and get closer.
As we approached the two bulls we were able to catch a glimpse of them on the hill top before they disappeared into the timber. Knowing it was probably not going to be successful we still gave chase, trying to bugle and cow call the elk back towards us. We gave up after about an hour when it became apparent they were not going to come our way. We spent the rest of the morning scouting the mine area and trying to see if we could get any elk to bugle and give away their hiding spots; none ever did.
After a delicious lunch prepared by Hurley’s wife, Jackie, we settled in for a nap before heading out for the evening hunt. Neither Ryley nor I could get much sleep as the first elk of the season was brought in. This seemed to give Ryley an initial boost upon seeing a full sized elk in camp but it lead to a little bit of disappointment because we hadn’t seen much on our first foray that morning. The hours ticked away and no other bulls had come in to camp by the time the sun began to set. We packed our gear up and went back out to the same spot we had glassed that morning trying to make an elk materialize out of sheer determination. After about an hour of glassing JR turned behind us and caught a glimpse of a cow elk high up on a ridge feeding her way out into the open. He was sure that if there was one elk up there at the timber edge, there were more elk behind her and it would only be a matter of time before they started to ease their way into the open. I took this time to show Ryley how to glass for elk, handing him my pair of Vortex binoculars. I let him try and find the cow that JR had spotted. Within a few minutes he was on her and his spirits rose. For the next half an hour we played a game of passing the binos back and forth. We checked on her to make sure no other elk had snuck out while we weren’t paying attention. I caught movement out of my eye and suddenly my heart skipped a beat, only to be dashed by the sight of a Game Warden from Kentucky Fish & Wildlife there to check and make sure we had all of our proper paperwork. By the time we finished chatting with him it was evident that no other elk were coming out to feed so we packed up and headed back to camp a little frustrated and a whole lot tired.
The plan had been to repeat what we had done the previous morning. We knew there were elk in that area and two bulls at that. If we were patient we would get our chance at one of them sooner or later, we had plenty of time to hunt as Ryley’s youth tag allowed him to hunt in any open season, not just the first week of rifle.
During our morning discussion with the guides we learned that two other elk had been brought in during the middle of the night. Preliminary reports were that this was going to be a difficult week to hunt as most of the bulls had found a herd of cows and were now trying to cut some away from the heard to take them back to their breeding grounds. With some new information we agreed to change tactics and see if we could cover some ground in the side-by-side and locate some bulls in the timber. We loaded up our gear in the darkness and headed out.
As we raced through the darkness in the woods the cold air chilled our bones. This was a good sign, a nice temperature drop might help kickstart some of the rut behavior in the bulls. We would stop every so often and bugle, straining to hear a response. We kept this up until the sun came up and lightened the sky to a pale blue. Now was the time to put boots on the ground and sneak out to the woods edge to see if we could catch a glimpse of an elk to determine where they were bedding during the daytime. After about three hours of gassing and riding around we decided to make our way back to camp. Every once in a while we would stop and bugle, hoping and praying to get a response. At about 9:00am we got a response and it was close.
We jumped out of the side-by-side and scrambled our way up the steep mountainside desperately trying to gain some ground on the elk so that we could locate him quickly. It’s amazing how an echo can travel such a long way while still sounding like it is right there next to you. We had either bumped the elk while we tried to scramble up through the timber or more than likely he wasn’t where we thought he was because of the echoes bouncing around the holler. We decided to stay for a few more minutes and make our way to some higher ground with a better vantage point, but also a place where the echoes wouldn’t confuse us as much.
After a few cow calls we had two bulls bugling high up in the timber to our left. A few moments of silence and we had another bull on our right bugling a response to the two elk across the way. We sat there for about another half an hour, calling here and there listening to what would end up being five bulls bugling at each other. It was truly a spectacular experience to be in the middle of that type of display. Unfortunately for us, even with our cow calls, we couldn’t move and of those bulls towards us. With a heavy heart JR and I decided it was time to pack it in for the morning and head back to camp. Ryley, however, didn’t want to leave. To him we had five bulls within our reach and we needed to stay and wait for them to come out. We promised him we would come back later that evening in hopes of coaxing one of them down off the mountain. Ryley was crestfallen and completely angry with me that I had decided to leave what he thought was our only chance at a bull. He told me that if we left we wouldn’t end up coming back that night; he ended up being right.
As we drove back to camp, up and down the mountain, through creeks and mud holes, I explained to JR how Ryley had gotten upset at us leaving that spot. He chuckled and told me that was a good sign, a sign that he really WANTED a bull. He assured me we still had all week and that he would get Ryley on a bull.
The Longest Mile
On our way down the mountain we stopped at a fork in the trail. JR hopped out to bugle like he had done countless times before. Only this time someone answered. JR whispered urgently for us to get out of the side-by-side immediately, get the gun and shooting sticks and get ready. He called a second time and immediately received a response. We couldn’t see anything through the canopy of leaves but we could hear him across the ravine that separated us, no more than 400 yards away. It was time to see if we could sneak up on him in his bedroom and get him to come out and play.
We crept silently and slowly along the old overgrown trail. JR explained that it used to be an old four wheeling trail the locals had cut into the mountainside just below the ridge and that it wound itself over towards where the bull was bedded. If we kept quiet and got lucky we could get a chance at him.
I cannot tell you how far we walked. It felt like forever but in reality I know we didn’t walk more than a quarter of a mile; just far enough to lose sight of the side-by-side. But we continued to make ground little by little and every once in a while JR would cow call just to make sure the bull was still where we thought he was. Finally we reach a spot in the road that formed an “S” and JR knew that if we could set up here and call the bull to us that this would allow us to basically stay hidden from view while sitting on the side of the trail. I set Ryley’s shooting stick up on the inside of the first curve in the road and knelt down to help hold up the shooting sticks. I also wanted to be there to help work the action if needed. This wasn’t going to be an ideal shot like Ryley and I had practiced; broadside at 100 yards with vitals exposed. No this tactic was going to draw the bull right to us, head on. Ryley’s margin for error had increased ten-fold.
As we settled in JR hit the cow call again. This time though, when the bull began to bugle in response, JR bugled over the top of him, challenging him. The response was immediate and loud. Within a minute the bull had closed half the distance and JR could hear him coming towards us down the trail. Another bugle as he cut the distance in half again. By now I could see leaves moving in the distance. I told Ryley to get ready, he was coming. I could see feet as the bull made his way around the bend, bugling as he came.
The bull just stood there, looking down the road right past us. JR’s plan had worked, we were sitting right out in the open but the bull was looking past us, down the road we had just traveled. In disbelief, not only that Ryley had missed, but that the bull was still standing there. I helped him load another round in the chamber and helped steady the sticks. The seconds ticket by in agony and I just knew the bull was going to spot us and run before Ryley could squeeze the trigger.
I was jarred out of daydream by the thunder of the gun, BOOM. This time I knew he hit the mark as I saw tufts of hair explode off the bull’s chest. He dropped him in his tracks. We both looked at each other in amazement. Thankfully JR was paying attention to the bull, he yelled at us to put another round in the bull. At this point, Ryley and I fumbled with getting another round chambered and getting the rifle on the sticks. The bull was thrashing now, moving his head all over the place to where Ryley couldn’t get a clean shot because his head kept moving that enormous rack back and forth. Then suddenly he stopped moving and stood straight up, broadside. It was now or never, if Ryley didn’t shoot quickly, the bull was going to run off and force a long recovery effort. Thankfully, Ryley managed to connect with another shot and the bull went down hard, right over the bank and down the ridge! We could hear him thrashing and crashing as he slid down the hillside. By the time we got to the point where he went over the side, he was now 40 yards below us, rear-end first. Somehow, on his way down he had managed to flip his head uphill, gotten his rear-end resting on a rotten stump and his antlers hung up on a sapling; stopping his slide down the mountain to a place we wouldn’t have been able to recover him from.
With the Kentucky bull-of-a-lifetime below us I turned to Ryley who was now looking up to Heaven giving thanks to God and the elk for allowing us to have that moment in time. When he looked at me his smile was from ear to ear and he gave me two thumbs up, his now classic sign of a successful hunt. Over the next few ours we recovered the bull and drove him back to camp for all to see.
Looking back on the experience I honestly don’t know how we would have done it on our own. We wouldn’t have had a place to stay, known where to look, have had the access to prime habitat or the help in pulling an 800 pound beast out of the Appalachian Mountains. We simply wouldn’t have been successful without Lost Mountain Outfitters and Fin & Field. If you find yourself with a Kentucky elk tag, or if you want help in locating a prime landowner tag, head on over to Fin & Field and give LMO a call for the elk hunt of a lifetime!
Guest Blogger Shawn McCardell
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