Elk NetworkThe Books – A young elk guide kills a bull big enough for the record books. Why would he, or any hunter, bother to enter it?

Bugle , Conservation | September 4, 2018

I slowly nocked an arrow. The cow that had me pinned finally broke her stare. I was looking to a cluster of trees to my left waiting for the bull to show himself.

“Whoa,” I said under my breath as it stepped out from behind cover.

The heavy, long-tined rack he carried was not what I expected. As long as he kept walking my way he would give me a shot.

I had never killed a bull with a bow before, and like I tell my clients, “Any elk is a trophy.” Even so, I couldn’t help but critique him even though I was going to shoot him. “Great fourths. Fifths are weak, narrow. Good mass and length,” I thought to myself. The score didn’t matter, even though the automatic part of my mind was adding numbers together. Head held high, he seemed impossibly large as he walked across the meadow toward me. Somewhere, another cow mewed. The bull bugled, steam rolling out of his mouth. I felt naked, completely exposed in the early morning meadow grass. He looked me over, maybe thinking I was a stunted tree or broken snag. He continued, crossing through some willows and stepping out at 40 yards. I was waiting at full draw. The string rolled off my fingers and I lost sight of the arrow about half-way through the flight. I heard it strike hide and flesh, though, and by his desperate escape, I knew I had touched him.

I have killed for meat, for horns, for pelts, for mercy—reasons tangible and intangible. The nature of hunters and the hunt seems to be one of duality. Killing what we respect. The desire for solitude and camaraderie. We chase horns but then reject worshiping scores. At the end of the day however, I am a trophy hunter in every iteration. I hunt for trophy heads. I hunt for trophy meat. I hunt for trophy experiences. Perhaps my most basic, primal reason for hunting is that I like to watch animals—to be close to them. To walk their trails, to smell their beds, to be where they live.

My home state of Montana grants us with a generous eleven weeks of big game hunting—not including new “shoulder seasons.” Not to brag, but if I took the first animal I saw, my season would be woefully short. It’s simply the nature of the work I’m in. Part of the reason I trophy hunt is it allows me to keep hunting, to keep watching animals, following them. There is a challenge to selective harvest—a self-imposed standard I hold myself to. I am enthralled by horns and antlers, and the bigger they are, the more enraptured I am. Besides, that’s why they have those racks, to show off and to impress. It certainly works on me.

When I approached the dead bull, I didn’t holler or pump my fists. I knelt down by his head, hand on his frost-covered antlers and tried to stay in that moment for as long as I could. It’s a collision of excitement, adrenaline, sorrow, relief. It is nexus of all things, the crux on which the hunt hinges. T.S. Eliot wrote about the frustration and impotence of modernity saying, “Would it have been worthwhile…to have squeezed the universe into a ball, to roll it toward some overwhelming question?” I’m sure we’ll never know what that overwhelming question is, but I know what the answer feels like.

As the sun began to break over the mountains, I didn’t think much about score in that meadow as I skinned and quartered the bull. Busy with the work of cutting and hauling, I made sure to sit and admire his antlers—heavy, somewhere between the color of milk chocolate and mahogany. I ran my hand over the burrs, still sticky and impregnated with the scent of pines. I felt the beams transition to the smooth ivory tips. When I returned home, I slapped a quick tape to the horns. When I saw my initial estimate in the field was low, I ran the tape over them again—this time more deliberate, more precise. When the same number came up again, suddenly the record books came to the front of my mind.

Record of Improvement

The clients I guide and most of you reading this know about the record books. I’ve noticed that when a hunter kills a really big bull, as soon as I mention entering it in the record books, the enthusiasm disappears. I hear everything from “why bother?” to “they’re getting you with the entry fee.” Hearing this often enough made me stop to wonder: indeed why bother? I certainly didn’t need my name in some book. And yet I remember as a young boy dreaming of one day taking an animal large enough to enter in the record books, because in my young mind having an animal in the record book equated to being a good hunter.

With animals now in both books, I can tell you that the actual scores mean very little to me. I feel a sense of pride for having hunted and killed those animals well. But for me, having an animal in the record books doesn’t add anything to the animal itself, but rather the animal adds to the record books. I feel a connection to all those other hunters—that I’ve contributed to something larger than myself. That bull or that sheep isn’t just squirreled away in the corner of my home, hidden from the world.

In the course of writing this piece, I spoke with Joe Bell, executive director at the Pope and Young (P&Y) Club. I asked him why I should bother to enter my bull. He explained that by entering an animal into the book, a hunter gives back to science, to conservation and to the sport. According to Bell, the records originally were designed to show the effectiveness of archery equipment by compiling a formal database during a time that archery equipment was thought not to be very effective on big game. Keeping records was P&Y Club’s way to legitimize the sport.

In keeping with that beginning, P&Y entry forms include a score form using the Boone and Crockett (B&C) Club’s system, and it includes a Fair Chase Affidavit. It asks all the same questions that we eagerly ask our buddies when they are successful: How far was the shot? How many shots? Where did you hit him? How far did he go? Was it cold?

“It’s a database that basically encapsulates specific details about an archery harvest while recognizing a great mature animal of that species and the hunter,” says Bell. The entry fee is used to maintain the records, but some of it goes to support their mission of conservation and bowhunter education projects.   

Hunting Trophies

Hunting and conservation are two sides of the same coin, with trophy hunting often being the pinnacle of the North American Model of Conservation. In trophy hunting, hunters select only mature males to preserve the robust population structures we have worked so hard to build over the last century. Readers of this department know how hunting dollars are boons to local economies, that they fund fish and game departments and fuel conservation organizations. Yet we often forget our record-keeping legacy.

The B&C club was fundamental in establishing bag limits, seasons and putting an end to market hunting—a practice that devastated North America’s wildlife. The record books were a way to not only incentivize the hunting of mature males, but to track the health of decimated populations. The reason we have the ability to hunt for meat (any-elk tags) is because at a time when wildlife populations were at an all-time low, we shifted away from killing the young and females of a species to mature males, says Justin Spring, director of Big Game Records at the B&C Club. In many places, we now have the opportunity to shoot the first buck or cow that walks by only because we took pressure off those animals so long ago and allowed their populations to climb back, much in the same way catch and release transformed fishing and fisheries management.

For the B&C Club, the minimum scores designate the top end of the potential for that species. The P&Y Club sets their minimums as legitimate benchmarks for archery hunters, scores that are realistic and feasible with archery equipment. Every animal entered, every new data point, moves that trend ever so slightly in a new direction or reinforces the current trend. Much in the same way your annual dues to the RMEF aren’t the big flashy donations, rather they’re the bread and butter, the building blocks. If the data set contained only the top five animals for every species it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful and it would really just be a bragging board.

I have seen hunting trips ruined by men who put too much emphasis on the wrong part of the hunt. It’s hard to face the downcast look when you tell them that the bull that they watched for hours, climbed over ridges and through blowdown to make a great shot on won’t reach that magic number they had their heart set on. They slowly tilt and turn the rack and say, “Well, I’m still happy with him.” But as they walk past their buddies you hear them say, “I thought he was bigger.”

Record-Book Experience

As a guide, I get the gamut of hunters through camp: from meat hunters to guys who will leave with un-notched tags rather than take a small bull. We all hunt for a host of reasons, but most of us are motivated by a combination of factors that create an experience we seek.

 “That’s what I came for,” a hunter told me as we stood over his spike bull. He wasn’t talking about his bull, but rather the last hour of rut-crazed action we had just experienced. We had stumbled into a vocal herd moving through scrub timber. Every time I bugled or cow called, four bulls would take turns answering. After getting in close, we worked the herd bull into a frenzy. When he finally came in bugling and raking trees, he stopped behind some small junipers, not 40 yards away. The other bulls circled off to our sides, coming in behind us, bugling the whole time. We had three bulls within 50 yards. After nearly two minutes at full draw my hunter let down, and the herd bull spooked. Seconds later a spike presented a great shot and my hunter killed his first elk. It’s moments like that that keep us dreaming of next September.

So on a cold December afternoon, I brought my bull into the Boone and Crockett headquarters in Missoula, Montana. The bull was set on the table and a measurer walked in with an armful of tools: tapes, cables, scotch-tape, levels. Nothing about official scoring is rushed; it’s a methodical, meticulous process even for my run-of-the-mill bull. Justin Spring agreed to meet with me while my bull was scored.

We talked a bit about the measuring process, which is designed around a typical bull’s frame. A “typical” score rewards symmetry, not abnormalities. The idea is that the scoring system rewards the best management: the proper population structure, forage and age-class diversity.

Soon the conversation turned to hunting—the ones that got away, the ones we’re still chasing. When the numbers were eventually tallied on my bull, pertinent information was recorded, and I received an official score. I filled out my Fair Chase Affidavit and sent it in along with my entry fee.

The bull now hangs on the wall in our front room across from a gorgeous bighorn. I framed the entry certificates for both of them and hung them next to the mounts. They remind me of the days when, as a boy, I spent an inordinate amount of time ogling the displays at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History—dreaming of faraway places, learning about all those animals, both extant and extinct. I don’t know where my bull ranked, and it doesn’t matter. My bull is well over the minimum entry, but far below the top specimens. I killed him in the same year as another Montana bull that will become the new archery world record, which you can read about on page 74.

So again, why enter? Why shell out $35 that gets my bull and my name on a list somewhere? I get a sense of pride contributing to a decades-old database created and contributed to by hunters. Though at the core of it all, of course I’m proud of that bull. It represents the culmination of years of bowhunting elk. Years of practice. Months upon months away from family in the backcountry learning the animals. It represents the mountains and alpine meadows that I love. Above all, the bull represents my love of the hunt.

Troy Smith is an elk guide in central Montana and former Bugle intern. When not guiding, he works in fisheries management in the intermountain West.