Pack Horse

The dream of hunting elk began while I was in high school.  I was in the market for a new rifle and wanted to make sure that I was going to get something that would work for deer hunting in Wisconsin and a future elk hunt.  Little did I know that it would take so many years to finally take my 7mm into elk country.  In September of 2008, my wife and I took a backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park.  I knew this was the area I wanted my first elk hunt to take place.  After many phone calls and emails we picked the Turpin Meadow Ranch in the Bridger Teton National Forest for the fall of 2011.

Our guide Dan Martin had worked full-time at the ranch for a few years as a guide and ranch hand.  We were in constant contact as I had numerous questions about what we were getting ourselves into with this hunt.  The excitement of the hunt really came to a head on February 28th when we saw that we drew our tags for Unit 70 in Wyoming.  The dream was becoming more of a reality.

We arrived in Jackson a few days early so that we could acclimate to the higher elevation.  I took my dad on a day hike in Teton National Park to get him to an elevation of around 9000 feet so he could see how the thinner air would affect him.  It was a struggle, but he made it.  While spending time in the park we saw numerous trophy bulls chasing cows.  We figured this was a good sign for our upcoming hunt.

To say that my dad and I didn’t get much sleep the night before our first day of hunting would be an understatement.  Dan had told us that we would meet for breakfast at 3:30am as we had to transport the horses about 40 minutes away to a trailhead for the mountain we would hunt.  He also told us it would be about 2 hours on horseback in the dark to where we would begin the day.  As we got closer to the planned hunting area, a group of 5 hunters came up behind us.  They indicated that they were headed to the same mountain we planned to spend the day on.  So Dan decided to get off the horses early and see what happened.

Once the horses were tied and we had our bearings, we heard our first bugle.  Dan figured that the bull wasn’t too far away so we decided to go after him.  After walking for about 35 minutes, we got on a ridge and had a narrow opening in the trees to see the bull and a cow on the opposite ridge.  We ranged the bull at about 400 yards.  My dad had time to get in position to shoot at the bull as it had no idea we were there.

As the shots from his .270 began to echo in the hills, the nice 5×5 bull seemed just stood there.  Once he fired the fourth and last shot, the three of us couldn’t believe that he missed on every one of them.  He looked up at me and told me it was my turn.  After looking at the through the binoculars for a few minutes, I decided that it wasn’t the bull I wanted.  I threw my dad his box of ammo and told him to go and kill that bull.

Dan and my dad managed to get a ways down the hill and got within 300 yards.  My dad fired two shots at the bull that proved to be fatal.  An hour after getting off the horse on the first morning, my dad’s dream had come true.  When we watched the packers take his bull away, it would be the last one we would see for days.

The afternoon hunt on our third day helped to get me hooked on chasing such a magnificent animal.  Dan had an idea of a place to setup that he knew nobody had hunted.  After riding for about an hour, we got off the well worn horse trail only to find about 100 yards away an old trail.  We rode until we come to a large meadow area surrounded by hills and timber on both sides.  We set up on a small creek near a watering hole hoping to ambush a bull coming down to feed.  Shortly before 4:00pm, a bull let off a blood curdling bugle on the hillside across from us.  After calling back to him, we realized that he was moving away from us.  We picked up and began to pursue him through the thick timber.

This bull was headed up hill through some of the thickest timber I have ever seen.  We got to the top of a ridge and found another meadow with a fresh wallow the size of a house.  The bull kept bugling.  We stayed near the wallow and called to the bull hoping to draw him into the open.  We snuck through the 250 yard long meadow only to have him on top of another ridge bugling down to us.  A small satellite bull had spotted us and alerted the herd.  I decided that I wanted to pursue this herd bull the next day.

On the fourth day, Dan decided that we could get to a point where this bull was headed the night before.  The thinking was we could catch him heading back to a bedding area.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.  We had heard some bull’s bugling off in the distance but nothing close enough to pursue.  We walked on an elk trail that was on a ridge following the Buffalo River about 1000 feet below us.   The sun was climbing higher in the sky and the temperature was getting close to 80.  We stopped to take off a few layers of clothes and I also had to stop as nature was calling.  I set down my pack and my rifle and walked a very short distance to find a bush.  While “relieving” myself, a nice 5×5 came charging down the hill above us chasing a cow.  I yelled to Dan to start calling to get him to stop.  Dan told me to shoot him, however my 7mm was laying about 20 feet away and I was in no position to grab it.  There was no stopping the bull as he was in hot pursuit of the cow.

After refueling and recharging we had a plan to ambush the herd bull we were after the day before.  Dan decided it would be best to take a chance that the bull was a creature of habit and would return to the wallow we found the day before.  We had a short ride down the trail to a spot we figured would give us easy access to our location for the afternoon hunt.  Thick timber and downed trees made the hike tough on the three of us.  We did manage to end up in the meadow that we gave up on the bull the day before.

Not long after setting up on our ambush spot, a cow appeared at the other end of the wallow from us.  Shortly after she left, a 4×2 raghorn showed up and played in the wallow about 25 yards from where we were sitting.  He stayed there for a short amount of time before the “ghost” bugled again at 4:00pm.  In the time we spent waiting, my father indicated to both Dan and I that he had forgotten his headlamp in one of the saddlebags on the horse.  We waited for what seemed like an eternity for the bull to show his face, Dan decided to start heading back to the horses while it was still light out.  We had about a 200 yard walk in the meadow before we had to turn into the woods and climb the hill.  Not 30 yards after leaving the meadow, the bull let out a scream that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  He was right at the wallow we just left.  Dan and I ran back down to the meadow and started calling.  A cow came out to check things out and a calf was behind us and almost ran my dad over.  The bull never did come out into the open for us to get a look at him.  We began to wonder if we were honestly hunting a ghost.

The next morning before breakfast, Dan looked on Google Maps to survey the area to come up with a game plan to get the bull to finally show himself.  The plan was to start in the meadow where we hunted on the third afternoon and hope that he was going to be in the area.  Right after we tied the horses up, Dan bugled to see if anything would respond.  We counted at least 5 different bulls in all directions from where we were.  Some were closer than others.  He asked me which one I wanted to go after and I pointed in the direction of the wallow and told him we needed to find the ghost bull.

We immediately started taking off layers of clothes to leave on the horse to lighten the load.  As we began almost sprinting through the meadow to the base of the hill, the bulls kept bugling above us.  Once at the top, we found a small lake that the elk had been using as a watering hole.  The bulls where still bugling like crazy, but we couldn’t see any of them.  We continued the chase, but had stopped calling.  We again were in thick timber and couldn’t see very far in front of us.  A few times we could get on our knees and see the legs of the elk but nothing more.  It was obvious there were numerous bulls but the ghost bull was pushing them all off of his mountain.  Once the bulls stopped calling we realized that our chances for the morning were over.

We continued to follow the trail the elk had taken away from us.  There was another small pond and large wallow that had been recently been used.  Dan decided to sit near this pond during the heat of the day.  We used the time to refuel and recharge for what we hoped would be an eventful afternoon.  Dan and I decided after a short nap that we would head back to the larger pond we found earlier in the morning to setup our ambush for the afternoon.  This pond was on the route we figured the “ghost” took to the wallow we hunted the previous days.  The only thing we saw that afternoon was a spike bull that came to play in the water.  .  I knew it was going to be a long sleepless night wondering if I was just chasing a figment of my imagination.

As I ate breakfast on the last morning, I knew that it was today or never to get my bull.  After seeing my dad tag out an hour into the first day of hunting I knew it was possible.  But I figured it was going to take a miracle and some hard work on this the last day to fulfill my dream.  My dad had gotten up to have breakfast with me, but headed back to bed as he stayed at the ranch for the second day in a row.  Dan and I set off into the cold and dark wilderness for the last time, all the years of dreaming about my first elk came down to this one day.  For three days we were hunting the same bull but had yet to see him.  The bull was out there, we just didn’t know how big he was or what he looked like.

When we got to the meadow, Dan rode past the spot we had tied the horses up the last few times we hunted there.  He figured if we just went a little further on horseback we could possible get ahead of the bull this time.  As he had done the previous day, Dan let out a bugle from his call.  And again numerous bulls broke the silence off the chilly morning.  We heard what we figured was the “ghost” bull and headed up the hill after him.  He bugled the entire time we climbed to the pond we found the day earlier.  The only difference today was that we were ahead of him.

Once we reached the top, the bull let out a bugle that got my adrenaline pumping.  He was on the opposite side of the pond from us somewhere in the timber.  We circled around and set up on the edge of a small meadow that was between us and the bull.  We figured it was only a matter of time until he came to the edge of the meadow and make the fatal mistake of showing himself.  After a few minutes, the bull stopped calling back to us.  Dan would bugle and break limbs on a small tree to try to draw the bull out.

After a few minutes Dan looked up at me and said “take off your hat and stand up slowly and look behind us to see if he is there.”  Dan was about 20 feet away from me and couldn’t see anything behind us.  I hung my hat on a branch on the tree I was next to and turned around slowly.  There he was, 38 yards away.  He was a massive bull that somehow circled silently around behind us.  The “ghost” was standing above us looking down at our every move.  Dan could only see me and had no idea what was going on.

When Dan saw me raise my 7mm and he heard the safety come off he knew what was about to happen.  I put the crosshairs right behind his shoulder and pulled the trigger.  Now it was up to the 160grain Barnes Triple Shock to do the rest of the work for me.  The bull took off running.  I jumped up and almost immediately began to shake in excitement.  Dan and I high fived each other and headed to look for blood.  We went to the exact spot the beast stood when I fired.  However, there was no blood.  We continued to search in the area he took off running.  Again, there was no sign that the bull was hit.

So we decided to go back to where I was when I shot at the bull.  After looking at the shot, we noticed that there was a lot of brush and branches between me and the bull.  The bullet never found the mark on the bull and he ran off unharmed.  Dan and I couldn’t believe it.  The bull we chased in the wilderness for four days finally showed himself for a few seconds but was able to get away from us.  It all happened so fast I wasn’t able to count the points on his massive rack.  The “ghost” was in fact real and not just a figment of our imagination.  However, he continues to haunt my dreams as the one that got away.  The hunt for this bull has left such an impression on me that I am headed back to the same location in September of 2013 to pursue him again.  Granted I might not be actually hunting the same bull, in my mind any bull that I see and hopefully harvest will in fact be “The Ghost of Turpin Meadow.”

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