Southwest Desert Archery Bull

2011 Southwest Desert Archery Elk Hunt

I find it hard to believe but it has been ten years since I had my Southwest Desert archery elk tag. While it has been a decade now I still think about this hunt and the great experiences I shared with family and friends from time to time. No other hunt has been so instrumental in making me the bow hunter and outdoorsman I am today. I was young without many responsibilities and I knew hunting a limited entry elk tag in Utah might only happen once. So I made the absolute most of the opportunity scouting more weekends than not throughout the summer months and hunting nearly 20 days before filling my tag.

I applied for this tag without any firsthand knowledge of the unit. Not only had I never set foot on it, I didn’t know anyone who had. My decision was based entirely on online research done with the tools available at the time. While I was confident the unit was still producing a lot of mature bulls, I knew it was a massive unit and I had a lot of work to do before fall.

I put thousands of dirt road miles on that summer trying to touch every corner of the Desert before my hunt opened. I found each mountain range on the unit would present unique challenges, and where I ended up hunting would determine how I would end up hunting.

I ran about half a dozen cameras that summer, moving them around the unit hoping to locate a great bull. Despite my best efforts, August rolled around and I still hadn’t found the kind bull I was after.

I went back for a quick trip the 12th of August checking cameras; my first one was stolen, the second showed no shooter bulls, but the third one had a great bull on it and he had hit the water several times mostly in the midday. I had found the bull I was likely going to hunt, but I had a day left on the unit so I went to an area I hadn’t scouted yet. That next morning I found a phenomenal typical bull. I put up a few cameras in the new area and knew I had a tough call ahead deciding which bull to hunt, which was a good problem to have.

Non Typical Bull

The big non-typical bull was in a sea of cedar trees near a mountain range where I had found almost no cows; the only effective way to hunt him was going to be sitting water and I feared he’d be leaving the area early in the hunt.

My brother and I rolled into camp late Thursday night to give us a day before the opener to check things out, so I could come up with some kind of plan for the first morning. We went to the area where the big typical was and checked that camera first. He hadn’t hit the camera but we glassed up a two shooter bulls. So I decided not to sit the non-typical’s spring but instead to hunt the first couple of days spot and stock.

Opening morning the plan was for me to slip into the burn and set up near a spring that put me fairly close to where the bulls were working out, while my dad, brothers and friend stayed near the peak to glass from a distance. While opening day wasn’t successful it was a lot of fun, we located the giant typical bull but I was too slow in my approach to get on him before he hit the thick cedar line. We spotted a pair of bucks bedded, one of which was a really nice deer. I stocked within 20 yards of them on the crest of a ridge and peaked around a boulder to expecting to take a shot. However only the smaller of the two had vitals exposed, after waiting there about 20 minutes I began to fear the thermals were going to change with the temperature rising. I decided to change my angle in hopes of making something happen and I blew it. I watched them cross the draw and decided they were not busted too hard. I managed to swing around above them and intercept them in a thick patch of cedars. They were going to cross at about 30 yards, I picked my shooting lane drew and waited. The smaller buck crossed, I stayed at full draw for quite a long time. I began to think the bigger buck must have been in the lead and I had missed him, I let down my bow and began to try to around swing in front again. My impatience ended up costing me the opportunity, as I let my bow down and stood I learned he was trailing the other buck. I’d managed to squander two great opportunities at a great buck within an hour. We spent the next few days in the same area hoping to turn up the big bull again but were unable to.

Nice buck from opening morning.
Nice buck I nearly took opening day

I went back to work for the next three days, a couple friends and I returned to the unit late Thursday night. I hiked into the Non-Typical’s spring and scrolled through the pictures and to my surprise he had not been to the spring during daylight hours since the opener but he had checked in twice at night.

The next couple of days were spent hunting the non-typical, finding and passing stocks on good bulls, but failing to turn him up. We packed up and went back to the area where the big typical was. That night we glassed up a smoker 6×8 and a great split beam bull. I crept into the area these bulls were the next morning with no sign of them, I got winded by 3 smaller bulls and just like that any chance at the giant was done.

I spent the next 4 days bouncing all over the unit just hoping to find something worth chasing with no luck. The area where the non-typical bull had been hanging out was now completely void of elk. Mature bulls were becoming hard to find.

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Labor Day weekend allowed a good friend to get away from school and I would have a lot of help for 3 days, we were able to find a great bull at last light. That next morning I was in his area way before light with 5 bulls screaming all around me, at first light I glassed up the bull with 12 cows half a mile away. I pulled off my boots and pack and began working my way through a maze of small bulls in my way. I felt he was going to push his cows into a pocket of pines to bed so I set up on a rock ledge and waited, one by one his cows began working past me at 40 yards. I could not believe I was finally going to get my shot, the cows kept coming but he was nowhere to be found I began to worry he had slipped past me. I waited twenty minutes and then began creeping through the pines just above where the cows had gone in. The cows were all there I kept working past them then there he was 50 yards with no shooting lanes all I could do was hunker down and wait. A cow began working uphill towards me 30 yards, 20 yards, 15 yards then I heard the dreaded bark and I was done. I would just have to chalk it up as another close call.

Great bull nearly taken over Labor Day
Great bull I nearly took over Labor Day.

After Labor Day we packed up camp and moved again. The next three days we chased bulls in another part of the unit trying to cut them off from there feeding area to their bedding area. The elk were starting to get a bit more active, we were able to look over quite a few bulls and make some attempts at good bulls. While I had a few close calls we were unable to make it happen.

My dad and another friend came back to help out. We moved camp to an area I knew held some shooter bulls, but the elk were not rutting in this area yet. The bulls were working into clearings for about 20 minutes each prime time. Hunting this area put us in position to glass some distant country, where we could see elk feeding out on steep hillsides.

September 11 was the last day I would have any help we decided to split up. Everyone went towards distant elk we had seen a few mornings back to spread out and take a look. While a friend and I would go chase bugles in an area that was rutting harder. We were working through some pinions when we heard a bugle late that morning we raced to get closer to the bull we snuck within 100 yards of him and he set up to call him past me. I stood behind a little pine tree with a screaming bull barreling down on me I first saw him at twenty yards and could see he had a nice frame with good fronts and sweet royals a solid 340 type bull. He kept coming all the way to seven yards broadside screaming his guts out and then he stopped. I let him walk even though a few days before we were desperate to just find a bull like him. We walked back to camp second guessing my decision the entire time?

We sat at camp waiting to hear what everyone had found that morning; all the while I was killing myself for passing that bull earlier. Everyone pulled in about the same time my buddy said “I hope you did not kill one this morning” that was exactly what I needed to hear. He proceeded to show me video of a bull from that morning, he was an great bull with a diving front, good mass, giant 3rd points and good swords.

The bull I would eventually take.

We got into position around 3:30 that afternoon. Most everyone was down below to attempt watch the hunt play out. A buddy and I were right below where he had last seen him. We could still see his cows up on the hillside but could not get a visual of the bull, about 4:30 we heard a bugle across the canyon away from his cows. We decided it was likely him because we should have seen him in that hour of glassing, so we busted it up a steep dry creek bed to get between him and his cows. My buddy held back a hundred yards or so while I kept hustling up the steep bottom. A couple of cows crossed the creek bottom, I was in, going to the cows we had seen earlier. It seemed he had abandoned his cows to gather a few more and he was pushing these two back to his harem. I knew he would cross any second and if I was stuck in the steep creek bottom I would not get a shot. I clawed my way up the side hill took one knee on a small berm and planted my other leg below me and drew. I had two shooting lanes both around 30 yards I settled my pin into the first one and waited. I saw a diving 1st point and elk run through my peep. No shot, I swung my bow to the second lane and waited, this time I was ready, just before he entered it I gave a chip the bull stopped and I my arrow fly. The shot was perfect he ran uphill 40 yards and died within seconds. After a long difficult hunt and a summer dedicated to scouting we had accomplished what I was after, taking really nice mature bull.

Southwest Desert Archery Bull

This was truly the once in a lifetime experience I was looking for with my Utah elk tag. The hunt was exactly what elk hunting should be; time spent with friends and family, hard work, frustration, highs and lows, the occasional screaming bull, and freezer full of meat to end it right.

I didn’t know it at the time but learning the unit would really pay off. Several friends and family members would have a tag on the Desert, some with luck and others by burning up a pile of points, from 2012-2015. They all took great bulls, I’ll write about each of those experiences soon. It’s been several years now since I’ve spent time out there now, so I can’t say where the unit is at in terms of trophy potential, but I can say hunting the cedar covered landscape of the Southwest Desert is a unique and challenging experience.

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Nick Russell is the avid big game hunter, archer and data junkie, that started this website with the goal of helping hunters make more informed decisions about the areas they choose to hunt.