Zach’s Story: Bagging His First Bull Elk While Mentoring Youth with the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers

December 19, 2018 | Outdoors

One of onX’s partners is the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving North America’s outdoor heritage of hunting and fishing in a natural setting. For the past four years, BHA’s Hunter Mentorship program has been pairing experienced hunters with novices to teach things like hunter safety, ethics, tradition and outdoor skills.

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While ensuring access to public lands is crucial to the future of America’s hunting culture, it’s important to teach the right values and practices to the next generation of outdoorsmen and women as well. Two onX employees, Zach and Kipp, jumped at the chance to share their experience, but for Zach, the trip turned into much more than a teaching opportunity when he harvested his first bull elk. It was a goal he had been pursuing for years, and it affected him so deeply that he felt compelled to share his story:

Zach and his elk

“Three of the best things that have ever happened in my hunting career just so happened to occur within the last three months. The first was being hired by onX. Back when I was in the military and trying to decide what to do when my service ended, my dream was to get a job with onX. When I made it happen eight months ahead of schedule, I was ecstatic.

The second was being asked to represent onX on a mentorship hunt with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. How I was lucky enough to be asked to do this is still a mystery to me. I jumped at the opportunity because I love to introduce others to hunting almost as much as I love to hunt myself. My thoughts went back to being an NCO (non-commissioned officer) in the Army and teaching young men how to “soldier;” something I loved to do.

The third thing that happened, and I’m still on cloud nine over it, was killing my first elk. Watching my bull drop on that mountain unleashed a flood of emotions that are nearly indescribable. I’ve been trying to think of how to describe what this hunt meant to me and how to best put someone in my boots that day. First, I think I should tell some of my life story and how it lead me to the mountain that day.

Like many young boys who grew up in Montana, I have many memories of meeting my dad in the driveway after a hunt to see if he was successful. When I was 11, I took hunter’s safety and was lucky to have a birthday within a week of the general season opener. So, for my 12th birthday, I got to spend four days in a tent in the Missouri River Breaks, just me, my dad and a youth cow elk tag. We saw over 15 bulls and not a single cow, but I still remember parts of that hunt clear as day.

For instance, one afternoon we spotted a bachelor herd bedded down across a valley. We watched long enough that my dad eventually gave me permission to stand up and get their attention. They must have known we didn’t have a tag because even as I stood, waved my arms at them and shouted “Hey, elk!” they very lazily meandered over the hill, taunting me the entire way. But what really got me hooked on elk hunting was the bull we heard bugling less than 50 yards from our tent in the middle of the night. It was the most amazing thing I had ever heard, and it set me on a path that ultimately led me to my first elk 18 years later.

Zach and his dad

On my last elk hunt before I joined the Army, I had a late season cow tag that led me deep into the mountains where our truck got stuck, we saw no elk, and I got frostbite. In Colorado, while I was in the Army, I had a cow elk at 25 yards during archery season only to realize my release was still in my truck when it came time to draw. Needless to say, I’ve never made that mistake again. It seemed to me like I’ve had plenty of good opportunities to kill an elk but was never able to make it happen. Going into this mentorship hunt, I felt like I was a moderately experienced elk hunter but a terrible elk killer. I figured at the very least I could talk to some kids about safety, how to pattern elk and how to play the wind. The trip ended up being so much more than that.

Plan Your Elk Hunt

Fitting in with my previous elk hunts, our trip started with a Montana winter traffic jam on I-90 that had us waiting in our truck for almost three hours. This is the kind of luck I have become accustomed to. The place where we stayed was comfortable and big enough for everyone, despite the fact that our host Ken kept referring to it as “the cabin.” We ended up making it to there just in time for everyone to find the locations they planned to hunt and get connected with our mentees. Kipp and I were paired with John and Atlas, a couple of University of Montana Biology students that were eager to hit the mountain in the morning. John did not have any tags and was only there to watch and learn; but Atlas had recently killed his first deer so he was noticeably excited to get on some elk. Kipp asked them if they were ready to put in some miles in the morning and the thought didn’t seem to faze them.

James, a fellow veteran and our host’s son, told us about a gate that we should park at in the morning. We scouted the area past the gate using our onX Hunt Apps, and Kipp and I found a location we wanted to check out. We were all eager to get started so we got up at 4 AM and were at the gate well before sunrise. I consider myself an experienced rifle hunter since that’s all I did growing up; and I spent almost a decade in the Army shooting on a consistent basis, so I’m confident in my marksmanship. With Kipp being the experienced bird and archery hunter and Atlas just killing his first deer a few weeks before the hunt, the plan was for them to shoot anything closer than 200 yards and for me to shoot anything farther than that.

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After walking about a mile in the dark we realized we were way ahead of schedule, so we decided to stop and wait 40 minutes until legal shooting time. About 20 minutes before shooting light, Atlas spotted movement on the snowy hillside above us. We were sure they were deer so we hunkered down and waited for the sun to rise. Since Atlas and Kipp had already filled their deer tags, I got set up in case one of them turned out to be a buck, but a few minutes before sunrise we realized they were all does and moved on. Just as we did, we saw two other hunters coming over the hill towards the deer, so we decided to try and push on up the road to get ahead of them. Atlas must have eagle eyes or some kind of sixth sense; not a half mile down the road he turned around and spotted some distant elk again. There was a cow and a calf on top of a ridge and they had us pinned, but after a minute or two they started to move out. We saw multiple elk, but there were no bulls, and of course this was a brow tine-only unit. The wind was bad and there were hunters on the other side of the herd, so we decided to move on. We split up into two groups; Kipp and Atlas going one way, John and I going the other, and we marked a location with a waypoint in our Hunt App to meet up later. We spent the next couple of hours climbing uphill in knee-deep snow through some serious downed timber. It was tough going to say the least.

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We caught up with Kipp and Atlas at the predetermined meeting location; it was a beautiful mountain top with an incredible view of the basin below and the Pintler Mountains in the distance. “Eagle-Eye” Atlas spotted some cows about a half mile away, so we sat down and started glassing them, looking for a bull. After checking our Hunt App, we determined they were on private land. We heard some cow calls just below us, but it was too steep to see down there and the calls were too perfect to be real. I said to the other guys “there is NO way that’s an elk, that sounds just like a hoochie mama.” I figured someone had beat us to the basin, saw the same elk and was trying to call them in. The calling continued and even increased in volume, strengthening my opinion that it was someone trying to be too aggressive. As “Mr. Experienced Elk Hunter,” I thought I knew what I was doing. Atlas went over the hill to see if he could find out who was making the calls. After about 30 yards he turned around excitedly and told us there was an entire herd right below! I had no idea cow elk could be so vocal.

Pintler mountains

With the discovery of the herd, some less than 300 yards away, we backtracked a little bit and got back into the trees, the wind in our favor. As we started to settle in, Kipp asked Atlas if he was okay; never in my life have I seen someone shaking so hard from sheer excitement. Atlas responded that he had never seen that many elk and he didn’t know what to do. It was one of my favorite parts of the entire day; seeing a new hunter that excited about a herd of wild elk on public land. It’s something I’ll never forget. We told him to relax and take a seat behind a tree. We explained the importance of not skylining ourselves, keeping at least one tree in between us and the elk, and paying attention to the wind.

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There we were: an entire herd of elk in the basin below us and none of them knew we were there because we had a perfect steady wind between us and them. At that point, we broke out the glass and started to tear the herd apart with our optics. My gut told me there had to be at least one brow-tined bull and if we were patient we would find him. We watched the herd long enough that we had to layer up as the wind grew colder. The four of us were spread out with myself being farthest downhill, Kipp and John about 15 yards up from me, and Atlas on the far side of them. After lunch, Kipp got my attention indicating he could see elk below me, and I thought, “yeah, no kidding,” but he told me later he had seen a bull. Lesson learned, from now on we’ll decide on hand signals before we head out and make sure everyone is on the same page. A few minutes later I decided to stand up for the first time to get a better view of the area below.

That’s when I first saw the bull. Suddenly, I became twelve years old again; eighteen years of hunting and nine years of Army training did nothing to keep my buck fever at bay. He was working his way slowly up the opposite ridge and I had to take a moment to make myself relax and think about what I wanted to do next. I tried to rest my rifle on a branch in the tree but just wasn’t comfortable with the position, so I decided to lay down and rest my rifle on my backpack. When I first put my crosshairs on him I got nervous all over again. Even now while I’m writing this I’m getting butterflies just thinking about it, and I will continue hunting for as long as I get that same feeling. Thankfully, I’ve matured a bit since I was 12, and I was able to take a breath and calm myself. The bull was walking directly away from me at about 300 yards.

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It happened fast. I don’t really remember squeezing the trigger, I just remember thinking that if he just turns the slightest bit broadside and hesitates, I’d take the shot. It seemed like all in one instant he turned, quartering away, and I aimed for the opposite shoulder and let the .300 win mag rip. At the sound of the shot the basin and opposite ridge came alive with elk; they were suddenly everywhere. I didn’t hear that classic “wumph” sound I was used to when you shoot a deer, but I saw him jump and assumed I hit under him. I quickly reloaded, and as I was about to squeeze off another shot he started to side-step and then tumble down the hill. When I saw the bull drop I fell to my knees in disbelief while Kipp, Atlas, and John looked for another bull. The herd, at least 70 strong, quickly made it over the hill. While they were still in view I was trying to keep my emotions in check but once the last cow made it out of site I was shouting over and over “I just shot a bull! I just shot a bull!” I turned around and Kipp was sprinting at me and nearly knocked me off my feet as he tackled me and we hugged in celebration. I was still in shock as I approached my bull, seeing him up close for the first time. I’ll never forget the first time I put my hands on him.

Zach in shock

It was cold, so we were in no rush to start the process of quartering him up. We propped him up and got some really cool pictures; my only regret is not getting a group picture. A little later, another mentor named Christian and his mentee appeared on the other side of the basin. He had just used the “gutless method” on a great eastern Montana muley the week before and I had never used that method, so we were lucky he was there. Over the next few hours we got a fire going, Kipp and Atlas went looking for more elk and we got the bull cleaned up. It was great to answer all the mentee’s questions and I enjoyed showing them how to cut and why we cut him up the way we did. We got him loaded up and packed out in one trip, and you could tell by the time we got back to the truck that everyone was exhausted. It would have been a much different story had there not been so many of us there; it was a total team effort.

Zach mentoring

Once we got back to the cabin everyone was in a great mood and kept telling me “good job” and “congratulations.” I noticed that I had a bit of cell service, so I called my wife to tell her the good news. She shouted “You finally did it!” so loudly through the phone that everyone heard her and we had a good laugh. Like I said before, it was a total team effort; all I did was pull the trigger. Without the help of Kipp, John, Atlas and Christian it would not have been the same. I owe them a ton, and as soon as all the meat is processed we’ll be spreading the wealth. It was an incredible trip, and I am forever grateful I got the chance. The mentees were the ones there to learn, but I gained even more experience than they did.

Elk hunting is something that has had a special place in my heart for a long time. If you’ve never been lucky enough to see a herd of wild elk on public land in their natural habitat and harvest one of them, you’re missing out. There’s something truly special about the elk woods that you cannot find anywhere else.”

Zach and Kipp

Zach and Kipp were both so eager to tell their story that they showed up to work early the next day for a round of high-fives. That once-in-a-lifetime hunt means so much more when you can brag to your friends, and we tried not to let our jealousy show through the congratulations. onX is proud to partner with organizations like BHA that share our values, and lucky to have employees like Zach and Kipp who share our passion. It’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps us heading out time and time again, but this holiday season we’re keeping in mind the importance of community, friends and family as well. onX is eternally grateful for our partnerships, our experienced and dedicated staff, and our loyal customers that make it all possible.

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Header Image: Kipp Schoenleber