It was Ed Epperson’s 49th birthday, and he could think of no better way to celebrate than with fresh elk backstrap.
“We’re having a big old stuffed backstrap for dinner, wrapped in bacon and on the smoker,” he told Cowboy State Daily during an evening phone call from his hometown of Cody this week.
The delectable meat came from a bull elk that he’d shot with his bow a few days prior. It was his first bull elk in 15 years, and his first-ever archery elk.
‘Dad, I’m Letting You Shoot First’
It had been yet another memorable hunt with his son, Dalton, 24, also of Cody. They’ve hunted together since Dalton was big enough to tag along.
“It’s been a crazy, crazy ride for me and my son,” Ed said. “His first bear, his first deer, his first turkey and his first bull elk.”
That’s because as Ed has always been there for those hunting milestones. It was his duty and privilege to give his son the best opportunities.
“I always let him shoot first, because he’s my son,” Ed said.
But as they were preparing for this year’s archery elk hunt in one of their favorite spots in the Bearthooth Mountains, Dalton wanted to break with tradition.
“I told him, ‘Dad, I’m letting you shoot first this time,’” Dalton said.
Not Like It Used To Be
Ed said he can recall a time when the pickings for elk in the Yellowstone area were easier than they are today.
“Back then – I’m talking years and years ago, before the highway was even paved — you could see 1,000 elk coming out of Yellowstone Park every day,” he said.
As he sees it, a proliferation of apex predators cut down on the elk hunting opportunity over the years.
“It’s one of those things, when the wolves came in there, they pretty much decimated everything, and they shut everything down from a general tag area into limited quota,” he said.
Under the quota system, hunters must apply to enter a drawing for a limited number of hunting tags months in advance.
Ed said that two years ago, he and his wife decided to take a crack at archery elk hunting and bought bows. But they didn’t draw their elk tags.
This year, Ed and Dalton both drew bull elk tags.
Dalton said the number of elk in the area seems to have bounced back “in the last four years or so,” a trend he’d like to see continue.
Didn’t Want To Get Out Of Bed
The evening before the hunt, Dalton decided to go out and do some scouting for bulls.
Ed stayed behind in camp.
“I told him, ‘You go out. I’ll stay in camp and make dinner,’” Ed said.
Dalton said he spotted a “raghorn,” or smaller bull elk, with about 20 cows near a road, so he decided to investigate further. He used a cow call to mimic the squeaking sounds made by a cow elk. He hoped to get some answering bugles from bulls caught up in the rut, or mating season.
“I threw out a few cow calls to see if there were any satellite bulls in the area,” he said. “Two bulls answered. I decided to back out and leave them alone for the evening. I figured it was the perfect spot to come back to before dawn.”
In the wee hours of the next morning, Dalton was up and ready to roll.
Ed took a bit more convincing.
“I didn’t want to get out of bed,” he said with a laugh. “And Dalton was like, ‘Nope, nope. Get up, we’re going.’ And we did.”
‘Deep, Growly, Raspy Bugle’
Not long after they had set up adjacent to some thick timber and started calling, the bulls started answering, just as Dalton had hoped they would.
And it quickly became evident that one of the bulls was coming in — fast.
Ed was hunkered down on all fours behind a shrub as the bull came barreling in. Dalton was about 50 yards behind him, continuing to call.
Ed rose to his knees and prepared to draw his bow and shoot.
“I was shaking like a schoolgirl at that point. I had no idea how big he was. I thought it must be the little raghorn,” he said.
Dalton had an inclination it wasn’t the smaller bull he’d seen the evening before, but instead one of the larger critters that he’d only heard.
“I had no idea about his size,” he said. “I couldn’t see because of the timber. But I could tell by his bugle that he was probably a better bull. It was that deep, growly, raspy bugle.”
‘He’s A 6-By-6!'
Then it was the moment of truth.
“He came out of the trees and stopped in front of me,” Ed said. “He stopped, and I settled my pins (bow sights) on him. I didn’t even look at his horns. Because I knew if I did look at his horns, I’d miss. I picked a good spot behind his shoulder and I let the arrow loose.
“I heard the ‘whap’ of a good hit. And then I was really shaking, my knees were knocking together.”
Ed was confident the bull was done for, but there was no way of knowing for sure just yet.
“I was thinking, ‘Please be a good hit, please be a good hit, please be a good hit,’” he said.
Dalton said he’d never seen his dad so worked up.
“I had to calm him down,” Dalton said. “I said, ‘Go stand where the bull was, and I’ll range it from where you were.’ It was 17 yards. I told him, ‘You can’t mess up at 17 yards.’”
According to good archery hunting ethics, they backed out, returning to their truck parked just a little way away. That would allow the bull time to die in peace, instead of panicking at their approach and running back into the timber, where it would be extremely difficult to find the carcass.
When they figured they had waited long enough, they hiked back down to where they thought the bull should be.
Ed said his son spotted the fallen beast first.
“He looked down the hill and said, ‘I see horns,’” Ed said. “I said, ‘Where, where? You’re shitting me!’ Then he said, ‘Step over to the side here, Dad. He’s right there.’”
Ed saw the bull and couldn’t believe what he was looking at. “I said, ‘He’s a 6-by-6, holy shit!”
He was referring to the bull’s antlers having six points on either side. And they were huge antlers.
Ed figures the rack to be in “the mid-330s,” meaning that by official measurements of length and circumference, the antlers should hit somewhere in the 330-inch range.
Dalton’s best friend, Donny Hall of Cedar Mountain Taxidermy, is doing a taxidermy mount of the bull’s head and antlers, Ed said.
“And one more detail; he (Donny) proposed to his wife on a rock less than 20 yards from where I got that bull. That’s crazy, I still have to pinch myself to believe it,” he said.
Moreover, it turned out the bull fell dead only 123 yards from the truck, so packing it out was short work for Dalton and Ed.
Hooked On Archery
Ed said he’s hooked on archery elk hunting and would like to try it again next season. For now, he’s eager to go back out and help Dalton fill his bull elk tag.
“I dedicate this elk hunt and this elk to my son, because he’s the one who pushed me to be better this time,” Ed said.
Dalton said it was a great change of pace to give his father the first shot opportunity.
“It’s fun to watch other people punch their tags (bag their game). It’s a way to give back,” Dalton said.
And they both said there’s nothing quite like calling bulls in during the archery season.
“Any elk hunter likes to get in there and hear a bull scream at you,” Ed said. “There’s nothing more fun than having bulls scream right at you, so close, you can practically feel their breath.”
Dalton said the bugles of the bull that his father shot were shaking things up, literally.
“When you’re in tight timber, like we were, you can feel the sound of the bull’s bugle in your chest,” he said.
Mark Heinz can be reached at email@example.com.