|The scene where Eric first saw the two bulls|
(Courtesy Eric Shepherd)
So far the year of shed hunting had been pretty slow for me. A few of the larger bulls had dropped the first week of February which is early for our area. The word got out pretty quick that a few had dropped and the bulls started getting pushed causing an extremely hard shed hunt. Most people have their normal spots they like to go to that produce but not this year. The normal spots you would expect to find sheds had none and where they were being found was not typical. (We also had a below normal snow pack which caused a lot of elk to remain in the high country). Like most people, I started out earlier than normal hoping to get a jump but with no luck. All the bulls I came across were still holding and after returning a few days later, the elk were nowhere to be found.
2014 and 2015 had been hard years for our family. We suffered the loss of our daughter's boyfriend, Cade Webb, who I thought of as the son I never had. Even though Cade was only 15, he was already an avid outdoorsman and spent many hours hunting sheds and he was quite accomplished at it. Since the start of the season I would often find myself looking up and asking Cade for some help, "Come on Cade give me a little help here.” Well thus far it had not helped too much other than a couple finds, but each trip I found myself doing the same thing. I was actually starting to get really discouraged thinking to myself, “I'm putting in the time and miles but no luck.” The elk were there but they were not producing any sheds for me. It seemed as though every time I would get 8-10 miles into an area, I would discover the dreaded four-wheeler tracks and just had to shake my head.
On that Saturday I headed out from the pickup with my trusty companion "Whiskey,” a blue heeler I have worked with shed hunting for two years that was probably a hunting dog in a previous life. I figured we had 4-5 hours of light left. We headed up a canyon that had a small stream running in the bottom from the winter snow pack. It looked real promising but produced nothing. As we reached the end of the canyon my plan was to head out, cross a ridge and go back down another deeper canyon. The canyon we were heading to was much easier access from the bottom end so I didn't have high hopes of finding anything other than four-wheeler tracks.
|The larger bull|
As we crossed the ridge and started down into the canyon it was apparent this was not going to be real easy. It was a north slope, very steep and had tons of downed trees to maneuver up, over and around. Unlike me Whiskey took off into the canyon like it was nothing. In the distance I saw him reach the bottom and then saw his nose turn to the air. As he often does he will start working from left to right head held high and low until he has the scent locked in and then off he goes. As I made my way slowly down into the canyon Whiskey continued to work back toward me in a left-to-right pattern. I stopped about halfway down to watch him. As Whiskey was about a quarter of the way back to me, he stopped and at the exact time that he made the find, I also saw it. Laid up against a downed tree I could see antlers but something wasn't right. I pulled up my binoculars and adjusted them. As they came into focus I had to do a double-take. Looking with the naked eye and then again through the binoculars, I thought to myself there is no way I am seeing what I am seeing. I just stood there in shock for what seemed like forever. As I started to work my way closer, the realization of what I had just found came over me. Once I came up to it I was in shock, my mouth open and eyes glazed. I just stood there, looking around almost in hopes of being able to share the excitement with someone. Once I collected myself the first thing I did was looked up and said "Thank You Cade."
What lay before me were two large bulls—both dead and horns still locked from the battle that took place. I thought to myself “Okay, you have to document the heck out of this. No one is going to believe you.” I pulled out my cell phone and started taking pictures and video of both the elk and surroundings, and started trying to put together what took place. It appeared as though the smaller of the two bulls died first as its stomach contents were located about 20 feet up the hill from where the second bull finally died.
The second bull, the larger of the two, looked as though he ended up lodged under the tree where I found them. I can only image that in one last ditch effort to get free, he lost his footing and slid down under the tree where he eventually met his demise, still locked with the smaller bull that was now on top of him.
After about an hour I needed to formulate a plan to get them out of there legally. Arizona Game & Fish has specific rules on dead animal finds and a protocol to follow. The first thing is to notify them so a game warden can come to the field and verify the cause of death. If it is determined the animal died from a natural cause, such as predation, disease, fights, falls, drowning, lightning, etc., the wildlife part may be possessed by the individual. It was very evident given the cause of death and since this was such a rare find, I knew I had to contact them. The bad part was it was late Saturday and I knew I would not be able to get a hold of anyone until Monday.
So first thing Monday morning I drove out to verify someone had not stumbled onto them and to make the call to the Game & Fish. The elk were still there so I drove out to a location where I had cell service and made the call to the district office. I gave the lady all the information and asked how long before she could have a warden out to the scene. She advised me it could be Wednesday as most officers were in Phoenix and only one was in the district and he was hours away. So I explained to her in detail that this was not just another dead elk find but two bulls, horns locked. That changed things. She said give her 30 minutes so she could make some calls and either she or the officer would call me back. About 15 minutes later I got a call from the Unit 1 game manager. I explained to him the find and location. He asked a few questions and then asked if I had pictures I could send to him of the scene and the bulls so he could authorize the removal. I sent him six or seven pictures documenting the bulls and the area so he could review them. About 10 minutes later he sent to me the authorization to take possession of both bulls and said they were mine. I thanked him and immediately headed back to retrieve the bulls.
The closest road was about five or six so it was not going to be an easy chore. For those who have packed a head out, you know they can get heavy pretty quick, so now I was going to have two at the same time. Once I got back to the site I took a few more pictures and one last video. The bulls had only been dead about six or seven months and five of those were under snow pack so getting the skulls from the body was a challenge but I managed to do it and still keep the heads together. That was always my plan to not separate the horns from one another. Once I had the skulls freed, I was able to rotate the top bull back around, horns still locked. I hauled them down to a flat area to prepare them for my pack. I was able to put the skull of the smaller bull on the shelf in my pack and got that attached with the larger bull on top being rotated upside down. This allowed me to stand the pack up on the horns of the larger bull and just slip right into my pack.
I have packed some heavy weight before but this was on a different level. It was not easy to do but I knew I would get it done one way or another. As I was making the final hike out I realized just how beautiful this county really was. I was next to a small stream in a deep canyon. I could hear far off in the distance some turkey gobbling. Whiskey keep running up and down the stream jumping from side to side as though he knew his work for the day was done.
As I put one foot in front of the other I started to reflect on just how good life really is. Even if I had not made a once in a lifetime find it still would have been a good day. I was in the mountains doing what I loved. I thought a lot about Cade and how he really did bless our lives. I thought to myself I sure wish I could have shared this year hunting sheds with him and had him by my side. That’s when it dawned on me that this was not my find but rather it's Cade's. I know deep down in my heart that this was his passion and even though he may be gone, he actually shared with me one of his last finds. When I would look up to him and ask for help I now know I did get to spend this year shed hunting with him. He was with me every step of the way!
|After the necks were broken off|
So friends, the next time you’re sitting high atop a mountain with a spotting scope or hiking down a deep canyon or across a beautiful meadow just remember that sometimes it's not always about the hunt. It's about the memory. So get outside and do what you’re passionate about, for over the next hill or around the next bend you to might just discover your "Cade Bulls!"