June 28th 4:12 pm –
I received a text from my neighbor, Doug as I’m trying to get out the door to take my son on a fishing trip.
“Idaho draw results are out…any luck?”
After half-heartedly checking my own results and seeing I had finally drawn an antelope tag after 15 years of applying I grabbed the rest of my gear and jumped back in my truck. Backing out the driveaway it dawned on me that this year was the first time I had put my 14 year old daughter in for Idaho’s limited entry draws.
I slammed the truck into park ran back to my office and quickly logged into the system and read…
“Brailee Butler, congratulations you were successful in drawing the controlled hunt species and number/s listed below:”
Wait, what? A million things ran through my head. She freaking drew 2 hunts the first year she ever applied? What had I even put her in for? Staring at both of those 4-digit hunt numbers over and over I knew what she had drawn but just couldn’t believe it.
After checking the regulations a few times, it finally sank in.
My daughter had drawn two of the most coveted tags in the state. One rifle elk tag and one rifle mule deer tag!
All that I could think about was how this year would be “Our Best Season Yet.” We have a saying at Hush, “You only get so many opening days” and it seems that hunting with family really makes that statement resonate. The times shared with your father or grandfather out in wild places are memories that we all cherish from our youth and ones that as we age seem to become more valuable. And now I get an opportunity to do this with my daughter.
I was elated about these tags and the possibilities they would provide. The potential for a true trophy class bull & buck, be that old or big. More wild food in the freezer provided by my teenager. But more than anything in the world, I knew it would give us some time to reconnect as a father and a daughter. My little girl who is now a young woman was going to be a freshman in high school, a member of the cheerleading team and old enough to be discovering boys. I am terrified!!
My mind was already racing with the possibilities of summer scouting trips, time at the range and the countless hours we would spend together on the mountain once the hunts opened.
That is about the time my expectations met our new reality. While discussing the amount of time these hunts would require with my beautiful wife, Kayli she informed me of the strict cheerleading team policy of no unexcused absences from summer cheer camps or their fall schedule leading up to football season. My daughter was fortunate to make Varsity cheer as a freshman and while thrilled for her I had no idea how serious the coaches take this stuff.
My wife informed me that she will not be able to miss any days that she has scheduled practices or games from August – November.
No sweat, I’ll call her coach. She has the greatest tags in the state, surely they would make an exception, I thought.
For three months I pleaded with my daughter to ask “Coach Jess” for some days off during the hunt. Over-and-over Brailee would tell me that it wasn’t going to happen because opening day of elk season was also the first day of “Homecoming Week”
Evidently that’s a pretty big deal to a high school cheerleading squad. After becoming overly annoyed with me, Brailee sent me the coach’s number and said, “You ask her!”
Damn. The ball just got placed in my court. I spent the next few hours constructing what I thought would be the most polite and tactful text to hopefully change the mind of Coach Jess and allow us at least a few days to hunt during opening week.
“Hey Jess, Casey Butler here. Hope all is well. How much trouble would I be in if Brai happened to miss a few days next week for her elk hunt?”
Nervously awaiting for Coach Jess to reply……and then it came in “Homecoming Week, Not a Chance!!!!”
As discouraged and hopeless as I felt that we were only going to have a limited time to hunt these two great tags I also felt proud. Proud not only with my daughter who was showing me what commitment was but also proud to have someone like coach Jess teaching these young ladies a very valuable lesson. I have always told my kids if its football or lacrosse, cheerleading or art…I don’t care. I would support them in whatever activities they choose but I wanted them to be committed to it and give it their all.
Dad definitely needed to be reminded of this important lesson at the time.
September 30th – 7:30 pm the night before opening morning.
I get a phone call from my brother, Logan. “I got Brailee and we’re headed your way.”
I had gone out to the unit three days prior with my son, Gage and Logan. We were hoping to turn up a mature bull and have him “tied to a tree” for opening day. Logan had taken Gage back to school and then picked up Brailee after her practice to bring her back out to camp in preparation for opening morning. She would only have opening day to hunt before she had to get back to cheerleading.
I was overly excited when the two rolled into camp and Brailee was finally standing in the unit she had an elk tag for.
We awoke opening morning without having any bulls tied to a tree so we decided to head for an area I thought might hold elk. As the sun crested over the Eastern ridgeline we were parked on the side of a 2-track road that divided a known feeding area and a transition zone of tall sage flats where the elk will sneak through as first light casts shadows over the herd in route to their traditional bedding areas.
I was glassing into the transition zone when I caught movement of what appeared like the tops of a couple cow elk heads. As I threw the spotting scope up in their direction I saw antler tips circling the cows. I immediately grabbed the Phone Skope and got Brailee into a position to give her a better look at what this bull looked like.
Now, I’m not normally the “score guy” that measures a hunts success off antler size or whether they make the Boone & Crockett book. There’s just way more to experience and appreciate throughout the totality of a hunt opposed to getting hung up on how large of a rack they have.
We have a motto at Hush, “Shoot what gets you excited” and they will all be trophies in the end.
I had talked with Brailee over the summer and recommended she do the same on both of her hunts. Her only response was “Dad, I just want to shoot a bigger elk than you’ve ever shot” Fair enough. As we both watched the screen of my iPhone in anticipation, the bull finally came into view. WOW is what my brain processed. A big mature 6×7 with long main beams and a great back end. Trying to keep my composure the best I could and not sway Brailee’s first impression I turned and asked her, “What do you think?”
She quickly replied with “Oh WOW he is big” Yes he is, do you think you want to try and shoot him? “Heck, yes” she quickly replied. The chase was on!
I’ll have to admit I was torn. Not about the size of the bull or notching the tag opening morning but selfishly torn about not having the time with my little girl on this hunt. I was interested in a great adventure, strengthening our bond and experiencing some life lessons in the elk woods that would help shape Brailee into the young woman she is becoming. Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about myself and life have been discovered while chasing bugling bulls or standing in a river trying to land a trout on a dry fly.
But, the tag was in her pocket and she was excited about this bull.
We grabbed our backpacks, put 3 rounds in the magazine and slowly started for the herd. We were trying to use a shallow wash to cover up our silhouettes while the morning sun peeked over the mountains beaming brightly on our faces.
After a couple hundred yards and realizing we had absolutely zero cover or topography to get any closer we had to make an alternative plan. Looking at my OnXhunt App I decided our only chance would be to get in front of the elk and hopefully cut them off before they got into a thick patch of junipers in the direction they were headed and likely bed for the day.
We retreated to the truck and circled around towards the trees. There was a long dirt road that paralleled the junipers that the elk would of had to cross. I explained to Brailee that this cover would offer the elk their best bedding on a shaded face out of the sun. Our plan was to slowly walk the road while hopefully catching them before they got into the trees or cut their tracks had they crossed the road. After a few hours of still hunting down this dirt road and through the trees we jumped the bull and his cows at 8 yards.
All we could make out were tan hides racing through the dark green junipers away from us. Dang it! It was now 1:30pm and we just didn’t have enough time to hunt anymore that day. Afterall, it’s Homecoming Week!
“Dad, I really wanted to shoot that bull, that’s my bull”
The next few days were tough. Tough knowing we didn’t execute a better stalk on that bull, tough knowing the rest of the tag holders were still out there probably killing all the mature bulls in the unit (isn’t it odd how a hunter’s brain works when we are at home during the season?) and tough swallowing the pill that we only had a handful more days to spend together on the hunt.
Thankfully, the Homecoming game was played on a Thursday this year and we were going to have 4 full days on the mountain as soon as we left town early Friday morning.
Thursday, October 3rd
The plan was to have Brian (Bmack) head down to the unit on Thursday night to do some glassing and to try and turn up the big bull that gave us the slip on opening morning.
Brailee, Logan and I would head out Friday morning and meet him at the spot we had originally located the bull.
“We are leaving the driveway at 5am sharp…DON’T BE LATE” was the last text I sent to Logan on Thursday night when we got home for the game.
Friday – October 4th
Logan – 4:55am “Here”
Logan – 5:15am “Yo Yo Yo”
Logan – 5:35am “Wheels up?”
Logan – 5:45 am “Bro, BIG BULLS!”
Me – Shoot!
I couldn’t believe it. I looked at my iPhone and realized I had turned the ringer to silent (insert face slap emoji)
I ran upstairs and threw open my daughters door. “Get up, we’re late!”
The entire drive that morning, Logan reminded me of the handful of times he was the one showing up a little tardy. In one instance earlier this year we had planned to leave my house at a predetermined time only to have him show up 15 minutes late. It resulted in me giving him the cold shoulder the entire way to Salt Lake City. Luckily, Logan is a more forgiving soul than I am.
Bmack – 6:35am “Where you at? Bulls bugling all around me”
I got on the phone with Brian and let him know of the dilemma I had put us in. The first words out of Bmack’s mouth, “Not a good morning to be late. The big bull is 200 yards from my truck screaming and there are other hunters that just showed up.”
The last thirty minutes of the drive were spent by me preaching to Brailee the ever so hard lesson “Everything happens for a reason” but knowing it wasn’t her that needed to hear it as much as I needed a reminder.
We showed up to the spot just in time to formulate a game plan in an attempt to intercept that bull in his transition zone yet again, only this time do it better.
Brian called us just as we settled in trying to glass up the herd. “Don’t waste your time, that bull is now dead.” My heart sank a little bit knowing that by me sleeping in likely cost us an opportunity at this bull. Brailee was upset as you would imagine and I was upset as well but at the same time optimistic of our possibilities. I reassured Brai that “Things happen for a reason”
Our next plan was to head to a new area where I had set trail cameras earlier this summer and hopefully find a bull that would cause amnesia and we’d just forget about missing my alarm.
On our way to the area we stopped to glass a big open face to see what we could find. It was still mid morning and the temperatures were cooler so we figured the elk might be moving around a little more than opening day.
After a few minutes of glassing the big sagebrush face we picked out a bull moving through the dotted junipers. Only getting a quick glimpse of him before disappearing into the cover we decided to get a better look. After driving around the mountain and a short hike we sat down on a knob overlooking the group of trees we had last seen the bull. After covering the canyon with the binoculars for a few minutes we found a bull bedded 125 yards below us under a juniper.
Not knowing what the bull could be we decided to get Brai set up on the shooting sticks and I would cow call hoping to get him up from his bed and allow us a better look. After cow calling for a few minutes and watching the bull below us not want to give up his bed or location we spotted another bull further down the canyon. This bull had gotten up from his bed and worked into a clearing allowing him the opportunity to see what all the noise was. Wow, another beautiful mature 6 point bull. One that a lot of people with the same tag would have been more than happy with.
“What do you think, Brai?” Almost immediately she replied with, “No, it doesn’t get me excited” Now, I’m still not sure if this was her true feelings or if it was more of a no, I’m still sulking about the bull that got shot earlier? Either way, I agreed with her decision and we grabbed our stuff and headed to the truck to go check my trail cameras.
A cow, calf and a handful of hunters is all the Stealthcams had produced.
Now what? I knew the mood needed to be lightened and after hearing Brai tell me how hungry she was all morning, a trip to the local diner just might be the answer. We headed down the dirt road that lead to gravel and I decided to stop at a spot I had glassed in the past.
I really didn’t expect much considering it was 1:30pm as I jumped out of the truck in search of any elk sign. I glassed towards the North like I normally do and then to the South. Then for whatever reason to the West, which I have never done from this spot.
The junipers were too thick and the topography didn’t allow you to see more than 100 yards of the furthest hill which was about 1.5-2 miles away. There’s no way that’s an elk. It looks like the color of an elk. That’s way too far away to see an elk with binos. I grabbed the spotting scope and aimed it in the direction. Throwing the spotter back in the truck I put the truck into gear and spun the wheels in a 180 degrees (that’s how this is playing out in my head anyway) Brailee looks at me and asks “where are we going” about the same time I pulled up to Bmack and Logan who had been following us in his truck.
I just found a bull and we need to get a better look at him as I drove by probably still spinning the tires…sick!
We found a BLM road that led us onto a vantage point that would give us a good view as to where I had seen the bull. We immediately picked out the herd on that juniper hillside now about .5 miles away. Spread amongst some of his cows we laid eyes on exactly what we were looking for. Bmack and I both turned to each other with big smiles on our faces…while at the same time trying not to let the cat out of the bag. “Brai, come over here and look at my iPhone” which was connected to my spotting scope by way of a Phone Skope adapter. We had it on video mode and were recording the bull from our vantage point.
She studied the screen for a bit and with a big smile on her face turns to Logan and says, “It looks like we’re not headed to breakfast anymore!”
Time to make a move.
As we climbed the ridge that was between us and the elk, I had a million thoughts racing through my head. Was that bull really as big as he looked? How far is the shot going to be? Have Brailee and I had a chance to strengthen that bond liked I hoped we would? Has she enjoyed the time together with her dad as much as I have? Will we remain patient and make the right decisions to get her close to this bull? I wish my son Gage was here with us.
With all of these thoughts and feelings overwhelming me I felt tears beginning to surface in my eyes. Why are you crying? Nothing has even happened yet! I’ve grown into an emotional lability as I get older. Usually it’s not until after the animal gets killed or the goal was scored or the baby was delivered. How was I going to hold this together and be the mentor Brailee needed?
As we reached the top of the hill we began to glass the far side of the canyon where we had last seen the bull. Bedded cow, cow feeding, another cow beeded, BOOM…there he is just over 800 yards away. The bull was up and moving through the junipers checking his cows. After filming him through the spotting scope for a minute or so I took my phone to review the footage when Logan looked at me and said, “Don’t do it!”
“He’s a good bull,” Logan replied with Brailee listening in. Logan knew what we all knew and he…and me for that matter didn’t want Brailee to know how big this bull actually was. My daughter doesn’t care about the size of the antlers, she just wanted one bigger than what dad had ever gotten and one that got her excited. If we were to get really worked up and make this a bigger deal than necessary maybe she too would get excited and potentially lose her composure. Or maybe I should just worry about my own composure! Ha.
After a half an hour of debating and scheming we devised what we thought at the time was a fail proof plan. I would take Brailee and Logan with the camera to stalk down off the ridge we were on and close the distance to an open meadow we were confident the elk would feed into that evening. Brian would stay up on the ridge which was situated about 800 yards from the elk and keep an eye out for any activity. As of now, the bull was bedded and flanked in every direction by approximately a dozen cows.
About an hour into the stalk we ran out of cover and realized we were still too far away from the meadow if the elk did feed out later in the evening. After getting back to Bmack and the glassing knob we looked across to the canyon where the bull was bedded and currently camouflaged by dense junipers. We studied the topography of the terrain with our binos and our OnXhunt App looking at the topo layer. We decided the bull had to be bedded on the back side of this small ridge with what appeared to be a depression layered behind it. Surely a place that could conceal a mature bull yet offer us enough cover to sneak in undetected. This route would provide us some elevation above the meadow we anticipated the elk would end up in and hopefully a shot distance of under 400 yards. Plan B was in action.
As we slowly worked up the bench to our desired location I remember thinking how grateful I was. How grateful I was to have a daughter, and one that was willing to try this hunting thing out because dad wanted her to. Grateful for her passion and commitment to cheerleading even though it’s not my “thing.” Grateful for the handful of hunts we have shared together and the success we’ve experienced. Grateful for her desire to always give it her all. Then I thought about the frustration I felt after she drew the tag and realized we were only going to have a limited time to hunt. I felt bad that I had felt that way. I realized that whether we made this work or not, I was going to be grateful for this day I had with my little girl.
I slowly peaked around the last juniper on the ridge where we could see into the canyon the elk had been bedded near. Immediately I located a cow 300 yards down from our location laying in her late afternoon bed chewing her cud.
Sweet…they are still here I thought. We slowly made our way down the hill to a spot I thought gave us the best vantage point to either glass the bull up or have a shooting lane into the little meadow below where we anticipated they might feed into. We sat down and got set up. Our meadow was exactly 300 yards below us.
As I was frantically glassing around the bedded cow to hopefully see antlers through the trees I felt raindrops hit my face. I paused from my glassing and looked up at the approaching storm. Well…here we go again. In the excitement of finding the bull and trying to get up the mountain as quickly as we could I realized none of us had rain coats or gloves or a dry bag for the camera or really any sort of equipment that would shield us from becoming soaking wet and getting cold. We already hunkered down through one thunderstorm earlier in the day and now we’re about to get hit with round two.
For about 45 minutes the heavens showered us with rain, sleet, thunder and lightning with blustery winds.
I kept asking Brai if she was good or should we go back to the truck and take shelter? Every time she would nod to me with conviction that she was “GOOD.” What a rock star I kept thinking. As the storm finally blew past and the sun began to shine two cows fed into the meadow that we had positioned ourselves above. And then two more. I looked at Brailee and asked if she was ready. “I cant stop shaking dad, I cant stop shaking”. You and me both kiddo…I was also trying to quit shivering long enough to hold my binos stil. It was the perfect blend of being cold and being excited with the anticipation of what might happen.
I slowly got up, sat directly behind her and wrapped my arms around her tightly trying to warm us up. This only lasted a few minutes until Brai informed me I was shaking way worse than she was.
“There he is dad, in the trees…I can see him.”
I pulled up my shaky binos and could make out his large antlers moving at what seemed like a one hundred miles per hour through my field of view when in reality he was simply walking at the pace of a herd bull who just got out of his bed and was ready to go check his cows.
There was a thought which crossed my mind in that moment, “Could I make this shot right now, right here under these conditions?” My adrenaline surge seemingly increased after visual confirmation of this big bull. Luckily I didn’t have to answer that question. I began to try and just “SLOW DOWN” giving words of encouragement to my little girl as the bull made his way to the meadow.
“Don’t think about how cold you are, only think of making a perfect shot.”
“Out of anyone I know you are the person that can do this.”
“Pick your spot and squeeeeze that trigger nice and steady until the gun goes off.”
“I believe in you, Brailee”
As the bull fed into the meadow the last thing I remember saying was for her to wait until he turns broadside………..
The bull took 4 steps, spun around and was dead within seconds. Her Weatherby Camilla 6.5 Creedmor had just executed the perfect shot. My little girl just made a perfect shot.
I wish I could describe or remember what went on for the next two to three minutes but I don’t recall anything. I likely blacked out with the flood of emotions.
After regaining our composure, exchanging lots of hugs, tears and high fives we started down towards the bull. When we got to the meadow and Brailee got her first look at the bull she turned to me and said “I guess everything does happen for a reason, Dad”
You can watch this hunt play-out in its entirety be clicking on the video below. A hunt I will cherish for the rest of my life.