PAYSON, Ariz. – The night before Brent Chapman started his first elk hunt, he was a bundle of nerves.
“I don’t think I was this nervous the night before Lake Oneida,’’ Chapman said, referring to the event where he won the 2012 Bassmaster Angler of the Year.
Chapman’s accomplishments on the water are well-known. He’s becoming equally accomplished in a tree-stand, bowhunting for whitetail deer, where he’s arrowed eight Pope and Young Record Book deer.
Sitting in a tree-stand waiting for an elk, an animal four times the size of a deer is another story. The bucket-list hunt had been on his mind since the 2014 Bassmaster Classic when Clifford Pirch invited him on a hunt.
Hours away from his first hunt Chapman was like a kid the night before Christmas. Questions to Pirch were nonstop, “what ifs” were flowing freely and adjustments to gear were constant.
“I can’t believe how excited I am,’’ Chapman would say more than once.
An elk hunt roller coaster
The excitement level would take a roller coaster ride over the next five days and reach its peak on the final hunt when Chapman finally got his elk.
At that point, Chapman was comparing the hunt to winning the Bassmaster Classic.
“I literally felt like I was at a Bassmaster Classic for the week,” he said. “Instead of chasing the winning stringer around the lake, my goal was to go shoot a bull elk with a bow. And to have it happen was incredible.”
His bull elk wasn’t the beast of the woods, but it didn’t matter. As is often said in fishing events, “a win is a win.”
Chapman’s elk played out much like a fishing tournament. He took a stand in an area that is best known as a community area. Pirch and his group of hunters had hit the area days earlier in hopes of getting close to an elk before local pressure moved the elk out of the valley. That plan didn’t work. Local pressure moved the elk much quicker and created tough conditions.
By Wednesday, with most of the pressure gone, elk were moving back to the area. Thursday, his last day to hunt, Chapman set up in the valley, hoping for the best before he would start driving home at noon.
Like every morning, once Pirch had situated his hunters, he would retreat to a high place miles away and watch the action through his binoculars.
The tale of the hunt
Chapman best tells the tale of how it took place:
“I get in there about 6:15 and Clifford texts me at 7,’’ Chapman said. “He said there was a big bull about 100 yards from me. And elk were all over the place, so I’m excited.
“I'm kind of just sitting there and it is so quiet out there. I guess a whole migration of robins decided to come into that water hole at the same time. And it was as loud as you can imagine.
“I couldn't hear anything. I thought I'd heard some elk up the draw, you know, maybe a 100 yards or so. But I couldn't tell. Because I thought it might have been the birds. I was sitting there. And all of a sudden, the birds took off, you know, like something startled them. I look. And then I can hear something. I could see a leg, coming down the edge of the steep draw. My heart rate must have doubled right at that point.
“Then I see antlers. So my heart rate probably tripled. After that point, I never looked at the antlers again. Here’s my opportunity where you start hoping and praying that it might happen and you're preparing for the shot.
“The elk is on a steep incline, one of those deals you probably slide on your butt getting down it. And he's just easing his way down. About half way down I'm like, ‘he's going to come.’ He's starting down and I draw back and then he trots down the hill and of course he stops right behind this cedar tree.
“His vitals are blocked by one little dead limb. It was kind of a pain. It would have been the perfect shot. He stops and he bends over looking away, and quartering away. I'm at full draw and I can't shoot. I'm waiting and waiting. And I'm like ‘come on, come on, come on.’ And I start shaking. I'm like I've got to let off if he's not going to step out.
“About that time I hear more elk. And I'm like, ‘oh, my gosh.’ I notice there's some cows coming down. And he looks up, and I've got to let off just for a second to regroup. So I let off. Thank goodness they didn't see me. They were too busy looking at each other. I said, ‘as soon as he steps out from that tree, I'll draw again, and hopefully get a shot.’
“He's watching those cows coming down. They're, like, 15 yards in front of me. I feel like I could have spit on their heads, they were that close. He's looking at them. He's 18 yards from me down in this hole.
“He starts to take a step, so I draw. And he steps out in the open, and I swear he started bucking like a horse, right in the middle of this hole. Dust is going everywhere. He's shaking his head and just freaking out right in front of these cows.
“I don't know if it was some kind of dominance thing or what. I'm at full draw, but I can't get a shot. He finally stops, and he's quartered just slightly to me.
“My heart rate was probably three times what it should have been. I just felt like I was going to take the best shot possible when I had the opportunity. I fired and he literally bolted.
“He goes up the hill, and I heard him crash. Talk about an adrenaline rush. The whole week was like going to Lake Guntersville or Falcon Lake, with the hopes of catching a big bass. Now it’s the final day and you haven't hardly had a bite. And you know you have to give it that last effort, and it pays off. It was really cool.”
Tracking the kill
The hunt, though, wasn’t over. Elk can cover a lot of ground in Arizona, and it took Chapman and Pirch several hours to track and find the big animal in the brush. During the course of the tracking, Chapman would hit another low on the roller coaster. But Pirch’s persistence would finally lead them to the elk.
All of it created lessons for Chapman.
“The persistence from trying and giving it every chance, to hunt an animal and finally get a shot paid off. You don’t give up.
“Was I proud of the shot? No. Was I proud that I finally shot an elk and scratched it off my bucket list? Is it a giant 300 class bull? No.
“It's just like I said from the start. I would have been tickled to death with a little spike and anything above a spike was a giant. I couldn't have been much more excited if it was a 300 class bull. After carrying that head off the mountain, I was probably glad it wasn't.”