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"Pack Goats for Elk"
Written by Jeff Welch

Pack Goats for Elk
It was January 2001, and it was again time to submit an application for a Utah limited entry tag. For 19 years I have been trying to draw a Utah limited entry elk tag. I reviewed the DWR odds report, then advised my long time hunting partner that I was not going to apply for the San Juan area, as the odds of drawing were too low. He opted to give it another try and applied for the San Juan.

I continued to study the odds for each of the areas that I believed could produce a true trophy bull. One area in particular stood out, the Book Cliffs road less area. Of course this was out of the question, as I did not own horses. However, before sending my application, I happened to talk with a co-worker, Brett Reynolds, who lived in Vernal, Utah. I mentioned the Book Cliffs as an area I was considering, and he made an offer I couldn’t refuse. He told me to apply for the unit and if I drew, he’d take me in with his pack goats.
When he told me “pack goats”, I thought he was crazy! Pack goats? He assured me that he could get us into and out of the backcountry if I were lucky enough to draw.

Imagine my surprise when the letter came stating that I was “Successful”. I couldn’t believe it, after 20 years I finally drew a trophy bull tag!
Though I was very excited, I was also concerned. Could we really get in there with goats? I called Brett and he was as excited as I. He couldn’t believe I drew either! We made plans for several scouting trips and had several locals from the area offer to help us by showing us the way in. Of course, many of them complained about my luck and how it wasn’t fair that a Wasatch front hunter drew this tag. But without their help, my scouting and hunting would have been much more difficult.

Our scouting trips were mainly just to get us familiar with the area. We saw very few elk and only one big bull. Admittedly, I was concerned, but the locals assured me that come hunting season, I would hear and see more bulls than I could possibly imagine.
Three of the locals, Carl Breitenbach, Burke Buckalew, and Eldon Buckalew wanted to accompany myself and Brett on the hunt just to see and experience my hunt of a lifetime.

The day before the hunt we loaded the goats and all our gear into the back of my truck and started the 2 ½ hour drive to the entrance of the road less area of the Book Cliffs. Once there, we met Carl, Burke, and Eldon, who had all brought their horses. The deal was that the goats would carry all the food and gear in and the horses would pack out the bull that I was hoping to harvest.
Our plan was to get in and get camp setup before dark, however, the spot we were headed for was 12 miles back in. After about 9 miles, it began getting dark and the goats were beat. They needed rest, and so did we!
We decided to setup camp in the bottom of the canyon and make the rest of the journey the next day. I didn’t mention it to anyone else, but I was disappointed. All I had been told was we needed to be on top for the opening morning hunt, yet here we were still at the bottom with four miles to go.
I had a very restless night, and to make matters worse, sometime in the night a big bull let out a bugle just 100 yards from camp. It was then followed by another 10 to 15 bulls bugling off in the distance. This went on for a good part of the night.
At first light we got up and I thought we could just head off from camp and find all the bulls we would need. Wrong! We did not see or hear an elk. I thought this was very weird, because they had been bugling all night. Burke explained that these elk move down to the bottom of the canyons at night to get water and are back to the top by sunrise. He said, “Don’t worry, we’ll find the elk!”

We packed up camp and loaded up the goats and headed for the top. As it turned out, it was a good thing we didn’t try to get to the top of the mountain the night before. A log blocked the trail and we could not get the horses past the downed tree. It took several hours and a lot of good luck to get the log off the trail so we could pass through.

At about 2:00 p.m., we finally arrived at the top of the mountain. We setup camp, rested, had a bite to eat and set out on our hunt. We headed west of camp and hiked to the top of the next hill. I imagined we would see elk running everywhere, but it was just the opposite, we didn’t see any elk, only heard a few distant bugles.
We continued hiking and glassing, but nothing.

Pack Goats for Elk
As it was getting closer to dusk, we headed back towards camp and was in the canyon just behind camp. Burke stopped to bugle and all hell broke loose! All of a sudden we had four bulls bugling back at us. We worked our way down the draw and up the bottom of the other side and got one bull with a few cows coming our way. The closer he came, the madder he sounded. Burke was able to call that bull up to within 40 yards of me. I was hiding behind a log watching the six-point bull in my scope, it was the coolest thing I had ever seen!
As I was watching the bull I was thinking of what one of the locals had told me. “Don’t shoot the first bull you see, there are bigger ones out there.” That’s when Burke whispered, “Don’t shoot him, he’s too thin.”

We weren’t done yet though, there were still three more bulls bugling on the hillside. We only got a glimpse of the second bull, but could not get in position to take a shot before he moved off. Burke called in the third bull and was raking up a pine tree when the bull walked out from behind a tree and spotted Burke. The bull didn’t see me only fifteen yards away. I didn’t need to have Burke tell me to let this bull go, as he was just a small six-point. Not the bull I wanted.
By now it was dark and we decided to head for camp. We didn’t see the fourth bull, but as it turns out, it ran out above camp with a small group of cows. Eldon, who was in camp, said it looked like a good one.

Back at camp I got a shocking surprise. I was advised that the three guys that joined us needed to go back on Monday morning, and of course, with the horses they rode in on. So, if we were going to have the horses to get the elk out, I would have to make a harvest on Sunday, or Brett and I would have a lot more work ahead of us to get a bull out with just the goats.
I kept thinking, what if I don’t see another good bull? Should I have shot one of the bulls I already had opportunities on?
Again, I had a restless night. And, as I was just starting to doze off a bull elk bugled right behind camp and that started a chorus of calls of both bulls and cows. There must have been 20-30 bulls bugling all over the mountain!

We awoke Sunday morning with only a few hours of good rest and headed up the draw from camp at first light. Burke began bugling about 50 yards from camp and was immediately answered by what sounded to be a good bull. We headed up the draw to see if we could get a glimpse of him, meanwhile we had another three bulls bugling behind us and another half dozen off the other side of the mountain. It was an incredible experience!

We caught up to the big bull and saw that he had about 20 cows with him. He was hidden behind some heavy timber. Burke and I snuck around the hill, hoping to get a better view, while Brett, Carl, and Eldon stayed back and cow called to keep the bulls attention in their direction.
After moving around the hill, Burke and I spotted the bull in the open sage about 200 yards out. As the bull would begin to walk away, the other guys would let out a cow call and the bull would get very upset and walk back towards the hill, screaming at his missing cows. He did this several times back and forth. Burke took a good look at him and said, “He’s a good bull.” He was short on the back, but heavy. He suggested that I take the bull.

I sat down and rested my rifle on my knees and squeezed the trigger. It was hit! The bull collapsed, as I hit him high in the rib cage. As he rolled down the hill, trying to get back up, I place a second shot right behind his front shoulder. The 300 Winchester magnum did its job and the hunt was over.

Now it was time for the real work. We cleaned and caped him out, all the while having bulls bugling all around us. Since we were only 250 yards from camp, it didn’t take long to get the bull back. Due to the heat, we decided to head out right then. It took us a day and a half to get in the 12 miles and now we were attempting to get out in less than a full day.
We had to pack the last mile in the dark, but we made it. For the most part the goats worked out great. Each had its own unique personality. One would work harder and push the others. One was very hard headed and another was very slow, but would keep on going like the energizer bunny. All in all, they did the job and I had the hunt of a lifetime.