Daylight slowly flooded the rocky clearing on upper Chase Creek. I stood watching and listening to the forest wake to life. Turkeys pounded air in flight from their roost and squirrels began to scamper. I clutched my string of cow calls in one hand and small elk bugle in the other, letting my camera dangle around my neck.
Morning mist rose through canyons below the Mogollon Rim and the bugling bull elk gave the forest an eerie, Scottish Highland feel. Their sharp, feminine, whine seemed unfitting for such a massive, powerful creature. One of Mother Nature’s dirty tricks I suppose, like the duckbill on a platypus.
They bugled again. Sounding mature and purposeful with a steady push from deep inside their chests, like well-trained opera singers with a mind for angry mating.
I found my calf call on the long string, blew it once- quick, and sharp, then trotted 50 yards to my left and answered myself with a mature cow bleat.
After a moment of silence, instinct overpowered the bulls and they responded simultaneously. Their wicked drawn-out song told me their direction changed. They sounded closer. I waited quietly. Any call I would make might sell me out; tell the bulls I am not an elk. It is better to plant a seed in their loins, than to send a herd full of manmade bleats and bugles into the forest. Like dating, finesse is key.
Hopefully the “ting” and “clank” of elk hooves on the gray limestone shards would soon echo through the tree line across the clearing.
However, the forest fell all but silent, only the soft morning breeze teased my ears.
Time to talk, I decided after a 10-minute wait, before the bulls lose interest. I must choose my words carefully. Sounding like a mature herd bull might send my quarries crashing away to the next canyon. My bugle must imitate a young, fresh bull, one steaming with overconfidence, yet easily beaten.
I trotted 50 yards to my right and blew my little elk bugle — soft, short and clear with a mild up swing at the end. Perfect, I thought, just as I had practiced at home when I triggered every barking dog in my neighborhood.
Rushing back, I answered my own bugle with a single cow-in-estrus call. A long fluttering bleat that says “I’m ready, take me now.”
The ridge across the grassy clearing came to life. Limestone clanked, branches snapped, and both bulls screamed long psychotic trumpets as if fiery ghosts rode on their backs. If they kept coming, they would meet each other in the pine trees on the other side of the clearing ... perfect.
The wind shifted into my face and brought the musk of rutting bulls. A large stick lay close; I grabbed it and smashed it against the nearest tree several times to imitate a bull thrashing branches with his antlers. Another quick blow on my bull bugle followed by estrus cow chatter brought the impious, lustful bulls charging from the ridge. One came from forward right and the other, forward left, on track to meet a hundred yards in front of me.
Nervous sweat drenched my hat. If they didn’t clash somewhere in the clearing, I’d have them in my lap. Two raging, rutting, 800-pound bulls thinking I am a cow elk ... no thanks.
They met like a car crash. Stomping, thrusting and urinating wildly on rocks, trees and each other. Antlers locked, they rammed, heaved and twisted while I clicked, focused and zoomed, until one overpowered the other, then they broke free.
They paused a moment, I could count points on their antlers. One, a six-by-seven with bulging front shoulders, and a rump like a plow horse.
The other, a smaller five-by-five suffered a wound on his neck. Blood flowed over his chest, down his front legs and into the dirt. He trembled like a defeated gladiator on a dirt arena in Rome. He limped away toward the safety of the manzanita patch on the ridge.
Suddenly, cows and calves came from the canyon behind me. The lead cow moaned the long wanting estrus call, telling the winner that she was ready. The two had their time together in the forest as I snuck away ... blushing.