If there were a hat trick in elk hunting, then this would be it. Joe Thomas, avid archery hunter, outdoorsman and host of “Knight & Hales Ultimate Hunting,” recently harvested all three subspecies of North American elk within a 30-day period… completing another portion of his lifelong pursuit of taking all 29 species of big-game animals native to North America.
Equipped with his Mathews bow, 350 series Carbon Express Maxima Hunter arrows and Tru-Fire release, his recent, whirlwind hunting adventure began in late September and wrapped up in mid-October, and took him through Arizona, Oregon and California. And while Thomas may have purposefully set out to bag all three subspecies of elk, he never imagined it would come together so suddenly.
The Rocky Mountain Elk
Crervus Elaphus Nelsoni
The Rocky Mountain Elk, the most plentiful and well-known of the elk subspecies (and the one with the largest antlers), was first on Thomas’ wish list. In late September, the consultants at Huntin’ Fool acquired an archery tag for Thomas for Unit 27 in Arizona, an area of public land that’s known as one of the best locations for hunting big elk. “I tried for 14 years to get a tag in this unit,” Thomas explained. “So I was pretty excited to finally have the opportunity to hunt here.”
Thomas hunted with Darin Emerald of Emerald Xtreme Outfitters, who has been a professional guide in this area for more than 20 years. “We used a series of Knight and Hale diaphragm and mouth calls, including The Knight & Hale Sandi Bite Down Elk Call, to make cow sounds,” Thomas recalled. “It was an awesome hunt. But the most difficult part was passing up so many big bulls.
Darin had warned me that he’d probably give me the thumb’s-down signal a lot. And he did!” Even on the first afternoon of
the 14-day hunt, Thomas spotted a bull that was bigger than any he’d ever seen before, but Darrin shook his head and gave him the motion to pass. They repeated that same scenario time and time again over the next few days, with big bulls bugling all around them. On day 11, the two hunters were exhausted and trying to take a few moments to rest, when they heard a big bull nearby, raking his antlers and bulging loudly. “We didn’t even make a call,” Thomas said. “This guy was so preoccupied with trying to attract cows that we got within 20 yards of him.”
Darrin finally gave Thomas a thumb’s-up sign, and he took the bull down with a perfect, double-lung shot, “right on the numbers,” Thomas said. “It was a really nice trophy – a 6x6, with a gross score of 370 inches… that’s by far the biggest elk I’ve ever taken!”
The Roosevelt Elk
Crervus Elaphus Roosevelti
With the first hunt checked off his list, Thomas was able to turn his attention toward his next quarry: the Roosevelt Elk, the largest-bodied subspecies of elk. “I wasn’t originally planning to squeeze in this hunt,” he stated, “but the Roosevelt didn’t go out of season in Oregon until September 28. So as soon as I could, I caught a plane to Oregon so I could take advantage of those final three days of the season.”
Thomas set out with veteran hunter Mike Runn, “who just happens to be a UPS driver who really loves to hunt elk,” he added. And even through the pressure was on, timewise, Thomas was successful and scored a nice 4x4 bull with his bow.
“I had several close encounters on this hunt,” Thomas stated, “but on our next-to-the-last day, I saw the Roosevelt near a narrow logging road, last used about 100 years ago. I had been unsuccessful a couple of times in the past, so I was pretty adamant about getting this guy. It was steep terrain and looked almost like a rain forest, with monstrous trees and giant ferns all around us. But I was able to make a very steep, downhill shot, at about 50 yards away. Luckily, the bull didn’t get very far. He actually ended up falling down, conveniently enough, right on that logging road.”
The Tule Elk
Crervus Elaphus Nannodes
Atascadero, California, was the final destination for Thomas, his sights now focused on bagging a Tule Elk, the smallest of the subspecies that once freely roamed the valleys of the central and northern parts of the state. It was mid-October, and Thomas met up with Ryan and Larry Smith of Avaneles Hunting Organization, who were able to obtain a tag, even though not many are released each year for the coveted Tule.
“It was a pretty hard hunt,” Thomas admitted. “It was all open country, so it was very difficult to stalk with a bow. I made several failed stalks on a number of bulls.” The pressure was on, and Thomas’ adrenaline was running high. In fact, he got within 40 yards of a nice-sized bull, but when he aimed and drew his bow, he shot right over the elk’s back. “There was so much excitement and tension with my dream coming together,” he stated, “that I just totally messed up my shot.”
Adding to the growing anxiety, the group of hunters was unsuccessful at pinpointing any elk again until the last day of the hunt. But there, in the midst of about 26 cows, stood an odd-looking bull. Thomas joked, “He actually looked kind of like a unicorn. He was a mature bull, but a large part of one his antlers had snapped off earlier in the year during a fight. Normally, I wouldn’t even consider taking a bull with a broken antler, but the guides thought that they’d found the other piece of it, and, after all, this was the last day of the hunt. I really didn’t have much of a choice at that point.”
Carefully crawling on his stomach for an hour and a half, Thomas was able to move within 80 yards of the broken-antler bull, but there weren’t enough trees or cover for him to get any closer. “The wind began swirling around, and those 27 noses started to smell me,” he said. “They were getting nervous, and I couldn’t risk those 27 pairs of eyes spotting me, either. This was my last chance at a Tule elk, and gun hunting was allowed on that tag. So as much as I’m a diehard bow hunter, I made the decision to set aside my bow, and I took him down with the Browning A-bolt, .270caliber rifle that Ryan had brought along on the hunt.”
Thomas acknowledges that other hunters may have accomplished a similar elk-hunting hat trick, but he’s proud to be one of those few… and ecstatic that it all came together within such a short timeframe. “When it was all said and done, I realized that I’d accomplished my goal of taking all three subspecies within 30 days,” Thomas mentioned. “I was elated. Of course, for me, it’s not really about numbers, records, or statistics. I just love the hunt! But it is cool when something like this happens, and when it all comes together so perfectly. It’s a really great feeling. And having these kinds of opportunities with ‘Ultimate Hunting’ and with all of our sponsors is really amazing.”