The Next Horizon: A Red Desert Elk Hunt

Written by Josh Tobey

We were hustling to get where we wanted to be for the last light; feeling sorry that the day was ending despite another incredible sunset. Another day of an incredible trip was ending. Despite this, both my wife Jojo and I were looking forward to getting out of the Polaris Ranger. The odometer added 100 miles on the day. An average daily number for the machine and riders in the vast southern Red Desert. The days of hunting were taking their toll and our endurance for the shaking, rattling, and squeaking of the side-by-side was at its limits. Yet, we were energized by the prospect of what we might see over the next horizon.

Pictured: Horny Toad. “This area is roughly 50 miles by 80 miles of a museum of natural and Western history,” says author Josh Tobey.

After parking, we approached our overlook on foot. As I walked, I daydreamed about how fortunate I was to win a raffle for a Wyoming Commissioner’s Tag and how I had enjoyed this adventure for nearly 40 days between scouting and archery season. This tag allowed me my choice of unit and species of deer, elk, or antelope. An easy choice for me. We were in elk hunt area 124, a massive area in the southern part of Wyoming’s Red Desert. It was 2020 and with all the chaos of politics and the pandemic, I had the ultimate tag and an undeniable kitchen pass to hunt. The world was shut down, but the desert didn’t know it.

This area is roughly 50 miles by 80 miles of a museum of natural and Western history. Geology and erosion created the landscape and wildlife truly roams. Fossils from an inland sea, artifacts of history never recorded, and times of wild people and the wild west can be found wherever they were made, used, and discarded. The Ranger and I were lost in it, totally alone except for the wildlife that gave me the inspiration and desire to visit and explore.

“GET DOWN!,” Jojo said. Hunting or marriage, the training from one or the other brought me back to the present. Hitting my knee on a sharp rock as I dropped, catching up to Jojo and where she was looking. The setting sun revealed all the secret nooks and crannies that were invisible just hours ago. We could see a dozen silhouettes far out across the sage flat and one had reflecting ivory tips in the setting light. Through the spotting scope, I could tell this nomad was worth looking for first thing in the morning but as late as it was, all we could do is have a beer and enjoy our view. This elk was headed our way.

The light the next morning changed from black to grey as we sat down where we left off the night before. There was no daydreaming this dawn. Bugles from several bulls called our optics to them. The elk were having a real conflict in the sage below us. The early light combined with the visual and audible display produced a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Bodies moving, antlers colliding, the still grey light hanging in the dust kicked up by the elk. With our optics, we started looking for bulls. We saw big six point bull over there with cows. A bull in another spot had cows, single bulls were spread throughout, and then we saw a clear 7X7. His bugle was deep and raspy, the kind I dream of. Several herds, maybe 80-head, collided here and the bulls were trying to work it out.

Calls in hand, Jojo and I slipped down the steep face into the sage, our hearts pumping like the wild things we were. Our adrenaline became part of the morning’s primitive earthy bouquet and the sounds we made were part of the melee we joined as we ran and sometimes snuck cover to cover in the direction we last saw the 7X7. Too many eyes and ears. So much noise from bulls and cows. Satellite bulls were popping up around us. But they didn’t have time for us either. Their lives were driven by a different desire more urgent than the danger we represented.

The author’s wife and hunting partner, Jojo on the track job.

Arriving where we thought we should be, our bull was somewhere else. Jojo spotted him back in the direction we came from fighting another bull. Closing the distance, we climbed a small hill and set Jojo up to cow call. I closed the distance by about 80 yards. Locating the growler by sound alone. I had good terrain for a setup. Jojo opened up with her cow call as I knocked an arrow and lay the bow on the ground to bugle. I bugled. He answered. I interrupted him. He bugled. Jojo cow called. I stomped the sage, bugled and Jojo sold him the lost cow sound. From 80 yards away, he started our direction.

The antlers were running straight at me through the sage, the ripping sound of branches breaking.

Somehow my mind worked methodically. Dropping the bugle, I bent and picked up the bow, drawing the arrow bent over with the bow parallel to the ground in order to stay concealed. I tipped the bow upright and stood up. He was already there almost on top of me. Self-defense close and face to face he threw on the breaks with all four legs. At full draw I saw all my pins in the middle of his chest and instinct dropped the string. I heard the arrow strike and the bull spun. Grabbing the bugle I let rip. He stopped in the sage 85 yards away. All I could see through the tall sage were his antlers, and suddenly there was total silence… as if all the elk knew and the desert required a moment of silence. He walked out of sight.

Shivering from all that had happened in seconds and not knowing what the end might be. I look back at Jojo and mimed shooting the bow and with hands up I mimed “I don’t know what happened”. She mimed back putting her hands together as if praying and then by her ear as if sleeping. He was down and she could see him.

Later, when I placed my hand on his antlers and body. Feeling the conflicting emotions of joy and loss. The satisfaction of accomplishment and the sorrow that it is now over. How lucky I am to have hunted in a place so wild and vast. How great the adventure I experienced. The Red Desert continues to inspire me with the desire for what I might see over the next horizon.

The author with his 2020 Red Desert bull elk.