Confessions of an Elk-A-Holic
By Jack Atcheson, Sr. with Michael Hanback
Author’s note: Jack Atcheson. Sr. shot more bull elk on public land than any other hunter in North America. Jack was one of the top hunting consultants in the nation when I began my writing career 35 years ago; he took me under his wing and we enjoyed many long, tough DIY elk and mule deer hunts together. Jack passed away December 27, 2017 at age 85. My friend and I wrote this article together for Outdoor Life in 2001.
My idea of a big weekend was to hunt. One time we were over by Anaconda, in a place called Dry Creek. I walked out into a meadow and spooked some elk. They bolted, heads up and hooves thundering. I flung up my old .270 and shot and shot. I got my first elk, a fat young bull.
I was a poor student, except in geography and biology. One Christmas I got a mail-order taxidermy course, and I spent all my homework time mounting birds and small game. I hunted every day I could. I talked to hunters and guides and read hundreds of books about animals and the places they lived. For as long as I can recall, I’ve been gathering information on animals and where to hunt them.
I got out of the Army in the early 1950s and worked odd jobs around Butte for a few years. People kept asking me where to go hunting, because I hunted all the time. In ‘55, finally deciding there was enough money in it to live, I went full-time into the taxidermy and hunt-booking business.
Cash was tight in the early years. We had one vehicle, a 1956 Ford. You’d be surprised where you can go in a car if you have a good set of chains and put plenty of weight in the back end.
One time a friend and I went out and shot two large 6-point elk. We hung the carcasses on a pole between two trees, and I backed the Ford beneath them. The plan was to lower one bull, slow and easy, on top of the car and then lower the other elk onto the trunk. However, the pulley broke and both elk came crashing down onto the Ford. One bull landed squarely on the driver’s side.
Luckily I am not a tall person. I drove slouched in the seat all way home, with one bull riding in the caved-in roof and the other tied across the trunk. It didn’t bother me much, but the ’56 Ford belonged to my wife. Some things are hard to explain.
Some years ago near Gardiner, Montana, elk hunting was open every weekend through the end of February, and that is where I spent all my spare time. There were some big bulls hanging out on the high ridges above the Yellowstone River. Around 3:00 each morning my hunting companion, Jerry Manley, and I would start the long trek up. Depending on the snow, it would take three to five grueling hours to get to the elk.
One morning we got a late start, but as it was bitter cold, way below zero, many elk had come down off a big mountain near Trail Creek. A couple of hours into the climb I spotted a couple of truly giant bulls. One I shall never forget. His royal points were about 25 inches long and flat like butter knives. There was no mistaking that elk. Then he whirled and was gone, heading for the high country with Jerry and me in hot pursuit.
We followed a maze of tracks for hours and eventually crested a rise and peeked over into Bassett Creek. A herd of about 200 cows and 40 bulls moved along a ridge a couple hundred yards away. Most of the bulls were 5x5s, but two were exceptional 6-points, easily record class. None was as large as the Butter Knife Bull.
“Those two bulls are the biggest we’re gonna get,” said Jerry. “We’re running out of time, and all this climbing is killing us.”
We decided to wait until the last elk walked out the timber. If the Butter Knife Bull didn’t show, we’d take a crack at the 6-points.
The rising sun turned the snow a delicate pink, and beads of frost glittered like diamonds on the trees. The elk walked single file, streams of breath hanging two feet in front of their nostrils. Just as we settled in to shoot the 6-points, a roaring gust of wind blew up a whiteout. When the snow cleared the bulls were gone.
“I don’t think the Butter Knife Bull came up this far anyway,” I said to Jerry. You head back down one ridge, I’ll hike down the other and we’ll meet up at the bottom at dark. We might jump him somewhere between us.”
I laced on my snowshoes and headed out. A half-hour later I spotted elk moving toward me, less than 100 yards away. Fifty head emerged from the spruce timber, and the Butter Knife Bull was with them! Fixing to raise my rifle, I slipped on a patch of ice and took off down the slope like a bobsled out of control. The wild-eyed elk turned and trotted parallel with me. I somersaulted a few times and lost sight of the big bull. I knew he was headed in Jerry’s direction so I hollered, “He’s coming!” I slammed into a tree and ended up upside down in four feet of snow.
Then I heard a single shot.
An old hunter had driven his Jeep as far as he could up a two-track. He’d stopped and built a fire to sit by. That’s not a bad way to hunt. Jerry, who hiked through the area a few minutes later, found the guy with the Butter Knife Bull.
“Not only did the old-timer shoot the elk, but it fell with its front feet in the fire,” Jerry told me. I heard later the bull scored 390. So much for my bad luck. The good luck belonged to the guy who did the shooting, and that is how you get the big ones.
Roger Stradley was a phenomenal Supercub pilot. All the fish and game people wanted him to fly them around when they did their game surveys because Roger just didn’t crash.
For years I figured Roger knew where the big elk were. One day I saw him in a diner and bought him a hamburger. We made small talk awhile, and then Roger asked where I had been hunting the past few years. I told him.
He almost choked on his fries and roared, “You’re hunting where I’ve been seeing two of the biggest bulls in all my years of flying over the West, including Yellowstone Park.”
One of the enormous elk lived in immense, rough country near Ennis, Montana. I called him the Magic White Bull. His hide was very light and accentuated by his dark legs and mane. He was clever and had luck like you would not believe.
The white elk hung out with two other bulls. One of his buddies had a huge foot, and the other one had a broken hoof. I almost hated to find those tracks. Once I did, I would follow them for miles. I would think of shooting no other elk. It became a wild obsession.
One day, sneaking along below timberline, I spotted an elk bedded in the snow. The Magic White Bull, you couldn’t miss those towering antlers! I figured if I moved closer, the elk might get up and go in a long jump. If I whistled to make him stand up, he might just crash away. The bull was close, so I decided to kneel and aim at the snow line where the point of his left shoulder should be. I fired and a cloud of snow blew up. I was sure I got him.
I ran over and found the bull had vanished. He’d been lying behind a snow-covered log with a fresh bullet hole in it.
Another day it was incredibly cold and windy, probably 40 below zero. Shivering on a mountainside I spotted a trio of bulls duck into some spruce timber a couple of hundred yards away. I swung my rifle over to a strip of meadow on the other side of the trees and waited. Out came the elk. First an enormous bull, then another monster. The white bull always brought up the rear, so when the third elk cleared the trees I fired. There was a big “whump” and down he went. Man was I excited!
I started over to the elk and there, not 50 yards way in the timber, stood the white bull staring at me. I couldn’t believe it. Never had I seen another bull traveling with the trio. The unlucky fourth one was a heck of a trophy, with 56-inch main beams. But he couldn’t compare with the three bulls I’d been hunting. All were record class, and the white bull was near the top of the book.
That was my last chance at the Magic White Bull. I never worked so hard tracking elk. For eight years he took me on long hikes in country that was ungodly steep and rugged. I never got him, but I loved the chase.
I couldn’t believe it. I had had a heart attack. There must be some mistake. “No, and if you hadn’t been so active, you would have had this heart attack 20 years ago,” my doctors said.
Drs. Hubbard and Corbett loved to hunt. Corbett wanted to know which area I would recommend for sheep. “I’ll tell you after I come through the surgery,” I responded.
Well, things went well. Dr. Corbett drew a sheep tag and shot a magnificent ram that fall, and by September I was hunting elk in Idaho again. That was 1989.
Then in 1994 I had another heart attack. The grim word was that I would probably have to cut back on my mountain hunting. “You mean I will have to be a rabbit hunter now?” I asked the docs. That was the general consensus of opinion, and I did not like it.
One great thing about Montana is that most of the docs like to hunt. The anesthetist, Dr. Parks, jabbered on about a hunting trip he was taking to Australia as I drifted off into a very dark world for a second time.
When I woke up, I was alert and troubled. I opened my left eye and saw my son, Jack Jr., staring at me. “Forget the rabbits, Dad, you’re an elk hunter again,” he said. Those were the magic words I wanted to hear.
That fall I hit all my secret spots in Montana and Idaho. I hunted for 33 days and passed up 35 legal bulls. I wanted a big 6×6. Although I was feeling well, a lot of people were concerned that I would wander off into the mountains and drop dead, and nobody would find me until my body washed out in the spring. But I wasn’t exactly pushing it. When you hunt slow and easy, you spot more elk.
On one of my last mornings in Idaho, I cut a huge track in the snow and decided to give the bull a run for his money. The elk moved slowly and I even more slowly. Six hours into the stalk I spotted a glint inside a strip of timber. I froze, leaned left and saw brow tines.
Once you spot a piece of an elk the whole animal pops into focus. The bull was bedded; as he worked the wind and swiveled his great rack, I could see six points on one side, seven on the other.
My only shot was though a hole in the trees the size of a business card. I raised my .338 and fired. The bull never moved from his bed.
I walked to the animal, trembling and thinking, “I’ve shot a lot of elk in my life, but this bull is as important to me as the first one I killed more than 50 years ago.” I smiled. I was, again, an elk hunter.