by: Tony Rivello
I am confident there isn’t a hunter alive that doesn’t remember his or her first successful big game harvest. Well, this is a recap of mine and it’ll be one that I’ll remember til I am good and old. I didn’t start hunting big game until 2012 at the age of 42. I owe it all to my late friend and fellow fire captain Don Mesisca. Don was a hunter’s hunter! He was a true outdoorsman and it was something that he shared with not just his close hunting buddies but his wife Rosie and only child, his son Brett. An unfortunate accident which claimed the lives of all three in November of 2011, would be the catalyst for me wanting to experience just a piece of what Don lived for and loved. Hunting!
So, I began putting in for elk hunts and got drawn first shot in 2012. No luck on my first hunt. I would proceed to venture out with bow in hand for the next 4 years with my son Anthony on over-the-counter archery mule deer hunts in Arizona. Again, no luck. Yet, on each hunt I would wear Don’s fire department duty shirt as my base layer. It would serve as my tribute to him and I’d wear it until I was successful.
In 2016, I was fortunate enough to get drawn for a dream hunt. A Unit 9 Archery bull hunt in the Kaibab Forest of Arizona. For months, I prepped in every fashion and shot my bow, a Bowtech TomKat, which belonged to Don’s son Brett. It was a priceless gift I acquired after the accident.
The time had come. I arrived in Unit 9 just south of the town of Tusayan, Arizona on Wednesday August 31st, 8 days before the 2016 opener. I was going it alone for the first week. I was leaving no stone unturned and I was committed to scout my heart out. I was doing this for Don, as much, if not more than I was for myself.
During my week of scouting I was all over fresh sign. The bulls were bugling all night from the time I pulled into camp on the 31st. I couldn’t help but stand outside in the pitch dark listening to these giants scream at all hours of the night. I set up the only two cameras I owned and on one I was able to capture some activity on an unassuming road side wallow. Numerous cows, several smaller 4×4’s and a stud 6×6 were hitting it regularly.
About 5 days into scouting I would get a much needed visit in camp from my good friend and fellow fire captain JP Vicente. JP who runs Big Chino Guide Service knew the importance of this hunt and took time away from clients to stop by my camp to give me encouragement and make sure I was ready to go. Two days before the opener my hunting companion would arrive. My good buddy a fellow firefighter and lifelong hunter himself, Lee Hackney of Raleigh, North Carolina. I had told Lee just 4 weeks earlier that I might be hunting alone and asked if he’d like to join me. He jumped at the chance of being on a public land elk hunt in Arizona and I am glad he did.
The day before the opener Lee and I had a day to scout together. Our first bull sighting would come the evening before the opener on our way back to camp. Two studs feeding in an open meadow near Red Butte. Back at camp we made our plan and I was feeling good.
“Yet, on each hunt I would wear Don’s fire department duty shirt as my base layer.”
Opening morning arrived and I was nervous as heck. We hunted around Red Butte in the a.m. and I would sit the roadside wallow in the evening until dark. While sitting the wallow, a spike, a 3×3 and small 4×4 all came to the water together. I am 15 yards off this wallow, nervous as heck and getting set up to take a shot. I am on a Unit 9 hunt, all alone on this wallow and I think to myself, this bull is a tad small. This coming from the guy who’s never shot one. I didn’t want to be “that guy” who passed up a bull only to regret it. But I passed! I walk out from the wallow under headlamp and the bulls were screaming. I meet up with Lee to tell him I want to get in there early the next day.
Day two and we head in just shy of the wallow, chase a few bugles only to get busted by a small 4×4. I tell Lee I want to go downwind and get west of the wallow. We hike west about a mile, make the turn and have two bulls in ear shot. I look at my map and I am confident one is the wallow, which is consistent with the time stamp on my camera.
We advance up a little farther and make a game plan. Lee would stay back about 50 yards and I would go up and find a spot with shooting lanes. Once in position, I signaled to Lee and he took over calling. The call worked great. As I peered through a small hole in the tree I see this giant bull cresting over a small ridge. He’s huge and I am nervous! He stops at 20 yards and is staring right at my tree.
I look to my left in the direction of my shooting lane and realize there is a small game trail literally 2-3 feet from me. Thinking he may come up that trail I took the opportunity to get to full draw. Lee hits the call again and as I am staring at this giant as he bugles. The sound and visual are forever embedded in my memory and was something straight out of the most well documented TV hunting shows. The only thing missing was the camera crew and about 3 GoPros. After he bugles, the bull quarters to his right and heads straight for my shooting lane. Nervously I get my mouth reed in position and realize I am moments away from slinging an arrow at my first elk. The bull, still slightly quartered enters my shooting lane and I hit my call. He stops broadside at 13 yards and I let it fly. Swack! It’s a hit. The bull runs about 5 yards, pulls a u-turn and runs another 25 yards before Lee hammers the call. The bull stops and then slowly walks off.
I knock another arrow and start glassing the bull and I honestly don’t know what to do from here. Not sure if I hit him as good as I thought, I begin second guessing. Lee and I regroup and after about 30 minutes or so, we begin tracking him and marking blood trails. Small drops along the way and I am getting nervous. Lee is leading the way while I am ready with bow in hand and we’re moving slowly. Suddenly, I see him glassing and then the universal sign of success, Lee pumps his first in the air. I did it!
I glass ahead down a small incline about 50 yards in front of us I can see a giant bull laid up under a tall pine. The flood of emotions was unreal. I had just successfully harvested my first elk and on a self-guided archery hunt no less. I was with my good friend, and the person I would have called first to tell about my success while not able to get the call, was looking down the entire time.
As I walked up on that giant bull I honestly couldn’t believe it. I was wearing Don’s duty shirt as planned and hunting with his son Brett’s bow. After dressing the elk, I took a small container out of my pack that had been on every hunt for the past 4 years. What a way to honor my friend. I sprinkled Don’s ashes right where that bull had laid down under that tall pine in the Arizona sunshine. It was a good day.
All along I prepped for my hunt thinking of ways I’d pay respects to my friend and firefighter brother Don as sort of a gift back to him and my way of saying “thank you”. However, now that I’ve had time to process what I’ve been able to experience, I realize that this hunt and the ones to come are Don’s gift to me. Miss you brother!