Life Lessons — And the Story Behind a Goliath Elk

A diehard elk hunter discovers that the most important things in life can’t be found on the mountain.
Life Lessons — And the Story Behind a Goliath Elk

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Make no mistake, Navarro was born and bred for the elk mountains, but over the years he has refined his approach and come to realize that elk hunting is actually just a small piece of his life.

I have a love/hate relationship with elk. I love the fact that they’re regal, monstrous in size and inhabit some of God’s finest landscapes. I hate them because they have my number. Sure, I’ve arrowed a few, but I really struggle to find year-after-year consistency. I guess that’s why I’m so drawn to those bowhunters who I consider to be wapiti whisperers — guys and gals that are dialed into their elk approach and ooze with bring-a-bull-in-close confidence.

One such person is my good buddy and Casper, Wyoming, native, J.C. Navarro. Navarro got into the elk game just seven short years ago. On his maiden voyage into a land of spruce, aspen and deep canyons, Navarro arrowed a cow. Sure, he was happy to have the meat, but it was the experience of getting in close on a number of screaming bulls that forever changed him.

“It was simply insane,” Navarro said. “I was with my buddy Tim Hupp, and Tim had hunted elk before. I was a rookie. In fact, after making a few calls, Tim simply looked at me and let me know that it might be better if I left the calls in my pocket.

“The hunt was like what you’d see on television. The bulls were just screaming. I honestly, at times, had no idea which way to go. I would start after one bull and then switch and start chasing another. I would blow elk out by trying to get too close, scare them with my flute-style bugle and set up behind cover, which is a big mistake. It was this hunt, though, that made me realize I wanted to be a good elk hunter. I wanted to learn as much as I could about these animals. I wanted to become a proficient caller, so I went to work. I still hunt elk with Timmy to this day, and I thank God he took me on that first trip. Man I was so green.”

Over the course of the next six years, Navarro hunted Colorado and Wyoming regularly, spending nearly the entire month of September in the elk woods. While he arrowed a number of bulls during that time, including a 320-inch Cowboy State 6x6, Navarro’s specialty seemed to be calling in bulls for his friends, including yours truly. In fact, Navarro, in five consecutive years, called in five public land bulls for another name you’re likely to recognize from his bylines in Bowhunting World, Royle Scrogham. Oh, and Scrogham anchored each of those bulls with a single arrow.

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Navarro and friend Eric Diller celebrate a long and heavy pack out back at base camp.

Archery Elk: A Team Sport

“I think hunting elk with buddies is like a team sport,” Navarro said. “Those bulls that I called in for you . . . for Roy, well, I feel like those bulls are like all of ours. I just love calling elk in. I spent so much time listening to the sounds they make, and then an equal amount of time learning to mimic those sounds. Heck, I used to go up in the summer, find a herd and then just follow that herd day and night so I could record elk sounds. It just makes me feel good when my calls bring a bull into range.”

Hunting elk with J.C. is like hunting with a robot. He just never stops. He’s relentless. He believes in his heart that every elk that responds to his bugle is going to come bowhunting close. Of course, not all of them do, but the reason he’s so successful is the amount of confidence he has with his calls. In addition, he has an uncanny knack for when to move and when to stay put. It’s like an elk superpower. I feel like he can scan through the woods, see the elk we are calling to and then know exactly what the next move should be.

J.C. is a very goal-oriented person, and it wasn’t long before he set his mind on not just arrowing elk, but arrowing a giant elk. I can remember one hunt in particular where it seemed he passed bulls in the 300-plus range regularly. It drove me nuts. It didn’t bother him at all. He was in his element, taking it all in, and learning as much as he could with each encounter.

However, with each passing year, I noticed my buddy got more and more obsessed with elk. From August to September, nothing else in life mattered, and I could see the stress starting to take its toll.

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Lunchtime in the elk woods means checking the GPS and making an effective afternoon plan.

A Matter of Perspective

Heading into the 2017 elk season, Navarro took a different approach, one that really surprised me.

“I’m not hunting Colorado this year,” Navarro told me during a summer phone conversation. “I drew the tag I wanted in Wyoming, and I’m concentrating all of my efforts in that unit. Plus, I’m not going to put out cameras or spend weeks on end in the unit leading up to the season. I’ve gotten too obsessed with elk, and the pressure of finding big bulls is making my time in the woods less fun. Plus, I want to spend more time with my beautiful wife. She has been so kind, so wonderful. She lets me chase my elk dreams, but I realized I actually put elk hunting in front of her, in front of God, in front of everything. This year, I’m going to relax and just go hunt elk and enjoy it.”

This made my heart happy, and though I didn’t tell him, I just had a feeling his new approach would cause him to cross paths with his unicorn.

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Navarro examines a rub made by a backcountry monarch.

A Trophy Tag

“I was jacked to have the tag that I did,” Navarro recalled. “I knew that all my years of elk hunting and all that I’d learned along the way would be the key to killing a mature bull. Too many people think the tag they draw will often dictate their success. I don’t believe this. It’s the work you put in, your ability to call and your knowledge of elk behavior that will make you successful. Drawing a great unit really, in my opinion, only boosts your odds of getting that encounter with a world-class animal.

“I’d hunted this unit before, but I was going to a totally different area, and I wasn’t going to be spending the full season on the mountain. I was going to hunt for three or four days at a time, and then go home for a few days and spend time with my wife and family.

“Honestly, I wasn’t, for the first time in about three years, worried about killing a giant bull. I’ve screwed up on so many big bulls in this unit over the years, and I learned something from each of those encounters. I was almost trying too hard. No, wait, I was trying too hard. I just had an overwhelming sense of calm going into this hunt, and I just kind of new this was going to be a special year.”

September 5, 2017

“The night of September 4 was really cold and there was a full moon. That next day it got pretty warm. It wasn’t your typical perfect elky type of day. I took a break on a ridge at like 2 p.m., and this bull was just screaming. From time to time, I could see his cows wander out into a distant opening and then go back into the timber. I never saw him. He just stayed in the timber and screamed the entire time.

“I didn’t even plan to go after that bull. I had no idea how big he was, but I did know it would be hard calling him away from all of those cows. I actually decided to go after another bull I could hear bugling. I figured that bull was by himself, and knew that would up my odds.

“That plan didn’t end up working too well, so I told my buddy Eric Diller, who was just along for the hunt, that we could go try that other bull with the cows. I remember telling him how hard it would be because the bull had so many cows, but I also remember telling him that I thought the bull would be a big one.”

Making a Game Plan

Knowing the bull had several cows, Navarro and his buddy planned to get as close to the bull as possible before starting to call.

“I knew we had to get close,” said Navarro. “We needed to make him think another bull had slipped in close and was ready to steal away a cow or two. The herd was halfway up this mountain and we were starting from the bottom. I did crack off a bugle from the bottom just to pinpoint him again. He didn’t bugle back right away, so we just sat down for a minute and waited. A few minutes later he bugled, and I was really able to home in on exactly where he was.

“We moved slow up the mountain. He hadn’t moved much throughout the afternoon, and I didn’t want to bump him or his cows out. When I felt like we were pretty close, I let out a single, soft cow call. He responded instantly. Having an even better idea of his exact location, we moved up another 150 yards. I could now hear his cows. The area I was in was really open and the herd was in a small patch of timber.

“I told my buddy to stay put, and I snuck up into the sage to a large rock. From here I could hear him glunking in the trees and could see elk roaming around. He did walk out into a small opening at one point, but he was still about 100 yards away. Not long after strolling into the open, he ripped off a bugle. I instantly challenged him back. He turned, looked in my direction and started ripping some sage brush apart.

“Then, he just broke and started coming. There was one tree between me and him, and when he went behind it, I drew. I felt like I was at full draw for a long time, but it really wasn’t. I had nothing in front of me or behind me. I was just crouched in the wide open, but he was so fired up and so focused on finding the challenger that he came in with eyes rolled and was postured up like a boss. It was like something out of a dream. I shot him at 30 yards. The shot was perfect. He ran about another 30 yards, stopped, laid down and just died. It was incredible. That’s really all I can say about it. It was just incredible.”

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Navarro's goliath bull measured 371 Pope and Young Club points.

A True Giant

Though Navarro knew the bull was big, he had no idea what he’d really accomplished until he walked up on the bull (right).

“I yelled, I shouted and I cried. It was a very emotional experience. Honestly, he didn’t even look real. He was just so big. He was everything, in an elk, that I’d ever wanted. Packing that bull out with one of my best buds was just amazing. It was a true blessing to be able to have the experience with him. This was his first time ever going on any type of a hunt. It was hard, but amazing. We were in pretty deep, but it was a labor of love getting that bull out. Walking out that night with a full moon lighting up the mountain for us is a feeling I will never forget.

“When we got him home, he taped out at 371 inches and some change.”

Words of Wisdom

At the end of the interview, I really prompted J.C. to talk about his gear, his approach and the like, and he did, but was quick to change gears.

“Man, I gotta have my Bugling Bull calls. I won’t leave home without them. Side of that, I really love my Stone Glacier pack. I’ve used it for years, and the pack is just a beast when it comes to hauling elk out.

“As far as my approach, man, you just gotta be relentless. You must continue to learn, and I really believe you need to master your elk calls. If you can’t sound like an elk, you can’t expect to bring one in.

“Mostly, though, I want people to enjoy elk hunting. That’s what it’s all about. Killing a bull every year or killing a giant one year, man, it just doesn’t really matter. I mean, killing this bull wasn’t life changing for me. Of course, I’m thrilled to have killed him, but it didn’t gain me thousands of Instagram and Facebook followers. I didn’t have hunting companies throwing money at me. And, sadly, I think that’s why too many people are hunting. Hey, I got caught up in it too, and I’m so thankful to God that He showed me just how deep I’d gotten. Elk hunting had become so important to me that life literally had to be put on hold for me so I could chase an animal around with my bow. I missed weddings, trips with my wife and things that were much more important than hunting. I got so concerned with getting a kill and calling bulls in so I could have the pics and the story. Oh, and also kind of pound my chest in a way. But this year I got exactly what I wanted; the greatest meat around and an amazing memory with a great friend. No more and no less. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to hunt and hunt hard. I think hunting, specifically elk hunting, can teach you a lot and can form some amazing bonds with those you share the woods with. However, it doesn’t hold a candle to simply spending time with my wife. I mean that.

“Do I still want to kill big bulls? Of course. Do I still love elk hunting with a bow and get very serious about it? Of course. But I will never again let something so small in the grand scheme of things dictate my life the way that I did. Once I just went bowhunting and was able to enjoy it and stay relaxed, well, that’s when the magic happened.”

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