Nicole McDonald had never held a gun before she met her soon to be husband Matt in 2008, in a little bar in Mojave Valley, Arizona. Matt had her shooting almost immediately and hunting elk with his family by 2010.
They married in 2011 and honeymooned in deer camp. The pair now live outside Kingman on nine acres with their two kids, where they can see deer and an occasional elk from the windows in the house. That is a long way from the urban California world where Nicole grew up in San Francisco and where she attended school at Long Beach State University. Nicole’s family was fairly conservative, even though her Mom “didn’t want to see how her sausage was made.”
Nicole quickly came to understand that hunting and conservation were a part of her husband’s family culture. Her father-in-law Cliff McDonald is the well-known founder and ramrod behind a volunteer group called Desert Drinkers for Wildlife. The group has restored over 190 small game wildlife drinkers and developed springs in California’s East Mojave Desert and Owens Valley over the past decade.
Matt is a ranger for the Bureau of Land Management working out of the Needles, Calif. office. The family hunts big game in multiple Western states each year, depending on the luck of the draw. They have a cabin in the middle of the Mojave Desert where they can hunt desert deer out the front door.
Nicole was drawn for a cow elk tag in Arizona’s unit 7 West, in 2010 and filled it. She drew a bull elk tag in the same zone in 2014 and filled it with a small bull. But knowing they were moving to Kingman from Mohave Valley in 2019, she put in for a muzzleloader bull tag right around their home in Unit 16A where only three bull tags were issued.
Even with four bonus points, drawing a tag was a lightning strike – a lightning strike close to home. Nicole and Matt knew they would be able to leave the house on the Razor if they only had an evening or short morning to hunt.
“I think Matt wanted to put me in for this hunt because he wanted to buy a muzzleloader. He knew exactly what he wanted,” laughed Nicole.
“We didn’t know the area at all and started scouting two weeks before the hunt, checking water holes and springs and looking for tracks and rubs,” said Nicole. She wasn’t always able to go with Matt when scouting because she also has a full-time job and the two young children, ages 5 and 7.
The husband and wife team found several areas that looked promising. They saw a lot of sign and had seen some cow groups. The plan was just to see where the elk were frequenting and not disturb the animals, knowing the bulls would be mingling with those cows, since the rut was just beginning. The McDonald’s best spots were around tanks with water where the elk could drink and wallow.
Opening day was on a Friday, and Nicole worked most of the day, but Friday evening she and Matt jumped on the Razor and looked at spot only ten minutes from their house.
Surprisingly, they ran into one of the other three hunters who had a tag and that couple had spoken with the other tag holder earlier in the day. With only three tags in the huge zone, three groups readily shared their scouting information.
Not surprisingly, they all had been looking in different places and all had seen elk. Not long after they parted, Nicole and Matt saw an elk from the four-wheeler. The elk didn’t seem spooked, so the pair parked the vehicle and took a long, circuitous hike and glassed for the bull. Soon it was dark and they never saw the elk again.
Still, the pair was excited about their chances and Saturday morning they were out early and gone all day, hunting near one of the spots where they had seen a lot of sign. It was a further drive from the house, so they were in the four-wheel drive truck. It was a long day of climbing juniper ridges and glassing, returning to the truck, moving to the next ridge and repeating the process. They had glimpsed elk twice but were unable to see how good the bulls were or get into position for a shot.
That night, after dinner with their family, they decided to hunt a completely different area on Sunday.
“There was a big difference in this hunt than our other elk hunts. Hunting out of the house is a lot different than tent camping,” said Nicole. It was nice to sleep in their own beds, be able to shower and cook in a kitchen.
Sunday’s spot turned out to be a bust. “The only thing we saw were deer and a rattlesnake,” said Nicole. In the evening, they came back to the house, retrieved the kids, and took them along for the evening hunt, even taking the kids along on a hike. But the day finished with the McDonalds not seeing a single patch of elk hide.
So for Monday, they decided to go back where they had seen elk on Saturday.
“There were new rubs and we smelled elk several times, but we never saw anything.” said Nicole. It was another long day. There was a tank in that area that was only about 45 minutes from the house via Razor and the pair decided to hunt around the tank the next day.
But Tuesday was a rest day after 3 ½-days of pretty hard hunting and some long hours. So the pair slept in, had breakfast with the kids and took them to school, and then headed back to the tank near the house. They sat on that tank until dusk, but the elk were not showing while it was light. But there was good news. The weather was changing and it was cold that night for the first time during the season.
Out early again Wednesday morning, the pair heard bugling right at first light, not long after they’d hiked into an area tracked up with sign. Matt cow-called back and the bull bugled again from the top of the ridge. The elk and Matt carried on a conversation and the bull was moving down toward the pair of hunters when the bull ran into a pair of cow elk just above the hunters, finding what he was seeking.
“He ignored us at that point. He had his ladies,” said Nicole. “We actually saw them mating.”
The McDonald’s didn’t move much except to find a good open shooting lane toward where the elk were in the junipers. Matt ranged the distance at 240 yards, a long poke with the Remington Ultra 50-caliber muzzleloader and Leupold scope, but he had sighted in the gun with 45-caliber sabots and four Hot Shots and knew the gun was capable of the shot at that range. It was up to Nicole and she was snuggled up behind the rifle propped up in shooting sticks.
“As soon as the bull came out into the open, I held where the dark brown fur of the neck met the body and shot,” said Nicole. “I hadn’t realized how much kick the gun had, and I was sitting behind the sticks, and it lifted off and the scope knocked me in the nose. I didn’t even feel it.”
Meanwhile, Nicole said that Matt was trying to run around the smoke to see what had happened, but the bull went right down with a broken spine. As soon as they saw the bull was down, they both realized that Nicole had a little scope cut at the top of her nose and blood was trickling down. Of course, Matt wanted photographs of his wife’s scope-cut nose and trickle of blood. Then they climbed up to the bull and one of the cows stayed for the longest time watching from a distance.
“I didn’t realize how big the bull was until we got up there,” said Nicole. With a near-perfect six-by-six frame that was wide and tall, the bull also had a couple of small extra points to make it a 7×8 bull.
The sun was barely coming up when the pair got to the bull and shared a celebratory hug. They both had been at this long enough to know that the work began now. A phone call was made to Matt’s dad Cliff who was there to help haul out the meat, cape and antlers in less than two hours. Matt’s brother Josh also came with Cliff to help out. Cliff was able to maneuver his four-wheel drive truck up an old road to within about 200 yards of the elk, all downhill.
“It took four of us two and a half trips to carry out that elk,” said Nicole.
Matt was so excited that when he drove down to his house to meet his Dad and brother, he brought up Nicole’s first bull elk’s antlers to compare to the big bull still on the hillside. It dwarfed them.
The big elk, which hadn’t been scored yet, was “considerably bigger than the 320 bull Matt had on the wall back home,” according to the elder McDonald, Cliff. And it was immediately decided that her bull was going to be made into a shoulder mount.
“Nicole’s is going in the house and his is going in the garage,” said Cliff McDonald.
Nicole didn’t argue with her father-in-law. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime bull,” she said.–JIM MATTHEWS