Sportsmanship to the Highest Degree

By David Virostko, Hunting Consultant, May 2015

As I sit here writing this article, my eyes are fixated on a set of 375" elk antlers and the massive skull supporting them. Thinking back to last September and the hunt that ultimately led to this trophy, I should have nothing but strong feelings of accomplishment and pride, but I can honestly say that I don’t. Instead, those feelings are replaced by an overwhelming sense of gratitude and humility. Truthfully, a big part of me feels extremely undeserving to have this awesome bull, one of my best trophies to date, lying in my house. To shed a little more light as to why, let me start at the beginning.

In the spring of 2014, I found out that I had drawn one of the most sought after archery elk tags New Mexico has to offer. Of course I was excited and immediately called my good friends, Marvin James and Davey Mathews, to tell them to start looking for a big bull. It was then that I learned of the bull they called “Dragonmouth.” This old bull was one that Marvin and Davey had hunted for the past few years, and upon hearing the descriptions of this bull, my anticipation for the hunt reached an all new level.

I showed up at Marvin’s camp a few days early to scout around and get in the zone for the upcoming archery hunt. To make a long story short, Davey and I turned up Dragonmouth on opening afternoon in the deep, thick, and nasty canyon that he had been coming to for 3 straight years to rut his cows. The scenario was far from optimal, and as I raced to get into shooting position, I knew that I was going to be forced to make something happen or possibly lose Dragonmouth in the thick pine trees. In the end, the run and gun situation did not allow for a proper range and my estimation was a little off. Bottom line, I over-guessed the yardage and made a less than optimal shot on the old warrior. As I hiked back out of the canyon, I met Davey and told him about the chain of events and how my arrow had hit Dragonmouth a touch too high, but I was still confident it was a mortal hit. With darkness setting in, we made the decision to back out and hopefully give the bull time to bed and stove up.

Amazingly, the next morning the silent New Mexico air was broken with Dragonmouth’s very distinguishable bugle. I was devastated; all night long I had convinced myself that he would be dead in the bottom of that canyon, and now here he was, screaming his lungs out. We quickly began closing the distance, eventually finding the bull across a small drainage. Both sides of his ribcage were soaked with a considerable amount of blood, but to his credit, he was still on his feet. As his cows slowly fed up the hill away from him, Davey and I could tell he was hurt very badly. His body posture reflected the exact opposite of what his vocal chords were doing. With each step he made, you could almost feel his pain.

As we worked out a game plan, Dragonmouth turned away from his ladies and slowly stepped downhill, alone. Everything we were seeing was pointing to the fact that he was not going to make it. This caused us to play a more passive, rather than aggressive, hand in finishing the job. Looking back, that was a mistake as the next few days were filled with nothing but a nonstop downpour of rain, washing out any evidence that Dragonmouth had even been in the vicinity, let alone that he was bleeding. Before long, the canyons that once reverberated Dragonmouth’s mighty bugles were silent.

Davey and I spent the remainder of my hunt diligently searching for Dragonmouth. We knew he was dead, we knew he was. Throughout the week I had multiple opportunities at other great bulls, but I just couldn’t put my tag on anything other than Dragonmouth. In fact, the last couple of days were spent simply combing the hillsides and looking for crows where we assumed he was laying. As anyone who has been in this situation can relate, I was absolutely sick, both physically and mentally. I could not believe that such an awesome animal had fallen to a poorly placed shot from my end, and even more so, I couldn’t believe we couldn’t turn him back up.

After 8 long days, I loaded up my truck to head home. I was at the lowest point in my hunting career. What should have been a 1-day hunt that ended with a giant bull had turned into a week-long roller coaster ride with me questioning everything I knew about hunting. As I headed back to Utah, I couldn’t quit thinking about all the “what-ifs” and “should-haves.”

As the next few weeks rolled along, there were times when things got a little easier, but I would undoubtedly get that sting in the pit of my stomach and always go back to beating myself up. I couldn’t shake the thought that if I would’ve just held for a few yards closer, it would have been perfect. I would have a freezer full of meat, a giant bull at the taxidermist’s getting mounted, and a memory card full of amazing photos. I was committed to the fact that I was nothing short of a complete loser! Then something amazing happened.

I was back in Utah hunting Mule deer with a client when my cell phone buzzed. I saw that it was Davey, but I was right in the middle of a hunt, so I silenced the call. Davey immediately hit me back, and I once again silenced him right away. Two seconds later a text came in that said, “CALL ME ASAP!” As I put my phone away and put my eyes back up to the glass, I knew something big had happened, but I wasn’t ready for the conversation that ensued a few hours later.

Davey’s first words were, “Dude, you’ve got to go to MonsterMuleys.com!” He continued by saying that a rifle hunter had found Dragonmouth while scouting for an upcoming hunt. He had posted photos, complete with one showing my arrow shaft among the hair and bones of Dragonmouth!

I couldn’t get 4G service fast enough, but when I did, I was floored to see the photos of the bull laying there! It was an extremely surreal moment to have the closure that the giant bull had indeed died, just like we had assumed all along. However, the weight of the situation reached an all new level when I saw that the guy who had made the post wasn’t just posting photos to share in his lucky find, no, this guy was posting the photos and the news in hopes that he could find the poor archer who had lost his trophy! He was literally making a post on a popular hunting website hoping that he could find the guy who had shot this awesome bull with full intent on returning the trophy to him! While most guys would be bragging about their incredible stroke of luck at finding such a great trophy, this guy was actually reaching out and displaying a level of sportsmanship that I thought was dead and gone.

Truth be told, I was actually hesitant in reaching out to the guy I only knew as “rvrrat,” (his handle on the MonsterMuleys. com forum). However, I eventually settled my nerves and sent him a private message, stating that I was the poor, pitiful hunter who had stuck that awesome bull and failed to recover him. I got a quick reply with a phone number and instructions to call him.

I felt as awkward as a 15 year old on his first date when Jeff Kutschka picked up the phone. I didn’t deserve this bull; I didn’t even deserve the closure I was getting as far as I was concerned. However, Jeff turned out to be one of the most awesome guys I have ever met. He listened intently as I explained the hunt and all that had happened. He hung on every word and expressed genuine anguish as I relayed all the bulls I had passed during the week of trying to finish what I had started with Dragonmouth. I could tell he was honest in his feelings when he said he couldn’t imagine how I felt as I pointed my truck for home, knowing that bull was dead somewhere in the Gila National Forest.

After I had told Jeff my side of everything, he then went on to explain his tale of how he and his father were scouting for the upcoming rifle hunt when they came upon Dragonmouth and his remains. He finished with telling me that the moment he saw that arrow shaft he realized how this great bull had died and there was never a doubt he was going to do all he could to find the hunter and return the antlers to him.

I would love to say that I wasn’t shocked to hear Jeff say those things, but truthfully, in this day and age, I would be lying if I said anything different. I would bet good money that 99% of the guys out there would have looked up and thanked God at their good fortune at finding such a great bull. Furthermore, I would be willing to bet even better money that you would be hard pressed to find another guy like Jeff Kutschka who would go out of their way to find the hunter who had taken this awesome bull.

I would like you all to know that Jeff’s act of sportsmanship has touched a lot of guys. He caused me to reevaluate myself and the level of sportsmanship I have, and everyone I have told this story to has expressed the same. I once heard that the definition of “integrity” is doing the right thing when no one else is watching. I think the same can be said for the word “sportsmanship.” Jeff could have easily taken those antlers home and kept them all to himself, but instead he reached out when he didn’t have to and gave one sorry bowhunter not only closure, but also a set of antlers as a great reminder of the level of sportsmanship we all need to strive to possess.

Again, if I wasn’t such a big part of the story, I don’t know if I would believe it or not, but I am and I know that what Jeff did has changed me personally; I hope it does the same for everyone reading this. Thanks Jeff, I will definitely get even with you someday, buddy. Who knows, maybe that too will be shared on the pages of the Huntin’ Fool magazine!