After my fourth notice from Wyoming Game and Fish in as many years telling me that I once again had missed the unit I really wanted to draw, I considered my options for a bowhunt out west. Being from the Midwest I scraped enough money together most years to be in some of the wild places of our western states for a week or so. I had missed last year, mainly because I didn’t draw the above-mentioned tag, and most importantly, I didn’t have a back-up plan. I vowed to not let that happen again this year, so when the notice of “we regret to inform you” came in the mail I was ready with plans B, C, and D!
At the top of the list was a great place in southern Colorado where tags were sold over the counter. Another OTC spot was in Idaho, where my old college roommate had moved to, that was supposedly loaded with elk. The last option was buying one of the many leftover tags for the Wyoming unit I was pining for, but I viewed this as a long shot. That long shot turned into a definite maybe after my hunting partner dared to make plans without me, assuming my draw had been a success. After wishing him luck and half meaning it, I made numerous phone calls to the Wyoming Game and Fish. They were very helpful and patient with my questions, and I was directed to a list of landowners who might be receptive to a flatlander hunting cow elk on property owned by the BLM but bordered by private ground. There was one main area I was interested in, as I had hunted mule deer there several years ago. While the mulie hunting was good, I saw more elk in a single day than any week in other areas I had hunted. I lucked out with a very generous landowner, and the modest trespass fee included boarding in a small shed complete with a bed and electric heater as well as access to an outhouse and running water. I had a solid plan.
Now, leftovers can be two different types: those served cafeteria-style with hairnet lunch lady efficiency, or expertly done and presented as a new meal with five-star qualities like many of us get served daily in our own homes. Most of the time the leftovers depend on your attitude about what’s being served and how hungry you are. After missing my western adventure last year my attitude and hunger were there. I was hoping that my plan met the five-star standard and left me walking away from the experience full, in both girth and spirit. Having never taken an elk with a traditional bow, I heard plenty of comments about my chances from several of my lowlander friends. This didn’t dissuade me from seeking a five-star experience in my own way, and I looked forward to finishing up my plans for the fall.
Waiting until July for the list of leftover tags to appear on the Wyoming Game and Fish website, I jumped at the chance to buy a cow/calf tag in the unit where the rancher had offered me the chance to hunt. After buying the appropriate licenses and habitat stamp, I was good to go. September couldn’t get here soon enough, but I knew I had work to do. It started with shooting at every opportunity, daily workouts to meet the fitness level required for a physical mountain hunt, and organizing my equipment so that it was ready to perform in elk country. Like most traditional bowhunters I know, I own too many bows. I narrowed my choices down to a takedown recurve as my primary weapon and a takedown longbow as my backup. Both would travel well on a plane in my luggage, and I shot both accurately.
I did my best to have one arrow type and weight for both bows and after some careful tuning I had the shafts I wanted. While fletching arrows I came across some goose feathers that a friend had sent me months earlier. While I had never tried making my own fletching, I quickly found a great online resource to teach me. In no time at all, with the aid of a block of sandpaper, a feather chopper, and fletching glue, I had a prototype to try out. To my amazement the thing actually flew great out of both bows, even with that first arrow being a little rough. After several more attempts I felt confident enough to try and pick a special arrow, my elk arrow, with its own homemade fletching. Every year I go elk hunting I pick a certain arrow, have a little talk with it, and lovingly offer it up as the one true arrow.
As my ritual was beginning I soon found I had company in the barn. My six-year-old came to roust me from my hideout for her mother, who had supper waiting. Just when I thought I had this perfect arrow lined up for fletching, my little girl crashed the party. After a detailed explanation of what I was doing and answering the volume of questions that only a kid that age can ask, I finally was ready to finish “my arrow”. She begged to participate, and when I finally gave in and let her assist with the project I had an excited but attentive little helper. She expertly put each feather in the clamp and delicately put the appropriate amount of glue on them. After all three goose feathers were mounted on the shaft, she stepped back to admire her work. Somehow my arrow was now her arrow, and that was alright with me. Like an artist doing a one-man show, she beamed a smile that was like sunshine when I asked that she sign it. Her simple initials were put near the nock with a small sharpie, and just like that it was time for dinner: leftovers served by the chef again.
The day before my trip I did the final run through of what I could take with me on the airline, and what I would need once I made it to the hunting destination. After one last check of my gear—making sure I had what I needed, and only what I needed—I tried stringing my recurve for a final shooting session. I have boat paddles for feet and managed to stumble a bit in the stringer as I put tension on the limbs. I watched in horror as my recurve string jumped out of the grooves, hanging up and slightly twisting my bow’s top limb. It straightened easily, but it still made me very anxious knowing it would have to work in some fairly remote territory. After a hand-wringing session and plenty of worst case scenarios explored, I elected to send the bow back to the fine bowyer that made it for a check-up. I packed my leftover longbow with much anxiety into the duffle bag with the rest of my gear, worrying once again if I had enough of what I needed. The rest of the afternoon I felt like someone had hit me in the gut. I smiled my way through conversations with a gnawing feeling inside, hoping my gaffe had not cost me a hunt before it began. That night, while tucking my children into their beds and explaining my journey to elk country, the last thing my youngest said to me was “Daddy, don’t forget my arrow.” Somehow in one sentence I knew everything would be alright. I never worried if I had enough of anything after that, and I never questioned the hunt with my backup bow as it unfolded.
After arriving at the host’s ranch I set about learning the boundaries of the other landowners, as well as the expansive BLM area that I had set my sights on. The rancher was kind and looked over my choice in equipment carefully. I swore I saw the beginnings of a smile when he saw my bow. Unsure of what the smile was about and afraid to ask, the old guy bailed me out. He told me if I took an elk with a bow like that it would be the first he knew of since his grandparents bought the place a century ago, implying that the last people to hunt elk here with my choice of equipment were indigenous. That made me form my own crooked grin, and with that brief conversation, I was left to roam about the countryside. It took me two days to scratch the surface of the property, but almost immediately I was into elk. From my vantage point on the highest peak I could climb, I glassed over two-dozen cows and calves that second night, and got to witness a true herd bull begin to sort out his harem as well.
Things were looking up as I climbed for my third evening hunt. All of the bike riding, running, and swimming that had been done over the summer to ready myself for a physical hunt were paying off, and I began to adjust to the altitude. Reaching my established perch, and not expecting to find much this early, the glasswork began. To my surprise a small band of ten cows and calves were just a few hundred yards away from my lookout. After surveying the wind and getting a line for a stalk I made my way toward them. Fickle winds made me rethink my approach, and I soon had to lose some elevation to get the edge, momentarily taking the elk out of view. On top of that a distant bugle was getting louder and closer, and I feared that the bull would push my girls to parts unknown, leaving me holding the bag. Making my way toward the last known whereabouts of the elk, I had to expose myself in a little sage flat for fifty yards or so.
As luck would have it the first elk came around a bend in the terrain as I made it to the flat, and I had to eat some dirt, sage, and cactus right away. Thinking that the game was up and asking for some help from the man upstairs, I nocked a very special arrow with initials written in sloppy ink on the shaft. I watched as the elk nervously passed just out of range. As the last cow came through a bugle blasted right on top of me, and a small five by five bull did his best imitation of a herd bull, chasing the band of elk all around me. While doing this he pushed the last cow right into my effective shooting range, broadside. Divine intervention by way of a small bull that was king for a day! I rose to one knee, came to full draw, and made the shot I had practiced all summer. I watched as my elk walked fewer yards than the shot and fell over dead. The rest of the herd stood there as witnesses to good camouflage, good wind, and a quiet longbow. I held my position in the sage and managed to retrieve my camera from the cargo pocket of my pants to get some photos of the would-be king and his harem minus one cow. After several minutes they left the mountain with the bull bugling and the cows marching ahead of him. I walked over to my elk and when my emotions were gathered enough I stroked her mane and patted her fat side, slightly sad but mostly overjoyed with feelings of accomplishment and thankfulness.
It was then that I remembered whose arrow I had pulled from my quiver at the moment of truth. Ava’s arrow had done its job, and I couldn’t wait to tell my future huntress of our success. After much work and with the meat cooling on the mountain, I made my way down, accompanied by a sunset that looked to be painted by God’s own hand. I smiled all the way, and thanked tonights artist for elk, little girls and leftovers.