Even though I didn’t start elk hunting until I was about 27 years old, it’s the one thing that I look forward to throughout the year. In the areas that I hunt, the terrain is often limiting and the low elk densities make for a challenging hunt. In 12 years of elk hunting, I can count the amount of shot opportunities that I’ve had on two hands, while the amount of shots fired only needs one. I’m going into my thirteenth year of hunting elk, and sadly have yet to kill one. One year I did manage to get an arrow into a huge-bodied spike, but after almost 200 yards of heavy blood, the trail ended in a bed filled with bright pink and frothy lung blood…but no bull. I looked for two full days, and never could find the elk that should have been mine. I almost quit hunting at that point, and continued to look for closure throughout the remainder of the year. Since then, I’ve had a few more shot opportunities that I’ve managed to bungle up, followed by a four-year streak of not even getting close. In fact, over the past two years, I’ve only heard a total of four bugles!
The hidey hole in the huckleberry brush where Luke found himself eyeball-to-eyeball with the bull.
A few years back, my wife and I ended up moving into the fringes of my core hunting area. I was so excited at the possibility of basically hunting elk from my yard. But I quickly came to find out, that while there is elk in the area, they are few and far in between. Still, I make use of the proximity to hunt the first two weeks of the season, before I finally head out to check out more promising areas.
This year the hunting season got off onto a very rocky start. Like clockwork, around the first of August I became sick and just never could seem to shake whatever bug had ahold of me. I won’t bore you with the specifics, but let’s just say that a series of further illness and events made me miss the archery season opener, leaving me feeling pretty weak around the time that elk season started. On my second venture out in the elk woods, I was heading out for the last few hours of daylight, planning on just walking an old road that I knew…taking things easy. I parked my rig on the first place that I could safely get off the road, which happened to be near a major game trail that worked its way along the steep slopes of a finger ridge. I took my time getting my gear together, allowing for plenty of time for the woods to settle down.
Once I had my pack on and bow in hand, I decided to let out a couple of simple cow calls, followed up by a bugle. I immediately had a bull answer up the slope above me, and he sounded close. My initial bugle was just the typical “locator” sort, lacking any chuckles on the end. But this bull was chuckling. I immediately answered back, adding in some chuckles to the end of my three notes. I decided that he wasn’t very far away, so I should move in closer. The ground was corn flake crunchy, so I naturally sounded like a small elk herd moving up the mountain. I paused to let out a few soft cow calls that were answered by the bull. Quickly, I jerked my bugle tube to my lips and interrupted his bugle with an aggressive comeback, followed by breaking some branches and using my bugle tube to rake a small pine tree. I then moved a short distance laterally…and then I could hear the bull breathing, making noises in his throat. I came to a small cubby-like opening, with low cover offered by the red leaves of some huckleberry brush. His scent preceded any visual clues of his exact whereabouts. Oddly enough, the thermals were moving down the ridge at a steady pace. The sweet smell of tobacco, mixed with something muskier enraptured me. Oddly enough, it brought me back to my childhood, reminding me of my great grandfather’s spittoon, made from a Hills Brothers coffee can. I looked up the hill and could see the bull making his way down towards me. “Oh, man…this is happening!”
Luke’s Bear Kodiak bow, with his near empty quiver.
I wanted to see what portion of the trail the bull would take, while kneeling down behind the thin screen of brush. Before I could observe and develop my tactics, it was clear that the bull was hitting high gear and charging down the very trail that I was kneeling besides. There was no time to get properly set up. In fact, I had just enough time to put tension on the string…oh no, here it comes…adrenaline washed through my veins. Muddled thoughts raced through my head. I was trying to say a quick prayer, asking for help to steel my nerves and for my aim to be true. It became clear that even though I had been in this very situation before, it had been far too long. I was experiencing my first case of “bull fever” in years!
The bull was traveling down the mountain like a freight train. I could now see that he was a four point bull that appeared to still be in velvet. He momentarily was obscured from view by some trees, which was the point in time that I put tension on the string and prepared to come to full draw. I never came close. He was on top of me in an instant, and suddenly we were literally eyeball-to-eyeball through the thin veil of foliage. Him running with his nose to the trail, and me instinctively trying to make myself a part of the mountain. He hit the brakes and spun like a cutting horse, which took him about three yards from my position. He was craning his neck and looking back at me, while spasmodically urinating into the dust…I could still clearly see the whites of his eyes as I desperately tried to finish my draw and spring into action.
I yanked my bow back and straightened my spine to clear the brush all in one motion. The bull lunged up the hill, instantly taking away any clear shot. I cow called to stop him, with him screeching to a halt about 40 yards up the trail. I still had no clear shot, so I got brave. I stood up and walked up the trail in plain sight, cutting the distance to 30 yards before getting a clear look at him. He stood facing off to my right, broadside, yet his vitals were partially obscured by brush. With adrenaline still flowing through my veins, I came to full draw and did my best to pick out a spot above the brush. The arrow was on its way and going a little left of where I “thought” I had aimed. I was prepared for a paunch, or flank hit, but was surprised to see the arrow disappear into the brush between his legs. The bull looked puzzled. I went ahead and took a few steps closer and to the left. I worried about clearing the brush…suddenly Fred Bear talking about lobbing an arrow over a rock to anchor a Dall ram sprung into my head. Adrenaline sure does some crazy things to someone’s thought process in the heat of the moment! Ol’ Fred mentioned that he had to half-draw to get his arrow to make it over that rock. But you know something? I surely did nothing of the sort, and watched my arrow sail six inches over the bull’s back. This got him going again and he bolted another 40 yards before I stopped him again with a cow call. One more arrow was on the string. I scolded myself for being “stupid”, along with a quick decision to just aim where I needed to and let the chips fall where they may. I ran up the trail to close the distance back down to 30 yards and drew my bow. Muscle memory had me doing a repeat performance of the last shot, and I watched the arrow sail again, six inches over his back. The bull took off again, and once more I charged after him, noticing one of my spent arrows stuck in a log as I ran by. I suddenly looked down at my near empty, four arrow quiver and hesitated. The last arrow was on the string momentarily before I decided to let him walk. I figured that I had already sufficiently educated this bull and had used up any opportunities that I may have deserved.
One of the spent arrows lodged in a log. “Trad Flags” as they are sometimes called.
After I collected two of my arrows, but couldn’t find the first one, I did my due diligence to ensure that I hadn’t hit the bull with any of the shots. I followed his tracks another half mile up the mountain before returning to look for my lost arrow once more. I was riding high on adrenaline for probably close to an hour afterwards, which quickly turned to the woulda-coulda-shouldas that we all go through. But I tell you what, whatever rust that may have been in my system was quickly burned off, leaving behind that old hunt stoke that keeps us heading out there time, and time again. But just in case…I may have to get a quiver that holds more than just four arrows…