When I think of elk hunting during those moments in the day I pause to escape, my dreams drift to deep and remote canyons, big bulls and epic moments. Tense battles between our collective instincts. This encounter melded all three elements together. Hours on end fighting the tide of adrenaline while inching closer and closer to a mature bull elk and his sanctum is an enriching experience and leaves you changed every time. This was one of those days.
It was cold when I left camp. Really cold. I know the mantra of hunting elk is not to carry extra gear, but I gladly decided that taking a coffee mug would be well worth the weight on the tail end of the morning when it was gone. I hunted my way out the ridge towards where I had heard the bulls the previous evening. It is a long ridge with north-facing timber and East-facing meadows. A perfect combination. I hugged the inside part of the timber at first light to ensure of a stealthy approach should any elk be lingering in the open. Having heard no elk after a half hour of light, I sat on the ground leaning against a tree to listen and sip the scalding coffee calling my name. A warm treat in the mountains. Morning light, cold air, coffee and listening for elk. I could have gone to meet the creator at that moment and been just fine.
It’s not always a bugle to give away an elk. Cracking timber below my position was a dead giveaway. I knew that I couldn’t drop in on the animals with the thermals dragging my scent down the valley. I knew that if I went South (to their left) that the wind was only going to suck down the drainage to the North and into their noses. I suspected based off of the bugles I heard the night before and from a few past experiences on this piece of geography that the bull or bulls would be at the North end and lower on the drainage side at this time of the morning. I decided to make a big loop going back to my east and through the timber. In the adjacent timber I bumped two cows and a third unidentified animal and decided to bugle should I have split a bull from his cows.
From deep in the drainage he bugled back. The play of my dreams began. Dropping down the side of the hill slightly and he bugled again. He’d cleared some distance coming up out of the bottom, and I had the only opening in the timber for about thirty yards. I could have stayed and pressed my luck, but had a dropping crosswind and figured if he were smart, he’d circle my wind and catch me without ever revealing himself. The only problem with getting into a shooting position was the dense young pines. Somewhere there had to be an elk trail, and I was right. This divine path gave me the chance to stay silent. One foot in front of the other and a few bugles later put the wind in my favor and in placed me “in the zone.” When I finally saw him, I’d snuck to within 70 yards of the bull.
The long sweeping beams of his antlers told me everything I needed to know. This wasn’t going to be easy.
His cows were half the distance which was astounding he let me bugle so close to his prized group of ladies. I had two downed logs in front of me, stalling any opportunities to maneuver for a shot silently. We bugled at each other for a bit, but he wouldn’t come down to fight. I needed him to want to fight. He’d look with a casual air of disinterest swinging his head to the cows then back to me, then back to the cows and back at me. In elk talk, I tried seduction and raging cuss words to no avail. This standoff lasted about ten minutes. His cows were within 40 yards of me, and one walked to fifteen yards. I laid down almost underneath the log to try and stop her from seeing me. It didn’t work. They pushed up the hill and back towards the bedding on the slope below where I’d first heard the elk snapping timber. Now I had the wind in my complete favor. He began raking his antlers, and that’s when it occurred to me it could have been the same bull from the day before. It was about 9:30 am.
I talked to dad on the radio and told him of the current situation and proceeded to wait for the thermals to stabilize. At 10:30 am I started my stalk with precision stealth through the timber. He’d bugle, and I bugled. We kept tabs with each other, and I was amazed at how close he let me get without trying to come out to try and kill me. At one point we even had another satellite bull try to join the party. He wouldn’t answer my calls, and as a non-resident hunter with nine days I’d have happily filled my tag with the smaller bull.
Finally, I got the bull and his six cows bedded down and in a situation where I had the best chance of sending an arrow. I saw the antlers of the bull stand up and he bugled. I bugled and cut myself short because he stepped into view looking right at me. The only thing helping my case was a large pine tree I kept between us. He was at 60 yards with no clean shot in the timber and although I contemplated the shot I just didn’t want to risk the arrow getting deflected. Too powerful of an animal to make anything less than a precise and perfect shot. With all due respect to these animals, your shot must be made with confidence with nothing left to chance All he needed to do was walk towards me ten yards and enter a small opening in the timber. He was too smart.
Let’s talk about the wonders of wildlife up close for a second. I’ll go pound for pound with anyone who says they love animals more than someone like me because of having the chance to witness things like the calf of the herd walking up to 30 yards undetected can’t compete. This animal is about the size of a large whitetail buck and became instrumental in keeping tabs with the herd. We looked at each other for a bit, and she became nervous, jumping back to the group. I let out a squeal bugle, and the herd bull responded. His bugled and chuckle were deep, authoritative, and annoyed. Dad heard this bugle from his position further up the drainage. He pushed off through the bottom into another small patch of North-facing timber. I followed.
Step for step I followed but put away the bugle tube. I knew he didn’t want to fight and would just keep moving off if I persisted with calling. The calf kept giving away their position with her mews like a toddler babbling as they discover the sounds they can make.
When I was fifteen years old, I’d called in a mature turkey while hunting alone and I can remember the pain of adrenaline being so severe I just needed to lay down. My entire body felt like a guitar wire about to snap. I found myself on such an edge once again. Sustained adrenaline management with 350 lbs of meat on the line… Yea, no pressure.
I saw the cows feeding and put one step in front of the other at an excruciatingly slow pace. At any moment I expected to see the bull feeding and have a shot. Mentally I was prepared. The calf was bedded looking downhill, and this was relaxing for me. I had done everything right and relocated the group. Then I took a few more steps to open up more visibility.
I did everything right for six and a half hours. The wind, the calls, the mental and physically management and my decisions. The bull did nothing wrong. In this instant, I saw the elusive animal for the third time. Bedded between two pine trees the bull was watching his back trail. He was expecting me. His long sweeping front tines and jet black face gave me one choice. I’d have to make the most precise shot of my life sliding the arrow between the shoulder blade and his neck. But I knew the chance of this working were slim. It didn’t. As I put tension on the string, he bolted.
I’m not sure what its like to have my heart broken by a woman, but I’m pretty sure this was about as close as I’ve ever been to the sensation.
My deep reflection on the encounter in the weeks since returning from the mountains is just one of awe and respect for an animal who lives its life steadily pursued. He did nothing wrong. He was perfect in instinct. Yet, while he was perfect, he taught me his instincts. What he does and what he as a herd bull will do to protect himself. His lessons are imprinted on my heart
Deflated, I slept under a pine tree for three hours. As the adrenaline left my body, I’d twitch upon its exit. Smiling towards the heavens, I worshiped my creator. This is what I’d come to experience.
It was 12:18 PM. I was exhausted.