I looked up at the sky and heaved a sigh of frustration. Taking a deep breath, I looked around at the golden foliage in the fading light and tried to take stock of the moment. I reminded myself that I was fortunate to simply be there – hunting rutting elk in one of my favorite places on Earth. Despite having just blown a stalk on a good bull, it wasn’t over yet. There were still a few days left and a lot could happen in that time. I just told myself to keep at it and enjoy the ride.
The reminder didn’t remove my frustration, but it at least kept me from throwing my bow against a tree. As I headed down the mountain, under a star-studded sky, I thought about all the highs and lows I’d experienced in the last 19 days of archery elk hunting in Idaho.
My season had gotten off to a fast and furious start. The elk had been rutting hard and encounters were numerous. On my second evening, I’d glassed up one of the best bulls I’d ever seen in the woods. He had a long-tined six-point mainframe and a pair of matching cheaters jutting from the bases of his royals. I’d spent two and a half weeks chasing this bull. Fog, rain, and heavy snow had made conditions difficult, but I’d been able to get in on him a number of times. On my last encounter, another hunter had come over the ridge – wind in the wrong direction – and blown the bull and the entire herd out of the area.
Unable to find him again, I’d been fortunate to locate another good bull. I had moved my camp a couple miles to get within better striking distance, and was feeling confident about my prospects. The bull had started bugling early in the evening, he was in a good stalkable location, and I was sure there was no way I could possibly screw things up…and then I did. Closing the last 80 yards of my stalk, I moved when I should have waited and the bull caught me. Even though the wind was in my favor and he couldn’t figure out what I was, one of his cows circled downwind and alarm-barked until every elk had vacated the country.
This failed stalk had left me on my knees, staring up at the sky, and trying to convince myself I still had a chance to get a bull.
The hike back to camp, some hot food, and a pair of clean socks helped to ease my frustration and improve my mood. Still, sleep didn’t come easily that night. I lay awake for a long time, tossing and turning, and replaying the failed stalk over and over in my mind.
At some point well after midnight, a far-off bugle rang out from the direction the elk had disappeared that evening. Maybe they circled back? I hoped the bull would still be there in the morning. It wasn’t much, but the glimmer of hope eased my mind enough to finally drift off.
A few hours later, just before first light, I was preparing to leave camp when the unmistakable bugle of another hunter sounded from 100 yards away and in the direction I’d planned on heading. “Great,” I thought. “Not again! I’m plenty capable of screwing this up on my own; I don’t need someone else doing it for me!”
I headed out of camp in the opposite direction of the other hunter. It wasn’t the route I’d planned on taking, but I could still get to the area where the bull had bugled. As I eased up the ridge, putting more distance between me and the other hunter, I started to relax a little. I reminded myself it was public land.
I worked my way up the side of the mountain, skirted the main ridge, and then edged over the top. I had barely dropped over the backside when I heard a bugle. It wasn’t far and was coming from a thickly timbered area, maybe 600 yards below me. The bull was likely getting ready to bed. It would be a bit risky to go after him in there, but I had to try.
I snuck downslope, slow and silent, stealing a few rapid steps only when the bull would bugle. I had closed within 200 yards when an animal, somewhere in the thick timber ahead, got up and crashed away. I froze, with my heart pounding, and waited.
I cow-called softly, hoping to calm any other animals in the area that may have been alarmed by the disturbance, and then took another step forward. All at once, a cluster of large bodies stood up at 40 yards through the thicket in front of me. I could tell by the tawny hides it was elk.
There was a second of pause and then chaos erupted. It sounded like the whole mountain was coming down as they charged away in the same direction the first animal had gone.
A Four-Yard Surprise
As I stood there silently kicking myself, I became aware of the sound of breaking branches off to my right, in the same vicinity where the bull had been bugling. It had to be him! I nocked an arrow, crept forward 50 yards, and then made a series of soft mews and chirps, attempting to sound like the herd regathering. When there was no response, I continued to move up.
I reached a small opening where I could see 30 yards in nearly every direction and stopped. Readying myself in front of a tree, I cow-called one soft mew. Immediately, a bugle resonated from the timber upslope from me at about 70 yds. It was him!
Crunching undergrowth told me he was moving closer. The sound got to 50 yards and then started moving back and forth. It was still too thick for me to see him, but I could tell he was pacing. He grunted and huffed and puffed, and for a minute or two, seemed to be getting more and more worked up. Then he went totally silent.
I waited, but two minutes turned to seven, and still no sound from the bull. I made one more soft call, and as soon as the sound left my lips, he fired back with an irritated growl. He was much closer! He began to half whine/half chuckle, and all at once I knew he was coming.
Antler tips flashed through a spot of sunlight on the opposite side of a Christmas tree patch, so I came to full draw. The bull plowed into the saplings, head lowered and neck craned. Limbs popped and cracked as he rocked his sweeping antlers back and forth and pushed through the tangled boughs.
When he broke through to the other side, he was quartering to me hard, leaving no shot. He continued forward, swaggering through the tall brush on the edge of my opening. When he was almost broadside, still obscured by foliage, he turned downhill and headed straight at me – 25 yards; 20 yards; 15 yards.
Then, at 11 yards, he stopped behind a pair of large tree trunks. He stood there a long time, causing my arms to ache. I began to think I might not be able to hold my bow back any longer, but then he finally stepped forward. I took a quick glance at his antlers as they cleared the tree and thought I saw a long kicker jutting from the left side.
The bull continued toward me, and at four yards, he locked eyes with me and stopped. I was sure he was going to bolt, but after a brief pause, he shifted his gaze, turned slightly, and took one more step, giving me the shot I was looking for.
I pulled through the release, the arrow flickered, and there was a flash of blood where the fletchings disappeared into hide. Dirt sprayed and logs cracked as the bull tore off into the timber and circled back into the thicket above me. He coughed with a gurgle, moaned, and there was a big crash. Then all was quiet.
I stood there stunned, not sure if what had just happened had actually happened. My legs started to shake violently and I had to sit down. I sat there for 30 minutes, staring at the blood trail that started only nine feet from me. Then, when I could no longer stand it, I took it up, following it 60 yards to one of the biggest bulls I’ve ever seen in the woods.
His body was massive. His antlers were black and heavily pearled. There were beautiful ivory-tipped tines on each side of his 6×6 frame and long cheaters jutted from the bases of his royals. This was the bull I had seen on the second evening of my hunt and then spent most of my season chasing. I kneeled by his side, letting emotion sweep through me as I thought about all that had happened in the last 19.5 days.
Eventually, bright rays of sunlight streaming through the trees told me it was time to get to work. I looked down at the massive-bodied bull and began to take stock of the moment. There was a lot of work ahead, and plenty of pain and suffering to be had, but I had plenty of daylight to get him broken down and hanging in the shade. The weather was perfect for meat storage, and I still had a couple of days left to pack everything out of the country. It wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot, but I couldn’t have been happier!
“Embrace the experience,” I told myself. “Enjoy the ride…”