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The day started calm and clear as I made my way up the thin ridgeline. It was very dark, a stark contrast to the beginning of the season's full moon hikes. My goal was to reach a little flat in the burnt-out timber before dawn, giving me time to listen and plan my day accordingly. I was a few hundred yards from my destination out when I heard it. The faint, shrill scream of a bull elk pierced the air.
I stopped and listened intently, hoping to get a bit better direction on where the noise was coming from. The bull cracked off again, and then a second bull followed suit. Soon, the two of them filled the forest above me with grunts and chuckles. I only had to gain elevation to join the party.
September had mainly been lows for me at this stage. Elk sightings were occurring, but the bulls just hadn’t fired up in most of the draws I had visited. Enough miles had produced encounters in the past, but I was really having to earn it this year. I did have opportunities at two different bulls, though. Both of them resulted in tan butts headed in the other direction. Both left me a bit mentally defeated.
The first opportunity was early in the hunt when a bull just came in the wrong way. I had worked my way through the top of a north-facing bowl, bugling and hoping to catch someone starting to think about the rut. I had made it to the final pocket of timber for the day when I finally got a bull to respond. Instantly, I heard branches breaking as he cruised through the trees in seconds. It looked like he was headed above me and I ranged a couple of trees. I chose wrong and I watched the bull turn downhill and head for my wind. I stopped him right before he hit the scent and watched as my 30-yard pin drew air above his back. The 5x6 trotted off, a little smarter for the upcoming season.
The second elk encounter was just bad luck. I had bugled my way up a ridgeline all morning, listening for anything. Finally, right around 11, as I edged over a finger ridge into a small pocket, I got a bull to reply. He was right in front of me. I set up to see two six points headed in my direction. Being mid-September, it just didn’t make sense to see bulls of their size hanging together with no cows. But I wasn’t about to question any lifestyle choices. The first bull bugled 50 yards out and picked a trail right below me. I chirped a cow call at 30, stopping him in a shooting lane. It turns out it just wasn’t as clear a shooting lane as I thought, and I watched my arrow plink-o off an unseen twig. It zoomed into the stratosphere, and the two elk soon joined.
Walking off the hill knowing I had missed a couple of good chances and that could be it for the season gave me a very difficult pill to swallow, but the key to bowhunting is a short memory. I knew that tomorrow was always a new day. I had hopes that the rut was beginning to heat up, and the next several hunts seemed to prove it. Elk seemed to be talking more, bulls seemed to be breaking out of their dark timber haunts and exploring more, and cooler temperatures were increasing activity. I tried to remain optimistic as the miles piled up.
I had a game plan for the two bulls above me. The light wind was perfect for a quiet approach. I inched my way up, skirting the dreaded arrowleaf balsamroot to remain silent. I worked my way up through the burnt-out bowl and eventually reached the green timber undetected. I slowly crept through the firs, approaching the ruckus ahead of me. It sounded like a herd bull was off to my right, with a deep growl tone to his call. The other bull to my left sounded less intense. I got to a point where I was out of real estate to sneak. I decided to rip a bugle and see if I could make things happen.
Instantly, both bulls exploded in front of me. A couple of cow calls also drifted through the trees. I found myself in the middle of a long, strung-out herd. I decided to see if the younger bull would want to play. I fired back a bugle and he threw a tantrum. He kicked and screamed above me, and I could hear splashing in a wallow across the draw. I hustled towards the noise, only to be greeted by an empty mud hole.
The bull fired off way up the ridge, headed towards the next draw. Knowing the climb I had in order to follow him, I decided to work around to the now-quiet herd bull. I assumed he had also gathered up his cows and pushed them to the next bowl on the opposite side of the drainage. I suddenly felt the emptiness of the woods around me. The once noisy forest was eerily still. Usually, I could hear some sort of chatter from a little chipmunk or grouse, but it was pin-drop silent.
I was close to busting onto the last open hillside before the timber engulfed the remaining upper mountain. It was a good bedding area and a spot where I had seen elk in past. I found a nice, level spot and set up shop in the dirt. It was snack time. I pulled out my triple-decker peanut butter and raspberry jelly sandwich and sat it on the ground. Before I tainted the top of my mouth, I figured I should bugle and chirp a couple of cow calls. As strangely as the elk had been acting, eating and hunting sounded like a good idea. I did a small call sequence, sat back, and started munching.
I was about three bites in when I heard it. Just below me, a branch popped. I mentally brushed it off as a chubby squirrel. But it was the 22nd of September. I should act like it. I put down my delicious sandwich, nocked an arrow, and readied myself in case a bull came in silently. Close to a minute had gone by when I saw a flash of tan below me. It was an elk! The silent intruder, which I assumed was a bull, was just about to reach my elevation and appeared to be heading my way. My mind went into overdrive as I saw bits of antlers bust through the brush at around 40 yards. He was dropping towards an opening just in front of me. He looked like a medium-sized bull, and I was hunting any bull at this point in the year.
I readied for the shot and quickly realized a problem. I had peanut butter plastered to the top of my mouth and couldn’t fit my reed into position to stop him. I was coming to full draw, thinking of what to do when he cleared all the vegetation. I made a very funny whistle. I don’t know where it came from, but the bull froze. I put my 20 pin behind his shoulder and released.
I watched as my arrow drifted through slowed time, finally disappearing into the bull. My first impression was that I hit a little far back. I did see a good amount of blood-splashed hide, though. The bull spun and that’s when I got a quick look at his antlers. I instantly knew I had underestimated this elk and put a broadhead through a stud. His right antler left me with more questions than answers. I noticed a kicker coming off the G4, as well as something else going on up there. I wasn’t sure. Also apparent was his width as he turned his head, weaving through the trees. He looked Grand-Canyon-wide.
I quickly snapped into the reality of the situation. I awkwardly shoved the elk call into my mouth and squeaked a pretty convincing cow call towards the bull. I could see him stop on the other side of the trees. I studied him from my binoculars as he moved forward. He didn’t look too hurt, and I was questioning my shot. He walked out of sight, and my surroundings came back to me.
I turned around and looked to the ground. My sandwich was sitting on my pack, staring at me, waiting for my return. I silently swore to never buy chunky again. It was smooth peanut butter from here on out. I sat down, took a bite, checked my phone, and shook the cobwebs out. It was 8:30. Did that just happen?! I put away the sandwich. How could anyone eat at a time like this?! I sent a few messages out and was working on keeping my brain occupied when I heard a large crash. I assumed the bull had just piled up and I was in recovery mode.
I spent half an hour struggling before I decided to take up the trail. I got to where the bull was standing and found blood immediately. Deep hoof prints and red splashes made the first 50 yards pretty easy. I was just stepping over a log when I caught movement. I looked up just in time to get a glimpse of antlers bobbing through the trees. He was alive and headed downhill away from me. I kicked myself. I knew better. I sat down, sick to my stomach. It was time to wait. Elk are such tough animals, and I knew my chances of recovery had gone way down.
Ups and Downs
15 minutes had passed when I heard it. A gurgling noise was drifting up from the draw below me, followed by a moan. I recognized it from years of bear hunting, and it sounded like the bull was dying. Minutes later I heard another big crash, and all was silent. I took the smallest deep breath of my life. I was pretty sure he was down for good, but I didn’t want to push it. Another hour passed before I took up the trail. I got to his first bed and found some blood, but not as much as I hoped. The wound seemed to have shut up and the blood stopped from there.
I was lucky to find his deep tracks fairly easy to follow through the forest. I slowly crept downhill and watched as the tracks turned towards the direction of the moans. A couple of drops of red here and there confirmed my direction. I cleared a small knife ridge and the trail opened up into a steep ravine in front of me. I scanned the bottom for the piled-up bull. No sign of him, I took a couple more steps and glanced to the right. Precariously stuck upside down on the steep, rocky slope lay the elk. I threw my hands in the air and let out a funky little whoop. I had done it, and he was a monster!
I cautiously walked up to him and began counting points. Nine points popped up on his passenger side, and six on his left. I was pretty dumbfounded. The big, palmated G5 was too amazing. I didn’t see the two extras when I shot, but they looked like flames coming off the back end. He had the width, the mass, everything; everything you dream of in an elk but never dreamed you would actually shoot. I had my elk of a lifetime.
Reality quickly hit again. The bull died in the worst spot I could imagine. His antlers buried in the rock and dirt was the only thing keeping him from moving. I was honestly a little scared. I checked my pack and found no rope. I didn’t have anything to tie him to anyway. I set up my camera and pack for a few 10-second-timer photos to capture the moment. I frantically ran around the elk, falling and scraping my knee. As I tripped, I also fell into the elk and almost dislodged him from his resting spot. “No more of those”, I thought. I took a few more random, as-they-lay shots and devised a game plan. I couldn’t move him. Trying to cape him was not even remotely a possibility. My only option was to try quartering him, feet up.
I usually start from the back, so I was in a new world. I began cutting. I nervously moved around, always keeping an escape plan in the back of my mind. I got the first half done and was able to somehow flip him. Two hours, seven blades, and some tense moments later, I had the elk broken down. I took a moment and finished my sandwich–now steeped in folklore–loaded up a pack full of meat, and started the trek out. Phase two of the pack out was aided by great friends. Between my best buddy Josh, Duke, and his lovely wife Leigh, we had the bull to the truck just after that 10 o’clock that night; a long day on the mountain I won’t soon forget.
I really like getting good field photos. It’s something I love looking back on, reliving the moments that we’ve cherished. I didn’t get an opportunity to on this occasion, but I had another idea. I messaged my friend Hillary Mayberry for some photos in the mountains with me packing the bull. We met up several days later and got the memory the bull deserved. I can’t thank her enough for the great images!
By Keith Anspach