Back-To-Back Bulls on Public Land
August 10, 2016
This could be it, I thought, as the cow elk blew past me on a trail through timber as thick as quills on the back of a porcupine.
We knew bulls were close. All morning long bugles had been ringing from the canyon before us as a light mist veiled the vista. I looked back at my dad's friend, Gale Smith, and I could see the intensity in his eyes.
He felt like me. Something was about to happen, and it likely would be sporting antlers.
My dad and I had been hunting the mountains near our home for the past couple of seasons. My first hunt was with a rifle. The snow was deep, it was cold, and every day started and ended plowing through deep drifts on the back of our horses.
Although I'd had the chance to tag young bulls or cows, I instead held out until the end and ate my first tag. I learned an important lesson though. Never pass up a sure thing in elk country.
My next elk adventure was with bow and arrow. Hunting season coincided with the rut, and I couldn't believe the difference. The elk were vocal and roamed all day long, and there was little or no snow.
The season ended with several close calls, but I never had the opportunity to fling an arrow. Despite the tough luck, I now knew I wanted to be bowhunting elk when next September rolled around.
Elk Number One
Before continuing my cow elk close encounter, I need to lay the groundwork for the hunt. It was the weekend after the Wyoming opener where we spent time at our horse camp. On this weekend, my dad and I decided to part ways in order to get a feel for two potential hotspots.
He went with his cameraman, as he hosts a hunting show and had work to do. His gut feeling directed him to an area where we had gotten into bulls before. Luckily, one of our friends had joined up with us, so Gale and I headed in the opposite direction, toward a spot where he'd had a wild hunt a few days earlier but never cut loose an arrow.
Before we even had the opportunity to let out a call, we heard bugles in the canyon below us. Gale and I made a quick plan, and began descending the mountain. Creeping closer to the bull's screams, the aforementioned cow, likely distraught from being chased by the bull, ran past me at about 15 yards.
Wasting no time, Gale and I set up and waited quietly. I ranged trees around me to get an idea of what type of shot I'd have to make. Time slowly ticked away, and what seemed like an eternity was less than two minutes. That's when the bull came trotting down the same game trail, searching frantically for the cow.
He had no clue we were hidden along the trail. As the bull trotted past me, Gale, who was farther up the trail, softly cow-called to stop him. The rain-soaked bull paused at 20 yards, broadside, his head just behind a sapling.
Coming back to full draw with my Mathews bow, I settled my pin behind the bull's shoulder and squeezed my release. Instantly he turned around and took off, blasting full speed through the timber. Seconds later, we were greeted with the unmistakable sound of timber crashing.
Taking a few minutes to let the bull expire, and more importantly to let my nerves settle, Gale and I talked over the shot. When I felt composed, we slipped through the woods on the escape trail of the bull. After a short hike that included multiple hurdles over downed trees, we spotted antlers ahead. The bull was down for good!
Gale and I both smiled as we walked up to him. He was a good bull for anyone, but a downright fantastic one for my first elk, especially considering I did it unguided, with my bow, and on public land.
More memories would have to wait though. The elk was dead on a steep slope, and it would require a difficult chore of packing to get it into an opening where our horses could handle the heavy work. Gale and I had just dropped off the final quarter at a trail junction when, unbelievably, my dad and his cameraman rounded the corner on the same trail.
After a few quick photos and congratulations all around, my dad and I packed out a load of meat and the antlers on our backs.
I had school the next day, so my dad, in hopes of my graduating someday, offered to go back in and pack the rest out with our horses. This was a memorable hunt with a good friend that I am sure I will remember for the rest of my life.
Public-Land Elk — Take Two
Fast-forward one year. My dad and I had worked all summer scouting and preparing elk camp for the upcoming season. Opening day fell on a Sunday, offering me only one day to hunt on the first weekend.
With my dad chasing bulls in Colorado, I headed up to camp solo, wondering what type of activity I could expect. Unfortunately, because of poor weather and the fact that the rut was still a couple of weeks away, I didn't see or hear much of anything.
The following Friday night after school, my dad and I got up to our camp late. Saturday morning didn't really cooperate as we had hoped. Hearing or seeing nothing, we decided to head to a ground blind that we had previously set up in a meadow with springs. Elk visited the area to feed, wallow, and water.
Several monotonous hours passed without any sign of elk. We decided to leave the blind and still-hunt the timber to see what we could find.
Soon after, I spotted a bull trotting through the timber toward us at about 60 yards. He was dripping wet and caked in mud. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, my dad crept away in order to call the bull past me while I hunkered into position for a shot.
The calling worked.
The bull turned and walked in to about 40 yards. Unfortunately, there was a considerable amount of brush between my broadhead and his vital zone. There just was no way to get off an ethical shot.
A few moments later, the bull decided that the calling was too aggressive and walked away. On our way back to camp, a distant bugle rang out from a valley below us. We looked at our watches and knew there just wasn't enough daylight to go after him. He'd have to wait until Sunday morning.
The Sunday morning alarm came early, as it always does during elk season. Hiking into our spot, we heard a bugle about a mile away.
Instinctively, we headed towards it, only to be disappointed when the bull wouldn't respond to our bugles. Moments later, we heard another bull bugle; however, that bull pulled the same stunt and remained unresponsive to our return calls.
With our hopes of calling a bull in at an all-time low, we began heading toward the blind for another sit. What was going on? Why wouldn't the bulls respond to our calls? To our surprise, a bull started bugling just a couple hundred yards ahead of us.
Rushing to get into position, we made our way to the edge of the timber where the bull was hidden. My dad motioned for me to move ahead and set up for a shot. It's an ambush strategy we use time and time again, so I knew the routine with his wave of the hand.
Once in place, Dad cut loose and matched the bull's response bugle for bugle, with the same increasing intensity. It was crazy. The bull stood and bugled at us for about 15 minutes, but unbelievably, he wouldn't budge an inch. Looking back, I saw my dad signaling that he thought we should move. He gestured down towards an opening below us.
I knew what he was thinking. If we made a move and sounded like the herd was leaving, the bull might follow and show itself for a shot. Dad called a few times as we jogged noisily down the hill to the opening.
I hurried into what I thought was a good spot to ambush the bull, dropped my pack, and ranged possible shooting lanes. Meanwhile, my dad set up to call 75 yards behind me. Seconds later, the bull stepped into view at 50 yards. I couldn't believe the sight before me. The change of position had paid off!
With a little persuasion from my dad, the bull began walking straight at me. Closing the distance to 20 yards, the bull paused briefly to survey the situation.
His breath was visible in the cool morning air. Still set on a course directly for me, the bull resumed his forward pace. Realizing that he would literally walk close enough for me to touch him, I drew my bow with as little motion as possible. Nonetheless, the bull detected my movement and instantly spun away, trotting back the way he'd come. That's when my dad saved the day with a soft mew.
The bull halted at 25 yards, quartering slightly away. Settling my 20 and 30-yard pins on the bull's chest, I squeezed the trigger on my release, sending an arrow right into the sweet spot.
I was incredibly excited, yet equally nervous. Elk are tough, and there's always the risk of an arrow taking a weird route that may not mortally wound a bull. Dad waved me back to him, and after conferring we agreed to give the bull about two hours.
Two hours and hundreds of speculations on what the bull might have done later, we carefully began following the blood trail, which was thin in spots, giving me even more reason for concern. Within about 20 minutes, the familiar odor of elk hit us smack in the face. Was he about to jump up in front of us, or was he dead? I wondered.
Stepping over an old log, I spotted the bull in his final resting place, his antlers wedged between two saplings. Instantly, my doubts evaporated.
After high-fives, my dad and I pulled the bull out of the brush where he'd landed. The bull was a magnificent Wyoming six-point that anyone would be proud of, but we still had a long day ahead us that didn't end until nightfall.
With the horses and meat loaded in the trailer, my dad and I crawled in the truck, exhausted as ever. As we headed off the mountain, we both grinned, thinking of the day's excitement and how blessed we are to live so close to this beautiful wilderness.
I couldn't, and to this day still can't, believe that I was able to take another, even more impressive bull. Accomplishing that goal in one of Wyoming's most challenging elk units was also thrilling. But what truly made the experience though, was being able to share this experience with my dad.
This was my second archery elk in two years, back-to-back on public land. That's elk hunting to me, and the reason I can't wait to get back in the mountains every September.
The author is a senior at Sheridan High School, in Sheridan, Wyoming. He is an avid hunter and shooter, and is involved in many other activities, including 4-H, Boy Scouts (attained his Eagle rank), FFA, and We the People, all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. After graduation, he is considering an appointment to West Point.