Bowhunting Idaho Elk
November 04, 2010
COLD WIND HOWLED through the branches, blasting snow horizontally straight into our eyes. The bull was only 70 yards away, screaming as he climbed up the steep north-facing slope toward my wife, Tracy. It was a bad situation that would be made worse if she shot the bull. The heavily falling snow would quickly cover even the best of blood trails, so I trotted downhill and pulled her back into the brush. We needed to get out of there fast, and do it without spooking the bull. I bugled loud one last time to make him remember me, and we took off into the blowing snow, running uphill as fast as we could away from the bull and toward the top of the mountain.
We had another reason for running from the bull. Two friends from Australia, Bill Baker and Brad Kane, were due to arrive at our campsite later in the morning, and I had high hopes that one of them could get a close shot at this bull. We expected them to be at our campsite that day, but when we arrived back at camp that night, no Aussies were to be found.
TWO DAYS LATER, the Aussies had yet to arrive, and we could wait no longer -- we would go after the bull ourselves. For two hours we hiked in the dark and were just struggling up the last steep ridge as the eastern sky finally began to lighten. Breathing heavily, we stopped to listen as we crested the top, wondering if the bull and his companions were still where they had been when we left them in the snowstorm.
I've told the story many times to friends and fellow bowhunters, but this time, I'll let Tracy tell it in her own words:
"We hiked over two hours back to the place the bulls had bugled on Saturday morning. On this return trip, Rik got one bull going, but soon the elk stopped bugling -- as if he had bedded down.
Rik sent me downhill about 20 yards, and he climbed back uphill to call. I waited as Rik and two bulls called back and forth. Then the bulls stopped and I heard loud crashing and fighting going on just below where I was set up.
Rik kept cow-calling, and soon a nice 5x5 came up the slope. I watched as he stopped and chuckled, and then continued to climb. I knew if he kept walking this direction, his head would go behind a big ponderosa pine and I could pull my bow. Sure enough, it happened. The head disappeared, I pulled, he came out broadside, and I released -- and watched my arrow soar right over his back. I was devastated. He barely flinched.
Quickly I nocked another arrow, but by then the bull was headed up toward Rik. Then I heard more movement below. Unbelievably the second bull had decided to follow the first. I could see his head coming up the same direction as the first bull. He was a 6x6. I couldn't believe it!
I wasn't going to make the same mistake twice. It was like an instant replay. His head went behind the tree, I pulled and waited. As he came out I let the arrow go and again watched it soar over the animal's back. This was unreal. A second chance, and I'd blown it again!
The bull didn't move. He stood there like nothing had happened. I nocked another arrow. This time, instead of following the smaller bull up toward Rik, the bull turned and was going to walk right above me, broadside. My heart was pounding. I couldn't ruin this chance.
Concentrating, I waited for his head to go behind the bushes, pulled, and then as he walked by at 18 yards, let my arrow go. The arrow found its mark, and I said a silent prayer that the bull would die quickly. He crashed off and I looked up the slope at Rik and gave him the thumbs-up sign. I became so emotional that tears started rolling down my cheeks. I looked back up and Rik had disappeared behind the tree. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of an arrow hitting prey and the crashing of a running animal. Then the crashing became the sound of something very large rolling over and over down a brushy mountainside. Right then I knew Rik had shot the other bull, and the tears really started flowing. I couldn't believe it. Two bulls in three minutes!
That was Tracy's perspective, and the action was even more exciting from where I was standing. When the bulls began fighting right below Tracy, I would have done anything to trade places with her. This was the second time she'd witnessed bulls fighting right in front of her, but I've never seen it for myself. These two bulls were not sparring; they were going at it with wild ferocity, breaking brush and snapping off small trees as they spun round and round, seeking advantage over each other. It sounded like a fight to the death, but after four or five minutes, they stopped. That's when I cow-called, and the 5x5 came toward me, walking right past Tracy.
It takes a lot of food and gear to keep a half-dozen bowhunters going strong in the backcountry for 23 days. Lucky for us, our llamas did most of the heavy lifting as we moved camp from one hunting area to another.
When the second bull followed a few seconds later on the same trail, I thought it was too good to be true, and it was. Tracy was too excited and shot high again. The bull never flinched, and kept coming right to me. I had an arrow on the string, and when he was only six yards below me I started to draw my longbow. He was going to walk into the open, broadside, at three yards. THIS WAS IT!
That's when he bolted and ran out of sight. I was dumbfounded! What could have caused him to bolt at the last possible second? He couldn't see me, and the wind was perfect. When I peeked around the tree, I could see Tracy, with eyes as big as saucers and a grin even bigger. She excitedly pointed to her ribs and gave me a thumbs up. I couldn't believe it. She'd shot the bull and apparently nailed him! It was only later that I began teasing her about shooting the bull when he was only six yards from her poor, unprotected husband.
Then, as Tracy gave me the thumbs up, I heard brush breaking 20 yards to my right. I looked through the brushy pine I was hiding behind and saw the other bull walking straight toward me. Thank God for quiet bows, I thought as I lightly cow-called and oozed to the right.
The bull's antlers came closer and closer, but antlers were all I could see. A huge, fallen ponderosa lay between where I stood and where the bull stood, 15 yards away. His antlers rotated downhill and then straight uphill, as he looked for a way around the fallen tree. It was too big for him to jump over.
As his antlers rotated toward the uphill side of the tree, I glanced there myself and saw the huge rootball of the ponderosa that had rippe
d from the ground as the mighty tree had fallen. The antlers paused for a second or two and then began moving up toward the rootball. I don't know if I was grinning or not, but I do know the string came back to the corner of my mouth about five seconds before the bull walked around that rootball and stepped broadside into the open, 20 yards above me.
After watching this 6x6 battle a smaller bull for five minutes, Tracy overcame the elk jitters to put her arrow on the money at 18 yards.
When the 625-grain Douglas fir arrow disappeared through the bull's chest, he bolted to my left, in the opposite direction Tracy's bull had run. Five seconds later the sound of his crashing run through the thick brush stopped and all was silent. Then I heard and saw the bull begin falling end over end down the nearly vertical slope.
And then it hit me -- Tracy and I had just killed two elk in less than three minutes. I ran down to Tracy. Huge tears were running down her cheeks and we did the dance of joy. I have never been more excited on a hunt in my life!
Near dark, when I'd finished working on both bulls, exhaustion set in. Butchering and hanging two bulls in one day on a nearly vertical mountainside takes on a magnitude I am not sure I want to experience again.
It was dark when we began the long hike back toward camp. We ran out of water an hour later and wearily concentrated on simply trying to put one foot in front of the other. I was nearly staggering when we finally began the long descent toward camp. Then I saw the cheery glow of a small campfire flickering through the trees at the edge of the meadow.
I tried to act casual as I waded through the creek and approached the campfire. Idahoans Doug Chase and Bruce Drewes were sitting on a log with our two long-lost Aussies, Bill Baker and Brad Kane. I stood back from the campfire as they walked up, but then one of them saw the campfire's light flicker off an antler tine, and the "woo-hooing" began. A minute later Tracy came walking wearily down the trail. When the guys saw the antlers on her back, pandemonium erupted!
From left to right, this motley crew of elk hunters comprised me, Bruce Drewes, and Doug Chase, all from Idaho; and Aussies Brad Kane and Bill Baker. We killed a few elk and had unlimited fun.
DOUG AND THE BOYS left camp long before daylight the next morning, and shortly after dawn, Doug called a huge-bodied bull 15 yards from Brad. Doug wanted Brad or Bill to get first shot at a bull, but Brad could not get a clear shot on this one. Instead, the bull came directly in front of Doug, as Doug later related:
The big five-point came charging up from the timber. I cow-called as the bull was crossing below me. He stopped as I was drawing, and my arrow disappeared from view in the long brown grass between us. The shot looked good and the bull crashed down the hill. I quickly bugled several times, trying to stop him, and then the woods went quiet. After a long 30-minute wait we took up the trail, which was easy to follow. His antlers were a bit above average for a 5x5, but his body was huge, as big as any bull I've ever taken.
Many adventures and 23 long days later, a llama packstring and a band of weary elk hunters finally packed out of the Idaho high country. Brad and Bill did not kill an elk, but they did have a never-to-be-forgotten backcountry adventure filled with fun and excitement. I've never laughed so hard in all my life as I did while Brad and Bill told story after story of wild and crazy, danger-filled adventures from bowhunting in the Australian Outback.
We capped off the hunt by finding a deep hot spring flowing out of the mountain near an ice-cold creek to soak our tired bodies in the last night before returning to civilization. The Aussies had spent 23 continuous days hiking their legs off through some of the most rugged country Idaho has to offer. They had never soaked in a hot spring before, especially while sipping an ice-cold drink. It was the perfect way to end an unforgettable adventure.
After losing a ferocious fight with the bull Tracy arrowed, this 5x5 stepped in front of me, broadside, and I made him a two-time loser. Below, Doug Chase arrowed this huge-bodied 5x5 less than 24 hours after Tracy and I shot our bulls, completing our backcountry triple play.
The author and his wife, both diehard traditionalists, make their home in Horseshoe Bend, Idaho.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Tracy was shooting a 52-lb. Bitterroot longbow, compressed lodgepole pine arrows, and 160-grain Ribtek broadheads. Total arrow weight was 600 grains. I was shooting a 75-lb. Howard Hill longbow, with compressed lodgepole pine arrows, and 160-grain Ribtek broadheads. Total arrow weight was 625 grains. Bill Baker, an outstanding bowhunter and outfitter, was inducted into the Australian Archery Hall of Fame. Not long after our hunt together, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died the following year.