November 04, 2010
By Doug Dillingham
A tough hunt in the Colorado Rockies reminds one bowhunter that the end is merely reward for the means.
By Doug Dillingham
THIS HAD BEEN BY FAR the toughest elk bowhunt of my life. The elk weren't where they had been in seasons past. Calls that had lured bulls into bow range just last year now sent them running. Other hunters had thwarted two of my promising stalks on bulls. And I had blown a slam-dunk shot at a fat cow when I aimed with the wrong sight pin and sailed the arrow over her back.
Seventeen days of hard hunting had taken a toll on my body and mind. An aching knee and painful blisters combined with lack of sleep made just getting around the rugged Colorado mountains tougher with each passing day. The difficulty of locating elk and my deteriorating physical state had me frustrated. Honestly, I wasn't enjoying the hunt anymore.
Underlying all of this, Will wasn't here, and I missed him. Will Reno was my brother-in-law, the person who introduced me to bowhunting, and my best friend. My senior year in college, as a nonhunter, I tagged along with Will on a whitetail hunt in Kansas. From a nearby ridge, I watched as a doe approached Will's stand. Will drew his bow and released, and although the arrow landed harmlessly at the deer's feet, I was fascinated with watching that arrow arc magically toward its target. A bowhunter was born that day.
Will was one of a kind. He had an infectious sense of humor and loved to laugh. He loved God, his family, and the outdoors with all his heart. He was the favorite uncle to all 17 of his nephews and nieces, never failing to send cards and gifts on their birthdays just to remind them how much he loved them. Will had boundless energy and succeeded in whatever he chose to do, whether becoming a commercial airline pilot, playing the guitar, flyfishing, or excelling as a whitetail bowhunter. Will also had a God-given gift for making each person in his life feel like he or she was the most important person to him. He made friends effortlessly. To know Will was to love Will. Life was simply more fun with Silly Willy around.
In May 2006, Will received the shock of his life when doctors diagnosed him with a malignant brain tumor. Although his days were suddenly filled with numerous challenges, he continued to live with an unquenchable enthusiasm and zest. As the tumor rendered his right arm useless and forced him into a wheelchair, he told his physical therapist, "We've got to get busy because I'm going bowhunting in a month."
The therapist laughed, but Will was serious. He never gave up, and not once did he complain about his situation. He never blamed God or anyone else. Will died one year after his diagnosis, and despite all of the pain and misery the tumor inflicted on him, Will never stopped enjoying life until his very last breath. He finished strong.
THAT SEPTEMBER MORNING IN 2007, the straps of my daypack cut deeply into my shoulders as I stood motionless in a moonlit meadow, staring at the jagged silhouette of a mountain I soon would climb. A powerful, hoarse bugle arose from the valley floor a few hundred yards away. With a pretty good idea of where the bull was going, I began to climb the sparsely timbered finger ridge that Will and I had discovered together a few years prior -- Will's Ridge. The boisterous bull continued to bugle as he too climbed the mountain.
For 17 days, as I probed the forests with my elk bugle, my frustration continued to grow. Calls that had lured bulls within range the year before now seemed only to send them running.
I had hunted this particular bull yesterday, and the day before that. For two mornings I had chased the bull up the mountain, and for two evenings followed him back to the valley floor. I had been close to him but had yet to lay eyes on him. Numerous times I bugled and he answered, but then he would only vanish before I could move in. I couldn't even find a hoof print to prove to myself that he was real. It seemed I was chasing a ghost. The Ghost.
After a half-hour of climbing, listening to The Ghost's belligerent screams and grunts in the timbered gulch to my left, I heard a long, shrill locator bugle erupt from the forest fairly close to me. He was looking for cows! I hastily took cover in front of a large ponderosa pine, nocked an arrow, and let out a series of excited cow calls.
Within minutes I heard a twig snap and saw four cow elk coming out from the timber and onto Will's Ridge, and I could see other elk behind them. Finally, I was going to see The Ghost! Then, for no apparent reason, the lead cow stopped, turned, and trotted back into the shadows of the forest. The rest of the herd followed.
Quickly I shouldered my pack, slid the arrow into my quiver, and set out after my quarry, following tracks until they disappeared. Then I desperately tried to locate the bull by bugling, but my efforts were met with only deafening silence. The Ghost had disappeared yet again!
Like a battering ram, a feeling of de-feat and helplessness pounded my mind. With time running out, I had likely missed my final chance at The Ghost. I had invested my all into this hunt, and everything I tried kept blowing up in my face. I was beyond frustrated. I was angry. For the first time in my bowhunting life, I contemplated giving up. I was tired of the pain, hunger, failure, and lack of sleep. I was tired of... being tired.
I decided to hike to the top of Will's Ridge and decide whether to go home or continue on this wild goose chase.
THE WALK WAS SOBERING. The guilt and shame of giving up just because things had gotten tough was overwhelming. Had I learned nothing from Will's example?
Honest, self-examination can be pain-ful. I now realized that somewhere along the way, the results of my bowhunt had become more important than the experience. I had become so focused on the kill that the hunt had become only a means to an end.
Worse, I realized it wasn't just bow-hunting where I was floundering. My outlook on life was terrible as well. I was drowning in a sea of worry and dissatisfaction. I was so caught up in the problems and trials life presented that I had stopped enjoying my countless blessings. My horrible attitude toward a few problems was robbing me of the joy in life.
I thought about Will's amazing attitude and outlook despite unimaginable struggles and loss. Although the last year of his life was his toughest, I guarantee he would say it was also his best. He got married to a wonderful wife. He experienced more love from his family, friend
s, and complete strangers than most men experience in a lifetime. Will came to know his entire family more intimately as they talked sincerely about the things that really matter in life. Only Will's positive attitude and perseverance made these things possible. He simply chose to be joyful despite his desperate circumstances.
Sitting there alone in God's vast creation, I realized how incredibly blessed I was to be experiencing this.
I decided right then, on Will's Ridge, that I didn't want to continue down the path I was on. With God's help, and Will's example, I was going to face up to the challenges of this hunt, and the trials in my life. Unable to control my circumstances, I was ready to try to control my attitude towards them. I vowed to start over right then, on what was left of my bowhunt.
WITH RENEWED ENTHUSIASM, I got to the top of the ridge and began to look for a sunny nook where I could warm up and listen for bugles. Approaching the perfect spot, I heard in the distance the tail end of a very faint elk bugle. I walked toward the sound and heard it again, and again. It was The Ghost!
I soon found myself 70 yards below the top of the ridge, listening to The Ghost's excited bugles. I listened for about 10 minutes; he seemed to be staying put. Most likely his herd had bedded down, but the charged-up bull continued to lord over his cows with a concert of haunting bugles, screams, and grunts.
With the elk some 200 yards away, I tested the wind with a puff-bottle. The morning thermals still drifted downhill. I settled in to wait until the thermals switched uphill, and then I would begin my approach.
Sitting there alone in God's vast creation, I realized how incredibly blessed I was to be experiencing this: The mountains, the warm rays of morning sun, and the bugle of one of the grandest creatures on earth. What a fool I had been to lose sight of these things! How many days in our lives can we do what makes us come alive? High on this mountainside, life suddenly seemed a lot simpler and life's problems a lot more manageable. I had no idea how this hunt would turn out, but for the first time in a long while, I was content just to be here.
For more than an hour I had perched on the hillside, when the winds began to blow steadily uphill into my face. Gathering my gear, I crept 100 yards closer to The Ghost's lair. Still very vocal, he let out a high-pitched locator bugle. I pulled Will's cow call from my pocket, made some soft cow calls, and carefully affixed an arrow to my bowstring. I placed the call back in my pocket, attached my release to the string, and waited.
The bull did not respond, but I began to hear the unmistakable sound of hooves crushing dry pine needles and immediately saw The Ghost materializing out of the dark, thick tangle of pines. He stopped at about 40 yards and began to methodically search for me with his piercing eyes. He didn't find me.
So he turned to his right and began walking broadside to me. As his eyes went behind an immense pine, I whistled softly and came to full draw. The Ghost stopped.
At the impact of the arrow, the bull whirled and bolted back toward his harem. The forest exploded with sounds as his cows leaped to their feet and fled in terror. Finally, I heard a thunderous crash, followed by what sounded like children jumping in a pile of leaves. And then the forest was silent.
High on Will's Ridge, it struck me that even if I could not control the circumstances, I could control my attitude toward them. That's when my thinking changed -- for the better.
After examining the ground where the bull had stood when my arrow passed through him, and finding only a few tiny droplets of blood, I went for help. I returned with several friends and family members to help me unravel the very faint blood trail. After 200 yards of difficult tracking, I stood over The Ghost, a magnificent 6x6.
As I knelt beside him and slowly stroked his muscular chestnut body, the lessons of this hunt flooded over me. It occurred to me that bowhunting elk is a microcosm of life. Both can be extremely hard, often filled with frustration and disappointment, but with joyful perseverance, you will eventually grasp the prize. All of the trouble and hardship endured along the way pales in comparison to the reward. I have faith that Will is being rewarded in Heaven for the way he lived -- and died. My reward lay at my feet.
I will not remember this bowhunt for my bull's inches of antler or even that I killed a bull at all. I will remember this hunt for the life lessons Will taught me through it. I will remember this hunt because I finished strong.
I used a Jennings Buckmaster set at 65 pounds, Easton XX78 2315 aluminum shafts, NAP 100-grain Thunderhead broadheads, Primos Hyper-Lip Single cow call, and Sitka Gear pants and shirts in ASAT camo.
I thank Harold Archuleta, Gary George, Trent and Treyce McCrery, Gail and Jarod Dillingham, and Dan Mills for helping me find and pack out my elk. Further, thank you to my awesome wife, Gail, for understanding the obsession I have for bow-hunting elk and selflessly allowing me to chase my dreams every fall.
An avid mule deer and elk bowhunter, the author is blessed to live and hunt in the Colorado Rockies near Gunnison.
He dedicates this story to the loving memory of William Morgan Reno, May 16, 1973-May 11, 2007.