Elk hunting can sink you to the greatest depths -- and raise you even higher.
A violent thunderstorm chased me off the mountain, and this bull's bugling drew me back. In taking this beautiful trophy, I regained something in myself.
I WAS EXHAUSTED, drenched, and embarrassed. The first two conditions are not uncommon to elk hunting. The third...
Well, that was a new one for me. I was sitting in the front seat of my truck, parked on a steep, rocky road in northern New Mexico, letting my heart calm down. I'd been through many storms while hunting but never one as intense, or as scary, as this one.
It had begun as a few clouds blocking out the sun, and then it quickly turned into a bucket-dumping torrent that pounded me with marble-sized hail and high winds. When the storm hit, I was at the top of the ridge above my truck. Immediately, I buttoned down my raingear and crawled under some thick spruce trees, planning to sit it out, as I'd done numerous times before.
But then the lightning started, marching down the ridge toward me, and when one bolt hit about 100 yards away, I scrambled down the steep slope like a flushed rabbit -- slipping and falling several times as thunder shook the ground. The storm lasted for almost an hour, but minutes after I dived into the cab of my truck, panting like a marathon runner, the rain subsided. Soon after that, the clouds broke, and there I was, cowering in my truck and berating myself for coming out of the woods.
Then I heard the bugle.
It was the same bugle I'd heard most of the morning, as I'd traded taunts with that bull and a couple of others farther down the ridge. During this, the first week of September, the bulls seemed more interested in singing than in dancing. They had responded well to my calling all morning, but when I'd tried to get a little aggressive and move in, they wandered off or shut up. Several times this happened, and all I accomplished was to cover a lot of ground.
However, I had finally pinned down one bull -- the one I was listening to from the sanctuary of my truck -- to a small area. Studying my topographic map for some time, I had identified a small, flat bench about midway up the ridge. The bull was hanging out there.
He bugled again. I checked the time -- a little after 5 p.m. While sitting in the truck, I'd been trying to figure out what to do with the remaining hour of hunting light. This area was new to me, and my maps showed lots of enticing terrain. Maybe I should do a little exploring. One option was to check an area I'd seen on the way in at the base of the canyon. Another was to hunt around a small meadow a mile or so down the road. However, both involved driving, not hunting, so I dismissed them.
A third option was to sit and rest. After all, the storm had pretty well sapped my energy and psyche.
The bull bugled once more, and I looked up at the ridge. It seemed a lot steeper than it had earlier that morning. Still, an inner voice said, You're here to hunt elk. So get after it!
Quickly donning my gear again, I bugled back at the bull. He responded immediately.
Figuring he was a little more than a quarter-mile away, I put the bugle tube down and began climbing the ridge, gaining elevation to what I hoped was the bull's level. Then I started traversing the hillside toward the bench. The wind was cool and persistent, right in my face. The ground was damp and spongy. The elk was bugling every few minutes now, keeping me zeroed on his position. Conditions were perfect for a stalk, and my confidence grew with each step.
This rub tree tells the story of my bull -- he was hot and ready to rumble.
CAREFULLY NEGOTIATING AROUND rocks and deadfalls, I longed for a moment of redemption. Would this be it? You see, the year before, on the last day of my early Colorado elk hunt, I had arrowed a cow elk at dusk and had not found her until almost noon the next day. With voices from all of my mentors and hunting partners whispering in my ear, telling me not to give up, I had stayed doggedly on the trail and had eventually found the cow. But with the time lapse, I had lost all the meat -- and a lot of my confidence.
Finding the cow saved me from hanging up my bow, but I had to wait a whole year before clearing my conscious, and any hunter knows how long a year can be. For me, it was simply excruciating, as each week brought at least one reminder. Although comments from friends or family members were usually good-natured, the sting never subsided. I was determined to prove I could cleanly close the deal on an elk. I had to.
Pausing, I peered ahead through the ponderosa pines for any movement. The bull hadn't bugled for a couple of minutes. Had he wandered off? Then I heard what could only be described as someone pounding on a tree with a baseball bat. As sunlight filtered through the trees on the ridgeline, highlighting the foliage, I saw branches waving. A quick check with binoculars showed antlers battering a small tree. Big antlers.
Knowing the bull would be preoccupied with his sparring, I moved forward as quickly as possible, staying wary of any accompanying cows. For some reason I doubted he had company. Luckily, I was right.
Soon I found myself at the base of a steep pitch, maybe 75 yards long, up to the bench where the bull was thrashing the tree. Using a big boulder near the bull's location as a marker, I began easing my way, one slow step at a time, up the slope.
Twenty minutes later, I faced a rocky stretch of scrub brush that was wide open and seemingly impossible to cross. It was a literal minefield of noisy obstacles. I knelt to look for other avenues but saw only dead ends in all directions.
You'd better do something before you lose this chance, I thought, nodding to myself as I began inching forward on my hands and knees toward the boulder still 40 yards uphill from me. Ten minutes and 10 yards later I saw ivory antler tips bobbing straight toward me, coming from behind the boulder I'd been focused on. I hunched onto my knees, nocked an arrow, clipped my release onto the string, and froze.
As the bull topped the hill and looked down toward me, he tore out a raspy, angry bugle right in my face that frayed every nerve in my body. Trying to calm my heart, I focused on the ground near the bull's feet. Wow, that was loud, I thought.
He seemed to be peering right through me as he scanned back and forth and then turned to walk across the hill to my right. I moved only my eyes to search out yardage references. Except for one small ponderosa pine that appeared to be downhill of the elk's path, I could not see one stitch of cover that would help my cause. I would have to draw when he went behind that tree, and I would have about one second to do it.
The Gila area of New Mexico holds a rich mixture of grasslands and dense timber cover.
Trying to prepare myself, I estimated the distance at 30 yards and mentally repeated, Twist, draw, anchor, aim. I glanced back at the elk. Man, those are big antlers!
As his head went behind the tree, I rotated my shoulders to the right, drew, and found anchor. Just as his eyes cleared the branches, he stopped. Did he see me? The tree still covered his vitals. He's 30 yards, I confirmed. I held steady. Sec-onds passed.
When he finally stepped clear, the string was away before I could even think about hitting the trigger. As the arrow smacked him in the ribs, the elk pulled his head up and looked around. Then he ran downhill, and I lost sight of him in some trees at the edge of a clearing -- but not before seeing a large red spot growing on his side.
I sat back on my heels and tried to avoid hyperventilating as the adrenaline rush caught up with me. Knowing the stakes, I forced myself to do everything by the book -- mark my spot, find the arrow, flag the first blood. I KNEW that bull was dead in the clearing, but I waited 15 minutes before walking down his trail.
Pushed deep into the soft earth, the hoof prints were easy to follow, and they led me straight to the edge of a grassy slope. Looking downhill from there, I saw a long, sweeping antler rising out of the waist-high grass. Walking down to the bull, I noted the trenched furrows where his tines had dug into the ground as he had fallen, and I noted the bark still clinging to his antlers from his duel with the tree. I put my bow down and looked into the wide valley below, watching the last band of sunlight climb over the timbered hills as dusk set in.
I thanked the elk, and I thanked the many people who have helped me learn this thing called elk hunting. I was so elated I could not move, and the urge to yell out was tempered by the perfect silence of the evening, the beauty of the mountains, and the gravity of the moment.
I had done it. I was humble and proud at the same time. And at this moment, I realized it didn't matter what anyone said to me about last year, or what they thought about this elk, or how his antlers would score. I'd regained what I'd lost in myself, and that was an accomplishment beyond compare.
Author's Notes:On this hunt, I used a Bear SQ32 set at 64 lbs. with a 29-inch draw, equipped with Copper John sight and Whisker Biscuit rest. The arrows were Gold Tip XT Hunters with 125-grain Slick Trick broadheads. My clothing was by Day One Camouflage, and my raingear was Cabela's Space Rain Ultra.
My elk officially scored 3295„8 inches.
The author is a regular Contributor to this magazine and a resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico.