March 11, 2011
Lost arrows, bad weather, and elusive bulls are ingredients of the perfect elk-hunting recipe.
PINNED AGAINST A SCRAGGLY SPRUCE, I stood frozen, searching for the unseen bull that thundered toward me. My near disbelief at this explosion of events vanished as I caught my first glimpse of him.
Oh, did I want this bull! During 25 years of bowhunting for elk, I had dreamed of taking a bull like the one barreling down on me. Hard hunting for at least two weeks nearly every bow season had earned me a handful of bulls and incalculable adventure, and I am thankful for every memory etched in my mind.
However, one bull was still missing -- my Big Bull. All of my archery bulls had been younger bulls, mostly 5x5s and one heavy but compact-framed 6x6. Although close to taking my Big Bull a number of times, I just couldn't seem to pull it off.
My Big Bull didn't have a score. He just needed to be the one that would rest above the fireplace, drawing my eyes and stirring my thoughts. He also needed to be a timberline bull, to have roamed his summers and then bred his cows in the high, wild drainages that I loved to hunt. Lastly, I didn't want to take my Big Bull until I was immersed in the hunt. I once killed a bull while deer hunting, well before my long-anticipated, two-week elk hunt began. What a mistake! I had denied myself two weeks of high-country adventure by taking a bull without really elk hunting. Ideally, I would take my Big Bull late in a lengthy wilderness experience.
MY HUNT HAD BEGUN nine days earlier as Ranger, my stout little do-it-all paint horse quietly eyed the small mountain of gear piled next to him. Cisco, my big bay, as exuberant as Ranger was stoic, fidgeted continuously as I loaded Ranger and tightened his lash rope over the canvas pack cover.
Swinging my leg over Cisco's saddle, I prodded the horses up the trail. What could be better than riding into remote, pristine country while dreaming of the bulls I would find? A few hours later I topped a ridge on Colorado's Continental Divide to gaze down on a grassy opening with the rivulet from a spring creasing its lower edge. In the protection of the timber lay a familiar campsite, and Cisco whinnied his recognition as my heart warmed at the sight of this camp. With my son-in-law Keith; his twin brother, Kraig; their dad, Pat; plus other family and friends, I had spent incredible September weeks hunting elk from this camp.
This year, I was hunting alone. College, work, and family responsibilities had doomed our group hunt. I had also picked a new campsite about an hour and a half beyond our usual camp. As we left the Divide, the horses clawed up a game trail, skirted around the rim of a large basin, and topped another ridge. This was where I would hunt.
Cisco and Ranger help make it possible for me to hunt the remote mountain haunts I love.
As I looked down at the dark, timbered slopes below me, broken by scattered openings and glints of tumbling water, my anticipation grew. Directly below in the scattered spruce was a spring and grass for my horses. We had dropped only a few yards down toward the campsite when a 6x6 elk with short tops ran from the trees. Surprisingly, he was the first bull I had seen or heard during the long ride in. He disappeared over the ridge into a steep, deep canyon choked with deadfall. Two years before, we had packed a dandy 6x6 out of that canyon for Keith's cousin Patrick. Keith had bugled and kicked a rotten stump to shreds to bring the fired-up bull in close for Patrick, who made his first shot on his first elk hunt a good one.
Reaching camp, I quickly set up my Kelty tent, stowed my belongings, hobbled Cisco and Ranger, and encircled them with a battery-powered fence. As they contentedly stuffed their bellies with mountain grass, I fished a rented satellite phone from my pack and called my understanding wife, Renee, to let her know I was safely in camp and eager to hunt.
I always have a hard time falling asleep the first night in camp, and this one was no exception as I listened to elk sounds in the darkness and hoped the animals would stay upwind and not spook from my camp. Finally, the listening and tossing ended, and I was suddenly fumbling to silence my alarm. Lantern lit, I pulled on my clothes and boots and quickly consumed my habitual breakfast -- two packets of instant oatmeal and a cup of coffee. Tied all night, Cisco and Ranger were happy to get back into their grassy paradise. I slipped my headlamp into my pack. It was time to hunt.
ANGLING DOWN through the trees, I soon passed the spot where Keith's bull had fallen just a year ago. With a sprained, swollen knee and a stout stick for support, Keith had left the comfort of our wall tent and hobbled to this area to bivouac in his backpack tent. At dawn, a bull bugling less than 100 yards away woke him. Crawling from the tent, Keith enticed the bull with cow calls, and his arrow found its mark. That afternoon, Keith struggled back to our camp, knee still swollen but a grin covering his face. By the fire that night we marveled at Keith's story, eager to see his first 6x6. In the morning we headed up to retrieve Keith's bull. Keith's effort inspired me. Surely, it was time for me to kill my Big Bull.
For 25 years, I dreamed of taking my Big Bull, but the conditions had to be just right. And they were!
Returning to the present, I edged up to a steep basin and found three small bulls feeding. The next five days flew by quickly. I had the deep satisfaction of hunting long and hard each day, but those three small bulls were the only elk I saw, and nagging worry crept in. The weather had turned wet and blustery, and I seemed to be hunting ghosts. Deep drainages that in earlier years had held bulls bugling on top of each other were strangely silent.
On day five, after another futile hunt, I decided to move my camp a two-hour ride. That would not improve the weather, but new country might bring renewed hope and enthusiasm. After five days of being tied or hobbled, the horses were bursting with energy. It would be a fast trip, and making the last steep descent to my new camp, I was struck again by the sheer joy of being there.
However, while unpacking Ranger I made a startling discovery -- all of my arrows were gone. Every one. My homemade PVC pipe
arrow holder was empty, the cap dangling by its cord. I was sick! Until now I had always secured the cap with duct tape, but this day I had tied the arrow holder onto Ranger's load without taping the cap. Hastily I dumped Ranger's panniers into a pile and urged my confused horses back up the trail. I would either find my arrows or return to the horse trailer.
Late in the night, I pried my aching bones from Cisco's saddle and led my tired horses into the trailer. I had searched thoroughly but not found any of my arrows. After a short sleep and a shower at home in Pagosa Springs, I was relating my tale to the sympathetic staff of the Ski & Bow Rack, a local archery shop. Thankfully, they had the shafts I needed, and they dropped everything to make my arrows.
That evening I again tied the horses next to the pile of panniers and set up camp. I was elated! I had lost only one day of precious hunting time. Rain started falling again, but I didn't really care. New country, new arrows€¦ What more could a guy want?
Two days later, my worry returned. My only encouragement had been rare, faint bugles and the sight of two bulls crossing a distant, bald ridge.
So that night I took stock of the situation. Rain was still falling, and elk sign was nearly nonexistent. The good news was that I still had eight days to hunt, and the elk had to be somewhere! Come morning, I made my way up the elkiest drainage I knew. I had hunted it my first morning in this camp, finding only old elk sign. Maybe things would be different today. Working my way quietly through the north slope timber, I came to a narrow park dotted with a half-dozen wallows. In the past this area had produced exciting encounters with bulls. Just the year before, I had shot under the chest of an impressive 6x6 as he and six cows slipped away from one of the wallows.
On this morning, the drainage seemed empty again. I found no fresh elk sign and could not raise a bull. Mystified, I settled into the shadows below the wallow where I had missed the bull the year before. After an hour there, I was hungry. Breaking out my PocketRocket stove, hot chocolate, trail mix, and a sandwich, I had some lunch and was soon energized to check the other wallows. Skirting the shady side of a park, I wrestled with thoughts of moving my camp once more.
APPROACHING THE NEXT GROUP of wallows, I paused and cow-called softly. Instantly, a bull bellowed and roared above me. I was stunned. He couldn't have been more than 100 yards away. I scrambled to put a scraggly spruce at my back. If he came in downwind, he would cross to my left. Arrow nocked, I offered a second cow call. Again, his deep groan turned into a bellow, but he hadn't moved.
I hesitated to bugle. No doubt he had cows with him, and in the past I had run off close-range herd bulls by bugling at them. However, the fickle wind was swirling against the back of my neck. The bull could wind me any second, leaving me no time for coaxing. It was time for confrontation.
There are few places on earth I would rather be than my comfortable mountain camp.
Lifting my grunt tube, I cut off his bugle with one of my own and instantly heard the sound of breaking limbs and pounding hooves as he thundered down the mountain toward me. Head back and bugling, he came into view, and I drew as he cut behind a tree 20 yards away. Then, to my surprise, he angled to my right and passed a few yards behind my spruce.
In an instant, he reappeared six or eight yards below me, still trotting. I swung my bow around and chirped on my mouth diaphragm. In the same heartbeat, he planted his hooves and turned back to look at me, and my arrow vanished as crimson splashed behind his shoulder. Bolting with surprise, he ran down into the park, turned to bugle, and then collapsed.
Until this moment on the ninth day, I had not been close to or worked a single bull. Now, out of nowhere, this bull had arrived to culminate 25 years of bowhunting. I watched until I was certain he had expired and then carefully picked my way to him. Kneeling to stroke his hide and pitch-stained, ivory-tipped antlers, I was filled with gratitude.
Grabbing the satellite phone from my pack, I punched in Keith's number with shaking fingers. "Keith," I blurted, "I just killed a big bull. He looks a lot like yours. I wish you and Kraig and your dad and all of you were here, Keith."
Keith understood my gushing emotion. I had killed my Big Bull.
The author, a dentist by trade, and his wife, Renee, live in Pagosa Springs, Colorado