January 04, 2024
Being a solo elk hunter for most of my bowhunting career, I have benefited from the clarity of having one interpretation of success or failure, as well as the ability to confidently make decisions while truly testing my own intuition. However, one decision continued to pose doubt — the decision to hunt with a recurve.
I had embraced traditional archery the previous year, killing a fine bull, but on the very first day of hunting. I could hardly argue against there being some luck involved. The real question was if my style of hunting truly lent itself to doing so with a recurve. Could I continue to get the close shots needed for success, or was last year’s 12-yard bull an oddity? Would I continue to capitalize on each opportunity, or would more bulls than ever slip by because of the constraints of my weapon choice?
It was 6 a.m. when I pulled into my usual hunting spot on the mountain. As typically happens when I feel like I’m late, I was slightly panicked as I threw my pack together.
A truly terrifying thunderstorm had just broke, and the elk were bound to get fired-up soon. Suddenly, I heard a voice and looked up to see a figure approaching.
The young hunter was very polite, extremely excited about the prospects of the day, and maybe scared of the dark. He explained he was new to the area and elk hunting in general, and that he didn’t want to interfere with my hunt.
Perceiving his eagerness to learn, and knowing that he planned to hunt there for several days, I invited him to tag along. After all, I was really there for two reasons: Some cloak-and-dagger to determine if a bull from last season had made it back to this drainage, and to more actively scout for a chance at an elusive resident timber buck. My attention would turn toward elk later in the week when two friends, Bryant and CJ, were to arrive. For now, I was content to compare my self-imposed “disability” to my new friend’s latest compound — just how much advantage was I to lose? (Plus, by educating this young hunter on some basic dos and don’ts for the area, there might still be elk to hunt when my friends arrived.)
Now, this was no limited-entry or secluded hunt. This was public land in a heavily pressured over-the-counter unit, and although some fine bulls could be found, success was low; facts clearly understood by the novice elk hunter judging by the number of questions he posed about our purpose.
As we navigated the mountain, he learned the pace of hunting that consistently allowed us to walk into elk: The seldom-used calls that lower a pressured bull’s defenses, and the best ways to set up for a high-percentage shot. Additionally, I got my intel on the bulls I wanted to hunt later, with the bonus of practicing caller/shooter setups (a seldom enjoyed luxury for a solo hunter).
Over the course of the day, the opportunity to compare the pros and cons of our weapon choices left me pleasantly surprised to find that there seemed to be no loss of opportunity for either of us. But that couldn’t possibly prove consistent, could it? Time would tell.
Days later, three eager hunters were shadowing elk in dark timber just after sunrise. I knew elk had taken refuge in the thick north-facing old growth, but I also knew hunting pressure had moved them there, so we kept our distance as we battled conspiring winds.
After a midday nap/gear check, CJ and Bryant agreed that we should use the semi-steady thermals and stalk into the bedded herd, so with as much stealth as three hunters could muster, we tiptoed into the suspected bench. Much to my surprise, we walked right into the feeding herd.
We were studying the cows, not 60 yards away, when CJ harshly whispered, “Bull, bull, bull!”
From this, I knew the bull had backdoored us and the woods were about to blow…and blow they did, but not before we got a good look at the fine bull that walked 25 yards from us without making a sound. Had I been hunting solo, this would have been hard. But staring at two more depressed and confused faces forced enough laughter to ease the pain. I thought about this missed opportunity for some time, and however naive, it occurred to me that had I been solo, I might have been able to swing on the bull faster and get the shot with my recurve.
After a lengthy discussion, we declared the defeat to be by way of bad luck; a theme that would come back to visit us often, despite our being on top of bulls every single day of the hunt. Either a cow busted us, the wind switched, or one of us would pass on a bull the other would have shot.
Two days later, Bryant and I were dropping down a ridge to intercept one of three bulls engaged in a screaming match, when suddenly, another bull seemingly busted us and violently crashed away through the timber, nearly 100 yards out. I thought it was odd because we had the wind in our favor and there was little chance we had been seen, but soon the reason was revealed.
After looping around the head of the drainage and returning, both of us passing bulls that CJ would have shot had he not split up (believe me when I say it was only with great difficulty that I let the young bull walk), we found another hunter dressing a bull close to where we had entered the drainage. The hunter had arrowed the bull 400 yards farther up the ridge, and it was this bull that had run past us earlier while on its death run. Did I mention this was heavily hunted public land? I’m not making excuses here, but that begged the question: Just how many times had this happened to us?
Thankfully, there was stump-shooting to break up missed opportunities, and on that note, I had the advantage. My choice of traditional tackle made for an acceptable means of rejecting most failures by executing successful stalks and shots on unsuspecting stumps. However, Bryant would not be left out and involuntarily joined the fun with his compound.
We had just seen a cow elk walk by, passing us by mere feet; and thinking that a bull could follow in her tracks, we waited until the soothing comfort of the midday sun overtook us. I woke up first, and I’m not sure how I missed it before, but 40 yards out there was a log that bore a striking resemblance to a bull elk’s side with his head hidden behind a big cedar. You could even see hairlines!
I woke Bryant, joking that a bull had walked in on us, and before I could say another word, his arrow was on its way! The result was a heart-shot log, a few choice words, and enough laughter to basically end our hunt within a half-mile radius.
Finally, we managed to locate a monster bull, and to my surprise, we had the same idea of how to make a play at him. The old warrior was holding his cows in a bowl with nearly impregnable winds, so Bryant would enter the bowl from the bottom, and I would start on top and slowly still-hunt toward their escape route, should Bryant blow them out.
About 9 a.m., I heard a bull bugle softly below me and concluded that he was alone and had intentions of retreating to a bench and wallow that I had the right wind to approach. I eased to within 200 yards of the area and waited for several hours until I could take it no longer, at which point I made a short loop into the fringe of the timber that held him. Finding nothing but knowing he was there, I waited some more and soon fell into a semiconscious, midday nap.
For the second year in a row, a fateful bugle roused me from sleep. I quickly nocked an arrow and moved forward to the edge of a killing wind; a wind that is almost wrong but right enough to get it done — animals know when they have a bad wind, too, you know.
I expected him to appear below, but he did not. I threw a soft cow call to simulate an unimpressed lady already on her way out, and he responded in earnest but still several hundred yards away. Then came a bugle that was so bad, I was almost certain it had come from another hunter and the result would be the end of this encounter. Even though I was certain, I waited 20 minutes in the silent woods for reasons only experience can answer. I turned to leave with my head low, my arrow returned to my quiver, and thinking toward the coming day’s temperature change that might just swing things in my favor and yield more opportunities.
I stopped. It felt wrong. I turned around to see the big 6x6 bull walking through the timber toward me 80 yards away. Realizing that I had not yet been seen, I ripped an arrow from my quiver again and prepared for a steep, 30-yard shot below me.
A few moments later, I caught movement hard to my right. Somehow, the bull had slipped in to 15 yards and was turning his head sideways to pass between two tight trees. I dropped one foot down the mountain and drew quickly, knowing the wind was about to tell all.
Just as the bull’s head leveled, I noticed his eye widening, as if he was receiving that revelation. But it was too late — my arrow had already buried over 20 inches deep into his side.
As he whirled, I saw the back end of my arrow pitch high and back, ensuring that the business end had sliced stem to stern his offside lung. I stood there in disbelief, as the bull unleashed a truly impressive death run that sounded more like a team of draft horses than a single elk.
I knew what I had seen, but giving time is never foolish, so I called CJ to discuss the details of the slightly back and upper-third shot. We both agreed there would be little blood, but that he couldn’t have gone far. An hour would suffice before taking up the track — and what a track it was!
I had no need to spot blood with the trail that had just been blazed, and only eight minutes from the start of the tracking job found me admiring his beautiful headgear and ivories! Now able to get a good look at him, I knew instantly that this was the same bull that had snuck in behind us on the first day.
Once again, I replayed the course of an opportunity and its outcome, confirming my previous suspicions. I doubt that I could have changed my stance and swung on the bull as efficiently had I been using a compound bow. Maybe more than luck was on my side with this traditional venture after all — it just works!
I stepped into camp that night missing an arrow, and Bryant noticed. We exchanged stories over tailgate burgers until we finally had to take cover from another storm that blew in the moment I’d arrived. The next day was a treat compared to elk hunts of years past, because elk are heavy, and now I had a buddy chomping at the bit to load his pack, too!
I started the season questioning whether my recurve was a handicap and how much it would affect my success. But with more days afield and two bulls taken, I realized my doubt was unfounded. Woodsmanship and an educated hunting style replaces the need to shoot far, and a recurve is no disadvantage.
The author is a Wyoming elk hunter who truly enjoys chasing bulls on public land.
My equipment on this hunt included a Toelke Chinook recurve, Victory arrows, VPA broadheads, Zamberlan boots, clothing and other essentials from Badlands, Vortex binoculars, and Mile High Note Game Calls.