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There's Something About Your First Elk

When you decide to bowhunt elk, you'll learn that the most prized bull of them all is the first one.

There's Something About Your First Elk

(Author photos)

I was really sweating now. And out of breath. But I felt pretty sure this was right where I wanted to be. The ridge I was on looked down over a grassy meadow. There were a few tight clusters of pine trees, as well as a few stand-alone pines I could range from my position. The closest pine stood at 40 yards, the farthest at 60. Kneeling, I nocked an arrow and let out one more cow call.

The total stillness was suddenly broken by what sounded like an elephant crashing through the forest, just as another shrill bugle simultaneously rattled the limbs around me and reverberated off the cliffs behind. The crashing grew louder. Then, out into the open he ran — on a mission as old as time. This was the bull I had always dreamed of, and he was literally running right past me at 50 yards!

Quickly, I let out a short cow chirp, which stopped him instantly in his tracks. As I stared at the size of this magnificent animal, I felt like someone had just dumped a bucket of adrenaline on top of me.

The bull stopped in a small group of pines below me, where he began to demolish a helpless sapling with his antlers. Branches were flying everywhere as I watched in amazement. I began to try to figure out how I could lure the bull back uphill toward the only opening I had to shoot through. Ever so slowly, I turned my head to the left and emitted a single cow call into the cup of my hand to direct the sound upwards. The immediate result was another angry bugle. Indeed, the high-pitched scream was almost deafening. He was coming!

Before I continue with how this drama played out, I owe the readers some context — and an explanation of where and when my first-ever bowhunt for elk took place.

It was September 10, 2021, high in the mountains of Idaho. The archery elk season had opened nine days earlier, but my long-laid plans called for starting the hunt a bit further into the rut.

My preseason goal was to shoot at least 50 arrows a day. These arrows were shot from 60 yards. While I can shoot out to 110 yards, most of my practice is at 40 to 80 yards.

I had bought a new Hoyt bow at the beginning of the year and practiced all summer to get my skills dialed-in for the upcoming archery elk season. Not only was I shooting a number of arrows each day, I was also training with a reed mouth-call to mimic many of the sounds cow and bull elk make. Every spare minute I had was spent honing my archery techniques and practicing my elk calls.

When the appointed day finally arrived, I awoke at 3 a.m., hoisted my backpack into my truck, and drove an hour north of my house to stake claim to an area I'd never hunted before but had strategized about for weeks.

The stars were still in the sky when I started my climb over the first steep hill, en route to where I expected to find elk. My pack was fully loaded with everything I might need for several days in elk country.

During the morning, I hiked many miles up and down several long ridges, and just when I thought I'd missed the opportunity to spot elk before they bedded down for the afternoon, I heard a distant bugle. Immediately, my spirits began to soar!

I quickly turned around to see a herd of over two dozen elk at the top of the long mountain finger I was sitting on. The elk were so far away, I was unable to make out any antlers through my binos. But as I sat there, I could hear what sounded like at least one mature bull. “Is this the bull I’ve set out to kill?” I asked myself, as I watched the herd move farther up the mountain toward timberline.

They were a least a mile away, and I realized my challenge now was to get much closer without them getting my scent or catching me out in the open. I kept thinking about how easy it would be for the elk to disappear before I got to where I hoped to see them again. All I could do was trust that the wind would not betray me and keep moving uphill as fast as I could — guided only by their bugles.


Then, as if someone had pressed a mute button, the elk went silent. My curiosity got the best of me, so I hiked to where they should have been, but they were gone. Vanished! Only the pungent smell of elk remained in the air.

I made it to a nearby ridge, where I directed a few cow calls down the canyon. There was no response. I repeated the sequence a few more times, with the same results.

Even though I was near the top of the ridgeline and there wasn’t much behind me besides a rocky cliff, I decided to send a few more calls up the ridge. I let out four or five, with different tones to sound like more than one cow. Much to my surprise, I was eventually greeted by a distant, raspy bugle like the one I’d heard earlier that morning. This has to be the very same bull! I thought to myself.

I quickly summoned up a new game plan. The only way to get to the next ridge was to go down and then climb up a steep draw. I tried to be quiet as I slid down the shale rocks to the dry creekbed below. I knew I had to hurry, because the bull was likely to get up and search for the cows I was imitating. I climbed my way up the other side and onto the ridge.

The faint bugles started to become more pronounced, and as their volume increased, so did my excitement. I was now about 200 yards from timberline, and the bugles started sounding as if the elk were in my back pocket. I just didn’t know which back pocket!

I could hear three bulls bugling now, and it sounded like two younger satellite bulls and one mature herd bull. The herd bull had a very different bugle that was much deeper, with a raspy, guttural tone that gave me chills every time he let the herd know he was in command.

My months of practice calling were about to be put to the test; to fool a wild elk — a whole herd for that matter — in their own language! Never before had I even had a chance to attempt it. As I let out a new series of cow calls, the mature bull lit up. He let out three full bugles, while I teased him with silence.

As I mentioned earlier, he was coming! And I was waiting for him — already at full draw — not even remembering that I had just pulled effortlessly through the 75-pound draw weight of my bow.

Then, there he was…standing perfectly broadside in front of the pine I had ranged earlier at 40 yards. I centered my sight pin just behind his front shoulder, relaxed my release hand, and pulled through the shot. I watched the cast of my arrow through the strings of my bow as it disappeared into the exact spot I was aiming for. It powered through him and stuck in the ground.

He was huge — and he was the herd bull — now essentially dead on his feet. I could see blood pumping from the entry wound. He didn’t run but simply stood there, clearly clueless as to what had just happened. Finally he turned downhill and started walking, his steps unsteady, and he managed only 40 yards before collapsing.

I could scarcely believe what my eyes had just witnessed! The whole experience seemed surreal. The gorgeous bull possessed six points on one side and seven on the other, with mature length and mass.

I offered up a prayer of thanks to the Almighty, and then my thoughts turned abruptly to my late stepfather, whom I considered to be my dad. Henry Royce McGraw loved to hunt elk, and I knew he was watching what had just transpired from above. I also knew he would be proud of my accomplishment, and I could almost feel his presence as I began to sharpen my knife for the hard work that awaited me.

The magnitude of the challenge ahead was going to be more brutal than anything I could have imagined. However, the Lord had one great surprise in store for me first.

As I began to skin the cape off my bull, I heard a few loud cracks of dead limbs breaking. I looked up to see the entire herd that had been under the protection of the bull I’d just killed, form a perfect circle around me and their fallen monarch. What a moving and amazing sight! It was as if they had all come to pay a final tribute to their leader. The herd stood in a circle of silence for a few moments, staring at the two of us, before slowing marching back into the high-mountain forest.

I couldn't have completed the pack out without the help of my wife, Tamara, and my mother, Elizabeth McGraw, who has always dreamt of helping her son pack out an elk.

Once the processing of my elk was finished, I placed the cuts of meat into cloth bags and laid them on a high rock. My plan was to hike back the next day with help and pack out the meat.

I lashed the head, antlers, and cape onto my backpack and struggled to get the heavy load up onto my shoulders. The reality of the 3½-mile hike back to the truck suddenly set in, as my pack had to weigh more than 120 pounds.

No sooner had I started hiking up the first hill, when I found myself surrounded by dense, dark clouds. Suddenly, lightning and a thunderclap broke the silence, quickly followed by heavy rain. Before long, I was soaked to the bone by a mixture of blood and rainwater. My pack out consisted of numerous large, rolling hills, and finally, steep downgrades to a river I needed to ford on foot to get back to my rig.

I must have stopped a half-dozen times to drop to my hands and knees, so that the tips of the antlers strapped to my pack could dig into the soil in front of me and force Mother Earth to bear half the weight of my load. This bizarre technique proved to be the only way I was able to give my body any rest on the way out.

I was beyond exhaustion as I struggled the last half-mile down to the river, then up the far bank. The antler tines seemed to grab every sagebrush and tree limb along the way. So badly were my thighs cramping toward the end, that my last thousand steps had to be only six inches at a time.

I've never been so happy to see my truck as I was after packing out my bull. I barely had the energy to get behind the wheel.

When the torturous ordeal finally came to an end at the tailgate of my truck, I fell to the ground — completely done in. After lying flat for a while, panting in recovery, I realized that every muscle in my body was in full-scale revolt. Not one of them seemed willing to help me stand up! It must have been sheer willpower alone that got me back on my feet and behind the wheel for the triumphant drive home. I couldn’t wait to show my family what I'd accomplished — with the indispensable help of a Friend far more powerful than me.

It was dark by the time I reached the house. As I limped my way out of the truck and up to the front door, I thought to myself, This was absolutely the most amazing — yet physically awful — thing I've ever done! Yet, I can’t wait to do it again next year!

The author is a Sheriff Deputy in Idaho, a flyfishing outfitter, and a competitive handgun shooter. In November, he was diagnosed with a severely dilated aortic aneurysm that required heart surgery. He most likely had that condition during his grueling elk recovery.

Author’s Note

On this hunt, I used a Hoyt Ventum 33 bow, Easton Axis arrows, Muzzy Trocar broadheads, Spot Hogg Fast Eddie sight, Rocky Mountain calls, Sitka clothing, and Crispi boots.

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