From the Intensive Care Unit to the Idaho Backcountry in two weeks.
The cool evening air was already rushing at the back of my neck while I descended from the ridge top. The sun had almost set, and we were well above the bugling bull – we still had half a mile of timber to cover in our attempt to swing downwind of the elk we’d heard bugling moments ago. My strides grew longer as a satellite bull challenged the herd bull from the valley floor below. It was a race against time, and half of my heart feared we wouldn’t make it in time, but the other half knew I had to try. I had driven over 600 miles the day before after work – arriving in the early morning hours on a Thursday. I only had two and half days to hunt before I had to turn around and drive back to Southern Utah, so I was determined to go to whatever lengths necessary to take an elk.
We made our final approach quietly through the lodgepole pines in the valley floor. My eyes darted toward every sound the feeding elk made. We were very careful not to call until we were within 100 yards from the herd. This was no small feat – a make or break for most archery elk hunts. If we began calling from too far back, the bull would simply round up his harem of cows and push them to the next canyon – away from any challenging or curious bulls. Get in too close and we ran the risk of bumping the herd. Despite what camouflage manufacturers would like hunters to believe, elk visual acquisition relies on movement – not detail – to spot imminent danger. Their incredible ability to catch movement (even from great distances) paired with a phenomenal sense of smell, makes stalking to within calling range tricky business. The ability to stay patient and get in close before revealing your location will influence the outcome of a hunt dramatically; public land elk are accustomed to hunter pressure and most hunters just can’t contain their desire to get their bugle on.
|I found these bulls scouting in the months before the season opened and photographed them through my binoculars at daylight. They
stayed in the same area all summer and fall. The bull on the left was the herd bull I hunted all weekend.
I carefully chose a spot to kneel down with several good shooting lanes stretching out to 50 yards. My dad took a position slightly behind me and to my left – typically we’d station a caller farther back from the shooter, but tonight I was both. While knocking an arrow to begin my calling, the dominant herd bull screamed from the ridge above us a mere 75 yards away. Often if the herd bull has a satellite bull or two around the herd, I’ll try to pull him away from the others with a cow call rather than a bugle. I let out a couple soft chirps and let the bull do the work. By the sound of the bugle I could tell he was facing towards us this time as he growled and rose to scream, followed by several chuckles. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as the scream echoed down the valley. Almost immediately, a satellite bull responded 50 yards to our right in the dense timber. I let out a few more cow calls, when suddenly the woods came alive with elk. Cows and calves were mewing incessantly, and the herd bull started thrashing a small pine sapling with his antlers. The satellite bull to our right joined in the chorus as the light faded quickly. The entire herd passed in front of us at 60 yards, but all that could be seen were legs flashing through the timber in the twilight. Realizing it was too dark to shoot, I pulled the arrow from my string and clipped it back in to my quiver. Rather than rising to my feet to leave, I just sat there and listened to the chorus of elk. We had a long hike out in the dark, but it didn’t matter to me in the least. I was grinning from ear to ear just listening to the bugles erupting from the dark hillside before me. Something primitive and primal stirs inside of me every time I hear rutting elk in September. It feeds my addiction to the sport.
My dad quietly eased his way up to my location where we sat enjoying the sounds of the evening for several golden minutes. After a short time we rose to our feet and quietly backed out. With absolutely no moon during the peak of the rut, the elk were sure to be in the same area until morning and remain active well into the day. I resolved the year before to only shoot branched antlered bulls, but with such a short time to hunt I was prepared to shoot any elk within range. Knowing exactly where the elk would be in the morning with the rut in full swing, gave us a real advantage for the next morning.
|This ancient tree root sits atop a ridge above the wallows at 9,600′ in elevation.|
After a much needed full nights rest, we arrived the following morning well before daylight. We were anxious to be in position before sunrise, so with miles to cover we shouldered our packs and began the trek in the dark. The clear skies the night before brought significantly cooler temperatures than the previous day, which was a much needed reprieve from above average temperatures that had been the norm. The cold air stung my lungs and chilled my arms and legs, but I took no notice – the echoes of distant bugles carrying down the valley floor was all I could focus on.
We located the elk in short order, but they were significantly higher in elevation than the previous evening. The hike up was a grueling 800 foot climb in elevation in 900 lateral feet of distance. We peaked the ridge out of breath and slightly dizzy from the high elevation air. A bugle interrupted our labored breathing from 200 yards in front of us on the opposite side of a small bald saddle. We quickly crept up another 75 yards and positioned ourselves to call. Our first bugle was answered within a few short moments by the herd bull, followed by a satellite bull. They were slightly farther away, and headed for some black timber that held several springs and a series of wallows. We continued calling to them, but despite our best efforts they continued growing farther away. After 15 minutes, my dad stood and moved up towards my position. When he was several yards behind me, I heard a cow chirp from our left – and close. I signaled my dad to drop down as I spun to the left and positioned myself for a shot.
Less than a minute later a cow appeared, apparently separated from the herd. She was trotting down the hillside above the meadow on a line that would bring her right into range. She hung up at the edge of the meadow 80 yards away and mewed, searching for our calls. I had no cover in front of me, and only sparse trees several yards behind me from her angle – so minimizing movement was essential. I let out a soft calf chirp and lowered the call to my side to prepare for a shot. The cow responded almost instantly, and came in on a string. There was only 1 small tree that she had to walk behind that would give me the opportunity to draw, and it was some 60 yards away. As she passed behind it, I drew back and anchored at full draw. She was coming straight at us but offered no shot.
She stopped at 40 yards and began to feed, still facing us. For a couple painstaking minutes she fed easily within range but still presented no shot. My arm began to shake with exhaustion, but I held firm in spite of the growing pain emanating from my forearm where I had been bitten. The cow finally lifted her head and walked another ten yards towards us before turning broadside, striding towards the sound of now distant bugles. I cow chirped with my mouth to stop her right at the tree line, lined up my sight pin and released.
The sound of my arrow rattling through underbrush was audible almost immediately. While kneeling on the ground I had been unable to see several dead fennel weeds that deflected my arrow. The cow spooked and ran several steps before looking back, then continued into the dark timber towards the rest of the herd. In disbelief I rose to search for my arrow. I consistently practice out to 60 yards and consider anything inside of that to be within my effective range. My dad attempted to reassure me that I had held a very long time with a weak arm – but I knew I had just plain blown it. While searching for my lost arrow, the bulls started bugling again consistently from the wallow 400 yards up the dark timber draw from us. By this time it was already approaching noon; not wanting to waste any precious time we gathered our packs, and were back in pursuit.
|Many times on this hunt I wondered if I was hunting Mountain Goats or Elk.|
A well worn game trail led to the wallow, allowing us the luxury of making a silent approach through an otherwise nearly impassable tangle of old growth spruce trees and waist high wildrye grass. Just as we eased up on the wallow, a bugle stopped us in our tracks. They were close, and with the early afternoon sun high in the sky, it was a safe bet they were headed to water. We quickly split up, each taking an opposite side of the spring. My position offered a view of the wallow as well, although it was somewhat limited due to the small pines I was positioned in. I challenged the bull with a bugle, and almost immediately a chorus of elk surrounded us. Several different elk bugled further up the draw, cows called to my right, and another bull to our left – with so many bulls it was difficult to decide where to focus. Another bugle from above turned my attention to a hillside in front of me. I glanced up to see a five point bull step out of the trees to look at the wallow below me and drop into a dense stand of pines, headed right towards me. The herd bull answered him to my right. As if on command, the wind shifted. Our crosswind was now angling towards the approaching bulls. The seconds ticked by slowly, knowing what the inevitable was – yet still hoping they wouldn’t wind us. Moments later I listened helplessly as the approaching elk detected our scent and spooked.
Crashing through the deadfall, several elk flashed through the trees on the hillside above me, just outside of range. I bugled and stopped them – but the bull wasn’t among them. While focusing my attention on the elk in front of me, I heard the distinctive sound of hooves in the mud directly behind me. I very slowly twisted to my left and looked behind me to see an elk standing beside the wallow a mere 30 yards away – looking just as confused as I was with what to do next. My pulse quickened see the elk in such close proximity, although admittedly I wondered how I’d missed the sound of an approaching elk. Although its head was obscured by trees, the blonde fur of the body lent itself to a bull, but a young one at that. The elk took a few steps, exposing antlers through a small gap in the trees. Even though it was a just a spike, my heart was racing.
|A view of the spring from above – the wallows are in the trees to the right. This secluded basin provides all the necessities of
life to the many elk and deer that call it home – food, water, and shelter – providing ideal conditions to hunt.
He had no idea I was there or why the other elk had run and then stopped. An older bull wouldn’t have made that mistake – and I intended to exploit it. The wind was blowing perfectly from him to me – but several small saplings stood in the way, choking out any potential shooting lanes. The spike took several steps into a small timbered draw between the ridge I was on and the next steeper ridge. I had a small window of opportunity to move into a shooting position while the timber obscured my movement. Careful not to break the fragile silence, I took three steps to the left out of the small pine covert I had been concealed in. I had no cover, no backdrop – but it was my only option. The spike continued walking broadside to me, angling slightly away up the next ridge. Ahead of him there was a very small break in the trees only wide enough to fit his body. With only a day left to hunt, it was now or never.
He lowered his head to feed for a moment, giving me a moment to compose myself for a long shot. With several long, slow exhalations I was able to lower my heart rate to a manageable level despite the adrenaline pumping through my veins. The spike slowly raised his head and strode towards the opening, but this time I was prepared. As his head passed behind the last tree, I drew my bow. Mentally, I turned all my focus towards my shooting form and executing the shot. I estimated the distance at 50 yards, so my margin of error was small – and with a blown shot just hours earlier – I knew I had to believe I could make the shot. The bull materialized on the other side of the tree and walked into the opening, stopping right in the center of my shooting lane. I exhaled slowly one last time and consciously loosened my grip on the bow to avoid torquing it to the side at the shot. Bringing the single pin sight to just above the center of his chest, my finger eased into the release trigger. The bow rocked slightly in my hand as the string launched forward, sending the arrow sailing downrange. The bull snapped his head towards me at the sound of the bow and attempted to turn, but my arrow flew swift and true. I watched the bright orange knock disappear into the fur low in the chest and directly behind the shoulder.
The spike spun downhill at the shot, with my arrow visibly protruding from the other side – right through the heart. He leapt 5 or 6 paces before I found my bugle and stopped him with a scream. He glanced back in my direction and stood in place for about thirty seconds, visibly swaying. He took a few more stumbling steps and disappeared out of view around the edge of the ridge. I looked over at my dad and gave the thumbs up, my pulse still pounding in my ears. Moments later we heard a crash as the bull collapsed on the other side of the ridge just out of sight. I ranged the site where he stood just moments earlier – 47 yards. I knelt down in the tall brush to bow my head in gratitude and prayer. Months of preparation, countless hours spent shooting my bow in the range, agonizing days spent in crippling pain in an ICU far from my home – unsure if I’d ever hold a bow again, all of it rushed through my mind. It may have only been a spike, but it was a trophy greater than I’d ever taken.
|Its a very humbling feeling to have an elk down nearly two miles and 1,000′ in elevation
from the truck with nothing but backpacks to make it all possible
My dad soon stood by my side, he had been able to see the entire scene play out from his position slightly uphill. We waited a full hour before making our way to the blood trail. Although I was very confident in the shot and we heard the crash of the bull going down, we always wait a full hour – 30 minutes more than recommended. Patience pays off, and we like to ensure the animal is expired well before we ever move towards the shot location – jumping a wounded animal from it’s bed is the single biggest mistake overly eager bowhunters can make. The blood trail was easy to find and follow, and a short distance later I spotted the bull crumpled up against a small pine tree. He’d only gone 30 yards before succumbing and tumbling a short distance down the ridge.
Elation swept over me as I bounded down the hill to my elk, he may as well have been a 300″ bull. I had done it, against all odds. Minutes later, while posing for pictures – I reflected once again on obstacles overcome. While my arm still wasn’t full strength and ached with pain, my spirit was stronger than ever. Holding those antlers in my hands, I was as happy as any bowhunter ever could be. And greatest of all, I was blessed to share this experience with a man I will admire my entire life – my father. There is a feeling, an unparalleled vitality, that bowhunters experience every time they stand at full draw with an elk in their sights – it’s a feeling indescribable to those that have’t yet experienced it. It’s the culmination of long miles traversed over countless mountain tops, blown opportunities and close calls, it’s the primal instinct of man versus beast inherent to our own nature – and it’s made even sweeter by the weight of a pack loaded with wild game.
About the Author
I am the proud father of three fun loving kids and the husband to a beautiful wife. I was born and raised in Idaho Falls, Idaho and currently reside in Pocatello, Idaho. Throughout the year I can be found chasing mule deer and elk with a bow in the Idaho backcountry, steelhead in the mighty Salmon River, carp with a flyrod in desolate mud flats, or trout in one of the many blue ribbon fisheries surrounding my home. For me – the term “off season” is only for those that need another hobby. - Jared Grover