It was a hot, dusty and generally miserable ride out of the mountains. Dan and I took turns pulling the rear, riding into an inescapable cloud of dust. It was hot even after the sun dropped behind the Tobacco Roots. By the time we rode down to the trailhead almost four hours after leaving camp, all I could think about was jumping in the creek. We had left a six pack of beer on ice in the horse trailer in my new Engel cooler and covered it with horse blankets and saddle pads. In this heat I didn’t give the Engel much in the way of odds of keeping that beer cold for six days. But one could hope. We resisted popping the lid till we had the horses unsaddled and loaded. We weren’t surprised to find the ice melted but the beer was still pretty cold. Another day and it would have been warm, but right now that didn’t matter one bit. It was one of those moments that makes you realize just how good a cold beer can taste.
Tom Brooks was waiting at the house when we pulled up. Tom introduced me to archery and taught me how to shoot a bow. We were still teenagers in the 1980s when we started shooting compound bows instinctively, i.e.; without sights. I still remember when Tom put the first sight on his bow. We all thought he was cheating ! But a round of 3-d targets proved their worth and soon all of our bows wore sights with pins. Back then, whitetail deer were still scarce and we counted ourselves lucky just to see one during a day of hunting. There were a lot of days when we didn’t. We learned a lot though and some of my fondest memories were those early days with Tom as we learned how to hunt deer.
My career took me away from the Hoosier state in 1987 and I hadn’t seen much of my good friend over the years. I was excited when we put together a plan to hunt elk together.
After unloading the horses. throwing some hay and a quick shower, we headed into Manhattan for a steak at Sir Scott’s Oasis. Soon we were re-telling old stories and knocking back a few drinks. The whisky chased the dust out of my throat and the tired out of my bones. We were joined by my friends Mike Morrow and Todd Galloway who were in town to hunt elk in the Bridger Mountains with my friend and sometimes elk guide, Dan Reddick. A lot bull got thrown down that night.
On Saturday we ran around town picking up a few supplies. Then it was time to make sure Tom was dialed in. I looked with suspicion at the single pin on Tom’s bow sight. What’s up with that? Tom hunts whitetails and usually won’t shoot at one past 25 yards or so. A single 20 yard pin works fine. Tom has some dandy bucks on the wall, but I reminded him that these are elk and are much bigger than a deer. Being able to hit one at 40 yards helps odds immensely. When I moved the Block target to forty yards Tom drew and planted an arrow in the sod a few inches below it.
By Sunday morning we were riding back in on the same dusty, miserable trail. Almost four hours later, Tom and I watched my brother and his wife ride off with our saddle horses in tow. After dumping Tom’s gear in the tent and checking camp out we headed up the trail, bows in hand. It was late in the afternoon as we padded quietly along an old fire line cut many years earlier. Above us on a hillside I heard something moving and motioned for Tom to freeze. I left him standing in the lane and moved into the trees on the other side and cow called. Instantly the bull was heading our way down the hillside. It happened fast. I looked up to see the bull come out of the trees just 15 yards above Tom but out of his view. The bull was behind some small pines and from where I stood I could see he was a nice 5×5. Unable to find the cow he had heard, he lost interest and moved back up the hillside. I ripped my pack off and pulled out the Montana cow elk decoy. Holding it in front of me I backed further away from Tom and started calling passionately at the departing bull. He whirled around and came back down at us but again stopped before crossing the fire line. Moments passed, I heard his cows mewing above us, saw some movement and then the bull was gone. An hour into the hunt and Tom was already into elk.
We climbed to an open top and crossed a meadow to set up on an edge where the park merged into the forest in a clearing studded with young pines. I soon had a herd bull bugling sporadically to my cow calls but he wouldn’t come in. Then out of nowhere a young bull appeared silently at the edge of the park and began circling toward Tom. He was a young bull and I hoped Tom wouldn’t put an arrow in him. When he moved out of sight, I dropped back further in the trees and sent a shrill bugle towards the herd bull. I was hoping to get him fired up. Maybe he would see or hear the small bull and come in to the bugle. It didn’t happen and as darkness fell, I headed over to where Tom was hidden in a clump of pines. He was excited. Two small bulls had come in but had stayed out of range. Then Tom heard my bugle and thought it was still another bull. I was happy with the activity we had seen in one evening. The rut was heating up.
That night we sat by the fire and caught up on family, friends, jobs and such. We hit the sack with anticipation of the morning to come.
It was still dark when we loped out of camp and dropped down about a mile to where a meadow loomed out of the gray light. We stood for a while watching and listening before crossing the meadow and dropping off to a hillside strewn with fresh elk sign. A bull bugled further down the mountain and we watched as his herd of cows fed among the trees on the hillside across the drainage from us. Finally the bull, a decent six, came into view. I didn’t have any hope of bringing him this far but cow called anyway and when he answered, two bulls on our side of the big ditch let loose. I hadn’t made another call when one of the bulls bugled again, this time closer. He was coming in. I told Tom to set up on the trail just over a rise and I backed up about thirty yards further. I hoped to pull the bull past Tom and wanted to be at least sixty yards away. Tom disappeared and I waited a few minutes before calling. I cow called and heard a mew above me. A little brushy bull came out of the trees and moved toward me until he stood on the hillside five feet above me. I didn’t want to spook him in fear he would run down the trail toward the bull moving our way. The little bull walked by me and when he was a way down the trail I turned toward the incoming bull and cow called. The bull answered, much closer now. Almost on top of Tom. Then I heard the mew again and the little bull was back and standing next to me. less than three feet away. He put his head down and took a bite from a clump of grass just 10 inches from my boot. He was placidly chewing when a breeze hit me in the neck. The bull went wide eyed, looking right through me and turned and ran down the hill in that awkward side to side gait that young bulls have.
I turned my attention back to the bull just in time to hear an elk crashing through trees and brush. Good job Tom, I was thinking as I grabbed gear and bow and headed down the trail. As soon as I saw him I knew that elk steak was not on the menu tonight. Tom had set up upwind of the trail and the bull had winded him just as Tom came to full draw. But the bull stopped behind a dead pine and Tom could only hold until the bull turned tail and busted off through the trees. Lesson 1 – always, always stay downwind of the path the elk will most likely take. Tom told me the bull was a 6×6..probably a 260-280 class bull from his description. Coming in like a train on a greased rail. We were licking our wounds and pulling our pride back out when the other bull on our side let loose again.
We moved quietly back up the mountain towards the bugle. The bull had heard me cow calling and hadn’t come in so I wanted to get close before calling again. Less than 100 yards. We came to a bench with a rise above it and I knew we were getting close. I wanted to hear him before we moved again and he obliged us with a scream from less than 8o yards away. “I see him moving in the trees” Tom said, and we ducked back over the rise. The thermals were still coming down the mountain in our favor. I pointed to a blow down about twenty yards away. Tom nodded and moved slowly, watching for the bull and set up in front of the downed tree. He executed the move perfectly, the bull grunting and bugling from just above him. I waited until Tom nocked an arrow and then dropped further back over the rise. This bull was hot and I was sure he would come in but if he didn’t see a cow he might hang up before coming past Tom. I had to work a bit to get enough saliva in my mouth to work the call. When I finally did, the hill erupted with screams, the bull crashing down the mountain on a direct path past Tom. I could see his heavy rack and long white tipped tines from where I crouched and when the bull suddenly lurched away from Tom and smashed across the hill into some small trees I shook my head at Tom’s luck. That bull is a 330-340 class elk and Tom just smoked him!
Excitedly I grabbed my pack and headed over the rise. One look at Tom and I knew that once again, we wouldn’t be eating back strap. The bull had come in like a freight train on a track. Tom was perfect, drawing when the bull passed behind a tree. 20 yards, then 15. Two more feet and Tom had a broadside shot at less than 15 yards. Then a slight breeze swirled and the freight train jumped the track. Another two feet and Tom would have had an easy shot at a monster bull. Tom was disappointed but stoked at being that close to a cover shot bull. Tom had drawn on two 6×6 bulls in less than an hour. Can’t ask for more than that.
Then next day I drug Tom down into a deep basin about two miles from camp. We had some excitement that day with several bulls screaming and almost coming in. The climb out of the hole and the hike back to camp that night was torture though. Tom was doing a great job but the steep country we had been hunting combined with high elevation had taken its toll. Tomorrow we would drop below camp to a flat I had wanted to explore and make it an easier day.
The next morning we left in the dark and descended out of camp towards a big timbered flat interspersed with small parks and creeks that originated in the high basin above us. I found a spot I liked where a trail came through a natural funnel with a rocky ridge on one side and a dense stand of young pines on the other. I sent Tom to the stand of pines and I crouched behind a huge rock about 70 yards down the trail and started calling.
I called a few times and then waited several minutes before calling again. Since I was calling blind, we would need to be patient and give it time to bring a bull in. Sometimes when you start calling blind a bull responds but even more often they sneak in without making a peep. Straining to listen, I thought I heard sporadic sounds of footsteps. The sound was coming from my front and left and the boulder obscured my view in that direction. The sound was growing louder now and unmistakable. Something large was slowly moving towards me. I remained kneeling and drew my bow when the noise seemed right on top of me. Horns appeared above the boulder and a 5×5 bull stepped out into view less than ten yards away. He was a good bull but not one that I would take so when he turned his head and looked away I let the bow down. I watched his rump disappear down the trail right toward Tom. I heard the soft thump of Tom’s bow and then the bull was running into a clump of trees above us. I cow called loudly and he stopped . All was quiet for a few moments and then the wild crashing of a dying elk as he took off on his last run. Everything went silent. Elk steak tonight I was thinking as I grabbed gear and started down the trail. I was within thirty yards of Tom who was looking towards where the bull had run. He turned and looked at me then gestured up the trail. “What ?” I mouthed to him. “Big bull”, he seemed to be saying and when I pointed to where the smaller bull had been he sheepishly smiled and whispered “I missed”. That became a non-issue very quickly when a deep roar let loose down the trail. This was no 5×5. This was a pig of a bull, an elkasaurus, a T-Rex. I crouched and headed down the trail as quickly as I could, the bull now screaming behind me. The trees around me seemed to bend with the force of his guttural bellows. Now I knew why the smaller bull had crashed away. He had seen the big boy coming in and wanted no part of a fight with this monster. I was 70 yards away when I turned, spit the cotton out of my mouth and mewed at the beast. He roared again. We traded mews and roars for several minutes and it was evident that he was hanging up just before the funnel. I decided to try Dan Reddick’s “stolen cow” trick. I grabbed my bugle tube and ran down the trail another sixty yards and let loose a bugle. Picking up a stick and raked it up and down a dead pine. I ran back towards the bull and started cow calling frantically, then turned away again and ran down the trail snapping branches of trees as I went and generally making a commotion. When I got back to where I had first bugled, I screamed back at the bull and followed that with another set of cow bawling.
The T-rex bawled angrily in response. His roars intensified as he headed toward the elk he thought was stealing a potential addition to his herd. I could hear sticks breaking and caught the top of his heavy rack moving through the trees. Crap! He was coming above the trail next to the rocky ridge. If Tom was going to shoot this bull and I needed to change what was going down here and fast or I would spook the bull. I crouched as low and I could, moved away and went silent. Maybe the bull figured that the cow was long gone or maybe he lost his interest in a fight. Either way, he turned and walked back up the trail, this time heading right past where Tom waited. Once again Tom’s bow sent an arrow on its way, and once again an elk went tearing off through the trees. This time, I decided to postponed my celebration and dreams of elk tenderloin until I saw an elk on the ground.
I walked over to Tom who was looking for his arrow or sign the bull was hit. There was no arrow to be found and no blood either. I found where the elk had churned the ground up and left divots in the dirt as he fled. I followed it for a couple hundred yards until it became evident that the bull wasn’t hit. Both bulls had been broadside at forty yards and it appeared Tom had shot under both of them. Well, catch and release elk hunting is actually a lot of fun; all of the excitement and a lot less work. Before we left, I turned on my GPS and entered a waypoint for the spot. I named it “Two Shot Tom”
We would spend the next day pushing further into the flat and had two more close encounters with bulls that didn’t work out. One circled around us and crossed over our trail and busted and another bull was coming in and winded us. But it was a lot of fun. That night as we say by the fire a young elk started mewing from the darkness just outside of our field of vision. It was walking around us in circles, calling out every few minutes. I jumped up and got my cow call and started answering what I assumed was a calf. Tom looked at me and said “Would you stop that !”. “Why?”, I asked. I wanted to see whatever elk that was making that noise. “Are you scared of a calf elk?”. Tom just looked at me. “No, stupid. I am scared of whatever may be out there chasing that elk. And you are going to bring it right into camp.” I laughed. We had seen quite a bit of bear sign and Tom had been a little nervous all week. That night after he fell asleep, I ripped off three loud cow calls inside the tent. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
The final morning we hunted down the mountain where we had seen the bulls the first day. Several bulls were bugling but we couldn’t get any to come in. It was a nice serenade for Tom though and a fitting end to a great hunt.
Tom and I talked this winter and he is ready to try it again. This year wouldn’t work but we will set something up for 2014. For sure we will be visiting “Two Shot Tom” again and this time I am betting Tom will have a 40 yard pin !