After three weeks of bow hunting in Montana’s Madison Range I needed a little break from chasing elk. When Tom left on Monday morning, I threw the wall tent and my gear into the back of the truck and headed for the Missouri Breaks to do a little scouting for mule deer. That was my excuse anyway. I love “the Breaks” and make the drive up there whenever I need some solitude. Nothing like setting up the big tent out on the prairie at the edge of the badlands. Unfortunately, the winter of 2010/2011 had a devastating impact on the mule deer population and I wasn’t optimistic that I was going to see many bucks. After three days of hoofing around prime mule deer habitat it was apparent that the heavy snow and long winter had taken their toll. I had spotted only one small 4×4 for my efforts. I packed up the tent and headed back to Bozeman, itching to get back to the mountains.
A couple of days later I was packing into the Madison range from the Gallatin Canyon side. I made it in several miles before setting up my two man tent on a ridge at 8500 feet. It overlooked a good drainage that I knew would be holding elk even as the rut was winding down. As I hurried to get my scatter together for an evening hunt, I spied a hunter cresting the ridge on the trail that ran past my camp. Other than an orange vest, he wore the garb of a rancher; faded wool lined canvas coat, stained cowboy hat curled at the edges, and jeans. A handlebar mustache complemented his look. He hailed from a small town in eastern Montana and had drawn a moose tag for this unit after years of trying. I had seen his horse trailer parked back at the trailhead. The moose were eluding him but he told me about a bull elk he had been hearing every day down in the bottom of the drainage. We wished each other luck and I headed down the trail as it dropped off the ridge toward where he had been pointing. A mile in I paused to glass the basin below me then smiled as a bull’s chuckle rose from timber near the bottom. The cowboy had been right ! I bailed off the trail and headed on a line toward the bull. I figured he was still a half mile off and there were only a couple hours of daylight left so I needed to close the gap quickly. I hustled down the slope, deeper into the valley, only slowing when I knew I was getting close. It was hard to ignore the many piles of grizzly poop scattered about as I moved through the trees. This drainage was full of whitebark pine trees and the bears were obviously here enjoying a bumper crop of cones. Looking at the huge piles, I couldn’t help but think that crapping pine cones wouldn’t help anyone’s mood. I was imagining a drainage full of irritated bears.
I didn’t want to call until I was sure I was fairly close, within 100 yards. The bull wasn’t being very vocal so I sat on a log to catch my breath, let my heart settle down and wait for his next bugle. Looking around I noticed two small piles of fresh grizzly scat and one very large one. A momma and her cubs. I had never seen so much fresh bear sign in one area before.
The bull’s chuckle rose from the meadows below me, no more than 250 yards away. I moved closer looking for a place to set up. I found it in a horseshoe of small pines on a bench just above the bull. The bench fell away on a steep slope with a lane through the trees down to the meadows. Although I couldn’t see or hear the bull I knew he was just below me. Behind the horseshoe of pines, a tree had blown down, blocking passage up the slope behind me. A gentle breeze was blowing up the slope in my favor as I mouthed two cow mews down toward the bull. The quiet evening air erupted with the bull’s response. His bellows grew closer until I saw the first ivory tips come into sight, swaying in the air as if disembodied from the elk below them. I didn’t need to see the entire rack to know this was a mature bull. Snorting and grunting he came into sight and strutted stiff-legged just behind the screen of pines until stopped by the blown down tree. Without hesitating the bull turned, took a few steps back up the hill and rammed his head through the side of my hiding place. His head was less than three feet from me, huffing and whining, eyes rolling, trying to find the cow he expected to see. I had raised my bow but not drawn it and stood behind it facing the lovesick elk, my eyes as wide as his. His massive rack kept him from pushing through the trees to move forward. It lasted only seconds until the bull jerked his head back through the pines sending branches and needles flying into the air. My legs were shaking as the bull started around my hide toward the opening in the horseshoe. I drew as he came around only fifteen feet from me walking fast. “Don’t gut shoot him,” I was thinking and stupidly, didn’t stop him with a mew. I led his heart slightly and then buried the G5 deep in his shoulder four inches forward of where I wanted to shoot him.
The shaft penetrated six inches of muscle and through the rib cage. When the bull jumped forward the shaft torqued and then snapped. The sunlight filtering through the trees illuminated a pulsing geyser of blood which shot out three feet from the elk. The bull was walking away with a profound limp as I nocked another arrow. He started to climb a small knob, stumbled and turned and walked around it and out of sight. I knew he was hurt badly and based on his response I was confident I would recover him, but I felt an icy feeling spreading over me. I should have stopped him before I shot. I shouldn’t have led him at all ..he was so close. What was I thinking? I waited five minutes then stepped forward to pick up the broken shaft.
A lot of arrow was in the elk and the ground was covered with bright red blood. I had an hour till dark and decided to give the elk all of it. It was too hot to leave him until morning. If he was dead he would spoil in a few hours. And the grizzlies. One would likely be on him by daylight. I would give him an hour and then start down the blood trail.
Splotches of blood marked the trail every few feet as I moved quietly in the direction he had gone. The wind, once in my favor, now blew from me to the elk and I hoped he was too dead by now to smell me. His trail moved up a brushy slope then veered back into a dense thicket of blown down trees. At the top of the slope I stopped to put on a headlamp before it became too dark to see. Then ahead of me a drawn out moan and the crack of antler on a tree or rock. He was dying. What to do? I decided to wait another 20 minutes and hope that he expired. The gray light was rapidly fading and it was almost dark when I heard a swishing in the brush on the slope below me. It was one of those surreal moments as I watched a huge dark form moving almost silently through the brush only thirty yards below me. It was a bear and I was sure a grizzly as I pulled the pepper spray from its holster, thumbed back the safety and got ready to dance with the ugliest girl in the drainage. The bear stepped into full view now just fifteen yards below me. A black bear, and a huge one. We stared at each other, both sizing up the situation. He been following the blood trail too and was probably trying to figure out if I was the bleeding party. I was noting how huge he was and wondering if it was a good time to fill my bear tag. He stood still, staring, his belly dragging the ground. Heavy. At least 450 lbs. I pushed that thought aside. I had a dead elk laying on the ground nearby and was two miles from camp and miles from there to the trailhead. The elk deserved my attention so it was this bear’s lucky day. So I say. Actually, I was really wondering how I could even set the bear spray down to draw my bow without the possibility of the bear charging me first. After all, sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you. I waved my arms back and forth and gently told the bear to move on his way. He didn’t. I tightened my finger on the trigger, hoped the damn thing would actually spray, and took a step toward the bear. The bruin looked right at me, turned his head slowly and ambled down the slope with no apparent urgency.
Breathing a sigh of relief I turned back to the task at hand. Ahead, in a grassy patch at the base of a slope was a matted down area covered in blood but no elk. I marked the spot in my GPS and began searching for his trail. I circled wider and wider, a feeling of panic growing in me. How could he have left without making a sound and without a blood trail? I started a systematic search, leaving my GPS on to mark my search path around the last blood. I gave up at 11:00 that night. The temperature had dropped and I was shivering. I kept hearing moans down in the drainage below me. Could that be the bull? They rose eerily from the darkness. I had headed toward them at first before the exhaustion and the fear of spending the entire night alone in a bear infested drainage finally overtook my desire to find the bull. I headed back to the tent.
I didn’t eat that night. Exhausted, I crawled into my bag after midnight and spent the next five hours tossing and turning. I had worked hard to put myself in a great spot and had been given a shot on a bull that most hunters will never experience and I had blown it. I kept telling myself that I would find the bull in the morning and finally got a little sleep.
Hunger got me out of the sack long before daylight and I was boiling water to make a freeze dried dinner when I heard someone on the trail. It was the moose hunter. I told him I would be in the drainage looking for my elk and that I didn’t want to ruin his hunt. He said it was no problem but warned me that he had spotted the grizzly sow and two cubs on a hillside just above where I told him I shot the elk. “Be careful” he warned. He had seen four different adult grizzlies that week in the drainage. I thanked him and began eating beef stroganoff for breakfast. I was in no hurry now to start looking for the bull before it was good and light out.
Everything looked different in the daylight. I hiked to the spot where I marked the last blood on the GPS. Still bright and crimson, the blood covered a six foot circle of matted grass. I started over, circling from the point where he had stood or lain, looking for where he had gone. I found it two hours later. The bull had backtracked and stepped off the trail where a spring created a marshy bog. Only flecks of blood on the tall weeds marked his passage. I figured that the bull had clotted up between his shoulder and rib cage and it had slowed the bleeding to a trickle. It took me another hour to follow his trail 100 yards. And then another hour to find a pencil eraser drip 75 yards further into the trees. I marked the spot and began circling down toward the moans I had heard during the night. I wasted another hour before realizing that the moans weren’t from my bull, they were from a cow moose in heat. Her tracks stood out deep in the mud of the creek bottom near where I had heard her calling.
I looked that day until six o’clock that evening before throwing in the towel. I never found another spot of blood. The bull just quit bleeding. The long trail out seemed even colder that night and I when I finally got home several hours later I was questioning my desire to continue bowhunting. It wasn’t my first time to lose an elk with a less than perfect shot. The thought of an animal suffering at my hand gnaws at me and re-invites reflection on why I do this. You try to find comfort through the understanding that animals all inevitably die. They lead hard lives. The seldom die without some suffering. You are not the only predator that wounds and inflicts pain. But it doesn’t stop the self doubt.
I returned twice during the summer of 2013, making the long trip in to search the area for the elk. I am certain he died from the wound. For two days I climbed in every direction from the GPS point that marked the last blood drop. At a certain distance it becomes a needle in a haystack.
Before I left for the last time I sat on the rim overlooking the drainage, meadows now bright green under the mountains still capped with snow and I made a vow never to do this again. To be more careful. To be more sure of my shot. I was trying to make myself feel better but it was a meaningless vow. For in spite of every promise, every attempt at caution, when that moment comes and a bull loosens his primordial scream and comes crashing toward you through the trees you have only seconds to make decisions. With knees shaking and mouth dry you can only hope you make the right ones.