We headed into camp this year with a lot of anticipation. Montana had good precipitation all spring and summer and cooler temperatures and we hoped that would keep the elk high and near our 9000′ camp. The last two years had been hot and dry and tough hunting. A pack of wolves in the area kept the bulls quiet last year and Dan’s elk had came in to a cow call without making a peep. So we were excited when we rode into camp and found the grass taller and greener than normal. We had already had a snow storm and remnants still clung to the shady spots and north facing timber. For three days we hunted without seeing an elk and hearing only one bugle down in a distant basin. As we sat around the fire Saturday night we discussed the possibility of throwing in the towel at this camp and moving on to new country the following year. We hunted again the following morning, hearing nary a peep from a bull and a few hours later I watched as Dan rode out of camp with two of our four horses.
The elk were obviously not high and I had the feeling I needed to drop lower in elevation to find them. Maybe the snow had pushed them down. Or foraging wolves. So early that afternoon I rode out of camp and headed west. An hour later I loosened the reins and let Bailey walk to a clump of bristlecone pines where we always tied up, just where the mountain broke towards the valley floor 4000 feet below.
I dropped off the face and put a half mile between me and the horses. There was a rock outcrop along a ridge that split two basins so I took a seat and began taking in the scenery below me. I wasn’t really thinking about killing an elk. I was still trying to get my shit together. It feels different, being alone, this far in. A lot of it is the bears. We had been seeing a lot of grizzly sign. You can’t shake that feeling of being watched; staying on high alert, constantly looking over your shoulder. I have hunted where there are no grizzlies and you move through the woods differently, with a lightness I don’t have here. But that initial feeling of anxiety eventually subsides as the reality of your situation sets in and you focus on the business of hunting elk. Just go through the motions; grab your gear, saddle the horses, look for elk sign. But at that moment on the ridge, with Dan only two hours gone, I was still shaking it. I settled in and watched and waited to see what might come about. It was only 3 PM and warm but experience told me that anything can happen in mid September when the elk move into full rut.
Thirty minutes later a throaty bugle rose from the basin below and shook any remaining funk out of me. Game on. I moved down the mountain and twenty minutes later I spotted cows moving in the trees two hundred yards below. The bull bugled again but was hidden from view. I pulled out the Montana Decoy cow elk we affectionately call “Dolly” and set her up. She may be a flat picture on fabric but sometimes she is enough to distract a bull. When hunting alone, it helps to have a good wing man. I began slowly moving closer to the herd, using the decoy to shield me in case wandering eyes looked my way. I wanted to be less than 100 yards from the bull before I tried calling him in. When I made it to a point where I could move no closer without spooking the cows, I planted Dolly out in the open and moved 5o yards below her to a tight clump of pines. At the sound of my cow call the mountain erupted with bugles. Four different bulls called from below me, including the herd bull and another from my right. The herd bull stepped into view and started raking a small pine. He was a stud of a bull. But two of the other bulls were obviously coming in, and fast, and the big boy wasn’t sticking around. He turned and started pushing his cows away just as a 310 class 6×6 came barreling through the trees on my right. I turned and drew as he slowed to a walk but when he stopped at 40 yards only his head and neck were visible. He was looking for the cow but couldn’t see the decoy from his angle and I couldn’t cow call with him so close so we stood in a stand-off for a couple of minutes. When he turned to walk away, I let the bow down and cow called. Another bull screamed in response below me as the bull I was watching turned around and headed back my way. Again, I drew and again he stopped, without offering me a shot, looking for a cow that wasn’t there. Below me the other bull bugled again and while still holding at full draw I peeked over my shoulder to see him raking a pine just 75 yards below me. These are the predicaments we bow hunters dream of.
My arms began to shake from holding the drawn bow when the elk across from me had finally had enough and turned and left the way he had came. I let off again and turned slowly to face the bull that was now walking up the slope towards me. At 60 yards he stopped to bugle and then at 40, and then 20. Slobbering and urinating as he came, he was so close I could smell him and watch his nostrils flare as he bugled. He was coming at my 10:00 and would pass behind a large pine that stood less than ten yards from me. “Come on”.. I told him, “keep coming.”. And he did and it was perfect. As his head passed behind the tree I drew and then watched in horror as my arrow came off the string, flipped backwards off the rest and fell, landing facing backwards on my left boot. When I had let down on the last bull it must have popped the nock loose on the string.Of course the elk stepped from behind the tree just as the arrow clinked off the rest and fell and now he stood frozen at 10 yards staring straight at me with a most curious look. I stood motionless at full draw looking through the now pointless bow sight at the bull . We stood like that for what seemed like several minutes. I started thinking to myself, “Ok, so IF you had an arrow in this bow right now then where would you shoot him?” The elk on the other hand seemed indifferent. He just looked at me as if he was trying to figure out what I was and finally he grew impatient and turned and walked back the way he had came.
As he passed behind the tree I let down and grabbed my arrow and had just stood up when he came from behind the tree, turned to the right and started walking directly in front of me. Elk gods apparently do exist and I might just have another chance. I knocked the arrow and lifted my bow slowly and smoothly but the elk was only 15 yards away and the motion stopped him in his tracks. Broadside. A chip shot if there was such a thing when elk hunting. But I had to draw my bow without spooking him. I had always wondered, in such situations when you are pinned by a bull and cannot draw without him seeing it if you would be better off cow calling first and THEN drawing. Just help with his confusion a bit. Give him a girl to think about. So I did. I tried my most passionate cow in heat call and as the bull looked directly at me, I drew. And it worked perfectly. Except the string from my rest to the bow string was wrapped around the knob on the rest base and I couldn’t come to full draw. It took me a second to figure out what was going on and I wanted to laugh. Two chances at a bull and both foiled by equipment failure. I just smiled as I had to let the bow down.
The bull had finally had enough of me and started at a quick walk down the hill. I popped the string loose from around the rest and cow called again. I was startled by another bugle just below me and looked to see two young bulls walking up the hill directly toward Miss Dolly. Their presence caused the big bull to stop. He was in some thick pines and I could only see his rack swiveling as he watched the two elk come up the hill. If he stayed on his course he would pass into an open spot between two trees and give me a shot. I dug my rangefinder out just as the 5×5 bull walked by me almost close enough to stab him with my arrow. He, and the raggy horn behind him were transfixed on the decoy and paying no attention to me. The gap in the trees was 54 yards away and as I stuffed the rangefinder back in my pocket the big bull began walking toward it. I drew and as he stepped in the lane I cow called as loudly as I could. He paused and when the 5o yard pin found the spot I wanted behind his shoulder and just below his spine I triggered the release. The arrow seemed to fly forever, the orange knock glowing in the evening light. Rising, then falling and disappearing into the shadows surrounding the bull. He spun and the orange fletching sticking out low and just behind his shoulder told me he was done. A noisy flight through the trees and seconds later a tremendous crash. The mountain was quite and suddenly all of the elk were just gone.
I knew he was probably already dead but I still sat and waited for almost an hour before heading down the slope. It is one of the best hours you will ever spend. I try to take these moments in. Smell the air, feel the dirt and stone beneath me.
I found leaves and dirt kicked up where he ran, then the broken arrow, covered in blood. I followed the divots on the slope and found him piled him up against a tree only 70 yards from where I hit him. I sat down for a few minutes, admiring him where he fell. But the sun was beginning to sit low and I had a lot of work ahead of me. I pulled off my pack and rolled up my sleeves.