Never underestimate a buck! If you hunt long enough, this will ring loudly in your head.
To be kind, let’s call him Joe. A few years ago I went elk hunting with Joe. After a long, fruitless, half-day hunt, we finally spotted a herd of cow elk bedded on a steep hillside. Since I was really holding out for a bull, I let Joe lead the charge on the unsuspecting elk. What transpired was sad and kinda ridiculous. I crouched behind Joe as he steadily climbed through the thick scrub oak towards the bedded elk. There were probably 20-30 animals total, but we could only see bits and pieces of a few. As we got closer, a bedded cow came into full view and was looking right at us. At more than 90 yards, I pleaded with my Joe to slow down and wait for one to feed into view. But he persisted forward. Joe was somehow convinced that he was invisible to the cow because he was wearing camouflage. At about 40 yards, the bedded cow leapt from its bed and blasted away, taking the whole herd with it. Surprise, surprise.
Had Joe been just a little patient, I’m certain he would have gotten a shot. The wind was perfect in our faces. The cows couldn’t see us crouched in the brush, and some of the elk were feeding randomly around us. Because of the snow and steep terrain, they felt safe and weren’t going anywhere.Even if it had taken three or four hours, inevitably one of the cows would have wandered close enough for an easy shot. Instead, we went home empty-handed.
In 2012 I was hunting the extended hunt for deer. On the second day I spotted a massive, tall-racked, mature 4×4 buck. He was a true giant. Unfortunately, I spotted him late in the morning as he was bedding down with a group of does. The ground was blanketed with crunchy snow and I knew it would be nearly impossible to stalk close. But I had to try. For the next seven hours I worked carefully into the area. As I got closer I literally had to break the frozen ground with my hand before placing my foot down. It was the most arduous stalk I’ve ever been on. Finally I knew I was close, but the thick oak brush made it impossible to see anything. So I just sat and waited.
Right around 4 pm I heard the crunching of hooves in the snow. By some miracle, the group of deer were up and feeding in my direction. Long story short, the buck appeared briefly in the only window I had. I misjudged the distance and sent my arrow sailing harmlessly over the giant buck’s back. Game over.
Although I failed with my shot, I succeeded in my stalk—a stalk that burned up then entire day. The failure still stings today, but not as bad as it would have if I’d simply rushed in and blew out the deer.
In bowhunting, the hunt only just begins when a deer is spotted. Having patience and getting close is the real challenge. But if you are patient, there is almost no buck you can’t get close to. Since hunters are really predators, we can learn from studying other predators. Have you ever watched a lion stalk a gazelle on TV? Have you noticed how carefully, calculated, and slowly it’s done? Wild predators have innate and instinctual patience. Otherwise they starve.
Next time you’re on a stalk, remember the lion in the grass. He might not be successful every time, but he never gives up and he moves with eternal patience. Be a predator; be patient. Let nature unfold at its own pace.
It took half a lifetime to finally understand that success in bowhunting is a decision. Failure comes not from luck, but from failure to commit to the goal. The decision to succeed is not made a week or two before the hunt, but the very second the last season ends.
In sharing this insight with other bowhunters, I’m usually met with some skepticism or hesitated response. They want to agree with the premise, but don’t really understand it. So here’s what I mean:
When I make the decision to succeed—to arrow a great buck—I set a goal for the entire year. And it’s not just any goal, but the most difficult goal to reach. It’s so difficult because there are just too many variables in bowhunting, and no guarantees. What if I simply can’t find a buck this season?
By setting such a lofty goal, one’s mind begins making immediate preparations to accomplish it. This goal is broken down into planning, studying, shooting, equipment preparations, mind-set, and a myriad of other sub-goals.
Keeping this goal in the forefront of my mind, I find myself making daily decisions to achieve it. One example is to block out my intended hunting dates on the calendar. No matter what opportunity or “responsibility” arises, I adamantly refuse to alter my schedule. This year alone I’ve turned down two potentially profitable jobs because they would interfere with my hunt dates. Admittedly this can be very difficult for some people. Most jobs will allow one week off work, or two if you’re lucky. The sad fact is, if you let your all-important job interfere with your hunting schedule, then you CANNOT set the goal in the first place. The decision isn’t yours to make, thus you must prepare for failure.
Making such a big goal sets a precedence upon which failure is not an option. If you are truly committed, subconsciously you will make mental and spiritual goals which you aren’t even aware of; goals which will seemingly magically bring you and your quarry together into a single space and time.
As prepared as I might be, successful bowhunting still feels overwhelming to me at times. I believe that bowhunting is the hardest thing a person can do successfully and consistently. I also know that there are greater forces at work than I can ever understand which will increase my odds. Call it the power of positive thinking. Call it Zen.
There is nothing more magical than the breaking dawn of a season opener. And there is nothing more deflating than last light of an unsuccessful season closer. I have no intention of ever experiencing a failed season again. I’ve made the decision!
After nearly two hours of coaxing the massive bull elk in, exchanging bugles and blowing cow calls, he’s finally within bow range. But as I raise my bow ever so slightly, he catches my movement and whirls away. The charade is up. I’m busted; but I don’t care. Just to be part of such an exciting experience up here in the High Uinta Mountains has been worth it. Desperately, I blast another cow call. The bull stops and looks back in my direction. It’s not over yet…
It all started a year ago when my brother, Brent, and I hunted this area for a week with hardly a response from the nearly nonexistent elk. On the last day of that hunt I finally had enough and jumped over to the next drainage where I found myself literally surrounded by elk. Unfortunately, it was too little too late as I was unable to get a shot before dark. But it gave us hope for next year—actually, it gave Brent hope. As for me, I realized long ago that the only way to avoid a disappointing elk hunt was to stay home. For fifteen years I felt detached from the prospect of actually shooting a bull. In the years that the deer came easily, elk remained ghosts in the woods that I hardly ever saw. A great chasm had grown between me and the majestic elk. Seeing their caricatures in magazines, artwork, and free mailing labels never connected with me.
Just getting away from work and my relentless projects was nearly impossible this year. As the hunt drew nearer, I worked seventeen hours a day just so I could leave town for five days. On Monday morning I finally managed to escape the cold, steely claws of responsibility, and literally ran out the door to my awaiting 4×4.
Three hours later, I was standing on the side of the worst dirt road ever, watching my rear tire deflate in front of me. Suddenly a truck came ambling over the hill; lo and behold, it was brother Brent. He climbed out of his truck wearing an unfamiliar, ear-to-ear grin that only a successful elk hunter could wear, and immediately began telling me the story of the bull he’d arrowed three days earlier. While I loaded my tire with Fix-a-Flat, he recounted the exciting details of his hunt and how he was able to call his bull in for a fifty-five yard shot. At that moment, any rivalry we had about “who’s the better hunter?” was gone. I was just glad somebody in our family finally nailed down a branch-antlered elk after twenty years. I was honestly very proud of him. However, as I prepped my pack to head into the hills, I turned and said half-jokingly, “Well, I’ll just have to find a bigger one!” He replied, “Do it!”
Three and a half miles up the mountain I’ve located two bright yellow tents hidden in the trees: my new home for the week. It appears no one’s home, but I let out a little “locater bugle” just in case. My other brother, Russell, suddenly jumps out of his tent with bow in hand, and I laugh. He’s seen so much action up to this point, that he’s sure a bull has just wandered into camp.
We have about two hours of good light, so after catching me up on all his recent elk encounters, we head off to a nearby meadow. The evening falls quickly, and as expected we get no response from our calling. I sleep well that night with nary a vision of antlers dancing in my head.
5 a.m. comes way too soon, but I’m ready. Bowhunting is what I practice year-round for—it’s what I live for. We head out into darkness up a steep and rocky trail leading to a large meadow a mile away. This is where we’ll begin our first “set-up.” Our typical set-up goes something like this: Russ and I sit down about 50 yards apart and begin a series of cow-mew calls to imitate a herd of elk. After a minute, one of us will let out a series of estrus (cow in heat) calls followed by a lone bugle. Then we wait for a response. We repeat this process every five minutes for up to forty-five minutes. Then, as is usually the case, we look at each other in disappointment, regroup, and try it again elsewhere. This set-up is no different.
Farther up the mountain, we do our second set-up and again, there’s no response. Now this is the elk hunting I’m used to, and I’m thinking this trip will be just like all the rest…whoo-hoo! Most years, I’m cold and shivering half-way through the first routine, but this morning is surprisingly warm for the elevation (9000 feet). This will force the elk to bed down early and probably hurt our odds. Again, I prepare for disappointment.
By disappointment, I’m purely talking about my yearly lack of elk steaks and back-straps that a lowly artist needs in order to survive the winter. Don’t get me wrong, every minute spent traipsing through Utah’s gorgeous backcountry is savored. It’s what keeps me coming back each year, even after eating “tag soup.” I love the smell of the woods, the truly fresh air, and especially the quietness. I love sitting beneath the tall lodgepole pines that reach forever upward towards the clear skies, bald peaks, and fast moving clouds. There are pinkish rocks and boulders strewn everywhere, which provide a quiet foothold on an otherwise crunchy, pine-needled forest floor.
I love watching all the wildlife too: the moose, the deer, the odd high-altitude birds with their strange songs, and even the annoying squirrels and chipmunks that jump from branch, barking at us for invading their territory. They’re all here with the elk, living together in harmony. I soak it all in while becoming happily alienated from the contrived reality back in the city.
A little while later we’ve arrived at Chuckles Point. It’s a high mountain point named by Brent who once got a great response from a bull he affectionately named Chuckles. He named the bull Chuckles because of its distinctive bugle, whereas at the end of each bugle it would let out a series of chuckle-laughs as if to mock Brent’s efforts.
There’s fresh elk sign in the area, so we get set up again. This time, halfway through the routine we get a clear return bugle. Game on! Suddenly I remember what I’m doing up here. Russ and I alter our routine with a series of cow calls to draw him in. The wise old bull is interested, but hangs up and refuses to come closer. Each return bugle is quieter, indicating that he’s moving farther away. If we cows aren’t coming to him, he’s not coming to us. Eventually, the bull is gone.
It doesn’t help that each time we set up, the wind changes—swirling one way, then the other. As luck would have it, the wind continues to shift like that all day. Later, when the wind has driven Russ completely nuts, I tell him, “Who cares [how we set up], the wind is just gonna change anyway…” But being a newbie to the elk hunting arts, he still has hope, which I find amusing.
Our next three set-ups are uneventful as we manage only an occasional, far-off call back. It’s 3:30 p.m. now; it’s hot and we’re exhausted. It’s nap time whether we like it or not. My dusty day pack makes for a fine pillow; the thick pine-needled ground makes for a soft bed. At this elevation dreams are strange:
A giant bull appears at twenty yards, but as I draw back to make an easy shot, I notice an old woman riding atop the beast like a horse. She’s okay with me shooting though, and moves her leg so I don’t hit her…
The sun is dropping and shadows are getting long; it’s wakeup time. Russ and I make our way to Rub City, so-named for the abundance of trees rubbed and thrashed by mighty elk antlers over the years. When the elk are in this drainage, this is their bedroom; it’s where they live and rest during the day. To begin our routine, I split off from Russ and head uphill. Thirty yards uphill, I am surprised by an explosion of animals as a group of bedded elk jump to their feet and go crashing through the timber. I make an immediate cow call which stops one large cow at forty yards. She stands there staring back at me for a minute and then the wind begins to swirl. Just before Russ catches up, the cow lets out a strange alarm bark and trots off. It’s exciting to actually see elk, but at the same time I’m disappointed that we busted them out. Well, that’s elk hunting, I guess. This has actually been the most exciting elk day ever; we’ve actually seen and heard elk, which is truly special.
It’s around 6 p.m. now, and we have time for maybe one or two set-ups before dark. We finally arrive at our destination: the far eastern end of a large meadow we call Eight-Cow Meadow. It’s a secluded east-to-west meadow, very long and oval-shaped, widening to about 200 yards at the middle. Russ and I set up fifty yards apart at the edge of the treeline in hopes of drawing an elk across the meadow from the opposite wooded side.
This call routine goes on and on and eventually my ears can no longer take the barrage of squeaks and squeals from the loud calls. I love quietness in the woods and this grand cacophony is the one thing I hate about elk hunting. Annoyed, I proceed to stuff wads of toilet paper into my ears. So here I am sitting flat on my butt with my bow lying on the ground, and after forty-five minutes of futile calling, I’m looking back towards Russ and wondering when we can finally surrender to the empty woods. As I finish yet another routine bugle, suddenly BOOM, a big nasty bull screams at us from the left. In one fluid motion I hop to my knees, snatch up my bow, knock an arrow, and swing around to face the noise. He’s close and should erupt from the woods at any second. All senses are on high alert and my first thought is, the wind is bad, blowing steadily in the bull’s direction; he’ll surely blow out of here.
A minute later, everything is still quiet. Our eyes are transfixed on the thick woods. The bull has hung up and is silent, staring back at us and listening. We have to do something quick or he’ll leave. Russ blows a couple estrus calls, and I let out a small bull bugle. Since the bugle got him to respond in the first place—and since he sounds like a big bull—he’ll probably be happy to fight off a smaller bull for some cows. Another minute passes. Then suddenly, the same throaty bellow shatters the air; same distance, different direction. It sounds as if he’s circled around to the trees on the opposite side of the meadow. Russ scrambles over to me as we try to figure out exactly where the bugle came from. I’m certain that it came from the opposite side of the meadow, but Russ thinks it might be behind us…but he’s not sure.
We decide to sprint across the meadow to close some distance and try to draw him down from the trees above. Russ offers to do the calling while I sneak up into the steep woods to intercept the bull. Not gonna happen. As I go sneaking into the woods, we get the same bugle and chuckle, only now it’s coming from the side of the meadow we were just on! It occurs to me that the bull was actually behind us (as Russell previously thought) and his bugle was reflecting off of the wall of trees across the meadow (where we are now). In other words, we’re on the wrong side. Oh well, we’re here now, and in a millisecond my role changes from hunter to caller in hopes of drawing the bull back across the meadow towards Russell who’s waiting at the meadow’s edge.
I am completely energized by this, certain that I can coax the bull in. I run farther up into the dark woods and make more calls. I want to make the big bull think I’m a little bull running off with the cows. The bull keeps responding to my calls, but the farther I go up the mountain, the more distant his bugle sounds. He knows something isn’t right and is not coming any closer—smart bull. I blow more calls, then grab a tree branch and begin smashing the limbs off a dead tree, attempting to mimic a frustrated bull tearing up a tree with his antlers. Next, I grab a bunch of large rocks and roll them down the hill to mimic hoof sounds. There’s no hesitation; this craziness is absolutely necessary to convince the bull that I’m a herd of elk. But all remains quiet, and I’m afraid he’s not buying it.
BOOM, anther bugle sounds, only now it’s coming from farther up the meadow. The bull has outsmarted us and is moving away, skirting just inside the tree line on the opposite side of the meadow. I run through the trees on my side, paralleling his movements and stopping occasionally to make cow calls. His response is becoming less frequent. I have no idea where Russ is at this point, so it’s every hunter for himself. Russ tells me later how he crossed back to the bull’s side of the meadow in attempt to close some distance.
At mid-meadow I’ve managed to mirror the bull’s movements according to his calls. The sun has dropped behind the mountain and darkness looms. My chances of ever seeing the bull shrinking by the minute. Oh well, the excitement thus far is more than you could ask for from any hunt. But it’s not over yet; I blow more calls, break more sticks, and roll more rocks. The next bugle is very loud and much closer. I can’t believe it; the bull has entered the meadow and is coming my way! Quickly I begin my descent towards the meadow’s edge. Fifty yards from the meadow, another bugle erupts and I freeze. Through an opening I see a massive, tan elk body and dark antlers moving through the meadow below me. My eyes widen; my heart races. I don’t have to count tines. This is a wily old herd bull—a real monarch.
At the edge of the meadow there’s a giant pine tree that I can keep between me and the bull. When I get there, I crouch behind the massive trunk and mess of lower branches. From this vantage I am able to see not one, but two elk; the big noisy bugle-boy and a smaller elk (probably a cow) holed up on the opposite side of the meadow. The bull is walking back and forth in the middle of the meadow. I hear Russell’s estrus cow call farther down-meadow and I’m relieved. It keeps the wary bull interested and distracts him from his even warier cow. The big bull turns and walks towards Russ, then changes his mind and walks back towards the cow. I take a yardage measurement: he’s 114 yards away; twice the distance I need for a clean shot. To make things worse, the cow turns and trots back towards the trees with the big bull following quickly behind. This guy’s about to exit the meadow altogether and in ten minutes my sight pins go dark. Pointing my elk calls toward the forest behind me, I start making desperate cow calls. The bull pauses, looks in my direction, then slowly turns and begins zigzagging towards me. He’s in no hurry and keeps stopping to look around. When he stops, I let out a call: estrus, bugle, mew, bugle, mew, estrus—whatever keeps him coming. This intense game of cat and mouse is working! Half-way across the meadow he lowers his head and tears at the ground with his giant rack, ripping up grass and mud and tossing it in the air. Frustrated and ready to fight, he keeps coming steadily towards my calls. He’s almost within bow range now. Kneeling behind the big pine tree, I’m frozen like a statue with one crazy eyeball peeking through the branches.
After nearly two hours of this craziness, I’m again focused and calm. Closer and closer the bull comes, staring right through me. I can’t range him; I can’t even move. His head goes down and my rangefinder goes up. It reads forty yards exactly. But as I raise my bow ever so slightly, he catches the movement, jumps, and whirls away. The charade is up; I’m busted! Desperately I blast another cow call from my Hoochie-Mama. He stops and looks back. Unsure of what I am, he veers left and starts quartering away quickly. It’s now or never. I figure he’ll probably see me draw my bow, but it’s my only chance. The sight pins scroll over his ribs, 20, 30, 40, 50; 50 yards is about right. Through a little twelve-inch opening in the branches, my arrow is off, streaking through the growing darkness.
THUMP. A strange sound rings out and the elk takes off trotting through the meadow. I didn’t see where my arrow went, but it sounded like a hit. Immediately, I blow a couple shaky estrus calls. The bull slows down and glances back at me occasionally as he continues away. Did I miss? About eighty yards into the meadow the bull suddenly jumps to his right like he’s losing balance, takes two more steps and just tips over. A weird cloud of surrealism washes over me. When I see that he’s not getting up, I burst from my cover and run into the meadow yelling, “HE’S DOWN! HE’S DOWN!”
Russ yells back from across the meadow, “WHAT?”
“HE’S DOWN! I GOT HIM!”
Russ appears running through the meadow towards me. “WHERE?” he shouts.
“Right there in the middle of the meadow; that’s him,” I say, pointing to a light colored pile sticking up out of the grass.
We exchange a very excited high-five and begin poring over a myriad of questions, trying to make sense of the last two hours. As we approach the mighty beast, I’m still in a daze. Russ begins counting tines, “Five-by-six,” he says. I have to reach out and touch one of the massive antlers to convince myself it’s real—but it doesn’t work. This situation, the intensity, the timing, the sheer lethality of a perfectly placed shot—the whole event is unquantifiable. There’s no way to ground my thoughts and feelings in an impossible situation that I don’t even trust. I give Russ my camera for documentary reasons, like when you see a UFO or Sasquatch. It’s not until I sit upon the bull’s massive body and feel its warmth in the cold night air that I feel a connection with reality again.
The arrow hit just behind the last rib, angled perfectly through the vitals, and lodged in the opposite front shoulder just under the hide. An absolutely perfectly placed arrow at fifty yards adds even greater mystery to a perfect hunt that still perplexes me today. Admittedly, I am a decent shot, but under that kind of pressure, not to mention shooting through tree branches and low light, maybe I was just lucky. To my credit, I think my year-long practice paid off. Too many botched shots on the previous year’s deer hunt caused me to obsess over shot placement all year long. And in the process of refining my skills, archery evolved from a fun hobby-sport to a way of life.
As we quartered the animal out by headlamp, I mentioned to Russ that this hunt had happened on a razor’s edge of perfection. It couldn’t have happened any other way; there were just too many variables. For example, a week-and-a-half earlier I had taken a perfect, fifty-yard broadside shot at a deer and missed wildly, only to learn that my new broadheads flew erratically outside of thirty yards. Thus, I replaced them right before this hunt. On that same hunt, I put a stalk on a small bull and was ready to take a forty yard shot when the wind changed and blew the herd out. Had the wind been different just a week earlier, none of this would have happened.
Special thanks are in order to the following people who made this hunt possible: Mom and Dad for packing the meat off the mountain, Brent for letting me use all his fancy camping gear, and Russell for all the extra elk calling, water filtering, meat hanging, and BS’ing. Unlike deer hunting, elk hunting is a great opportunity to spend quality time with family and friends in the great outdoors.
(Story published in Huntin’ Fool Magazine, Aug. 2011, Vol.16, Issue 8)
Drop-Tine Obsession: My Droptine Buck Hunting Story
I first spotted the great buck, which I simply called ‘The Drop-Tine,’ during the 2008 season while bow hunting a heavily hunted public area of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Northern Utah (known as Monte Cristo by the locals). He was the most amazing buck I’d ever seen, with a wide sweeping rack and long matching club-like droptines hanging down below his ears. I had been exploring foreign hillsides all morning when I bumped him from his bed at the edge of some pines. As he quartered away I was able to get a quick shot off, but in my haste I misjudged the distance and the arrow flew low. The arrow hit some dead-fall in front of him, arrow shattered, twirled through the air, and bounced off the deer’s rump. I merely spanked him, and then he was gone. Having never seen a buck of this magnitude in the wild, and on public land for that matter, I became instantly obsessed. But for the remainder of the season I was unable to relocate him.
Monte Cristo is your standard north/south rocky mountain range in Northern Utah. It has everything mule deer love: tall mountains covered in aspen and pine trees, endless steep canyons and ridges, and rolling sagebrush hills. Water is scarce in most places, but adequate enough to support plenty of deer and elk. For decades Monte Cristo was one of Utah’s premier deer hunting spots, but in recent years, deer populations have declined drastically due to high hunting pressure and diminishing winter range. With very few peaks from which to glass and covered in dense timber, Monte Cristo is not a spot-and-stalk area. Big bucks are only found by busting brush in steep wooded areas, making it very difficult to locate them with any consistency.
In 2009 I planned to exclusively hunt The Drop-Tine for six days, beginning where I left off in 2008. But the great monarch managed to elude me up until the third evening when he busted out of some trees 40 yards above me, stood for a second atop a sagebrush knoll silhouetted against a twilight sky, and then disappeared before I could raise my bow.
By the sixth and last day I was getting desperate. My plan was to carefully still-hunt the entire mile-long ridge where he lived, as well as the adjacent canyon. For twelve hours I snuck slowly through the woods without rest, glassing every inch for antler. But he was nowhere to be found. Both physically and mentally exhausted, I was ready to give up. With my head hung low, I turned back towards camp. Seconds later, as I rounded the end of the ridge, The Drop-Tine suddenly exploded from a bed 40 yards below me in a thicket of trees. Through a cloud of dust I watched the big barrel-bodied deer bound away. I could hear him running for half a mile down the canyon and up the other side. I thought I was going to cry as I plopped down on a dusty game trail and dug my GPS out of my backpack. That day he had bedded half a mile from the last place I saw him. How do you hunt a deer that doesn’t move in the open during daylight, that is never found in the same place twice, showing up anywhere at random like a ghost? The wise old buck lived a life without pattern; that is how he had eluded hunters for so long.
The 2009 season was over; time to throw in the towel. Every night for the following year, when I turned out the lights before bed, the image of The Drop-Tine silhouetted against the sky would pop into my head. I lay awake night after night pondering the mistakes I’d made and planning new strategies for taking the mystical beast the following year. I was Ahab, and he was my white whale.
In the summer of 2010, as soon as the snow melted off the mountain, I went scouting for The Drop-Tine, but was never able to locate him. A week before the August archery opener, my brother Brent spotted The Drop-Tine while checking trail-cams in the area. Those trail cameras, by the way, never did capture the ghost’s image. Back home, the ‘Great Recession’ was taking its toll on my small photography business, leaving me with a lot more time than money. So, I used this to my advantage, planning to hunt The Drop-Tine on two separate trips totaling ten days.
The archery opener started off slowly. But on the fourth morning, while sneaking to one of The Drop-Tine’s old beds, he, along with two smaller bucks busted out of a new bed fifty yards below me. That was the last time I saw him that week. A second 5-day outing the following week turned up nothing, and I finally accepted the fact that the old buck had grown tired of my chasing him and moved to another area. At that point I had no choice but to give up. He was a deer beyond my caliber for sure, and I had already wasted way too much time and too many tags pursuing him. I thought about all the other hunting opportunities I’d sacrificed while chasing just one deer and was ready to make peace with my failure once and for all.
The next weekend, which happened to be the last day of the archery deer season, my girlfriend (now my wife) Esther and I embarked on a two-day elk hunt into the same area, but on a neighboring ridge where I’d seen more elk sign. Our objective was cow and spike elk, but on the drive up all I could think about was The Drop-Tine and how dejected I was. Esther lent a sympathetic ear to my rant:
“No one’s going to kill that buck. He’s gonna die of old age in a field one winter and there’s nothing I can do about it.” I didn’t digress. “I wish I’d never seen him, at least then I could enjoy deer hunting again. And yet, I’ll return again next year to chase a ghost through empty woods. I have no choice…”
The next morning we woke before light and snuck into the elk area, setting up on opposite ends of a steep timber swathe used as a bedding area between feeding areas. As I sat watching the big September sun rise slowly above the horizon, all was quiet, nothing stirred. I was beginning to question our setup when suddenly my eyes caught the motion of wide antler tips swaying through the brush 50 yards downhill. Great, the elk herd is moving in, I thought as I raised my binoculars. But through the glass a deer’s head appeared, then two huge drop-tines! I couldn’t believe it. Three years and eighteen total days spent hunting for this creature, and now here he was, walking right towards me!
The buck followed slowly behind a sparse line of pine trees, offering no shot. I began frantically searching for a shooting lane when I suddenly realized that the tree line he was following ended abruptly right in front of me. If he kept his course, he’d pop out 20 yards in the open! A quick glance at grass to my left indicated the wind was starting to swirl. This is never going to happen, I thought. He’s too close. But the buck kept coming, slowly and cautiously at first, then picking up speed.
At that point I was a nervous wreck; my hands were shaking uncontrollably and my heart pounded so loudly that I was certain the buck would hear it too. In a full panic I glanced down at a sticker on my old Browning bow which reads, Stay Calm, Pick a Spot. Okay, at least I can pick a spot, I thought as I drew my bow back. A second later the buck’s shoulder appeared and the arrow was off; I don’t even remember releasing it. As the huge buck spun and blasted out of sight, I caught a glimpse of my orange-fletched arrow sticking out of his side.
Everything was suddenly quiet again, as if nothing had happened. I sat dumbfounded for a second, awash in a swirling mix of dumfounded disbelief coupled with adrenaline screaming throughout my body. In an instant, I dropped my bow and went sprinting back through the woods towards Esther. She hopped out from behind a stand of pines, bewildered by the sight of a crazy man flailing towards her. “I just shot my Drop-Tine!” I yelled. At that moment, The Drop-Tine had finally become My Drop-Tine.
A tedious, half-hour tracking job over a sparse blood trail eventually led to the downed deer. The arrow had pierced both lungs, but the huge buck still covered 150 yards in great leaps and bounds down a nearly vertical slope. He expired on a steep, brushy slope, landing on top of his sprawling antlers which anchored him from sliding down the mountain. At the sight of the downed deer, a sense of relief and accomplishment came over me which can never be explained. After three years of failure, my wildest dream had come true, and I was finally liberated from my obsession.
Still in a daze, Esther and I pried the mighty buck free of the tangle and marveled at his majesty. I’d watched, even in fleeting glimpses, as The Drop-Tine grew bigger and more spectacular than I ever could have imagined.
The Drop-Tine’s rack measured nearly 33-inches wide and gross-scored 200 5/8 (194 6/8 net P&Y).
In this article I’m going to address weight issues. I’m not talking about body fat; if that’s an issue then it’s a personal problem. No, today I’m talking about unnecessary items we carry into the field, and which are most likely hampering our success.
Utah offers a great opportunity for bowhunters who still have unused archery tags at the end of the general season. It’s called the Wasatch Extended Archery Hunt. The “extended hunt” runs from the middle of September clear through the middle of December, and encompassing the entire Wasatch Front, and even the entire deer rut. I usually see more giant bucks during the extended hunt than the whole general season and scouting trips combined. The biggest downside to the extended hunt—particularly in November and December—is the steepness of the terrain coupled with deep snow and cold weather.
In late November, 2012, I hunted the extended hunt for a few days alone. There’s always a little apprehension when venturing into those steep and freezing mountains alone. No one knows ever knows exactly where I’ll end up, including myself. To feel safer that year, I brought tons of extra gear including extra clothing, food, water, hand warmers, boots, and even some reading materials for when I got bored. In other words I over-packed, and that was a big mistake. Instead of taking three hours to drag my sled up to camp, it took five and I didn’t get to bed until 1:00 am. For the duration of the trip, my legs cramped, I blew through my water, ate more food, and had to rest more frequently. Although it was warmer than previous years, I was more tired and miserable. Miraculously I arrowed a nice buck two days later, but with so much new weight, I had to leave half my gear on the mountain and return the next day to retrieve it. Not fun!
In 2013 I returned to the same spot alone, only this time I brought my brain. Before the trip I went over the list of junk I hauled up the mountain last year and then crossed out almost half of it. Most of that ‘extra stuff’ served only to make me feel safer and had no real use for hunting. Some of the items included extra food, extra water (I could just filter water as I went and /or eat snow), extra boots, a pillow, books, propane, extra knives, hand warmers, utensils, batteries, archery tools, a handgun, extra flashlights, lighters, etc. I also noticed that my big, leather hunting belt weighed twice as much as my skinny “church belt,” so I wore that one instead. I even cut the tags off my clothes and the handle off my toothbrush. All in all, I probably removed 30% of my pack weight, and man did it pay off. I got up the mountain in record time, ate less, and covered more ground than ever before. You’d be surprised at how difficult it is to be quiet while carrying a heavy day pack. In the end, I didn’t miss any of the junk I left home. Well, at first I did miss my handgun once I learned there was an active cougar den with kittens only 300 yards of my tent!
For most people, it’s hard to believe that such small items matter that much. But in truth, these items have a compounding effect. You never know which erroneous item will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Weight is especially a negative factor when hunting in snow. More than anything else, a pair of heavy boots will fatigue you in the snow. For years I had two boot options for various weather conditions. One pair is a heavy, high-top, insulated cold-weather boot, and the other is a lightweight, breathable, un-insulated stalker-style boot. In 20I3 I stopped using the heavy boots altogether. What I found was the heavy boots always got too hot, primarily because of the amount of steep terrain I was covering. They were also noisy and very heavy compared to my stalker boots. Now, the stalker boots weighed only half as much (similar to tennis shoes), but there were two minor drawbacks. First, my feet always got cold when I wasn’t moving, and second, they had minimal traction-tread. To counteract the cold, I simply wore two layers of wool socks. As for traction, I simply used a pair of lightweight ice cleats which worked wonders in the snow.
The next time you return from a grueling backcountry bowhunt, empty everything in your backpack onto the living room floor, and then make a list of everything you didn’t use. Is there still a tag on your tent? Why did you pack it into the woods? Were you going to eat it? Is there half a tube of toothpaste left in your toiletries pocket? Why did you pack extra paste?
Weight is everything; that’s what I learned in 2013. And surprise, surprise, fear is your worst enemy. Fear is why we over-pack. The more afraid we are of the mountain, the more extra stuff we cram in our packs; you know, just in case… And then there’s the great gear paradox: the more we fear failure, the more hunting gear we carry around in our daypacks. Bowhunters, heed my plead: You are the predator, not the crap on your back. You are too be feared, not the mountain. All that extra weight is an anchor keeping you from your goal. Pack light. Don’t be your own worst enemy. Be prepared, not over-prepared.
Three years ago I took my son Jake to the Sawtooth Range in Northwestern Utah for his first muzzleloader deer hunt. It was a bust. There were too many people and not enough deer.
While bowhunting on Monte Cristo last year I stumbled upon a promising new area that very few people know about. There’s a nice feeding meadow atop a steep slope there. The first day I stumbled across 3-point buck feeding leisurely, but passed on him in hopes that Jake would find it during the fall muzzleloader season.
In September (2011) I took Jake to that little meadow, but lo, there was no 3-point. Instead, there was a giant, heavy racked 4-point bedded near the opposite side of the meadow’s edge. At the same instance we spotted him, he spotted us and stood up, offering a perfect broadside shot at only 75 yards. Well, Jakey had only practiced shooting square targets, and as much as he struggled to get this mighty beast in his sights, he just couldn’t. Frantically, I whispered, “SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT…” But didn’t. Instead, the buck turned and disappeared into the trees. At that point I almost blew my lid. “WHY, WHY didn’t you shoot?!” I implored. Jake replied, “I couldn’t see it in my sights good enough.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but what could I say? I was a frazzled mess as we trudged back down the hill towards camp. The next day was a bust and we went home empty-handed.
The following year, in spring of 2012, I went to Sportsman’s Warehouse and bought Jake a life-size, cardboard deer target. Never again would he shoot a square, paper target. A square target looks nothing like a deer or anything else you’d find in the wild. So, he practiced on that deer-shaped target during the summer while we made plans to return to Monte Cristo and our secret little feeding meadow in fall.
On the second evening of the hunt, we climbed up the mountain and sat in the trees at the edge of the meadow. A little while later, just as the evening light was fading, we heard a rustling in the brush. Sure enough, a respectable 3×4 buck with tall antlers slowly materialized at only 75 yards away. It wasn’t the same great buck as before, but it was good enough. Jake got into shooting position, but the cover was too thick for a shot. Fortunately, the buck continued feeding along and started walking right towards us! At fifty yards the buck suddenly jerked its head up as it recognized us as humans. Jake was ready and shot. As the smoke cleared, we could see the big deer prancing down the hill unscathed. We walked over to where the buck was standing and there was no blood. Jake missed it, plain and simple. This time I wasn’t upset and just asked him what went wrong. After thinking about it for a minute, he figured he must have dropped the gun at the shot, causing the bullet to travel beneath the buck. In other words, he didn’t follow through. At that moment, the feeding meadow would forever be called, “The Learning Meadow,” as Jake was learning some valuable lessons there.
Monte Cristo is tough! The next day, there were no bucks anywhere near the Learning Meadow. Another lesson: you can’t shoot at a deer one day and expect him to return the next. On Monday, we sat in a promising new area with lots of deer sign. But Monte sucks, and we saw no bucks. Shooting light was fading fast when we decided pack it up and move uphill towards the Learning Meadow. Maybe we could catch a last minute buck out in the open. As we approached the top of the draw opposite the Learning Meadow, a deer suddenly jumped out of the trees right in front of us and bounded across the open sagebrush hillside. Right away, I could tell it was a buck; a small buck, but a legal buck nonetheless. I asked Jake if he wanted to shoot it, and he said yes. Unfortunately, the buck was bounding directly away from us and offering no shot. Jake dropped to one knee while I set up the shooting sticks, just in case it stopped. Near the top of the ridge, 120 yards away, the buck paused and turned broadside. Jake was ready. Through a cloud of white smoke we watched the buck drop straight down like a sack of potatoes. Neither of us could believe it!
Jake’s eyes were wide with excitement as he stood over his beautiful trophy. I congratulated him and told him I was proud. The buck fell only a hundred yards from the Learning Meadow. Later that night, we dragged that little buck right through the Learning Meadow on our way back to camp. We took a break there. The meadow was dark and mysterious, but the lessons Jake learned were still there, burning bright as day.
In this lesson you will learn how to properly release an arrow.
Nocking an Arrow
The end of the arrow has a notch in it called a nock. The nock attaches to the string just below a “nocking point.” The nocking point is a fixed point on the string that aligns the arrow with the bow for every shot. On most bows, the nocking point is a small brass bead clamped onto the string. The arrow nocks–or locks–onto the string right below the nocking point.
With traditional archery (longbows and recurves), the arrow has three feathers, and one of the feathers is a different color. This is called the cock feather. When you nock an arrow, be sure the cock feather always points out. This keeps the arrow from deflecting off the bow.
With compound bows, the orientation of the cock “vane” (compound bows have plastic vanes, not feathers) depends on your arrow rest. The most common arrow rest for compound bows is the drop-away rest. With drop-away rests, the cock vane isn’t important as there is no contact with the bow. With other types of rests like the one I use, called the Whisker Biscuit (see photo below), the cock vane must point up. The Whisker Biscuit has stiff bristles on the bottom side which help support the arrow, and the vanes must clear these.
The last step is to acquire an anchor point. The anchor point is two or more spots on your face where some part of your release hand, arrow, string, or release aid contacts your face. Anchor points are vitally important to consistent shooting and accuracy. Therefore you must establish consistent anchor points from the get-go.
Anchor points are different for everyone, but the most common are:
string on the tip of your nose
a finger touching the corner of your mouth
side of thumb touching your jaw bone
arrow fletching touching the face
When shooting any bow, I make sure the string touches the tip of my nose and the side of my thumb touches the back of my jaw.
Note: In beginning archery, many of my students are afraid to have string contact with their face. This is totally unwarranted. Remember, when you release the arrow, all that energy leaves your face unscathed.
Finally, we’re ready to shoot an arrow!
How to Release the Arrow
Here are my quick steps to releasing an arrow:
Nock an arrow on the string below the nocking point. You should hear a soft “click” as it locks onto the string.
Grasp the string with three fingers. Your three fingers will hook onto the string somewhere between your first and second finger joints. If you are shooting a compound, ignore this step and simply attach your release aid to the D-loop.
Pull the string across your chest, not towards it, and align the string with your eye. In essence, you should split the target with the string and look down the arrow to aim, but keeping your focus on the target, not the arrow.
Back tension release: As you draw the bow, your back muscles are doing all the work. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you bring the string to your face.
Establish your anchor points.
Release the arrow. Release happens as you simply open your hand. With a compound bow, you simply touch the trigger.
Aim with the point of your arrow while looking through the string. With a compound bow, place the appropriate sight pin on the target.
Follow through. Without proper follow-through, you’re dead in the water. Follow through means that both arms (bow arm and release arm) continue in opposite directions at the shot. This is called “finishing the shot.” Your release hand should continue backwards (not up or out) towards your ear. The last thing you should feel is your release hand brushing past your face and touching your ear. This will reduce oscillation and increase accuracy.
Archery is a complex skill that cannot be mastered in a day, any more than other muscle-memory skills such as golf or skiing. In the movies they make it look easy, and many of my students have the misconception that they can pick up a bow and start shooting simply by mimicking what they’ve observed. But without spending a lot of time on the basics, you’ll immediately develop bad habits which take a long time to break.
Accuracy comes from focusing on each step, one at a time. After many hours–maybe even months–these steps will gradually become one subconscious step called FORM. Once proper form is established, your only focus will be on aiming. This is should be your goal.
For previous steps on the archery shot sequence, see:
The release arm, (aka the string arm or shooting arm), is the arm/hand that holds the string while drawing the bow. If you are right handed, then it’s your right hand.
In traditional archery you have the option of wearing a shooting glove or finger tab to protect your first three fingers (index, middle, and ring finger). Although it is perfectly fine to shoot with bare fingers on a light-poundage bow, it can be very painful with a heavier-poundage bow.
All modern compound bows should be shot with a mechanical release aid. Unlike traditional bows (longbows and recurves), compound bows are designed to be shot in-line. With traditional bows, the string will oscillate side to side as it rolls off your fingers. This is normal, and the arrow will correct itself in flight. With compound bows, the arrow leaves the bow at a much higher speed and therefore, oscillation will cause the arrow to shed speed and energy as it tries to re-adjust itself in flight. Therefore, the arrow should be shot with minimal or no oscillation. In order to accomplish this, the arrow connects to the string in a D-loop tied onto the string and the release aid attaches to the D-loop. This keeps the shooters arm, release, and the arrow pinch point in perfect line with the arrow and reduces oscillation.
As an aside, my person favorite release is the Fletcher .44 Caliper Release. This is the smoothest, most reliable, and least expensive release I’ve used.
With traditional archery, you have two options for grasping the string: a) one finger above/two below the arrow nock, or b) three fingers below the nock. The advantage to having three fingers below is that it brings the arrow closer to your eye which helps with aiming. I’ve personally found that three fingers below dramatically increases my accuracy. Try both and see what works best.
How many times have you heard that? “Keep up the good fight!” What the heck does it mean?
In my last post, I wrote about adversity and how each year, right before the bowhunt, the metaphoric ‘steely claws’ tighten their grip, making life downright miserable. As this disrupts my focus on the hunt—the one thing I fight for all year long—then I have no choice but to fight back. So today, I’m addressing the good fight.
My research tells me that ‘the good fight’ is a reference to the biblical figure, Paul, who said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7) Though once a Christian reference, the good fight now refers to anyone who fights for what they believe in.
For me, the good fight is the fight against evil or any unfair person or entity. It’s the fight against selfishness and those who unfairly take advantage of others. It’s the fight against governmental intrusion into our personal lives, over-taxation, ignorance, and general stupidity. I fight against anyone who tries to steal or destroy my feedom, property, or peace of mind. Sometimes I simply fight weeds in my garden or insects in my house. I fight daily for my tiny little space on this planet.
Now, let’s get back to the Christian reference. In Christianity there’s a whole lot of gospel about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and basically maintaining the peace. I like that…but it doesn’t apply here. After all, Paul was a fighter. He fought the good fight (whatever that was), and ever since, Christians have been fighting against something, whether it was persecution, evil, or for our country’s freedom. Occasionally throughout history, Christians even went looking for a fight, as was the case with the Crusades and the Thirty Years’ War. The point is, good people always have and always will fight for what they believe in. That’s the good fight!
Years ago I was on a bowhunt and minding my own business. I returned to my truck one night and found that someone had cut up my back tires with a knife. Long story short, I was lucky to get off the mountain. For a long while, I was filled with pure hatred and ready to fight. But with no known assailant or motive, I wasn’t allowed to fight, nor was allowed to forgive. Thus, the fight stuck with me for a long time.
As with any marriage, my wife and I occasionally have a good ol’ fashioned brawl. We’re both somewhat bull-headed and prone to skirmishes. But later, after we’ve made up, she tells me how she hates fighting. And in a jovial way, I tell her that I love fighting! Fighting is how you resolve problems and address relationship-corroding issues. Like it or not, fighting is progress. After a good fight we usually feel better. It’s just a matter of perspective, I guess.
In the recent past, I had two conversations about the good fight with two different people with whom I’m close to. They are both good people, but had exact opposite opinions. The first person said something along the lines of, “You shouldn’t fight! It’s a waste of energy. Instead, lie low and stay out off the radar. That’s what you need to do to protect yourself and your family.”
At first this made a little sense. But after further contemplation, I realized I’d never heard anything more selfish and stupid. His argument admits there will always be evil, but we shouldn’t do anything to stop it. What a pile of crap! In his defense, he was trying to convince me not to be a martyr; not to waste my energy fighting “the system,” a battle which I can never win. But I still disagree.
The second person I talked to is a fighter. He believes you should always fight. He actively fights against liberalism, stupidity, government intrusion, over-taxation, corruption, and any other kind of evil on a daily basis. He’s a family man, a devout father, and a Christian. He’s humble and kind and one of the few great people I know.
I say fight the good fight! Fight evil where you can. Avenge the evil done unto the innocent. Hunt the hunters. Any person or entity that exacts purposeful harm onto another person should be fought.
By absorbing all the pain caused by unchecked aggression, you invite despair, depression, and madness into your life. When I was a kid, my dad said, “If anyone bully’s you at school, I want you to punch them square in the nose as hard as you can. Don’t worry about getting in trouble; I’ll back you up.” Now, my dad was a very peaceful person, but he knew that by allowing myself to be bullied would set my life up for failure.
Kids these days are encouraged NEVER to fight back. When my son was very young, I told him to fight back against bully who hurt him. Much to my chagrin, he refused adamantly, pleading that it was ‘against the rules.’ This pacifism attitude is very unhealthy in the long run, as well as completely un-natural. Without the fight, some kids eventually absorb so much mental torture that they crack, and one day they bring a gun to school and kill a bunch of innocent people. And every time this happens, society divides the blame into three categories: 1) blame the gun, 2) blame the bully, and 3) blame mental illness. The truth is: BLAME SOCIETY for teaching the kids NEVER to fight.
In conclusion, life can turn on you in a second. There is too much evil and too many controlling mechanisms all collaborating against you. Happiness is fleeting and no one is immune to calamity. By ignoring the good fight—by allowing blatant evil to thrive—you indirectly hurt the innocent. It reminds me of a quote by Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Evil thrives in a pacific society that teaches kids never to fight. Fighting back is healthy and natural. If you never fight, you’ll eventually lose your freedom, and then your mind.
So, this is a good year; my worst was 2008. I won’t get into the specifics, but rather what I learned as a result of determined contemplation of what adversity means:
Life is made up of three controlling mechanisms. They are as follows:
Constants: Things you cannot change: i.e. genetics, age, physiology, general appearance, I.Q., gender, etc.
Controls: Circumstances or occurrences that are out of your control: i.e. accidents, illness, other people, the economy, death, etc.
Variables: Things which you have control over: i.e. attitude, lifestyle, relationships, career, extracurricular activities, etc.
These three mechanisms of control dictate our daily struggle, mind-set, attitude, and ultimately our success. We can control some things, and are controlled by others. But what I want to focus on today is the greatest enemy of peace, which is Controls. Controls is the great fear and the great unknown. It can change your life in a second and you never see it coming. It is the finger of God. It is fate.
Some may argue that our attitude can eliminate the effects of controls, or that our happiness is purely dictated by our negative reaction to stressful events. This is the case when, say, your car breaks down or you catch a cold. But if your son gets flattened by a garbage truck or your house burns down, well, positive thinking won’t help much, at least not in the short run. You are no longer in control, but being controlled.
So what can you do to avoid controls?
Nothing. You don’t have to like it; flee from it if you can. We are justified in fearing Controls. You can never control the Controller. But when crap happens, fight it if you can, embrace it if you can’t. Turn tragedy into action, not reaction, and you’ll get through it, eventually, and be stronger for it.
You will always have controls. This is how we learn and grow; this is the purpose of life. There is no pleasure without pain. The knife is honed by friction.