The next two articles address the future of hunting and the changes I predict will happen to both hunters and their prey through the natural processes of adaptation and evolution.
The Future of Hunting (Part 1)
Rest assured hunting will change in the future, just as it has been changing rapidly over the last 10 or 20 years. The three primary factors driving these changes: a) an exploding human population, b) the development of super high-tech hunting equipment, and c) the hyper-adaptation of prey-animals which is necessary for their survival, especially with elk and deer.
What’s been occurring, and will continue to occur is a split–or chasm–developing between hunters and super-hunters. Hunters will either do what it takes to get a buck, or they will fail most of the time. Most hunters can be divided into two camps depending on their priorities. These two camps are: a) Super-hunters dedicated to the sport and willing to spend tremendous resources for trophy-class animals, or b) Fair-weather hunters who spend little time afield, hunt mostly for fun rather than food, hunt mostly on weekends, and are happy with any animal whether a spike or a 4-point.
A similar split is occurring between regular deer (and elk) and super-deer. This means that there will be isolated groups of younger, less experienced, and less pressured animals that react much like their ancestors did and get shot. The rest will adapt quickly to modern hunters, develop much more specialized bodies, and evade the average hunter for life.
In this article we’re going to focus on the changes that I predict will occur, or are occurring, in today’s deer and elk:
Future Changes in Deer
Deer will become completely nocturnal. The reason you see more deer at evening and morning is because they’re most active at night. But if left undisturbed, deer will occasionally rise and feed during the day. In the future, not so much. Deer’s eyes are already adapted to see well at night, but in the future I predict that their eyesight will become further specialized to low-light conditions. The trade-off is that their eyes will become highly light-sensitive, causing them to bed even farther into super-deep/dark timber and never emerge until it’s completely dark. So much for seeing deer early and late.
Deer will grow narrower racks. This is already the case in places like Oregon and Washington where the bucks live in dense timber most of the time. But if all western deer adopt a nocturnal lifestyle, they will be forced to move more frequently through dense timber and thus grow narrow racks.
Deer will grow longer legs, similar to elk. Deer naturally have a difficult time moving through deep snow; basically anything over 30 inches. Because of this, deer–unlike elk–are forced to winter on lower elevations. The detrimental problem is that humans have developed almost all winter range elevations, especially here in Utah. And any deer forced to winter in low elevations is highly susceptible to death via highways, dogs, poachers, destruction of native forage, and overall human-induced winter-time stress which forces deer to burn up all their fat reserves before spring green-up. As this is a fairly recent phenomenon, today’s deer haven’t had time to develop bigger bodies and longer limbs which would allow them to winter much higher up…but they will!
Deer will grow bigger hooves. Until recently, deer haven’t lived in very cliffy or rocky terrain. But they are starting to. Today’s animals, with their dwindling habitat, the threat of long-range rifles, and increased hunter pressure, are forced into some very unnatural and rugged terrain. My brother-in-law Josh actually found bucks living in and around caves in the unit where he hunts. Have you ever noticed how small a deer’s hooves are compared to cliff-dwelling species such as sheep or goats? As a taxidermist I have the unique opportunity of comparing characteristics between different species. Sheep and goats have approximately the same body mass as deer, but their feet are nearly twice as large. Other than size, another interesting difference between deer and goat hooves is the foot pad. The footpad of any hooved animal is made of a softer, cartilage-like material. But the goat’s hoof is much softer than the deer’s which allows goats to grip onto rocks easier. I predict that deer will develop not only bigger hooves, but softer ones too.
Deer will grow bigger brains. Any trophy hunter already knows how incredibly smart today’s bucks are, but they will become smarter yet! This is a simple law of nature: survival of the fittest/smartest. As humans develop smarter and smarter hunting technology, the deer will be forced to adapt. In an article from last year I wrote about all the different–seemingly ingenious ways–that deer have adapted to hunters just in my lifetime. Big bucks are using multiple levels of thinking to evade hunters. Some examples include using does as security buffers between open feed and treeline, moving into non-deer habitat such as caves, and using complex sentinel-based security systems.
Future Changes in Elk
Now let’s look at future changes in elk:
Elk will be silent, like deer! After just a few decades of calling to them, big bulls are becoming silent. This was the basis of the relatively recent invention of the “silent calling” technique, wherein modern bulls often approach without calling back to the hunter. Thirty years ago it was easy to bugle a bull in. As this became increasingly ineffective, we began cow calling to them. But even this technique is becoming increasingly ineffective. Bulls are beginning to mistrust any calls, and instead relying more on wind direction and scent to verify a threat. Also, as archery equipment becomes more innovative and effective, bulls are hanging up farther and farther back. Since both cow calls and bugles are the elk’s greatest weakness, I predict a time when elk are completely silent and use scent and wind direction to rut around–just as deer do.
Elk will grow narrower and smaller racks. Just like deer, elk will move deeper and deeper into the timber and will therefore grow narrower racks for easier travel through dense timber.
Elk will grow bigger ears. Relative to their bodies, elk ears are fairly small, albeit efficient. But as with mule deer, there’s always room for bigger ears. Since elk will become more timber-dwelling, and since sound doesn’t travel nearly as far in thick forests, elk will need bigger ears to funnel available sound waves.
Elk will develop better vision. Elk and deer eyes are practically the same: good night vision, wide field of vision, and sensitive to movement. But deer species’ eyes have two major weaknesses: a) they can’t see the color red, and b) they can’t see fine detail. This is why an elk can’t see you standing five feet away, unless you move. Of course they use their noses to make up for it, but their eyesight is still relatively weak compared to our own. So, in the future I predict the elk and deer will either develop the ability to see red, and/or their eyes will evolve to see better detail.
Elk will have smaller bodies. During the last ice age, animals had much bigger bodies. This allowed them to survive low temps, move through deep snow, and evade larger predators such as saber-tooth tigers. After the ice age animals got smaller. Today’s elk are relatively giant compared to other western big game animals. This is advantageous during winter, but for the rest of the year it hinders them in two primary ways: a) they need water more frequently, and b) they need to eat more, and more often. As any predator knows, it’s much easier to ambush an animal that’s feeding and watering. Unlike deer, this makes hunting elk over water a viable option. Also, because elk are grazing animals–rather than foraging animals–it’s easier to predict food sources and travel routes. In the future, smaller elk won’t need to water as often, and will likely adapt their palate to browse-type foods such as forbs/shrubs/etc. As a result, they will bed earlier, rise later, and probably become completely nocturnal as well.
Elk will grow smarter. I suppose they’re already kinda smart, but they’re getting much smarter. Last year, while hunting with my wife, we called up a herd bull using estrus calls. The bull came stomping in, and then, just before showing himself, pushed two cows right through us. When the cows passed the shooter they picked up her scent and bolted taking the bull with them. This well-thought-out security measure worked perfectly. Very admirable, but very disappointing. In the future I predict much more complicated hunter-evasion techniques by these highly adaptive animals.
For all of evolution, both predator and prey were forced to adapt to each other in order to survive. In today’s world, finding and harvesting a trophy animal is getting harder by the year. Today’s deer are ingenious survivors capable of adapting to us and evading us no matter what we throw at them. There are many factors at play, but it just proves that technology is not the answer. On the flip side, we should be thankful that our beloved deer are such brilliant survivors. Otherwise there would be nothing left to hunt, here in the future.
Stay tuned for the next article where we’ll analyze the future of hunting and the inevitable division between hunting camps. I think you’re gonna like it.
Travails from a Frozen Mountain: A Cold Weather Hunting Story
In 2013 I bagged a giant 200-inch buck. I was determined to repeat this feat in 2014. But dreaming too big doth a nightmare make!
The regular season was a frantic search for non-existent superbucks. The biggest buck I saw grossed well below 190”, and all told I passed up more than a dozen smaller four-points..
Fortunately, Utah offers an extended bowhunt which lasts from mid-September through November, and I’ve seen a few great bucks in recent years.
A week after the September general hunt ended I took a two day trip into the woods above Salt Lake City. I had both an unused elk tag and deer tag, as well as a floundering bowhunting blog dangerously void of hunting success. In the end, that trip sucked! Everywhere I’d seen deer in the past I found nothing but old tracks and other hunters. The biggest problem with the extended hunt is the pressure from hundreds of fools-like-myself who can’t get the job done in the regular season.
So I was patient and waited for November when the big deer come down from their snowy, high-country haunts to participate in the rut.
On November 5 I hiked a few miles up a steep canyon and pitched my tent beneath an old pine tree. For years this was the place to be during the rut. I once saw five 4-points all fighting for a small group of does. But this year there was very little snow, so I was a little skeptical.
I was feeling a little ill on my hike in. In bed that night I was suddenly gripped by a fever and sore throat. I tossed and turned all night, and by morning I was sick as hell. I went hunting anyway. Sadly, there wasn’t a single buck in the whole canyon. I spotted a couple decent elk in the distance, but passed them up in hopes of finding a good buck.
The second night was a disaster. I shivered and tossed all night with a full-body fever, sore throat, and coughing. I woke up dizzy and sore, but clambered out of my tent anyway. Determined to hunt through my illness, I somehow managed to hike even farther, covering 1000 vertical feet.
Finally, I spotted some deer rutting across a canyon: bits of antler, fur, and deer prancing around in the trees. Excitedly, I stood up, took two steps towards them, then reeling with dizziness, flopped back to the ground. My hunt ended right there. I dragged my bent-over body off the mountain, swaying like a zombie. Each step pounded in my head; every muscle and joint wrenched with pain. I passed a couple hikers on the way out. They said, “Hi,” and I could barely croaked out a sickly hello.
Ten days later I crawled out of bed and headed back up the mountain. Still weak and feeble, it took three hours to reach my lonely tent under the pine tree. The weather had turned bitterly cold that week. The cold air streaming down the canyon stung my exposed skin. This was going to be a cold hunt!
It was so cold that I could hear things freezing in my pack. By the time I crawled into bed, my water jugs were mostly frozen, my pile of boiled eggs froze solid in my pack and split open, my energy shots froze, as did my scent spray, Visene, and water filter. When I moved in the night, flakes of frozen condensation snowed down on me. I stuffed every bit of clothing I had into my sack and wore six layers of uppers including my down coat.
Cold be damned, by morning I was out hunting. I squinted through freezing eyeballs and couldn’t sit still very long before catching a chill. I wrapped a game bag around my neck and stuffed everything in my pack into my coat pockets just to trap in the heat. My lungs, heavy and tender from illness, coughed and wheezed in the frigid air.
There still wasn’t enough snow to push the deer down, so I hiked farther and farther up the canyon. On the evening of the second day, I finally located both elk and deer near the top. Unfortunately it got dark while trying to close the distance in the loud, crunchy snow.
I was planning to hunt three to four days, but was running dangerously low on food. I failed to anticipate the amount of calories my body would burn just to stay warm. On the third day I had no choice but to pull out early.
The following week, on November 22, I headed back for one more big push. The forecast called for heavy snow and blizzards, which I welcomed with open arms, hoping it would push the deer down lower.
The next morning, while hiking up the steep ridge above camp, the skies began to darken. Just as I was reaching the upper “elk zone”, I spotted movement way back down where my tent was. An entire herd of elk had moved in, including a few good bulls. Still trying to catch my breath, I began my descent. Halfway to the bottom, some damn hunter appeared and spooked the whole herd off.
It started snowing around this time. I followed the elk tracks for about a mile and a half until they left the canyon. Luckily I ran into a bunch of new deer tracks. The snow was really coming down and the wind howled through the aspens and pines. Pretty soon the unrelenting snow was blasting horizontally and stinging my eyeballs. I scrambled from pine tree to pine tree, ducking and diving for shelter from the blinding snow. It was late afternoon and I was nearly two miles from camp in a violent blizzard. The deer tracks soon disappeared under a fresh blanket of drifting snow, but at this point, shear survival took precedence over hunting.
Hoping to catch a break in the storm, I holed up under the bows of a huge pine tree. To pass time I pulled out my little video-poker game and poked away at the screen. I heard a shuffle nearby and looked up. Ten feet away stood a little 3×3 buck peering into my tree hollow and wishing I wasn’t there. He spooked out to 50 yards and stared back at me. Apparently I’d found the most coveted shelter in all the woods because that poor buck stood there for 20 minutes turning completely white in the snow. With the end of the season nigh, I considered shooting him, but changed my mind. I envisioned myself out there field-dressing the thing, and then having to climb into its body cavity for warmth. No thanks!
With the storm worsening and evening falling fast, I had no choice but to make a run for it. I headed straight into the blasting snow, but hadn’t gone very far when up ahead, through the murky twilight, I caught the movement of a big buck chasing some does. A second later the wind swirled and blew them out.
My knee was killing me as I hobbled into camp that night. My clothes were soaked and I was starving, but at least I’d brought extra food this time. Tomorrow would be better.
The blizzard didn’t let up all night. Every couple hours I’d wake up and bang snow off my collapsing tent. I slept in until about 9:00 when the storm finally broke and the sun lit up a winter wonderland as I’d never seen. I burrowed out of my tent and dug my bow out of snow. It was caked with ice and wouldn’t draw even one inch. I worked on de-icing it with my breath and hands throughout the day.
The snow was well over my knees as I trudged up the mountain in search of that big buck from the night before. Later on I spotted a group of deer way up high and spent several hours working towards them. The higher I climbed the deeper the snow got and eventually I was forced to abandon the stalk. Completely exhausted from plowing snow, all I could do was head for the trail at the bottom of the canyon. When I got there I was surprised to see a beautiful 4×4 buck chasing some does on a nearby slope. Finally, some hope!
While contemplating my approach, a dog appeared out of nowhere and began barking up a storm. There was a cross-country skier coming up the canyon and his dog had run ahead, noticed the deer and went crazy. The deer splashed away through the snow and out of sight. In my weary state I knew I could never catch up to the spooked deer. Disgusted and exhausted, I hiked back to camp, threw my tent in the sled, and headed for home.
On November 28, the weekend after Thanksgiving, me and every other hunter with a tag headed for the hills. The Black Friday hunting pressure had pretty much blown out the entire mountain; I never saw it so bleak! I hunted a different canyon that day, closer to the road. Partway up a side draw I jumped a little forked-horn buck. He ran to 50 yards and stopped, just in time to catch one of my arrows through his chest.
My last chance buck didn’t come anywhere near my 200-inch goal; hell, it barely broke 20-inches! But I gained something. Actually I gained a lot. I gained venison. I gained humility; grim humility bordering on disgrace. I also gained strength; both mental and physical strength beyond measure! Never again would anything be too difficult; never would any mountain seem too steep.
You might be wondering, would I do it all over again? The answer is a decisive YES, starting this November.
I’m going back through my video archives from previous hunts and posting them here. Here is some amazing, close-up elk footage from 2013. What a rush to be so close to such majestic and powerful animals!
(Story published in Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal, September/October 2013, Issue 79)
Elk Hunting’s Easy – My 2012 Utah Bull Elk Story
Elk hunting’s easy! Well, that’s what I tell my fellow bowhunters anyway. And they usually get a little irritated. But I’m only half-kidding. Compared to spot-and-stalking trophy mule deer, yes, elk hunting is easy. You can’t call mule deer; believe me, I’ve tried. But with enough practice (about ten years worth) you can call trophy elk. I ate ten tags in a row before I finally arrowed my first bull elk…but it was still kinda easy.
In 2012, after ten years of applying for the Beaver, Utah limited entry tag, I finally drew. It was probably the worst year I could have drawn since I’d just purchased a major fixer-upper house that spring. I had absolutely no time to scout the area and spent the entire summer swinging a hammer instead. But I wasn’t about to give up the tag I’d been waiting ten years for. Fortunately, my brother, Brent, had drawn a premium tag for the same unit in 2011. He’s crazy about elk–an absolute fiend–spending 30 days non-stop hunting over the entire unit. I spent a week calling for him that year, and the knowledge I gained from his hunt would prove invaluable for my own.
Surprisingly, my other brother, Russell, drew the same tag after only two years. So the plan was to hunt with him for one week in late August, and if we couldn’t get the job done, we’d return in September and hunt the last week too.
Elk hunting’s easy! At least that’s what I kept telling myself the first couple days as we hiked all over the high-altitude part of the unit without a single response from the elusive bulls. On the third day, Russ and I split up; I went high and he went low. A light rain started that night as I hiked alone into some high-alpine peaks. As soon as I got there, the downpour started. I couldn’t pitch my tent fast enough as lightning crashed all around me. To say it was a little unnerving would be an understatement. But hey, elk hunting’s easy, right?
The next morning I crawled out of my damp sleeping bag and began hiking and calling. But it was all for naught. There wasn’t a fresh sign in the whole area. As I was packing up my tent to leave, however, I heard what sounded like a half-hearted bugle way back down the mountain near a small saddle. I decided to investigate the area on my way out.
Sure enough I found some big, fresh tracks and droppings headed over the saddle and down the mountain. Since I was headed that way anyway, I decided to follow. I made several cow calls along the way, but got no response. Eventually I lost the tracks in some rocky terrain and gave up my futile chase. A couple minutes later, there was an explosion of elk below me as the whole herd blew out of the area. This confirmed my suspicion: the elk were in the area, but not vocal yet.
I met up with Russ a short time later and he we decided to try yet another area. That afternoon I borrowed the lone ATV to go retrieve my knife that I’d left on a tree stump back down the road. I made it about a mile down the roughest, rockiest trail ever when the ATV tire suddenly jolted off a small boulder, causing the machine to veer hard right and climb the steep bank. In about one second the ATV flipped over. Realizing I was about to be crushed underneath, I did a mid-air swan dive onto the rocky opposite bank while the ATV landed upside down behind me. I was bruised from head to toe, but relieved that I wasn’t dead. One of my ribs took the worst of it and for the rest of the week I couldn’t cough, sneeze, or even sit up in bed without excruciating pain. But, I wasn’t leaving the mountain; not without an easy elk anyway.
After a very discouraging fourth day, I left the mountain. The elk rut was happening yet and I wasn’t going to waste one more day calling to the trees. On my way down the mountain I blew a truck tire on the rocky road. No big deal; I had a spare tire. Then, half an hour later while driving down the highway, my truck began to shake violently as one of my rear tires shredded into a thousand pieces. Now I was stuck. I spent the rest of the day hiking to cell phone range and then getting towed back to town where I had the pleasure of shelling out nearly $1000 for a new set of tires. I thought elk hunting was supposed to be easy!
I returned two weeks later with my lovely wife (and elk caller), Esther. Since my first trip, I’d gotten a report from my brother that the lower elevation bulls were in full-rut mode. We drove to Beaver on Sunday evening, and on Monday morning we hiked a mile up the mountain and instantly had bulls bugling all around us. See, elk hunting is easy…sometimes. I probably could have arrowed an elk that morning but my poor caller (Esther) got lost behind me while I followed the herd up the mountain. Later that evening I found her back at camp and we were both a little frustrated. After educating her on the finer points of elk calling, we once again headed up the canyon. Only a quarter mile from camp, we blew a couple cow calls and two bulls came screaming in simultaneously. They met across a small ravine, but didn’t seem to care much for each other. They locked antlers and smashed and crashed in the forest for a while, raising quite a ruckus! The biggest and meanest of the two bulls finally emerged and crossed the ravine towards us. Though I didn’t get a long look at the bull, I could tell he was a solid six-point and a shooter in my book.
Keeping his distance, he circled around us while bugling and chuckling at the top of his lungs. I quickly positioned myself in a small clearing between the bull and Esther. It was about 7:45 pm as I knelt beneath a giant pine tree in the thick woods. The bull hung up at 80 yards and refused to come closer. I violently flapped my arms at Esther, motioning for her to drop further back…WAY BACK. The bulls in the area were very responsive, but they were smart and hung up well beyond bow range. Esther continued her cow and estrus calls as she dropped way out of sight.
A few minutes later, the big bull couldn’t take it anymore. He suddenly appeared from behind a thicket of pines and came stomping right towards me, his huge rack rocking back and forth as he weaved through the dense trees. He was coming in fast and quickly passed a 40-yard tree that I’d ranged. He was facing me so I didn’t have a shot. At thirty yards I still didn’t have a shot. At 20 yards he suddenly veered broadside. As his head disappeared behind a tree, I swung my bow and settled the pin. A second later, his shoulder appeared and my arrow was off. A PERFECT HIT! The bull smashed away but only made it 50 yards before going down. When Esther caught up to me, I was shaking with excitement and immediately began raving on about the details of the last few intense minutes. After giving the bull a little time, we slowly crept in on him. Although the bull ended up scoring in the lower 300s, it didn’t matter to me. He was my biggest bull yet and I did it with a bow. Mission accomplished.
This part of my limited entry elk hunt ended quickly, and sure enough, it was pretty easy! But, there’s no way I could have done it without my wife and her sweeeeet elk calling. She made it easy! I suppose the hardest part of the hunt was packing that huge bull off the mountain on our backs. That wasn’t easy, but I did it with a big smile on my face.
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.