Tag Archives: story

The Wall: My 2017 Archery Buck


2017–the future of hunting. Having hunted deer in Utah from top to bottom for almost 30 years, I still haven’t taken more than one trophy buck out of any one unit. Instead I’ve watched area after area dry up, forcing me to move on. As a kid, 4×4 bucks lined the trees along dirt roads at night. Now it’s just trees. Fortunately my passion for chasing mule deer has kept me agile. The best advice I offer to a newbie-hunter is to keep moving. Don’t get hung up on any one area, because eventually you’ll lose it. Deer and deer habitats are cyclical and dynamic. Big bucks are constantly adapting to us predators, so we must adapt to them.

In my endless quest for the next honey-hole, I think I’ve found one, hundreds of miles from home. In this new and unsuspecting forest I’ve come across numerous huntable bucks—not tons—but enough to put a stalk on a mature buck almost every day. The fawn crop is abundant and the herd is healthy. Best of all, there is very light hunter pressure which makes all the difference between huntable and unhuntable deer. These bucks can be patterned, even bumped around a little. Still, you won’t find a big buck near any road, so an ATV can’t help you, which is great because I don’t own one.

Southern Utah.

A few days into the hunt I spotted a giant sway-belly buck across a canyon, his sprawling antlers extending well outside his ears, then skyward. I literally ran down the mountain and up the other side, but before I could close the distance a doe snorted him out of the area. The next evening I caught up with him feeding at 60 yards. He was a real giant, an old warrior, a great wall of fur twice the size of his three- and four-point sentinels. But when he broke the tree line I paused, counting only three antler tines on one side. Not the perfect 4×4 I imagined, so I hesitated. As he turned and fed away, I panicked. The “Wall” (as I came to call him) was surely the biggest deer on the mountain; what was I thinking?! His scrawny sentinels followed faithfully behind. I began crawling towards them but was immediately picked off by a sentinel buck who quickly pushed the others into the trees. That was the last I saw of them.

Before I even got back at camp I was kicking myself. Surely I’d lost my mind! Somehow I’d convinced myself that antlers were the great measure of a deer, the end-all-be-all of trophy bucks. Foolishly I’d built up a wall between me and any buck that wasn’t perfect. As I lay in my tent that night I wondered how I could be so stupid, then cursed and squirmed myself to sleep. I vowed never to make that mistake again. Deer hunting is about the experience, and the challenge. Above all it’s the sacred meat harvested in the sacred realm of Nature, where ultimately man is measured, not the deer.

After seven days afield I drove home, dropped the wife off, resupplied, and moved back to the mountain alone. I made haste to the Wall’s domain that evening, but he was still gone.

A stagnant heat wave settled across the land that week and conditions grew increasingly hot and cruel with each passing day. The dry ground was endlessly loud, threatening success everywhere I went. Even barren ground inexplicably crunched. A whole network of micro-sticks and pine needles lay hidden in the crust like miniature mine field. A twenty yard creep into a likely deer haunt turned into a ten minute, cacophonous spectacle—a full-grown, camo-clad man twisting and contorting his legs while swinging his bow around for balance like a drunken fool. I wasn’t fooling anyone.

As August gave way to September, the squirrels grew louder and more cantankerous. The high elevation wind swirled and does snorted at the most inopportune times. Worst of all, the wise bucks seemed to vaporize two hours after first light and didn’t reappear until two hours before dark, turning entire days into hot and tired dreariness. While they lay hidden in shadows—chewing their cud and staring into space—I clambered around the mountain, sweating and searching to no avail. My mind churned and theorized, planning strategies that never panned out.

Helplessness crept in early, reminding me that I could always quit and go home, maybe be productive, curate the lonely wife… Reflexively I fought back. The challenge is the reward!, I pleaded. You don’t just hunt deer; you hunt experiences. Enjoy it! I decided to rest the area and spent the next several days exploring new places, hoping to find another buck like the Wall. But I didn’t. Instead I found a strange transformation occurring. With each passing day I cared less about deer and more about the process. I paid greater attention to the mountain and other wildlife. I sat longer, took more photos, and wrote often in my field journal. One morning I even left my bow back at camp–on purpose–just to experience the woods differently. I ran into a real toad-of-a-3×3 buck that morning, and was thankful he wasn’t bigger! Gradually, nagging desperation yielded to quiet contemplation.

The hunters moon.

Labor Day is upon us: ATVs roar below, people yell, kids scream and dogs bark. But the masses want nothing to do with this mountain; I’m confused, but grateful. Two weeks into the hunt and I still haven’t encountered another human afield. These are truly my woods. My whole being is awash in a cornucopia of gifts: space, time, beauty, etc. A continual river of fresh air envelopes me and overwhelms the senses. It carries a constant tune of birds, squirrels, and quaking leaves all singing in harmony. A variety of bright red berries—juicy and delicious—grow in abundance across the landscape. They augment my water supply, often saving me from dehydration. In two weeks I’ve seen more gorgeous sunrises than the rest of the year combined. Time stands still. Nothing has changed since the beginning of time.

Hairy current berries.

Clarity is probably the wood’s greatest gift. All these wild things coexist in a perfect balance, all working within the generous confines of carry capacity. No single plant creates more fruit than is necessary; no animal expends more energy than is needed. So oblivious is modern man to Nature’s ways, as lost as the white rocks scattered dumbly around me. Day after day ticks by without speaking to anyone. Like a stern parent, the mountain cuts off my cell signal and any communication with the modern world. Aloneness spurs strange mind chatter, spewing forth observational phrases like “Impenetrable bows of pine keeps me safe from the storm,” or “A living, breathing forest saves me from loneliness.”

The glint of an ancient arrowhead–serrated and fashioned from pale blue flint–protrudes from the dirt. It stirs the hunter spirit, reminding me that I’m hunting the same ground for the same animals as they did. Here in the future I carry on the tradition of the bow and arrow, preying for nature’s sacred meat, just as man always has. It’s likely, too, that I struggle in many of the same ways: cursing the crunchy ground, the squirrels, and the swirling winds. I feel tied to the land, relearning what it means to be self-sufficient.

I am convinced that harvesting a trophy buck with a bow is the hardest thing a person can do. Each year I set the same goal: Harvest a 200-inch muley with my bow. Rarely do I meet my goal, but I still believe there’s a 200-inch buck living in each of Utah’s deer units. Finding him is the great challenge, and arrowing him is even greater. When I was younger I thought that hunting success was 50% skill and 50% luck. But halfway through this season I realize it’s actually 33% skill, 33% time, 33% luck, and 1% destiny. In other words, given enough time afield a skillful hunter will eventually come face to face with a trophy, God willing.

Statistically, 80% of bowhunters in Utah fail each year. Most fail because they either don’t allow themselves enough time, or they don’t understand their prey. But even the veteran hunter with plenty of time on his hands runs into yet another wall: There are simply too many variables outside his control; things like doe snorts, wind changes, inadvertent movement, squirrel barks, grouse busting out of the brush, or any combination of all these. Mature deer simply won’t tolerate human intruders, so getting within bow range means everything must be perfect. And since everything is rarely perfect, you better have luck on your side. Even with the entire 28-day season scheduled off work, the best I can do is to put myself between the buck and feed or feed and bed, and then hope for the best. Persistence is the name of the game.

Three weeks into the hunt and big bucks are on the defensive, becoming more secretive, increasingly nocturnal, and less predictable. We underestimate the mighty muley buck. He’s smart and keenly adaptable. Physically speaking, he’s superior to us in every way: bigger, faster, stronger. His senses are greater too: hearing, smell and vision. He lives in the woods 365 days a year and is permanently tuned into his environment. But he’s still an animal driven by hunger, and left alone even the most admirable buck will return to best feed, sometimes even during daylight hours. Outwitting him means identifying these feeding zones and setting up ambush there. But he knows we do this and thusly alters his routine, feeding in different locations each day. Worse yet, as hunter pressure increases—even slightly so—his priority changes from food to survival. He moves by night and wiles away his days on steep slopes in hidden places we’ll never know about.

Eighteen days afield now; long, hot, and alone. Days run together. Home life is a distant memory–the mountain is my home. Summer changes to fall right in front of me; aspen leaves yellow as velvet drops from the buck’s antlers. So far I’ve had 13 close encounters with mature bucks, but none were good enough…except for the long-lost Wall buck. Failure becomes the norm, even strangely acceptable. I compare my own failure to other predators. How many stalks does a cougar get before he succeeds? Five, ten, maybe more? Why should I be any different? Each day I climb the mountain, do my best, and then trudge back to camp. My once paradise tent camp is beginning to feel like a prison, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Put in the time, be patient, and persevere.

My 2017 camp.

I had a decision to make this evening: hunt uphill or down. Four does appeared and made the decision for me. When the wind swirled they snorted and bounced uphill, so I hunted down. A while later two small bucks—suddenly alerted to my swirling scent—jumped out of the trees and bounded away. A third and much larger deer stayed put, mostly obscured by patchy trees. Was it the Wall buck? A deafening quiet stretched over the land as I tiptoed closer. I slowly raised my binos, desperately trying to identify him. To my surprise, the two smaller bucks came sneaking back in to join him. Perhaps the big buck had grown weary of fleeing his favorite feed, and the small bucks, once separated from their master, felt purposeless. Nonetheless, the air swirled and the three bucks just stared in my direction. I stood like a statue, pinned down with only thirty minutes of light left.

Puffy clouds painted pink and yellow suddenly cast the world in a brilliant amber glow. I lifted my face and basked in the beauty of the moment. Enjoy it, I demanded, this is why you’re here. Just another night; just another failed stalk. The stare-down continued, minutes passed, and darkness loomed.

I was jolted from the tranquil scene by a scuffling sound growing louder behind me. A couple does coming to wreck my night, I figured. I slowly rotated my head to see four bucks filtering out of the deep woods and onto a flat twenty yards away. My heart jumped. The first two were small, but the rear ones were real bruisers with heavy racks. Heads bobbed and shifted side to side. In extreme slow motion I simultaneously lowered my binos, raised my bow, and rotated my body 180-degrees all while crouching to a kneeling position. These new bucks spied the other bucks across the way and paused, staring right through me. I pressed my trembling bow tightly against my leg.

Sensing danger, the bucks began shifting nervously to the left. The first three passed behind a clump of trees, and when the fourth lowered his head I loaded an arrow. He was a huge buck with tall, symmetric 5×5 antlers. I hadn’t seen him before; somehow he’d been living out a secret life right under my nose. When he passed behind the trees I drew my bow. It sounded like a train wreck—the scrape of the arrow, the rustle of my clothes. All four bucks froze and whipped their heads in my direction. A fortuitous tangle of trees at my rear broke up my outline, but the tip of my arrow danced crazily ahead of my taut bow. I squinted to hide my watering eyes. They’re too close. How can they not see me? I begged myself to calm down. A minute passed. The first buck started walking again, then the second and third followed. The biggest buck held tight momentarily before following after the others.

As he came into view I belched out a me’ya sound. He ignored it. As he quartered away I split his shoulder with my 20 and 30 yard pins and hit the release. My shaky arrow was off, streaking through grey light. With the crack of the arrow all four bucks exploded into the woods, shattering the silence with crashing timber and pounding hooves. Several minutes later, in the cloak of darkness, I crept forward. The ground was torn up where he’d stood, and a few yards away was my broken arrow covered with blood. I followed the blood trail for about twenty yards, and then it vanished. I tried following the dug-in tracks, but they intermingled with all the others, heading into the thick brush and up a steep slope. No more blood; my heart sank. A bad hit? I wondered. Over and over I returned to the blood trail and walked in circles.

An hour later I was on my hands and knees with my flashlight, carefully crawling from track to track. What I hadn’t noticed earlier was a set of tracks suddenly veering away from the rest. Gradually these tracks were accompanied by pin-head-size blood specks. Several yards later the blood increased and I stood up. I rounded a tree and there he was, big and beautiful, lying peacefully on a bed of pine needles; a perfect hit and a short run. I touched his tall rack, then dropped to my knees and sobbed.

It never gets easier—this process–the mind, body and spirit, all focused, all invested in this primal chess match with God’s majestic creature. The game plays out in a familiar way: The buck magically materializes amidst certain failure, the cold steel of my arrow cuts the distance between us, and then cuts his life short. There are rules, too: I only win if he dies; honor him or lose your humanity.

The mountain was shrouded in cool clouds as I hiked in the next morning to retrieve my trophy, a complete reversal of the last eighteen sweltering days. My body glided effortlessly up the quiet trail, falling forward into a surreal familiarity, soft and inviting, like the embrace of a long lost friend.

Deer retrieval route.

Heading home on three hours of sleep, my truck feels unnaturally fast, blasting down the freeway, cutting through a putrid wall of brown smog. Signs and billboards stacked infinitely on my periphery beg for attention. I’m boxed in by cars and trucks cutting in and out of the six-lane road like a swarm of bees, frantic and dangerous. But I hardly notice. I’m still on the mountain and will remain there long after returning home. So much raw beauty cannot be shaken so easily. I’m at peace and completely untouchable.

This is our sacred tradition. This is true freedom and the ticket to perpetual youth. The mountain is alive and breathing, buzzing with energy. It calls to us all year long, just as it has throughout the ages. We return each season with renewed hope and vigor, only to find the woods holding back its secrets. The buck busts out and beats us relentlessly with cunning and agility. In despair we lash out and curse, then trudge on. It’s a necessary purification process that separates the weak from the strong. The human experience is broken down to its basic elements and the trash is removed so that we might see ourselves clearly. We see that failure and success are two parts of the same whole, neither good nor bad, and all part of a greater experience. And finally, in the end–if we can endure that long–we see that we’re not really hunting deer so much as we’re hunting for ourselves.

Try again tomorrow—pound the trail and fight ahead. With enough time, skill, and luck, the human spirit perseveres, and the wall crumbles.

The Majestic Muley Buck

In September of 2012, I hunted the Wasatch Extended Range with a friend. The bucks in this area are just as wily as anywhere in Northern Utah, if not more. We eventually split up to more thoroughly cover one particular steep and wooded slope; I took the upper section and he took the lower.

Not far into the route, a big, mature 4×4 buck came flying up the mountain, probably spooked by my hunting partner. The buck didn’t notice me as he blew by and then paused briefly on the hillside just out of bow range while scanning for danger below. I was instantly enraptured by the buck’s majesty. He held his neck high, donning a beautiful, square rack with heavy tines standing like swords above his noble face. His muscular body pulsed with deep breaths. His head jerked left, then right, simultaneously assessing the danger and planning his best escape route. I just stood there, mouth agape, bow a-dangle. What a creature! Seconds later he picked a line of trees and bounded away, his hooves barely poking the earth between great strides, seemingly floating over the treacherous terrain with awesome speed and agility.

Nothing to do now; no point following after. The buck would be valleys away by the time I caught up with him. I was gripped with a sense of helplessness. The sheer magnitude of this creature made me feel inept in my abilities. How could I ever outwit such a powerful and wary animal? It was humbling, and exactly what I needed.

Difficult to Bear

The following is my 2016 Idaho bear hunt story. I hope you enjoy it!

Bear_Hunt (2)

The skies were dark and a steady cold rain soaked the steep mountainside. A big chocolate phase black bear was barely visible feeding in the dense brush forty yards below me. After ranging him several times and unable to make out his vitals, I knew I’d have to get closer. Any apprehension I had about getting close to dangerous predators was suddenly gone. I eased into thirty yards and nocked an arrow. The bear sat on his rump facing away from me. My eyes were locked onto him as I crept closer. I ranged him again at twenty yards. Close enough, I thought, wait for him to turn. The storm-driven wind began to swirl. Something had to happen.

Bear_Hunt (4)

I don’t remember exactly when it started, but several years ago I felt compelled to challenge my bowhunting abilities by pursuing dangerous game with a bow. I suppose this is the natural progression of any serious bowhunter, but in the back of my mind I wasn’t completely confident I had what it takes. I would often play out the stalk in my mind, but when it came to getting close I always felt a tinge of panic. I knew that a bad hit could turn deadly, and so getting well within bow range would be the ultimate test of grit.

This year I miraculously drew an any weapon Idaho controlled bear tag with less than 1 in 40 odds. Like many hunters today, I read and reread the word Successful on the postcard, thinking there must be a mistake. It was hard to believe that a quality bear hunt was on the horizon. Back in 2012 I bought an OTC tag and took a kamikaze trip to Idaho looking for bruins. It was a complete failure. At no time did I feel remotely close to one of these elusive animals. I had much to learn. Now, with my hunt just a month away, I knew almost nothing about hunting bears.

The unit I drew is actually two large units, neither of which I’d ever seen before. The hunt spans the entirety of April and most of May, so there would be plenty of time to learn the area. In March I contacted the biologist for the region. All I really wanted was a starting point. Unfortunately, the information she gave me was pretty vague. When I asked about concentrations of bears, she said they were scattered evenly throughout the area. However, the northernmost unit had historically better harvest statistics, so that’s where I would begin my search. She also mentioned that it was a heavy snow year, so the best strategy was to avoid the first week of April to allow time for the bears to emerge from their dens. By the last week of April, all the bears should be out and feeding heavily on green shoots just below snow line.

Rugged Idaho.
Rugged Idaho.

My plan was to hunt the second week of April alone. Mostly I’d be looking for road access and bear sign throughout the unit. If that trip failed, I would return the last week of April with my wife, Esther, for a week-long excursion. I must admit that I felt much more comfortable having a “gunner” with me in case I got into trouble. Needless to say, my first trip was one of apprehension. In the meantime I dug around for more information online and was fortunate to find a few good starting points. I also read everything I could about hunting black bears. Some of the best information came from Eastmans’ Bowhunting Journal. Years ago I began clipping and saving some highly informative articles written by Guy Eastman and the bear-slayer himself, Brian Barney. This lexicon of bear knowledge became the guidebook for my hunt.

After a long, eight hour drive across the plains of Southern Idaho, I arrived at the beautiful, moss-covered woods of Western Idaho. I set up my solitary camp alongside a muddy dirt road near a runoff-swollen stream at the bottom of steep canyon. Around 8:00 a.m. I headed up the slippery mountainside. From the information I gathered, bears like to feed for a couple hours on open, green, south-facing slopes during warm weather, and then bed down for a few hours in the dark timber, and repeat. Not even fifteen minutes into my hike I spotted my first bear feeding exactly where I expected: on a green, south-facing slope near old-growth timber. This was the first bear I’d seen in more than a decade, and my heart leapt with glee. Was bear hunting really this easy, I wondered? The bear was about a thousand vertical feet above me and too far to judge, so I needed to get closer. While scrambling towards the bear I suppressed a nagging inner voice that continually questioned my motives, asking “Why are you running towards this horrible beast?!”

In short order I arrived on the same elevation as the bear and shot some video from about 120 yards. He’d finished feeding and was ambling into the dark woods where I quickly lost sight of him. Judging by the distance between his ears, I estimated him as a younger bear. But what did I know about judging bears? Slowly, I made my way to where he disappeared. I soon realized he was gone and began hiking up the ridgeline. A little farther along I heard a scuffling in the woods below me. As I pulled up my binos, the hair rose on my neck and my hand fumbled for the .357 revolver on my belt. That same bear was digging out a bed just thirty yards away and somehow didn’t notice me. He just lay down and went to sleep. For the longest time I stood motionless, peering at the sleeping bear through my binoculars. He was indeed a young bear, and eventually I moved off to glass different parts of the mountain. A few hours later I glassed up another bear—a big blond sow with two cubs—half a mile away. I shot some more video and then moved along. As exciting as it is to see sows with cubs, they are protected and illegal to hunt, for obvious reasons. Still, my hopes ran high most of the day. Unfortunately that was my last bear sighting before getting socked in by storm clouds and running out of daylight. All in all it was a productive first day.

First day, socked in.
First day, socked in.

I woke the second day to an inch of snow. My goal was to cover as much new ground as possible. Apparently the bad weather had the bears down because I didn’t glass up a single bear, nor did I find any fresh tracks in the snow. I’d read somewhere that bears hate being out in the rain, and this was proving to be true. That night I stumbled back to camp wet and sore, and a little discouraged. At that point I decided to move camp to a different part of the unit.

On Wednesday I spent the day driving the muddy roads farther north. I soon discovered that most of higher elevation roads were snowed in. I would plow my truck as far as I could, then get out and hike. Overall I wasn’t finding much sign. That afternoon, while driving lower elevation roads, I spotted a huge blond sow with two cubs about a quarter-mile up the mountain. When she saw my truck, she bounded onto a boulder outcropping and took a defensive posture. She held her head high with her eyes transfixed on me while swaying back and forth. I half-expected her to come barreling down the mountain and tear my truck apart. I knew that sows were protective of their cubs, but this was ridiculous. What have I gotten myself into, I wondered?! This was my second reality check moment. If I were to continue hunting bears with a bow, then in a very real way I had to make peace with the possibility of death. Success meant that one of us was not coming out of the woods alive, and there was a fair chance it might be me! It was painfully necessary at this point—on this very hunt—to either accept the this fact, or go home. Did I really have what it takes?

Later that evening I went searching for a campsite. Just before the road became snowed in, I was able to glass up big, jet-black bear on a far-away hillside. It was loner bear, likely a boar. My game plan for morning was to drive as far up the road as possible, then hike after the lone bear. But the weather had other plans. On Thursday I woke to a full-on blizzard and knew my hunt was over. The bears would hunker down and the roads would only get worse. Best to cut my losses, take the knowledge I’d gained, and come back later with a plan. I was encouraged that in three full days I’d had four bear sightings. Still, I didn’t get a single stalk opportunity, and for such a difficult-to-draw hunt, I expected a little more. Perhaps they were still hibernating…

The following week we had beautiful warm weather, but I was stuck at home working. Then, just as we departed on another week-long bear excursion, it turned bitter cold and wet. Originally I planned for my wife Esther—who is deathly afraid of close-up bear encounters, by the way—to be my gunner and carry a rifle for protection. But in the week between bear hunts, I decided the mountains were just too steep to carry all that extra weight. Instead, she came armed with paltry can of bear spray. ;^)

Before setting out on the open road, curiosity had me searching the IDFG website for past harvest statistics for my unit. I was surprised and dismayed to learn that of the 75 tags given out, only 20 hunters were successful. That’s less than 30% success! Already, I was planning a third trip in May.

On the night of Sunday, April 24th, we pulled into the area that I’d left off on my first trip in the remote, muddy mountains near the Oregon border. There were no other hunters in the area, which I found encouraging. As we set up the tent we were accompaniment by the ghostly howls of wolves in the distance. There was something peaceful about having these blustery, wild mountains to ourselves.

Wolf track.
Wolf track.

We struggled to keep warm that night and into the next morning. On Monday we began hiking where the road ends and right away spotted a sow with cubs on a far-off, cliffy mountainside. We continued hiking all day, stopping frequently to glass. Eventually we dropped into the large canyon where I’d seen the lone black bear on my first hunt. There were numerous bear tracks in the area, as well as frequently used bedding areas surrounded by fresh scat. The whole time I felt we were very close to our quarry, but still we couldn’t turn up any bears.

Rear foot pad.
Rear foot pad.

After a hard freeze overnight, we spent Tuesday morning driving miles and miles of roads with no luck. In the evening we returned to the canyon with all the bear sign. We sat on a saddle with deep, dug-in bear tracks going over it and a rubbing tree littered with bear hair. I nicknamed this area “Bearea.” All was quiet, but then just before dark we caught sight of a sow with cubs walking along a logging road.

Dug-in tracks.
Dug-in tracks.

On Wednesday we went back to Bearea with intentions of exploring it entirely. Around 10 a.m. a heavy rain pinned us down in the dark timber. The relentless rain eventually chased us back to camp where we changed out of our soaked clothes. We were yet to see a lone bear on this trip and were getting a little discouraged. The rain let up that evening, and again we dropped into Bearea but to no avail. At that point we decided to move camp farther south, to where I had my first bear encounter.

Thursday was sunny and clear. We spent the whole day hiking from 4000’ to snowline at 5000’. We were excited to come across innumerable tracks, beds and fresh scat. Still, no amount of glassing would turn up a bear. Nonetheless, I was learning quite a bit about bears, primarily what I refer to as the “triple S” of bear behavior: shy, secretive, and slippery. Bears, like deer, don’t want to be found! Even if you spot a bear, they tend to move around a lot and eventually disappear. Sometimes we’d find a steamy, green pile of scat, but the reliever of such excrement remained invisible. I began to refer to them as “invisabears.” It became increasingly clear that at least one bear was living full time on this mountainside situated not far from camp. We just couldn’t turn him up. Frustration had me clambering from pine bed to pine bed, all over the steep slope looking bears that I knew existed but couldn’t be found. The day ended bear-free. While pondering bears that evening I decided we should start hunting bears like we hunt deer. We would wake very early on Friday and spend the whole day glassing and bed hopping. All the information I’d read about bears—that they emerge from beds several times to feed during the day—was apparently not the case here.

Bear sign.
Bear sign.

It was a cold and rainy Friday morning as we began our ascent up the mountain. When we arrived at our first vantage we spotted a lone chocolate phase bear feeding far above us in the low clouds that partially obscured the mountain. Determined to finally get my stalk on, I trotted up the near vertical slope with Esther floundering behind. Just as we were closing the distance on the bear, he disappeared into the clouds. Surely he’d bedded down in one of the dozens pine beds littered across the slope. So the rest of the day was spent hiking in circles looking for the lone bear, who for no particular reason I named Sedwich. We visited all the promising areas—and more—but again found nothing. Wet and discouraged, we returned to camp around 2 p.m.

We were officially out of dry footwear which encouraged us to go driving down one of the long, winding roads in the relentless rain. By late afternoon we hadn’t set eyes any bear and returned to camp for lunch. To my dismay the forest service had opened the locked gate on the logging road leading up the mountain where we had toiled for so long. With the impending weekend, I feared the area would soon get blown out. It was becoming very difficult to imagine a scenario wherein I might have a successful bear stalk.

Bear_Hunt (10)

In disgust we took advantage of the newly opened road and drove a short distance to glass. Not surprisingly, the bears weren’t out. As we sat pondering the demise of our endeavors, Esther suddenly leaned over and asked, “Is that your bear???” My binos flashed up and sure enough a large, lone bear materialized out of nowhere and sat feeding in the rain on an open slope 1000 feet above the road. Instantly I grabbed my pack, slipped on my soggy boots, and just before jumping out of the truck exclaimed to Esther, “Stay here!” Then halfway across the road I looked up and noticed a second lone bear feeding a short distance from the first one. When it rains, it pours bears! I looked back to Esther in astonishment, and then took off running up the mountain. Halfway up the near vertical slope I paused. I couldn’t breathe and both my legs had gone numb. I gasped and sweated, slipped and fell, then pushed onward. A few minutes later I arrived at the same elevation as the bears, and wouldn’t you know it, both had vanished! When I got within view of the truck, I waved and flailed my arms at Esther, hoping she could guide me with hand signals. To my dismay, she held both hands up, gesturing that she too had lost the bears. What now?!

Through drizzling rain I zigzagged to the top of the ridgeline, desperately trying to get above the swirling winds that had likely busted the bears. Soaked with sweat and rain, I glassed every bit of the mountain but turned up nothing. Darkness was falling, as were my spirits. The only option was to work back towards the truck and try again in the morning. While following a finger ridge down the mountain, a dark blob in the brush caught my eye. My heart jumped. It was the big brown phase bear, nearly invisible as it fed in the dense brush below. No shot; must get closer.

Staying above the feeding bear, I crouched low and skirted the hillside towards it. I ranged the bear at forty yards. He was feeding in circles, but only the top of his back was visible. Gotta get closer! I slowly eased into thirty yards, trying my best not to roll a rock down the hill. My heart thundered in my chest. I took long, deep breaths to calm myself, knowing this would likely be my only opportunity. I nocked an arrow and waited for him to present a shot. Instead the bear sat flat on his rump facing away from me. The storm-driven wind began to swirl. Must get closer quick!

I meticulously closed the distance to 20 yards. Close enough, I thought. Wait for him to turn broadside. I drew my bow and held tight. He didn’t move; I let down. Seconds later he stood and slowly turned uphill, exposing his shoulder. My sight pin danced all over his vitals. I paused for a couple seconds and slowly breathed out. I resettled the pin and the arrow was off. To my dismay, less than half the arrow buried into its shoulder. The bear swung around to face me and somehow, in the same two seconds, I had loaded another arrow and redrawn my bow. The bear’s head swung left then right, then forward. His piercing eyes locked onto mine. When he raised his head to look at me, my second arrow sailed under his chin and disappeared into his chest. The bear swung around and barreled straight down the mountain, smashing through the brush as he went, and then disappeared into the dark timber below. I stood shaking in disbelief, oblivious to the rain battering down on me.

My first instinct was to head back to the car and get Esther. My second instinct told me to go after the bear. The rain threatened to wash away the blood trail and darkness was falling. In no way did I want to track a wounded bear in the dark. I pulled my revolver, and with my gun in one hand and bow in the other, slowly headed in the bear’s direction. The blood trail was heavy and full of frothy lung blood. Surely the bear wouldn’t go far. 200 yards down the mountain, at the edge of the dark timber, I slowed way down, glassing as I went. Fifty yards farther, in the tangled maze of a giant deadfall tree, my eyes locked onto the dark, furry patch of an expired bear. I was overcome by relief and a sense of accomplishment unimaginable. What had arguably been the most difficult and frustrating hunt of my life, had instantly transformed into wonderful success.

After verifying the bear was indeed finished, I hung my bow in a tree and jogged back to the truck. Esther burst from the vehicle and ran to meet me on the road. She raved on about how she witnessed the entire stalk, and her excitement throughout was equal to mine.

The rain died out as we approached the downed bear together.

My bear—Sedwich the bear—has become a major milestone in my life. I can’t think of a better way to challenge one’s skills and bravery than a close-quarters bear hunt with a bow. I also learned that there’s no such thing as an easy hunt, at least not alone in the woods with a bow. As with all hunting, it’s the hunter’s responsibility to learn everything they can about their prey and its habits. I have nothing but admiration and respect for these powerful creatures that we share our mountains with, but rarely get to see. For this reason I’ll probably never hunt bears again. Like all game animals, our beautiful black bears are a renewable resource for our taking. And indeed, blueberry-glazed bear steaks are quite delicious. But unlike elk and deer, there just aren’t a whole lot of them to take. These fascinating beasts have their own special place in the woods, and for me, preserving this hunt as an once-in-a-lifetime experience is plenty enough.

Bear_Hunt (13)

In the end my bear green scored 19.5 inches, making it my fourth spot-and-stalk Pope and Young trophy in seven years. Yet, as proud as I am of this accomplishment, I must remind myself that life’s most precious experiences cannot be measured in inches or trophy quality. How we hunt—and the people with whom we share our hunts—are what matters most. None of my bow trophies would have been possible without the love and support from my wonderful and understanding wife, Esther, who’s been by my side during all of these magical hunts.

Bear_Hunt (1)

Share Your Hunting Stories Here!

Nate-New

Recently I addressed some frustrations that today’s hunters have to deal with thanks to exponential population growth coupled with decreasing wildlife and habitat. What it boils down to is less hunting opportunity for everyone and ever-increasing competition afield.

For many years I’ve joked with fellow hunters about being “duded” while hunting or even during a stalk. My brother, Russell, wrote a story about his 2015 rifle hunt which perfectly illustrates my point. His exciting and insightful story will be published here on tomorrow’s blog.

By the way, each year many hunters write great stories which are never published in big-name magazines, and are therefore rarely heard. If you have a great hunting story that you’d like to share with the world, then email it to me and I’d be more than happy to share it here on the ZenBowhunter blog.

Travails from a Frozen Mountain

IMG_1853

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.

IMG_1860

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!

IMG_1912

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.

IMG_1856

There still wasn’t enough snow to push the deer down, so I hiked farther and farther up he 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 to the hills for one more big push. The forecast called for heavy snow and blizzards, which I welcomed with open arms. Hopefully 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 scuffle 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 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 large 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.

IMG_1902

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!

IMG_1902a

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 new, 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.

01Nate2014

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 again would any mountain seem too steep to climb.

You might be wondering, would I do it all over again? The answer is a decisive YES, starting this November.

The Lake Monster

lake_monster_2012

I’ve related this fish story many times since that fateful day in 2012. It’s a great story about a great fish, and should be written.

The Lake Monster

Causey reservoir is a small dam located in Northern Utah. I fished there since I was a kid. Ice fishing seems to be the most productive method, and my family has been quite successful over the years. The ice generally freezes around mid-December and remains fishable through March.

The best thing about Causey is the variety of fish you can catch. I’ve caught kokanee salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout, tiger trout, splake trout, cutthroat trout and even a sculpin, which is a small bottom-dwelling fish that looks like a cross between a frog and a turd. The 15 – 19 inch Kokanee are by far the most delicious and alluring fish, and on December 16, 2012, that’s what I was hoping to catch.

As my teenage son Jacob, and I were loading the car with ice fishing gear, I asked my wife Esther, once more if she’d like to join us. It was a cold and snowy day, so she declined and wished us luck instead.

When we arrived at the lake, I was dismayed to find it wasn’t quite frozen yet. There should have been safe ice on the inlet arms, but it was a late winter and the ice was thin and slushy. It looked like we’d be shore fishing the open water after all.

The snow was coming down pretty hard as we trudged through more than a foot of snow along the shoreline towards the open water. I setup the poles with a couple bobbers and bait and casted out. The wind was picking up and blew our bobbers into the edge of the ice.

For the next hour the snowfall increased and the wind blew harder. To keep our spirits up, Jake and I foraged continually on crackers and snacks while staring listlessly at our bobbers bouncing in the waves. Occasionally I’d check our baits and recast.

After nearly two hours without a single bite, our hopes were dwindling. But I’m a stubborn fisherman. I don’t pack my car, drive to nowhere, and sit in the worst of weather for nothing! All I really wanted at that point was one dumb little trout for dinner. As is often the case, my mind drifted to thoughts of Zen. Zen is something that’s been on my mind in recent years. It came about after several miraculous successes in fishing and hunting amidst the worst odds. My theory was that if a person focused hard enough on nature, perhaps he could somehow sway the odds in his favor. Certainly, it can’t hurt! But in this case, no matter how much I concentrated on my pathetic bobber, and no matter how much I wished for a fish, nothing seemed to happen. I couldn’t take it anymore; I had to make something happen.

Breaking a long and cold silence, I turned to Jake and said, “Do you think a person can materialize a fish?” He looked at me with half-inquisitive expression. Detecting that I might be speaking both rhetorically and irrationally, he just shrugged and mumbled, “I dunno.”

With that, I stood up and reeled my line in. It was time for a more active approach. I proceeded to cut off the bait and bobber and tie on a small, silver Mepps #0 spinner. Surely this shiny, little inch-and-a-half piece of fluttering metal would coerce some little rainbow into biting.

I walked 50 feet down the snowy shoreline and casted out to sea. The light lure on my 6-pound line fell pathetically short of its mark. I bounced and reeled it in with little interest from both the fish and myself. I casted again, swinging the pole hard like a baseball bat, and repeated the process.

Ten feet from the shore my line suddenly jerked and hung up. Instinctively I jerked back and set the hook. A snag? I thought. Nope, it started bobbing left and right. Wow, a fish! About the same second I realized I’d actually hooked a fish, my reel began screaming. The fish tore off with no intention of putting up a fight. I tightened the drag and cranked the pole hard towards shore with pole’s tip bent 90-degrees straight out to sea.

As the line continued flying off the reel, it occurred to me that I’d hooked into a whopper of a fish and had absolutely no control over it. It felt like I’d tied my line to a pickup truck and sent it on down the street. My heart rate jumped straight up.

As the fish ran, I would occasionally feel a weird bump and pause in the line. The fish was apparently hitting the lake bottom, trying to knock the lure from its lip. This was new to me; smart fish! When this method failed, he took off down the reservoir towards where Jake was sitting. Desperate to keep line on my reel, I followed along, running down the shoreline in its direction.

Anticipating a detrimental tangle with Jake’s bobber, I yelled ahead, “REEL IN! REEL IN! I have a monster on! Get your line in!” This woke Jake up. He did as I asked, then moved out of the way to watch the spectacle unfold.

I was still losing line, but less now. The fish, realizing that a hard left turn wasn’t going to free him, suddenly veered right and began dragging me back up the shoreline. After another desperate jog, the fish once again headed straight out to sea. Every minute or so I would tighten my drag down one more click. Surely I was close to the breaking point of my 6-pound test line.

Ten minutes into the fight and having gained not one inch, I knew, absolutely knew, two things: First, I would never see the humongous fish that I’d hooked. And second, I would do everything in my power and apply every ounce of my fishing experience to fighting the fish to the end.

My arm was burning and going numb; my heart raced faster. The last few loops of line were becoming visible on my reel. I winced, knowing that in a few seconds my line would break with a loud snap.

Then something amazing happened. About 150-yards out in the middle of the lake the fish broke the surface with an audible slosh, then waves. WAVES not ripples! There was a sudden pause in my line, then slack! The fish had finally reached its threshold of strength and turned its head my way. Instinctively I reeled to keep the line tight.

Then the tug-a-war began. I would crank a few loops back on my reel, then the fish would pull some off, and I’d crank ‘em back on again. This seemed to go on forever. But there was a twinge of hope. Maybe I’d catch a glimpse of my foe after all!

Jake stood by my side, cheering me on without a peep, as you’d expect from any teenager.

Nearly twenty minutes into the fight, and with almost a full reel of line, reality hit me. The shoreline was incredibly steep. The fish had to be well over ten pounds and my line was only rated for six. If and when I got him to shore, there was no physical way I could drag it out of the water, not even halfway out, without breaking my line. I would have to go in after him.

Wide-eyed and trembling like an idiot, I turned to Jake and barked these orders:
“When the fish gets close to where I can see it, I’m going to hand you the pole and jump in. Keep the line tight!”

A minute later, in the dark water, a huge, shadowy form came cruising along the shoreline. It was exactly what I expected: a lake monster!

As it drew closer I loosened my drag and shoved the pole into Jake’s hand. Without pause, I jumped out over the water, twisting my body mid-air and splashing down just behind the fish. Crotch-deep in the icy murk, I shoved my arms underneath the fish and I hefted it out of the water as it swung side-to-side trying to escape my grasp.

The fish plopped deep into the snow near Jake’s feet and we just stood there stunned. “Holy COW!” Jake exclaimed. After much excitement and jumping around, I realized that I was soaked from the waist down and standing in a snow bank in a blizzard. The trip was certainly over at that point.

Jake snapped a couple photos of me and the fish, and then I tossed the lunker brown trout in the back of my truck and raced for home. I called ahead to tell Esther to start searching for a fish taxidermist in the area. An hour later I arrived home, still shaking and unable to calm down. I taped the fish out at 33-inches and a whopping 21 pounds. After more than three decades of fishing, I’d never seen a brown trout remotely close to this size.

Although the Utah fish and game department doesn’t keep individual lake records, the few agents I talked to said it was by far the biggest fish they’d ever heard of coming out of Causey Reservoir, and that a brown trout of that size had to be well over 20 years old.

A year later the Lake Monster was hung proudly above my television. During commercials I would sit and watch the fish in awe and fascination. The thing that stuck with me most from this adventure was the question I asked Jake just before hooking the monster:

“Do you think a person can materialize a fish?”
The answer is a resounding MAYBE! Just beware the fish for which you wish.

One Giant Antler

antler

There is an image, not unlike the one above, that still haunts me today.

It was the muzzleloader hunt of 2001. I was still getting used to my new hunting area near Fairview, Utah. I knew the hunting pressure would keep the big bucks in the thick timber, so that’s where I spent my days. I’d never gotten a real trophy-size buck before, and up until then, I’d only seen a few true trophies in all my years of hunting. But I’d seen enough in this unit to know it was possible. These were the bucks I daydreamed about.

On opening morning our camp dispersed across the land. I dropped into the deep and steep pine forest below camp. The deadfall was so thick I had to hop from log to log, not touching the ground for a hundred yards or so. Eventually it opened up with aspens and narrow feeding swathes. Judging by the sign—and I was no expert back then—there were plenty of deer around, but where they went during the day, no one knew.

I’d grown accustom to blowing stalks on large deer, and as you’ll see, my confidence was way down. I knew there were big deer in this unit, attested to by an occasional flash of antler, a loud snort, and the sound of heavy hooves smashing away through the dense woods. I pressed on, but really, I’d already given up.

Judging by the high sun, it must have been close to noon.  I knew the deer wouldn’t be up on their feet at midday, but I wouldn’t allow myself to return to camp and make excuses for my failure; blaming the lack of deer on the area and then bedding down for the day myself. That would be submission. No, I would continue my quest, beating the pine-needled forest floor to death with my stinky old boots.

I was still-hunting along on a steep and rocky slope. The timber was less dense at the edge of the pines where interspersed aspens and deer brush heedlessly  begged for a more sun. My predator eyes suddenly and haphazardly caught the slightest bit movement a hundred yards below me in some tall brush. My cheap, murky binos came up and locked on. ANTLERS! Little bits of tines bounced and bobbed through the tall brush. What they were attached to I could not tell in the thick brush; no fur nor face nor hide nor hair, just bits of antlers appearing and disappearing. How big was he, I wondered? A two-point? A four-point? No way to tell and no shot; I needed to get closer.

Here’s where my lack of confidence shines brightest. Based on previous buck encounters, I told myself this would never work out. I didn’t really believe I could get close enough for a shot, but I had to try—I desperately had to try!

It’s different these days, here in the future. Today, I would just sit tight. The wind was most likely rising from late-morning thermals. I would sit and wait for the buck to feed into the open, even if it took all day. 100 yards is an easy shot with a gun. Woulda-coulda-shoulda. But this is how we learn…

I dropped to my butt and began my slow-motion descent. The pine needles were dry and loud, and the terrain was terribly steep. I used the wind and forest sounds to cover my approach. For twenty minutes I slid, scooted, and crab-crawled down the hill, drawing closer and closer to the sighting. Minutes felt like hours.

The buck eventually moved out of sight, swallowed up by the forest. Unable to keep tabs on him, I became increasingly skeptical.  Did he bed down? Did he sense me and move off? Gotta get closer! I crept closer and closer until I was within a few yards of where I first saw him. All was quiet. Now what?

He’s gone! I must have busted him out. I knew this would happen. Oh well… I would’ve been a little upset if I ever truly believed I had a chance at this buck.

I stood up, slung the gun on my shoulder, and dug my GPS unit out of my pocket. I stared blankly at the screen as it tracked and tracked and tracked for satellites. There’s nothing more tedious than waiting for the GPS to track in thick timber. My eyes lifted and floated around the forest. What direction did he go, I wondered.

As my gaze drifted to the right, my lethargic eyelids suddenly flashed wide-open; my heart stopped. Fifteen yards away, a massive, tall, sweeping, 4-point antler stuck directly out from behind a large tree trunk. On the other side, the long gray line of a deer’s back extended outward.

No thoughts, just action.

In one motion my left hand opened and the GPS went into free-fall. My hand flashed to the butt of my gun. The GPS was halfway to the ground as my gun twirled like a baton in front of me. My right hand caught the gunstock and lifted it to my shoulder. The GPS bounced inaudibly as the gun’s muzzle swung towards the buck.

Too late. Heavy hooves dug into the ground with a loud thud and every trace of that monster buck instantly vanished into the woods. Frantically I aimed at the crashing and snorting of my invisible foe, but he was gone.

And that was that. Nothing left but a haunting technicolor image of a huge antler sticking straight out of a tree trunk, burned forever in the forefront of my long-term memory. For the duration of the hunt I beat myself up for my failure.

I am tempted to leave the story right there, but habit forces me find the good in the bad. I knew then, as I know now, that my biggest mistake was over-estimating the buck, and under-estimating myself. I failed because I accepted failure from the start. I had him in my hands, if only I’d been patient. If only I had believed this one burning truth: that he was “just a deer” and not an impossible phantom.

The End.

My 40-Inch Dream

(Published in Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal, Issue 81, January/February 2014)

superbuck_001

Twenty yards in front of me, a small 3-point buck with scraggly antlers ran back and forth snorting up a storm. I knew him; he was a sentinel. I knew him because I knew his mentor. Ignoring the flailing 3-point, I peered deep into the dark timber beyond. Sure enough, sixty yards downhill and partially obscured by trees, stood a familiar, square-racked, giant four-point mule deer. He hadn’t seen me but was alerted by his sentinel’s crazy warning system. Before I could even pull an arrow, he suddenly blasted away taking the squirrely 3-point with him…again. This was my third and last encounter with that big 4-point during the 2011 archery season.

I slowly rose from my knees and dropped my bow to my side. I stared blankly at the woods with a sickening sense of déjà vu. Like most mature bucks in Northern Utah, I knew this buck was essentially unhuntable, just like the infamous 33” double-droptine buck that I somehow managed to harvest in 2010. I spent three long years hunting that droptine buck and I knew for a long time that he too was unhuntable. Yet forces beyond my comprehension put me directly in the droptine’s path that last day of the 2010 season. But hunting the same buck for so long was just agonizing, and I wasn’t about to do it again. I needed a new area. I needed new blood.

I didn’t harvest a deer in 2011, but I did come out of the woods with a valuable new insight: If an area can grow one giant deer—especially in this day and age—it can grow another. I learned this after finding that big 4×4 living in all the same places that the droptine buck lived. Apparently, one giant buck replaces another.

Fast forward one year.

While hunting elk in 2012, I had the misfortune of blowing two tires while driving out of the rough mountains in Southern Utah. As I was being towed back to town, I struggled to start up a conversation with the quiet and sullen after-hours tow truck driver. I asked him if he knew of any good elk areas, and he gave me a couple vague tips. But when I brought up deer hunting (my true passion), his eyes lit up.

As it turned out, KC (the tow truck driver/shop worker) had a passion for deer equal to mine. Soon, we were in a long, rambunctious conversation about big bucks and past triumphs. When I told him about my infamous droptine buck, he responded, “I remember that deer! That was you!?” We talked about big bucks for the next three hours and before I left with four new tires, he informed me of a giant buck he’s seen a couple years ago—it was the biggest buck he’d ever seen, estimated forty inches wide. Since KC didn’t hunt that particular unit, he was happy to tell me where to go look for it. I took careful notes and then went on my way. I knew the odds of relocating the mythical 40-incher were slim, especially since I’d never set foot in that part of the unit. But still, if an area could grow one giant buck…

And thus began my 40-inch dream. Fast forward one more year.

Gambling on the information I received from KC, I drew my 2013 general archery tag for Southern Utah. In May I tried scouting the “40-inch area,” but the mountains proved too wet and inaccessible that early in the year. I planned a second trip in July, but life just got in the way. I didn’t return to Southern Utah until the archery opener, and since I still wasn’t familiar with the 40-inch area I spent the first week hunting a different area.

I don’t like hunting the season opener. I especially don’t like the heat or all the competition, or bucks in velvet for that matter. But there I was, hunting the opener with my friend Scott. As expected, there were quite a few bucks around; we would see close to twenty per day. The problem was that they were all small bucks. For five days we saw dozens of 2- and 3-points, but no shooters. I’d seen this before and there’s a name for it: Nursery. Nursery areas are bad for trophy hunters because, although there are lots of deer around, they are all small. By the time a nursery buck matures, he becomes territorial and runs off to find his own mountain to live on.

So, on the last day of the hunt we drove to the purported 40-inch area. This time we found a better route up the mountain. I could tell right away that it wasn’t a nursery because, a) there were hardly any deer, and b) the terrain was treacherous to say the least.

video_Still_003

The next morning Scott and I scaled some cliffs and entered what appeared to be the right area. We split up and by late afternoon I finally located a bachelor herd of bucks bedded in some open grass. The biggest buck was a tall, 25-inch four-point with deep forks. The next biggest was a trashy 5-point. Since these were the biggest bucks I’d seen all week, I decided to make a stalk. My first attempt was foiled when it started raining. The bucks quickly unbedded and wandered into the trees. I made a second stalk and was almost within bow range when a moo-cow wandered right into the deer and scared them off. I followed their tracks and on my third stalk it got dark before I could get close. My hunt ended right then and there, and the next morning I made the long drive back home.

As bleak as the opener was, it wasn’t a complete failure. The highlight of the whole week was an arrowhead I found on opening morning while exploring a remote area. When I stopped to glass the opposite hillside, I laid my bow on the ground and noticed a shiny, black arrowhead lying there. I got goose bumps. I always suspected I was following the same instincts and same paths as ancient hunters, but on this day there was proof lying right next to my bow. It was a magical, serendipitous moment.

arrowhead

Two weeks later I returned to the 40-inch area with my lovely wife Esther. On Sunday night we hiked into the area with a week’s worth of supplies on our backs. By the time we found a flat spot to pitch our tent, we were pouring sweat and exhausted. We spent the evening bathing in a creek rather than hunting.

The next morning we woke before light and headed out. I gave Esther my GPS and sent her to the last known location of the bucks from my previous trip. My plan was to skirt the entire area in hopes of finding even bigger deer…like maybe a 40-incher…

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I found no bucks whatsoever. The mountain was just too big and too new and my hopes of finding a respectable buck were dwindling. That was okay though; I figured if there weren’t any deer, I’d enjoy whatever else nature had to offer. With elk bugling around me, I pulled out my camcorder and spent the long, hot part of the day stalking and videotaping multiple bugling bulls.

video_Still_006

While enjoying the elk show, I remembered a conversation I had with Scott towards the end of our last trip. We were both frustrated, and in a sarcastic way I said, “Ya know, there’s only one thing I love more than big bucks.”

“What’s that?” he asked, somewhat disinterested.

“Nature!” I exclaimed. “When I’m in the woods I just love seeing grand vistas, the clear blue skies, and the bright stars at night. I love the clean, crisp air and the ice cold spring water. I enjoy picking up interesting rocks and eating wild berries off the vine. I enjoy reading the deer sign, examining tree rubs, and listening to elk bugling. And in the end, after spending all that time simply enjoying nature, a buck seems to just come along. The bucks are secondary to the process. That’s usually how it happens for me, anyway.”

I don’t think Scott responded.

And so that’s what I did. There were no deer, but the mountains kept me entertained and happy. I didn’t get back to camp until way after dark. The funny thing was, the closer I got to camp the more fresh deer sign I noticed. In fact, the most concentrated tracks and droppings were located within a few hundred yards of our camp! Could it be that we haphazardly pitched our tent right in the deer’s bedroom? Later that night, while eating rehydrated meals, I told Esther about my deery discovery. We decided to wake up early the next morning and hunt close to camp.

We woke early to a heavy rain and promptly went back to bed.

The rain finally quit around 8:30, and by 9:00 we were hiking directly uphill from camp. Sure enough, we found some big, blocky tracks in the fresh mud. Not much farther we heard a commotion in the trees. It sounded like squirrels harvesting pinecones…but there was something else. I turned to Esther and said, “There’s more going on than just squirrels!” As we inched forward, I caught sight of a small pine tree waving back and forth thirty yards ahead. I quickly nocked an arrow and tip-toed closer. The tree stopped waiving and I drew. When the buck passed through a clearing, I let down my draw. It was an average three-point; nothing special. Although I had no interest in shooting a “small” buck, Esther was much less complacent. When the buck moved out of sight, Esther nocked an arrow and we crept stealthfully in its direction. We hadn’t made it very far, however, when we were suddenly blind-sided by a big four-point buck that wandered leisurely out of the trees to our right. He took one look at us and spun around, taking the three-point and one other buck with him. Luckily, they weren’t too spooked and slowed to a walk as they moved up the hillside. I could only make out bits and pieces through the dense trees, but two of the bucks seemed to be carrying heavy headgear.

Beaver05

The thermals were beginning to rise so we decided to split up. I would circle above the bucks while she stayed below in case I busted them back down the mountain. For the next hour I circled high above the last sighting of the deer, carefully scanning the trees as I went. I was certain I’d either find them bedded or at least cross their tracks. But they were nowhere to be found. Eventually I began working back downhill towards the last place we saw them. Worst case, I could always track them from there. Another hour passed as I carefully inched forward. The bucks were sure to be bedded, and in my experience there’s nothing harder than stalking deer in their beds. Finally, my GPS told me I was within 250 feet of where we left them.

It happened fast. I was skirting around a steep, tree-tangled slope when a deer suddenly stood up behind a large pine tree twenty yards away. I pulled and nocked an arrow in record time which was good because the buck was nervous and started moving downhill quickly. I drew my bow and scanned ahead for a shooting lane. The buck that appeared in the opening was a giant! Instinctively, I let out a n’yoo sound. He paused and whipped his head in my direction. I settled the pin and touched the trigger. My arrow jumped from the string and zipped right through him. Never before had a hunt transpired so quickly!

The huge buck blasted away, but then  paused for a couple seconds to let his four-point buddy catch up. He dropped his head for a second and I could tell he was hit hard. Then, the two bucks bounded down the mountain together.

I think the rain began the very second my arrow left my bow. I looked up and cursed the skies. Experience tells me that rain is bad news for a blood trail. I started tracking early and with some definite urgency. Fortunately, the heavy blood trail, accompanied by large, dug-in tracks, made my job easy. About 200 yards from the shot location, I could see where the buck had paused. There was a deep elk track completely filled with fresh blood. I plunged my finger to the bottom of it, painting my finger red to my second knuckle. I knew the buck wouldn’t be far. Still, he’d covered way more ground than I hoped; tough buck! Not wanting to bump him, I carefully scanned ahead, hoping to see him piled up. The last thing I wanted was a long tracking job in the rain.

Scanning even farther ahead, my heart suddenly leapt at the sight of a large, grey body lying on the opposite hillside 100 yards away. He still had his head up, but I could tell he was fading. He was even bigger than I thought. From behind, his tall and sprawling rack looked like a caribou, with trash and stickers going everywhere. The buck had made it across a ravine but collapsed while climbing the steep, opposite slope. Just then, the other buck—his four-point companion—came prancing down the hill towards him. In disbelief, the big bruiser buck rose up on wobbly legs. Again, I started to worry, but only for a second because instead of prancing up the mountain, he took three steps and began running sideways, then flipped over upside-down. When he lay motionless, I sighed with relief and thanked God for such a beautiful gift.

I pulled out my walkie-talkie and hailed Esther. “I just shot a giant buck,” I whispered. “Come help me…”

Half an hour later, we cautiously approached the fallen monarch. I’ve walked up on a few impressive animals before, but this one was out of control: extra mass, extra points, extra eye-guards…extra everything! This was no ordinary buck. This was the next level. This was Superbuck! What caught my attention right away was his mass which he carried all the way to the points. I could barely fit my hands around his bases.

superbuck_002

Superbuck may not be the mythical 40-incher that brought me to the mountain, but he’s the buck of my dreams. How could you ask for anything more? Emerson once wrote, “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.” I have no doubt that this mountain could actually grow a 40-inch deer, but I won’t be greedy. I have achieved more with my bow than I ever dreamed of. Superbuck is a buck of a lifetime…again…and I can’t wait to see the buck that replaces him. For the record, Superbuck was entered into the books with a net score of 193 2/8 and a gross score of 205 5/8”.

From this relatively short hunt, I am reminded of all the same lessons I’ve learned from a relatively long life: Dream big, set lofty goals, and take risks. Do whatever it takes to get close, then let Nature unfold on its own terms.

Thanks KC; your tip was right on. Thanks almighty God for allowing me two blown tires; from lemons come lemonade, blessings in disguise. Most of all, thanks Esther for being there during all my greatest hunts. I almost always hunt alone, but when I hunt with you, miracles happen.

superbuck_003

Elk Hunting’s EASY!

(Story published in Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal, September/October 2013, Issue 79)

BeavElk

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, and spent 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.

Beav2

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.

What a great hunt; what a great wife!

Beav3

Edge of perfection: My First Elk

Utah's High Uinta Mountains
Utah’s High Uinta Mountains

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.

Elk Camp, 2009
Elk Camp, 2009

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.

Russell at Chuckles Point.
Russell at Chuckles Point.

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.

High mountain stream.
High mountain stream.

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.

Shot location.
Shot location.

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.

My first bull elk.
My first bull elk.

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.

Mom and Dad packing the elk out.
Mom and Dad packing the elk out.