Bulls, Bears, and Horse Wrecks

By Melanie DeBusk

Melanie DeBuskMelanie DeBusk
Wyoming 2006
Public Land, DIY

Horse wrecks and no elk - that's the way our 2006 elk hunt started out. I never thought we would have grizzlies and bulls at 10-15 yards and harvest two of our best elk ever.

As we do every fall, my husband, Marion, and I had been planning and looking forward to our archery elk hunting pack trip for months. Of all the hunting we do, I love elk hunting best. After an early breakfast and loading horses and gear, we arrived at the trailhead a couple of hours from our home in Cody, Wyoming. We know the area well and planned to make camp a couple of ridges in at 8,500 feet, about eight miles from the trailhead.

With horses packed up, we headed in, ready for a week of elk hunting. We had an uneventful ride into our campsite through some of the most beautiful country on Earth, but as Marion was unpacking one of the pack horses, it threw a fit, running and bucking all around the campsite. The rodeo finally settled down, we got things picked up, the cook stove salvaged and the camp set up. About then we heard an elk bugle. It always sends a chill down my spine.

We started out scouting and glassing until we reached a prominent spot we knew above the timberline where we could glass a vast area. Marion and I watched and listened until nearly 2 p.m. We didn't see or hear anything. Marion suggested we try the timber where we had found elk last year. As we started working our way down into the timber, we found a game tail.

We hadn't gone far when there it was right in the middle of the trail - a big pile of bear scat. Further investigation found that it was not fresh. A way's further down the trail we came upon the next pile and it was still steaming. Marion and I have camped and hunted in grizzly country for many years. We've never had, and don't want, a bear encounter or conflict.

I looked at Marion and suggested we quickly work towards the edge of the timber, more into the open. We got out of the timber and worked our way down the ridge towards another patch of timber. Marion suggested that we go into the timber, where he would set up and try calling for me. I left Marion, worked my way down the hill, and found a good clear spot to get set up. I unholstered my pepper spray as a precaution. As I knelt down, I noticed the ground was torn up. I put my pepper spray next to me on the ground. Marion began cow calling. As I scanned the trees for any movement, I heard a sound above me and remember thinking, 'Boy, that is a big bird.' I looked up and over my shoulder looking for a big bird. It wasn't a big bird.

In a tree not more than 20 or 30 feet from me there were two grizzly bear cubs. They nearly startled me to death. I will never forget looking up and seeing noses and eyes staring back at me. I took a quick look around - no mama bear! I grabbed my bow and pepper spray and hauled up the hill toward where I thought Marion was. Where was Marion? Marion thought I had seen something and that I was moving to get repositioned, so he didn't say anything. Finally I yelled out to him; I had run right past him. We got out of those trees and I stayed close by Marion's side the rest of the day.

Before we broke out onto the open ridge the next morning, we set up to call; it was early and we thought there would be a good chance to get a response. I thought I heard a faint bugle in the opposite direction from where we were heading. Marion didn't hear anything - he was too busy calling.

We decided to change plans and head in the direction of the faint bugle that I thought I was hearing. Sometimes the draws, ridges and timber make sounds bounce and really, it can be difficult to pinpoint. It would take a few hours to get to where we needed to, but it was still early and we had nothing to lose.

By two o'clock we were most of the way; we had reached the bend in the timber we were heading for. As luck would have it, we heard a cow. Marion called back; the cow answered. We heard her move and then nothing, no answer. We sat at the edge of the trees where we could glass the open ridge and the bowl above us. An elk bugled right after Marion threw out another cow call. Marion kept calling, and the bull kept bugling.

Then, not five minutes later - 300 to 400 yards away over the ridge walked a bull. What a sight -- a nice bull bugling right on the skyline, and no cows. We made a mad dash up the steep part of the ridge. When we reached the top of the tree line, the bull bugled. It sounded as if he was headed down the other side. We stayed along the tree line working towards the bull, when Marion spotted elk on the open hillside.

Marion began cow calling, and it was as if someone opened the door. There were elk bugling everywhere. There was even one that sounded like we had hiked right past it, which we probably had.

The bull we were after kept bugling; it sounded as if he was right below us. Then I heard the bull raking his horns. This was our chance. I snuck out of sight of the cows to get Marion. The timber had thinned out, and we had to be careful sneaking around the few trees so the cows wouldn't see us. The bull had moved down the creek, but he was still raking his horns.

We were able to sneak right in. I stayed behind while Marion moved to get a broadside shot. Marion shot; I heard the arrow hit the bull, a perfect pass-through lung shot. The bull lifted his head, looked at me, looked around and then back at me again. I was so close to the bull I was afraid to blink my eyes. I could not believe it; this bull had no idea that he had just been shot. It seemed like forever before he decided to turn and walk out of the creek bottom, giving Marion another shot - again right through the bull. He ran 150 yards and died in the open, which was a nice bonus considering the marauding bears. The open country would allow us to keep an eye out for grizzlies.

On our last full day of hunting, we came to the top of a ridge and heard elk bugling in the distance; off we went up and over another ridge. We knew we were close to a bull when we ran into cows. We froze where we were; I slowly got an arrow nocked and watched the cows file through the trees. Then up from behind us came the worst sound an elk hunter could ever hear; The 'I caught you' bark. Busted! Cows scattered everywhere through the trees. But then the bull bugled again! Marion said, 'Move in closer, toward the bull.' I inched my way and hadn't gone 20 yards when I ran right into the bull. All I could do was drop to my knees. I couldn't draw, I couldn't move. The bull kept walking right at me. I think it was my bow and arrow shaking that made him turn and run up the hillside. I was disappointed and, of course, I blamed my husband. If he hadn't suggested that I move in closer, the bull might have walked right by us.

We got back to camp and started getting things ready to pack up in the morning. Our elk hunting was coming to an end. We had gotten out of our hunting clothes; I began boiling some water for something hot to drink and to unwind from the day's encounter. I guess I was still beating myself up for not having my chance when an elk bugled. It seemed as if it was right in camp. Marion looked at me and said, as I was looking at my watch, 'No way. It's too late; we pack out tomorrow.' But when the bull continued bugling, we decided to go after him.

Not more than 100 yards out of camp Marion spotted the bull. We came up with a plan -- Marion would set up to call and pointed me to a patch of trees 50 yards away. As I worked my way to the trees, I spotted the elk. I had a 20-yard opening in front of me with no cover. I decided not to take the chance. I backed up to a huge dead tree. I waved to Marion so he knew where I was. Marion began to cow call - the bull bugled and chuckled. Marion called again - the bull started to walk through the trees toward the call, which is not what I thought he would do. I thought for sure he would circle around to get the wind. Panic set in. I needed to find a shooting lane through the trees. There was only one spot if the bull stayed on his course. The bull stopped and bugled again then continued towards Marion. I drew my bow; the bull walked into my shooting lane. I aimed behind the front shoulder and released. The bull spun around and ran back the same way he had just come. As he got to the edge of the trees and went out of sight, it looked as if he was wobbling. I looked over at Marion and he was laughing. 'Did you see that? The bull was standing right there,' he said. He pointed to the tracks in the ground, not five yards from where he was kneeling and calling. Marion found my arrow - it was a complete pass-through, and the blood looked good. With darkness coming quickly, we didn't wait to look for the bull. We went right to where I had last seen him. And there he was. I had shot a beautiful 5 x 6.

Now the work began; it was getting dark and we needed to take care of the elk. Marion stayed with the elk, and I went for a few fellows from Casper we had bumped into early. They were happy to lend a hand.

The next day Marion and I packed my bull out to our truck and horse trailer at the trailhead and then rode back in, packed camp up, said goodbye to our new friends from Casper, and packed out. It was a 16-hour day and nearly midnight, but we were home: no horse wrecks, safe and sound. Marion's elk scored 345 and mine 286 Pope & Young. Of all the hunting we do, I love elk hunting best!