Decisions, Decisions...

By Jason Hegg

Eastmans' Bowhunting JournalJason Hegg
Montana, 2008, DIY, Public Land

The trail to my glassing spot was imprinted in my mind, so no headlamp or GPS was needed. The heavy rain that had come in last night was continuing to soak the ground, and large softball sized clumps of mud came flying off my boots as I slipped down the trail. I thought about turning around after a mile or so, partly because I was cold and soaked, but also because the slick mud was slowing down my time. I had to get there before first light so any elk in the area wouldn’t see my approach. Lack of determination has never been a problem for me, so I pushed myself forward despite the rain. After a couple frustrating hours of fighting my way through the heavy gumbo, I could finally make out the faint silhouette of the tall knob I had glassed from many times before.

I had chosen this knob for a high vantage point to glass from, not to take cover during a storm. The few trees around were thin and moving so badly from the wind they were useless. I found a big sagebrush and sat right in the middle of it, at least keeping myself and my gear out of the mud. As the darkness lifted, I realized that even good optics were going to be worthless as the wind was blowing the rain right into the lenses.

The next ridge over had more timber, so after scanning the open areas for any elk, I made a quick decision to hustle over and try glassing from there. As I crossed the large draw to get to the timbered ridge, I had a quick flashback of the last elk encounter I had in this same draw. The weekend before I had spotted a nice trophy 6x6 all by himself, but ended up losing the stalking game due to a swirling wind. “Who knows; I might never get a chance like that again,” I told myself.

As I crested the ridge and finally got out of the rain, I cleaned off my binos and instantly spotted a bull on the other side. I guessed him to be around 320, which I had decided would not be big enough. Every bowhunter has to make their own goals and also have the determination to achieve them. My best bull to date was a 335 gross 6x6, which will always be memorable to me because it was my first big bull with a bow. This year I was hoping to beat that bull. After telling myself several times not to “test stalk” this bull, I started loading everything back into my pack. I heard a soft squeal slip out of the timber above me and spotted a cow and calf walking out of the trees above the large draw I had just crossed. They were heading my direction with their mouths hanging open, obviously out of breath.

That’s when I spotted the bull. His head was tilted back with his nose curled up in the air, trotting down the mountain to catch up with the cow. As mature bulls often do, he had sorted out the hottest cow and isolated her for some alone time. I immediately noticed his impressive front points, and after waiting for a side view, I confirmed he was a shooter.

These elk were unaware of my presence and moving fast. My first thought was to get down in the draw in front of them and intercept them before they passed by, but these elk were trotting into the wind, so on to Plan B. There was a good chance they might head up toward the ridge I was on, so I decided to stay put for now. Of course, they did just the opposite, appearing out of a coulee directly across the draw from me. They were about 300 yards away as the crow flies, but the deep draw separating us made this attempt a little difficult. There was not a lot of cover and once they crested that ridge my chance would be limited. The other side was covered with thick, nasty timber which would not make for a good stalk. I figured they would bed in there for the day, so I had to make the decision of either making something happen quickly, or come back tonight and try again. I’ve never had much luck still-hunting through a bedding area, so I let my instincts take over. It was time to get this elk now.

Jason Hegg

I dropped my pack and studied the terrain one last time. As with all stalks, the wind was the major influence on my approach. I began my descent toward them at a snail‘s pace, with no trees for cover or any coulees to hide in. The cow and calf fed over the ridge, so I could pick up the pace a little with only one set of eyes to watch out for. Every time his large browtines tipped forward to feed, I advanced. By the time I saw his antlers go over the ridge, I had almost reached the bottom of the draw. I had a good 200 yards to reach the top of the ridge, so I ripped off my raincoat and began running. The thick, slippery mud made it difficult, and I lost my footing and began sliding back downhill several times.

I had to take a second to catch my breath before peeking over the hill. My wind check confirmed the wind was still mostly in my favor. I nocked an arrow and crawled to a lone tree at the top. Slowly rising to my knees, I glassed over the broken terrain for the elk. Nothing. I slipped back down and moved ten yards up the ridge. Once again I peeked over to search for the elk and caught movement through some trees. It was the cow, followed by the calf. They were almost 100 yards away and heading back toward the thick timber to bed. I started ranging landmarks in case the bull showed himself. Just as I was beginning to think I should try to back out, I heard a very distinct sound. Heavy antlers were demolishing a rain-soaked pine.

The loud, gusty wind made it hard to pinpoint his exact location, but I soon noticed a ten-foot tree being thrown around in every direction. I dropped back behind the ridge and sprinted 30 yards uphill to keep the wind in my favor. As I crawled back over the top, I spied his large, heavy sword points. “Don’t look at those. Pick a spot; pretend it’s a target or something,” I thought to myself.

With his eyes buried in the tree, I drew my bow and got up on my knees to take the shot. As I settled my top pin high in the vitals, he suddenly stopped raking and let out a squeal toward the cow and calf. He shook his head to dislodge the loose branches from his antlers and then took a step toward them. Once he stopped, my arrow was sent his direction. The hit was loud, and he exploded down the mountain.

I ran to a high spot to watch his escape. I saw the arrow fall out, and then he disappeared in another coulee. The cow and calf spooked to the next ridge with no bull in tow, and my heart started racing with excitement. After 15 minutes of sitting in the rain, Decisions, Decisions...I went down to inspect my arrow. It was good blood, but I hadn’t gotten a full arrow length of penetration, so I decided to sit and wait. After an hour, I picked up the blood trail. 

I had definitely taken at least one lung; there were a lot of bubbles in the blood. It looked like someone had walked down the mountain with a large paintbrush in their hand, dripping red paint on the grass. He had to be lying dead close by. I found one bed, full of blood, but then lost the direction of the blood trail. I was confused, not because there wasn’t any blood, but because it looked like he had gone three different directions. My optimism was fading fast and I started to panic a little. I followed the track that continued in the same direction he had been going. Paying too much attention to the ground, I was startled by some movement just ahead.

The same big sword points I had watched work over the tree were now moving side to side at less than ten yards. He was bedded in a little side coulee and must have detected I was near. I think he was looking around trying to find an escape route. The coulee was steep and about four feet deep, covering most of his body and making a shot at his bedded vitals impossible. I nocked an arrow and drew my bow, knowing this shot was going to happen fast. He stumbled sideways as he jumped up, and not thinking properly, tried to jump up a vertical dirt bank. He scrambled up the bank and finally got his back legs up on top, and then hesitated to catch his breath. My second arrow buried deep behind his shoulder. He ran over the hill, and by the time I figured out a way to get over the bank to see him, he was dead.

As I put my hands on him, I realized he had a lot more mass than any bull I had taken before. His tines were long, but he was relatively short-beamed with smaller fifths. Was he bigger than my 335 bull? The excitement and unforgettable memories of this hunt make this trophy bull even more valuable to me. Bowhunting is about decisions, knowing when to make them, and which ones to make. Did I shoot a bull I would be happy with? Maybe I should have backed out and left them for the day. Did I make a bad choice to follow the blood trail? Each decision could have affected the outcome differently. In the end, though, I know I made the right decisions. Even with only 43-inch main beams, he was officially scored with a gross score of 352-7/8.