Twilight Encounter

By Lucas Zemlicka

Eastmans' Bowhunting JournalLucas Zemlicka
Montana, 2009, DIY, Public Land

The massive bull pushed a cow through the steep draw at only 50 yards, and it took everything I had to keep my composure. I was going through the whole shot process in my mind over and over as the bull approached, making sure I didn’t make a mistake. He then stopped broadside, looking my direction, and let out an ear piercing bugle that raised the hair on my neck. I slowly eased my bow to full draw and was visualizing my arrow sailing through the air and hitting the bull on the spot I had picked out behind the shoulder. But rather than releasing the arrow, I decided to let down. He was a great looking bull, but with relatively short beams and G-5s, I had decided to pass on him. The big fronts and good mass were tempting, but I had my sights set on a bull over 330 and there was a lot of season left. He was close to that mark, but I didn’t want to tag out just yet.

The previous year I tagged out on opening day with a mediocre bull and I love bowhunting elk too much to end it on the first day again. Later that morning I met up with my hunting partner, who was hunting close by. He informed me he had connected with a good bull. From his description it sounded like the same one I had encountered earlier in the morning. However, he killed it over a mile from where I was hunting and less than an hour from when I had seen him.

With plenty of water and pack frames on our backs, we hiked in to retrieve his elk. When I laid eyes on the bull, I instantly recognized him. It was in fact the same bull, but I had grossly misjudged him. Grossing over 350 he was a great bull for the area and I was kicking myself for letting him walk. I knew the odds of finding another bull of that caliber were slim, but with a lot of season left and the rut picking up, I tried to remain optimistic.

Several more days of hunting produced a few good bulls, but nothing worthy of wrapping my tag around quite yet. Each day I was seeing a couple of good bulls on some public ground several miles from where I was hunting. Even with my Swarovski spotting scope, I was having trouble deciphering their true size.

Lucas Zemlicka

I was confident that at least one of them was a great bull and was worthy of further investigation. I knew the hike in was going to be long and brutal, so Jason Zemlicka and I loaded up our packs with enough gear to stay the night, if needed. The hike was even worse than I had anticipated; crossing the steep clay draws with our heavy packs took everything we had in us. We arrived well after daylight feeling exhausted but eager to hunt.

We dropped our packs and split up so see if we could locate some elk. I took off to a high spot I could see off in the distance and started glassing. It wasn’t long before I spotted a bull several hundred yards away in a sagebrush flat. It was obvious by his stature that he was a mature bull and a veteran of many seasons; definitely the caliber of bull I had been searching for. He tended to his cows as a couple of small bulls lingered in the distance.

I surveyed the situation and quickly closed the distance to 120 yards, but with all the eyes I couldn’t get closer. I decided to back out and approach from a different angle, hoping to cut the distance between us in half or better.

As I circled around through the bottom of a draw, I caught movement in the timber in front of me. A satellite bull had stolen a cow from the herd bull and was pushing her back into the timber. I was now surrounded by elk and pinned down. I could no longer move without being detected, and the big bull was still over 100 yards away and moving his cows in the opposite direction. I thought about calling, but the elk in this area get hunted hard and are very call shy. Experience has taught me an old bull like this will not tolerate any calling anyway. As he pushed his cows into the timber to bed for the day, I opted to back out and hope for a better opportunity that evening.

I returned that afternoon with hopes of finding him again. When I arrived I instantly heard a bugle from the general direction I had last seen the massive bull that morning. I could tell the bull was on the move, so I scrambled to get in front of him and cut him off. He was bugling periodically, so I knew his general location, but after an hour I had yet to lay eyes on him. I would occasionally catch a glimpse of a cow here and there, but the bull refused to show himself.

As darkness neared, he finally stepped out in a small opening and gave me a quick look at his antlers. My heart sank; it wasn’t the bull I had seen that morning. It was a nice six-point, but not the bull I was after.

Discouraged about wasting valuable hunting time chasing the wrong bull, I quickly hurried back to where I had seen the big bull that morning. I glassed the area, picking it apart, but was unable to locate him. With time running out, I took off across a sagebrush-choked draw to glass over the next ridge.

Partway across I heard a bugle not far ahead. I quickly made my way toward the bugle, trying to get a look at the bull before darkness fell. As I was about to crest the top of a draw, the bull bugled again; he was close! I dropped to the ground and nocked an arrow, but before I had a chance to drop my pack, a cow came over the ridge 30 yards away with a big bull close behind her. It was him! He looked incredible as he stopped on the skyline, silhouetted against the orange sky.

Twilight Encounter

My heart rate was out of control as the adrenalin poured through my body. He was oblivious to my presence but was severely quartering toward me, not offering me a good shot. Light was fading fast as I waited for the bull to turn.

He finally turned to chase the cow, presenting me with a perfect broadside 30-yard shot. I took full advantage of it and sent an arrow on its way, taking out his lungs. I watched as the bull ran 100 yards before slowing to a walk and then lying down for his last time. I gave him several minutes as I tried to regain my composure and let it all sink in.

There are no words to describe the emotions that flooded through me as I walked up to him. He was an old, scarred up bull that had seen his share of battles. My mind was filled with questions as I stared at him. I wondered how many hunters he had eluded over the years. How many bulls had he fought? How old was he?

After savoring the moment for a while, I met up with Jason and we began the process of skinning and quartering. With the hard hike in and temperatures still in the 80s, we had consumed all of our water and had yet to put any meat on a pack frame. We knew the meat wouldn’t last long in that heat, so we had no choice but to press on without any water and pack all the meat out that night. Sick and dehydrated from packing meat all night, we finally unloaded the last load just as light was starting to come over the horizon the following morning.

I knew the bull was big, but I again underestimated his size. With an extremely symmetrical 6x6 frame grossing nearly 380 inches, he far exceeded my expectations.

As if I wasn’t fortunate enough in harvesting such an elk, my luck didn’t end there. I was also able to spot and stalk a good antelope and great mule deer buck in eastern Montana to finish off my year.