An Adventure on Elk Island

By Ken Carter

Eastmans' Bowhunting JournalKen Carter
Montana, 2009, Guided 

Every September brings the excitement and anticipation of the approaching archery elk season. Being from the South and only having opportunity to hunt these magnificent creatures every two or three years, I find myself longing to hear the screams of a big mature bull.

I have been very fortunate over the past 20 years to make several archery elk hunts in Colorado and New Mexico. Up until this past season, my personal best was a 320- class 6x6 bull taken in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico, but nothing prepared me for what I would experience on my 2009 hunt in Montana.

I stepped off the plane into Big Sky country during the first week of September. My friend Gary had come up a few days early to scout and was there waiting on me. As we drove, he told me that they had already spotted some good bulls in the area.

The temperatures were still very warm and the elk only moved early and late in the day. Past experience with warm temperatures had taught me that these critters don’t like the heat.

After several hours of driving, we finally arrived at our destination and I met my guide for the week, Dan “Herd Bull” Hull. We spent the next hour discussing our game plan and he informed me we were to travel several miles upriver by boat. Yes, by boat. The boat would serve as our main means of transportation to and from our hunting location. This was going to be unlike any other elk hunt I’d ever been on.

The next morning brought cool temperatures on the river. There was just enough daylight to make out the river bends and steep banks. As we approached a high bluff, Dan slowed the motor down to a creep. He navigated the boat toward a small sandbar at the foot of the bluff and we climbed to the top to glass the river bottom from above.

From our vantage point, we could see elk on the move at daylight. To my left, two small bulls crossed the river, while several more elk headed for their bedding area above us. I could now hear bugling straight out in front of me. Several hundred yards away, I noticed a treetop moving violently, but couldn’t see the bull. A few minutes passed and I anxiously waited to see if it was the bull we were looking for.

The trees parted like a theater curtain when he stepped out of the timber. The first thing I noticed was his huge ivory antlers; he was definitely a bull of a lifetime. I watched him work his cows down the river until he was directly below us.

Before Dan could say a word, I was on my feet and reaching for my gear. We picked up the pace and dropped down on the other side of the ridge. Before we could set up a good ambush location, the elk were already on the other side. The big 6x6 appeared from behind a rock ledge and was right behind his cows. He was definitely too far for a shot, and there was no need to chase him and take a chance on blowing it. After all, this was the first day of the hunt.

The next morning we found ourselves right back on the same vantage point as the day before. The river bottom was full of elk, but they seemed somewhat scattered. We saw a nice bull crossing the river with a few cows, but there was no sign of the big 6x6. I really wanted to wait and see if he would show up again. After 30 minutes and no sighting of the big 6x6 I gave in and we headed toward the elk movement.

As we headed down the trail, I happened to look back and spotted the big 6x6 crossing the river with a couple of cows. Without hesitation, we immediately changed our plans. This time the bull crossed over onto an island in the river. Dan had already told me about this island and how he had experienced several encounters with elk there before.

An Adventure on Elk Island

We quickly returned to the boat and headed back downriver toward the island. We had already discussed our strategy, so we approached it from the back side. After reaching shore, I left Dan and made my way down a hundred yards.

I had been in position for ten minutes when Dan started a series of cow calls, followed by a bugle. The hair-raising scream that followed couldn’t have been more than a few hundred yards away. He was close, and he was fired up.

Dan followed up with another series of cow calls. Several minutes passed and I heard some limbs breaking. The bull was heading my way through the timber’s edge. I nervously got into position, facing the sounds of the approaching bull.

He stopped right before he entered my shooting lane to scope out the area for the intruder. I could only see his browtines and the tip of his nose when threw his head back and let out another blood-curdling scream. My adrenaline was at an all-time high and I started to draw, but decided to wait since I couldn’t see any of his vitals.

Instead of walking behind the tree as I had hoped, he walked in front of it. He was now less than 30 yards away and I had no choice; I had to draw.

As I drew, he picked up my movement. He spooked, running directly away from me. I was already at full draw, and in shear panic I let out two calming cow calls. He stopped and turned back to check me out one last time. He was now in the wide open at the edge of the meadow. I instinctively settled my 50-yard pin on his vitals and released the arrow. I saw the shaft bury up to the fletching in the center of his lungs.

An Adventure on Elk Island

The bull bolted and ran back in the direction from which he came. I thought I heard him go down, but the dense forest made it impossible to see or hear anything. My heart was racing and reality started to set in. I walked over to the spot where I had last seen the bull, marked it, and went back to locate Dan.

After 30 minutes, we headed down the trail in the direction the bull fled. At first, we didn’t find any blood, but after walking another 50 yards, I found my arrow covered in blood. From that point on, it was no problem following the blood trail.

I had stopped to scan the forest floor when I saw the massive antlers sticking up only 50 yards away. As I approached the bull, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

After all the celebrating, we took several dozen pictures and reminisced about the hunt. This particular hunt, which ended by taking a 384-1/8 P&Y giant, ranks at the top of my personal achievements as a bowhunter.