May/June 2011 EBJ (Issue 65)
Idaho, 2010, DIY, Public Land
- This isn’t going to be a typical beginning for a hunting story. Sitting down to write this I had a lot of options on how to begin - for example, right before I released my arrow I had a 343 bull standing at seven yards. I had worked tirelessly all year to be ready for elk season by competing in mountain bike races, shooting my bow, scouting new country, and investing in camera gear so we could film our backcountry hunts. None of those seemed appropriate. What truly shaped not only my elk season, but also the rest of my life, happened late in July. It’s an experience more compelling, more lifechanging than the hunt of a lifetime.
As I held my fiancée in my arm, tears were streaming down her face. I wasn’t sure what had happened in the phone call with her mother, but I could feel the immense pain she was suffering from. Minutes that felt like hours passed before she could utter out the words, “My father passed away yesterday.” I felt my heart drop to the bottom of my chest.
We had just gotten back into phone service from a weekend camping/ elk scouting trip into some of Idaho’s most beautiful backcountry. Still hours from home, we were faced with the worst news one could hear - the passing of a family member. Within 12 hours, we had made it home and were on a plane to be with her family for what was going to be the hardest week of our lives. Despite my own sadness, the toughest part for me was to look into her eyes and see the suffering.
One long month later, opening day of archery season had arrived. My hunting buddy, Lenny, and I were loading our packs at the trailhead for a weeklong hunt into some of Idaho’s most remote backcountry. The thought of finally getting back out into the wilderness was consuming me as this is my “church,” where I go to seek refuge. The emotional rollercoaster of the last month had taken quite a toll and I was really looking forward to getting back to something familiar. Armed with a new perspective and appreciation for life, I was excited just to be out.
Within 30 minutes of hiking, I had another quick reminder of just how precious and short life can be. Rounding a corner in the trail, we came across a sow and cub in a pile of berry bushes not ten yards away! If not for a tree in between us and them, there might have been a different ending to this story. The sow had spotted us and quickly ran out of the bushes and met us head-on at the trail. I began to draw my bow in selfdefense, but thankfully she changed her mind and ran off with the cub following. I don’t think either of us stopped shaking for quite some time.
After that, the first few days were uneventful. That didn’t matter; I was elk hunting! The first week flew by without anything down, but we had some exceptionally close calls and were full of optimism for our next trip. Deciding to spend some more time with my fiancée, I didn’t get back out until September 13.
That night we had some exceptional hunting. I nearly pulled the trigger on a nice five-point, but the setting sun didn’t allow enough time for it. There were at least 50 elk in the basin, with five shooter bulls - one that we thought was at least 330. We hiked back to camp in complete darkness, excited for the next morning.
The next day started off like any other - waking up hours before sunrise and crawling out of the tent only to be greeted by cold air and dew on the grass. As the sun began to rise, we could see the exact same herd as the night before and there was the bull! The only problem was there was another small herd of elk in between. Not having the option to go around them because of terrain, we decided to get in close and call.
As we got close, Lenny set up and I went ahead 50 yards. He began cowcalling to see if anything would bugle back - nothing. After a few minutes, he decided to bugle and that’s when the hunt was on. Immediately, five bulls lit up the mountain with bugles coming from all directions, including a bull right in front of me that I couldn’t see. After several minutes of waiting, the bull didn’t appear to have any interest in leaving his cows. Without enough cover to make a move and with the soon-shifting thermals, we thought it was best to back out and get above the bull.
We made it up the mountain and set up on a bench that we hoped the bull would travel through. Once again, Lenny bugled and bulls fired off in all directions, but this time there was a bull behind us that had made up some serious ground. We were pegged by bulls within 200 yards in either direction. The bull behind us was in a small ravine and on top of the ridge. Although we couldn’t see him, his bugle was the most dominating. We waited another five minutes, trying to decide what to do - stay here and wait for the bull below us or head after the bull behind us? We made the decision to go after the bull behind us and started working his way.
As we came to a clearing where we could see across the small ravine, we set up to try and call him in. The bull did what most bulls do and stayed out there, never really coming any closer. We couldn’t see him and assumed that he must have cows he wasn’t willing to leave. Without cover to move forward, we had no choice but to sit there and wait for something to happen.
Thirty minutes of calling back and forth passed and he finally moved off. We decided to go after this bull since his bugle was telling us he was extremely fired up. Climbing another 500 feet, we then started sidehilling it across the ravine and toward where he last bugled. Once on top of the ridge he was on, we cow-called to see if he would give up his location. He did - before Lenny finished his call the bull bugled back and was within 400 yards. Looking at Lenny, I said, “It’s time to get aggressive with this guy.”
We jogged/walked 200 yards and then slowed way down, glassing for elk parts through the trees and then taking another step. After 100 yards of doing this, we found a good spot with plenty of shooting lanes. Lenny set up and I moved up 50 yards, sitting in front of an old downed tree.
With an arrow nocked and ready, Lenny let out a couple quiet cow calls and the bull answered right away - he was close! Seconds later, the bull appeared above the small rise and for the first time I saw him. I was afraid to look at his antlers, because I could tell they were massive. At 75 yards, I knew by the path he was on that the shot was going to be close – 60...50...40...30...20 yards and closing.
At ten yards, he paused behind the only tree in between us. I drew, anchored, and waited, but he didn’t move and I feared he had seen me. For what seemed like an eternity, he stood behind that tree. Finally, he stepped out and offered me a shot at seven yards and I squeezed the trigger. I knew instantly it was a perfect shot - the bull whirled, ran 70 yards and started wobbling before going down. I couldn’t believe it!
I walked back toward Lenny with wobbly legs and a surreal feeling. I remember thinking, “So this is what it feels like to take a trophy animal; to accomplish a goal that I’ve worked so hard for.”
Suddenly, I was drawn full circle and I flashed back to that day in late July when my feelings were completely opposite. Only six weeks prior, my fiancée and I had gone through the worst week of our lives and now here I was on top of this beautiful mountain, hunting elk with my bow, and I had just taken a truly wonderful animal. I felt so blessed and couldn’t wait to call her and let her know what had happened
Weeks later, after all was said and done, I began reflecting on all the highs and lows I had gone through. Life is always going to throw you curveballs; all we can do is take them in stride and hopefully come out a better person. My fiancée’s father was an outstanding man and I know he lived his life with that philosophy. He had a passion and love for life that was unmatched by any person I have ever met. All you had to do was shake his hand and he would bring a smile to your face. He was the type of person that inspired you to become a better person, not to take life so seriously and to enjoy every moment. I know I learned a lot from him in the three years I knew him and I will take those lessons with me for the rest of my life.