Elk Hunting Sabbatical
July/August 2011 EBJ (Issue 66)
Montana, 2010, DIY, Public Land
- The anticipation was killing me as I checked and re-checked the math. It should be a sure thing, but I needed desperately to hear the words. I walked into the academic advisor’s office at Montana State University and he stated, "Well Nick, I’ve added up all your credits and you are set to graduate a semester early. You’ll be done after next fall.”
I quickly shot back, "I’m taking the fall off, and I’ll finish in the spring.”
"It sounds like you knew this all along. Do you have any exciting plans for the fall?” he asked.
"Oh yeah, I’ve got plans; big plans…”
On the drive home, hunting districts, draw odds, equipment, and the sheer possibilities ahead of me seemed to be flowing out of my ears. I was going to have the entire fall free to hunt whenever and wherever I wanted. Knowing that my hunting time the next four years might be severely compromised due to attending out-of-state dental schools, this was my chance to "go out swinging”, and have no regrets at the end of the season. In the end, my goal was to have a picture of me sitting behind a hard-fought bull - one that I was proud of, knowing that I deserved him more than anybody else.
The lazy days of August were coming to a close as I prepared camping gear, food, and bows. I said goodbye to family and friends, literally not knowing when I would be home again.
A few hours later I pulled into my camping area only to find it was filled with a trailer that resembled a house on wheels. I moved on, only to find trailers and tents in nearly every available pullout! I finally pulled my truck off the road and crawled under my topper for a restless night. Sleep didn’t come easy, not because of the typical opening day jitters, but rather because of the constant flow of trucks and trailers filled with eager hunters who were quickly saturating the area. I struggled to keep my hopes up.
A few hours later I began what would be the first of many long miles in the dark. The timing was perfect as I reached a prominent vantage point just as first light dawned on the 2010 archery season.
I instantly found a group of cows being tended by a 300-class six-point. I wasn’t real anxious to kill this bull, but I decided to "practice stalk” him anyway. Within minutes I had spotted ten hunters, four of which were closing in on this very same group of elk. I elected to sit back and watch this cluster transpire. The area quickly sounded like a sporting goods store as hunters produced cow calls from all directions. The elk began running directly to me, so I hunkered down inthe sage brush and watched as they filed by at 60 yards. As they departed over the ridge, I smiled and gave the bull kudos for surviving 4-5 years in an area where hunters seem as plentiful as elk.
Three days later, the pounding rain on my topper awakened me at 2 a.m. After an hour of listening to it, I decided to start my hunt two hours early. I slipped and slid down the trail, trying to keep my feet under me. After 3.5 miles of hiking, I heard a bugle thunder over the splatter of rain hitting mud. This bull was on the move, but I had over an hour before dawn. The bull seldom bugled, but when he did, I quickly closed the distance.
I was in position before legal light and glassing into the coulee. I counted 13 cows and knew the bull with them had to be a good one. To the right, a cow came trotting out. I watched as the bull ducked and weaved his head through the trees, displaying amazing agility considering the 30-lb. growth on his head. He stopped at the edge of the opening, his cape and antlers appearing exceptionally dark due to the pounding rain, and released a hoarse bugle. I began trembling - this was a bull I could be happy with.
After he disappeared, I heard the unmistakable clash of rain-soaked antlers. I used this to my advantage and quickly tiptoed over to see the rivals in a battle unlike any I had ever seen - a fury of slinging mud and torn-up earth. I stood with an arrow nocked, amazed at the noise these two could produce.
As the bulls parted, I quickly reached full draw and settled on the larger of the two. At the shot, a mist exploded from my strings as the moisture they held was released into the air. The bulls ran off and I strained to see any sign of a hit on the larger one. I went in search of my arrow and found it stuck in a sagging cedar, covered with no more than raindrops. I was mad, knowing that was probably my only chance on a bull that big.
The next six days were filled with some big bull sightings but no close encounters. I headed home for a couple days to hopefully hear some encouragement from friends, because that missed opportunity was a vivid memory I couldn’t clear from my mind.
Two days later I was back at it, hiking miles in the dark, chasing bulls and eluding hunters. That evening, I was hiking into an area when I noticed the unmistakable frame of a big bull sticking out of each side of a cedar tree. Catching my attention was a 27-inch browtine sticking nearly straight up from his base. I was too close for comfort. The wind was wrong, and impeding cattle had me pegged. With 30 minutes of light left, the bull stood and began feeding over the near hill. After a physically exhausting effort to get him that failed, I dropped to my knees and rested my head on the ground, seemingly paralyzed in exhaustion and frustration. Hiking out in the dark was brutal. I began to mentally break down.
Days 13-20 produced very few encounters as the September heat returned. I pushed on, hunting on pins and needles while waiting for the next rattlesnake at my feet. To top it off, I was also now sleeping with a colony of mice, which seemed to think my truck provided a great shelter.
October came, and the reality of hunting 20 days solo was beginning to take its toll. I was mentally beat and I had lost an unnecessary 14 pounds. I was about to give up when I ran into a friend from school, Chet Cook, doing the same thing. Having some camp camaraderie was the best way to elevate my spirits.
Day 24 brought a typical fall day – a cool morning that quickly gave way to a warm afternoon. Chet and I spotted one bull and a handful of cows nearly two miles away. Through the spotting scope, we knew he was decent and probably a shooter considering the limited time left in the season. His most attractive attribute was a set of matching seventh points coming off the base of his fourths. While we weren’t able to get him that day, we had our target now.
Like so many other days, number 25 started at 4 a.m. Chet and I headed toward the seven-point, and were caught midstride as a bugle erupted directly in front of us. Scrambling up a hillside, we lay on our stomachs while catching glimpses of him tending his cows at 200 yards. I was slowly creeping up to a pine tree when I heard footsteps walking just below me. I nocked an arrow and motioned for Chet to sit tight, as the elk were very close. I had yet to reach the cover of the pine, and Chet was stuck in the open - neither of us were ready for what was about to unfold.
A cow appeared and walked right past me, stopping at 18 yards before staring us down, wondering where a couple of camo-clad hunters had come from. I was staring forward, doing my best statue, when a pine tree seven yards in front of me began to move. The massive seven point maneuvered his antlers under the low-hanging branches, looking bigger than life and trying to decide if he should trample me or run the other way. Thankfully, he chose the latter.
As he whirled, I drew in one fluid motion and gave my cow chirp. He trotted a few yards and turned to look back just as my arrow smashed into his chest and the herd exploded down the coulee. I turned back to Chet to see a video camera rolling, which had just caught the entire sequence.
We lost sight of him and decided time was our friend. After quite a bit of searching with no sign at all, we decided to separate and cover more ground. After another fruitless hour, I saw Chet waving me down and he didn’t look thrilled. I caught up with him and he relayed that he had found blood nearly a mile down the coulee. I began to panic and started hiking down the coulee a ways when Chet stopped and said, "Nick, what if I told you I found your bull?”
"I found him, he’s down and I’m not kidding.” I couldn’t believe it! After 25 days of pounding miles, eating peanut butter, fighting mice, and avoiding snakes, it had finally come to an end. The emotion was overwhelming. I had hunted harder than I thought possible.
I walked up to the bull and pulled out my GPS - 249.6 miles hiked for the year. I looked skyward and asked myself if it had been worth it. I pulled the bull’s massive antlers out of the grass, produced a faint smile and said, "Yup. This was my plan all along.”