Bow hunting elk has always been my passion. The close encounters with wild rutting bulls and the adrenaline rush that follows is not easily replaced by any other activity on earth. Once in a while, another hunting opportunity comes along to distract my attention away from elk, even if only for a brief period.
I hadn’t ever hunted big game with my friend, Doug. In fact, we hadn’t seen each other much at all since our school-age days of hunting waterfowl together as often as humanly possible. We re-connected through social media and decided to hunt elk in an area we had both considered for many years, but never actually visited. My primary objective was to help Doug kill a big bull with his stick bow. I knew the area well enough to know that big bulls were killed every year; perseverance was going to be the key to our success.
After a brutally early wake-up, we drove through the hours that nearly all sane-minded people slept and arrived at our “trailhead” just before dawn. It was early September and the weather was perfect for the long hike ahead. Our plan was to make camp about 4 miles deep and explore our new surroundings in search of elk—and maybe a bear. Over the next couple days, we hiked, glassed, and found very little fresh sign of elk. We did manage to locate a decent bull and his small harem on the second evening just above our camp. After 30 minutes of calls back-and-forth, the wind completed its predictable downhill swap and the game was over.
Day three began without a single bugle. I was beginning to think that there weren’t many elk in our particular basin. We hiked farther up the drainage; a direction we hadn’t yet explored. As we progressed, faint bugles could be heard in the distance. The topography of the land made it very difficult to decipher exactly where the sounds were coming from. A small bull responded to our pleading cow calls and moved in quickly for a closer look. Doug elected to pass on the bull, still confident we would find some of his big brothers and cousins.
The once-distant bugles became much closer until it was clear that elk were rapidly moving our direction over the adjacent ridge. We quickly crossed the valley floor and began to climb the opposite mountain in pursuit of our newly-arrived quarry. We worked several great setups in customary caller-shooter style. Doug needed only inches or steps on several nice bulls for shot opportunities to emerge. During the action, one particular bull was ripping deep and distinctive bugles every couple minutes as he worked across the other side of a nasty slot canyon. After some discussion and reluctance, Doug launched himself down the precarious slope hoping to get across and ahead of the bull as it moved. My calls slowed the bull somewhat, but he was determined toward a location which would become his bedding area for the day. The nasty combination of steep terrain and almost impenetrable jungle of scrub oak and thorny brush prevented Doug from continuing his advance. Doug was able to see the bull at one point; he was massive. The giant’s frequent bugles were now stationary indicating he had found his bed. Doug returned to my side of the slot and we made a plan to climb around and above, hoping to find a better avenue and favorable upslope midday wind.
After a climb in the growing heat, Doug and I found an excellent perch among some cliffs where we could glass the slope below. The big bull was mostly quiet now, only an occasional bugle which let us know he was still in the thick tangle. As we glassed the terrain and pondered a new strategy, a large oak tree began to sway back-and-forth. I immediately thought we found the bull’s exact spot by him rubbing a tree. This hope was quickly replaced by another reality—a bear was in the oak tree gorging itself on the abundant acorns. This was an elk hunt until now. Enter the welcome distraction.
I had been searching for an opportunity on another bear for some years. After spotting the first bear, two others were located the same way. We watched these bears for about twenty minutes trying to decide which to pursue. We hoped we could kill one without disrupting the resting bull only a couple hundred yards farther down the hill. We picked some landmarks along our stalk route and began our descent into the bear infested scrub.
We advanced along our predetermined route and came to our final landmark. Doug was armed with the video camera; I was armed with my new Xpedition Archery killing machine. As anticipated, I moved slowly around a final tree to find the big bear its original location. With film rolling, my first arrow sailed harmlessly under the bear’s chest (most guys would have probably used a rangefinder in this situation. I’m a knucklehead sometimes). The clatter of the arrow through the trees below caused the bear to ignore the task of eating and look around for the cause of the commotion. My second arrow found its mark and the bear instantly fell out of sight into a tangle of oak brush. As with many of my attempted video kills, the entire sequence wasn’t captured on camera; Doug was busy watching the action and filming the ground at his feet (easy to be distracted after stalking to within 30 yards of a bear!). We sat for an hour, uncertain of the exact location of the hit. Neither of us relished the thought of tracking a wounded bear through this thick, tangled mess. Our bull sounded-off a few times to let us know he was still there, almost taunting us in the process.
As we cautiously approached the last know location of the bear, growls, snapping, and thrashing erupted from the trees 5 yards to our left; it seemed that our wounded bear scenario was about to begin. Doug and I looked at each other, knowing what lie ahead as we mentally prepared for the worst. As I stepped to my right to find a place to sit and gather my thoughts, dark fur was visible on the opposite side of a boulder. My bear was dead only feet from the point it was impaled by the arrow. It was lying still and had obviously been that way since just seconds after the hit. The other bear that growled at us must have been approaching with cannibalistic intentions.
We skinned the bear, snapped a few photos, and bagged all the meat. It was still early afternoon when we finished the task and our big bull was still only a short distance downhill. We made a half-measured stalk attempt on the bull, setting up to call once. The terrain and vegetation was just too thick for a stalk on the resting bull. Although the big bull never came to investigate, a nice satellite bull was quite interested in the seductive cow calls I delivered. This bull managed to get around Doug and to within 5 yards of me—twice! After another missed shot opportunity for Doug that day, we decided to get busy packing meat. Certainly, these elk and the big bull with them would be nearby in the morning, right?
Most hunting stories contain great lessons learned. This is where our lesson enters the story. Never willingly walk away from a great bull hoping to find him the next day. I knew this already, but even seasoned hunters make mistakes. We never found that bull again, and our valley was once again quiet without his presence. To my friend, Doug: Thanks for allowing me the welcome distraction and your help with the nasty pack-out. I’m sorry we left that bull, let’s get him this year!