10 Lessons one Bull Taught Me

I’ve bowhunted elk nearly 30 years, 23 spent guiding bowhunters from across the nation.  I’ve also arrowed 13 Pope & Young-caliber bulls, three scoring better than 360, my best 386 inches.  I’ve penned countless articles about elk hunting, even wrote a definitive book on the subject (“Bowhunting Modern Elk,” 2008, Intermedia Outdoors). I could grow cocky in the matter, but if I’ve learned nothing more over the last decades it’s that in bowhunting, you never quit learning. Each hunt brings new lessons, every location unique challenges. So it was with my 2011 Idaho bull – my first since moving away from New Mexico – one bull instilling 10 truths inherent to elk hunting anywhere.

1. Elk Are Where You Find Them, Not Where You Want Them To Be

I’ve spent the first weeks of the season ignoring the obvious, convinced elk will prefer gentle, rolling tops covered with lush meadows to jagged, falling country well below, offering only rock and scree. Maybe I’m simply being lazy, avoiding the vertical stuff as long as possible. One day, sitting on a precipice overlooking “The Abyss,” listening to faint bugles drifting from the bottom, I know I’ll have to set aside preconceptions and delve into that ugly terrain… 

2. Big Antlers Don’t Equal Aggressive Demeanor

I dog bugling elk all morning, choosing a single bull because I judge him the biggest based on his deep bugles. In time I close on the deep-throated bull, offering him a series of spike squeals.  He arrives promptly, pulling up at 25 yards broadside – wearing a puny 5x5 rack. So much for judging trophy quality on voice alone.

I turn to another bull, soon catching him in the river itself, an impressive 6x6 as big as anything witnessed all season. He stands belly deep, cooling off from warming temperatures. He is in range but a tangled willow prevents a shot. I offer a muffled bugle but he thunders out of the river and up the opposite ridge point, leading me on a merry chase well into the noon hour...

3. Revisiting Calling

The fact I’m calling at all is remarkable. I’ve declared calling to be dead many times over the years, witnessing bulls growing increasingly wary of first bugles, and then cow calls and ultimately hyper-hot cow calls. I’ve regularly announced calling will literally blow your chances of success, too many hunters doing too many dumb things while operating calls.

Then I move to Idaho.  Despite wolves and plummeting elk populations, I discover bulls willing to respond to bugling with encouraging regularity. This might have something to do with the thronged habitat here. Lots of elk get called within bow range without being killed, but they’re not being wounded or even shot at due to that brush. That’s just a theory...

4. Laser Rangefinder Aren’t Foolproof

I catch my 6x6 late the following evening, spotting first a knot of cows filing from the river a couple hundred yards away, marshaled by the distinctive 6x6 bull. I allow them to file across open ground and into adjacent firs and perform a move unique to bowhunting elk -- moving aggressively but quietly, taking advantage of the momentary opportunity while nocking an arrow on the fly. I miraculously arrive without detection and see elk legs churning beneath cover and occasional tan patches, ghosting into tighter vegetation. I produce a belligerent bugle and spurt forward. The bull’s there, quartering away, through a tight tunnel of limbs.

There’s no time to range, the bull eyeing me over his shoulder, and I doubted I can get an accurate reading through all the clutter.  Luckily, I’m not entirely dependent on laser rangefinders, though it often seems I’m losing my edge because of them…

5. No Such Thing as a Perfect Shot

Hitting my anchor I hesitate briefly, picking a spot and centering it between the 40- and 50-yard pins. It’s a dicey shot at best. I take a moment to calculate arrow trajectory in relation to that constricted window of opportunity. The angle’s also questionable. I decide by bending my knees slightly the arrow will clear. I trust the sturdy cut-on-contact broadhead and heavy carbon arrow (10 gpi). In elk hunting there’s no waiting for a situation to improve. You go for it, or you don’t.  It all comes down to confidence... 

6. Questioning Quartering Shots

My biggest qualm stems from the angle. Outdoor writers seem altogether sold on quartering shots, but with elk I’ve seen too many negative outcomes to call it ideal. One of the damn few bulls I’ve lost while bowhunting, a 360-plus New Mexico behemoth, resulted from a quartering shot. The arrow looked good even after the hit; ample penetration, in the right spot – but after three days of concerted effort I came up empty handed. I speculate the replaceable-blade broadhead surfed off a rib and slid beneath hide and shoulder without entering the body cavity... 

7. Never Pass a Follow-Up Shot

I allow the bowstring to slip away, losing the arrow in flight but hearing a solid thump indicating a hit. The bull humps and smashes uphill. I nock another arrow and circle a point of trees on the run, seeking an opening. The bull appears, looking over his shoulder to where he accepted my arrow, quartered at something like 80 yards (no time to range, again). It’s for these situations alone I install 7-pin bow sights. I normally don’t shoot game at 80 yards, but there’s nothing to lose attempting to poke another hole in an animal you’ve already hit mortally, no matter the range. I sweep the bottom pin onto the bull’s ribs and send another shaft away. There’s a loud crack as arrow meets bone and the bull vanishes in a single hop… 

8. Never, Ever Give Up Blood

The going’s tedious the following morning, picking through nasty second-growth firs and waist-high ferns, keeping my way via infrequent specs of blood, marking each with squares of toilet paper.  In three hours I’ve made only 150 yards, tempted every minute to sweep ahead anxiously seeking a protruding antler or patch of hide, but resisting the urge. To abandon blood is to risk losing everything. Blood, no matter how scant, no matter how widely spaced, is your only sure link to a mortally-hit animal... 

9. Mortally-Wounded Game Doesn’t Always Travel Downhill

One of the reasons I’m tempted to abandon blood is it just won’t lead where I want to go.  It continues to angle straight uphill when everyone knows mortally-wounded animals always go downhill. But that’s exactly where the blood leads, finally exiting cursed second growth where it has been impossible to even see my feet, angling across an old burn where I can track hoof prints in loose dirt and move the trail at a brisker pace. Up and up the trail takes me, another 400 yards where I find him, on his side, stiff as lumber. The first shot did the deed, taking liver and a single lung. It’s the second shot, in the shoulder with minimal penetration, which spills tracking blood (refer to 7), the fatal wound plugging despite burying arrow to fletchings. 

10. Trophy Quality Is Relative

The bull is gorgeous, dark antlers the color of walnut meats tipped by polished ivory.  He’ll surpass P&Y minimums with ease (though I use scores only as a talking reference, abandoning record books long ago). Yet based on score alone he’s one of the smallest archery bulls I’ve taken to date. Still, he looms large in my mind, one of my hardest won, a “trophy” in every sense of the word well beyond arbitrary numbers. The bull that’ll always remain one of my favorites.

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