As the skies darkened, we splashed our way uphill on the two track dirt road, that might as well have been an old dry river bed. More rock than dirt, and now full of puddles that an earlier rain had deposited, the road would lead to Blackie, our beat-up but trusty 1987 black Nissan 4×4 pickup.
Though we still had at least two hours of legal hunting light, a dark ominous cloud and the rain it promised to drop, made the march to the truck imperative. Add to the fact that we ventured out with only a small fanny pack, instead of our usual backpacks. Our rain ponchos were still with the backpacks in the truck.
This hunt was planned as an afternoon, morning hunt. Joe had already tagged out last week and we still had two days before our hunt officially ended for me to be able to fill my tag. We left from our classrooms at school at 2:00 p.m. and anxiously headed up into the hills. An hour and ½ later, we pulled over and parked Blackie in a small park adjacent to the road. Rushing to hunt at primetime, we hiked downhill to hunt the lowland, as the acorn crop was abundant.
A short outburst of rain and a quickly approaching menacing cloud, made us make an about face, and we double-timed back up the hill the way we came.
As we approached the small dog-legged meadow in which we parked the truck, a slight drizzle started to slowly drench our clothing.
One positive about a slight drizzle and rain in general is that it seems to knock down your scent. Maybe its just luck, but I always seem to encounter elk during rainfalls or right after a rainfall.
Before we enter the meadow where we parked, in a last ditch effort to make something happen, Joe screams out a bugle and adds a few cow calls. Unbelievably and right on cue, a bull answers just ahead and to the right of us.
Rushing to move up for a better setup location, the rain droplets are getting bigger as we enter the meadow, but we are still on the road. Suddenly, we spot three cows and a trailing bull heading in our direction from the left. I quickly nock an arrow and kneel. Joe is directly behind me and hits the ground too.
The cows quickly close the distance to us, then veer off to the right when they spot us. The bull, who has not seen us, follows the cows at a slow trot and moves across in front of me, from Left to right. I draw and shoot what I estimate to be a 20 yard shot at the moving bull. We both hear the telltale “whack”—-a solid hit, but with all that is happening in the heat of the moment, neither of us are positive about the shot.
With the rain starting to pound, we had no time to look and decide to run for the truck at the other end of the meadow. The foreboding cloud drops its load. We managed to escape the rest of the downpour that followed and we settle in and eat our supper of bologna sandwiches, chips and a cold soda. Crazy how good bologna can taste when you are starving.
After the downpour, night quickly descents upon us and we make our way to the back of the camper shell and enter our mobile sanctuary. We prepare our cloths for the morning, shed our wet duds and settle in for the night.
Our plan for the morning hunt is to get up after daylight, then see if we find any sign of a hit. The hard rainfall, and the rainfall that continued all night, may make the task impossible.
Of course, I struggle to sleep worrying about not finding sign (blood) and even wonder if I connected.
We awake at around 7:00 a.m., eat some granola bars and dress for the morning tracking job ahead. The skies are completely clear and the sun lights everything up.
A quick survey of the park reveals no blood, but thankfully elk tracks, specifically the three cows and bull, are clearly visible. Even as they enter the acorn jungle, the tracks are easy to follow.
We start to follow the tracks up a small hill, when we hear a twig snap in front of us, then another. Our first thought is that it might be the wounded bull.
After debating if we should back up and return later, we decide to slowly keep going. If we spot the bull with any sign of being alive, we’ll retreat and come back.
As we ease over the hill into a flat area we spot what appears to be an elk, then another 5 feet apart, then another, but wait—-that one is BLACK?
After readjusting our brains, we see that we have come across, not one, not two or three bears, but five bears feeding on acorns. They range in color from blonde to dark black and they haven’t a clue in the world that we are watching them. In amazement we see that they partially climb a tree branch, that snaps and they settle on the ground and strip the branch of the acorn.
Slowly and as cautiously as possible, we back out of the area. On the way back, with a different point of view, we spot a downed bull at the base of a tree. We had literally walked past it only minutes ago.
The arrow had entered the lung area and had not exited, creating a lot of havoc internally. The bull had only traveled 60 yards and expired. With the five bears still on our mind, we estimate they are about a quarter of a mile away and quickly, a bit paranoid and constantly looking lover our shoulder, start to quarter the bull. The wind is favorable, but we work quickly and on high alert.
We decide to drive Blackie as close to the bull as the road will allow, honk the horn and make a ton of racket. We also started talking loud. We figured if the wind changes we could have company, so we decided to make enough noise to make any self-respecting bear move away to a safer place.
With no sign of the bears, we can now continue to quarter the bull without hopefully having to worry about any unwelcome guests.
As we peel the hide away, we notice what appears to be a growth in the kill area between the heart and lung. Joe cuts out the lump and dissects it and finds that it is a muzzle loader ball that has flattened out. After penetrating the skin, the ball flattened out, then over time, tissue grew around it.
Last year or the year before, we figure, a muzzle loader hunter sighted the elk perfectly and shot. The ball just penetrated skin and came to rest. I’m sure the elk bled for a while before fat and tissue engulfed it. In contrast, my broadhead had no trouble penetrating the hide and the ribcage—-crazy.
Lessons learned: (1) rain can nullify or slow an elk’s sense of smell. (2) When looking for sign, back track a lot to get a different point of view. (3) Always carry your rain gear. (4) Finding elk isn’t always about being at a certain point at a certain time. Just follow the flow of what nature gives you. It can turn out to be even better than your original plan.
Note: its not always a great idea to shoot at a moving elk, but this one was trotting slow at a close distance. It also happened that Joe and I had hunted trash fish (carp) in the Santa Rosa (New Mexico) River prior to the season. We rigged our bow with a reel to get our arrows back after shooting. The carp would spot you, swim away, and we would hit them on the run. We got pretty good at it and harvested several dozen. It was perfect practice and muscle memory for the very situation I had with this bull. Can’t stress enough how much hunting other opportunities and situations can pay big dividends during your elk hunt.