By Chad Haschen
I stopped to call again, slightly desperate for some kind of sign. The last two days had been pretty quiet and I had only seen one bull in the distance. I stared off in the direction of the canyon I expected to hear a response from, nothing. I waited a few more minutes and suddenly a branch right behind me snapped with an audible “CRACK”. Instinctively I turned my head, and out of the corner of my eye I see a bull less than 5 yards away about face and start to trot away from me.
Hunting has always been about the experience to me, even before I could have told you that. When I was younger, I loved sitting at the table late in the evening listening to my grandfather recount hunting stories. I used to think ‘I hope I can be able to tell as many cool stories as grandpa’ as I would sit there in awe most evenings together. He hunted elk and mule deer mainly, but also bear and some birds. He was the best fisherman I have ever met, as most grandfathers are. At that young age listening to his stories I knew that one day I was going to go elk hunting myself.
Unfortunately, I never got to hunt with my grandfather. His health faded as I grew old enough to hunt and he passed shortly after I graduated high school. Although we spent a considerable amount of time fishing and hunting horny toads in the summer, I wish I could have experienced his wisdom on many occasions hunting in the fall. I still look back on pictures of his hunts and day dream of what it was like back then.
While growing up on the east coast I hunted white-tailed deer and waterfowl. Deer hunting in the eastern hardwoods can be downright boring. I enjoyed the time with family and the moments of adrenaline when we did have opportunity to harvest a deer, but I was too restless to sit in a tree all the time. Waterfowl hunting really became a focus for me and a few friends after we were able to drive. Once we had the independence to head out on our own, we started exploring the public marshes south of where we lived. We worked hard for the few ducks we did kill, but we had fun doing it. Getting unstuck from belly button deep mud with three dozen decoys, your shotgun and a bag of gear on your back was just a normal walk to and from the truck. Some of my most reliable hunting buddies were the same guys I played lacrosse with. We took that same team work mentality and applied it to our hunts. Everyone brought something to the group and we shared the work to put ourselves in position to be successful. I enjoyed being the “quarterback” of the group, much like I enjoyed being captain of our team. I lead by example most times, thinking it is better to be about it than talk about it.
I made sure I could identify waterfowl effectively, especially on the wing. Calling, setting decoys and running a boat became second nature. From early September to late January I was constantly checking the weather and looking at maps for the lee, or where we expected the ducks to find shelter on certain days. Our favorite time to duck hunt was late in the year when the water was cold and big rafts of diver ducks would come down to our area. Like most waterfowlers, we believed the worse the weather the better the hunting.
As we drove to the marsh one morning, I noticed how the snow danced across the roads like little snakes. It was cold, and windy. A rare combination during duck season for us below the Mason-Dixon line. All three of us were excited. The pond we planned to hunt surely would be holding birds looking to escape the big water today. We loaded our gear into the canoe and kayak that we were going to use to get us to the edge of the marsh. After a paddle just shy of a mile, we humped our gear a couple hundred yards around a tidal pond to set up with the wind at our back.
The hunting was slow and the tide was up much higher than any of us anticipated. After a few hours the thought of biscuits and gravy from the country store at the edge of the marsh was too much. As we packed up, we realized there were some decoys set in water too deep to retrieve on foot. I volunteered to go get the kayak and paddle across the pond to grab the decoys we couldn’t get. I told the other guys to meet me at the point where we had beached the canoe and kayak on the way in. As they gathered what they could carry, along with my gun, I paddled to grab the decoys and then circle back to meet them at the point.
As I paddled back to the rendezvous point, I noticed they had already packed up and launched. Probably just excited for those biscuits I thought. Then I realized that something wasn’t right. The canoe was drifting with the wind out into the open water and the guys could do nothing to turn it and make headway to shore. I pulled my kayak up on the point and waved to get their attention, I raised my hands gesturing ‘what are you guys doing?!?’ and got a similar response from canoe. There wasn’t anything they could do. Instead of heading into the wind and up the marsh channel until the creek got smaller, they crossed at the mouth where the channel empties into a body of water over a mile wide.
My mind was racing – do I go try and get them and tow them in? Should I try and float a decoy bag to them? Do I go get help? Why did they decide to cross here? What were they thinking? If they just hang on, I can meet them at the other side and we’ll laugh about it over a beer later. – All these things ran through my head in a flash. We had no life jackets and it was cold, with temperatures in the high 20s and a strong north east wind. Then the canoe rolled. I panicked, we had walked all over that cove during normal tides, but today’s wind made it abnormally high. I could tell they were struggling to stay afloat and trying to hang on to the canoe. Going to get them with a kayak and no life jackets was going to be a suicide mission so I turned and ran as hard I could through the salt marsh. What felt like an eternity was probably 15 minutes or less, still too long for anyone to survive that cold water. The local watermen were the first ones to respond, and they were there in just a couple minutes after my call to 911.
I tried to get back to ‘normal’ once we had the funerals and the next semester at college began. Along with the grief of losing two of my best friends, I couldn’t help but feel responsible for it. While meeting with professors at school discussing the situation and trying to determine if I was going to take some time off, one of them said something to me that has stuck since. After I briefly told him what happened while we were in his office he said, ‘Well I would never duck hunt again.’ Immediately I thought to myself, “good thing I’m not you because that’s going to be as close as I can get to those two for a while.” He was being supportive, but I took it another way and that helped me realize I needed to get out of there for a while. I withdrew from college and starting doing construction again. I didn’t want to be seen around our small town. I didn’t want to see looks of pity or hear whispers while at the grocery store. Even seeing the water now was unsettling for me. I didn’t know if I would be able to get back out there again. But I knew I wanted to.
A few weeks after the accident happened, I was invited on a goose hunt by a close friend and mentor. It was an easy hunt, safe and nearby. As it turned out the hunt was picturesque – light wind, large fluffy snowflakes and hungry geese coming to a winter wheat field as we waited for the moment of ambush in an evergreen hedge row blind. We had our limit of geese in just a volley or two, but as perfect as the hunt was, something just didn’t feel the same. The satisfaction and shared feeling of success after a hunt with close friends, especially a successful hunt, seemed to elude me. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I could feel this was different and something inside of me was missing.
My hunting waivered over the next few years. I moved around a few times, attended a couple of colleges before settling at the school I would eventually graduate from. Ironically, I ended up attending the closest college to where I lost my friends, and at the time of the accident one of them was enrolled at the school. I started to hunt a little more frequently since I was back in a familiar area, but it still felt odd. I was hunting because I knew I wanted to, even though a lot of the time I didn’t feel like I wanted to. Some mornings I would drive an hour or more to one of the hunting locations and then just sit in the truck and talk myself out of going. It was like I was scared of the unknown and just wanted to play it safe. I would get extremely frustrated with myself when this happened. Not only do I know I have nothing to fear in this area, but this was preventing me from being who I am.
The first fall after graduating college, three friends and I decided to head west and try to shoot ducks in the prairies of North Dakota. None of us had been there before, but in 2011 we were starting to see things on the internet about the huge flocks in the mid-west and figured we should go give it a whirl. As luck would have it, our first trip couldn’t have been timed any better. And it was sheer luck since no one in our group had ever done a trip like this before. After a couple days to figure out how to play the game, we were hunting huge feeds of field feeding ducks and geese. Things our dreams were made of at that point. As you can imagine we were hooked and the trip became an annual one for the next handful of years before I decided ten days in North Dakota was not enough for me.
I found a job in the Bismarck area while I was still living on the east coast. Picked a day to start then told my parents and current employer I was going to move west. When telling people I was going to move to North Dakota I got a reaction similar to one I would expect if I told someone I was moving to Mars. Turns out most people think North Dakota is as desolate as Mars. I moved to the mid-west for the hunting, and I wasn’t shy about it. When I explained that to my friends and family it was little more understandable on why I wanted to move there.
Of course, the waterfowl hunting is what brought me to North Dakota, but being at the doorstep to the west and endless public access for opportunity, my pursuits quickly diversified. Ice fishing, upland bird, coyote and turkey hunting were all things I didn’t have opportunities to do back east, but I dove in head first in to all these new things. One thing I did do a little of growing up was deer hunting, but I always found it to play second fiddle to anything that didn’t require sitting on a cold piece of plywood 25 feet up in a tree for 6 hours. But in North Dakota you don’t have to just sit and wait. With the rolling hills and the draws of the western prairie, spot and stalk hunting is a very effective method for both deer and turkey.
I picked my bow back up for the first time in seven or eight years, and after a couple trips to western North Dakota I arrowed a young mule deer buck at the end of season. I was hooked after my first couple trips to the area though. Again, partly through sheer luck, I stumbled into an area that didn’t see much hunting pressure and it was as the mule deer rut was winding down. I don’t know how many stalks I blew up in those handful of weekends I hunted, but chasing those deer in that landscape lit a fire inside of me that had been out for a while. I needed more of this.
That next spring, I upgraded my bow from an early 90s PSE to a used Hoyt, about a 20-year upgrade in equipment – and I felt like I went from a sling shot to a rifle. I wanted to find one of the mature mule deer I had seen the previous season and execute a lethal shot – that was goal for this year. I practiced my shooting nearly every day that summer, even stretching out to distances far beyond my effective hunting range. I also decided I needed to be in better shape, and that if I was successful this season with mule deer then I would focus on elk the following season. A natural progression or personal growth of western game, or so I thought.
Fast forward to late November that year. Weather had provided me with my favorite conditions to spot and stalk in the area I hunted. It was going to be in the low 40s, with a 10-15 mph wind, this allowed my movements to be muffled on the melting snow and steady winds. I left my house that morning in time to be there an hour before sunrise. In all it was about a 3-hour drive. About half way there I came up to where the interstate was closed due to an ice storm that had just passed through. I could turn around or take gravel roads the rest of the way, but the conditions were too good so I kept heading west after getting off the highway. After my unaccounted-for detour, I ended up arriving to my hunting area a good hour after sunrise. Slightly disappointed, I knew I still had better odds out there than sitting in my office at work for the day.
I got dressed into the hunting clothes I kept in a rubber tote with some sage brush I had cut on an earlier trip. Grabbed my bow and pack, and dropped into one of the coulees adjacent to where I parked. My plan under these conditions are to still hunt into the wind and hopefully see the deer before they see me. As I get half-way down the first drainage, I see a small 3×3 less than 200 yards away. He spotted the movement, but hadn’t figured out what I was. I dropped down behind a small sage bush and pulled out my deer decoy, wanting to see his reaction to it. When I popped it up, he started to come towards me for a few steps, but either caught a whiff of me or saw something he didn’t like and wandered off the other direction. He wasn’t what I was looking for that day, so no harm done there. I continued down and started to work to my left around the base of a small butte. A little way off to my right and a hundred yards or so from the base of the butte was small finger drainage with a couple trees on the slope. I decide to peer into the small finger drainage before passing by. As I ease up to the top edge, I see a wide 4×4 rack just above the dead prairie grasses. I immediately hit the deck and check the wind. He is facing away from me and also into the wind, which is kind of odd. Most bedded deer I encounter out here bed down facing down wind so they can see what they can’t smell. I assumed this old guy was wore out from the rut and just plopped down where he was comfortable. I bounced the range finder off the back of his head – 53 yards. I was confident at that distance, but my shot was going to have to be through a window of branches from the tops of the trees lower down the slope. I didn’t have a shot at him bedded so I was going to have to wait for him to stand. While waiting he fell asleep a few times, and I swear I heard him snore. I ended up slipping a little further to my right to clear the tops of the trees and got the distance down to 42 yards. A chip shot for me after all the practice at 90+ yards.
Three hours into the wait I started to get antsy and wanted to try to make something happen. First, I tossed a rock in his direction. That didn’t work, he picked his head up and looked around for a few seconds then seemed to go back to his nap. I waited about twenty minutes and then whistled like a small bird, again almost no response. His ears flickered but he didn’t even bother to look around. Then I decided to let out a small grunt and that got his attention. He immediately spun his head around and looked in my direction. I froze and waited for him to stand, but he seemed to settle back down so I grunted a second time. That time I got the response I wanted. As he began to stand, I drew back and settled my pin on his lungs. He was facing downhill and to my right, his rear were legs straight and he was rolling up onto his front legs. His antlers were a dark chocolate color and he had a ghost white forehead above the dark muley eye brow. This buck was everything I was working for that season. I touched off my release and heard that signature whack of an arrow hitting its mark. Before the buck was off the slope, I could see his hide around the arrow impact already turning a dark red. In those next fifteen seconds I was sure I had just executed a lethal shot on a mature mule deer. I was beside myself with excitement as I started to gather my gear into my pack to go find my dead deer.
To my disbelief I looked up to see the buck going up and over the last ridge in my sight line. I quickly raised my binoculars to see that my arrow had not penetrated much beyond the deer’s rib cage. I could see the arrow hit my mark, but had not done the damage I assumed it did. I waited for an hour or so and began following the blood trail that became almost non-existent after a half mile. Exhausted and still in disbelief of what just happened I headed back to the truck to make the 3-hour drive home. As I drove, I kept running the scenario through my head, almost in tears that I wounded an animal like that. A flat out miss would be better than this situation. What else could I have done? At the very minimum I decided I needed to come back in the morning to try and track him down.
That next day I covered almost 12 miles looping back and forth, and was able to piece together another half mile or so of his tracks with almost no sign of blood, but I never saw that deer again. As I made a big loop back around to the road I had parked on, I ran into a local rancher who offered me a ride back to the truck. As we drove back up the road, I told him about what had happened and that I was tracking a deer a didn’t find today. He could tell I was beating myself up about it pretty good and offered up a similar experience of his from earlier that fall. At the very least it made me realize that as long as do I try my best and make the best decisions I can when bow hunting, I am the only one that can really judge my successes and shortcomings.
I didn’t end up filling my bow tag that year even after going out a few more times. But it did make me take a long hard look at my hunting set up and what I could improve on to minimize that happening again. Not only did I start to think about my hunting set up, but also my idea of needing to harvest a mule deer before trying elk hunting. What about people who grow up elk hunting and maybe have never shot a deer? There has to be people out there like that I thought. Do I really need to be a successful mule deer hunter to be successful elk hunting? Turns out, no.
After I filled my turkey tags that next spring, I started to formulate a plan to get into the elk woods the following September. Being that I didn’t have any experience elk hunting I figured the first step would be to try and learn as much about elk habits as I could. I started out by reading scientific papers on animal movement, preferred habitat, or anything else that seemed like it was coming from a reliable source. I knew there was a bunch of information on the elk hunting out there, especially on social media, but from what I had come across most of it was product based or a lot of regurgitated information. This is where having some of grandpa’s wisdom could have really come in handy for me.
As I looked around, I found some guys that hunted not too far south of where I planned to go and they seemed to be willing to share their knowledge and had unbelievable success in the past. They had a podcast with ten or so episodes out so far and it was called Blue Collar Elk Hunting by the ElkBros. After listening to a couple episodes of Gilbert, Chav and Joe, I could tell these guys are doing this for the right reasons and not just selling products or generating website traffic. I decided that I was going to try to gain as much information from them prior to going elk hunting as I could. I am pretty sure I asked about what shoes to wear, how many coolers to bring, arrow set ups, shot location, calling strategies…all of which were answered with a contagious enthusiasm and passion for elk hunting. I felt like I had stumbled onto a secret vault of knowledge, and the best part was there were no dumb questions with them.
As spring turned to summer my plan got even a little more extreme. I was going to leave my current job for another career, but take a few months off in between to prepare for and then elk hunt. The first time I really worked out after making a decision to hunt elk that fall, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I wanted to be able to cover the eight, ten, twelve miles a day if I needed to be successful. I began riding my bike for a couple hours at a time then would practice my shooting while my legs felt like wet noodles. I started to narrow down the areas I was going to scout before the season using things like GoogleEarth and OnX.
During this whole process if any questions popped up, I would just shoot an email over to Joe and the guys and get some great feedback to help me along. I settled on two units in Colorado that were over the counter, one was closer to family and had been my grandfather’s stomping grounds. The other area was a little further south, but was in some really beautiful country that I had not been to before.
In late August I headed down to Colorado to start to scout and narrow down my hunting areas even more. Starting in the unit closer to family, I quickly found that summer recreation was still going to play a major factor early on in the season in this area. I still scouted for elk even though this was becoming my back up plan. One of my first days in the woods there I came across some elk rubs and even pulled some velvet out of a small Aspen sapling that had recently been rubbed off. There are definitely elk here I thought, but being this close to town I am going to go check out the other area. The area to the south, which became plan A, had different geography and slightly different climate than the area I was in previously. This area started out with sage and pine flats, then rose up steep buttes, some two-thousand feet or so in height, topped with Aspen groves. Between the sage flats and Aspens, the slopes were covered in scrub oak. This already seemed to be more diverse than where I had been. I could envision the elk being up high late in the summer and moving down to the pines and sage flats as the rut progressed. This seemed like what I imagined elk country to be like, so I picked a campsite near where I planned to start hunting and spent the next week or so getting familiar with the area. I wasn’t scouting the whole time, since Colorado’s non-resident license includes a fishing license, I would beat the heat some days with pole in one of the nearby streams.
The afternoon before opening day I was at camp shooting my broadheads just to double check everything one last time. I noticed another guy across the road at a campsite shooting as well. He was alone, but it was still early in the afternoon so I figured his buddies hadn’t shown up yet. Later on that evening when he was still the only vehicle in his camp, I wandered over to introduce myself and see if he was elk hunting the next day. I ended up hunting with the guy the next few days and it turned out that he had been looking at the same drainages as me for the last couple months. We didn’t have any luck while we hunted together that first weekend, but I learned a lot from being with another experienced hunter and was fortunate my season started out like that.
On the first Tuesday of the season there was a light rain and moderate wind. I thought to myself, “these are your conditions”. I had to go into the area I was hunting from a different direction than we had been going because of the wind. As I followed an old logging road, I spotted a few elk a couple hundred yards to my right. There was at least one legal bull and a couple cows that I saw as I crouched down behind cover. The wind was in my favor so I planned a line of travel that would keep their view of me obstructed and started to move in on them. The area was fairly flat with some pine trees, larger scattered oak brush and was pretty open. I snuck into some oak brush that was the only thing between the elk and myself. I could see them through the brush milling around sixty or so yards away. I didn’t really know what to do so I went back about 30 yards and put up my cow decoy as quietly as I could, then I did a few cow calls and beat the crap out of sapling with a stick before sprinting back up to where I was just on the edge of the oak brush. The cows that were laying down were now standing and the bull was making his way towards the logging road and the edge of the oak brush I was waiting behind. I can see the movement coming and he is about 40 yards away to my right and I draw back. (I told Joe that all through my hunt when I would get close to an animal I would hear Gilbert say ‘You have got to draw’ – it would almost calm my mind in the adrenaline filled moments) He took a couple more steps after I settled into full draw, and then he froze with nothing but his nose, snout and eyes past the edge of the brush I was waiting for him to clear. He stood there at 30 yards or less for what felt like an eternity. After probably a minute or so he could tell something was off and wandered back to his cows and away they went. I couldn’t believe I was that close on first day of elk hunting alone. I was pumped and couldn’t wait to get back out in the morning.
The next few days all played out in similar manner and somewhat run together in my memory. I wasn’t able to get another close encounter with a legal bull those next few days, but I did run into spikes almost every day. Having not been around them during the rut before, it was pretty comical to see how inquisitive some of them are. I had one that caught a glimpse of me crossing a small opening, turn and sprint about 100 yards right to me. When I saw him coming, I hid behind a large pine tree, and when he got even with me and hit my scent line his eyes got as wide as dinner plates and all four hooves hit the skids. He turned and was out of there like he was shot from a cannon.
During this hunt I also had a bear tag, and from the sign I was seeing there were no shortage of bears in the area. I actually had a bear encounter almost every day, most of the encounters did not present shot opportunities though. The most memorable was when I came up on a livestock water hole. As I approached the berm the water exploded, I froze and my right hand immediately went to my bear spray and pistol holster. A cinnamon colored sow was cooling off in the water and had three cubs with her. She bolted away from me, luckily, and started barking for her cubs at the edge of the woods. When all three had gathered near her they were off of up slope.
I wasn’t having the luck in this part of the area I was hunting I had been earlier in the season, so I decided to go try a different spot a couple miles to the west bordering a private ranch. The first morning walking into the area I was taking my time and decided to stop and call as it was getting light, about a mile or so from my truck. I did a couple cow calls and waited; I didn’t hear anything so I wandered up the drainage to the north a little more. I started following a trail through the oak brush and could hear a bear making his way through the brush. I stopped at an intersection in the trail and nocked an arrow, I didn’t know which side of me he’d pop out on, but it’s going to be less than a 15-yards. I could hear him grunting and munching on berries – this bear is in no rush to get back to the trail. As I am standing there, I hear off in the distance a faint bugle. Still as I am writing this, I don’t know why it was even a debate, but in that moment, I thought to myself “I have a bear right here, arrow nocked – should I really go chase that bugle that’s a mile or more away?” Good thing some sense fell over me and I put the arrow back in the quiver and told the bear it was his lucky day.
I was headed in the direction of the bugle and got to a point where I had to make a decision on which way to go, now would be a good time for him to sound off again. Like that, right on cue, he rips off another bugle and I can tell I am getting closer. I head in that direction and my pace quickens as I know I am closing the distance on him. Again, I reach a point where another clue as to where they’re at would be helpful, and again the bull obliges and sounds off. I am to a point in the drainage now where they are either going to bed down in one of the scrub oak bowls or go over the top. I am following a livestock/game trail through a meadow and the bottom of the slope when I realize I am also following extremely fresh elk tracks. I am almost positive I am closing in on the bull I have been hearing for the last hour or so. The tracks turn and go up an incline to meadow slightly higher than the one I am in and it is almost completely surrounded by scrub oak and small saplings like chokecherry trees.
As I ease up the drainage, I can hear the elk just ahead of me, again I find myself overcome with adrenaline and no great plan. I pull out my cow decoy and set up a little further down the slope, hoping if I make some calls the bull will come back at least as far as I am and give me a shot as he looks at the decoy. I back into some oak brush for cover about halfway between where I think the elk are and where I placed my decoy. I let out a bugle and smack a tree again, and the bull roars back. It sounds like hooves are getting closer so I draw back and wait, and wait. Then directly behind in the thick brush I hear crashing like an elk snuck up on me and then bolted. I let my draw down and decided to keep sneaking up the drainage. As I ease towards the top, I see a very nice 6×6 pushing a couple cows up into the thicker brush.
This was the nicest elk I had seen so far, even though no legal bull was getting a pass from me. I got to about 80 yards of him and hid behind the last bit of cover before a small meadow that separated him from me. I raked a tree and did a couple cow calls and he started to walk back towards the meadow. The bull came out into the meadow and was starting to head towards the path that I had just came up. I had my bow drawn at this point and almost exactly like the last bull, he got to the point where his eyes, nose and snout were the only parts of him coming into my shot window. I waited and he waited, this time longer than the last one. He turned and walked back to the edge of the meadow and I had to draw down, my arms shaking from fatigue and adrenaline. When he got back to the edge of the meadow and cover, he started to rake a small choke cherry tree until there was nothing left. In hind sight, this would have been a great opportunity for a shot, but my inexperience had me frozen as I watched the crazy eyed bull rip that tree to shreds. I decided to step out of the brush and see if he continued to beat up the tree but he picked his head up, trotted a few steps and looked back over his shoulder as to say nice try. I thought about taking a shot at him quartering away, but at close to 70 yards I didn’t like my chances. He followed his cows into thicker cover and I started back to my truck.
The next day I slipped back into that same area in the afternoon. I had assumed since he saw me that they found another zip code, but when I didn’t have any luck locating elk the next morning, I figured I’d go back to the same drainage. As I played the wind to get in there that afternoon my approach was from the west and not south as I moved in to where I hoped they would be. I reached the vantage point needed to see down into the drainage and to my amazement I saw about a dozen cows bedded in the shaded part of the meadow. Less than 200 yards from where I saw the elk the night before. With the wind and sun like they were, I was in a perfect position to drop in on them like I am stalking deer and not get noticed. I studied that landscape for fifteen or twenty minutes, picked a few landmarks to navigate to and headed down the slope. When I got to the meadow, I dropped my pack and started to close in the last 150 yards or so. I got to the edge of the oak brush that was separating me from the cows, and the bull was just a little way up the slope from the cows. I decided that I was going to piss that bull off and he was going to come running down there to fight and then I was going to put an arrow in him. So, I let out a loud bugle right down there in the meadow by his cows. All the cows stood up and looked over in my direction and here comes the 6×6, he lets out a short bugle at the base the of the slope he was on, probably 120 yards from me now, and all the cows filter up past him and he just stands there burning a hole through me. I desperately tried to entice him to move closer. We went back and forth with my pleading cow calls and rough sounding bugles, and his huffs and grunts until he decided he had had enough of whatever was in the brush and wandered back up the slope. As I walk back to my truck that evening, I question why I ever made a sound. I could have sat there for a while and possibly caught him tending his cows or feeding out of the area as the sun went down.
The following morning, I decide to go right back up to that vantage point and see if they are still there. Two days in a row I had been busted by them up but they didn’t leave the area. As I got set up on the vantage point that morning, I could see a couple small groups of cows and smaller bull or two working the ridgeline back to that same bedding area. As I am watching the elk, I took my base layer off so I could cool off and it could dry out some. I was also drinking a shake for breakfast as I was glassing. I was watching this group of elk a little less than a half mile away when I heard a loud grunt or snort behind me. I knew right away what it was and I couldn’t believe it. I grabbed my bow and ran over to the edge of the cover behind me to look out across the meadow and the 6×6 is standing 100 yards away, staring at me as I stand there shirtless with my bow in my hand. He must have been bringing up the rear of the herd and either caught my wind or heard me moving around and came to check it out. The irony of him sneaking up on me as I watched his cows and waited for him to slip back into his bedroom was unbelievable. I realized how much of a cat and mouse game this was going to be.
That afternoon I saw him on top of the same ridge but he dropped into the basin on the opposite side, so the next morning I decided to come at the herd from the east instead of the west. That following morning, I got into a decent position to be able to see the ridgeline he was on the previous day, but he never showed up. I spotted a few cows that bedded on the opposite slope of the drainage I was watching, so I ended up sitting there all day waiting for the bull to come check his cows and he was a no show. As sunlight began to fade, I started to think about filling my tag with one of the cows I had been watching all day. Chances were they were going to feed down in the bottom between them. I figured If I could get down and wait where I’d have a shot part way up the slope, I could be packing an elk out tonight.
I slipped down into a spot where it looks like I will have a 45-yard shot uphill as soon as they come out of the brush. Not too long after I got into position, I see one of the cows starting to make her way down the trail I waiting on. 127, 71 were the yardages I bounced off of her before she wandered into the last patch of thick cover before disappearing, like a ghost. She must have smelled me, and maybe just stood there and waited me out, but I never saw or heard that cow after she wandered into that cover.
That was actually the lowest point of my hunt. I thought for sure I’d be presented with a shot after sitting there watching these elk all day, and then to have a cow pull the okie dokie on me in the last 30 yards. I was starting to let the thoughts of doubt creep in. At this point I had been living in my backpacking tent for the better part of three weeks and decided that a night in town with a hot meal, real bed and getting some laundry done might be good for the morale.
I took the following morning off to finish up the laundry and other chores before heading back up into camp. That afternoon I was in the same general area but picked a different drainage to explore. The wind was howling, and after a half mile or so it became evident that the wind was going to be at my back the whole way up into this drainage, so I decided to turn around. Before heading back down I waited for ten or fifteen minutes and ripped off a few calls. I didn’t hear anything, but I could barely hear myself calling because of the wind. I started back down and was following a creek that had banks on either side about ten feet above the creek bed.
There were willows growing throughout the creek and along the edges. I glanced down into the creek and just in front of me was a black bear heading into the wind. He had no idea I was there; my scent was being blasted by a 25 to 30 mph wind behind both of us. I quickly realized I am going to have a shot at this bear. I nocked an arrow, ranged the opposite bank – 39 yards the range finder read. I set my range dial on my bow for 40 yards. As I did that the bear started up the opposite bank and I drew back. Afraid he was just going to saunter off I let out an awkward whistle and the bear turned to look and rose up on his hind legs. Already at full draw all I had to do was settle my pin and let it go, as my arrow was in flight over the creek, I saw the fletching fishtail and knew I forgot to compensate for the strong wind. The arrow flew to the right of its mark and barely drew blood from the bears front left leg. He was off into the oak brush no worse for wear. I found my arrow, checked where the bear had been standing and the path he took off on and could not find any sign of a mortal hit to him.
The next morning, I decided to venture up to an area we had checked out opening weekend. My buddy had said it looked “elky” but we didn’t see much for sign or see any elk up there. This area was on top of one of the mesas, and had some open meadows with aspen groves and blueberry shrubs scattered around. On three sides of this mesa there are very steep narrow canyons that stay cool and moist even during some of the hottest, dry September days. That first weekend we dropped down into one of these canyons only to learn the hard way not to do that again. While down in there we did find wallows, cool running water, and some fresh tracks.
My plan that morning was to work my way around the mesa and call sporadically to see if there are any bulls in the canyon. I had found a well-used game/livestock trail that made the trek up to the top not as bad as when we first came in opening weekend. As the trail reaches the top of the steep slope it follows a low area and then opens up to a large meadow. The low area is only about 200 yards, but it is covered in blown downs and ferns. As I am picking my way through the overgrown deadfall in the dark I trip and fall forward. During most of the hunt when I have lost my balance, I have been able to protect my bow as I hit the ground, not this time. I instinctively put it out in front of me to brace my fall. As I catch myself and realize what I just did I take a minute and make sure my cables and strings are all still attached and my arrows don’t have any obvious bends in them. Everything seemed good so I continue through the deadfall and across the meadow. At the far end of the meadow there is another rock ledge about fifty feet high that I need to get on top of and I will be on the top of the mesa where I can access the canyon rims.
As I moved around the mesa calling, I was unable to hear any responses to my calls. A few times it did sound like large trees were being knocked over just a few hundred yards away, but I never saw anything and chalked it up to a bear or bears rummaging around. I would call, usually a series of cow calls with a location bugle, and sit and wait for 5 or 10 minutes and move a couple hundred yards and repeat the process. A couple times, just to mix it up, I tried to imitate the Joe Giglia Elk party. I would beat a tree and let out an aggressive bugle and then hustle over in the opposite direction and let out another bugle, maybe mix a few cow calls and grunts in here and there. Still nothing as far as elk responses, but I was having fun running around the woods tooting on my call. I had worked my way around the “peninsula” I was hunting. It had canyons on three sides and a private property boundary on the fourth and I had reached the point where I could drop back into the meadow. It was still early in the day, around 9 o’clock, and I didn’t want to stop hunting yet so I decided to sit down and have a snack and see if anything happens in the next twenty minutes or half hour.
After my break and still not seeing or hearing any sign of elk I thought maybe I should go back and chase that herd in the oak brush again. I decided to attempt to throw another Elk party as my farewell to the top of the mesa that morning. I go through the whole routine again, running around smacking a few small trees with a stick, making different bugles from different directions and tossing in some urgent cow calls. I sit and wait for another ten minutes or so then decided to start to head down through the meadow. As I stand up to secure my pack and taking one last look around, I hear a loud “CRACK” directly behind me. Instinctively I turned my head to the left and see a bull less than 5 yards away. As I realize what I am seeing, he turns and starts to trot away from me, but he didn’t bolt like he was scared. In that moment I also realize he has rear tines sweeping back. I am 99% this is a legal bull without having a chance to count his points. I immediately, almost instinctively start cow calling. Meewww, Meeeeewww, Meeeeeww. He stops and looks back at me, I fumble for my range finder – 45 yards.
Now he is walking from my left to right, almost broadside slightly quartering away. I still have to nock and arrow and clip my release without him taking off. “Oh well” I thought, “I am not going to kill him without shooting at him.” So, I reached into my quiver and grabbed the first arrow and slipped it onto my string and positioned it on the rest. I go to clip my release and realize this is the arrow from the bear and one of the fletching is half way torn off the arrow shaft. I grabbed that arrow off my string and tossed it to the ground and grab a second arrow out of my quiver. I am continuing to cow call through all of this and the bull can’t seem to figure out what I am as he is still about 45 yards away.
As I get my second arrow nocked the bull goes behind the only oak tree that is going to block my shooting window. I look at my sight – my single pin adjustable has been inadvertently set to below zero yards! It must have been my tumble on the deadfall that morning. I quickly realize I can’t hold high to compensate for how my pin is set, so I unclip my release again and crank the dial to fifty yards. I clip back up and I draw back anticipating him to stop with only his eyes and nose exposed, but to my surprise he keeps coming and doesn’t hang up like the previous bulls. He walks out to be completely exposed, sans his lower legs in the blueberry shrubs, and I think “This is it, this is the opportunity I came here and have been working for!”
I also thought that when I release my arrow three things could happen, two of which I didn’t want to deal with, I had to make this shot count. I settled my pin a couple inches high of my spot, found my anchor points as I went through my mental check list and tapped my release. I didn’t see the arrow in flight but I heard what sounded like the arrow going through a big beach ball. There wasn’t a loud thwack, just a softer “thump thump”.
I stood there frozen watching the bull’s initial reaction. The shot felt good, as he took off to my right, I noticed he went about sixty yards and seemed to put his down to cough and his pace slowed. Another thirty yards beyond that I saw him lay down in a small patch of aspens. I was extremely excited, I wanted to run over there but knew better. I sat down and told myself to wait a half hour at least.
I think I lasted about ten minutes before I got up and started looking for my arrow. I could see about where the bull had laid down, but I couldn’t see the bull himself. When I couldn’t find my arrow and there weren’t any obvious signs of a hit where he was standing when I shot, I started to get nervous. I reassured myself by thinking there is no way an elk is going to bed down in sight of someone after having been shot at. I started crossing his path after the shot, back and forth looking for blood. A few yards into his trail I see a couple small specks on a piece of dead wood, I look up and notice more on the tops of the blueberry shrubs. I follow the blood trail on the tops of the grasses and shrubs until I reach the point he stopped to cough.
It is obvious at this point that it was a mortal hit and his bedding wasn’t on his own accord. I look up to see him laying on his right side, partly in the shade under those Aspens. As I got to the bull, I noticed how he hadn’t rubbed all the velvet off his antlers and his main beams still had fuzzy strips all the way up to his rear tines. A curious 5×5 that probably thought he could slip in on a hot cow if the herd bull was fighting off challengers. My arrow was a complete pass through, double lung shot. I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome when I let that arrow fly. I took a few quick pictures, and video that I somehow didn’t save, texted my parents, girlfriend, and Joe that I had a bull down. Then reality set in. It was already mid-morning, probably around 60 degrees, and he was laying in the sun.
As I started breaking the bull down, I would hear what sounded like a hissing or low growl when I was bent over working on the elk. I grabbed my .45 off my pack and rested it on a log nearby just in case a predator was already stalking the dead elk. I would be working on a leg, trying to torque it to get to an inside piece and this hissing/growl would get more intense so I jumped back and grabbed my gun. This happened a handful of times and each time I looked up I expected to see the eyes of mountain lion looking at me through the dead meadow grass blowing in the wind. Finally, after scaring myself a half dozen times, I realize the hissing I keep hearing while breaking the bull down is the air escaping from one of the arrow holes. I laugh at how jumpy I am and continue getting the meat packed into game bags for hauling out.
Approximately three hours after I started, I was done breaking down the elk and was ready to start hauling meat back down the mesa. I decided to avoid any predator conflicts I was going to move all the meat away from the carcass. The logical place on my trip back to my truck would be to cross the meadow and dead fall and right before the steep drop back down the creek bottom I would find a tree in the shade and hang my game bags. I would be cutting my distance in about half and will mostly have a downhill trek with a loaded pack. I get my first load secured on my pack – loins, back straps, neck meat – the boneless cuts and the head, and then hang the remaining four quarters in a pine tree at the edge of the drop off.
As I started down the trail with my bow and hunting gear, plus the additional weight of the venison I am hauling out, I realize how much I had actually loaded onto my pack. My knees felt like they were going to give out with the slightest bit of unsure footing. I take my time, picking my steps down the rocky trail usually half bent over trying to clear antlers from oak brush. When I get back to the truck, I notice it has been about an hour and half since I left the quarters hanging. I put the first load on ice, strip my back pack down to the frame and head back up the trail after a cold Gatorade.
It was probably having an empty pack, but it felt like I breezed right back up the mesa and was at my hanging tree in less than 45 minutes. As I approached, coming from up the slope I could see what looked like a game bag laying on the ground. I thought I must have tied a crappy knot and it fell when the wind started blowing. I get closer and realize there are two game bags laying on the ground next to the tree and both have been shredded open on the topside. I scan the area to look for what did this and I didn’t see anything. I check the dirt at the edge of the trail and around the game bags, and I couldn’t find any tracks. My mind goes to worst case scenario and I think a lion is hanging out nearby. I grab the two front shoulders, load my pack and head back down to my truck.
The second trip was a little quicker than the first, two front elk quarters weigh less than all the gear this rookie elk hunter carried around every day. After getting both shoulders on ice I went to visit with a local park ranger just down the road and told them what was going on. I wanted someone to know where I was and to be waiting for me before I went back up to get those last quarters. We agreed I would stop back on my way out so they knew everything worked out.
As I was leaving my truck to go get the last load I decided to make as much noise as I could going back up the trail. I played music on my phone and sang along when I wasn’t sucking wind. Apparently, the bear enjoyed my singing or liked my choice of music because he wasn’t deterred at all as I approached. Seeing the jet-black bear was actually somewhat of a relief. I would gladly run a black bear off before having to deal with any cats. I fired a shot out of my pistol into the air when I was about 30 yards from the bear, but he just wandered back ten or fifteen yards and stands there looking at me and the meal I have interrupted him from.
I decided he needed a little more encouragement to be on his way so I aimed the pistol just behind and below the bear on the slope and let out two consecutive shots. He started up the slope and when he slowed down to look back one more time, I fired a third shot and he put it in gear and was off. I knew fresh elk meat was going to bring him right back in, so I deboned both rear quarters, cut off the bear gnawed and yellow-jacket riddled meat and got the rest loaded up as fast as I could. While doing this backwoods butchery I had my pistol on the ledge next to the quarters as I faced uphill almost constantly scanning for the bear. I didn’t see him again, but I am sure he came back for the scraps I had to leave him.
After getting the last of the meat loaded into coolers, I stopped by to see the ranger again and to let them know everything had worked out. It was only the second bull killed so far in the area that they know of. My chest may have puffed out a little more upon hearing that. I told them I might be back in the morning to try and catch up with that bear, as I still have an unfilled tag.
I got back to camp after running to town to top the coolers off with ice. I was so tired I made some food and was asleep before the sun went down that evening. When I woke up it was 4 A.M. and I was ready to head home. I broke down camp in the dark and made a four-hour drive to my relative’s house for a hot shower before heading back to North Dakota. After breakfast and getting cleaned up, my uncle was surprised that I was going to get back on the road. With three coolers full of meat and it still pushing ninety degrees in the valleys he understood my haste though.
In the next twenty hours I covered a thousand miles or so, most of them after it had gotten dark. Early on in the ride back when you could still see the antlers in the bed my truck, I would get the occasional thumbs up or acknowledgment from what I assume to be other elk hunters. Sometimes my mind would lapse and I would catch the antlers in the rearview mirror and a grin would start to grow across my face again. It was starting to sink in.
Ever since that tragic January morning when I lost my two friends duck hunting, there has been a constant self-doubt. Most of the time I was able to ignore or hide it and move through life “normally”, but it would creep in and remind often of what I couldn’t do. My passion for things was almost nonexistent at points since the hunting accident, but after elk hunting and western bow hunting, I feel like I have found what lights that fire inside of me once again.
A common factor for success in many aspects of life is a winning culture. I think that Joe, Chav, and Gilbert have done an excellent job of creating a welcoming, positive and successful elk hunting culture that they share by inviting us into their elk camp. There is no chest pounding or one upping each other, just genuine teamwork and sharing of knowledge so that everyone has the opportunity to get better. These are the kind of guys I would want to be on the mountain or ride the river with. They are second to none.
I can’t thank you all enough for the motivation, education and mentorship you continue to provide to all the grinders out there. Looking forward to what I hope is many more seasons elk hunting ahead, just know that you guys will be a part of each and every elk hunt that I have. I hope that one day in the future I can help out a less experienced hunter and show them a passion that can last a lifetime, much like you have done for me.