Story and photos by Craig Sauer
The shot distance would be about 12 yards and he was slightly quartering to me. I was in brush and he couldn’t see me. I could see his antler tips, several areas of his body outline, and had a perfect “pie plate” opening right at his vitals. I thought about waiting for him to clear the brush but he was so close and stopped. I figured the pie plate opening was my best chance before he’d see or wind me, so it was going to be now or never!
I picked up elk archery hunting at age 48 in 2020 and after the 3rd season and roughly the 24th hunt, I was trying to put it all together on the afternoon of Sept 15th, 2022. I’ve always been an avid bird hunter; ducks, turkeys and upland since I was about 10 years old and think that my desire to call in critters such as ducks and particularly turkeys with a diaphragm translated pretty well to elk calling and elk tactics. What preceded this epic day was a lot of hard work and dedication which I loved. Piecing things together to be able setup this shot opportunity. Hundreds of hours of podcasts (favorites being Elkbros, Cody Rich, & the Elk Collective). Tons of time in the garage with the Elk Nut App, online modules like Chris Roe, Treeline Academy Scouting, Elk Collective, and various other free youtube tutorials. Not to mention the new bow and new dirt bike I “had” to get. Yeah my wife began raising an eyebrow wondering if elk hunting was truly that involved. I pestered Paul Medel over the phone to better understand calling sequences/strategies; and had enough questions for local guy Dan Staton that he decided to have me on his Podcast (Ep. 242, 1 Rookie 2 States, Elk Tactics 101).
I was hunting North Idaho and picked the area over after a lot of online scouting. East Washington and North Idaho have a lot of public accessible logging company land. One of the logging companies issues free permits to hunters whom sign in at their headquarters, so I took care of that earlier in July. Between that and the National Forest in this area I had plenty of publicly accessible terrain.
The weekend prior to the 15th, I had hunted the areas for the first time via tent camping. Basically hunt-scouting two different areas over the Sept 10th and 11th weekend when it was still real hot and smokey, so I anticipated bugling to be minimal or limited. From this initial hunt-scout trip, I was really excited to have located 2 different bulls from bugle responses at first light. I had found a couple of ‘heavy sign’ bedroom areas and downloaded some bull pics on game cams which were from the couple days prior. So I had 2 options (about 5 miles apart) for the subsequent week-long trip planned for the 15th thru the 21st.
The day of the 15th was one of those days where things just came together. That morning I had a first light bugle in a clear cut, and eventually got into a “mimic” bugle battle that kept escalating. With an aggressive approach I found myself in the middle of about 12 cows and a nice 5 point bull with multiple 20 yard close encounters in brush where I could see his head or antlers, but I just never could get a clean shot opportunity. He was bringing up the rear and his cows were ahead of him mingling around. There were some clear 25 yard shots at cows but with the bull and I thought about it but just didn’t want to blow up the situation. Eventually after being in close contact with them for about 30 to 40 minutes, they made their way uphill and over the ridge. It was the first time I’d been amongst elk in close range without them knowing my presence and really boosted my confidence. But I was also dejected to some degree that I didn’t get a shot off. I mentally re-grouped, and planned to leave them alone on the other side of the ridge and would come back for the afternoon or possibly re-try the next morning given my week long plan.
I tracked back up the main ridge-line, about one mile back from my first entry point to a finger ridge and dark timber bowl. It had a north-east facing slope that I had in mind to check out mid-day and early afternoon. Just something to be productive before making a decision for my PM plan. I dropped off the main ridge down a finger ridge. The thick north Idaho vegetation had me about one-third down from the main spine of the ridge, facing down into a bowl type feature that I’d never been to, but thought the orientation and timber would be a good spot for elk to hang out mid day.
I’d taken a lunch break, and it was warm and about 1pm. I fired off a location bugle and immediately, maybe 300 yards lower, heard a whiney response bugle. I almost couldn’t believe it, so I bugled again and sure enough he came back with the same response bugle. The thermals were coming up hard at this point and with me above him I quickly cut the distance. Before I even got setup for closer calling, he bugles again! I’d guess we were about 100 yards apart at this point. It was thick, and hard to explain, but I felt like I had the upper hand of wind coming up, but couldn’t close the distance any further. We exchanged bugles and then I just went silent thinking I’d play the curiosity game on him. It didn’t seem to work and I felt like I couldn’t get any closer, but didn’t want to ‘overcall’.
At this point, it was about 2pm, and I felt like I’d just wait out the situation until maybe 4:30. Then try to engage again at a time when he might be more active. At about 3:30, I was dosing off waiting and he fired off again! This time directly below me and he had moved down and below me from the earlier exchange. I took the opportunity to shift my location moving on-contour over to where he had been calling at me earlier. While moving, I spotted a cow bedded down in the shadows of a tree, maybe 70 yards out. After a couple minutes of staring at each other, she slowly stood up, turned, and began to walk on-contour the other direction away from me. She didn’t bolt or bugger, so without really knowing what else to do, I started up a fairly urgent lost calf calling sequence. Immediately past and below her, a whiney ‘bed bugle’ returned my calf sounds. I returned with a similar whiney bugle with a couple chuckles. I had waited for what seemed like several minutes and started to doubt myself and think I had blown up the opportunity, when a full scream bugle fired off in the brush just below me! REALLY CLOSE!
I will never forget that moment. I knew he was close and in range, but there was brush below me and I was just waiting for him to show himself. I was already knocked up with my release, just trying to see where he was. I couldn’t believe it when I made out his antler tips at no more than 12 yards! When I came to full draw, I hugged the shoulder because it was slightly quartering to me. I released and maybe hit a bit closer to the near shoulder than I had planned. The arrow went thru to the other side, but did not fully exit. The back third or half of the arrow broke off when he crashed through the brush and the broadhead on the opposite side was just starting to exit the hide in the offside lung area. He only made it about 40 yards and I heard him crash. As fast as he went down, I’d guess the shot went thru the top of his heart and thru the opposite lung. It must have hit some shoulder bone or rib bone or I would have expected a full pass thru. But I’m not complaining… it all worked out!
I did a time check after the shot at 4pm. I waited 25 minutes, then couldn’t stand it any longer and since I’d heard him crash, I went to see if I could find the arrow. In hindsight, I wouldn’t find it since it stuck in him, so initially I was somewhat concerned. As I looked for my arrow, peering down the trail I could see him in plain sight! Hands on my first bull ever at 4:30pm!!
I had him quartered and quarters hung in a tree by 7pm when it was getting dark. I made the first trip out with backstraps, loins, neck meat and made it to my truck in the dark at about 8pm. The trip out was about a half mile of steep terrain to the main ridge and then a short distance to my dirt bike on a small ATV trail. The dirt bike ATV trail was about 4 miles one-way to the truck.
At that point, it was maybe 55 degrees and forecasted to get down to ‘mid to lower’ 40 degrees overnight. I didn’t know if the temps would be cool enough to plan on leaving it hanging overnight, returning the next morning… or if I needed to do midnight runs in the dark to get the meat out ASAP. I was already somewhat tired at that point after my first solo break-down and the initial trip out – so I was somewhat concerned at that point. I called a co-worker from Montana who’s an experienced elk hunter and explained the situation and forecasted temps. Fortunately he reassured me the meat would be fine overnight as long as they were in game bags and hanging. Let me tell you, I was SO glad to hear that.
I returned early first light next morning with tons of ice and two big coolers. It took me five more trips. One for each quarter, and the last trip for the antlers and head. I didn’t have a game saw, so I had to pack out the head with antlers. That’s when I realized that the head and antlers combo is about the same weight as a hind quarter. But with all the meat & quarters on ice, I could take my time. All said and done; one trip the afternoon of the kill and five more return trips. All combined it was roughly 48 miles of dirt bike and 6 miles total of walking pack out! I was toast that evening- but got the elk and myself off the mountain in good shape.
So there you have it! I turned 50 this past summer and harvested my first elk this September thanks to pointers from the ElkBros, Paul Medel, and the Elk Collective. Called in a small bull solo to 12 yards that went maybe 40 yards and crashed. My first archery kill along with a solo break down and pack out. What an epic day!!