The Redemption Bull: Elk Hunting in the National Forest

Posted by on Jan 16, 2013 in Feature Articles | 0 comments

View of Mt. Adams, Cascade Mountains, from near elk camp.

View of Mt. Adams, Cascade Mountains, from near elk camp.

Opening day of archery elk in western Washington, September 8, 2008, found me sneaking through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in search of the wily wapiti. To be quite honest, it didn’t matter very much to me if my broadhead found its mark on the side of a world-class bull, or a small cow. Sure, most hunters have a yearning for a trophy in some capacity, but for me it was in part my goal to make up for some big mistakes I made the previous year in a close encounter with a cow. Quite simply, I was in search of redemption.

 I began my third year of bow hunting with new equipment, but most importantly, with new-found confidence.  I practiced in my back yard five days a week for months. I had numerous dress-rehearsals where I practiced in full camo. I practiced shooting from a blind, from behind trees, from under branches, kneeling, standing, sitting- you name it. As the season approached, I would practice with only one arrow, and sprint back and forth from the target to retrieve it in order to try to simulate the pounding of my heart in the excitement of the moment that I visualized a thousand times.  I wasn’t going to let another season slip by unsuccessfully on account of mistakes or ineptitude.

 At daylight, I began hunting the bottom of a big canyon where I had found elk on several occasions the year before. But this year there were no elk, no sign to get excited about, and the only bugling I heard came from a lazy hunter that I heard drive up to the edge of the forest around 8:30 in the morning.

I started heading for higher ground around 11 a.m., and with unpredictable winds and a bone-dry, noisy forest floor, I found a small heard of spikes and cows. I should say they found me, since they were already crashing in the opposite direction when I spotted them. I spent the next hour and a half working in a very large semi-circle in the hopes of finding them, but to no avail.

Elk camp at 4000 feet. No guide to make breakfast here!

The forest was warm- too warm. I feared that the Indian summer we were experiencing was seriously putting the damper on the start of the rut. At around 4:30 that afternoon the wind shifted again, and I decided to leave my post at a point overlooking a gulch with a well-used elk highway running along the edge, and slowly make my way south back to camp. I wanted to be back to that spot by daylight when I predicted the winds would be working in my favor. I crossed the dry ravine and as slowly and quietly as possible, made my way through the forest.                       

About a half-mile from where I was to leave the forest, I was thinking about the next morning, how I was going to set up, and how my luck was going to change.  I began walking the deadfalls up the mountain in order to get out of the woods quicker, so I could leave it rest for the night. It was then that I heard a bugle coming from the direction of camp and higher up the mountain. Compared to the human bugle I heard that morning, I knew this was the real thing. Judging from the higher pitch and lack of growl, I predicted the bull to be a smaller animal, perhaps a lone satellite bull. But I didn’t care how big it was, as long as it was a legal three-point or better.

 I quickly took the muffler off of the cow-call hanging around my neck and sent back a routine mew in its direction. The forest was silent; there was no response. With the diaphragm call still in my mouth, I let out a bugle of my own; admittedly sounding like even a smaller bull. Instantly the forest reverberated with the sound of a bugling bull, but it seemed to come from further away.

I waited nearly a minute and let out another cow call, this time with more “estrous.”  Again there was a bugle, but this time closer. I thought the animal was making its way around the forest awfully quickly! I heard the pounding of hoofs and the breaking of twigs as I quietly made my way up a small bench to get behind a large Douglas fir. The bugling and crashing continued until finally the bull appeared over the ledge above me. From its new vantage point, the elk stopped and stared in my direction. Quartering to me with its head behind a distant tree, I was able to range it at 65 yards. With only a glance at the antlers, I could tell it was a legal bull; most likely in the 4 x 4 range.       

Rich Sandstrom (uphill) and me with my first elk.

Rich Sandstrom (uphill) and me with my first elk.

With a comfortable shooting distance in ideal conditions being 50 yards or less, there was no way I would attempt a shot that far, even if the animal shifted broadside. I put the muffler back on the cow call and pointing it behind me, let out an estrous mew. The bull bugled again, twisting his head and scanning the forest, but it wouldn’t commit to investigating any further. I switched gears and let out another bugle. That drove the bull into a drooling frenzy. It barked and grunted and clawed at the ground, but still made no attempt to come closer. After several minutes of the distant sparring between us, the bull suddenly turned and started up the mountain. But with a “what do I have to lose” attitude, I grabbed a large stick and started beating it and scraping it on the tree in front of me. The bull instantly turned around and stood again at the edge of the bench, not getting any closer.               

I waited this time in silence, hoping the elk would venture in my direction. Instead, it quickly ran off to my right and up the mountain again, away from where I first heard it. Soon it was out of sight and the forest was quiet.              

For some reason, instead of hanging my head from the failed close encounter, I said to myself that I was not going to let this opportunity slip by. I grabbed another dead branch and pounding the forest floor as hard and heavy footed as I could, I sprinted toward the spot where the bull was standing, loudly thrashing the ground as I went. I stopped just under the plateau’s edge, and let out another small but attitudinal bugle.            

Then from down the ridgeline, where I first heard the bull, a bugle shook the silence louder and angrier than ever. It must have circled around for one more look. I heard crashing coming at me again, and I ducked behind another tree. The crashing stopped and there was silence. I glassed the area and saw nothing. I raised myself up to get a better view, and glassed the immediate horizon again. Just past a huge deadfall, I saw several tines of an antler turning back and forth, some 40 yards away. I mewed again with my cow call facing behind me, and followed it with a quick screaming bugle with my diaphragm. The bull quickly responded with another angry bugle and I could see the antlers begin to move slowly down the hill from right to left. I could see the clearing where the bull was going to appear, and it offered me a small window where I could shoot without having to wrap myself around the tree and become entangled in some brush at my feet.

My 6x6 in the National Forest.

My 6×6 in the National Forest.

I remember saying to myself, “This is it.” I guessed the dead log to be near 25 yards away, as I didn’t have time to reach for my range finder. I drew back and peaked around the right side of the tree, and centered my peep on the outer cage of my sights. I only saw the tips of the antlers above the huge deadfall as it approached the clearing. Shaking like a leaf from the adrenaline pumping through my body, I tried to hold the space between the 20 and 30 pin on the spot where I anticipated needing to shoot. The bull slowly and quietly began sneaking down the mountain. I tried to whistle to make it pause in the clearing, but couldn’t; the diaphragm call was still in my mouth. Running out of time and out of opportunities, I released the arrow at the moving bull.

At first I thought I heard the sound of my broadhead hitting wood, never having ever witnessed the sound of a rib stopping a speeding arrow. The bull bolted ahead and I instantly reached for my cow call and blew. The animal stopped a mere twenty yards farther away, behind some brush. Not thinking I even hit it, I again took off to a nearby tree that would offer me a better look at the animal for a second shot. I broke every twig I could in hopes of sounding like another elk. I reached the tree and saw that the bull had shifted a bit, and was now facing nearly square away from me, giving me a very small target on its right side. 

I quickly knocked another arrow and drew back, hoping it would turn just a little. It was now 30 yards away, and I was shaking considerably less. I saw a glimpse of the accompanying herd of cows running up the ridge away from me, and noticed the bull looking in that direction as well. But it didn’t move. Then the bull swung his head as if to look for me. For the first time, I thought possibly he was hit, considering his head was hung just a bit low, and he still wasn’t moving. I thought I could take advantage of the frozen elk, and tried to position myself a few yards from the tree to get a better angle for another shot. Then the bull turned its head and looked squarely at me, and I saw for the first time that this was not the same bull that I first encountered. This one was much bigger.  

Then the bull quickly walked away and stopped one more time after turning, heading down hill at about fifty yards from where I was kneeling. I could only see a portion of the tan hide through a small opening in the thick underbrush, but it was enough for me to see the yellow and orange fletching of my arrow barely protruding from the left side of the big animal. After a few seconds, he vanished down the mountain. 

I quickly but silently went to where the bull was last standing, and found a very small saucer-sized pool of blood on a log. I searched the area where I thought I first hit him, and found nothing. I scanned the area for several minutes, not finding any more blood. Not wanting to push a wounded animal, I quickly made my way to the ridge top and headed for camp. With only about an hour of good daylight left, I radioed my hunting buddy, Rich Sandstrom, and we decided to let the animal alone until first light the next morning. 

The last trip back to camp.

The last trip back to camp.

That night around the campfire, I was a wreck. My emotions ran the gamut. I was as excited as I had ever been in my life, but I was also worried sick about the possibility of not finding the animal. I was elated that I called in this huge beast and experienced not one, but two bugling, frothing, barking elk at close range. I was somewhat comforted that I saw the bull head downhill away from the cows, but the huge canyon was steep, the trees were thick, and the wilderness was virtually endless.  It could be anywhere. Needless to say, with the re-enactment racing relentlessly through my head, I hardly slept that night. 

At five o’clock the next morning, I sprang out of my sleeping bag and prepared my pack frame for the task that I was hoping lay ahead. At 6 we headed into the slowly illuminating forest. After about 20 minutes of struggling through some thickets and in and out of several draws, my GPS said we were only 150 feet from where I stuck an arrow in the tree at the point I last saw the bull. I put the GPS away and started up the hill. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw what it was I had been praying for all night. A mere 50 yards downhill from where I had seen it last, lay the beautiful bull. I let out a whoop and ran to the animal in a state of absolute pure elation. My first big game animal ever with a bow was a 6×6 elk. 

We gutted, caped, quartered and packed the animal out of the forest, taking a mere 9 hours. I was never so physically exhausted in my life, and never so emotionally exhilarated. To have this experience, to take this bull, was a true blessing. 

This bull will break no records, and it doesn’t matter to me whatsoever. The true measure of a successful hunt is not found in the inches of the antlers, but in the depths of the memory. So when I close my eyes I am there. The silent forest, the sneaking bull, my sights where they need to be, the immeasurable flow of electricity and blood through my body as I release the arrow: this is hunting. This is what we live for.

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