The last time we heard the bull he was long gone; his faint bugle was barely audible as he neared the top of the ridge and the safety of high ground. The perpetually swirling winds on the spine of that ridge betray the approach of any predator. The old bull knew this, and so did I. Once again, I'd missed a chance to bag one of the biggest bull elk in the canyon. My wife, Lauren, and I caught our breath and weighed our options.
Just then, two individual bull elk let rip with their respective mating calls, a couple hundred yards above us. I crept uphill in the direction of the bugles to get above Lauren, my caller, and once I was in position, Lauren challenged the elk with a bugle of her own. The bulls immediately responded and headed our way, one to the left, one to the right. I clenched my fingers on the string on my recurve, held my diaphragm call in my teeth, and scanned the timber, listening intently. Then I felt the breeze hit the back of my neck, and knew the jig was up. The bulls continued to bugle defiantly, having now smelled the humans trying to dupe them, and executed a fast uphill departure from the scene.
At that point the frustration took over. I'd worked my tail off in this drainage for three years trying to arrow an elk with my recurve, and though I'd admittedly made numerous mistakes, my nemesis was the damned ever-shifting wind—a good enough reason to throw in the towel and head back to camp, maybe even back to town.
Had I been with my hunting buddies they probably would have agreed with my decision to bag it. But I wasn't hunting with one of my buddies—I was hunting with my eternally optimistic new wife, who took this moment to remind me about my own mantra, "You won't fill your tag sitting in camp." Then she reminded me of how much she loves having a smashed peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich washed down with fresh mountain water collected from the spring high up on the mountain, then lying down for an afternoon nap in the bear grass and letting the gentle breezes lull her to sleep. How does a guy argue with that? We continued on, and I wondered how the hell I got lucky enough to marry a girl like her.
Lauren and I had swapped our vows a month before at our family ranch high in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon. My dad acted as minister, there were as many dogs as people in attendance, and a Missoula-based band set stage on the porch of the cowboy bunkhouse. Now, my wife and I were on our honeymoon, having foregone the typical beachside bungalow for a two-man tent deep in my favorite archery elk grounds on the border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Even before getting my recurve, the place was a favorite. In all I'd spent five years discovering the nuances of this particular spot and its elk, the first couple of those devoted to trying to get a buddy his first bull with a bow. As anyone who bow hunts for elk knows, the best chance is often the first chance, and we had some pretty ridiculous archery hunting our first year in the huge basin. I don't think the animals had been exposed much to calling. Elk can become very call-shy and quiet when pressured, but the bulls in this country were extremely vocal, often bugling all day long during the peak of the rut. That's what I love most about archery hunting; the serenade of a bull elk's mating call. It's music to my ears, my favorite sound in nature, thus my favorite sound in the world. Those first couple of years my hunting partners and I both nearly shot big bull elk, the kind with antlers that adorn the mantles of fireplaces in fancy cabins across the West. But elk aren't stupid, and they'd figured out our system and become much more difficult to call within bow range, especially with the 20-yard maximum range of the traditional recurve bow I'd been hunting with for three seasons.
On my fourth season in the basin, this time hunting with Lauren, the elk seemed to have adapted to the hunting pressure by heading for the high grounds shortly after first light. The bulls still bugled a bunch, but by leaving their preferred feeding and breeding grounds at daybreak they stayed well ahead of us. We had to hike hard for an hour from the locked gate on the old spur road along game trails just to follow them to the mouth of the drainage. From there, it was straight uphill, and anyone who's tried to keep pace with the huge lungs and four massive legs of an elk going up-country can attest to the hopelessness of that situation. Advantage, elk.
New tactics were obviously in order. So the next year, rather than set up my fancy camp full of all the creature comforts an elk hunter could want, I decided Lauren and I should camp up high, near the creek, with just the bare necessities. That way, we could be at the same elevation as the elk at first light, and instead of playing catch-up, we'd blend in with our quarry. Advantage, hunter.
Lauren's first archery hunt with me in this drainage took place late in the season—mid-October—and I still hadn't killed an elk. I presumed the rut was over and wasn't expecting much action. I was wrong.
We were able to creep amidst a bugling bull and his harem of cows. I blew softly on a cow call and, like something out of Jurassic Park, elk stood up all around us. I looked back at Lauren, who exhibited both fear and wonder as she crouched within spitting distance of several cows that had not yet detected our presence. When they did, all hell broke loose. I didn't get my bull, but Lauren had a new appreciation for what the whole hunting thing was all about.
At Thanksgiving we tried again, this time in the Gravelly Mountains, to fill my tag with a rifle. On the first morning of the hunt my buddy John shot an antler-less elk and gave Lauren her first experience with a kill. Of course, she felt bad for the dead soul—we all do—but she took it in stride. After hanging the meat in camp we headed back out for an evening hunt. We spotted a group of cows a mile away, and made our stalk (since our general elk tag for the unit was valid for both sexes). Lauren was right behind me when I killed a huge lead cow, and we packed our second elk out of those mountains, much of it in the dark. If there was any question about her toughness, it was squashed right then and there.
So it came as no surprise to me when my wife–after I floated the idea of backpacking into the middle of the drainage and sleeping in a two-man tent in an area where I had personally seen four grizzly bears—willingly agreed to join me. She had been practicing her calling for a year and was privy to my preferred strategy of luring elk within range of my primitive weapon, staying undetected on the approach, getting close and then calling aggressively. This leaves a bull with a quick decision to make, and it's the best way I've found to get an elk to make an adrenaline-fueled error. That is, of course, if the ever-present wind doesn't betray me.
Like many elk hunters, I started out with a rifle and picked up a compound bow later in life. I shot a few mule deer and two elk with those "wheelie" bows, but the allure of traditional archery became irresistible after I read a book about it, Longbows in the Far North. I bought a used recurve (so-called for its curved tips), and set my sights on killing an elk with it.
Broadly, "traditional" archery refers to a recurve or longbow, ancient weapons with few working parts. While some longbow enthusiasts who build their own wooden arrows would probably scoff at the term "traditional" to describe my recurve and carbon arrow shafts, I use the word because of the way the bow is aimed and shot. In traditional archery, there are no sights on the bow, and the arrow isn't aimed so much as it is pointed in the right direction.
Accuracy is attained through practice, repetitiveness and consistency. Hitting a target requires cohesiveness between the body and mind as you draw and loose the arrow. It's a Zen-like thing that I don't always achieve, but when I do get in the zone, I feel the way I imagine a pitcher does in a no-hitter.
Archery elk hunting with a recurve, however, is a different ball game than hunting with a compound, something you learn the first time you see an elk 40 yards away—out of range, for a recurve—and think to yourself "If only I had my compound!"
Compound bows use a complex pulley system that generates more arrow speed with less resistance. The hunter draws and looses the arrow in nearly one fluid motion, producing arrow speeds of up to 330 feet per second. A recurve doesn't even come close to that kind of velocity. With my recurve shooting abilities, I have no confidence I can get an arrow through an elk's dinner-plate sized lungs unless it's within 20 yards.
As Lauren and I hunted uphill toward the napping grounds, a potent waft of elk stench stopped both of us in our tracks. The smell of elk musk is a common thing in elk rutting country, but a hunter's nose, perhaps even on a subconscious level, can discern between old sign and fresh. We both scanned the timber, and Lauren let loose with a bugle. Instantly, a previously unseen bull elk jumped to his feet and looked at us in surprise and horror. He turned around and wheeled off before I had a chance to raise my bow. Suddenly we were enveloped by elk.
I concentrated on a cow bee-lining it for me and followed her when she veered off into a patch of timber. Unfortunately, a tree shielded the vital area behind the cow's shoulder. Then a bugle erupted to my right and I turned to see the head and antlers of a bull, his head tilted back finishing what I hoped would be his swan song. He took a step forward, revealing his front shoulder from behind an old-growth fir. He was still mostly concealed behind a stand of small trees, but I found a softball-sized opening where his lungs should be and my mind went into cruise control. I don't remember drawing the bow or releasing the arrow, but when the bull turned, the feather fletchings on the end of my arrow shaft were buried deep in his side, and a rivulet of blood stained his flank. I knew he was finished. My quest to shoot an elk with a primitive bow was complete.
Aside from a couple of crick-boating, backcountry-ski-loonies (who I just happen to share wall tents with on many fall weekends), I don't know anyone who could have completed the pack-out that Lauren did, with over 100 pounds of elk meat on her back, twice, and nary a complaint.
When we reached camp, I pulled two gold cans from the icy stream and my wife and I raised them to the hard work, and to the bull that would feed us for the rest of the year. I've drained a few cold ones in my day, but none better than those banquet beers chilled in the headwaters of the drainage that had just bestowed us a righteous gift.
We rinsed the elk's thighs, shoulders and backstraps in the creek, and laid them out on the cold, shady gravel where the ambient temperature was just right for cooling meat after dragging it off a mountain in 80-degree heat.
We hung all the fresh meat high in the fir trees outside of camp, along with our bloodstained clothing. There's company up here that you don't want to keep, and when you're bivouacked on a game trail miles from the nearest road on your honeymoon, you take every precaution to ensure that the two of you don't end up on the front page as the latest casualties who rolled the dice in grizzly bear country. Then we downed two plates of pre-made elk curry and crawled into the tent, two exhausted newlyweds. The day on the mountain was the crowning achievement in my blessed 20-year elk hunting career, but it was also just the beginning of many adventures in the woods, and through life, with a perfect partner for both.