I had been within 90 yards of this bull elk for nearly an hour now. He had meandered through the timber, grazing leisurely on the tall, green grass, all the while taunting me that he might come within bow range of our blind, but always turning the other direction at the last minute. Then, almost in an act of bold defiance, he decided to bed down in the timber to our West. I had finally closed the distance to 54 yards via a painfully long crawl, but he was bedded behind a gnarled dead tree, leaving me no shot. I looked to my left and saw the next small grouping of trees. That would close the distance to under 50 yards – the limit of my effective bow range – and perhaps give me a different angle that would grant me a shot at this magnificent creature while still in his bed.
As I approached the trees in a surgically slow army crawl, I popped my head up to check that the bull hadn’t grown suspicious. To my horror, the bull was now standing where he was bedded and staring right at me. Haltingly, I retrieved an arrow from my quiver, knocked it, and waited for him to avert his gaze for just a moment to give me the chance to draw. He stared through me to my partner who was blowing cow calls 40 yards behind me for what felt like hours. Flinching through an intensifying hamstring cramp, I forced myself to remain perfectly still. Finally, he moved briskly behind some thicker timber, giving me the chance to come to full draw. He stopped for another cow call, just on the other side of the timber, quartered away, with his vitals inside of an 18-inch window in the trees. I took a deep breath, squeezed back on the release, and watched the arrow sail through the air…
2017 was supposed to be the elk hunting year of the decade. Arizona had experienced a remarkably wet winter, a solid monsoon season over the summer, and the elk were supposed to be healthy and big – really big! The icing on the cake was that all the elk gurus agreed that the moon was going to be in the perfect cycle to send the cows into estrus and ignite a hellfire of rutting activity just a day or two into archery season. I was beyond pumped as the season approached!
The year prior, my father-in-law, Neil, brother-in-law, Zach, and myself had all drawn archery bull tags for a coveted unit up near Flagstaff, AZ. Sadly, all three of us went home that year with nothing but lessons learned the hard way and tags in our pockets. The salt in that wound was that statistically, this is a tag you only draw once every five to seven years in AZ. We figured it would be a good long while before we were back in the elk woods, bows in hand. However, to our astonishment, draw day came and the credit card got hit for the price of three elk tags – we were going hunting!
Opening morning began like any other. The sleepless night before due to overwhelming anticipation was quickly overcome by a cup of coffee and a brisk hike under cover of darkness to my father-in-law’s tree stand. As the sun started to peak over the horizon, we were more than a little disappointed to hear silence – no bugles whatsoever. Oh well, we had hunted silent elk before, and the rut was supposedly still a couple days off. Bro-Lo and I dropped Neil off, and headed in the direction where we often found elk to be traveling. All day long we tracked them, chased them, and tried to head them off, but were never able to close the gap. We covered more than 13 miles that day chasing those majestic and quick-footed beasts, then drove back to the cabin for a hot meal and to get some rest.
The morning of day two started off much more promising. The first glimmer of sunlight was like flipping a switch for the bulls. Bugles started piping off in every direction. We picked a spot in the woods where several bugles seemed to be emanating from, and began calling and sneaking in on them. They were happy to talk to us, and some even moved a little closer. Sadly, none of them were fired up, none of them wanted to come in and fight or find the hot cow they had heard from our calls. They were talking, but were just not rutting. As the morning drew on and the bugling stopped, we resumed chasing them around and trying to sneak up on them. All we really accomplished, though, was putting miles on our boots and gaining a few more blisters in the process. Day three was basically a carbon copy of day two, with plenty of elk conversations but never getting within range of one.
The third evening, we were sitting around the cabin talking about how a change in strategy seemed to be in order. The multiple single and small groups of cows we had seen without the company of a bull was further indication that these elk were nowhere near breeding season. My father-in-law spoke up and said that from his tree stand, he had seen several groups of elk every day passing by to his south that never came into range for him. Even though it might mean taking a bull that could come past his tree, he recommended Zach and I set up back in that timber and see what happens. Seeing as he possesses at least a couple decades of elk hunting know-how on us, we decided to take him up on his offer.
We each set up on different sides of a clearing back in the timber Neil had referenced. The elk were quieter that morning, so it was good that we had opted for an ambush strategy as we had no way of pinpointing their location without getting eyes on them first – which had historically meant blowing them out of the area when they saw us first. Every. Single. Time. Not too long into the morning, I spotted a group of about a dozen elk moving across the clearing. I watched through my binos: cow, cow, calf, decent spike, cow, cow, holy nice mature bull, Batman!!! I thought for a moment they might turn right and start to head my direction, but that bull directed them to stay the course and head into the thicker timber towards Zach. I fired off a quick text: “group coming your way…nice bull!” They meandered into that timber, and came past him at 50 yards. When the bull passed behind a tree, BroLo came to full draw and followed that bull with his 50 pin as he went behind a small pine tree – and stopped! The bull just stood there, eating some grass and looking around, with most of his body obscured by this stupid Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.
Zach stood there at full draw remaining as motionless as possible, willing that bull to take just one more step – one step forward and he would have him. Though the wind was in Zach’s favor, one of the cows started getting antsy and sensed something was wrong. Suddenly, the woods erupted with the sound of pounding hooves and snorting elk, and they were gone before Zach was ever able to take a shot. Though a couple other groups were seen further off through the timber, nothing else came into range that morning. One thing was for sure, though: this area was a great transition point that would make for a great ambush hunt if we could position ourselves in the right spot.
Since our afternoon hunts had been even more of a bust than the mornings up to this point, we spent our afternoon constructing a brush blind that would allow us to sit together covering any major pathway they might choose through that timber. We ate a quick lunch, then hiked out for the day to rest up before returning to our new blind for morning five of what was turning into a much more difficult hunt than it was supposed to be this year.
We woke up at 3:30 on the fifth morning of the hunt to blustering winds, and the weather called for them to keep going all day long. That was enough to convince my father-in-law that sitting 15 feet up in a tree on a day where the elk are likely to be more reclusive than usual just wasn’t worth the misery, so he stayed back. Zach and I, however, had a brand-new blind we wanted to take for a spin, and we marched out into those woods anyway. We sat silently in that blind all morning, seeing a group of cows and calves and another single cow who came easily within bow range on Zach’s side of the blind.
Just when it seemed that perhaps we were facing another bust of a morning, Zach – looking due west through his binoculars – whispered that he saw a bull. I grabbed my binos and focused on the area Zach had specified, and sure enough there was a cautious 4x5 in the thick timber about 60 yards from us. Since he was on my side of the blind, it was my shot, but I needed him to come into a more open area and be at least 10 yards closer. The howling wind was perfectly in our favor, and Zach kept the cow calls going. He never came into them, but it seemed to at least help him feel comfortable thinking there was another elk in the area.
Slowly but surely, he meandered out into an open area. As he ducked behind some trees, I came to full draw hoping he would continue in our direction. But, at 60 yards, he decided to head away from us down the game trail and around some trees, so I let the bow down. Zach got back on the cow call, and the bull turned around and started to come back. “Here he comes,” I thought, and I drew the bow back again. But just like last time, he paused at 65 yards out, chewed his cud at us for a while (the elk equivalent of the middle finger...you know, since they don't have fingers), and then meandered back into the timber. We watched him slowly put some distance between us, and at about 90 yards, he decided to bed down in the timber.
We had howling wind in our favor, a bull who would be bedded for who knows how many hours, and no reason to believe he would get up and head in our direction. If I wanted a shot, I was going to have to close the distance between us. I looked out from our blind and charted a course from tree to tree up to the edge of some timber that could provide some cover and should be within range of this bedded bull. I made an agonizingly slow crawl from our blind to each tree along the way, stopping to move every pine cone and twig in my path that might snap under my weight and decry my presence to that bull. Every few yards I would stop to check the bull’s position and make sure he wasn’t aware of a predator stalking him.
When I finally arrived at the edge of this timber patch, I slowly popped up and ranged him at 54 yards. Though I’d like to stay within 50 on a live animal, I could have considered taking that shot were it not for the giant dead tree he was bedded behind - gnarled limbs protruding to the sky as if they had been designed with the sole purpose of shielding this bull’s vitals. I looked to my left and saw the next small grouping of trees. That would close the distance to under 50 yards, and perhaps give me an angle that would offer me a shot while he was still bedded.
As I approached the trees in a painfully slow army crawl, I popped my head up to check that the bull hadn’t grown suspicious. To my horror, the bull was now standing where he was bedded and staring right at me. Haltingly, I retrieved an arrow from my quiver, knocked it, and waited for him to avert his gaze for just a moment to give me the chance to draw. He stared through me to my partner who was blowing cow calls 40 yards behind me for what felt like hours. Flinching through an intensifying hamstring cramp, I forced myself to remain perfectly still. Finally, he moved briskly behind some thicker timber, giving me the chance to come to full draw. He stopped for another cow call, just on the other side of the timber, quartered away, with his vitals inside of an 18-inch window in the trees. I took a deep breath, squeezed back on the release, and watched the arrow sail through the air.
Since I had last ranged him at 54 yards, and did not think he or I had closed the distance to any appreciable degree, I had placed my 50 pin on him a bit high and back (as he was quartered away from me). At first, I thought I had watched the arrow sail over his back, and my heart sank as I thought I had just spent half an hour on my hands and knees all to blow it with a bad shot. But to my amazement, as he tore off through the timber, I saw blood gushing out of his side. It was higher and further back than I had intended, but it was clearly a significant wound he had sustained.
I returned to the blind and filled-in BroLo, since I was mostly obscured from his view and he didn’t even see that I took the shot. We waited in the blind for the longest half hour of my life. Zach called my father-in-law to tell him to get his pack frame together because we were going to need help once we found this guy. I called my wife, because in one of the greatest moments of your life, you want to talk to the person you love the most.
After enough time had passed, we walked to the tree where I had fired the shot and began the process of tracking this bull. We found where he had clearly been standing and the massive tracks from when he took off when the arrow hit. For a couple minutes, we struggled to find blood, which of course made me worried that I had not hit him as fatally as I had hoped. But sure enough we found a small spot, then a larger splatter, then a few more large pools…all in a nice, easy to follow line through the woods. When we came upon my arrow, I knew we were going to find him. It hadn’t passed through, but had buried itself about 14 inches into the elk, and there were bubbles all over it. Based on how far back I had hit him, I assumed he must have been quartering away farther than I thought if I managed to hit him in the lungs with a wound as far back as I thought I saw it.
Once the arrow was out, the blood flow increased dramatically, and after tracking a couple more pools on the ground, I looked up and saw the sight every hunter longs to see – the gigantic, round, brown body of a dead bull elk up ahead in the woods. He had not made it 100 yards from where he was shot before piling up dead. A quick, clean, ethical kill, which is what we all hope for.
After hugs, high fives and the usual celebrations, we snapped a few pictures and quickly got to work dressing this bull. As we started to play CSI on this elk and try to determine the cause of death, we realized that it was not likely the arrow got to his lung. The entrance wound was actually at the very front of his hind quarter – not a great shot, at all! And with blood only 14 inches up on the arrow, could it have been at a sharp enough angle to actually reach his lungs? It didn’t seem likely, and as we got into the rib cage while cleaning him out, we realized that both lungs were still perfectly intact. What we did discover was that a major artery in his hind quarter had been completely severed by the 2-inch mechanical broadhead, and he had simply bled out incredibly quickly. The artery running to his largest muscle group straight from the lungs evidently carried enough oxygen to produce the same bubbly blood you typically see from the desired lung shot.
I think about just how much luck was involved in that elk’s quick and humane death. If that arrow had been just two inches lower, it would have missed that artery, buried itself deep in his leg and lower abdomen, and he would have suffered for days before probably dying and becoming food for coyotes. Two inches was the difference between my first elk and a freezer full of meat, and a wounded animal we would never see again. You could argue that a kill is a kill, and I have now entered into the small group of people who have ever killed an elk with a bow. You could propose that the fact I just happened to be shooting arrow number 7 from my quiver played a role in the lucky shot (I number all my arrows to track their accuracy and consistency). Or you could just state that God is good and wanted to bless me and my family with this beautiful animal that will feed us all year. I tend to think it’s some combination of all three.
We cut him up, packed him up, and the three of us hauled all that meat three miles back to the truck in one trip. I am convinced there is nothing that can fully prepare you for the arduous task of packing out an elk on foot. I train hard, lift heavy weights, and am generally pretty strong, but that pack-out just about killed me! Most of the way out I found myself pondering if there was a single other sport in the world that produces such extreme misery as a result of victory (I haven’t come up with one yet, for the record).
The next morning, we were all sore and tired. It was another windy day, so my father-in-law decided once again to stay back. I was ready to do whatever Zach wanted to that day in hopes of getting him tagged out as well, and he decided to return to our ground blind. Sure, there were the remains of an elk carcass just 100 yards to the West, but with the direction of the wind and the typical travel patterns through the area, we figured our chances would be pretty good. Sadly, we sat there all morning without a single elk sighting. Zach decided midway through that ordeal that it had been six days of hunting, he missed his family (as did I), and he wanted to call it a season and head back home. We hiked out of those woods, packed up, and drove back down the mountain to be reunited with the families we hadn’t seen in a week.
In the aftermath of it all, I am still processing that it actually happened. This was my third archery elk hunt, and the first time I had successfully killed one. Throughout the hunt, I battled the same questions and mental hang-ups everyone does: “Can I really do this?” “What do I think I’m doing out here?” “This will never happen!” "And why in the world is THIS song stuck in my head?!?!" Any hunter who says they’ve never wrestled with those thoughts is lying, or has a sociopathic confidence in themselves and should probably be evaluated by a professional. Whether a hunter succeeds or not, the greatest value is in the journey. The time spent in creation, the camaraderie with those you hunt with, the connection to that more primal man that still lives in all of us…these are the real reasons I hunt. Though I won’t lie, the joy of success and the freezer full of meat are nice bonuses, as well!
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