Whether or not you’re a hunter, you may appreciate this post about my first of two planned bow hunting weekends this month. I didn’t harvest an animal, but I have a pretty decent story. I always come back with a story, as well as lessons learned—this time three specific lessons to chalk up for next time.
Lydia, Micah and I are the ones that really dove into this sport (the other teens are sticking with rifle). It’s a big commitment. Last year we sunk a lot of money into gear, and I read a lot about gun maintenance from cleangunguide.com and thought my gun was not fit for hunting this time. So, I had decided to come back from the trip and lube my gun. Thus, our preference point this year was in archery, not rifle, and we had decided to go hunting in the same Game Management Unit as our rifle season, a GMU that has one of the largest elk herds in the country. I missed going hunting here in 2011 when I had a health issue that kept me from hunting that year, but the kids knew the area well. We have been planning two trips out: a 2-day excursion opening weekend, plus a 4-day excursion later in the season. Lydia bought a bow (she borrowed one last year just to see if she would have interest), and we stocked up on new arrows.
Forgive me, this may be TMI. All this to say: we’re committed, we’re invested, and we’re stoked. Back to my story.
We didn’t get to the trail head till shortly before sunrise. We had a 2.5 mile walk — a mountainous walk, up and down hills, some pretty steep — while carrying a day pack and game rack. Lydia and Micah were in much better shape than I was. They also knew the area better than me, so every hill we climbed was new to me, not to them.
But I had coordinates on my GPS of the turns and landmarks (the others didn’t, but they insisted they knew the area better). I was huffing a puffing along the trail, struggling to keep up with these two whipper-snappers. I told them to go ahead (we really wanted to get to our destination by sun up), and I would walk in after sunrise. Not ideal, but I was struggling and sweating. So they agreed and shot ahead of me.
I followed the GPS loyally. I would have missed a significant left turn off the main trail and onto another if it wasn’t for the coordinates my friend, Phill, gave me. I found out later that the kids missed the turn. We learned quite a lesson about sticking to the trail.
Walking In on Elk
The sun had been up for about 15 minutes when I arrived at our big field. In 2011, our hunting party had four elk harvested by noon on opening day rifle. I had thought the kids would be sitting on a bolder somewhere watching me walk (huffing and puffing) in.
I was almost to the edge of the meadow when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. About 30 yards away, an elk was working its way down a hill to my left. I looked around her, and saw another, and another. My goodness…the entire hillside was covered with elk, about 20 in all.
And none of them noticed me…accept one. A calf. It was standing broadside staring at me. A few spike bulls (not legal to harvest) and the rest cows slowly moving around the hill on the beautiful mountain morning. I considered pulling back on the calf. A 30 yard shot would be extremely easy, and I’d be filled out for the season.
I first scanned the herd, and I saw a nice looking 5×5 bull just up the hill from the calf. He was making his way down. I had dropped to the grass by then (of course) analyzing the situation and measuring my options. At the moment I had two: (1) Take this calf and call it a year, (2) wait for the opportunity to take a nice bull. The calf had already lost interest in me, and the rest of the herd didn’t notice me, I was 15 minutes into month-long season, so I gambled to try to get the bull.
One of the beauties of archery is watching the wild in their element. This is rare during rifle season when the elk are scared out of their minds running through the forest away from the gunshots from AR-10 rifles. The 5×5 sparred with one of the spike bulls. I think he was considering mating with one of the cows, but she scuttled off a bit. (Hunters will recognize this as a clue: the elk aren’t quite in the rut.) I stayed hunkered down in the grass, not quite ready to pull back on the bow, an opportune shot not availing.
The breeze was at my front, so none of them noticed me. I was relishing the sight. They were so close, so pristine. I waited for 30 minutes for the shot — considered taking one risky 50 yard shot, but decided it was not certain enough — and the elk walked off away from me.
I situated my things. I ditched my frame pack in the bushes with excess water and cleaning kit. I got my day pack on, my binoculars ready, and started after the elk herd. I was going to stalk them, but something got in my way: a second herd.
This time there were only six. Again, in their element, not frightened or scared. They were grazing in the field: one spike and five cows. They were 150 yards away, but in the way of the direction of the first herd. I decided to try to call one of the cows in with a cow call. Nothing. I tried a bull call. Nothing, as if I wasn’t there. But elk move slow and cautiously, and this smaller herd eventually got up and trotted away. I think they thought me suspicious, because they trotted quite quickly.
I moved slowly. For the next six hours I circled the entire hunting area where my kids were supposed to be. We radioed each other. “Where are you guys? There is elk everywhere!” They hadn’t seen a thing, and they were kind of frustrated. “You guys should make your way back here. This is where the action is.”
I was making my way over a ridge at 1:00pm and my scent was picked up downwind by about 20 more elk. One spike, the rest cows, one a mammoth sized elk that would have fed my family comfortably, but the herd ran off. It would have been a 200 yard shot, much too far away with a bow.
Yes, the thought crossed my mind all day: if I only had a rifle. But seeing the elk in their natural environment is thrilling. I was having a great day, though I was very tired.
My kids and I finally met up about 3pm. They put on a lot more miles than me. I was exhausted because I was out of shape, they were exhausted because of all the walking they did. We decided to retire early and get a good night sleep.
The next day was not nearly as exciting. It was a hot 90 degrees. Flies were bugging us (this is not a problem during rifle later in the year). I spent much of my day cooling off under pine trees, and I suspect the elk were too. By mid afternoon, we decided to call it a weekend and get home. We hope to hit the area hard in a few weeks for our second excursion.
Pretty good story, eh? I can’t tell you how awesome it is to be out there in the wild. Sure, I didn’t harvest an animal, but that’s okay. I had a great time with my kids, a fantastic time viewing the elk (too bad for my kids), and some chill time with God. Honestly, it was awesome.
And one of the things I love about hunting is that I build on my experience every time. Three things specifically stick out on this trip:
- Be in shape. I kick myself for not taking pre-hunt exercise more seriously this year. Though I saw 40 elk Opening Day, I was not having that great of a time. I was tired and sore. I should be jogging everyday and pumping iron at least three times a week from now till the next time out. Why? Because I want to enjoy myself and not get so winded when I walk the mountains at 9,000 feet.
- Stick with the GPS. I thank my friend, Phill, for giving me the list of coordinates that led me to the valley of elk. They were perfect. Too bad I didn’t get them in Lydia’s GPS. She and Micah would have experienced the herd with me, perhaps had the opportunity to pull back on one.
- Three is the magic number. Over the years, I’ve hunted solo as well as in a group of over 20. Three seems to be perfect. Lydia, Micah and I treasured the time together. I’m planning another hunt of three for 1st Rifle Season (with Noah and Isaiah) and for a deer hunt in Nebraska (with Tabitha and Keilah). I think pacing out the hunting parties is a good idea.
That’s my story. Next time: a four-day hunt during muzzle loading season, so the elk should be pushed around a bit more. I will post again with another story, I’m sure, as well as more lessons learned. I learn and love every time I go out.
Some more pics: