September 17, 2013

The Bittersweet Archery Elk

In late September 2010, Jake took me archery elk hunting in Oregon.  We hunted the last four days of the season and he taught me an amazing amount in those four days.  We chased many elk during the rut, and I learned multiple things each time I failed.  This experience triggered a response more potent than I could have imagined.

As soon as that first hunt was over, I couldn't wait for the following September.  By 2011, I was living in Washington and took it upon myself to learn to hunt a new area.  Somewhere in there, I convinced Kris to buy a bow and hunt with me, finding myself a mentor after only four field days of tutelage.  I did a bunch of research to find an area I thought I could find elk, and off we went.  Turns out I have a knack in Washington for finding elk, but as is the nature of archery hunting, finding them is often times the easy part.  I got close to elk, heard lots of bugles, and generally had at least one amazing experience per day.  I began to think of hunting as hiking with a purpose - a potential to fill the freezer - but I never managed to get a shot.  Leaving empty handed was almost anticipated this first year of hunting without Jake, but I measured success in terms of enjoyment of hiking in the wilderness, learning, and studying elk in their natural environment.  I quickly developed an intense appreciation for how amazing these animals are.

In 2012, I was more optimistic about filling the freezer.  I had a few more close calls, but by the end of it I had still not shot an arrow at an elk.  Later that year, I shot my first big game animal with my bow, a blacktail deer on Whidbey Island.  As tasty as that deer was, the success was not the same as I had envisioned in rising to the challenge of harvesting an elk in the wilderness. . . which brings us to this year.

During the first week of September (and the fist of only two weeks of early archery season in Washington), Kris and I both took off a week of work.  On opening morning, I almost snuck up on a feeding cow elk while still hunting (moving extremely slowly and quietly through the forest in attempt to sneak up on something that you don't even know is there).  For all of this Washington hunting, we've both had a tag for cow or spike, with branch antlered bulls reserved for lucky people who draw one of the limited tags.  So, of course, on day two I find myself 25 yards from a broadside 6-point bull.  With a bull tag, I could have shot him mid-bugle.  The next day we're hunting/scouting a new area.  That night I'm sitting in what I think is a likely spot for an elk to walk by, and right before dark I hear a few of them crashing through the forest.  They're not close enough to shoot and they're moving far too fast.  Instinctively, I head in the direction they were heading, even though by this point it's too dark to shoot.  In doing this, I find a meadow which we will call "Golden Meadow".  Although there are no elk here, I assume this is where they were heading.  I immediately decide to come back to Golden Meadow (GM) tomorrow night with Kris and wait in ambush.  That night I walked back to our camp during the grandest lightening storm and hardest rain I've ever experienced.

The following evening, I station Kris at one side of the meadow and set myself up at the other.  After I'm situated, I nock an arrow . . . it's then that realize there is something wrong with my bow.  During the previous night's return to camp, my bowstring caught on a stick, slipped off the upper cam, and bent the cam in the process.  This rendered my bow about as deadly as a My Little Pony doll.  So, I wait with Kris.  A half our before dark, a cow walks into the meadow.  Kris sees it first and says, "There's an elk!  Right there!"  I can't see it from where I'm sitting, so I advise him to stop telling me about it and shoot it.  Pretty soon I can see it at the far side of the meadow, out of range at about 60 yards.  The cow feeds around and eventually is standing broadside at 48 yards.  This is pushing my comfort zone, but I feel good shooting up to 50 yards with my bow, but not with a rubber horse doll.  Kris doesn't feel he can ethically take the shot at that distance, and I fully support his decision.  This is as close as the cow got.  That whole time I was looking back and forth between the cow and my useless bow.

The following night we tried the same thing.  This time a cow walked into the meadow about 80 yards away, once again 30 minutes before dark.  This ended our first week of 2013 elk hunting.  I vowed to do everything I could get my bow fixed and return for the final weekend of the season.

I couldn't get my bow fixed, but Kris was not planning to hunt and was gracious enough to lend me his bow for the weekend.  I drove back out on Friday, fully intending to kill an elk in GM on Friday night.  On the way over, I stopped for about an hour to sight in Kris's bow up to 50 yards.  This may not make a ton of sense if you're not familiar with compound bow sights, but Kris's sight is different than mine.  Mine has five pins, which I have set at 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 yards.  In this way, my pins are preset and I can fairly easily interpolate the intermediate distances between them.  Kris's sight has one pin, but a cool mechanism for adjusting it to various distances by means of a dial-like mechanism.  Anyway, I got the bow sighted in and was pleased with how well I was able to shoot with it.

By 5:00 that night I had backpacked in, set up my camp, and hiked up to the meadow.  I neither saw nor heard anything that night.  I became concerned that the change in weather (from cool and rainy to hot and sunny) affected their behavior to the point that they would not be coming to the meadow.  I hunted Saturday morning up higher thinking that the elk had gone up to avoid the heat.  I spooked a couple as they detected me before I could detect them, but noted a wallow and some other promising sign for the future.  That night, I decided to give old GM another try.

I got there early and found a great spot to hide at the edge of the meadow that would also allow me to shoot in almost 180 degrees.  A half hour before dark, I hear a crashing ruckus coming from my right.  As the noise gets louder, two cows charge into the meadow as they're pushed by a 6-point bull.  One of the cows is noticeably bigger than the other, and I am determined to arrow it before it leaves the meadow.  These three elk were playing a game (I'm not sure what they call it) where the bull would charge at the cows and the cows would run several yards before stopping, then repeat.  This happened many times as they pinballed around the meadow. . . 50 yards to my right, 30 yards straight ahead but behind my cover tree, 40 yards to my left.  Each time they moved I would range find them, dial the sight pin to the appropriate distance, and prepare to shoot.  The problem was I could only make it about half way through this process before the bull would chase them again and I wouldn't have a shot.  Eventually I decided to set the pin at 30 yards and just aim high or low accordingly if the shot was anywhere near that.  Then the larger of the two cows stopped broadside at 22 yards.  I hold a couple inches low with my 30 yard pin.  Everything is perfect so far, and I've done a lot of thing right to get to this point.

Then instead of easing the trigger back and making a very easy double lung shot, I rush the shot and jerk it - partly because I'm so excited and partly because I'm afraid she's gonna bolt across the meadow again any second.  Fuck.  I hit amazingly far back for how close the shot was.  I think it's a full on gut shot.  I can see the fletching of my arrow laying in the grass right where I shot her, which I wouldn't expect if it was a gut shot as the arrow would have passed through.  I wait a half hour and go retrieve my arrow, which turns out to be only the back 8 inches of the arrow with blood suggesting I got two feet of penetration.  It's now dark and I can't find a spec of blood anywhere.  I go to the point last seen as she exited the meadow, and about 30 yards into the woods I hear something run away.  I assume this is the cow I shot and the last thing I want it to do is run so far away that I can't find it.  If I don't push her, she's likely to just bed down and die.  So, I decide not to push it further and come back to search at first light.

That night I feel sick to my stomach as I replay my shot in my head hundreds of times and imagine the cow suffering a slow and painful death, desperately wishing for a redo.  After a sleepless and awful night, I return to the meadow just before it gets light.  Even with the daylight, I only find one spot of blood on a single blade of grass, so tracking is out of the question considering all the recent elk activity/tracks in the area.  I begin a systematic search of the vicinity, and after 2 hours I find her about 200 yards from where I shot her.  I can immediately tell that she's dead and had been most of the night.  While this makes me feel better about not causing undue suffering, it's bad because it means the meat did not get cooled quickly and is well on it's way to going bad.  Turns out I hit even farther back than I thought and my arrow went through the meat of both rear legs/butt and the bladder area.  My arrow must have cut some major leg arteries and she bled out pretty fast.

For the next four hours I battled the bees and flies while I skinned, quartered, deboned, and backstrapped the stiffened cow.  Before I leave, and in my own way, I thank the elk for its life and apologize for not doing justice to it by wasting so much of the meat.  Four hours after that I had finished packing out the meat about three miles, along with my camp, back to the car.  All this time I'm thinking the meat has gone bad and it's my punishment to process and pack out the meat and not be able to eat it.

The meat smells a little funky, but I had Kris and Evan help clean it up last night.  We grilled up some backstrap and it tasted just fine.  We threw a bunch out, but think we have about 100 lbs of edible elk left.  Bittersweet.  I feel horrible for making a poor shot and wasting a bunch of meat because of it.  This is somewhat, but not entirely, balanced by the feeling of finally being "successful" during my fourth year of elk hunting with a bow.  Just as in previous years, I learned a lot and continue to gain confidence as an archery elk hunter.

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