September 08, 2014

Persistence and Luck: A Lethal Combination

Two weeks before elk season, and for the third time in four years, my Bowtech bow suffered another failure (broken cable).  I remember thinking at the time, "At least it didn't happen the day before the season", thinking there was plenty of time to get it fixed before opening day (September 2).  I took it to the place that put the new string and cables on less than a year earlier, and they told me it should be fixed under warranty early the following week.  Great, still a week to get the restrung bow sighted in before the season.

Several phone calls and days later, they informed me that the bow would be repaired by September 4th, at the earliest.  I will spare further details on this matter as it exasperates me just to relive it.  At the time of this blog post writing, the bow is still not fixed.

So, the day before hunting season I find out that I don't have a weapon (critical, as trying to kill an elk with your bare hands is not only very difficult but potentially quite hazardous as well).  I had plans to head out with Kris the following day to spend five days in the backcountry, so I needed a remedy to my untimely dilemma.  I immediately began researching bows and places to buy them, ultimately settling on Broken Arrow Archery in Milwaukie, OR.  I spent the first day of the season driving to Oregon, buying a new bow, and traveling back to a predefined meeting point near the trailhead where I met up with Kris.

By the time we met up, it was too late to get an evening hunt in, but I had just enough time to quickly sight my new bow in to 50 yards.  We then hiked the short distance to our base camp and set up for the next few days.

In the morning we opted to hunt up the drainage above our camp: Kris down low near the creek and me up a little higher.  We both saw several elk that morning.  I had one very close encounter while still hunting a few hours into the day.  As I slowly and nearly silently crept through the forest, I heard a branch break.  Sometimes the forest just makes noise, sometimes I fabricate noises in my head and think I actually heard them, and sometimes such branch breaking noises are generated by elk.  This had the potential to be the real thing, so I knocked an arrow.  About 2 seconds later a cow walks out from behind an upturned tree stump about 20 yards from me, clueless to my presence.  I'm standing in the open and caught off-guard, so even though the elk is well within range, there is nothing I can do because any motion on my part will spook the elk.  I decide to hold perfectly still in hopes that the elk will continue on it's path and eventually not be looking right at me so I can draw my bow.  The cow continues to walk more or less toward me, ultimately getting within about 8 yards.  At eight yards, the cow stares me down and proceeds to bolt up the hill.  I make a quick cow call in hopes that it will stop within range and I can get a shot in, but to no avail.

At this point, I notice that there are three more elk, a cow and two calves, about 40 yards away, through thick trees.  They're not moving and don't seem spooked by the other cow's sudden uphill sprint fest.  I decide to wait the elk out, figuring if they head uphill I'll have a shot.  The cow in this group doesn't take a single step for the next 20 minutes, staring intently downhill while listening to a distant bull's bugle.  After about 20 minutes, the wind swirls and carries my scent to the elk, ending my little game of wait-em-out.

That evening we sat at the meadow where I shot my elk last year and hoped that elk would continue to show up predictably as they did last year.  A year ago, we observed this meadow for a total of six nights.  At least one elk entered the meadow during 5 of those 6 nights, each time about 45 minutes before it got too dark to shoot.  This night, we saw one doe and no sign of elk.

The next morning we decide to head further up the main drainage and ultimately scope out a meadow that looked promising on our topo map.  Just as it's getting light and we're ready to leave the main tail to head up toward the meadow, we hear a nearby bugle.  I decide to head toward the bugle while Kris heads up the hill about 100 yards away.  After about 45 minutes, I find myself 40 yards from the bull that was bugling.  He's raking a pine tree with his antlers, which allowed me to quickly get close.  There are no cows around, and both of our tags are for a cow or spike bull.  So the fact that this magnificent, mature bull was 40 yards away, while amazing to watch, was not going to end in meat in the freezer.  When the bull moved on, I headed in the opposite direction toward the meadow we had planned to scope out.  Shortly after arriving at the meadow, I see a spike bull about 150 yards away on the opposite side of the meadow.  He was trotting away at a pretty good clip when I saw him, so he must have seen me first.  Bummer, but at least this new meadow showed the promise we thought it might.  I sat at the meadow for the next few hours hoping another elk would pass through.

After the morning activity, instead of heading back to camp on the trial, I opt to stay about a 1/4 to 1/2 mile above the trail and parallel it back to camp.  At about 10:45 I came over a small rise and saw a patch of brown about 60 yards away.  Soon enough, the patch moved and I watched an undisturbed cow feed up the bottom of a drainage.  I quickly decided to back over the rise and head up the other side in order to get above the cow and let her feed right up to me.  The terrain and wind are perfect for this and I'm reasonably confident I can close the deal.

As I slowly head back over the rise after gaining what I think is the proper amount of elevation, I hear a bark before I ever see the cow.  It turns out there were two cows, and the one that was higher up that I didn't know about foiled my plan.  Ti's the nature of elk hunting.

Bummed that I had such a good setup and couldn't make it culminate in freezer meat, I continue back toward camp on my previous trajectory.  At about 11:30, I jump a bedded cow at about 40 yards.  This is a normal occurrence while still hunting in the middle of the day, so I don't feel too bad about blowing this opportunity.  I decided this is a good time to check my GPS as I don't want to go too far and disturb the meadow we planned to hunt again in the evening.  While reaching down to grab the GPS out of my pocket, I notice a cow head looking at me, about 30 yards further downhill than the cow that spooked a moment earlier.  I figure I'm moving my arms and the cow is watching me, so I might as well grab my range finder and range the cow as it watches me.  I do this and range her head at 37 yards.  The rest of her body is concealed by trees and brush as she remains bedded.  After ranging the cow, and having no shot at her vitals, I decided to hold perfectly still and hope that she remains calm and eventually stands up.

Fifteen minutes later, her gaze has not left my location, and neither of us has so much as twitched.  Then, she cracks.  Her ear twitches, presumably to bat at a fly.  I won the stand off!  Five minutes after that, she stands, still never taking her gaze off my location.  I still don't have a shot due to the thick trees, and the only way I'll have a shot is if she moves to my left about 10 feet, into the only reasonable shooting alley through the trees.  Shortly after standing, she occasionally diverts her gaze, but never for longer than a second before snapping her head back in my direction.  I still have not even twitched for more than 25 minutes.  Then she takes a couple of steps, placing her head behind a 10-inch diameter pine tree.  I use this opportunity to adjust my feet and get ready to shoot, on the off chance that she passes through my shooting alley.  When her head emerges from the other side of the tree, she's looking right at me but seems no more alarmed than before.  A few minutes later she continues walking - directly toward my shooting alley.  As her head passes behind the last tree before she enters the foot-and-a-half wide opening, I draw my bow.  She continues walking slowly, and as her vitals pass through the opening I release.

I immediately see red where my arrow hit, which is a little high and a little far back.  As the cow runs off, I give a couple of cow calls in hopes that she perceives the recent commotion as less of a threat.  For about the next thirty minutes I hear branches breaking; out of sight, but not far away.  The sound comes from the same place, and never seems to move in any direction.  After thirty minutes, the sounds stop.  I take my boots off and put on my stalking socks in order to more silently track the elk in case I find it still alive.  I immediately notice a tree splattered with blood directly behind where the elk was standing when I shot.  I follow a blood trail four about 15 yards, then it becomes difficult to follow.  A quick glance around at this point reveals a dead cow elk, only 40 yards from where I shot her!

I need a minute to calm down, then I come up with a plan.  I'm about a mile from camp, and I know the butchering process will go much faster with Kris's help, plus I can't wait to tell him we've got meat on the ground!  I take a quick selfie with the elk (selkie?) to take evidence back with me when I retrieve Kris.


I want to hide my excitement when I get back and calmly show Kris the picture, but this is far from possible.  I find him sleeping in his hammock and announce that I'm going to need his help with something.  I'm out of breath from running a mile back to camp and have a huge shit-eating grin on my face, so he quickly figures out what happened.  We proceed to embrace in a series of jubilant man hugs before packing a few things up and heading back to the elk.

After taking a few photos, the two of us quickly butchered the cow and began packing meat back to camp.  By about 5:00 we had all the meat cooling in the stream by our camp, and by 7:30, we had all the meat back at the truck in a cooler full of ice.

My new bow - only 2 days old and already with it's first kill (notice the red arrow on the far left)

Kris posing with our prize while it cools in the creek

Yes, those are camo Crocs, and yes, we packed meat while wearing them due to multiple river crossings

We spent the next couple of days trying to get Kris an opportunity, but found the elk much harder to locate.    We eventually caught up with one small herd, but spooked them prior to making visual contact.  We spent three nights in the meadow that was so productive the previous year and saw a total of zero elk.  This is me relearning that elk are not predictable.

I'd like to thank Kris for helping with the butchering and packing operation, Ava for her understanding and support in me purchasing a second bow, Broken Arrow Archery for setting me up at the last minute, and Hoyt for making what seems to be a super solid bow at a reasonable price.  Special un-thanks to the Outdoor Emporium and Bowtech for joining forces and putting me in my initial predicament.  Then again, perhaps the elk were behind it all along.

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