My first week of hunting, the week of Labor Day, can be summed up in two words - hot and smokey. Although no fires were burning near where I was hunting, I was due west of several large fires. The prevailing winds were happy to push all that smoke my way. On top of the smoke and poor visibility, the temperatures in nearby John Day, OR reached 104 degrees that week.
Perhaps the highlight of my first week was being less than 20 yards from three mule deer bucks. I could have shot any of them, but I was too cheap to purchase a deer tag. I did find two small herds of elk, but spooked them before I knew they were there. After four days of suffering in the heat, I threw in the towel in attempt to save some energy and motivation for my next week of hunting.
About a week and a half later, I returned to the same general area. Thankfully, the weather had done a 180. A couple days in, the forecasted snow actually came. Since I learned a lot about where not to go during my previous trip, I was able to focus my time in some more promising areas. I discovered a freshly used wallow shortly before spooking a herd of elk that was bedded about 150 yards away. I spent the following morning looking for fresh elk tracks in three inches of fresh snow.
While deer and deer tracks were plentiful, I didn't see a single elk track. As I was walking back to my truck on an old logging road after covering several miles without cutting a single elk track, I saw a raghorn bull walking toward me at about 70 yards. It had no idea I was there, so I quickly took a knee on the side of the road and knocked an arrow. I didn't have time to range the elk, but it seemed very close by the time I got my arrow knocked. I guessed he was at 30 yards, drew my bow, settled my pin behind is front shoulder, and released. It felt like a good shot, but I didn't hear the musical "thump" of arrow penetrating vitals. After the bull ran off, I ranged where he was when I shot, and discovered that he was 47 yards, not 30. My arrow was way low. I soon discovered that it wasn't a clean miss, as there was bright red blood in the snow accompanying the bulls tracks. I tracked the bull for 3 miles in the snow, up and down hills, watching the blood slowly diminish as his wound clotted up. I eventually lost his trail when he entered a thick patch of timber where snow had not reached the ground. Based on his behavior, and the amount of lost blood, I am confident the bull will fully heal from my shot, which I concluded hit an artery low on one of his front legs. Nonetheless, I felt bad for wounding such an amazing animal.
The next day I met up with my lifelong friend, Jake, and we went to one of his favorite areas to hunt. This area, as I soon found out, can be characterized as steep, rugged terrain with challenging public land access. On the up side, there are a ton of elk! Since Jake had recently harvested a bull in Utah, he was committed to his goal of shooting an elk with his recurve bow. For the next few days, we backpacked into the area and had multiple exciting, close encounters.
We tried to head off the first herd we found, only to have them reverse course as soon as we got within compound bow range. I was at full draw on a cow at 62 yards, but opted not to take the shot as I couldn't see her vitals as they were hidden behind the grass between us. That evening, I stalked in on a lone, 5-point bull that I heard bugle about 30 minutes before the end of shooting light. I got close and hoped that he would continue walking in the same direction, into my shooting lane. He hung up in a small patch of trees, so I cow called a few times. The bull bugled in response, and soon came out of the trees. I ranged him at 75 yards as he continued to feed in my general direction. With daylight running out, I had to act fast. I ranged him again at 70 yards before he disappeared behind a tree. With his vitals exposed, I aimed for 70 and released. While this is a long shot for me, it's a shot I know I can make - provided I don't jerk the trigger, which I did. It was a clean miss. The upside of a clean miss is that the bull wasn't very spooked. I cow called again, and he continued in my direction. A few minutes later he was about to pop out above me at 30 yards. I knew the mistake I made with the longer shot, and I was not going to make it again. This bull was as good as dead in my mind. Because he came in above me, the wind was quickly becoming unfavorable. As the bulls nose started to come out from behind the last tree, he winded me and bolted.
The next morning, Jake and I were hunting together in hopes that he could call a bull in to me. Near the same area where I flung an arrow the previous evening, we heard a bugle. I moved forward and Jake moved back. Once I was set, Jake began calling. The bull bugled in response, but seemed reluctant to expose himself. I got several good looks at him and determined he was the same bull I hunted last night. He briefly showed himself at 60 yards, but never presented a shot before wandering off. Nonetheless, it was very cool to be that close to a bugling bull. With all these close encounters where things almost work out, I knew that it was only a matter of time until everything lined up.
That evening as we were heading back to the truck to resupply with food and water, we heard multiple bugles in a thick patch of timber below us. With the wind blowing uphill, my instincts told me to head straight down in to the forest, get sneaky, and shoot the first elk that presented a shot. Meanwhile, Jake went back to the truck to get his compound bow and hunt the same herd. As I got close to where the nearest bugle was, I saw elk fur through the trees at about 60 yards. The steep, loose, rocky ground was difficult to move quietly over, so I moved very slowly in attempt to get a little closer and get a shooting lane through the trees. When I was about 50 yards out from the nearest cow (I could make out 2 cows and a spike bull), the cows trotted off in one direction while the bull went another. I later found out that another hunter was down below me and that Jake was making some aggressive moves farther off to my right. It's unclear what they were running from, but I don't think they every knew I was there.
Jake and I split up the next morning to relocate the massive herd of elk we spooked the night before. I ended up going back to where we located some elk a few days earlier. After hiking about 2 miles from the truck, I heard my first bugle of the morning. I quickly descended toward the sound and soon made out four cow elk crossing an open area. I attempted to get ahead of them in their path of travel, but ended up coming in on top of them. Once again I found myself sneaking in on elk from above, attempting to get close enough to get a shot through the trees. I got as close as about 45 yards, but never had a shot before the elk moved off, unspooked, but feeding away from me. However, I heard a weak bugle from the direction the elk had come from. I hoped that the bull would follow the path of the cows, so I set up with a good shooting lane and waited. I never heard the bugle again, and after waiting a while, I began to walk in the direction the cows had wandered. After moving 25 yards, I spotted a lone cow walking across the same opening. I knew this elk was trying to catch up to the rest of the herd, so I once again set up with a good shooting lane. If this elk followed the others, I'd have a 35 yard downhill shot.
Less than a minute later, the cow entered the opening below me. She was crossing way lower than the other elk, and I ranged her at about 82 yards. However, she was ascending as she crossed, and I ranged her several more times. I determined that, on her current trajectory, she would be at 72 yards just before she entered the trees and exited my shooting lane. With the steep downhill angle, my range finder said I would need to aim for 60 yards.
As the cow neared the tree line, I was at full draw. I made a mew with my voice and she stopped and looked toward me. I settled my pin, reminded myself not to jerk the release, and let my arrow fly. At that distance, my arrow was in the air for just shy of a second. When it hit, there was no question that my arrow met its intended target. On impact, the elk went airborn with all four hooves quickly rotating above its body. The elk proceeded to cartwheel down the steep hill about 5 times before sliding another 30 yards before coming to rest. It never got up again, but also didn't die right away. I hiked down the hill and put a second arrow in her chest to expedite the process.
The next morning I returned for the load I had shuttled up the hill. Hunting in that terrain combined with packing an elk out of it was the most physically challenging thing I've done in a very long time - the best kind of hard work.
I shot this elk on the second to last day of the season, so I got a full-value hunting experience. It was a relatively young cow and the weather was cool, so the meat is excellent. I've now harvested my elk four out of the last five years, including three different states. I owe much of my success to Jake, not only for introducing me to archery elk hunting in 2010, but also for showing me one of his favorite spots. While many hunters might be disappointed that they didn't shoot a bull and consider a cow elk a consolation prize, I couldn't disagree more. This elk's life was no less valuable than any other elk's life; and the difficulty, challenge, and reward associated with harvesting any elk with a bow will always be enough to make me extremely grateful.