Never Before, Never After

Looking back it isn’t easy to put my first bow hunt into proper perspective because never before and never after have I had such a time with bugling bulls. In fact this experience set me up for quite a few seasons of unreal expectations and more than a bit of frustration. Having said that, I wouldn’t change a thing, either then or now. For a number of years I’d read about chasing elk with a bow, even dreamed about it, but up until then my hunting partners were rifle hunters and mostly for deer. I’d hunted elk with a rifle once or twice but the family tradition was the deer camp and I loved the camaraderie of those days. Then I ran into a bull elk in the woods. From then on I hunted for deer but I was always searching for elk. Something was tugging at my soul, a challenge I couldn’t resist.

My first bow hunt actually started with a seminar. This was in the renaissance of elk calling when Mr. Carlton started marketing the diaphragm turkey call as the great impersonator for the raging randy bull. I bought it. Literally. The seminar fired me up and pointed me down the path of a passion that has never left me. I practiced and practiced with all my newly acquired hunting tools. All to support my first bow hunting license and a new obsession that was quickly driving my wife to distraction. I bought my first compound bow with all the accoutrements, new camo and my first elk call. I bugled in my car on the way to work and slung sticks in the back yard, on the mesas near my house and on every camping trip we took. I scouted before I knew where my hunt was going to be just to get in the woods and doubly so when I found out my hunting unit. Believe me I was worried sick I would get skunked on the draw that year, but luck was with me. I scored and had a grin from ear to ear.

This was a summer that drug by but finally the season arrived. For me this hunt would span two long weekends since I could not take much time off at work. My wife and I drove to camp the evening before the hunt opened and my one hunting partner would join us by noon the next day. Even the drive in started well. It was after dark as we climbed the rough forest road, and not a half mile from camp my headlights framed a beautiful bull crossing as if he had no care in the world. My excitement, already pumping due to the impending opening day, peaked. We stopped, rolled down the windows and watched as he cleared the bar ditch and was swallowed in the gloom, his five points to a side leaving an indelible image on my brain. What a start. It certainly felt like an omen for good things to come.

An hour later and the camper was settled, my equipment laid out and ready for the morning, a camp fire crackling and throwing flickering light about the small meadow we now called home. It is a great feeling the night before a hunt, all things are possible in your mind and I was feeling an anticipation that would keep me awake most of the night. Knowing this I decided to practice a bit more. I wanted to see if my first true calling in the wild would elicit a response. I let out a full bugle with several grunts in what I thought was a classic challenge. It must have hit the right cord because the response was instant and close. A bull screamed back from just up the ridge. I bugled again and he responded. Closer? One more call and I had the bull into the edge of camp despite the glow of the fire. I could see him ghosting along; nothing more than a dim shape and I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Then he bugled again, screaming for a challenger that was nowhere to be seen. My heart was pounding and I waited for more, but he was gone. Again I grinned. The morning would be hunting Valhalla.

I awoke before dawn, ate a quick breakfast, camo’ed up and headed out making my way by the light of a half moon. I waited to get a couple hundred yards from camp to cast my first challenge. I got to the edge of small canyon then let loose. Again the response was immediate. Across an abandoned logging road and down a drainage came a long screaming echo, eerie and exciting in the pre-dawn. Quickly I crossed the road and found a spot from which I could hide and still shoot thinking like the night before the bull would come running in. Instead the bull held his position. I called he called. This went on until the sun broke the horizon and by this time two other bulls were contributing from opposites sides of the drainage, all three seeming content to do little more than bellow. I was just about to sneak forward and force the issue when below me I saw movement. My heart, already pounding was hammering now. Seven elk were approaching, one bull and the rest cows. This bull looked huge to me, headed straight in, his four points to a side glistening in the early light. The small band came up a small rise and stopped, the bull stood front on, staring right at me, the cows uncaring and beginning to graze. Less than an hour in on my first bow hunt I had a twenty yard shot at a bull elk. He was still staring as I drew, placed a pin on his chest and released. I was shocked at how steady I was during the shot. Certainly not before and for sure not after. I heard the arrow clack off the limb of a small pine and heard it skitter downhill passing right between the bull’s legs and scattering elk in every direction. A clean miss and another one of the many lessons I would learn that hunt. Make totally sure of your shooting lanes and your shot and don’t get so focused on the target that you miss what’s between you.

By agreement I was to go back to camp and get my wife after the sun came up. She wasn’t hunting but wanted to go with me and since it was only a couple of hundred yards away, no big deal. The bulls were still bugling, although with less enthusiasm and I was planning on heading back to try one of them. But when I got back to camp another bull was calling off in the opposite direction. We decided to try that one. A half hour and a bit of a walk later and we were as close as I thought I could get without spooking him. I checked the wind, secured my position and gave a call. For the next twenty minutes we dueled. I screamed he screamed. I grunted he grunted. But through it all he was coming closer, slow and cautious. He paused in a thicket below us and I thought he was going to give up since his challenger hadn’t appeared. I could just see him, but not his rack though he appeared larger than the first bull. A moment later I would find that he was a nice six by six. Taking a chance I turned away and grunted softly. This worked. He turned and came on, crossing a small clearing and entering the edge of the aspen grove where we hid, circling a bit more than I had expected. The bull turned broadside only eleven yards away and a few feet behind our stand. I had another choice to make. The bull was looking away but it was a quartering on shot and he would surely see me if I moved. The earlier bull didn’t care so I took the chance. I went to full draw and he went to full throttle. I followed his chest as he passed and released, hearing a very satisfying thunk as the arrow struck. I watched him go trying to see where my arrow hit, but all I saw was a brown flash or two as he clattered off. That’s when my wife touched my arm and pointed. I didn’t have to look far for my arrow because it was deeply embedded in the trunk of an aspen.

My nerves were about shot, but as I dug out the arrow, the bull bugled again. He was a ways off and I considered it might be a different bull, but it sure sounded like the one I’d just called in. As it turns out it was. He was moving away but when I called he stopped and we sparred a bit. Then he moved off some more. This went on for a while and finally I decided I had to go after him. It was a good half mile we went, calling and listening, the bull calling and moving as he headed for darker timber. My thought was that he would get in some deep pocket somewhere and hold up, letting me get closer and perhaps have another shot. This is exactly what happened. He held up in a thicket surrounded by blow downs and my wife and I were able to get in close. He was almost silent then, thrashing a tree and only mewing every once in a while. Again we set up and I bugled. Silence. I bugled some more and then my wife, who was behind and a few feet to my left whispered, “There he is, shoot. Shoot”.  We were that close and I couldn’t see him. I would have never known he was there though my wife, eyes as big as platters, said she could have stabbed him if she’d had an arrow. At that point he left but not in a flurry of hooves and flying dirt. He just sauntered off as if miffed because his rival was such a coward. I called again but in vain. It was just now 9:30 AM. We heard more elk and I saw some cows that morning, but no more bulls. My tag was good for both, but my heart was set on something with horns.

I had to wait until that afternoon for my next encounter. We’d decided to try a different area and toward dusk found us still-hunting through a thicket of fir and spruce. It was here we came upon a small meadow of about sixty yards. Across this expanse grazed a bull and two cows. Things had been silent all afternoon and I worried about spooking him, yet with no way to sneak in, I decided to call and see if I could bring him across. My first bugle was soft and the reaction again was immediate. The cows bolted and I thought the bull would go too. Instead he just got mad. I called a number of times and the more I called the madder he got. We sat and watched as this bull thrashed and destroyed a fir sapling, beating it down and throwing the broken limbs every which way. Then he turned toward us and grunted. That’s the only sound he made the whole time we watched. I continued calling softly hoping to move him. Instead, after the venting on the sapling, he turned to a mature aspen. The bull put his head down and gored the tree, moving in a complete circle, kicking up dirt and dried aspen leaves as he forced himself against the white bark while peeling and stripping it away. He stood back, looked across the clearing once more, then wandered off after his cows.  It was an incredible day.

It’s hard to put any hunt down in words, and it was even harder to leave the woods that first Monday and it was an even longer week waiting until Friday to head back up again. We didn’t get out early either and had to set up camp after dark, but I didn’t use my call this time, instead I was content to listen most of the night waiting for bugles that never came. Another change was the weather. The weekend before was hot even for early September, where this weekend was cold and frost covered everything that next morning. Another change was that my hunting partner actually arrived with us. This morning we would split up and hunt opposite sides of the drainage where I’d shot at that first bull. It was about a half hour into the before hunt I was able to get a bull to call back. We talked a bit but he seemed reluctant to come to me, so my wife and I moved in. He really was moving though and unfortunately he caught us crossing an open area of blow downs as he came up out of some dark timber. “Get down,” I told my wife and she lay flat against a grey log while I made myself as small as I could. I waited for him to stop, which he did, broadside at about fifteen yards with his head turned away looking downhill. The absolute perfect setup and I was shaking I was so excited. I rose to a kneel and drew, my finger guiding the arrow across the rest until I could get to full draw, the bull still oblivious. What I had not considered that cold morning was that I was wearing gloves and I had not practiced with gloves. As I hit full draw the broad head hit the end of my gloved finger and pulled the nock off the string. I was able to trap the arrow on the rest with my finger, but the fletchings were waving like a flag. I knelt there at full draw, two fingers holding the string, another finger and thumb trying to somehow fumble the arrow back on, the bull now looking at me dumbfounded. It seemed like forever as I tried to fix what truly was a hopeless situation. Finally I had to give up and let off the draw, my quivering arms and two fingers could no longer hold the weight.  Predictably another bull turned tail and ran. I sighed in frustration but glad no one other than my wife had witnessed one of my more embarrassing hunting moments. Yet even this was not to be. Not only had I called in the bull, I also called in my hunting partner and two other hunters I didn’t even know were in the area. Luckily the only comment I heard was, “man, that call is awesome”.

The events I’ve described happened more than twenty years ago and while many of the memories have faded, these are still vivid. Between that time and now my wife and I raised two boys to men, I changed jobs and we had our share of life changing events, yet even now I remember the smell of those musky bulls. Even now I can’t wait for September to hear the shrill screams echoing deep in the night, and I go whether I’ve drawn a hunt or not. The experience was so much more than just the elk. I found that bow hunting is far different than hunting with a rifle. Knowing you have to get close to your quarry totally immerses you in nature, makes the hunter become a part of the environment and lets you discover things you otherwise never would. You actually see nature on its terms, things the hiker or camper rarely do. That first hunt was two long weekends that hooked me for life. Never before and never after have I had such a time in the field. Sure there were other bugling bulls on other hunts and each one was special, but that first night calling a bull into camp and that next morning pulling a bull in so close I could practically touch him are things you can never recapture. The fact that I got to experience it with my wife made it even more satisfying and I can tell you, though I didn’t score, I had the time of my life.

Greg Saunders