This story starts with a six-year-old, his dad, and a bagel on an aspen slope. It ends 24 years later with that six-year-old, at the time of this story 30, killing his first elk with a bow. It was a nice 6×6 Colorado bull — no monster, no world record — but what it represented goes way beyond anything that would ever go into a record book.
In other words, my hunting story starts like many others. My dad and I were deer hunting on the “Aspen Slope” in Colorado; I was only six and doing everything I could to keep up with him. It was mid-morning and we stopped for a snack of plain bagels, probably stale, when out of the corner of our eyes we saw a doe and a fawn walking towards us. They made it to 20 yards before seeing us. I remember sitting as still as possible and the moment seemed to last forever — and in many ways, it has. Eventually the deer bounded off. My dad didn’t get a shot, but something far more important happened that day: I became hooked on bowhunting.
I don’t recall much of my first few years bowhunting, but this I do remember: I was with my dad and I felt so lucky to be out there. I was experiencing something transformative, something that would mold and guide me for the rest of my life. After a few years of day-hunting, we decided backpacking was the way to go, so we did it. Not very well, but we did it. Our first trips were with 70-pound packs full of cans of Dinty Moore, Starburst, and Pringles — the essentials. But something occurred on those trips; we got closer to elk and had even more fun. Yes, our legs were more tired at the end of a trip but it was well worth it. Something even more important happened: I realized my passion for elk hunting in the backcountry. It was such an intense and awesome experience and I can’t imagine a year without it.
I had always measured the success of a hunting trip by more than just killing an animal. There was the time spent with my dad, the lessons learned overcoming hardships, persevering. Just spending time in the quiet solitude of the wilderness was enough. It was good for the body and soul and I loved it. But I started wondering if it was even possible to kill an elk with a bow. I mean, I’d seen pictures, watched videos, and talked to other hunters, so I knew it was possible. At least theoretically. But I certainly had never been successful and my own confidence would always seem to be low at the end of another season of close calls and missed opportunities.
My mantra became, “next season.” Next season would be the one, I knew it, and I would always start the next season with refreshed enthusiasm. I would practice with my bow even more, I would run marathons to get in shape, and I would hone my calling skills. I would do anything I could so I wouldn’t have to feel the embarrassment of another season gone by with no elk. Yes, my frustration began to resemble embarrassment. I’m an elk hunter for crying out loud. Except for the whole killing an elk part.
The season that saw me finally cross that threshold started like many others, with enthusiasm and excitement, and past seasons “failures” a distant memory. The past had no bearing on the future or my abilities to kill an elk. That’s one of the great things about hunting; you can rewrite the story every year. Each new season comes with the hope and excitement that I felt all those years ago when I was six years old. It’s an incredible thing, this hunting that we do. It’s primal, it taps into a part of our soul, part of our existence, and it’s not something everyone does. Sure, you can climb mountains, camp, backpack, or go canyoneering, but those activities don’t stir up the same visceral emotions of hunting.
This archery elk season, in many ways, was a microcosm of the last 15 years; it was everything seemingly wrapped into eight days of hunting. One year it was a branch I didn’t see that deflected a shot. Then there was the big bull that practically walked into us while we were packing in. I was wearing my big pack and barely had time to nock an arrow before he was on top of us — and then running away. This season forced me to keep my emotions in check and take solace in the faith that I knew I would kill an elk. There was even a day or two when I wasn’t very happy (my dad went so far as to say I was pissy…he was probably right).
We woke up on our last morning to the sound of bugling. There’s something about the sound of an elk bugle that pierces the morning sky but also pierces right into your soul. It’s an amazing sound that has a way of making you forget every missed opportunity, every elk that got spooked, every day that went by that you didn’t see anything. That morning there were three elk bugling and for some reason they sounded different; there was anger in these bugles. We hustled the one-mile down to the source of the fervor. We had been cow calling all week but this morning a gut feeling told us to bugle. So my dad started bugling — blowing his best bugles ever — and I kept sneaking closer and closer. My dad was unaware that I kept moving and sneaking closer to the bull. He just kept bugling. He later confessed to being out of breath a few times from blowing on that damned tube so hard and so often.
I just kept inching closer. I was moving quickly but deliberately, trying to rapidly cover ground but be quiet at the same time. That bull was close, less than 40 yards I thought, but I couldn’t see him. I reached a point where I couldn’t walk any further for fear of not having a shot, but I still hadn’t seen the bull. I checked a few trees with my rangefinder and I knew that if he was going to come in, it was going to be here. So I waited. Suddenly, through the trees was the unmistakable sight of the bull, his antlers sweeping back and forth and that gait that meant he was looking for a fight. I didn’t hesitate and immediately drew my bow back. Hunting constantly teaches us lessons and this is one I’ve learned — just pull your bow back. If I had to hold it for five minutes I was going to. In a matter of seconds he had covered 50 or 60 feet, but then he stopped for a moment… and I took the shot.
The next ten minutes were a blur. I was pacing back and forth trying to calm myself down saying “it was a good shot, it was a good shot.” I shoved a Twix bar in my mouth to try and calm my nerves. It was that crazy mix of adrenaline, excitement, and angst. I thought it was a good shot, a little low but at an uphill angle. I could see a good blood trail and I was excited to start following it. I ran up to my dad who had no idea what had just happened, told him the good news, and we started following blood.
It was easy for the first 200 yards. Lots of blood and I just knew we would find him dead at any point. But then it started to get thinner and thinner, and every time the trail got harder to follow, my heart sank a little more. Eventually we had to crawl on our hands and knees. It felt like getting kicked in the guts. We could only find two tiny drops on a log.
It had been hours since I took the shot and my morale, enthusiasm, and excitement were gone. I didn’t think there was any chance we’d find that bull and that made me sick because I knew the shot was good enough to kill him. My dad and I separated and we each walked different directions through the thickest, darkest timber I’ve ever been in. Neither one of us said anything but we were both thinking it: another hunting season was coming to a close without me killing an elk. We tried to hold on to a little hope, but it wasn’t easy.
As I was quietly walking through the downed timber, I stopped a few times to just listen and say a quick prayer. It was incredibly quiet. No birds, no squirrels, no wind. Just complete silence. I had a moment of calm where I told myself that this is bowhunting; it’s hard and rarely perfect. It tests us and pushes us to our limits both physically and mentally, and this trip more than any other had truly tested my mettle.
I walked further and finally heard a noise — looking to my left I was taken aback. Not scared or shocked but a little stunned. There was the bull less than ten feet away, bedded down, still alive but in bad shape. He didn’t get up or even try to run, he just looked right at me as if to say it was almost over. At that moment a flood of juxtaposed emotions came over me. Immediately I felt horrible because I knew I hadn’t done my job of making a perfect shot for a quick kill. But that was quickly replaced by excitement because against all odds, we had found that bull and I knew that the hunt was soon to be over. I had to put one more arrow into him, and after that he was dead in seconds. It was an unforgettable experience to actually be present when that animal breathed his last breath, as I’m sure some of you know well. It’s a mere few minutes of my life that I will never forget; just me, that bull and everything that he represented. The years spent in the wilderness, the lessons learned from my dad, the close calls, the freeze-dried dinners, the early mornings, the rain and snow, the exertion of climbing a mountain, and finally – finally! – the exhilaration of killing a bull and sharing it with my dad.
The next two days were spent carrying loads of meat on our backs. It was hard, draining work, and we only slept two hours in two days, but it somehow also felt amazing. Knowing that so many years of hard work and patience and frustration had finally paid off was a feeling I won’t ever forget.
Some of you might read this and think, “15 years and no bull? He must be a bad hunter.” Some of you might say, “He didn’t make a good shot. He should practice more.” But some of you might read this and think, “Damn, that sounds a lot like my story.” This is hunting, and I tell this story because it’s mine. Hunting is rarely perfect and never easy. Hunting knocks us down, wears us out, and fills us up all at the same time. I hunt because I love it. I hunt because it’s difficult. I hunt to spend time with my dad. I hunt because it makes me a better person. I hope to pass this on to my own children someday and I hope to hunt for many more seasons.
Read Andrew’s follow-on article, On Hunting and Fatherhood, in this month’s Mountain Archer column HERE.