Confidence is a funny thing. When you have it, you feel safe, like a newborn swaddled in a warm blanket. Somehow, those that carry it with them are lighter for it. Every step they take is even more sure-footed than the last. However, some have never felt that light, safe feeling. Strangers to its power. Those poor bastards stumbling through the night, groping through the darkness for something they have never felt. Ask any successful hunter, confidence is perhaps one of the most important tools they carry. Without it, the latest name brand bow or top of the line camo is useless. It’s confident decisions, and deliberate actions that get us to a situation for high tech equipment to even matter.
It came easy in my early hunting adventures. Good fortune and sound advice from friends and co-workers aided me on my way. Although I started hunting later in life than most outdoor enthusiasts, my first five years brought successful harvests of mule deer, antelope, and Barbary sheep — all with my rifle on public land. All were wonderful experiences leaving me with memories and trophies that I will cherish my entire life, however, I had yet to harvest an elk.
Bugling bull elk are synonymous with the Land of Enchantment. They are as much a part of the culture as green chiles or flattop adobe houses, and I had been unsuccessful in drawing a tag for five years. Buying a private land elk tag was not in my budget, so I needed to do something to increase my odds of success. My inability to draw a rifle elk tag is what lead me to buy a bow. Being able to hunt with a greater range of weapons will undoubtedly increase your chances of drawing a tag. Practicing with my new weapon was fun, and my skill improved quickly. Although I had taken to archery out of necessity, and I had grown quite fond of the bow, it worried me that I had yet to prove myself with it. April rolled around and the draw results were sent out via email. I still remember opening that message from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. There in my hand, clear as day, the word Elk highlighted in green with the word “successful” beside it. Whether or not I was ready, I was going elk hunting in September with a weapon that was still foreign to me.
There is a scene in the movie Friday Night Lights where protagonist and star quarterback Mike Wynchell is explaining to his coach that he feels cursed. He says, “It’s like no matter what, inside your heart, you feel like you’re going to lose. Like something’s hanging over you, following you.” Although I grew up in a small West Texas town, a devout follower worshipping at the altar of high school football, the feelings that Wynchell describes never did resonate with me until long after my days on the gridiron were over. My first time in the elk woods is when I began to understand the feeling of inadequacy that plagues so many novice bowhunters.
If hard work and preparation were the vaccines to combat the disease of uncertainty, then I had no chance of being infected. I had spent countless hours at the range gaining accuracy at distances way farther than any shots I would take in the field. Physically, I was in the best shape of my life — a result of an intense workout regimen that I started as soon as I drew the tag. Include all the research and e-scouting along with the actual scouting trips, and I had all the ingredients needed to be a confident hunter headed into opening day. But unfortunately, I had been stricken with the plague, nonetheless. My inexperience, I thought, was going to prevent me from punching my tag.
The first four days of the hunt seemed to be a confirmation of my fears… not a single bugle was heard. To say that my spirits were low the afternoon of that fourth day would be an understatement. But, with two hours of legal shooting light left, and standing on fresh ground after a two-hour hike into a new canyon I thought, “What the hell”. I put my Primos Elk Call to my lips and ripped out a bugle just as I had so many times in the prior days. It didn’t seem significant. One more canyon, one more bugle. I had tried so many spots before this I had lost count. Breathtakingly scenic canyon after canyon merged in my mind making it impossible to keep them all straight. This one, soon to be filed with the others, joining in the beautiful, unsuccessful collage. When it comes to beauty, Lincoln National Forest has a surplus. I had seen several mule deer and had even got close enough to snap a close-up shot of a doe, but I was searching for elk, and my frustration was high. So, I didn’t quite believe my ears when I heard the bull answer back. It came from the top of the canyon where the ridge saddled over to a taller mountain behind it. A quarter mile away at a thirty-degree uphill grade would have seemed like a daunting task five minutes before, but hearing that sound of hope energized my previously drained muscles.
“Nobody kills a bull on their first try. You’ve never even killed anything with your bow”, is what I was telling myself as I struggled up the steep grade. The chill in the air signifying the arrival of autumn in New Mexico burnt my lungs with each gulp I choked down, but I refused to stop and catch my breath. It was 5:30 pm when I reached the saddle. The scene of a previous years’ fire sprawled out before me. Black scars cut deep into dead and fallen trees mixed with new growth and a green open meadow gave the saddle a look of new hope. The sun would set in an hour, and I was unsure if the bull had moved. I moved to a burnt tree on the edge of the meadow. It seemed like a good spot to wait due to its proximity to a well-worn game trail. As I watched the sun diving below the timberline, the same negative thoughts started creeping back into my consciousness. “This isn’t going to happen. Not today, not this year,” I told myself.
Just as the venom of defeat started to take hold and paralyze my body, I heard a crash in the junipers on the opposite side of the meadow, about 100 yards away. The source of the crash was a mature bull elk thrashing his antlers back and forth through branches unfortunate enough to be hanging within reach. When I thought the moment couldn’t get any more tense, he let out a bugle that sent a jolt of electricity through my body. I had heard elk bugles before, but this one sent adrenaline coursing through my veins giving me a high — one that I immediately knew I would spend the rest of my life chasing. He was on the game trail, moving my way.
“You don’t have enough experience”, I told myself, as I dropped to one knee. I don’t remember why I decided this would be the spot to wait for him, but I was grateful for the charred stump beside me. I made use of it, leaning against it as I relieved myself of the weight of my pack. My head was spinning from the adrenaline. I was sure I would puke. I had reached the point that every bowhunter looks forward to, where the adrenaline intoxicates you to the point that conscious thought takes a backseat to decisive action. I nocked an arrow without asking myself if it was the right time. Somehow, I knew it was. I noticed the surge of a feeling taking hold even over the adrenaline. This second high I was feeling was confidence. I clipped my release to my D-loop and drew my Bowtech back as I had so many times at the range, appreciating the 70lb draw weight as it gave me something to focus my energy on.
The bull stepped into the clearing of the meadow, and I saw him for the first time. His dark chocolate neck and blonde body dominated my field of view. Had I been watching this play out on television, I would have noticed that the bull was only a 5×5. He wasn’t what most people consider to be a trophy bull, but there on that mountain, I was awestruck by how awesome he was. I was looking at my first bull elk in bow range with a tag in my pocket, and I wasn’t passing up on this opportunity.
The wave of adrenaline re-surfaced, drowning out everything else. How I maintained composure to stay at full draw, I may never know. At that moment, I was no longer a rookie. I wasn’t the guy who had never killed an elk, and it didn’t matter how many animals I had taken with my bow. At that moment, I was simply a hunter at full draw with my pin on a bull elk’s vitals twenty-three yards away. I don’t remember hitting my release, but I knew without a doubt as I watched the path of my arrow, that it would sink behind the elk’s shoulder and disappear. It did. The jolt of adrenaline was stronger than ever. Upon impact, the bull turned 180 degrees and took off running toward the junipers he had come from. He made it fifty yards before falling into the trees, making one final crash through the timber he had been thrashing through moments before. He was dead. I was a bowhunter.
The pack-out was brutal… all pack-outs are, especially those involving elk. Regardless of how you go about it, trying to get 300 pounds of meat along with the cape and skull off a 700-pound animal that is laying in deadfall at a downward angle is an unbelievably difficult job. I was thankful for my conditioning prior to the hunt, but it still beat me down. The elk was dead by 6 pm, but I didn’t get him to my truck until 4 am. It took five trips, all in the dark. The drive home took an hour and a half, and though I was absolutely drained, I drove the entire way smiling, fulfilled.
I arrived home in time to see my two daughters’ smiling faces waving through their bedroom window as I pulled in the drive. Their mother had told them that I had a surprise for them in the back of my truck. “Whoa sister, daddy got that with his bow and arrow!” They were proud of their dad, but not as proud as I was. That bull fed us for months, and anytime we had a meal that consisted of the meat, one of the girls would ask me to tell them the story of how he came to be in our freezer. I never get tired of telling that story, and the girls have shown increased interest in the outdoors. They love camping and hiking, and they have said that when they are old enough they want to go hunting with dad. They each got their own bow for Christmas, and I cherish the time we get to spend with each other preparing for whatever next seasons adventures hold in store.
While I wish I could say that at the end of that blood trail lying there beside that 5×5 bull was the answer to my confidence dilemma, but I can’t. I wish that processing all that meat and stacking it in my freezer sealed the deal on my battle with uncertainty, but it didn’t. I still get butterflies anytime my bow and I enter the woods with a yet to be punched tag, I’m not sure that ever goes away. I would be lying if I said that, since killing my bull, I haven’t heard that voice whispering negative thoughts in the back of my head.
It’s still there at times. But I take pride in knowing that at full draw, twenty yards away from a screaming bull, I found the strength to say, “shut the hell up”, and fire an arrow.