As Chris White and I slipped from thick brush into an aspen meadow in the pre-dawn darkness, a bull elk bugled from a nearby knoll, stopping us in our tracks.
We clicked off our headlamps and listened, hoping it would challenge us again. The day was September 14, White’s final morning of his weeklong elk bowhunt in southeastern Idaho, but he said he’d gladly pay the rescheduling penalty for his flight home to Ohio if a bull made a fatal blunder before noon.
When the bull bugled again, we figured it was about 100 yards ahead. We could probably sneak ahead for at least 50 yards on the grass beneath the aspens. Maybe by then daylight would brighten the fiber-optic pin-sights on White’s compound bow.
Any plans for a stealthy stalk ended seconds later when a second elk gave a half-hearted alarm bark between us and the bull. We could see flashes of movement on the skyline as the suspicious elk barked again. We assumed it was a cow, and realized we probably wouldn’t convince her we were harmless, or that she was just imagining the sounds she heard when we approached.
Sure enough, as dawn arrived and we tried calling the bull into range, his reply bugles grew farther and farther away. We pictured the wary cow leading him westward up the long ridge.
Knowing we couldn’t catch up with them or use our calls to persuade the bull to return, we swung north a few hundred yards and still-hunted uphill in their direction. Our hunts the previous six days proved there were other bulls in the area, so we intended to find one that was more easily fooled.
We spent the next four hours chasing two bulls bugling northwest of us. We wanted to go that way anyway, so we pushed uphill, brows sweating and chests heaving in the thin mountain air. Twice we peeled off to try closing on the buglers, moving sidehill and downhill, but both times they moved off as we neared bow range.
By 10:30 a.m. we reached a long, aspen-covered plateau about a mile uphill from where we’d begun our hunt nearly five hours earlier. As White sneaked ahead to check a saddle linking our plateau to the next ridge uphill, I spotted a cow elk 100 yards away, walking toward a bedding area we discovered a few days earlier.
After a quick strategy session, White began sneaking that way, with me tailing by about 15 yards. White’s hearing is much better than mine, and he twice turned to signal he could hear elk moving ahead.
Meanwhile, we kept inching forward, avoiding fallen leaves and brittle sticks, sliding our boots onto grass or bare dirt whenever possible. Minutes after we climbed over the fallen trunk of a huge lodgepole pine, White paused, hunched low and gave me a subtle thumbs-up. Then he slipped forward a few yards, slid around a 15-foot-tall Douglas fir, and stopped with the tree at his back to disguise his outline.
Seconds later I spotted long, chocolate-brown legs moving through aspens about 40 yards ahead of White. A young bull elk, perhaps a 2×2 or 3×3, was feeding within bow range, but White didn’t move to shoot.
I soon saw why. A big bull walked into view, turned our way and began ripping and raking its 6×6 antlers through the branches of a young aspen. The bull then walked a few steps closer, giving me hope it would stumble into slam-dunk range. Instead, it stopped about 45 yards from White, turned broadside, and watched the smaller bull walk away in the opposite direction. About the same time, a cow rose from its bed 30 yards from White and disappeared after the young bull.
Realizing the bull wouldn’t get any closer, and seeing a narrow shooting lane between himself and the bull’s chest, White drew his bow, aimed, and released.
“Thwack!” With White’s arrow still vibrating in an aspen tree about 20 yards downrange, the bull dropped its hips and thundered away unharmed.
“That’s not how the story is supposed to end,” I teased White minutes later. “It’s 11:15 a.m. You were down to your final hour. You were supposed to make the last-second shot so you could tell a dramatic story. Well, great job stalking them. They had no idea we were here.”
I then photographed White unscrewing the arrow shaft from its three-blade broadhead, which was buried deep in the aspen’s white wood.
Three mornings later, I texted my own sob story to White. While sneaking again into the aspen meadow where White’s final hunt had begun, I heard a bull bugling to the northeast. I started sneaking that way when my sight pins brightened with the dawn.
About 100 yards later, I heard something walking in the meadow I had just left. I turned to see a tall-antlered bull heading my way. I gauged the angle it was taking, hurried forward about 10 yards, pulled my bow to full draw and waited for the bull to walk into an opening ahead.
Seconds later, it paused, offering what looked like a clear 30-yard shot. But when I released the shot, all I heard was my arrow clattering through brush, deflected by an unseen branch in the low light. The bull looked around in surprise and bolted uphill into brush so thick all I could see was its outline. I nocked another arrow and made a few cow calls, hoping the bull might step out and give me a second chance.
It had other plans, however. I soon heard hoofsteps snapping twigs and crunching leaves as it continued the walk I had interrupted.
The mountain fell silent as the only shot opportunity in my 14-day hunt ended as quickly as it had begun.
Images by Patrick Durkin