We sat motionless behind our spotting scopes, chewing on Cliff bars, watching the sky, just waiting for our chance: two P&Y bucks lounged about in their sub-alpine sanctuary below, soaking in the sun and sipping on fresh snow-melt.
“It’s probably about time to stalk in on them if you’re going to do it today. The thermals have stiffened up, and if you start now you should have plenty of time before the sun goes down,” I said, gently breaking the silence.
“You know…” Greg eventually replied, “I would be perfectly happy to see you shoot one of those bucks.”
“You sure Greg? You know it’s your turn.”
“Yeah,” Greg said “I’ll keep an eye through the spotting scope and I’ll give you the signal if they start moving around. Go sink an arrow into one of those brutes!”
This was the first time someone would watch me make a high-country stalk, and this additional pressure got me real fired up. I re-laced my boots, slung my rangefinder around my neck and picked up my bow. “We’re having Back-straps tonight!”
I dropped off our rocky perch and shuffled down a steep shale slide, crossed a few channels craved out by the snow-melt and weaved trough patches of pine trees. The terrain was rough but my body ran in auto-pilot, letting my mind enjoy the experience and reminisce on all the great things that had happened thus far.
I remembered that just two days ago watching Greg stalk in on a bachelor group of bucks. He managed to get a shot off at a nice 4×4, sending the arrow just over the bucks shoulders. The very next day we found three 180” class non-typical bucks. I was able to get 40 yards from two of them, before the wind swirled that is. That night we slept at an 8,800 foot elevation in a high mountain pass. Come morning it was snowing sideways and we had to traverse some gnarly cliff-side goat trails.
Focus Joe, you’re getting close – it’s time to take your boots off. And now I find myself a mere football-field length from another pair of trophy bucks. I looked up at Greg who was standing at the skyline signaling that the bucks had moved from their beds.
I sensed little urgency in the signal so I knew everything was still alright. I crept in, bow in my left hand and range-finder in my right, as carefully as I could, if not to be quiet but at least to avoid stepping on those spiny little plants that lay in wait to impale my bare, dusty toes. I soon spotted his empty bed, a conspicuous dent in the earth beneath a pine tree, only sixty yards away. A deep channel lay between me and the bed. And although I couldn’t see into it, I knew he was in the bottom of the channel lapping up some ice cold water from the creek.
I approached the creek bank behind a chest-high pine tree. The sleepy monarch peered up at me from under the weight of his thick, velvet covered antlers. Our eyes locked – his marked by the day’s slumber and mine by exhaustion. I pried my bow open and leaned clear of the tree. He didn’t flinch a muscle. I centered my pins and kissed the string, then let her rip.
The arrow hit hard and gave off a bone-splintering SNAP! on impact; making me cringe in empathy and fear of poor penetration. He bounded up the other side of the channel and out of sight. I dashed to where he was standing and wiped blood from a tuft of grass. I was very concerned the arrow had hit solid bone, and I’m sure my buddy Greg could see my anxiety through the spotting scope a half-mile away.
I followed some tracks for a while – there were so many. The ones I thought were his looked to be made with the finesse of a Billy goat and angled towards the cliffs of abyss. I turned back and began retracing my steps to where I had shot him; the adrenaline-high had faded. Then it hit me: a musky odor, one I know very well, and it was close. Lifting my head from the maze of tracks, I saw my buck sprawled out in the bushes – not 5 feet away! The roar I let out echoed up the mountain and back down with the tones of Greg’s voice.
We spent the evening skinning him for a life-size mount and deboning the meat. By the time we had finished we were too exhausted to fix up steaks for dinner; instead we slurped down instant, no-fuss Mountain House spaghetti. Then we each carved a ledge into the slope and crawled into our mummy bag for the night. The next morning we packed out, gave the meat to the butcher, and returned for round two.
Back in the same pocket we spotted him before, we located one of the 180” class bucks – a wild 6×6. We watched him until late morning when he bedded down. Greg moved in and I manned the spotting scope, hoping we would soon have venison on our backs again. Greg did a great job moving in on the buck, but the wind just didn’t hold out for him. I could see the buck bolt when Greg was only 150 yards way. Like a true veteran, Greg seemed not to mind at all that the deer was not dead on its side. He was just soaking in the experience. It is a treat just to see cover-photo bucks in the field. We enjoyed a couple more days in the high country glassing bucks before Greg returned to his family and I to mine.
My father and brother were just on the other side of the mountain range hunting for elk and I was excited to join them. Just a few hours of driving and I was at the trail head. I dashed about, grabbing gear from hear-and-there and crammed it all in my pack with little concern for organization. After the chaos, around noon, I hit the trail running. I continued down the trail with vigor until a team of hunters mounted on horses trampled down the trail towards me. My experience has taught me that hunting an area after a team like this is never very productive. Then, a bit farther down the trail I spot a camp, then another. My hunch was that the elk were getting pretty skinny running from all these hunters. I rested at a stream and had some pine-needle tea to easy my mind.
Continuing up the trail, 9 miles into the 12 mile hike, as the sun rested behind the mountaintops and the valley-floor cooled in their shadow, a bugle rang out from the dense pine forest. I couldn’t believe my luck. My pack hit the ground and I headed to the call. With the thermals falling and the elk uphill, I was in for some action.
I eased right into the herd, whispering cow mews to cover my presence. There were two spike elk wrapping necks in play, a couple rag-horns sparring, and at least fifteen cows – all within 80 yards! As time passed more and more bugles rang out from all around me. My body pulsed with waves of adrenaline as I eased toward the sparring rag-horns. An excited calf trotted ten yards in front of me; giving little more than a glance. Then a clique of five cows, being chased by one of those rag-horns, stampeded directly toward me. The lead cow spotted me at 15 yards and froze. The rag-horn continued into range and I drew. THUD! – Right into a tree.
The elk jolted off into the trees and I retrieved my arrow. A bugle beamed from the north no more than 100 yards away. I moved in and could see a large bull with his face buried in a pine tree. He was working the tree pretty hard so I scampered within 30 yards, mounted a fallen log, drew back, and fired. I couldn’t believe it… I missed at thirty yards. I searched for blood until dark and eventually retreated to my frame-pack for the night.
The next morning I returned to search for blood but couldn’t find a drop. Standing next to the torn-up tree, I let out a strong mew. Immediately a bugle erupted from the trees no more than 100 yards from me. I moved in quickly. A line of three cows were browsing along a trail, and following close behind was the same bull from the night before! Forty-five yards away I waited for the bull to come to an opening in the trees. When his vitals passed the opening I zipped an arrow in just behind his ribcage, puncturing one lung and slicing up his liver.
I called my father and brother on the radio and sent them the waypoint via GPS. Then I went back to my pack and spent several hours devouring most of my food supply and soaking in the moment, knowing I had my first bull elk on the ground.
With my brother’s arrival, it was time to track down the bull. We worked together for a while but the blood trail was unexpectedly scant and the area was thick with elk, so my brother moved on to find a bull of his own.
Retracing the blood trail, a ghastly sound hissed from up ahead. It was my bull breathing from his side. I drew the last arrow from my quiver and delivered it precisely into his last good lung. The elk bolted and I followed. When he bedded back down I approached – having no more arrows – to within ten yards. He stared at me and I back at him and we shared his final breaths.
“Dude, that’s spiritual,” my father replied when I told him what had happened. And it really was. The three of us – father and sons – spent the next couple days sharing elk steaks and hunting stories deep in the mountains.