After arrowing my first cow elk in late 1970, 13 years passed by before I finally had the pleasure of harvesting a bull elk. By 1983, Jennifer and I had gone our separate ways, and I had married a transplanted West Virginian from California, by the name of Jeanne Schutts Lloyd. Like me, Jeanne was already an avid bowhunter when we met at the 1981 Pope and Young Biennial Convention in Spokane. Unlike me, she had grown up in a hunting family—having been introduced to the sport by her father and her brother.

Because my income didn’t really allow me to consider hunting much beyond the borders of my own state until I got into my forties, the acquisition—at age 42—of a new wife who loved to bowhunt was most timely, indeed! An inheritance from one of my grandparents, along about then, proved timely as well. It suddenly made it possible for Jeanne and me to plan several hunts we had hitherto only been able to dream about.

Both 1983 and 1984 turned out to be “watershed” years for me. My big game harvests in that 24-month period included not only two deer but five other species, to boot: an antelope buck from Wyoming, a 5×6 bull elk from New Mexico (the focus of this story), a bull caribou from Quebec, a more-than-full-curl Dall ram from the Northwest Territories, and—to top it off—a nice male black bear, which I baited up all on my own just 10 miles from downtown Seattle by crow-flight. Only one other biennium in my hunting lifetime has blessed me with a wider variety of harvests, and that was the period from 1999 to 2000—when I was fortunate enough to take eight different species.

Just two days after taking my first bear, I loaded up the station wagon on September 1, and Jeanne and I headed out on a glorious, three-week trip over into Wyoming (for pronghorns) and then down into New Mexico (for elk). This story tells the tale of our adventures on the famous Baca Ranch near Los Alamos, bowhunting with well-known outfitter, Ric Martin.

* * *

As I recall, we arrived at the Ranch just in time for supper on the evening of September 10. The sight of the magnificent 7×7 bull elk hanging above the huge river-rock fireplace in the lodge living room was more than enough to get our adrenaline pumping in anticipation of the following morning. In fact, our adrenaline had received an earlier jump-start when we spotted a big 6×6 bull feeding in the shadows on the edge of a little forest-pond, less than a mile from the entrance to the Ranch. As we visited in front of a roaring fire over a gourmet dinner with the Coloradan who was to serve as our guide for the next seven days, Jeanne and I had a hard time containing our excitement.

Our hunting routine was pretty much the same every day. Breakfast in the pre-dawn darkness, leaving in the truck at first light for unknown parts of the Ranch, and positioning ourselves in an elevated location that would allow us to zero in on any elk bugling that the early morning might produce. We would hunt each day till around 10:30 or 11:00 a.m., then it was back to the lodge for lunch and a siesta. In the afternoons, around 4 o’clock, we would pile into the truck and head out for the evening hunt. It was, in fact, the evenings which seemed to produce most of the action for us.

I shall never forget the evening when Jeanne had her big chance at a trophy bull. She will never forget it, either. The sun was starting to dip fairly low in the sky; it was perhaps an hour before sunset. A very special light was painting everything around us with that warm golden color that seems truly magical on certain, remarkable evenings. Our guide had told us of a small meadow he was taking us to, surrounded by a mostly-pine forest, where he felt we had a good chance of finding elk. As we drew closer to the meadow, we could hear two different bulls bugling to each other not far up in front of us. Arriving at the fringe of the clearing, we suddenly noticed a mature bull entering the far end and trotting straight toward us. Perhaps he had just been run off by a larger herd bull, but he was quite a handsome bull in his own right. He sported a very large and massive 5×5 rack that would surely have scored well over 300 points.

He seemed to be rather distracted, paying little attention to what was in front of him as he continued to come our way. When it became clear that the bull was going to pass in front of us within bow range, the guide urged Jeanne to scoot forward on her knees in the tall grass and get ready to shoot. Because she was already in a better position than I, I told her to “go for it.” This was going to be Jeanne’s bull, or it was going to be nobody’s!

Jeanne took her shot at a handsome 5x5 bull elk from 25 yards away.
The sighting of a 6×6 bull elk near the entrance to the Baca Ranch had Jeanne and Dennis’ adrenalin pumping, and Jeanne soon had a chance to take a handsome 5×5 bull of her own. Illustration by Dallen Lambson.

By the time she came to full draw, the princely animal was already broadside to her at about 25 yards, and still moving at a pretty good clip. Jeanne’s judgment on how much to compensate for his motion was excellent. I remember seeing the arrow strike the bull’s side somewhere around the diaphragm line, and perhaps nine inches above the belly line. A bit low, I thought to myself, but maybe good enough! The bull wheeled and started back in the direction from which he’d just come. At 80 yards out, he stopped in the open end of the meadow, lowered his head almost to the ground, and proceeded just to stand there motionless for at least 15 minutes.

Jeanne asked our guide if she should move in closer, so as to try to put a second arrow in him. The answer was a negative—I guess because there was no cover between us, and the guide feared the bull’s adrenaline would kick in if he spotted Jeanne. Upon wheeling around once hit, the elk had thrown Jeanne’s arrow. I crawled through the grass to recover it and then dragged it back with me the same way I’d gone. Blood sign on the shaft showed it had penetrated some 14 inches before being “disgorged.” The real question was what it had cut before exiting. After close examination of the arrowshaft, the answer still seemed uncertain.

During our many hunts together, Jeanne always used an old Fred Bear compound bow, set at the maximum draw-weight of 50 pounds. This was really all the draw weight she could handle. So, for purposes of achieving maximum penetration, she had always insisted on using the old, two-bladed Bear Razorhead, without inserts. Whereas I have always believed that a three- or four-blade broadhead significantly increases your cutting potential and creates a better external blood-trail, Jeanne always feared that anything with more than two blades would reduce the amount of penetration her arrows could achieve inside the vitals of a big animal like an elk. I had always tried to get her to add the inserts, but I always seemed to lose that argument.

What we surely didn’t want to lose, on that warm, mid-September evening, was the magnificent bull Jeanne had just put an arrow into. The trouble was that the arrow wasn’t any longer in the animal, and that worried all of us. The hole made by a two-bladed broadhead is simply a single, straight-line slit, which usually closes off and clots quickly in a long-haired animal—especially once the arrow is no longer there. This is no doubt why our guide wanted us to do nothing that might spook Jeanne’s bull and get him running for cover.

As he continued to stand there, stock-still, some 80 yards out, his head kept dropping lower and lower, until finally it was almost touching the ground. I whispered to Jeanne that it looked to me as if her bull just might fall over at any moment. Seconds later, my naiveté was exposed. A second bull—not far off—let loose a healthy, full-throated bugle. Jeanne’s bull instantly “came back to life” and took off into the forest like a scared jack rabbit, never to be seen again. In two days of searching, we were not able to find even a blood trail, much less a dead animal. In the end, we concluded that the big 5×5 had survived his encounter with Jeanne’s arrow and was probably doing just fine. Needless to say, it was a huge disappointment for Jeanne.

My own exciting moment in the scheduled seven-day hunt came on the next-to-last evening. Beginning around 5:30 p.m., a rising chorus of bull bugles and responding challenges reverberated throughout the hills around us. There was a real chill in the evening air that had not been there earlier in the hunt. Using his mouth reed, our guide produced mostly cow and calf “talk,” as we moved into the wind toward a particularly aggressive bugler. He was hoping, thereby, to lure in some rutted-up bull that figured the size of his harem still didn’t measure up to the size of his testosterone tank. It seemed there were elk all around us at times, but the bigger bulls were somehow managing to keep just out of sight.

As dusk began to settle over us, the chorus became ever more shrill. We had never heard anything like it, Jeanne and I. This truly had to be the ephemeral “peak of the rut!” With hindsight so much better than foresight, sometimes you don’t know it’s come until it’s gone. All I knew was that we were surely in the middle of the rut, somewhere! Darkness was just about to spread its wings to enfold us when we noticed that a rather singular (and repetitive) bugle appeared to be coming quickly in our direction. We stepped inside a little patch of lodgepole pines, and I made ready to draw.

It was suddenly so dark under the treetop canopy that at first I couldn’t see a thing. Yet I could hear the soft steps of a large animal approaching. As my eyes grew more accustomed to the absence of light, I made out the black silhouette of a main antler beam moving against the dark gray backdrop behind it. It wasn’t very far away—maybe 15 yards, maybe 25. In the gloom, I couldn’t be sure. All at once, the body of the bull emerged into a bit of an opening that was still collecting a few scintillas of light from the Western sky. I could make out the bull’s body standing broadside to me—perhaps 30 yards distant. Maybe it was only 20. Regardless, I knew it was “now or never,” if I was going to take a shot at this animal. His rack was completely blacked out by the dense forest he was standing at the fringe of. At least the darker hair of his front end contrasted sufficiently with the lighter pelage of his back half so that I had a pretty good notion of where the rib cage was located.

We heard the arrow hit meat first, then bone. It was a solid hit, without question, but none of us had any visual clues as to where my shaft had struck the animal. He disappeared instantly into the blackness, and his crashing through the timber continued for about 20 seconds—until all was deathly still. At least we hoped all was deathly still! Our straining ears could pick up no more sounds of any kind other than an occasional, distant bugle, and the howling of a pack of coyotes saluting the imminent moonrise. We stood there motionless in the dark for a good 10 minutes before daring to speak to one another. If my bull had bedded within less than a hundred yards and was still alive, we sure didn’t want to alert him to our presence.

Finally, I heard our guide rummaging for a flashlight, so I asked him in a whisper if he had happened to put a camera in his rucksack. He replied that it was under the front seat of his truck. The temperature had already dropped below freezing, and it was clearly going to get much colder during the night. My instructions were to head back to the truck, using my own flashlight, while he and Jeanne started trailing the bull I had arrowed. Once out from under the trees, I was able to make out roughly where the sun had gone down. I was to aim straight for that, and eventually I would come to the road where the truck was parked. Because of a lot of open meadow I passed through during the 15 minutes it took me to reach the truck, I was able to drive the truck most of the way back to where I had left Jeanne and the guide.

A flashlight flickering not far inside the edge of the big timber was a most encouraging sign, and before long we were all pulling on our heavier jackets, with a dead bull elk lying at our feet (already field-dressed, no less!). He was not a big bull (nothing like the one Jeanne had arrowed), but one beam carried six points and the other five. According to our Coloradan, the animal had only run about 70 yards before bedding down and dying in his bed. The guide stuck out his hand, Jeanne gave me a big hug, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had finally taken my first bull elk. By the time the flash-photos were all taken, a nearly-full moon had lifted its cheerful head above the horizon, and the trip back to the truck, and on to the ranch house, was accomplished with gay spirits and a minimum of difficulty.

Dennis Dunn's 5x6 bull elk. Image courtesy Dennis Dunn.
Dennis Dunn’s 5×6 bull elk. Image courtesy Dennis Dunn.

The elk carcass was left in the woods overnight and brought in the next morning by some of the ranch hands. Fortunately, the frosty night had allowed the dead animal to escape detection by the coyote patrol. One front shoulder turned out to be pretty well bloodshot from the damage done by my arrow, but that still left three quarters of excellent meat—plus the backstraps and tenderloins—to be frozen for the trip home. I had really been pretty lucky, the thought occurred to me; my “shot in the dark” had paid off big-time. When we finally said our good-byes to the Baca Ranch, however, little did Jeanne and I realize that on the way back through Wyoming, we would both be adding further wild meat to our winter stores.

Editor’s note: This article is the seventh of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from expert hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks–join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the sixth Chronicle here.

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3 thoughts on “The BAREBOW! Chronicles: A Shot in the Dark

  1. Enjoyed the story…. Next best thing to being there. I look forward to reading more. I also hunt “bare bow”. Have shot that way for 45 years. I’ve had very good bow-shooters attempt to teach me the advantages of sites, releases, etc. they ultimately advised me to forget it. I regularly shot more accurately without these tools. Maybe I’m too busy thinking it to death vs. shooting instinctively. I shoot a lot, and I mean hundreds of arrows at varying distances and angles for weeks before I hit the hunting grounds. Elk hunting is still a “dream hunt” for me…….. But I’m closing in on it.

    1. Chris — Don’t give up on your dream. If the desire is intense enough, —with time — you’ll find a way to make it happen! Keep shooting straight, and always keep the wind in your face and the sun at your back. — Dennis

  2. What a great read, as are all of the stories in the Barebow collection. It’s so handy to read this collection thru an electronic format, although my coffee table book with the great artwork is a treasure to display. Thanks for taking us with you on this hunt!

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