As I sit here in my car at the Langdale Terminal waiting for the next ferry that will carry me homeward across Howe Sound to West Vancouver, British Columbia, I have just come off one of the most exciting hunts of my life. Also one of the most bitterly disappointing. The date is October 9, 2007. Yesterday was the last day of a 10-day hunt for Roosevelt Elk on the Sechelt Peninsula—which runs up the east side of the Straits of Georgia and forms the southern two-thirds of what British Columbians call their Sunshine Coast.
The first transplant of Roosevelt elk from Vancouver Island to the Sunshine Coast was made 20 years ago in 1987. The habitat has proven itself perfect for the elk, and the population—aided by later, additional transplants—has exploded to the point of making the elk nuisance animals for many of the residents. Elk in their backyards have become the norm rather than the exception for most Sechelt Peninsula residents with more than an acre or two of land.
Outfitter Brad Lister of Coastal Inlet Adventures has the exclusive outfitting/hunting rights to the Peninsula. Trophy black bear and Roosevelt elk are his specialty. Because the taking of a trophy Roosevelt with my bow has been an unfilled, lifelong dream of mine, it didn’t take Brad long to convince me I should book a hunt with him when we met at a hunting convention in 2005. He told me we’d have no trouble finding bulls, but that they would not necessarily be easy to approach at close range.
Due to my 2007 calendar, I was unable to book dates that coincided with the peak of the annual elk-rut. The most intense part of the rutting activity there usually falls between the fifth and fifteenth of September, but the bulls sometimes manage to keep their harems of estrous females together well into October. Upon my arrival in Pender Harbour at nightfall on September 28, I found Brad waiting for me at a delightful little B & B resort that was to serve as our “base camp” for the next 10 days.
He was eager to show me some video footage he had just taken—an hour earlier—of an enormous bull that had seven points on one antler and eight on the other. The bull had come out to feed in a nearby meadow just before dark. With him were no fewer than 17 cows! The main beams of his enormous 8×7 rack were almost black, with a tinge of mahogany red. The tips of all the tines were a polished ivory color.
I suddenly realized I wanted this bull more passionately than perhaps any other trophy animal I’d ever set my sights on. Brad estimated that the monster he’d filmed would score around 320 to 325, and weigh at least 1,200 pounds. As he explained, the average body-weight of a Roosevelt elk runs 20 to 30 percent heavier than that of its Rocky Mountain cousin.
My entire 10-day hunt was spent trying to take this one very special bull. In the process, I passed up stalking opportunities on two 6x6s. Such is the nature of trophy-hunting: either you end up with the animal you’ve set your heart on, or you go home with nothing. My arrival on the Peninsula had come during the final stages of the rut, but most mornings and evenings the bull and his harem could still be found—during the first or last hour of daylight—out in the open, feeding in various fields or meadows that bordered the big forest.
My outfitter had spent six or seven years getting to know a number of the local residents, gaining their confidence, and obtaining permission to bowhunt elk on their properties. In the coastal area between Sechelt and Pender Harbour, no rifle hunting is permitted, and there are only three archery tags per year.
What quite amazed me about this hunt was that, during its entirety, the huge 8×7 evidently confined himself to an area no larger than a half-square-mile. Indeed, we saw the herd almost every day, in one place or another. Their “half-square-mile” was squeezed into the end of a triangle bounded by two intersecting, paved roads. On one side was a golf course and a public school; on the other was a long string of rural homes and farms. In between was unspoiled swamp and rain forest: alders, cedars, hemlocks, spruces, skunk cabbages, salmonberry bushes, and sword ferns everywhere. Several babbling brooks laced the bottoms and provided significant sound-cover for still-hunting and stalking.
One morning I was standing motionless in the forest, 20 yards from an old, abandoned road. Suddenly the outdoor P.A. system at the Elementary School blared forth with an announcement that morning classes were about to begin. Every word reverberated through the forest with crystal clarity. As I stood there smiling to myself about the irony of hunting elk in such an environment, a mother black bear with two cubs silently materialized from nowhere and passed me by at 20 yards—clueless to my presence.
Basically, our hunting methodology was anything but sophisticated. At the first hint of daylight, Brad and I (together with his assisting guide, Bill Ellis) would start driving the roads, stopping frequently to glass each field we could peer into with our optics. Usually, the elk herds would spend all night out in the same feeding areas they had appeared in just before dark. Once located at first light, our monster bull and his cows would ordinarily remain in the open for another half hour to an hour, before easing back into the forest to go to their day beds. My challenge thus became to insert myself quickly (without their seeing, hearing, or smelling me) into the big woods behind them, and then to guess correctly which exit trail from the field or meadow the lead cow would select to gain protection once again in the heavy cover.
This may sound like an easy process, yet it was anything but. Firstly, there were multiple exit paths available along the edges of every field. Secondly, the wind was often as fickle as a gypsy moth. It could quickly render my carefully-chosen and -prepared ambush spot worthless, and I’d have to scramble to find another one on the opposite side of the anticipated travel route.
Thirdly, a 17-cow harem—running defense for its lust-crazed monarch—possesses 34 nostrils, 34 eyes, and 34 ears that are constantly on duty, and at the service of their master. The bull takes no chances: whatever danger may be out there, every cow and calf must “run the gauntlet” first. The bull always brings up the rear. This may give the non-hunter some insight into why it’s so very challenging to harvest a true trophy bull. Especially for a bowhunter, who must get so very close for a shot.
In the evenings, our modus operandi was a bit different. If, indeed, the herd did come out into the open before dark, I would have to get behind them in the forest as rapidly as possible while it was still light enough to shoot, and then Brad and/or Bill would slowly walk toward the elk, attempting to push them back into the woods right past me. Those evening efforts never did seem to work out well for us. In fact, by the end of a full week of playing this kind of game, I was beginning to attribute truly psychic powers to the 8×7’s lead cow. Brad explained that she is generally the oldest cow in the herd; therefore, the wisest and most experienced. I had learned one thing for sure: namely, that she took her heavy responsibilities most seriously.
It was not until the eighth morning of the hunt that things finally came together perfectly, and I got the break for which I’d been praying. It dawned with a hard rain falling and an even stronger wind blowing. Frankly, I doubted that any elk would have ventured out of the forest at all during the night. Earlier in the hunt, a serious storm had kept this particular herd “penned up” for two days before they decided to show themselves again. With elk, however, you learn rather quickly that they are rarely predictable. Surprisingly, the first bit of murky light revealed to our binoculars several gray forms of feeding elk, ghosting their way along the edge of the blackberry thicket at the far end of one of their favorite fields. The howling winds made my entrance into the forest noiseless. The time was about 7:20 a.m. I knew I could not count on them remaining in the open beyond 8 o’clock, if even that long.
Three mornings earlier, we had found the herd at daybreak in this same field. Yet when they made their sudden exit, it was nowhere near where I had expected it. Instead, 100 yards from me, they had busted their way through the thick brambles, jumped into a swamp, swum a narrow lake, and crashed their way up onto a steep, heavily-timbered hill some 400 feet high. They were so loud they sounded like an Army demolition team!
My first hunch on that eighth morning proved wrong. I fought my way to the top of the steep hill, only to discover from the top of my elevated vantage-point that the elk had moved across to the other side of the big field. Down the hill I went, as fast as I dared, given the several cliffy areas I had to negotiate. The strong winds continued unabated, so I wasn’t worried about my noise. At the bottom, I found myself on the edge of the long, narrow lake, with no way to get across—other than simply to wade through the knee-deep water. I knew I dared not take the time to find a way around it solely to keep my feet dry. The hour was now almost 8:30. Since the herd would no doubt be heading for their day beds at any moment, I plunged in.
Back down on the forest floor in the alder/cedar bottom, I couldn’t really see out into the open, due to the tall hedgerow of blackberries that formed the apron to the meadow. I had to make an educated guess as to which exit route they would choose. Selecting what seemed like the most heavily “mudded” trail coming through the brambles, I set up in a little “hidey hole” just 15 yards away. Several days previous, I had already pruned for myself a couple of “shooting lanes.”
Suddenly, I noticed with horror that the wind had just changed direction—blowing from me to the trail! Hurriedly, I ran 30 yards and set up at 16 yards on the other side, praying the wind would not switch on me again. The only decent, impromptu hiding-spot available was a three-foot gap between the trunks of two large cedars. Because of the overhanging branches, my only option was to sit on the ground. I had already taken the time to pull the camo headnet down out of my cap and to tuck it inside my camo rain-parka. My Black Widow recurve was in my right hand, vertically upright, with one limb-tip resting on the ground. An arrow was nocked, ready for duty. But where were the elk?
Had the herd already left the field by some other egress? All at once, I realized I was seeing the blackish ears and foreheads of three cows no more than 25 yards from me. They seemed to be peering in my direction and wanting to come my way. The time was nearly 9 a.m. The wind was now blowing straight from them to me. Perhaps the reason they had stayed out there so long was that they really didn’t want to travel with the wind. It simply made them too vulnerable to an ambush!
I knew the key to my success was going to depend on how utterly motionless I could remain until all 17 cows had filed past. Only then would I be likely to have my broadside opportunity at the giant bull. About a third of the cows had gone by when one of them abruptly spooked for some reason. Perhaps her peripheral vision had caught some slight motion I’d made. When she spooked, they all spooked, but—fortunately—none of them ran more than about 10 yards. Seeing no obvious cause for alarm, the herd settled down, and the parade continued forward.
The bull, in final position, had also spooked backwards a few yards. Turning around to face forward again, he must have figured that another bull had intruded into his space, because suddenly—just 20 yards away—his belly began heaving convulsively, and he started ejaculating all over his front legs! Talk about high levels of testosterone! I’d heard about this kind of thing but never witnessed it personally. Though not yet in my shooting lane, the huge animal was only a few steps away. As the last cow passed by, the bull—with antlers that looked almost too heavy to carry—recommenced his journey.
I drew quickly, just as his head disappeared behind a final tree. When his body re-emerged in full view, I gave two quick “mews” with my mouth, and the bull stopped in his tracks—looking my way for the cow that wasn’t there. His rib cage was perfectly broadside—motionless—only 16 yards away. I could never have asked for a more perfect chance to harvest a true, trophy-class Roosevelt bull. And I have never blown such an opportunity more badly. Having never practiced any shooting before with my butt on the ground, perhaps I second-guessed myself one too many times while at full-draw. The arrow struck him low in the back: too low to get the dorsal artery under the spine, yet an inch or two too high to get the lungs. I’d been aiming for the middle of his ribcage. Had my “elevation” been spot-on, it would have all been over within 60 to 90 seconds.
A hundred yards along his flight-path, Bill and I later found my arrow lying on the ground intact, with stains of red extending 11 inches up the shaft. At first, I thought my broadhead might have gotten the top of the near lung, but the extremely miserly blood-trail soon extinguished that wishful thinking. When we saw the bull’s tracks heading up a steep hill, Bill and I decided not to push him and returned to “camp” for a hot luncheon.
Later that afternoon, we got close enough to smell him, and then actually jumped him and some of his cows out of their beds. This only confirmed our growing suspicion (and new hope) that the wound was quite superficial. At dark, we abandoned the search and were most gratified the next morning to find him feeding in a small forest clearing with his reconstituted harem. Through a small hole in the brush, we succeeded in taking some good video footage from about 50 yards away. The tape clearly showed the exact location of the wound, and it was easy to see why my arrow did the bull little damage.
As I finish up this story, the date is now October 13, 2007. The property owner has since seen that same 8×7 bull at least twice more and reports that he is acting as if nothing had ever happened to him.
Despite my bitter disappointment in myself, and in the hunt’s outcome, there was one, huge, bright spot for me in the overall experience. I had finally managed to outsmart that old lead cow! I had finally procured for myself a great shot opportunity at “the bull of a lifetime.”
Editor’s note: This article is the tenth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning 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 ninth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson