“Dennis, I can’t tell how big those bulls are, but they’re probably worth checking out,” my guide suddenly offered. “I know how we can get there, but after we drive to a certain point it will still take us nearly an hour on foot. We’ll have to cross a big canyon and climb well up the other side. Are you game?”
“What do you think?” I said, with a broad grin on my face.
A half-hour later, Ron and I were donning our daypacks and heading down a steep, overgrown logging road, too choked with brush for us to drive any further. By the time we managed to reach the little stream at the bottom, the heat was really coming on. The time was a bit after 11 a.m., and our quarry had long since taken their beds for the day, somewhere high on the mountainside above us. I asked Ron what strategy he had in mind to pursue.
“Well,” he began, “I’m surprised to see that the wind is coming down this hillside into our faces, rather than acting like normal thermals on a hot day. Right here is where we saw those half-dozen elk leave the road, and I suggest we enter the big timber now, then slowly—as quietly as we can—work our way up the hillside, maybe a hundred yards at a crack, cow-calling at every stage along the way. You get out in front of me about 75 yards, each time we set up, and I’ll see if I can’t draw an amorous bull downhill from his bed right past you!”
“That sounds like a good plan to me, Ron,” I replied. “As long as the wind stays in our faces!”
Each time we set up to call, we gave the effort about 20 minutes to produce results. Ron would make two or three cow mews with the reed in his mouth, and sometimes he’d throw in a bull bugle—but not more than one. Our first three set-ups proved fruitless, but the fourth time was definitely the charm. I had worked my way up onto a level bench that crossed the otherwise-steep incline. Lying just at the upper margin of that bench I found a massive, horizontal, cedar log with ferns rooted along much of its top. Immediately adjacent, on the uphill side, stood erect a second giant cedar—one of true rain-forest dimensions. “What a great ambush location!” I thought to myself. “I’ll simply position myself in that small space in between the two and wait for my guide to start calling.” No sooner had I stomped out a comfortable “foot platform” for myself on the rather steep slope than I heard Ron’s first series of cow calls start up somewhere below me. My arrow was nocked, and I was ready for action.
My guide was Ron Hofsess, sole owner and operator of Avery Mountain Ranches, and we were just about to experience some real action together on the first day of a seven-day hunt for Roosevelt elk near the tiny town of Powers in southwest Oregon. The date was September 3, 2011. Ron had grown up there and runs his own logging company in the surrounding mountains. His knowledge of that whole area was the single biggest reason I had chosen him to guide me on this hunt.
For the first 15 minutes on our fourth setup, I heard nothing and saw nothing. Then, there it was! Just like that! A tiny twig snapping, somewhere close, off to my right! Next I saw the silent movement of a small piece of tawny-colored hair moving past a small opening in the brush. Suddenly an antler appeared, then a second one, and finally an entire bull elk—a five-point—was standing there before me. He had virtually materialized out of nowhere, never uttering a peep as he came looking for the cow that wasn’t.
Because of my ambivalence about the size of his rack, my first chance to take his life passed me by as quickly as he did—crossing below me at a mere four yards. I could have scratched his rump with the end of my bow, had I chosen to extend my arm across the big log! When the bull reached the end of the bench some 20 yards further on, he paused to look and listen, then suddenly headed downhill, vanishing abruptly into the green.
To my surprise, he reappeared within two minutes, aiming to pass—once again—right underneath me. Perhaps he’d caught a momentary whiff of Ron’s unsexy fragrance and decided he would do better to return to his day-bed higher on the mountainside before losing some of his previously-collected girlfriends to another rut-crazed rival. Somehow, I escaped his highly-wired, sensory detection system one more time. “Unbelievable!” I muttered to myself.
No sooner had he arrived back at the spot where he first appeared than I heard a different sound coming from a bit further up the slope above him. Almost instantly, a second set of antlers came into view. Before I could even count the points, the two racks merged, and some gentle sparring took place briefly—no doubt warm-up practice for the more serious stuff still ahead over the next couple of weeks.
I soon determined that the newcomer was also a five-point. “Well, I guess I won’t be shooting that one either,” I whispered to myself. Yet the Lord was truly tempting my resolve, because—incredibly—the second suitor for the invisible cow also pointed his nose in my direction and commenced down the same path his predecessor had taken. Hormonal hopes run high at that time of year in the Oregon Coast Range, and within seconds bull number-two had crossed below me and disappeared off down the slope in search of a new target for his pent-up testosterone. This intense drama quickly came to an end about five minutes later, however, when a heavy crashing through the brush—perhaps only forty yards away—signaled unmistakably that Ron had just been identified for the fraud that he was.
Fast-forward to day seven. Days two through six had all presented a smorgasbord of various moments of excitement, but nothing quite worked out or resulted in any shot opportunities. Once different bulls were located by sight, or else by the occasional, rather rare bugle, several setups were attempted, using multiple types of calling. All to no avail. What I knew would be the last day of my hunt dawned clear, promising continued hot weather. We had been hoping for cooler temperatures, but no such change seemed likely. For the first four-plus hours of daylight, everything appeared to be in hiding. Around 11:30, we were traveling a ridgetop when Ron suddenly hit the brakes and exclaimed, “Judging from all the fresh tracks in the dust, I think we just missed a herd of elk crossing the road here.”
We exited the cab and began walking both directions, studying the heavy sign that was everywhere. “Those are clearly the bull’s tracks, right there,” he said, pointing to the ground on one shoulder of the road. I think it’s a good bet they’re not more than 300 to 400 yards away already lying in their day beds.” With arm outstretched, Ron continued, “I think we ought to descend quietly in that direction, no more than maybe two hundred yards, and set up to do some calling.”
“Let’s go,” I responded, excited just to be “in the hunt” one more time.
After losing a couple hundred feet of altitude, we came to a bench that traversed the otherwise-steep mountainside. It looked like a great location for a setup.
“Ron,” I whispered. “If you’re going to do your calling from here—given the rising thermals and the fact that the bull is virtually certain to circle uphill to get above you, to try to scent you—I think I should place myself maybe 60-or-so yards closer to them, and out on the end of that second bench which angles gently downhill towards us to meet this one we’re on.”
“Your thinking sounds good to me,” Ron replied. I could see obvious excitement written on his face. “Go pick yourself a favorable vantage spot,” he continued. “Get ready to shoot, but be prepared to be patient. It could take me quite a while to draw him in, providing I can do so at all. However, if he comes, he’s not going to leave his cows for long, and his arrival could be so quick it will take your breath away. Once you’re fully set up and ready for action, just give me a little ‘calf-chirp.’
As I angled my slow steps upward toward the higher bench, I knew I had just heard the wisdom of a master elk hunter. Within five minutes, I had found what I decided would be the perfect place to stand and wait for our hoped-for visitor. The spot was just off the end of the second bench, where I could look down and out across a rather small, semi-open draw: big second-growth on both edges of the bowl, with only scattered brush and small trees in the middle. Two very-well-traveled elk trails came from down below, crossing in front of me at 15 and 20 yards, respectively. Behind me, and slightly above the elevation of the “footing pad” I had scraped out, was a third, heavily-used trail that crested the rise no more than 15 yards away.
Once I had selected the precise spot where I wanted to take my stand, I spent a good five minutes extracting from my roughly-18-inch-square “platform” every tiny little thing which could possibly create noise if I had to pivot and grind it underfoot in a big hurry. I had also used my pruning shears to clip off several obnoxious branches and twigs impinging on the several shooting lanes I figured I might have to use. Once I’d made myself as ready as I knew how, I aimed a “chirp” in Ron’s direction. Twenty minutes passed. Nothing. And then another 15. Still nothing. Every five minutes or so, Ron had been varying the “mix” of calls from within his extensive vocal toolbox. After 30 minutes, Ron suddenly let loose with a loud, defiant-sounding bugle. Another 15 minutes went by. Still no response of any kind. We needed a bit of good luck to come our way. Better yet, some divine intervention.
Then it happened! Across the bowl from me, I heard what I thought was a single twig cracking. A few seconds later, my straining eyeballs picked up a patch of brownish hair moving quickly through an opening in the shadowy green. Suddenly, the whole bull and both antlers came into view. One rapid look with the binos told me that this was a mature animal, one with a very symmetrical 6×6 rack. The kind of bull I had dreamed of taking for all of my adult life.
I knew I had little time left to prepare for the shot. He crossed the draw at a trot, and started running uphill directly at me—disappearing below me under the curvature of the slope. I knew I wouldn’t see him again until he was less than 20 yards away, but which trail would he arrive on?
I was facing the trails below me. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong. As soon as I realized it, I spun around so I could shoot uphill behind me. My shooting lane was five yards wide, and as the bull’s head passed behind the last tree that marked the right-hand margin of my available shooting lane, I brought my recurve to full draw. When his enormous body was exactly broadside to me, I stopped him dead in his tracks with a single voice-mew. And I do mean, “Dead in his tracks!” The wooden arrow passed instantly through the top of his heart and both lungs. The bull sprang forward and began to charge uphill away from me. He soon fell to his knees and began rolling back down the slope in my direction, coming to rest 18 yards away from where he’d been standing when I released the arrow. Perhaps 45 seconds had expired from start to finish.
All was suddenly deathly quiet, save for the pounding of my heart. I raised my eyes and fingertips skyward to say an emotional prayer of thanksgiving. It was then that my body started shaking, as the adrenaline rush began to subside. I could scarcely believe my good fortune, and then it dawned on my addled brain that I needed to share the victory with my amazing guide. Ron’s advice had foretold exactly how the drama would unfold. I suddenly let out a giant yodel! “RON!,” I yelled. “All that crashing in the brush wasn’t a bunny rabbit! Come see this wonderful bull!”
In less than a minute Ron’s grinning face showed up by my side. After the welcoming hug-and-a-handshake, we stood there admiring the magnificent animal. A big job awaited us to get all the meat off the mountain before dark. One of the advantages of owning your own company, as Hofsess does, is that you can quickly shift your employees from one job to another. Ron always carries his cell phone with him up in the mountains, and within an hour, three new pack-boards and strong backs had arrived on the scene to help us haul out the meat.
My own back had pretty well recovered from the spinal discectomy I had gone through in November of 2008, so when my self-pride hooked up with my leftover adrenaline to make me insist on packing the head, cape, and antlers of my own trophy bull back up to the truck, I figured my 71-year-old back might just cooperate sufficiently with my willpower to pull it off. Fortunately, it did.
It occurred to me to offer two quarters of the super-fresh elk meat to Ron’s helpers as a thank you for their much-needed assistance, and once that transfer was accomplished, Ron and I headed our truck for the valley. On the ride out, my thoughts waxed philosophical, and I began rambling a bit. “Ron,” I mused, “I believe bowhunting big game is a lot like gambling in Vegas.”
“How do you mean?” he asked quizzically.
“Well,” I opined, trying to sound utterly serious, “It’s a lot like the game of craps. Every day you set foot in the field and roll the dice, you just never know what’s going to turn up!”
“Yes, I guess so,” said Ron. “Every day of this hunt has been very different!”
“For sure,” I added. “But think about that first day. Due to your calling abilities, we rolled a pair of ‘fives.’ Two five points turned up just three yards away from my extended arrow-tip. And then who would have predicted that on day seven, in the final hours of the hunt, we would roll a pair of ‘boxcars’—six perfect points on each side?”
“Well, I have to agree, Dennis. I like your analogy.”
“One more question, Ron,” I pressed on. “Did I arrow that bull in the Powers Unit or in the Sixes Unit?”
“Sixes,” came back the quick answer.
“So I guess it could truly be said that, on this particular afternoon in the gambling hall, everything came up sixes? Do you like that?”
“I like that!” chuckled Ron, as he turned into the driveway of my little bungalow on the river.
Editor’s note: This article is the eleventh 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 tenth Chronicle here.