The BAREBOW! Chronicles: Mister Elkhorn and the River Rats
Dennis Dunn 12.19.14
In a hunting camp, one hunter’s unrealistic expectations are sometimes spawned in the euphoric backwaters of another hunter’s extraordinary success and good fortune. Such was the case for me, following on the heels of M. R. James’ great victory on the third evening of my 1999 Newfoundland hunt for woodland caribou. His fantastic stag, arrowed at 20 yards, was the one Harold Pelley and I had jumped from his bed two days earlier on an island in the Gander River. That animal was the first of the species I had ever laid eyes on, so every other stag we found throughout the rest of the week appeared small and uninviting as a candidate for my own arrow.
The problem was that M. R. James’s Boone and Crockett trophy animal had spoiled us, and it had distorted my personal expectations in a rather unhealthy way. Add to that the lofty aspirations of my guide, Harold Pelley, who was determined to find for me a “Dempsey-Cape-beater” (a new archery World’s Record), and it’s a wonder I went home with any caribou meat or antlers at all!
In addition to the initial video I had taken of M. R.’s huge stag the opening day of the archery season, I was able to get some close-up footage later in the week of several other decent stags along the riverbanks. However, it seemed that they all lacked any meaningful point development on top of their main beams. “High” and “wide” are both good, as far as antlers are concerned, but “handsome,” for caribou, requires a multiplicity of points—as well as length for at least a few of them, on both sides of the “rack.” In truth, a set of horns that has everything, with all of the desirable attributes, is exceedingly difficult to find. For my very first woodland caribou hunt, I would probably have been better off never to have seen M. R.’s trophy animal.
With just three days left to my 1999 hunt, Thursday morning found Harold and me watching a cloudless sunrise from the top of a little hill on the edge of the Gander river—just opposite the upstream-end of the same island where we’d surprised M. R.’s magnificent stag on opening morning. Having arrived there on foot before daybreak, we noticed a bull moose and a cow leaving the lower end of the island in the pre-dawn half-light. Then, as the riverine world below us began to shimmer beneath the onslaught of the brilliant sunlight, everything came to life at once.
It was obviously going to be a hot day, and it suddenly seemed as if all the various fauna and birds of the region had decided to do their watering and personal hygiene as the first order of business. Feathered creatures of all sorts simply materialized on the edge of the lazy current for their bobbing, splashing, and preening rituals. A sizable black bear swam the river a quarter-mile above us. Both upriver and down, Harold and I watched half-a-dozen caribou trot out of the underbrush to the water’s edge, tank-up for the day, and then hustle back into the lush, verdant cover that would serve as their refuge till along about mid-afternoon. Viewed at a distance, and from our elevated perch, the “women and children” of the valley’s caribou clan looked just like so many river rats plying their trade up and down the banks of the Gander.
Around 9 o’clock, we noticed two stags entering the river from the far shore, some 300 yards above the island. They waded downstream to the tip of the island right below us and proceeded to bed in some obviously-well-used sandy pockets on the open gravel bar. Harold and I studied them for a while, and I finally remarked that one of the stags had a rack looking more like elk antlers than typical caribou antlers. He agreed and offered his own comment to the effect that they were, indeed, pretty freakish. From then on, we started calling him Mr. Elkhorn—not realizing yet that, before the hunt was over, he and I would have a rendezvous with destiny.
The downstream end of our island contained a splendid, rather-open grove of big, old, white-barked birch trees, which themselves were surrounded by a tight halo of alders. It was by penetrating the perimeter curtain of alders on opening morning that Harold and I had accessed the inner sanctum of the lush meadow that lay hidden be-neath the big birches, and where M. R.’s huge stag had been startled from his diurnal reveries. I asked Harold if he thought perhaps some new monarch of the river bottom had already moved in to claim that very special, honey-hole of a sanctuary for himself. Harold allowed as how that was quite possible, and he encouraged me to leave him behind as the lookout and hike downriver to where I could wade across to the island, and then retrace our steps of opening morning right back into that same grove of big birches.
It sounded like a good plan to me, so I quickly abandoned my guide to his spot in the sun (unfortunately with very little shade around him) and headed downriver, my heart full of hope, my brain entertaining more fanciful images of huge antlers than any one cranium should have to cope with. My sense of excitement was so palpable I could almost taste it! Could it be that another giant stag had already moved into the honey-hole?
Thirty minutes later—this time with an arrow on the string—I ever so cautiously moved up off the beach of the island to slip through the alders into the secret little meadow. The breeze was blowing down-river, so my passage across the end of the island and around to the back side could not have given my scent away to any possible new inhabitants of the inner sanctum. There was actually a well-used game trail there that insinuated itself through the alders. By taking that path, I was able to gain entry into the meadow almost soundlessly. As luck would have it, unfortunately, the sacred place was unoccupied; or at least, if there were already a new owner, he must have been out on an early-morning errand.
Staking my hopes to this latter conjecture, I retreated to the edge of the alders and sat myself on the bank where I could see both up and down the river. As the heat of the day came on, I’d most likely be able to spot anything headed my way toward the “sanctuary.” Within less than two hours, my patience was rewarded. I suddenly noticed a very handsome stag coming from down-river and making his way up the far shore across from me. He was moseying along, in no hurry at all, but something told me he was probably intending—eventually—to enter the birch grove via the trail I was sitting astride. The more I studied his antlers, the more impressed I became with the trophy potential of his rack. Even though I knew this was not an animal that would come close to Dempsey Cape’s Pope and Young Record, I concluded it was one I should not pass up—given a decent shot opportunity.
Hindsight is always perfect, of course, but—as things turned out—I had not chosen a good place from which to ambush him. I was hunting that day with my Bear take-down, 45-pound recurve, and I didn’t want the longer limbs of that bow to get tangled with any branches or brush when it came time to draw. Consequently, the mistake I made was kneeling right in the middle of his path of access to the birch grove. I should have been waiting for him completely inside the curtain of alders, 10 or 15 yards off to the side of his trail. When he finally started crossing the last stretch of water to come ashore, I brought my arrow to full draw. His eyes, however, must have been focussed like a laser on the opening to the sanctuary. The motion of my drawing spooked him instantly, and he bolted back out into the river. I never did release the arrow, not wanting to take a chance on a poor hit. For that particular stag the game was over, and I never saw him again.
The experience convinced me I might do a lot worse than to hide out that afternoon inside such a beautiful grove of white birches. The big majority of the plush, green carpet underneath the trees was in shadow, yet the steady, gentle breeze caused the dappled sunlight to keep up a constant dance of peaceful agitation which I found altogether mesmerizing. I lay down on the soft meadow-grass, with the back of my neck resting against a small log, and proceeded to close my eyes—the better to appreciate the dulcet sounds of the flowing river not far away. Having arisen at 4 a.m., some seven hours earlier, before long I was dreaming about big caribou with double shovels and long top points.
When I next opened my eyes, I found myself staring at a caribou feeding just 20 yards from me. It was not, however, the caribou of my dreams. It was a cow (what the Newfies call a doe) which seemed completely oblivious to my presence. I decided I’d just lie there and watch her for a while, to see how long it might take her to discover me.
Within minutes, however, the wind picked up dramatically, and soon a late-summer thunderstorm descended upon us. A clap of thunder caused the doe to lift her head, then turn in my direction and resume feeding. At just five yards distant, she turned straight-away from me, though she never stopped eating. As the rain began pelting down on us hard, I rose slowly to my feet, lifted my bow off the ground, and then—using it like a long stick—I took three steps forward and prodded the doe’s behind. Like lightning, she shot forward, then spun around. For a few seconds, she stared in disbelief and confusion at my motionless, camouflaged form, before quickly making up her mind that there were other parts of the river she liked better than this particular island we were sharing.
As evening came on, I began to think about Harold on his hilltop and wonder what he might have observed during the long day since we separated. It dawned on me that maybe Mr. Elkhorn had chosen to spend all day on the top end of the island out there on his gravel bar. It was time to find out—and to head back toward Harold. Time to let him know that at least I was still alive! I felt sure he was wondering what I’d been up to all day.
It took me less than 10 minutes to complete my trek up the right-hand shore of the island. As soon as the gravel bar came into view, I spotted a set of antlers sticking up above the scrub-alders. Mr. Elkhorn was, indeed, still there—much to my surprise! The other stag was not. Staying low to the ground, I worked my way another 40 yards up the edge of the river to the point where I could see if Harold was still where I’d left him. When I raised my binos to my eyes to take a look, I found him instantly—with his binos trained on me. I waved and made several motions to indicate that I was going to try to stalk the stag in his bed and take some pictures of him up close, if I could.
Harold signaled back that he understood. The maneuver took some time, but, after spending a half-hour on my belly, I had crawled to within 30 yards of the bedded stag. I found Mr. Elkhorn in a somnolent state of unawareness. Once I’d succeeded in recording him for posterity, I picked up a pebble and hurled it in his direction. He quickly rose to his feet, looked around, and, seeing nothing, decided to leave the island by crossing over to Harold’s side of the river. I could see there was a well-worn trail (or “lead,” as they say in Newfoundland) leaving the far bank and disappearing into the alders.
Within a minute, the stag with the freakish rack was out of sight; the evening’s fun and games were over. It was time to put my hip boots back on, wade the river once again, hook up with Harold, and hike back to camp for a hearty dinner of stag and potatoes (M. R.’s stag, to be exact). It had truly been a great day of hunting!
Friday also dawned clear and warm, just as Thursday had, but Harold decided that this was a day for hiking some ridges above the river—as opposed to hanging out down in the river channel itself. The miles we put in, as I recall, were not very productive, but I do remember jumping one decent stag at close range. He vanished quickly into the undergrowth.
Come evening, we were heading back in the direction of camp on an old logging road which paralleled the river on the sidehill of the main ridge. Every hundred yards or so, we’d stop and carefully glass. The time was nearly 6 o’clock when I realized I was scanning the same island (about a mile away) on which I had spent almost the entire previous day! I quickly shifted my gaze to the upper-end gravel bar and exclaimed, “Harold, there are two caribou down there, right now, in the same spot where Mr. Elkhorn was yesterday evening! I can’t tell from here if that’s the very same stag, but I’ll bet it might be. The smaller one appears to be a doe.”
After a few seconds of study with his own glasses, Harold replied, “It well could be. The horns look about the right height and width. Shall we go take a closer look? Are you thinking you might want another crack at him, if it is Mr. Elkhorn?”
“With tomorrow being the last possible day,” I responded, “I’m giving that serious consideration.”
Twenty minutes later, we both knew for sure it was our stag with the elk-like rack. Much closer now, I said to Harold, “I doubt he’s likely to make the Pope and Young Records Book, but I really think I’d like to have that most unusual set of caribou antlers on my wall—even if it doesn’t make book. Let’s just go down to the edge of the river, right where he came off the island last night, and harvest that dude when he comes across this evening. I bet he’ll use exactly the same ‘lead’ for leaving the river bank.”
Harold nodded his head with a grin, and 10 minutes later—having taken some pains not to be spotted from the island—Harold and I were hunkered down among the alders, 20 yards or so from the river’s edge, and just 10 yards off the path I felt certain Mr. Elkhorn would be using before dark. We were not to be disappointed. In preparation for his arrival, I got out my pruning clippers and trimmed myself a narrow shooting lane through the alders to the trail. Harold sat down on an old stump just five yards behind the spot I had selected to shoot from, and he proceeded to ready my camcorder for action. It was not long in coming.
Suddenly both animals started for the river in our direction. The stag—in the lead—was headed for our “lead.” What little air movement there was drifted from the trail to us, so I knew my quarry would not get our scent. As I heard the stag leave the river and shake himself dry, I sensed the moment of truth was very close at hand. Would he now shuffle upriver, downriver, or take the same path he’d taken 24 hours earlier? We had staked our bet on the last of the three alternatives, and the gamble paid off handsomely in caribou steaks, chops, and ground round.
Through the alders, I could just make out the stag’s form slowly feeding his way along the “lead.” A few moments before his antlers popped into my shooting lane, I signaled for Harold to start filming.
As his rib cage came into view, I waited for his front leg closest to me to stretch forward, and then I went for the low heart-shot. At 10 yards, how could I miss, right? Well, much to my dismay, I did miss!
My arrow passed just under his brisket and cleanly through the flesh of the far-front leg! Even more to my amazement, Mr. Elkhorn scarcely seemed to notice! He hopped three steps to his right and immediately went back to feeding! Obviously, he was feeling no pain—or alarm, for that matter! Fifteen seconds later, after I’d quickly nocked a second arrow, he offered me a perfect broadside shot once again. This time my shot was dead-on, right through the chest, and the mortally-wounded stag made a short, explosive run back into the river. Twenty-some seconds later, it was all over, as we watched his muzzle slip below the surface of the water.
After dragging the dead stag from the river, we went to work with our knives to field-dress him, skin him out and quarter him before darkness overtook us. It was a race we barely won. We would be returning first thing in the morning with the outfitter’s eight-wheeled ARGO to transport Mr. Elkhorn back to camp.
For me, the frosting on the cake was that I had most of an extra day in camp to do some flyfishing for the legendary Gander River Atlantic salmon. Our camp was pitched only a few yards away from what Harold said was an excellent holding pool. Since it was by now early September, most of the salmon run had already passed far up the river, but there were a few fish still around, and on that final Saturday afternoon I managed—with several hours of trying—to hook and land my first-ever Atlantic salmon. Though he didn’t weigh more than four pounds, he had jumped a lot, fought hard, and it was a longtime dream come true.
As for Harold, I knew he felt disappointed, in his heart-of-hearts, that we had not been able to find a “Dempsey Cape-beater.” He had shared in my joy and excitement of taking with my recurve a rather modest stag, yet I knew his dream-of-dreams would live on until some day, some year, he might be able to guide an archer to a new Pope and Young World’s Record woodland caribou. Everybody needs a dream to cherish. The fact that we both shared the same dream had, undoubtedly, strengthened our friendship even further. And who knows? Maybe one day, he’ll achieve his dream.
Editor’s note: This article is the thirty-seventh 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 thirty-sixth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson