The BAREBOW! Chronicles: Looking for the Needle in the Haystack

   01.13.16

Tule elk are the smallest of North America’s three wapiti subspecies, and they can be found only in the coastal mountain ranges of central California. There, in a Mediterranean-type climate, they now thrive once again in the open juniper and grassy (or sage-brush) country that has always been the heart of their historic range. Yet it was not always so. Long before any protective legislation was ever passed, the westward expansion into California during the second half of the nineteenth century brought with it unlimited poaching that absolutely decimated the tule elk herds—almost to the point of extinction. From an estimated, original population of half-a-million, by 1895 there were thought to be no more than about two dozen such animals still alive.

Thanks to one particular landowner near Bakersfield, who offered his large ranch as a sanctuary for the remaining tule elk at the end of the nineteenth century, and thanks to the creation of a tule elk State Reserve in 1932, this marvelous subspecies did not become extinct. Finally, in 1970—at the insistence of hunters and other wildlife conservationists—the California Legislature passed laws giving tule elk total protection throughout the state. From a 1970 census of around 500 animals, their population has grown to well around 4,000 today.

By the end of the twentieth century, California felt they could start managing the resource as a game animal and began to allow very limited, lottery-draw hunting on a number of the 22 healthy, distinct herds within the state. Because of wise game management, as well as the habitat enhancement that hunters have been able to provide, this early part of the twenty-first century is witnessing a steady increase each year in both the herd size and the number of tule elk tags made available to the hunting public. It is a great conservation success story.

Since the majority of the tule elk live on large pieces of private land, the California Fish and Game Department gives landowners an economic incentive to manage their lands well, to the benefit of the elk, by allowing them to sell to the hunting public one landowner elk tag for every so many animals living on their property. The State does census counts every year on each property, so the health and size of each herd is carefully monitored and controlled. The plan has been working beautifully, but—without hunters as part of it—the plan could not work at all.

***

I first got the idea of trying for a tule elk with my bow from reading an article by Chuck Adams about his successful taking of the species back in 1990. In mid 2002, I booked the hunt with Nolan and Stacey Twisselman for the fourth week of August, 2004. The large ranch, which has been in their family for several generations, is situated about an hour-and-a-quarter east of San Luis Obispo.

For tule elk, the rut comes a good month earlier than for either of the other two North American elk subspecies. It starts, many years, as early as the end of July, or the first few days of August. The first evening Nolan and I went looking for tules on his 36,000-acre ranch, we glassed up a few cows and calves but didn’t manage to find anything with antlers attached. The second evening was a different story, however. From about half-a-mile away, we watched a very nice 6×6 bull lead his harem of five cows off a sagebrush flat, down into a little canyon to drink from a hidden spring that Nolan knew about. Twenty minutes later, they reappeared up on the flat. We continued to watch them feed leisurely in that general area until the golden gloaming dissipated into night.

Nolan was convinced that, shortly after daybreak the next morning, those same elk would return to the same source of water. The plan was to have me sneak into position under cover of darkness and be there waiting to ambush the bull when he put his head down to drink. Consequently—dark and early—we parked the truck a good half-mile away, and I hustled as quickly as the poor visibility would allow down the long ridge that led to the little spring. The only problem was that I didn’t quite make it there in time.

A sunrise at Twisselman Ranch. Image by Dennis Dunn.
A sunrise at the Twisselman ranch. Image by Dennis Dunn.

The strategy, however, had been perfect. As I hurried through the sage down the last steep slope that was right above the spring, following a well-used elk trail that descended toward the same goal as the trail the elk would be using on the opposite side of the draw, the sun began to wink its way above the eastern horizon. When I was no more than 60 yards above the spring itself, my heart sank. I suddenly heard the sound of hooves, as the first of the cows came into view at a trot. You could tell it was going to be a hot day, and they were determined to top off their water reserves as early as possible. That is, as early as possible—commensurate with the risks involved in approaching a location where lions (or other predators) sometimes lie in wait for them. Unfortunately for this predator, it was now daylight. What I wouldn’t have given for another 60 seconds of darkness—which a slightly earlier arrival would have assured me!

As they usually do, the handsome bull came waltzing down the hill in last position, letting his female cortege incur all the initial risks of ambush. There I was—crouching between two low sagebrush bushes about 60 yards across and up the hill above him—knowing that any shot I might take at the herdmaster drinking (from that distance, barebow) had a far better chance of merely wounding him than quickly killing him. Though I was sorely tempted, I would not allow myself to take the shot. His cows started first, back up the way they had come, and then—in his own sweet time—His Royalty followed. I was able, during his retreat, to get some good video footage of him on my camcorder.

Try as we might, Nolan and I were never able to see, or find, where they went to, after leaving the spring that morning. We spent the next several hours glassing the whole area, from several different vantage points, but no amount of wishful thinking could coax another elk into view. Around noon we headed back to the ranch house for some shade, a good lunch, and an afternoon siesta. Early that evening, we returned to the same spot from which we had first found the elk 24 hours before, yet not even dusk brought them out of hiding again in pursuit of another drink from the hidden spring.

On the hope that they just might revisit the area the next morning at first light, I got to the spring before sunup. By 10 a.m., however, it was clear that nothing was happening, so I trudged back to the truck where I found Nolan glassing. He had come up “empty” also, and had decided it was finally time to try another part of the large ranch.

A long nap and an early dinner recharged my batteries and got me all ready for the evening’s hunt that would begin the strangest wildlife drama in which I’ve ever been involved—before or since. It lasted for several days, and the word “weird” doesn’t even do justice to the way the drama ended.

It began with our driving along a highway I had not seen before, which snaked its way up through some hills dominating one end of the Twisselman spread. Once we started gaining elevation in those hills, the highway became one boundary of the ranch itself. Less than a mile before coming to the private gate Nolan intended to use to access the property, he spotted from behind the wheel a cow elk silhouetted against the sky atop a steep hill 200 yards above us. He only caught a quick glimpse of her, but it was just enough for him to feel certain it was an elk cow and not a moo-cow. There were, of course, plenty of both on the family ranch.

Nolan was not the type to get excited easily, but I could tell his mind was working overtime. “Dennis, I think I know the little road that will get us pretty close to where we just saw that cow,” he said suddenly, with a certain intensity in his voice I hadn’t heard before. As I started to ponder just why he might want to go there, his next utterance took all the guesswork out of it for me.

“When I was up there three weeks ago, I snuck in on several cows and a beautiful 7×7 bull that was trying to round them up. I have a hunch that cow is a member of his harem. We just may be able to find him again tonight,” said Nolan, with undisguised excitement in his voice.

A minute or two later, we reached the ranch gate, and—after locking it behind us—we continued driving on up toward the ridgetop above. When the road system at last brought us to the spot where Nolan wanted to park the truck, the sun was hovering not far above the horizon. A walk of a few hundred yards took us to a gentle crest that seemed a bit higher than anything else around. Nolan motioned for me to fall in behind him and make as little noise as possible. We worked our way into a rather dense stand of juniper trees, stopping on the far side to peek out across a small, rather open basin that was no more than 150 yards from rim to rim. It was here that my guide began the ritual that all elk hunters dream about during the many long months when the season is closed.

With his reed in his mouth and his grunt tube to his lips, Nolan let loose a mighty challenge to the big bull we prayed was somewhere close at hand. His first bugle sent a shiver down my spine, but our straining ears could pick up no response. Two minutes later, Nolan’s second bugle rang out, but this time it brought an almost instant reply. From across the basin, a bull fairly screamed at us in defiance. Peering out between the branches of the junipers, we sought vainly to discern some movement that would give us a fix on the location of our quarry. Soon a second exchange took place; then, quickly, a third. Finally, we picked up the motion of some ivory antler tips glinting in the last rays of the setting sun as they moved our way through the brush.

All of a sudden, there he was—his entire body revealed, standing stock-still, facing us head-on from the far edge of the basin. What a sight he was! Marveling at his impressive, symmetrical rack through my binoculars, I realized this was the first 7×7 bull elk I had ever laid eyes on in the flesh—in the wild. What a portrait of royalty it was that stood there, silently, contemplating his next move!

It suddenly dawned on me that I needed to backtrack a bit and move further up the ridge—away from Nolan, and closer to the direction our bull would be coming from if he decided to throw caution to the wind and seek out his rival. I quickly covered about 35 yards of ground—staying behind cover—before I peeked out again at the bull. No sooner had I found him than he started on a trot right along the rim of the basin that connected up with the ridge we were on. What had triggered his decision to come running was the soft cow call that Nolan emitted as he moved farther down the ridge away from me. We were definitely going to have a close encounter soon, and I found myself praying it would not happen too soon, before I was fully ready.

My immediate problem was that I hadn’t yet picked a good hiding place from which to make my shot. I could see that the bull would undoubtedly make maximum use of the available cover, by crossing over the ridge crest I was on at some 40 yards out, and then make a right-angle turn left, to pass behind a long hedgerow of junipers that would lead him down the ridge, right past me (I hoped), and beyond to where Nolan lay hidden, pretending to be a lovelorn cow. As he passed behind a small clump of trees, I made a quick decision to expose myself for a split second or two and set up ten yards away, on my knees, with my back right up against one big, fat juniper bush. I would then be facing the hedgerow, just opposite the end closest to Nolan. It was a gamble made in desperation, but it paid off in spades.

As the bull trotted across the crest of my ridge, for a fraction of a second I saw his magnificent rack silhouetted against the darkening eastern sky. The sight gave me goose bumps. Nolan let out another series of cow calls, and the bull—not 30 yards from me, behind the hedgerow—gave forth another awesome, throaty blast. This bugle, at such close range, absolutely made my hair stand on end! A branch snapped loudly under-hoof, and then I saw those ivory antler-tips moving forward, just above the tops of the junipers. It was obviously a very tall rack, as I could hardly believe how far above the ground that ivory seemed to be.

The bull was now 10 yards from the end of the hedgerow. I came to full draw and aimed for the ample shooting lane I figured he would be entering in mere seconds. My only worry was what the wind was doing. I had tested it a minute before with my little puff-bottle, and the evening thermals had seemed to be moving from me right down through my shooting lane. Would I have time to get the shot off before the bull bumped into my scent trail?

I didn’t have long to wonder. His head appeared first, looking straight ahead. (That cow had to be down there, somewhere!) Then his neck became visible. One more stride would give me his rib cage as a target! But it never happened. In the blur of an instant, he pivoted his body 90 degrees and was staring right down my drawn arrow shaft. The moment of truth was now; he had my scent.

I knew he could not be much more than 20 yards from me, and I also knew that the direct, front entry to his boiler room represented the only shot opportunity I was ever likely to get. At the precise moment I released the bowstring, he wheeled back the way he had come. My arrow arrived quickly, but not quite fast enough. His right-front shoulder had time to rotate just far enough to interpose itself between my broadhead and his vitals. The harsh sound of bone greeted my ears with a loud “thwack,” and the animal was instantly out of sight. The noise of his crashing through the brush was only audible for a few seconds; then all was quiet. I stood up to listen for several minutes, but there was only complete silence.

Quietly I pussyfooted my way down to where Nolan was waiting for me. He had not seen the bull come in on me, although he had heard my arrow strike him. He asked me how much penetration I thought had occurred. I said I hadn’t been able to see that, but it sounded to me as if I had gotten some—perhaps even a fair amount. So as not to take any chances on further spooking the wounded animal in the event he had bedded down nearby, we waited until it was completely dark before returning to our truck. Daylight would no doubt tell the story.

The next day, once the sun was well above the horizon, Nolan and I began the nearly-always-challenging job of tracking. I paced off the shot distance at 22 yards. About 35 yards beyond where the bull had wheeled around, we found the broken, feathered end of my shaft lying on the ground. A quick measurement determined that 16 inches of the shaft was missing, and was presumably still in the animal. Given that assumption, and the angle of the arrow’s entry I recalled seeing the night before, I told Nolan I felt the arrow had very likely reached one lung, but not both, and that I doubted it had penetrated enough to perforate the diaphragm. The latter event always means death certain, but—with animals as strong and hardy as elk—they can often absorb and survive a hit in just one lung. They are amongst the very toughest of all North American big game.

Glassing for elk in 90-degree heat. Image by Dennis Dunn.
Glassing for elk in 90-degree heat. Image by Dennis Dunn.

The blood trail proved only minimal. By early afternoon, the temperature was back up in the high 90s, and we had only managed to follow the bull’s spoor for about 200 yards. Nolan suggested we return to the ranch house and come back in the evening to see if we could find him sneaking in to either of the two water holes he knew about in the area. Later, we each took up a strategic lookout position for the final two hours of daylight, but there was no sign of our bull anywhere. The following morning, we managed to work out the very meager blood-trail perhaps 50 yards further, but that approach to finding the big 7×7 seemed to be dead-ending.

We spent the rest of that day, and nearly all of the next, crawling into the middle of every thick grove of juniper trees we could find, where the wounded bull might have gone to hide and/or die. I started calling those places “juniper hotels,” because so many of them opened up (once you got inside) to one spacious “room” after another. Some of these “hiding rooms” were so big an entire herd of elk could have hung out there without being noticed from the outside. None of this effort on our part produced any sightings, or even a clue as to the whereabouts of the old monarch we were looking for. I began to think that such a search must be every bit as difficult as trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. At least haystacks are only a few feet or yards across!

On the third evening following my ill-fated shot, I positioned myself on a high point directly across a canyon from the ridge where we had called in the big bull. The sun was at my back, and I had great visibility for everything out in front of me—as well as a view of the tiny spring in the shadows, some 800 feet below and off to my right. Nolan had taken up a new vantage point about a mile away, and we were to meet at the truck at dark. As I studied the far hillside across from me, I noticed through my binos a peculiar orangy-yellow spot of color on the edge of a big juniper patch. It looked rather oddly out of place, so during the course of the evening I kept revisiting it from time to time. Finally, with the setting sun only minutes from dropping below the horizon, the strange yellow patch came to life, by backing out into the open. Unfortunately, it was not my bull elk! He was an average 5×6 that seemed perfectly healthy. I watched him feed in the open for the next 20 minutes, until it was time for me to head back toward the truck.

Once Nolan and I were reunited and driving our way down toward the exit gate, his cell phone rang suddenly. It was his cousin whom he had asked to come lend a helping hand in the search for our wounded bull. As the call came in, we actually spotted the headlights of his cousin’s truck a couple of miles away, heading downhill from the top of another set of high ridges on the ranch. Nolan stopped immediately and set the foot-brake. When the first words to escape his lips were, “You’re kidding!”, my antennae shot right through the roof of the cab!

“You’re sure it was a seven-point?” Nolan continued. “And he was favoring his right-front shoulder?” By now, my heart was in my mouth! Don’t tell me our gigantic effort had finally located the needle in the haystack? What an irony, I thought to myself! To find a tule among the tules—in such a vast landscape! What were the odds of that, after 72 hours had elapsed?

Nolan’s next words brought me back to reality. “Stay right where you are,” he said into his cell phone. “I’ll find the road that hooks up with the one you’re on, and we’ll be there in about 15 minutes.”

When we pulled up to the other truck, headlight to headlight, every-one tumbled out, and I got to hear the whole story. Nolan’s cousin and his buddy had spent the evening glassing for my bull about a mile farther up the ridge we were on. When darkness settled in around them, they turned on their truck lights and started back down the mountain. Just as their truck reached the bend in the road where we were all talking (right underneath a big power-line tower), their headlamps picked up a big bull about 25 yards in front of them, standing only 10 yards or so off the road. As I recall their telling the story, after the bull stared at them in the bright lights for a few seconds, he slowly turned and limped his way downhill to the bottom of the draw—some 50 yards distant—and disappeared around the backside of a big bush they were able to point out to us.

Well, to say that Nolan and I were jubilant that night on the drive home, would be a severe understatement. We had been given a new lease on life! Neither one of us had any doubt in our minds that the next day we would be able to relocate the big fellow and finish him off—if, in fact, we didn’t find him dead in his bed somewhere near the bottom of that draw!

A small bull elk through a spotting scope. Image by Dennis Dunn.
A tule bull elk through a spotting scope. Image by Dennis Dunn.

The next morning, we got an early start. Nolan decided to drive up the back side of that particular ridge and park just below the saddle, the other side of which gave immediate access to the arroyo that led down to the big power-line tower we had all gathered under the night before. As the sun burst over the horizon, we walked quietly through the saddle, deciding then to split up for purposes of maximum coverage. I had my bow in hand, of course, and I was to head straight down the draw toward the tower. Nolan was to circle to his left on the sidehill, staying high, until the ridge brought him around and down to the tower.

I took my sweet time traveling down that arroyo. I figured that this wounded (or by now, dead) bull of my dreams had to be stove up in some little hidey-hole somewhere! Therefore, I made sure I checked out every single possibility within 50 yards or less from the bottom of the draw that Nolan’s cousin had seen him disappear into the night before. Yet, somehow, at every turn, every likely-looking spot provided one gnawing disappointment after another. Looking for a tule out among the never-ending tules was proving to be most difficult once again.

But then—with less than a hundred yards remaining between me and the tower—it happened, with no warning whatsoever! Fifty yards out in front and slightly above me, from behind a lone juniper tree on the open hillside, a bull elk stumbled into view. I saw that he could hardly keep his feet, and suddenly he fell down onto the old dozer cut I was following and collapsed in a heap in front of me. He struggled mightily to regain his feet but failed in the attempt. “Halleluia!” I exclaimed out loud, hardly believing my good fortune. I signaled for Nolan to come join me and then decided to get a closer look at my bull who clearly seemed on—or rather, off—his last legs, so-to-speak. Not wishing to get his adrenaline pumping once again, I snuck up behind the juniper and peered around the branches.

To my amazement, the bull appears to be a 5×5, not a 7×7! His rack didn’t look nearly as tall and impressive as the one I remembered seeing, moving along behind the hedgerow four days earlier! When Nolan arrived, I told him my impression, and that I really didn’t think this bull was the one he called in for me. Instantly his skepticism was apparent all over his face.

“It’s gotta be, Dennis!”

“Well, you take a close look and tell me if you think that’s a seven-point,” I replied.

Nolan peered around the juniper for a few seconds and then came back to me with, “Well, you’re right. It is a five-point, but he’s still gotta be the one you hit the other night. Maybe unbeknownst to either of us, I called in two different bulls, and, when this one stepped out in front of you, you drilled him—thinking it was the big one we had both seen coming in.”

Nolan was adamant. He could not believe this was not the bull I had arrowed! Trying to remain unflustered, as well as diplomatic, I said, “Nolan, I admit anything is possible, and it’s true my eyes have played tricks on me before, but I don’t think they’ve ever played a trick on me that big!”

Nolan thought for a moment and then offered, “O.K. Regardless of who’s right, we’ve got a duty to put that poor critter out of its misery. Just walk over there and put an arrow through his heart, and then we’ll see if there’s an arrow wound in his right-front shoulder!”

A few seconds later, the bull lay still—quite dead, with my arrow through his heart. As we rolled the body over, I realized I was experiencing very conflicted feelings! Did I want to find a wound in his shoulder, or didn’t I?  Part of me was saying “Yes,” part of me was saying “No.” Truth to tell, there was no wound in his shoulder! So, if my arrow hadn’t brought him to death’s doorstep, what in thunderation had?

The author with his 5x5 elk. Image courtesy of Dennis Dunn.
The author with his 5×5 elk. Image courtesy of Dennis Dunn.

Our initial search of his rather emaciated body turned up no wounds at all. It was mysterious, indeed. Then suddenly we noticed that one ear was completely filled with maggots! Crawling with them! Upon closer examination, we discovered that he had been deeply gored during the rut by another bull—directly below that ear. The rigors of the annual mating ritual always claim a few victims, but neither of us had ever seen or heard of a case like this! With the infestation of maggots in his ear, this poor bull had finally lost his equilibrium and must have come to me to beg for a mercy-killing. Well, I obliged him.

Was there any pleasure in it? Not one bit. Only the knowledge that I had put him out of his misery a few minutes or hours before he would have died from “natural” causes, anyway. From Nature’s causes. Oh, how very cruel Nature can be to her own! I, for one, have no wish to deify Nature, as some pantheists do. She is anything but a nurturing Mother. Instead, she is an equal-opportunity midwife, and an equal-opportunity assassin. Survival of the fittest is her only supreme law of the planet. I do love and revere, however, the wildness of this earth, and the Creator who made all of the searing beauties and wonders of this world—not to mention the rest of our limitless universe!

I have said it before, and I will say it again: “Any wild animal not lucky enough to die at the hands of a hunter will almost surely face—in the end—a much more painful, agonizing death at the teeth of a predator.” Did the huge 7×7 bull I arrowed die from the wound I inflicted? Possibly, but probably not. Nolan and I spent another three days looking for him to no avail, before I finally gave up the quest and resigned myself to heading homeward empty-handed.

During the years that followed the sad ending to this hunt, neither Nolan nor any of his ranch hands ever saw that bull again—alive or dead! No hunter on any of the neighboring ranches ever reported harvesting such a bull with a healed wound in his front shoulder. Did the old 7×7 just disappear into thin air? Or was he simply a figment of all of our imaginations?

I flew home shaking my head in disbelief. Had it all really happened the way I thought it had, or was it simply one of those really weird nightmares everyone has every once in a great while? If it had all been for real, then the word “weird” in my vocabulary, had been radically redefined—forever! After all, what could be the odds of a bull elk appearing out of nowhere, right in front of me, and dying before my eyes less than 100 yards from where the wounded seven-point we’d been searching for (over a period of four days) had been seen the night before? What are the odds of such a thing? One in a quadrillion? You have to wonder.

Sunset at the Twisselman ranch. Image by Dennis Dunn.
Sunset at the Twisselman ranch. Image by Dennis Dunn.

Editor’s note: This article is the sixty-first 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 the various editions of BAREBOW! available, by clicking here:http://www.barebows.com/. You can also follow BAREBOW! on Facebook here.

Top illustration by Hayden Lambson

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