There it is! An answer! The best thing an archery elk hunter could ask for. It was a reply to my location bugle, deep down in a nasty Idaho backcountry hell hole.
We had a snowstorm sweep through the mountains a few days before I arrived at elk camp, and the ridge tops were covered in about a foot of snow. Though not uncommon for September to get a few snow flurries, having it dump a foot of snow was quite uncommon.
Peering down into the bottomless drainage I knew the only way I was going to ever have a chance to get this bull was to dive right in. I thought to myself about how cleaver I had been ever since I started carrying trekking poles. Today, they would earn their keep. I would stab one pole down through the snow for my downhill foot to slide up against with each step. Without the poles, I would have slid down the steep hillside and most likely broken a bone or three. Slowly but surely, I made my way down until I found a saddle on the steep finger ridge. I was finally out of snow. Here I removed my waterproof jacket and put the poles away. I readied my gear as I would soon be ready to start making elk calls again.
From the muffled sound of the bull’s bugles, I had figured him to be on the backside of a knob that was further out the ridge I was on. I made my way towards where I thought he was, watching the wind and looking for terrain features that would allow me an advantage should he come to my calls. Finally, I found the perfect spot, and probably dangerously close to the bulls’ location. Time to reveal myself.
I began with the quietest cow calls you’ve ever heard. I wanted him to barely here me and not be able to pinpoint my exact location quite yet. No answer. I escalated my cow calls with volume and urgency. No Reply. Now it was time to pull out the big guns. I blasted a full bugle with a few grunts. Nothing too aggressive, but enough to demand a reply. Immediately he replied. One problem though. He was on the OPPOSITE side of the drainage. My ears had fooled me! The terrain had given me a false reading and now I was in a pickle. He was nearly a mile away still and it was at least 6-800’ of elevation drop down, and at least that distance back up the other side. By now it was 1:00 pm. The timber and brush were dripping wet. I was all alone and knew if I went over to his side, it would be an overnighter.
My thoughts were this; I would try to call him over to my side first. Then if he wouldn’t come, I would go over to him. I dropped elevation quickly. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for him to come to me. I got down far enough to where it would only be a couple of hundred feet for him to climb up to me. I prepped my call-in site. I set up with enough cover behind me that I would not stand out. I cleared sticks, branches, and brush out of the way for my feet so I could move quietly back and forth at least 10 yards. I was ready to begin.
I knew that I would really need my calling to be on point. I needed to build the situation slowly until he became furious enough to come to fight me. So, here’s what I did; Back to the cow calls, I went until he answered them. Then when he would bugle, I would give him very excited and yearning cow calls as a reply, followed with a bugle of the same intensity as his. Slowly I painted this masterpiece in his mind’s eye. For an hour we exchanged bugles before he ever changed his demeanor. Then, all of a sudden, his voice changed. He cut my bugle off with great fury in his voice. I smiled and knew I had broken through to him. His next bugle was closer as he had walked out onto the ridge point and was straight across from me. Now was my turn to get nasty! I would cow call excitedly and when he replied, I would hammer him with the most disrespectful and insulting challenge bugle I could muster. I beat the snot out of the brush and trees around me. I stomped and broke sticks and threw rocks down the hill. I wanted him to think we were having a party and he wasn’t invited.
All of a sudden, I heard his muted bugle down in the creek bottom. I screamed my reply! His next bugle was on my side of the drainage and I didn’t let up. I screamed again, cutting him off mid bugle. Now I can hear the brush popping and I gave a few quiet cow calls that were directed above me to create an illusion to where we were. Again, he bugled, but this time I aimed my tube up the hill and over to my right with my answer. I needed him to think I was over there so I could get a broadside shot.
It was then that he appeared. He wasn’t cautiously walking up the hill as one my think. He had his head down walking with a swagger that would make any rap artist jealous. He was the top dog around here and he was coming to show me who’s boss. I kept my eyes off his massive rack trying to keep my composure, focusing only on his vitals and where I was going to place my arrow. He veered off to my left into an alder patch and out of sight. This was my biggest fear. Many times, bulls will get an alder patch in between you and him and exchange bugles, only to lose interest and walk away. But not today. He circled around me to gain the higher ground and stood only 10 yards away. He screamed with fury demanding me to show myself. I made the quietest cow call into my gloved hand you’ve ever heard, and he began walking out of the timber. I drew my bow and was waiting for him to clear the trees. Too much brush! The brush-covered his vitals as he walked out above me. He walked over to a small fir tree and began thrashing it. I couldn’t see his face through the brush, and he was making plenty of commotion. I let down my draw and slipped sideways 3 steps and drew my bow again. I found the spot on his shoulder and released the arrow.
At the shot, he bolted up the hill a few steps looking around wondering what had happened. I couldn’t see where I had hit him but from about 5 yards how could I miss? All of a sudden, he took off like a rocket, running away and sidehill from me, crashing just out of sight! Out of breath and shaking, I couldn’t believe what just happened! I had fooled the monarch of the mountain!
I waited for what seemed to be an eternity but was really only about 30 minutes. I slowly walked over to where I heard him crash. Nothing there. I walked up the hill in hopes of finding his blood trail. There he is! I couldn’t see him until I was right on top of him due to the waist-high brush. This old boy had survived one of the most inhospitable environments Idaho has to offer. Braving long cold winters of deep snow and hiding from wolves. He had avoided hunters for nearly a decade, and now he lay at my feet. A feeling of sadness, respect, elation, and accomplishment washed across me. Feelings only a hunter can ever know. His delicious meat would feed my family for the next year, and for that, I was beyond thankful. After thanking the bull for giving his life to me, and taking pictures, it was time to work him up. It was 3:30 pm.
Working up a bull by yourself is no easy task. Each cut with your knife must be meticulous. One wrong move and you can cause yourself a life-threatening injury with a sharp hunting blade. I skinned, quartered, and de-boned the brute using the gutless method. When the last tidbits of meat were loaded into the meat bags it was dark. Time to strap on a headlamp and a load of meat for the first trip out of the hell hole. One problem……. Try as I might, I couldn’t find my headlamp or flashlight. I began to rewind my memory to the night before, and the long hike in the dark back to the truck, I remembered I had carelessly left my lights on the seat of my truck. I was mad at myself. How could I be so irresponsible? With only 60% battery life left on my cell phone and being over 2 miles and nearly 2000 vertical feet from the truck, not to mention the steep and slick terrain I had only one choice. Stay the night.
I was somewhat prepared for an overnighter. I didn’t have a comfy sleeping bag or pad, but I did have the proper clothing, food, and fire starter. The night was long and uncomfortable. Dozing off only to wake up and stoke my fire. There were no flat spots on this steep hillside, except for the uphill side of a large fir tree barely big enough for me to sit. Morning came and I was exhausted. I walked down to the hanging meat and loaded the bag of loose meat in my pack and used the bull’s head and horns as a makeshift walker as I climbed out to the truck. At the halfway point, I found myself in the snow again. It made the climb incredibly difficult. I would raise the head and horns up and dig the tines down into the snow till they hit the dirt, then brace myself taking two steps up the hill. Over and over again until I reached the top, and then to the truck. Normally I would have left the antlers for the last trip, but I felt that with the snow on the steep hill, it would sure aid with the first trip out. And I’m glad I did.
I drove over to a place several miles away to call home and let my family know what had happened and told them If I didn’t check in the next evening, I may need some help because I’d likely been injured. Then I was off to camp. A hot meal and an early bedtime were just what I needed to recharge my batteries.
After sleeping for 12 hours I was up and at em the next morning. Spent the next day alone packing two more loads out before darkness set in. The sun warmed the hillsides and the snow was slowly melting which didn’t hurt my feelings much. The third and final day of packing was at hand. I felt strong and only had the front shoulders and some neck meat to bring out, I planned on making only one heavy trip. As I walked down the hill towards the hanging meat, I began seeing fresh bear scat. I pulled my handgun just in case the bruin was still there and aggressive. Much to my delight, he was gone, but unfortunately, he had taken one whole front shoulder and some neck meat from the other bag. I searched high and low, but the shoulder was long gone. I re-bagged the remaining shoulder and neck meat and packed the last load out. I was mad at myself for not packing it out in a timelier manner. But with the risk of injury packing through the night on the second day made no sense, so I elected to go with the safe route. This time it cost me some meat.
Lessons were definitely learned on this hunt. Number one, never ever leave the truck without headlamp/flashlight and extra batteries and work hard and safe as possible to get the meat out as quick as possible, so a predator doesn’t help themselves to the meat.
The real trophy of hunting is the meat, and the experiences found in the mountains. The antlers are then displayed in honor where folks can see them and give respect to the monarch of those rugged Idaho mountains.
You can watch the video from this hunt on Dirk’s YouTube channel.