Hunting is undoubtedly a pastime rooted amid strong ties to family, friends and fellow hunters. There is something to be said for the shared desire to go afield in pursuit of game. The anticipation of the hunt, a natural challenge and the camaraderie of camp are but a few of the commonalities many of us enjoy and appreciate. Hunters tend to get along with hunters. We share many common interests. It is no wonder that my passion for hunting has laid the foundation upon which many of my strongest relationships have been built. In turn, it has been a catalyst for creating new friendships and connections in life. This leads me to a story…one initiated by circumstance and chance but rooted in shared interest, teamwork and fortune.
I started working at First Lite in January of 2018 and in a few short weeks suddenly found myself being flown out on a whim to Portland, Oregon one fine February evening. We were tabling a booth at the Pacific Northwest Sportsmen’s Show and the guys needed some extra help. The show was a success, new friends were made, and some fun was had. If you’ve ever been to a trade show or large-scale outdoor event then you know how hectic it can be. You meet a lot of folks (some more memorable than others) and frankly, it gets plain tough to keep everyone’s name and story straight.
After hopping on a plane back home to Idaho, I found myself reflecting on the weekend. While recounting new lessons learned and thinking about the great new people I’d met, several stood out. One of these folks was a fella named Duke. He and his wife Leigh stopped by our booth during the show and we chatted at length about Idaho, my new puppy, backcountry opportunities throughout the west, ultra-running and of course hunting. It was apparent we had a lot in common. Although I remembered Duke and Leigh well, it was one of those times in life where you know there is a good chance you may never see those people again.
Fast forward to June and over at First Lite we’re getting busy, growing and looking for help. I catch wind that we just hired a new guy and I’m curious who the heck he is. It’s funny how small the world gets sometimes. Turns out we just hired Duke, and he and Leigh are moving to the valley shortly. We’ll be co-workers.
At First Lite we’re lucky to have an extremely tight knit office. Everyone lives and breathes the outdoor lifestyle. Duke fell right into the mold and has quickly become a welcomed wealth of knowledge, especially on all things western big game hunting . The summer flew by and suddenly we’re full tilt into hunting season at FLHQ. The work-hard-hunt-hard atmosphere here is no joke. Pre and post work hunts are the norm and during this time of year the biggest debate at the end of the day is whether you’re headed for the hills after elk, on the run for pronghorn or taking your dog to chase grouse. Everyone is busy on many levels and it can get tricky to put weekend hunts together. Come Monday morning after opening weekend, Duke and I got to talking. I’d just spent opening weekend showing some buddies from out of town around the hills and was itching to get in the woods with someone who knew the program a bit better. Duke asked what my plan was for the coming weekend; I promptly replied that I was headed back into the same spot to kill a bull. He said, “I’ll call him in.” I said, “Well then, I’ll shoot him,” and just like that our plan was set. The week flew by and come Friday afternoon the itch to get out was more than apparent.
We rocked out of work shortly after 5 o’clock. Hopped in the truck and tore up the mountain. It was about a 3-mile hike from the trailhead into the general zone we wanted to check out for the evening. We took our time getting in as we wanted to listen, look and smell for any sign of elk on our approach. Right from the start, as soon as we headed up canyon…things seemed right. The wind was in our face, making our entrance clean. It can be tough taking to the woods with someone for the first time. People have different ideas of what “quiet” means, many folks seem to move at different rates of speed and sound communication can be a struggle. If it’s not evident at this point, it should be noted that this was the first time Duke and I had gone into the woods together. Who would’ve thought that after meeting in Portland just months before we’d be packing into the backcountry. Thankfully, we were on the same page from the start, both moving in unison, remaining quiet and attentive. As we climbed deeper up the canyon, Duke mentioned how he hoped it’d be a gnarly pack out once we put a bull down. This brought a smile to my face and confirmed we were pining for the same style of hunt. We made it to a decent vantage point around 8,600 ft with a bit of time to spare before last light. Pausing to glass the meadows above with sparse timber, we quickly surveyed the terrain. Taking in the high country made for pleasurable views but no elk were spotted. As the sun fell fully behind the mountain, darkness set in and we heard two distant bugles. “Well, at least something is in this drainage.” We decided to pull back into a swath of timber and roll our bivy sacks out for the night. After a quick bite to eat we both hunkered down. My last recollection before dozing off was straining to hear even the faintest bugle. Our hopes were high for the day to follow.
We rose about a half hour before first light swiftly and quietly gathered camp into our packs, and set to glassing on the edge of the timber we’d bedded in. Within minutes I found a small pod of elk at the head of the drainage, about ¾ of a mile up. We could tell one of them was a good bull, his light coat and large stature clearly gave him away. His white-tipped main beams seemed to glow amongst the evergreens. We scanned for other signs of critters (no dice) so we agreed to make the move forward. Duke mentioned catching a slight waft of elk throughout the night coming from the east and mentioned we best keep our eyes peeled on our approach. We dropped to the valley floor and used the creek bottom lined with sparse timber to cover our movement to the north. Proceeding up valley, we quickly bumped into a cow feeding just east of us, thus confirming Duke’s olfactory sense. We watched her feed slowly into sparse timber, followed by a calf. It’s always fun to see wildlife but in this case we were concerned about the two elk impeding our path to the big bull we’d spotted. Our worries ceased quickly as a nice, but young, 6-point bull materialized behind the cow and calf. He was clearly hot and promptly pushed the two elk up valley, across the meadow in front of us and back into the timber, not far from the elk we’d seen a bit earlier. I looked at Duke and whispered, “we can put that bull down, he’s hot. The wind is perfect.” We felt the steady breeze cascading down into us.
We made haste and pushed ahead after the elk. Skirting a field of avalanche debris on the edge of dark timber where we’d last seen the elk, we found ourselves a bit higher up on the mountain than we’d like. With the wind steadily driving down the mountain we dropped lower into the thick timber and began still hunting forward. The area was dense and dark. You’d be hard pressed to shoot any further than 30 yards. After pushing in a couple hundred yards or so, a bull sounded off high in the basin above us. We looked at each other, I’m sure both hoping it was not either of the bulls we suspected to be near us. The bugle was quickly followed by the strong scent of elk on a slight gust and Duke decided to let out the first call of the day, nothing more than a soft calf mew. A cow instantly sounded back, telling us they had to be inside 50 yards. “They’re coming”, whispered, Duke. Instinctively, I slid just up and over next to a small evergreen to my left, presenting a 25-yard lane uphill at my 12 o’clock. As I dropped to my knees and knocked an arrow, Duke quickly dropped back 40 to 50 yards to 6 o’clock. We’d heard the elk at our 2 o’clock. He continued to let out soft cow and calf calls and within a minute of the first call I began to pick up on the sound of twigs snapping and brush parting. I quickly came to full draw, anticipating the elk to step through my 12 o’clock lane at any second. At roughly 15 yards, I caught a glimpse of elk and just above the patch of brown, I noticed the slight arc of an antler tip through a gap of dead trees.
I’ve been bowhunting for 15 years now and have been fortunate to harvest a number of animals over the years that really got the ol’ heart pounding. That being said, at the time of this encounter, I had never harvested an elk with archery equipment. To say I’m excited in the moment, would be a vast understatement. My main goal this season was to harvest a branch antlered bull with the bow. Sitting at full draw, I actively worked to manage my breathing and remain calm.
The seconds began to tick, the elk didn’t seem to move, and seconds turned to minutes. My arm began shaking and I had to slowly let down, afraid I would not make a clean shot if given the opportunity. Gathering myself, I took a few deep breaths, slowly rolled my shoulder out and again came to full draw. Within a few seconds after rolling out the cams, the bull showed himself at 30 yards, still too covered up for a clean shot. He moved just above my 12 o’clock lane, turned away while bugling and disappeared again into the dense timber. I let down once more and scanned the area for any sign of movement. The other elk had disappeared, the woods went quiet and Duke ceased calling. Five minutes went by without a sound and five soon turned to ten. Unbeknownst to me, Duke had slipped over to my 9 o’clock to scan and check if the elk had slipped past us. Around this time, things picked up again. Suddenly a cow came through the same 30-yard slot the bull had passed through and another cow stepped into my clear lane at 15 yards. I hid beneath the brim of my cap and behind my bow string while continuing to scan for movement. Around the time all of this is occurring, Duke figured the elk must have left and he slowly started making his way over to me. He hadn’t moved but a few yards and caught a glimpse of elk through the timber above him about 40 yards away, somewhere between the two of us. At this moment I heard him cow call and above us the bull bugled sharply back. The sound is incredible in the thick timber. If you have never heard a bull elk bugle up close, I hope that soon changes. It is a sound unlike any other and something I hope everyone can experience in their lifetime.
The bugle was followed by footsteps and crashing in Duke’s direction and then a quiet pause. Duke called again, the bull screamed back and began crashing in his direction once again. Then another pause. At this point the bull is about 50 yards from me but headed the wrong direction and he is well out of my view. Duke, recognizing the situation, made the play of the day and took off running back down and behind me and picked up calling again. The bull bugles back and the crashing resumed, this time on a completely new trajectory headed right for Duke and across my line of sight. I knew I had to move and move quickly. The cow at 15 yards put her head down and a I shimmied/rolled/I don’t know exactly what to my left and quickly positioned myself facing the incoming, crashing bull. I came to full draw for the 3rd time before he was in sight and within seconds he came flying into my frame of view. As quickly as he’d appeared, he suddenly locked up the brakes and stopped stock still, broadside as a barn, looking down the hill for Duke. With no time to range, I figured he stood at about 25 yards. I leaned left, no shot then leaned right around a dead spruce. The next set of decisions occurred in milliseconds but went something like, “Woah, there’s a shot. Wait, is it? There is brush right up on him. Yup, you can punch through that brush. Thread the needle. Kill that bull.” I went through my progressions. “Set the anchor, steady the pin, hold and pull through slowly, surprise yourself on the shot.” As I touched off the arrow I watched it fly and disappear into the brush that seemed to almost touch the bull. WHACK! The sound of arrow impacting hide was unmistakable. The woods exploded as the bull tore off and cows dashed through the timber. Duke called to try and ease the situation. In about 15 seconds, I heard a loud crash that sounded more violent than brush breaking and just as quickly as it had gotten loud, the timber was again silent. I looked down the hill to see Duke, grinning ear to ear with both arms extended in the air. He jogged up to meet me and gave a hug. “You got him!” He exclaimed. I on the other hand, was not so sure. “Did you see him fall?” I asked. The last image of the arrow punching into the brush appeared forward to me and I was afraid I may have stuck the bull in the shoulder. “No, but I heard him crash.” As we discussed the shot, we heard a loud exhale, a moan if you will. “He’s dead.” “Yes, I know the sound too,” I replied. I was still afraid things may not play out as they seemed, so we agreed to sit down and give it an hour. Giddy and nervous conversation followed. Duke made up a Mountain House and helped calm my nerves by getting me to eat. At 9:35 AM (an hour after the shot), we walked over to where the bull had been standing. We quickly found blood. Nothing crazy, but trailable. We followed the blood about 50 yards and I heard Duke say “Paul, there he...” Before he could finish the sentence I too caught site of the bull’s main beam extending up and from the mossy depression he’d expired in. He had gone no more than 70 yards from the shot. We’d heard him crash and he was down in seconds. A quick, clean and ethical kill. We’d done it.
Our first day in the woods together and Duke and I had taken a bull, and we were almost positive it was the big one we’d glassed up first thing in the morning. My first archery elk. It was a complete team effort. Hugs and high fives were had and then we took time to say thanks to the animal and appreciate the feeling of remorse that also comes with a successful hunt. I ran my hands through the bull’s coat and across his antlers. It was a moment I can only try to put into words. I was flooded with a feeling of thankfulness and good fortune. After taking pictures we got to work breaking down the animal. He had a large and healthy frame. His entire body was covered in fat, not yet run ragged by the ensuing rut to come. We worked diligently, taking good care to gather all the useable meat. It was cleanly bagged and prepared for travel in our packs. The spoils of a successful hunt. We were light going in but were now certainly heavy going out. It was just under a 4-mile hoof back to the truck. We took our time but made our way down the mountain steadily with each of us carrying gear, a hind quarter, backstrap and tenderloin. Once back down the mountain we took a breather, brewed some coffee and got prepared to make the trek up and in again for the second load.
I’d tried to get ahold of some friends who had offered up theirs backs ahead of time for pack duty if need be. However, only one, Erik, had responded and he was a maybe seeing as he was hours away in the woods himself when contacted. To our pleasant surprise, suddenly Bridget, our co-worker and friend came rolling up the trailhead. She’d gotten my message and came up without questions. Shortly after my good buddy, Erik rolled in. Awesome! We had a full squad to go back for round 2. Off we went back up the mountain. It was a beautiful day in gorgeous terrain. As we made ready for the final load out the trip was graced with a German “hunter’s blessing,” Erik fondly practices and then we made tracks downhill in the dark with the glow of headlamps leading the way. The trip was much lighter as I took the head, my bow and a bag of trim. Erik and Duke each grabbed a front shoulder and Bridget grabbed all of our extra gear. How lucky we are to have such great friends to come help out at the drop of a hat. The feeling of thanks and good fortune I experienced earlier only continued to grow throughout the day. With the last load back at the trailhead and iced down in the coolers, we shared a swig of Bulleit Rye. It was 10:30 PM. 'Twas a wonderfully full and well-spent day from before sun up and well past sundown.
As we drove off the mountain I called my family to tell them the story. They were incredibly excited and happy to hear the news. My dad said he was proud and wished he could’ve been there to share the experience. It truly was a hunt that would be hard to draw up much better. We had a plan, we knew what we wanted to accomplish. We found saw, smelled and talked to the elk. The shot was devastating and lethal. It was an absolute team effort and I was glad I was able to do my job and make a clean shot.
I lay in bed that night physically exhausted but mentally as full as I’ve been in quite some time. I thought again about how the hunt, was so much more than just a hunt. I thought about my family back home, the joy we shared even though they weren’t there to be part of it. The friends that came to help and how we’ll all be closer moving forward because of the shared experience and suffering we endured together under heavy packs. I thought of how incredible it was that just months before Duke and I had met in passing and now, on our first full day of hunting, we’d gotten it done. Hunting brought us together. This experience is a first-class example of how strong the bond we share as hunters is and how the desire to go afield can turn into something special. I greatly look forward to our adventures to come. It was an absolute pleasure to share the experience amongst good company in wild country. It’s a day I will never forget and a reminder that hunting is more than just the pursuit of an animal.
FL Customer Service Rep Paul Peterson hails from Middleton, Wisconsin and has guided fisherman and hunters across the West.