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“How hard can elk hunting be, right?” I chided to my son as we planned our elk hunt just three weeks prior to our departure. After decades of ignoring elk, my attention distinctly shifted towards the big ungulates in early August 2019. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate elk, but...
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.
Trying to get away from the crowd, I've shifted my elk hunting locations several times in past 4 years. The area I spent 2014 and 2015 had a lot of bulls and very little hunting pressure. Sounds great right? However it also possessed another very strange characteristic. Up until the last week of the season the bulls in that area were 100% uninterested in any vocalization or rutting behavior. Main obvious reason- there were no cows! It was very strange to spend days of September amongst bull elk and not hear a single bugle. Quite honestly it was very disappointing as strategizing and calling is the entire reason I love to archery hunt elk. Non-vocal elk are typically a result of intensehunting pressure, and I'd finally discovered an area with little to no hunters, so it made no sense at all!
So I decided for 2016 I needed to change locations once again. I decided to move to an entirely new region as I also very much enjoy exploring Idaho. Many hours of pouring over maps, Google Earth and property ownership info, along with a couple actual scouting trips led me to a new area that held a large population of summer range bulls.. The lack of well traveled roads into the area and established camp sites led me to believe this area was also overlooked by most hunters. So my hope was that come August 30th, the elk would still be there and hunters like myself would not.
My longtime friend Brian from Bend joined me for the first few days of the season. We were stoked to find no other hunters, and the bulls I'd seen during the month of August were still in the area. We explored this new range with many, many close encounters and near shot opportunities at various sized bulls. We heard a few bugles and saw at least one cow, good early season indicators for a return to "normal" elk hunting. Many times we had bulls come in to our calling setups, but without any bugling or response of their own. At one point I was able to stalk to within bow range of 4 mature 6x6 bulls. But the wind shifted as I was just about to have a clear shot at the nearest. Our opening week was encouraging, filled with lots of close encounters.
The following week I made another trip back and again found no other hunters and plenty of bulls. I had several close calls before shifting wind occurred, and was even able to pass up two opportunities at small bulls. Still however, not much for bugling activity or interest in calls. This was very curious given these bulls were completely un-harassed or pressured by hunters. One would expect them to be very responsive to calling.
Third week of the season was another solo trip for me. Perched high atop a ridge, the early glow of sunrise revealed a group of 8 bulls in a meadow below me. A few minutes later I spotted another group of 7. All bulls, not a single cow. "What the hell is going on?!" I wondered. "Where are all the cows?!" This new area was turning into a bazaar repeat of my previous location. Later that morning however a few of the bulls did begin a volley of bugles as they dispersed to their various bedding areas. I pursued with several close encounters before eventually hooking into a legit calling exchange with one particular bull. Everything was perfect as he responded instantly to my calls and branch-rubbing racket. When he reached about 60 yards of me I was able to see he was a very large mature bull- the kind of bull I've always dreamed of. At about 50 yards he paused and began rubbing a pine within the lodgepole thicket. I quickly took this opportunity to advance into shooting range and safer down-wind angle. With an easy 40 yard shot before me I waited for him to look away or block his vision so I could draw my bow. My guts twisted as I saw his nose begin to bob in the air and I new the deal was blown. The archers nemesis (the wind) had pulled yet another physics-defying stunt and somehow piped-in to tip the bull off. He whirled and trotted away, ducking and twisting his huge rack gracefully between the trees. My level of frustration at that moment can not be explained with words!
To that point in the season I'd had many opportunities, maneuvering within bow range of 16 different bulls. 14 of the times the wind had swirled and blown the opportunities in the final moments. Two times the wind held for the 2 smallest bulls I'd encountered, which I'd passed up. The box score of 2-14 was grinding and made any optimism or hope feel nothing short of naive. The wind in this place seemed to be particularly defying. Every direction I'd head it would shift and blow my scent far in front of me. So I'd turn the other way and rearrange a different strategy. Same result. It felt simply impossible to do anything with any hope of success. No prevailing wind or compass heading was dependable, no time honored logic of rising or falling thermals could be trusted. It was like shaking a box with a rubber ball inside, constant rebound and zero predictability.
That was the second to lowest point of the day. After making my way to the area I'd planned my evening hunt the wind continued to shift from N,S,E & W. My confidence was low as I entered a panel of timber where I was certain I'd encounter elk. I covered up in full camo and knocked an arrow as I crept through the areas I expected to find bulls. I questioned the intelligence of pursuing elk with such shifty wind, but I had to do something with my precious hunting time! I wasn't but 60 yards into my planned loop before I spotted exactly what I was hoping to find. Ahead of me a single, medium sized bull fed through the patchwork of old growth timber and fresh Christmas-sized trees. It was the ideal scenario for a stalk. With the bull alone there would be less sets of eyes to keep track of, and the act of feeding kept the bull distracted along with constant chewing sound to reduce what noise he may notice from my approach. I moved swiftly and silently when each tree blocked his view. I knew it was only a matter of time before the wind would eventually shift in his direction, so I stepped with urgency when I could. In a matter of minutes I'd closed the gap and reached a point where I could see the bull would eventually walk through. I'd have a clear and broadside 35 yard shot, if the bull made it there before the wind tipped him off.
With my feet set, backpack and all my gear still on, an arrow knocked and focused as I could be, time crawled as the bull's pace seemed to slow. It felt like forever as I waited for him to reach the shooting lane. My heart pounded in my chest and I tried to control my breathing to keep composure in check. (I still get incredibly overwhelmed when I'm close to any shooting opportunity.) The wind began to blow and I could feel it twist around and eventually blow against my back. I cringed in anticipation of the tell-tale body language of an elk sensing danger on the wind. But somehow his head never stopped rocking along the grassy forest floor. Finally the bull approached the bullseye zone and I drew my bow as he stepped into it. The motion immediately caught his attention as he raised his head to look right at me and halted in his tracks. It was too late though, as he was now right where I needed him and presenting an ideal shot. I released my arrow and watched with great relief as it disappeared into the side of the bull within an inch or so of where I was aiming. I dropped to my knees then rocked backward as I unbuckled my heavy pack and released a great sigh of relief.
I've had some harrowing experiences tracking and recovering bulls over the years. And because of that I've gained a wealth of tracking skills when blood trails dry up for one reason or another. The placement of this shot however left me with little concern as I approached the trail following a standard 30 minute waiting period. The blood trail was strong and flowing from both sides of the bull, confirming my arrow had passed completely through the elk. But I had not heard him crash to the ground in the initial moments after the hit, something that seemed a bit curious. An hour or so later the blood had trickled to a few drops every 10 yards and we'd covered over two hundred yards in total. It was getting late, the western sky was turning orange and alpenglow light tinted the spectacular view below me. "Why were these tracks still going- how could this bull have stayed on his feet this far after a shot that was so ideally executed?" I slumped to the ground and tossed my pack aside as I confronted the situation at hand. At this late hour and with the trail still unresolved, it was decision time: either leave the trail overnight to avoid pushing the bull further, or stay on the trail a little longer in hopes he was not far. My heart ached as I swallowed the bitter pill of considering that I was on the doorstep of loosing this bull. After a deliberate self-contained debate, I declared to myself that the hit was ideal, a passthrough of both lungs. I had to keep confidence that the bull was indeed down and must be close. Looking ahead, a thick stand of dark timber draped over the steep sidehill we were traversing. "I'll follow through that stand then pull the plug till tomorrow." I concluded. Within a few yards of entering those trees, I spotted antler tips, motionless and horizontal on the ground!
Another twist to this new area was the presence of wolves. Nights prior I'd heard their haunting sounds with the falling of dusk. At first, just one would initiate a solemn sequence of notes. Then, from quite a distance away more would join in. It seemed they spent the days apart, then at night would call out to initiate the evenings activities- whatever wolves do at night. I tried to keep this though at bay as I swiftly worked to take my bull apart, into well-practiced pieces small enough to pack one at a time. The rear quarter and rump went first. The backstrap from the hip to the back of the neck came off next. It was while I worked to remove the front shoulder and brisket I that I reached the point my headlamp was needed. As I stood up to stretch my back and relax my shoulders it started. Below me the chilling should of wolves lofted into the sunset. I promptly concluded that I'm no mountain man, and packed what meat I had ready to go into my backpack. Then I covered the bull with my coat, vest and bow. I drained a piss in 4 spots around the bull, marking the site as human property for any marauding critters to avoid overnight.
The next morning I arrived early to find some disruption. To my great surprise the coats had been thrashed, bloodied and pulled from the bull. My bow was on the ground and covered in bloody paw prints. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Over decades of past experience bears, coyotes etc had never touched meat left overnight in this fashion. I guess wolves are bolder however, and I counted myself very lucky that I'd already removed and bagged the accessible prime meat, and all the wolves did was gnaw into the areas I'd already made my cuts. Not more than a few steaks were lost. The next few hours I enjoyed the experience of field dressing the remainder of the bull. Something I've done may times before but this was the first time as a solo venture. It was a beautiful morning to be on a mountain top in Idaho, and I savored the solitude of the moment while basking in the satisfaction of success. It was awesome!
Feeling a tad ashamed that I hadn't stayed overnight to defend my harvest, I considered another challenge to make this experience as fulfilling as possible. I decided that if I wasn't brave, I'd strive to be tough! I doubled the loads I'd normally carry in each trip, figuring I could pack the bull just under 2 miles to the truck in 2 trips. (IMGrr8,9) The loads strained my body to it's max. But it felt great and since I'd worked very hard leading up to and during the season to be as fit as possible, my body handled it well. I'd stop each half mile and sit for a few minutes, then recover and amble on. By 1:00 I was back at my truck with the entire bull loaded and ready for the drive back to Boise.
For the final few days of the season I once again teamed up with Brian as he set out to fill his Idaho tag for the second year in a row. Idaho did not seem to happy to have him back! We were met with 3 days of intense wind, rain and fog. To make matters worse, the peculiar situation of these "alternative lifestyle" bulls persisted. Still- not a cow could be found, and the many bulls in the area showed only marginal interest in any calling. They did however give us just enough engagement that we were able to locate bulls on occasion, and bring a few in to calls. So between that and the simple density of bulls in the area we enjoyed a few very active days when the weather allowed. Brian had shot opportunities at a handful of respectable sized bulls, but for one various reason or another we just never found the perfect scenario for another harvest.
Throughout the season between Brian and I, we figured we were within bow range of bulls on average about 2.5 times per day. Pretty incredible and due in part I'm sure to the strange all-bull and no breeding behavior. Overall it felt like a mixed bag- blessing in the lack of ever-vigilant cows that so often disrupt anything the bowhunter is trying to accomplish in typical bow season elk calling and hunting, but also a curse to spend yet another September in country thick with bull elk and not be able to enjoy the frenzied chaos of hunting elk in the rutt. I'm not sure what next season will hold, if I'll give this area one more year or yet again move on to explore more of Idaho in my search for elk hunting nirvana.
First Lite Pro Staffer, Bryan Huskey, is a photographer and filmmaker in Boise, Idaho. You can check out his work here.
“Matt, there’s some in a decent spot”
We pass a buck and a handful of does grazing in the tall grass about 150 yards from the road. We continue to a turnaround a couple hundred yards ahead and make a U-turn.
“You know the plan: slow down, I’ll jump out, you keep going.”
We approach the pronghorn again, this time with the critters on the driver side. Matt quickly slows the truck to a crawl as we draw up to the group and I carefully hop out the passenger door. As the vehicle accelerates away, I dodge around the rear of the truck and throw myself in the roadside ditch. Hopefully, the pronghorn didn’t particularly notice me as the truck rolled past and I settle in to let them forget if they did; all in all a well executed “duck-n-roll.” Time to start crawling.
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This ploy is only one of many wonky, unconventional and occasionally successful tactics employed in the pursuit of antelope with stick and string. Welcome to high country speed goat archery season. This valley is not stereotypical pronghorn range; a major river runs down its length, fed by numerous creeks flowing out of the surrounding, timbered, snow-capped, mountains. It’s not even entirely open; stands of lodgepole pine creep down from the surrounding ranges.
The pronghorn congregate in the abandoned pastures and broad sage flats of the valley floor; an area referred to as the “antelope arena.” Though there are tons of animals, the unit is largely closed to firearms. The outcome is a unique hunt with scores of opportunities and few harvests. It is not unusual to get in five stalks in a day. The usual strategy might be described as “drive, spot and stalk.” Essentially, one cruises the valley’s roads or glasses from one of the higher hills or the roof of a truck, looking for pronghorn within some reasonable distance of some reasonable piece of cover. Then the game is on.
What constitutes “reasonable” in this context is very much up to interpretation. Some attempt a two hundred yard crawl through six inches of grass (the question of how one actually rises and gets off a shot is always left to the future). Others lurk in the willows along the river waiting for rare instance when the goats show signs of thirst and head towards river (the issue of where exactly they will water along miles of creek is also typically left off for later). Still more quest for the elusive “timberlope,” pronghorn that, seemingly against their better instincts, habitually loiter around the broken patches of lodgepole.
Other methods of attack include but are far from limited to, decoys, calls, pronghorn costumes, ground blinds, pop-up blinds, layout blinds, tree stands, flagging, two-man cow suits and general lurking. Many are uncomfortable, some are humiliating and most are hopeless. All are entertaining.
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Its August 18th at 5:30 am and I’m all the way in my sleeping bag in back of my 2003 Yukon. Freezing temps are more than possible in every month of the year in this high country. I’m awake before the predawn alarm will tell me to get up. I roll over and unpack my pillow pulling my puffy and mid layer out of my stuff sack and put them on, trying to stay in my bag the whole while.
After sitting as long as possible in the bag, I pull the bandaid, yanking my legs out of the bag and shoving them into my nylon guide pants. Then I open the door and hop out of the truck. Hungry already after a gourmet dinner of cold canned black beans and gas station tortillas, I munch a pop tart and I organize the day in my mind. Then I grab my bow and daypack and walk down the dirt road out into the dark.
As soon I turn off the track into an open field of short grass. I make for the center. Soon a square shape begins to materialize in front of me. Upon, reaching the blind I snuggle into a tired sleeping bag to wait for dawn and antelope.
* * *
According to conventional wisdom the blind is the best strategy to for arrowing a speed goat. But its also the coldest, (then later) the hottest (and always) the most boring way to kill a pronghorn. As an ex-easterner I have little trouble waiting for critter, but most of my friends and co-workers would sooner stick themselves with a broadhead than sit still for a couple hours.
And I can hardly blame them. Almost constantly being in the presence of these awesome animals and making tons of exciting (if unfruitful) stalks is damn fun. And seeing as their behavior changes little as the day goes on, you can pretty much hunt from dawn to dark. All things considered, it makes for a pretty good way to spend a weekend even if actually killing an antelope often seems utterly impossible.
Ford Van Fossan is the Retail Sales and Content Manager at FLHQ. He will be spending a lot of time stalking speed goats, eating canned dinners and sleeping in his Yukon this month.
For me, as well a large majority of the archery community, 3D shooting is a way to stay “tuned” up for hunting season. It is also a way to get together with friends who I may only see during archery tournament season or in the field: Where did you hunt, who did you go with, did you draw anything, do you have max points, and how far was the shot. These are all just samples of what I’ve heard while standing in line registering for an archery event, so I know I am not the only one with hunting on my mind all the time. It also marks another season in the year of the sportsman. I know in time, I will be deep in the high mountain timber chasing deer and then on top of steep ridge lines waiting for that first bugle from a bull elk to cut the morning silence. Either way, 3D archery has its place in the preparation for hunting season. It just depends on how you look at it!
So, with the above information, we should look into why 3D archery is important in preparation for hunting and why should everyone that is capable of doing it, challenge themselves before chasing after living breathing targets.
First and probably foremost, like any activity from hitting a baseball to typing this document, the human body recognizes and responds to repetition very well. So well in fact that from senses alone, I can make words, sentences, and phrases out of a large variety of buttons on this keypad even without looking at it. This same repetition applies to 3D archery as well. For example, if I were to try and go straight into the field and hunt without target practicing first, I could probably hit my target. But, there is a very high likelihood that I would hit my target in a spot that I was definitely not aiming for. This comes from the disconnect that my mind, muscles, and eyesight are all trying to figure out at the same time. With practice, all of these motions and senses come together. They do this so well that after repeatedly drawing my bow back, I can come to the same anchor point, look through my peep the same, get the pressure on my release the same, and hopefully execute the shot the same. 3D archery allows for all of this repetition plus other invaluable features which later result in hunting attributes that people in general possess without even thinking about it.
Secondly, in most circumstances 3D archery lets you aim at life size animals. So, not only are you aiming at a spot on the animal, you also have the animal silhouetted in the background of your sight picture. This causes two things to happen. One, you are forced to aim at a small spot on a larger animal background, and two, your mind is constantly telling you to aim at that spot but there is a bear you are aiming at, or an elk, or a raccoon etc. Even though the painted spot may not be in the position you would actually try to put your arrow into an animal for a quick clean kill, you are still aiming at an animal that resembles the real thing. So in the field with practice on 3D targets, you will subconsciously feel more comfortable drawing back on the animal you are hunting if you have had experience drawing back on it before. This experience is what will set the stage to allow for everything else to fall into place.
Third, 3D archery is usually competitive in nature and most humans when competing try to do their best. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very friendly sport that is great for exercise and just plain good for your soul. But, there are awards offered at these events, some people compete to take a cash prize home with them, and even friendly shooting usually turns to some mild form of competition. More importantly, this competition equates to success in the field. Sure, if you are lucky enough to find an animal to shoot at, you have to draw your bow back, aim, and release the arrow. The difference between eating tasty elk back straps or consuming cold “tag soup” for the remainder of the year can come down to the most minute detail of your shot sequence. 3D archery forces you to constantly practice these intricacies which in turn you will take with you into the field when hunting.
Everything from your stance, the way your bow is gripped, controlling your breathing, and visualizing your shot on the target are just a few of those small things that can push you just outside of the spot, or just outside of the vital kill zone on an animal. As if this wasn’t enough to deal with, some people find 3D archery puts pressure on that shot sequence. Not only are your peers or competitors watching you, some of these events can be drawn out over the course of the whole day or weekend. This constant process of trying to do your best wears on both your mind and body. Throw in a bit of extreme weather be it hot or cold and now try to perform your best! 3D archery and bow hunting both demand that you pay great attention to every detail if you strive to be successful.
Lastly, 3D archery forces you to shoot at close ranges and sometimes out to extreme distances as well. During local tournaments which I shoot in northern California, I have shot at a target from as close as 2 yards all the way out to 113 yards. Your gear should be set up to enable you to shoot anywhere in between those ranges. Obviously different shooting styles apply. With today’s bows, most top end compounds can easily scream arrows out to 100 yards. Most traditional shooters would not shoot this far or even attempt it at an animal. Shooting at these targets also plays with your sight picture. Sometimes there is too much light coming into your peep making your sight or pins harder to acquire.
Shooting at 3D events also forces you to hold in the wind much like hunting situations. The most important thing that I find amazing is my ability to pay attention to my bubble while 3D shooting. Most courses are not at all flat. Some have extreme up hills while others may have extreme side hills. Paying attention to your bubble while out on the 3D course will allow you to quickly “feel” a side hill in a real life hunting situation. Your pin(s) may be a touch high or low and at most yardages if you do everything else correctly you still have a chance at filling your tag. If your bubble is even a little out, especially the further the shot is, the trajectory of the arrow away from the intended target only compounds and that animal you worked so hard for, has left only dust, tracks and if you’re lucky, a sampling of fur or hair behind.
So with that being said, grab your bow, round up some friends, and hit up your local archery club to find out when the next 3D archery tournament in your area will be held. Not only will you have a great time, but your skills will be “honed” as well. The next time you are in a hunting situation, your mind and body will be forced to get into that repetition mode without you knowing and hopefully you will be rewarded on the back end.
….Good luck, shoot straight, and happy hunting!
Micah Brown is a longtime First Lite Pro Staffer from California. He shoots competitively in the offseason and chases backcountry blacktails and Idaho elk in the Fall.