I left Montana in 2013 for the military. After four years of missing western hunting and beautiful mountains, my wife, Rachel, and I finally moved back. Now it was September of 2017 and I could not have been more excited. I reconnected with college buddy Seth Adams, and we made plans for a hunt.
On a beautiful crisp morning, the big day finally arrived. I let out a resounding location bugle that rolled off the hills. No response. Undaunted, we moved over another ridge and there we heard a distant bugle. My heart picked up the pace and I excitedly exclaimed to Seth we needed to close the gap. Soon there were three bulls bugling. We pushed closer, working to get in the red zone. Through the timber, a beautiful 140 class mule deer froze and stared as we hustled by. Despite the temptation, we pressed on. We were more tantalized with the screaming bulls.
Each time we closed a gap, the pursued bull would clam up. These bulls were talkative, but not willing to fight. After chasing several different bulls I realized we needed to change tactics. I put away the bugle and decided to stick to cow calls.
Through my study of topo maps, I spotted several nice benches on northern slopes in the area. After striking out around the meadows, we steered toward one bench that looked particularly promising. My excitement grew as we snuck further into the timber. Trails crossed trails, fresh tracks were everywhere, and it was quiet trekking. After approximately 30 minutes of still-hunting along the bench, a spike bull jumped up in front of us and jogged off. I cow called and watched him stop for a moment before continuing on.
Then, the magic began. A bugle rang out within 150 yards. I checked the wind and realized we needed to hustle down the bench. After a short distance, I caught sight of antler tips just over the short ridge next to us. The bull was now only 50 yards away! I cow called twice over my left shoulder in hopes he would step over the ridge. The bull complied but walked out behind a thick patch of timber. I could only see the bull’s antlers from the G4s and up. This bull was something I had only dreamed of having a shot at!
The bull stood behind cover for an eternity. He seemed to want the “talkative cows” but was hesitant. I encouraged the bull by throwing two more cow calls out over my shoulder. He screamed twice and then began to move down into my shooting lane on the left. My heart pounded as I went to full draw, but the bull stopped behind the last tree. I held my bow back until my arms were exhausted. My legs were shaking to the extent that I was sure the bull would see me. I had to let my draw down. Naturally, the bull picked that moment to step out. I went to full draw again. It was now or never. The bull saw my movement and turned to jog away. Using just my voice, I gave the bull a nervous grunt, “YO!” He stopped and turned broadside at 40 yards. I centered my 40-yard pin behind the bull’s shoulder and let fly. The bull jumped and turned away immediately upon my release. The image of my fletching burrowing in behind the shoulder was seared into my memory. In a flash the bull was out of sight over the ridge.
I was elated and yet, there was a piece of me that was unsure. The bull had jumped the string and turned away exceptionally hard. Seth assured me he had seen my arrow connect solidly. I checked my watch; it was 12:02 p.m. We waited an agonizing 30 minutes and then excitedly worked our way to where we last saw the bull. Soon we were finding piles of bloody froth and I knew the bull had a lethal hit to his lungs! I was sure we would see antlers sticking up over the next log or bush.
After following the blood trail for a few hundred yards, my chest began to tighten. The trail was thinning; something was wrong. Soon we were struggling to find any blood at all. After more searching, we backed out for the night.
That evening I called up some good buddies and soon had a posse together. There would be six of us headed back up the mountain in the morning to search. Sleep was slow in coming that night.
Before we stepped off in the morning, another hunter rushed over to our party at the trailhead. He introduced himself as Pete and wanted to know where we would be hunting that day. I assured him we would be out of his way and down in the drainage looking for my bull. Not thinking anything more of the interaction, we searched all day, but the trail had gone cold. I was dejected. Not only did I wound and lose an animal, it was the biggest bull I had ever seen. To top it off, I had to work the next four days.
Each night that week I tossed and turned. My mind would not shut off; I could only think about that bull! Finally, my next day off arrived. It would be my wife and I headed up to search. I knew without a doubt the bull was dead.
Rachel hopped out of the truck to open the gate leading to our honey hole. I watched as she paused and pulled a note out of a plastic bag taped to the gate. Rachel handed me the note and as I read, my chest began to pound. The note was from Pete and he said he knew where my bull was. Rachel and I hustled out of the woods to the first spot we could get cell reception. I dialed the number Pete had written down and prayed he would answer. After a few rings, Pete picked up and told me to get back to town so he could point on the map where my bull lay.
After meeting Pete at a coffee shop, we raced back to the mountain. He had found my bull in a little meadow back on top of the next drainage. After I lost the blood trail in the bottom, my bull circled back to his usual bedding area and died there. I was blown away by how incredibly resilient elk are. My bull ran almost two and a half miles after a lethal hit.
Pete’s directions were easy to follow and soon I was standing over my bull. He was a dream bull. A genuine public land, do it yourself, bull of a lifetime. As I notched my tag I felt a mix of emotions. The experience was exhilarating and yet sobering. I had accomplished a dream, and yet the dream felt tainted. By the time I found the bull, the meat was spoiled. I felt as if I wasted a life. From what I could tell, the bull’s hard turn away on my shot resulted in my arrow angling too far forward.
Archery elk hunting is full of extreme highs and lows. In this hunt alone so much happened. I saw true character in my new friend Pete. I saw committed friendship in my buddies who dropped what they were doing to help search. I saw love in my wife as she understood and accepted my passion. I experienced one of the greatest hunts of my life in some of the most beautiful mountains I had ever seen. I was blessed with so many gifts on that hunt. Every time I look at the antlers on my wall I realize that these gifts from God are what hunting is all about.