It seemed as if it would never end. We camped in it, trudged through it, tirelessly made fire with wet wood, and tried to make light of it. And there we sat in the truck as the never-ceasing, pounding rains clattered against the roof, windows, and doors. Even worse, the wind had picked up and now howled in all directions. Four days had passed and I felt like I had thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this hunt, yet had nothing to show for it. It looked as if day five would define me before I even stepped foot into it.
We were only two hours into day five of our six-day western Washington hunt and thoughts were going through my head I never anticipated… "What were you thinking, getting a west-side elk tag?" "Why am I here?" "I think I should pack up camp and head home early." "You don't know your right from your left." Negativity was setting in and it felt like all the joy could quite possibly be sucked up into this literal and figurative typhoon storm.
All my vacation time was bid on this hunt. It was not turning out like the prospective trip I had drawn up in my head. In the back of my mind, I knew I needed to get out of the truck, for better or worse, and prove to myself I had given this hunt everything I had. I wanted to look back with no regrets. Rick and I chatted and it seemed to him I was crazy to even have a notion of leaving a warm, dry cab to trudge back into water-logged forest floors seemingly devoid of elk. But not to my surprise, he quickly made a plan to come with me partway. He always had a way of supporting me even when my ideas seemed crazy or idiotic.
After walking with me a few miles, Rick headed back to the truck and looped around to a higher road to pick me up as planned. As I pushed through the last section of "machete brush”—which I was not equipped for in the slightest—I heard a distant satellite bugle. It sounded like one of my toddlers was screaming into my bugle tube back home in the garage. Yet, I was pretty certain there weren't any other hunters in the area. I let out a location bugle to hear no reply. Nearing the bottom edge of the overgrown clear-cut, I abruptly halted at the sound of sticks breaking and rustling ferns. Two red velvet spikes moved across in front of me surprisingly close. I knocked an arrow and readied myself as the bull moved by—he was heading to the sound of my last bugle. As he worked his away around me, the wind picked up and swirled in all directions. Regardless, he stood there with head held high and stared from less than twenty yards away. He remained motionless as the surrounding brush whipped in the wind.
I had hoped this bull was accompanied by others, but he was a loner. The area was only open to three-point minimum bulls or antler-less elk. Nonetheless, this one elk sighting bolstered my spirits after four days of zilch.
When you hear elk hunters talk about the highs and lows of hunting this mysterious animal, it's hard to understand until you've experienced it yourself. Perhaps it's the challenge that keeps us going rather than drawing us away from the sport. But like any other activity, to become proficient and successful, failure cannot define the hunt. I simply cannot harvest an animal at home from the comforts of my couch.
After returning to camp an hour or so later, our other hunting partners—Dustin, Leroy and Rex—had good news! Dustin had harvested a blacktail doe with his bow, further raising our spirits. With fresh motivation, we made evening plans to divide and conquer the area where I spotted the spike bull.
During the evening hunt, the weather continued to antagonize us. We heard a distant bugle but strong winds made our attempt to go after the bull futile. Giving up on the now silent bull, Rick and I slogged along old logging roads to a new location. Again, I let out a location bugle and was immediately answered by a faint, high-pitched response. Since there was no aggression in the bull's call, we tried to slow play the bull in an attempt to slowly work him up and get him to come in. However, the lazy bull showed no desire and moved further away with two receding bugles.
Rick and I looked at each other with wonder at what we were doing wrong. The wind was right, we thought we were in tight enough, we weren't overly aggressive... what gives? Not knowing for sure which way the bull went or if he was with other elk, we decided we wouldn't give up on him and followed our best guess across the next hillside.
Suddenly, our luck changed for the better. Brush began rustling all around. Low and behold, we were nearly in the middle of a herd before we realized it. Two spike bulls were quartering away below us at 125 yards. A small sapling at our elevation swayed back and forth as it was savagely raked by another bull beyond our vision. Our hearts were thumping hard now. Mercilessly, cool air hit the back of our necks, moving directly for the spikes. I thought it was game over, but the spikes never spooked and eventually wandered off.
We hatched a hasty plan to sneak to where the spikes were and then head back up the hill, keeping the wind quartering in our faces. As we crept to the rise of the now ravaged sapling, tan hides began to show. Arrow knocked, I stepped up and drew on the first cow that came into view and waited for Rick to give me a range. Her eyes pierced through my statue like figure. Estimating her to be forty yards, I almost pulled the trigger as she started walking away. I went to let down when a big-bodied bull lumbered out of the timber opposing the cow and entered my shooting lane. I swung to him and briefly waited for Rick to give a range. Not knowing if he could hear me frantically whispering to him, I became impatient. Touching the trigger off, the lighted knocked sailed over the bull's back and lodged in a small tree. The woods erupted briefly and then fell silent again as the ghosts of the woods disappeared into the thicket. Our hearts dropped. The moment I had waited for since I was a little boy vanished again.
I have only myself to blame for missing such a chip shot. Range, range, range. Know your distance and never take a shot you aren’t confident in. In the heat of the moment, this may be the best piece of advice I can give another hunter. It is easy to have thoughts of animals leaving without getting a shot at all if you take the time to range, but we as hunters owe it to the animals to make the most ethical shot we can when given the opportunity. Therefore: range!
Rick and I returned to the same area the next morning. We crept within fifty-five yards of another satellite bull and cow. They were back! No time for adrenaline to get the worst of us, we managed to get a range and I pulled my bow back as the bull wandered around us. At the sound of my shrill cow call, the bull inconveniently stopped with his vitals behind a tree. I opted to pass on the shot as sticks crackled like firecrackers to our left. The rest of the herd was quickly approaching. The excitement was short lived as the wind shifted yet again. The herd caught our scent, creating a monumental stampede. Where the sounds of a relaxed herd meandering was just a moment ago was now an empty void.
Encounters with elk are nothing short of majestic. Although Rick and I failed to capitalize on this herd not once, but twice, we left that place with excitement knowing just how close we came. Our hunt was defined not by inches of horn, pounds of meat, or miserable weather. It was defined by our refusal to give up.
Whether you are new to elk hunting or a seasoned hunter; whether you have shot many animals or haven't gotten one yet—make your own weather when you are out there. Take the lemons and turn them into lemonade. We bought west-side tags knowing full well it very likely would rain at some point. After receiving rain every day, the lesson I learned was not to let that dampen my spirit, just my "waterproof" jacket.
- Scott Robertson