The first vivid outdoor memory I can recall is one from an afternoon in mid-May where I was being hoisted 15’ up a bear stand via rope and safety harness by my Dad. At the end of that rope was an ordinary bug-catching boy oblivious to the wisdom in the callused hands that pulled him safely into the stand. What followed that evening, as we watched those revered black bears frequent the bait beneath us was a subtle, yet permanent etching on my soul that instilled in me a lasting love for hunting and the outdoors. Ever that evening since it has been a 24/7 adventure and constant learning curve to become that elusive lethal predator.
I am blessed to have grown up in a household where hunting and trapping was woven into the fabric of our family values. Ever since I could pull legal draw weight I have been in a relentless and often times, frustrating pursuit of big game animals in Alberta. For twelve years I have been keeping a mental scrapbook of learnings from both the successful, and the not-so-successful hunts. It seems only in the last few years the pieces have finally been falling together. Connecting the dots, and doing the small but crucial things necessary to capitalize on the opportunities that come forth. Making use of the experiences, errors and hard knocks that allow a person to not just get older, but get smarter. Hunting elk with archery tackle is, in the opinion of many a seasoned hunter, one of the most elite and difficult sports. Opportunities come so rarely with trophy animals, that you certainly don’t want to blow them. I decided to put the keys to my success, failures from previous kills and close encounters to use as absolute guidelines here on out for seasons to come.
This past season in Alberta was one to remember. In the two years prior, I had taken two great bulls, but not without learning the hard lessons that come along with that accomplishment. Months of miles and close encounters. This year no more short cuts and no more screw ups.
I was stoked for the upcoming fall from the first sign of spring; preparation is essential and I was ready for it all. I had booked work off early and was able to get after them on opening day. The problem was that the weather was quite warm and there had not yet been any frost, and most early season elk hunters will tell you that a good frost can strike up the rut like a waterproof match! There was neither bugling nor hardly any visible evidence of bulls being around. Sure there was the odd scrape or rub but nothing that makes a hunters hair stand up on the back of his neck. But what a difference a week makes when the elk rut approaches. It came hard and fast and I knew where the elk should be and set out trail cameras the week prior to opening day. With nothing but skin head cows and calves on my cameras I was certainly wondering where these bulls must be hiding.
September 8th was the day that I found the answers to my questions. Finally fresh rubs and wallows all over the place, and right near one of my camera locations. Upon approaching my Reconyx it was clear this bull was making up for lost time. He had destroyed the tree right next to my trail cam! I couldn’t get the SD card out quickly enough. There he was! He was a beautiful bull with long eye guards and towering ivory tipped royals. I recognized these genetics immediately but had never seen this bull before. He was new; a beautiful typical framed animal! The time stamp told me he had done most of this forestry damage the night before and now was the time to get in on him.
After swapping cards, I called my Dad, the wisest hunter I know, and good friend and crew member, Quinn. My Dad in all of his seniority and wisdom doesn’t get too excited on the outside when it comes to anything under 420", but in this case he was jacked for the first exciting news of the season. His ecstatic reply, “Go make blood!” After the wise Buddha stated the obvious I asked Quinn to come with me the next morning to try to get on top of this bull while he was still in the area, hoping and praying he would be vocal enough to intercept as he left his morning feeding area. However, this meant a 2 a.m. wakeup call and a long circuitous route for miles to get in position without disturbing the feeding herd. It meant having to come in from the opposite direction and keep the wind perfect so that detection by any animal or big eyed lead cow (the sole reason why bulls get as big as they do) could be avoided.
Because experience of the bush and land is so critical in these situations, thorough knowledge of the area attained in previous scouting trips would turn out to be exceptionally important. Following an old GPS coordinate that I had marked during a previous scouting trip, made for stealthy access in the dark to a funnel where well-used elk trails seemed to bottleneck. We decided there would be a high possibility of this bull frequenting this area. We were not to be disappointed; as we got closer to our intended intercept point the trail signs became more and more intense. We waited there in hopes and anticipation of a bugle or a crack in the bush to indicate something was heading our way. Like clockwork, right at the first hint of light we heard the first bugle ahead of us at about 500 yards. We didn’t move, but a couple of minutes later we heard another ripper! This bugle much closer, and he was on the move and fast.
We sprinted ahead across to the edge of a clearing that met a willow thicket, where I stopped with the appropriate shooting lanes aligned. I could smell it. I peered down in the faint light and surveyed, it was a large torn up wallow. This was likely the staging and rutting area of the bull we were after. After looking more closely, several rubs and scrapes confirmed that we were in perfect position. We settled down into what we knew was the “bedroom”. Quinn turned on his video camera and we waited, not two minutes later we were rewarded with a loud CRACK! He was 100 yards away and closing. My blood pressure was maxed out, my heart rate in turbo mode and the bull was on a string moving towards me. I had picked the exact path that he was coming down.
Then there he was, just as awesome as I remembered him on the camera. There's something uniquely special about being on the ground with a rutting bull elk when he first comes into view; what a moment to live in.
He was now at 50 yards, then 40, then 30, then 10 yards away! At full draw I remained motionless as he stopped and looked straight through me. Having seen the horror stories of arrowing an elk head-on I had no plans of releasing until a broadside shot was presented. He appeared slightly confused but not scared as he slowly backed up and turned to walk into the thicket behind us. At 20 yards he was broadside but the jungle he was living in became so dense that I had only a couple of shooting lanes, but they were too tight and the bull was moving too quick for a good shot. Quinn quickly motioned to me that he was going to bugle and challenge the bull in his domain. As soon as the bugle was out the bull stopped and looked at us, then proceeded to absolutely shred a patch of willows. He was at 60 yards and facing us, busily and thoroughly trashing this willow tree. I motioned to Quinn to stay put while I seized the opportunity to move in closer to the distracted bull.
I slowly crawled on my hands and knees, staying below the jungle like foliage of the understory that time of year, with the soft damp forest duff muffling my movement. It seemed like an eternity to get into position and the bull persisted in his thrashing and polishing every ivory point on his rack. I made it to 32 yards and had two lanes to shoot from. Roughly ten minutes had gone by and trying to keep my composure while watching this beast at this close proximity was a traumatic mental battle in itself.
Two minutes passed then Quinn let out a series of the sexiest cow calls I have ever heard. The bull froze and the whole scenario changed. He lifted his antlers from the murdered bush and stared in Quinn’s direction. He then bugled several times, repeatedly and intensely as if he was begging this new girlfriend to expose herself and leave the other imaginary "bull" that Quinn also had him convinced of. After about 15 minutes, he broke with the deep growling scream and started marching with purpose towards Quinn. He was angling right past me. At 15 yards I drew my APA Mamba X1 with perfect timing as he walked past an old poplar tree obstructing his view to me. He would be slightly quartering towards me when he entered my shooting lane and I knew I had to keep the arrow tight to his shoulder to get both lungs.
At seven yards the bull spotted me, he was about to bolt. But the arrow disappeared exactly where aimed in a millisecond and the G5 Montec cut him wide open. He charged out about 50 yards but Quinn stopped him with a flood of challenging bugles and distracting cow calls. The confused bull stopped and listened which gave me the opportunity for a second shot. (If a second shot presents itself in spite of your confidence in the first shot, take the second shot!) That second shot quickly estimated to be 50 yards and another Carbon Express was on its deadly path.
This time he went smashing through the willows, but the sounds quickly turned to silence and no evidence that we knew of could confirm that he was down. It is at this time that you second and triple guess yourself as to how good the shot was; if it really was what you thought. Did I hit him too low? Why didn’t he fall in sight? It is then that you cry out to the Lord for help while giving thanks for the opportunity. It is then that you live in that semi-terror that all bow hunters go through. Will you be a hero or a chump? Tearing your heart apart trying to decide whether you could have done things differently.
We bowed our heads in thanks to the Creator for the opportunity and waited for what seemed like the longest half hour in history and proceeded to stalk our way up to where the second shot took place. Quinn found the first blood and it looked good. We inched our way another 40 yards where we found even better blood. Fourty more yards and I could see his glossy white tipped eye guards sticking straight up to the sky. The bull was down and out! In disbelief, we had pulled it off. Killing the first bull on our first opportunity of the season! He was an absolute beauty with 19” royals that looked totally out of place. The immensity of his size lying on the ground caused us to be overwhelmed. It was only later that we were forced to dread the logistics of getting him out of there being miles from the truck. But not before we savored the moment.
The hard lessons of the past were a blessing in disguise and in the hunting community, that is referred to as wisdom. My bull stretched the tape 352 inches. He was fairly narrow and without a lot of the genetic mass that these Alberta bulls usually carry, but every brow tine was over 21”, G3’s matching at 22”, good main beams and those long dagger royals on top: he killed it in length.
By helping each other, “always learning," building on the success and failures of the past and putting them in stone in your hunting bible, victory can come faster than you think. Over the course of the next 48 hours, our crew had three more adrenaline filled elk hunts. Quinn’s bull, a Non-typical gagger was a special hunt in particular. But those are stories yet to be told…