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Aaron Hitchins | Photos: Aaron Hitchins & Matt White | 8.1.2019

The Hard Way

  • Pursuit: Big Game
  • Environment: Subalpine

The highs and lows of a traditional archery elk hunt 15 years in the making.

It was on a trail in Colorado, years ago, that he encountered the older gentleman with an elk on his back and a simple traditional bow in his hand. Nick had marvelled at the bow in disbelief, not certain how something so simple could kill an animal as big as an elk.

Later, in October 2008, Nick White and his two brothers, Matt and Scott, were hard at work fencing off some CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land to protect bedding cover for a buck they were hunting. Suddenly, a wire came off the spool and pierced Nick’s right eye.

Bow hunter reflects on his journey.

His eye would be OK after surgery, but his bowhunting season was over.

Archery was all he’d known. From his first time hunting with his uncle Danny, Nick had only ever hunted with a bow. It started at the age of 14 with homemade treestands and hand-me-down camo. While many things had changed in Nick’s approach to hunting whitetails over the years, his passion was a constant. He was happiest with a bow in hand and, like many great hunters, he knew that success came from a yea-rround pursuit. He worked tirelessly to learn as much as possible about his craft and his quarry.

But suddenly, he couldn’t see through his peep sight.

He refused to let the injury keep him from hunting, and at first he modified his compound bow to be a single pin but still struggled. It was then that he remembered the hunter in Colorado and decided to turn the setback from his injury into a new opportunity. He hung up his compound and ordered a recurve.

Man carries a traditional bow on a hunt in Colorado.

Ten years later, Nick found himself in those same Colorado mountains with his own trad bow in hand. After 15 years of applying and 10 years of hunting with a recurve, the elk tag in his pocket came as a reward — and a challenge — for his persistence.

“Not one day of our lives goes by that we don’t physically and mentally train to keep our bodies and minds as sharp as we possibly can,” he explains. “Shooting our bow could consist of 100 arrows a day or one, depending on our daily responsibilities with family and work. It may even be in the house between bath times with the kiddos, but we must always find a way to go through our shooting process step by step and shoot one perfect arrow. No excuses.”

A decade of dedicated practice has turned Nick into an incredible shot, but he is quick to remind you that traditional archery isn’t just about the shooting.

“It makes everything twice as difficult. Traditional archery demands that you become a better, more persistent hunter. If you feel like you need to kill an animal to succeed, this isn’t for you.”

Preparation is key to success, especially in the scarce air of Colorado where Nick hunted. Having the proper mindset is critical.

Testing the wind direction with a recurve bow in hand.

“To succeed with a recurve, you have to love the process and the experience of the hunt because the odds are further tilted in favor of the animal. You have to adapt your approach to the limitations of the weapon and remember that no matter how hard you hunt and how good your decision making is, an opportunity may never come.”

This was never more true than during his elk hunt last fall. Elk were screaming and opportunities were there to be earned, but day after day Nick would have an elk in compound bow range without ever drawing his recurve.

“One of the biggest differences of hunting with trad equipment is knowing your distance limitations,” he explains. “You have to cut your effective range in half. In your head, when an animal presents a shot, you will absolutely know whether or not you are capable of connecting perfectly. Never take the shot if you’re not positive of the outcome.”

A bull elk off in the distance as a hunter with a trad bow attempts to get in range.

Nick consistently showed his restraint as he and his brothers created opportunities that just weren’t quite enough to let an arrow fly. The crew grew frustrated as the close calls mounted, but they persisted knowing that every moment was 15 years in the making.

The corner hours of the day were spent chasing bugles. During the midday sun, they took to vantage points that — based on the broken arrowheads that littered the ground — had been relied on by Native American hunters over the past millennia.

“Hunting as a whole connects us with our roots,” White said. “Simply put, modern trad hunting puts us that much closer to our ancestral experience.

No matter the method, killing to sustain life is an essential part of the human experience. It is woven into our DNA.”

Mile after mile, day after day, the brothers fought for every breath of thin air. Adding to the challenges of 12,000 feet, they worked to solve the puzzle of the bulls and their harems that effortlessly traversed the mountainside.

Elk on the horizon.

Thankfully, the unit boasts an incredible elk population, and every day brought more learning that informed their approach to the hunt. While bowhunting is a science, hunting with a recurve is an art. It was with no shortage of good fortune that after ten days of hunting, Nick’s bull answered his challenger for the last time.

A bull elk through the trees.

Nick is a hardass by any measure, so the tears streaming down his cheeks meant that much more as he realized his dream. After years of successful hunting, he didn’t expect the emotion. It was clear the herd bull that lay in the rockslide was symbolic of much more than this hunt.

Drawing a recurve.

The elk closed a chapter in Nick’s life as a hunter as he packed the bull out down a trail not far from where he was first inspired to hunt with a recurve. He smiles when he thinks about it but can’t hide the look in his eye, betraying the one missing piece of the story that still haunts him.

“I just wish I knew who it was I saw on the trail with a bull that day 15 years ago. I’d love to say, ‘Thanks.’”

Hunter in Subalpine looks at his archery bull elk in disbelief.