A bugle pierced the morning stillness and my son, Dillon, looked at me and asked, “What’s that?”
“A bugle. And he’s coming.” I pointed to a downed tree fifteen yards down the hill and sent Dillon there to get set up. A moment later, a second bugle sounded off, closer this time, and Dillon signaled to me that he could see the bull. A heartbeat later, so could I. Antler tines were coming up the hill and cutting a course that would bring the bull to our left.
The bull, and a cow that was leading the way, had answered my calls from a spring, which was located about a half mile downhill and to our north. The distance they covered was incredible in the time that it took them to respond and now mere moments separated us from our shot.
The cow was the first to enter the opening, and she passed right through without a second glance. The bull wasn’t far behind, and with his head down, he was a step away from the opening that would seal the deal. He took the step, framed perfectly broadside and offering Dillon what I thought to be a perfect quartering away shot, and I stopped the bull with a cow call. “Chirp.” The bull froze, his head up, his eyes staring in my direction but seeming to look right through me. The shot would be coming at any moment.
The archery elk season had begun with some promise, but seemed to fizzle quickly as the days wore on. With my brother, Lew, and his son, Josh, having already put their tags on two nice five-point bulls, the boys and I were still struggling to find elk.
Josh’s bull fell on the afternoon of opening day, and he and Lew returned to camp to report lots of bugling bulls, elk that rushed right in, and numerous shot opportunities. It was a good sign given that we, too, had found our opportunities on opening day as well, and as the day came to a close we were already 50% in shot opportunities for the camp. It was a great start, but Dillon has a saying, “Great beginnings mean bad endings,” which usually applies to fishing, but in the coming days I would begin to wonder if that wasn’t exactly the case.
We had spent several days early on hunting my favorite honey hole, a nine square mile stretch of timber that has accounted for every elk that I have put in the freezer over the past several years. This year, the place was dry though, with few tracks and nothing, really, in the way of fresh sign.
No matter where I seemed to hunt it seemed that the elk were one day in front of us or, as was the case with my brother’s bull, one day behind. The boys and I had scoured the same area where he, a day later, called in two willing bulls and finished his season with a 30 yard shot.
And it’s not that we didn’t try to change things up. We hunted the same areas day in and day out, coming in from different directions and at different times, only to find elk tracks where we had been the day before or finding none in promising looking areas that were loaded with fresh sign the day before. It was going to be one of those seasons.
My brother, in the meantime, stuck around camp after nailing his season to the wall and offered to take one of the twins out with him. I was happy to give one of the boys to him, subtracting one-third of the noise, one-third of the scent, and one-third of the movement from my group. It’s hard enough for a solo hunter to approach within bow range of an elk – throw in two other hunters and the multiplicity of scent, movement, and noise and the task becomes almost impossible.
But the subtraction of one of the boys from the group didn’t do much to change our luck. Lew and my son Daniel continued to find elk, while Dillon and I spent countless hours putting miles of ground under our boots only to come up empty. The boys began having conversations about who was lucky and who was not and, had this been the early years of the frontier, I’m afraid I would have eventually been seen as the common denominator and cast from the group. Or eaten.
But suddenly, on the sixth day of hunting, here we were. Waiting for the shot, staring down a bull elk that had framed himself perfectly between two trees, I waited to hear the bow fire and see the arrow arch perfectly into the side of the bull. But Dillon didn’t shoot.
The bull and I locked eyes, and after an agonizing minute in which I decided that Dillon wasn’t going to take the shot, I lifted my bow and began to bring the string to my face. The bull held his ground as the string came to anchor and I settled my sights on its chest and touched the trigger of my release.
To hear Dillon tell the story, the arrow flew at least 10 feet over the bull’s back. I’m not sure that 10 feet is accurate – five feet maybe, but 10? No way. But over its back, nonetheless, and it may has well been 100 feet high; a miss is a miss.
With the early morning shadows, I had misjudged the distance by nearly 15 yards. Later, after the bull had spun away unscathed and headed to parts unknown, I used my rangefinder to verify what I already knew. 47.5 yards separated me from the trees where the bull was framed. My initial estimation of 50 yards had been correct enough for a good hit, but the second guess of 60 was enough to send us back to camp empty handed.
And why didn’t Dillon take the shot? The trees that framed the bull perfectly for me had put the animal behind a pine tree for him, leaving only its hind quarters visible; another miscalculation.
Sometimes the hunt goes that way, where nothing short of a miracle will change the tide and, at other times, it seems that you can do no wrong. It’s humbling, this exercise in elk hunting with a bow, but it is the thrill of that one sudden encounter that keeps me coming back year after year.
My season is over now, and I’ll have the next eleven months to think about the things that I did right and the things that didn’t go so well. With every hunt there are lessons to be learned and at some point all those things will come together in the form of success. For now, though, I’ll chew on that miss and continue to replay the events in my mind, content to know that another season will be here before I know it.
Pueblo West resident Bill Claspell is an avid outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman who also enjoys writing about his adventures. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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