"The bull's just ahead, slightly downhill," whispered Toby Shaw, my hunting buddy on this third day of a six-day elk hunt in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Our foursome had spent the first three hours of daylight climbing to timberline and had located a bull in a deep gorge. The bull bugled regularly so we split up and worked our way toward it, using stealth and silence instead of calling, often a gamble on public land. With a little luck, the rutting beast would work our way.
In fact, the bull was in-coming and my down-slope friends frantically hand signaled: "I see it, and it's coming our way." My crossbow was already steadied on shooting sticks, and I'd ranged several snags and rocks. In two previous years, I'd taken good bulls with compound bows, and my heart pounded with the prospect of a high-mountain hat-trick. Better yet, with the crossbow, I didn't have to worry about the bull catching me moving to full draw.
Expecting to see the bull at any second, I searched intently for the slightest movement, trying to remain calm. Seconds turned to minutes, yet no target emerged. Shaw signaled downhill, but they saw nothing. Five minutes led to 10, then to 15 when suddenly the bull bugled on the far side of the canyon. The wind was right, we were well hidden, yet Lady Luck (maybe a hot cow) turned the bull's course and kept it from harm's way.
CHANGE OF VENUE
Ken Byers and Toby Shaw operated an Idaho wilderness elk camp for their friends and business associates. But they had seen minimal success in recent years, and elk seemed to bugle less each year. Perhaps a result of the increasing wolf population.
Daunted, but determined, Byers and Shaw moved their camp to Wyoming and encouraged "the gang" to apply for tags. Most drew, with the exception of Byers and Shaw, in an ironic twist of fate.
We set up camp along one of the many forest service roads and then went about exploring the huge expanse of public land south of Jackson Hole. Back in Idaho, elk were frequently found in the deepest, steepest canyons. But Wyoming elk were in remote regions near timberline.
This theory proved golden the third day of the hunt when Andrew McKean of Outdoor Life magazine took a respectable 4x4 bull by bivouacking overnight, high on the mountain. Elk bugled voraciously before daylight, and McKean sneaked into position just as the eastern sky paled. Stalking a bull in sparse terrain, he cow-called and the bull turned and came to 40 yards.
One arrow was plenty.
Kudos to McKean for his hunting stamina as he packed the bull off the mountain over the next day and a half. It was a three-hour climb every trip.
My partner on the trip was Barb Terry, a retired U.S. Army captain who now works for TenPoint crossbows. Whereas Byers and the boys hiked the mountain tops, Terry and I explored the medium altitudes looking for pockets of elk activity. Our first day was magical as we drove to 8,000 feet, parked our rig and hiked a long gradual ridge. Since every inch of country was new to us, we moved slowly, bugled occasionally, and glassed often. We returned the next morning well before daylight. We hoped to catch elk in distant meadows at dawn, yet saw none.
As noon approached, we headed back to the rig for new territory and drove past a sheepherder near the roadway.
"Let's ask him if he's seen any elk," said Terry. "Maybe what we need is more intel."
The friendly rancher said he hadn't seen many elk lately. "Yet there was a bull bugling up a storm right behind our camp this morning." He gave us precise directions.
With a lead on a hot bull, we found his camp, grabbed our gear, and hiked into the mountains.
Sheep had made many trails, yet we found fresh elk tracks and droppings as well. Not wanting to move too aggressively, we cow-called at the first opening, yet got no response.
The afternoon began in bluebird conditions, barely a cloud in the sky, yet as we worked our way up the mountain, dark clouds built in the west. We located active elk trails where it appeared animals were moving from high mountain bedding to lowland feeding and planned to watch separate trails until dark.
Within an hour, lighting cracked in the distance, and we were bombarded with marble-size hailstones and a howling wind. The storm ended with an inch or more of hail on the ground. Travel was treacherous.
We chose to hunt until the last minute, which meant navigating the many deadfalls and steep terrain in darkness with no visible landmarks. Crossing one log on the side of a mountain, my feet flew into the air and I landed so hard that my elk call squeaked, a humorous moment that could have been disaster.
Arriving at the rig, I breathed a silent prayer of thankfulness. One lesson learned was how easily a crossbow can be carried even in thickest, darkest timber. I'd chosen to cradle it under my arm rather than over my shoulder, had little trouble navigating, and occasionally used the cocking stirrup as a staff for extra balance when crossing logs and slippery ground.
WATER HOLE ACTION
Hunter Chuck Jordan raved about his experience. The exciting story was a motivator when grades became steep.
"I wished I had a video camera on the hunt," said Jordan. "The rut was at a peak and bulls were bugling and almost constantly on the move with cows. I hunted from a pop-up blind that overlooked a watering hole that was large enough for bulls to wallow in and the excitement was off the charts."
Jordan, who also works for TenPoint, had actually passed up two small bulls as they came to drink, a difficult decision when the huge animals were only 20 yards away.
Jordan said that after he set up on the water, he heard a deep, coarse bugle in the distance. The sound got louder and louder, indicating the bull was coming closer. Cow after cow came to drink with the bull bugling just out of sight.
"My heart was beating like a drum," said Jordan. The big bull finally stepped into view.
It approached head-on. Jordan preferred a lung shot, which would give him the best chance at a clean kill.
The bull raised its head and bugled. Slobber bubbled from its mouth. Such an opportunity only 20 yards away!
Finally, the bull turned to leave. He horned at a cow and presented the shot angle the hunter needed.
He clicked off the safety and squeezed the trigger.
"My arrow zipped right through it, and the bull went right down. I was using NAP's Spitfire 3-blade head and the results were incredible. Elk could be tough to kill, so I recocked the crossbow, aimed and shot a second arrow," said Jordan.
This time the bull jumped up, but went barely 50 yards before tipping over.
"This hunt was incredibly exciting, and one I'll never forget," he said.
BULL HONEY HOLE
Terry and I explored the sheep camp area further, and found a secluded waterhole where fresh tracks indicated that our bugling bull recently visited. Since this was a one-person ambush, she watched that spot while I headed for the high country. Bugles had been heard near a huge shale slide, a great landmark and a boundary of sorts that kept elk in the timber.
The final morning, I located another secluded, hula-hoop-size waterhole where rutting elk had freshly ripped limbs from trees. I watched the spot all afternoon that final day and heard elk bugle in the distance, constantly raising the question. "Should I go after them or wait for them to come to me?"
Actually, logistics was a key element in the answer. We had to break camp in the morning, requiring a downed animal to be packed out overnight and the waterhole ambush held the highest probability for that perfect double-lung shot.
An hour before dark, bugles suddenly grew closer, and then a herd bull gave a horrific roar directly up the mountain, not more than 300 yards.
Wait or stalk? The bull screamed again, even closer. Was it coming to drink? Cow calls became evident. Was the whole herd coming to drink or was this just a water cooler for big bulls? Tension was off the charts.
Thirty minutes of daylight left. What to do? Cow-calling had been the kiss of death to most elk interactions, and I held the diaphragm in my lips. Light was fading fast, so I gave my most aggressive cow call, and the herd bull bugled back. Heart pounding, again I called. Again the bull returned fire.
Then . . . silence. Darkness fell. My opportunity was gone.
Once again, I had a long descent through dark timber to reach camp, and with every step I wanted just 10 more minutes of daylight.
I played the encounter in my mind again and again. Should I have been more aggressive and moved to him? Did I call too much? Not enough? I'll never know.
One thing is true. As long as the wolves don't invade, or a drought begins, those elk and those water holes will be there next year. I'll be ready on opening morning with my crossbow.
I'm not sure I will pass up two bulls like Chuck Jones, yet once inside 40 yards, that high mountain bull will experience a bolt above the clouds, and I don't mean lightning.