It was a hunt that wasn’t supposed to happen, or not happen like this anyway. My friend Bill and I were supposed to be chasing bull elk from our spike camp three miles deep into Montana’s backcountry. Instead, we were 30 minutes from downtown Bozeman, straining to hear bugles over the sound of traffic on the highway just below us. Wilderness hunting it was not, but I didn’t really mind the short pack out when I finally connected with my bull.
The afternoon hike was just supposed to be a trial run, something to stretch the legs and occupy our time before our packing in to Indian Creek the next morning. All that changed when I caught a glimpse of a white rump flashing over the hill ahead of us. We quietly slipped into position, not exactly sure what we calling to, other than an elk of undetermined sex or size.
In what seemed both like agonizingly long minutes and fleeting seconds, a big 6×7 bull responded to Bill’s calls and paced the ridge above me. When he stopped to thrash a tree, asserting his dominance to the satellite bull we were pretending to be, I stepped from around the small pine that I had shoved myself into and sent an arrow through him.
In certain circles of hunters, bowhunting elk falls somewhere along the same plane as nirvana, a near-mystical experience worthy only of the dedicated and devout. And while there is a grain of truth in the church of the wapiti, I’m more than happy to agree with the old adage it’s better to be lucky than good. Either way, the experience of having a big bull elk bugle so close you can feel it hooked me worse than any drug on the streets ever could.
Many hunters liken bowhunting bugling bulls to turkey hunting, with the same call-and-response hunting technique. And while I get a surge of adrenaline when a gobble rolls through the spring woods, it’s nothing compared to the growling chuckle of a 700-pound bull as he creeps into your cow call, or worse (and in some ways better), the locomotive-like charge of angry bull coming to run off the spike you’re pretending to be.
When that happens, the challenge isn’t in keeping still and steady for the shot. No, the hard part is not turning to run screaming out of the woods in the face of such an awesome animal. It’s that fight-or-flight factor that keeps me returning to the mountains year after year, humping those hills that seem to get higher in direct correlation to me getting older.
Elk hunting is never easy, neither is it impossible or nearly as out of reach as some would have you believe. In fact, with a few hundred-thousand elk roaming throughout the West (and now, across the Midwest too), I’d argue we’re experiencing a Golden Age of elk hunting and there’s no time like now to start planning your do-it-yourself hunt.
There are few hunts on the continent as adventurous, and accessible, as an archery elk hunt. Sure, Alaska and northern Canada offer plenty of adventure, but they’re not easy to get to, and can be downright expensive. In contrast, prime elk country is within a day or two drive from most of the population of the U.S., and, with the exception of a non-resident elk license, are moderately affordable. And better yet, hunting them is a do-it-yourself adventure. With a little research and a bit of boot leather, D-I-Y hunters have a reasonable chance of punching their tag on what I consider the ultimate big-game animal – the Rocky Mountain Elk. Just remember to pack your rabbit’s foot.